Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sharon Mattila and the Synoptic Problem

I've recently put the finishing touches on an essay challenging the historical viability of the image of the synoptic evangelists that arises from much source-critical inquiry. Then, in a footnote in Adela Yarbro Collins's Mark: A Commentary (Hermeneia; 2007), I came across Sharon Lea Mattila's article, "A Question too Often Neglected" (NTS 41 [1995], 199–217). Mattila builds on the work of F. Gerald Downing and highlights "the question of compositional procedures . . . as being fundamental to establishing the boundaries of what can or cannot be presumed reasonable in the positing of a synoptic model" (199). Mattila carefully considers the compositional techniques that probably account for the writings of Justin Martyr, Tatian, Josephus, Livy, Diodorus, and Arrian, but she also considers the different cultural locations between these authors and the synoptic evangelists. The fact that this essay is fifteen years old and yet not, as far as I am aware, very widely cited presents a serious blindspot for source criticism (and gospels scholarship in general) in the early twenty-first century.

The article as a whole deserves a careful reading by everyone interested not just in the patterns of similarities and differences between the synoptic gospels (and other Christian literature!) but also in integrating those patterns with historically and culturally appropriate models of text-composition. But I leave you with just a small quote from Mattila's conclusion (which builds upon the work of my doctoral supervisor, Loveday Alexander):

Ignoring an essential set of parameters because it is not easy to determine cannot e justified, for such a practice removes source criticism from its concrete historical context into a realm of abstraction that is ultimately historically meaningless. The question of compositional procedures must be addressed so that we can be sure we have grounded the synoptic gospels and related literature, together with those who composed them, in a concrete and historically credible world. (217)

I made exactly this point in Chapters 2 and 4 of Structuring Early Christian Memory (T&T Clark, 2010), though without knowing about Mattila's article. That's unfortunate, for she has stated her case more succinctly and in greater detail than I have.

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