Rethinking the Gospel Sources with Burkett


Image result for rethinking the gospel sources delbertThe Synoptic Problem isn’t my main squeeze but, since the Synoptic tradition is, I find myself dipping my toes in the source-critical debate from time to time. Usually the debate follows familiar divisions, with almost everyone agreeing that Mark wrote first and served as a main source for Matthew and Luke. The crowd splits over whether Luke knew and used Matthew, or whether Luke and Matthew independently made use of a now-lost source, “Q,” in addition to Mark. Breaking from the traditional framework, Delbert Burkett’s 2004 monograph, Rethinking the Gospel Sources: From Proto-Mark to Mark, picks a fight with everyone by arguing trenchantly against Markan Priority: “[n]o one Synoptic served as a source for either of the other two” and that, instead, all three of the Synoptics as we have them made use of a now-lost source—not Q, but a “Proto-Mark!”[1]

Two chapters into the book and the argumentation is clear and, frankly, brilliant if also problematic. I am inclined to agree with the editorial blurbs, hailing B.’s book as an “important challenge” that must be refuted “as quickly as possible.” It’s an important book with a serious argument; it’s also fun to read even when I disagree. B.’s argument is cumulative, but we can get a sense of the logic of the argument by working through one of its planks.

Distinctive Markan Use of πολύς

Using the story of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:21-43 and parallels), B. presents a curious phenomenon across the three Synoptics: πολύς, a “distinctive” yet “benign” feature of Mark’s text, drops out of both Matthew and Luke in the parallel stories. Why should that be so? It’s not a word to which Matthew or Luke were likely theologically opposed. Its absence in Matthew and Luke is curious. Here I recreate B.’s Table 2.4A (see p. 15):

—                     parallel material “but not the relevant Markan feature” (in this case, πολύς)
[blank space] “no material parallel to Mark”

Mark Matthew  Luke
5:21 πολύς 9:18 ⁠— 8:40⁠ ⁠—
5:23 πολλά 9:18 ⁠— 8:41 ⁠—
5:24 πολύς 9:19 ⁠— 8:42
5:26 πολλά 8:43 ⁠—
5:26 πολλων 8:43 ⁠—
5:38 πολλά 9:23 ⁠— 8:52 ⁠—
5:43 πολλά 8:56 ⁠—

On B.’s reading, Matthew and Luke parallel Mark (Luke more closely than Matthew), but never retain this distinctive feature. For B., this pattern is difficult to align with Markan Priority. Lacking an ideological reason for Matthew or Luke to suppress Mark’s πολύς (and I’m hard-pressed to come up with a good one), B. suggests that Markan Priorists

would have us believe either that Matthew and Luke shared an aversion to these common expressions of size and degree or that the editorial process resulted in the coincidental elimination of this word to a highly improbably degree. […] Is there some other explanation? The most obvious explanation is that the instances of the expression that occur uniquely in Mark did not occur in the material that Matthew and Luke shared with Mark. (17, emph. added).

If Matthew and Luke have indeed omitted Mark’s πολύς in the Jairus story, then one needs to explain that omission. B. offers three options: (1) Matthew and Luke have some objection to the word (but we don’t know what); (2) its omission is coincidental; or (3) the Mark we know isn’t the Mark known to Matthew or Luke. The “Mark” known to Matthew and Luke was a “Proto-Mark.” B. will spend the rest of the book advancing and defending (3) as an answer not just to the question of Mark’s πολύς in the Jairus narrative, but to the Synoptic Problem itself.

Problems in Parallel

Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre theorists (that is, those who think Luke used Matthew) might be tempted to assume that Matthew omitted Mark’s πολὺς across this story and Luke, having Matthew at-hand, simply followed Matthew’s tendency. But strikingly Luke does not align closely with Matthew here, but rather Mark.

A problem does emerge, however, on B.’s reading of the Synoptic parallels in the Jairus story, but it has nothing to do with whether Luke used Matthew (and less still to do with Q). Whereas B. counts four examples of Matthew having “material parallel to Mark but not the relevant Markan feature” (Mark 5:21/Matt 9:18—; 5:23/9:18—; 5:24/9:19—; and 5:38/9:23—), I count none. This renders the πολὺς problem less problematic, with Matthew and Luke reproducing the Markan tradition in their own, highly distinctive ways (thus: no need for Proto-Mark).

We can speak of Jairus’s daughter as a parallel story in all three Synoptics, but on the level of text, Matthew does not offer any true parallels at B.’s key citations (9:18; 9:19; 9:23). Luke, on the other hand, does tend to follow Mark more closely; B.’s em dashes in Luke’s column seem well-placed to me. Matthew’s column, however, is stripped of its putative parallels. The table looks quite different after I have counted the beans (my proposed challenges in red):

Mark Matthew (orig) Matt (challenges) Luke
5:21 πολὺς 9:18 ⁠— [blank]
Matt has no crowd //
8:40⁠ ⁠—
5:23 πολλά 9:18 ⁠— [blank]
Matt has no “besought” //
8:41 ⁠—
5:24 πολύς 9:19 ⁠— [blank]
Matt has no crowd //
8:42 —
5:26 πολλά 8:43 ⁠—
5:26 πολλων 8:43 ⁠—
5:38 πολλά 9:23 ⁠— [blank]
Matt has no “weeping” //
8:52 ⁠—
5:43 πολλά 8:56 ⁠—

Each Gospel has a parallel version of this story, but on the micro-level of text, Matthew does not parallel Mark as closely as does Luke. Matthew has a different editorial/storytelling program in mind.[2] There are simple explanations for Matthew’s omissions:

Matthew doesn’t have the Markan πολὺς in Matt 9:18, 19 because Matthew also doesn’t have the Markan crowd (ὄχλος πολὺς; 5:23, 24). Matthew doesn’t have the Markan πολλά emphasizing Jairus’s plea in 9:18 because, well, Jairus isn’t pleading in Matthew like he is in Mark and Luke (cf. their use of παρακαλεω). Matthew doesn’t feature any people weeping or wailing in 9:23, so there is no reason to reproduce Mark’s πολλά from 5:38. Matthew is doing something different with the story than did Mark; Luke does something different with it, too, but it bears more family resemblances to Mark, which I still take to be its progenitor.

So, on my reading of these texts, Matthew and Luke are doing nothing more or less than recasting Mark’s story in their own narrative contexts (or, in terms borrowed from John Miles Foley, Matthew and Luke perform Mark’s tradition). Both follow Mark’s broad contours, but Matthew zigs when Mark and Luke tend to zag. If Matthew doesn’t parallel Mark on the textual level (no crowd, no pleading, no weeping or wailing), then we are left only with the problem of explaining Luke’s omission of πολὺς in his much closer textual parallels, but this would not require an appeal to “Proto-Mark,” at least as far as I understand the issues and evidence in the story of Jairus’s daughter.

I’m back, baby!

[1] Delbert Burkett, Rethinking the Gospel Sources: From Proto-Mark to Mark (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 5.

[2] “Matthew’s abbreviation of this story is drastic. The first three instances of πολύς in Mark 5,21-24 are absent because in the Matthean context there is no crowd present.” David J. Neville, “The Phantom Returns: Delbert Burkett’s Rehabilitation of Proto-Mark.” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovainienses, 84 (2008), 148. Neville retains Matthew 9:23 as “one remaining potential parallel,” but the textual parallel seems to run between Markan and Matthean use of “tumult.” Matthew lacks the specific context in which Mark’s πολλά might reside, so I do not count this as a true parallel.


Synoptic Gospels @SCJC2019

I’m very pleased to announce the papers in this year’s meeting of the Synoptic Gospels Study Group at the 2019 Stone-Campbell Journal Conference at Johnson University, April 5-6.

Here are the titles:

Barry Blackburn, Sr. (Emmanuel Christian Seminary/Point University)
Ap’ Arti: The Basis for a Non-Parousia Reading of Matthew 26:64?”

Stewart Penwell (Cincinnati Christian University)
“Samaritans in Luke and the Sins of Evangelical Commentaries”

Danny Yencich (University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology) 
“Courtroom Fatigue: How the Synoptic Tradition Makes Sense of Luke’s Pilate Sequence (23:13-25)”

Please join us in Knoxville in April. See you at Johnson!

Stone-Campbell Journal Conference

Synoptic Gospels – SCJC 2018 CFP

We’ve already received some stellar paper proposals for the Synoptic Gospels study group, whose inaugural meeting will take place at the 2018 Stone-Campbell Journal Conference. Please do consider sending in a proposal for what is already shaping up to be an interesting study group. The submissions thus far have been very strong! See below for our call for papers:

2018 SCJC Synoptic Gospels Study Group Call for Papers

We are delighted to announce the formation of the Synoptic Gospels study group at the Stone-Campbell Journal Conference. The inaugural meeting of the group will take place when the SCJC meets at Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan, April 6-7, 2018.

We welcome submissions in the form of 150-200 word abstracts from scholars and graduate students on any topic related to the study of one or more of the Synoptic Gospels. Please send all submissions and other related inquiries via email to Barry Blackburn, Sr.: Barry.Blackburn{at}point{dot}edu by January 20, 2018. We look forward to your submissions and the fruitful dialogue they will no doubt generate at the conference!


Barry Blackburn, Sr.
Professor of New Testament, Point University


Danny Yencich
PhD Candidate in New Testament, University of Denver & Iliff School of Theology
Adjunct Instructor, Great Lakes Christian College

Stump Speeches and the Synoptic Problem: A Lesson Outline

Like nearly every other American user of the Internet, I have recently been following the reports of plagiarism in Melania Trump’s 2016 RNC stump speech. As others have been quick and correct to point out, Ms. Trump (or, more likely, her speech-writer) is not alone in lifting material from other speeches. Although I’ve been enjoying the humor of these posts, and of the Trump campaign’s response to the allegations, I really don’t have a strong opinion about what Melania(‘s speech writer) did or didn’t do or why that matters. Those concerns are completely irrelevant to me. Although Anthony Le Donne may think me a scoundrel, I politely and good-humoredly demur. The circus amuses me, and I certainly appreciate the bread, but I’m after something else.

What I am most interested in is how Ms. Trump’s speech and its relationship to a 2008 speech from Michelle Obama may be leveraged for teaching. As a student and teacher of Bible, like many others, I seized upon these events as a modern corollary to what biblical scholars call source criticism. And so I have developed a lesson outline draft that uses the Melania/Michelle speech as an introduction to mapping literary relationships among the Synoptic Gospels. It is my intent that this activity be a fun(ny) entree into the Synoptic Problem, a tool for honing reading skills, and a way of reminding students that they already know how to read carefully, critically, and comparatively.

Note: the outline below is meant as a companion to a Synoptic Gospels coloring exercise, but does not include directions for this activity.

GoogleDoc Link:

Readers may use this outline for their own teaching. Proper credit appreciated, but not required; I’m not going to hunt you down.