|Alan Garrow Didache|
the problem page
SBL/AARdvent Calendar: Day 17
Gerald Downing has, over many years, built a reputation for an understanding of ancient compositional practices. He has, very effectively, used this expertise to demonstrate that the actions required of Luke and Mark, under the Farrer Hypothesis (FH) and Two Gospels Hypothesis (2GH) respectively, have no precedent or equivalent in ancient practice and that, furthermore, the physical difficulty of the innovations required would have been prohibitive.
In ‘Plausibilty, Probability, and Synoptic Hypotheses’ ETL (2017) 313-337, Downing brings his expertise to bear on the proposal that Matthew used Luke (and Mark). He uses ‘Mt3rd’ to designate this type of hypothesis.
Critical to Downing’s approach is an appeal to statements by Tacitus, "Where the authorities are unanimous, I shall follow them" and Arrian, "Whenever Ptolemy son of Lagus and Aristobulous son of Aristobolous have both given the same accounts ... it is my practice to record what they say as completely true" (p. 322). There are two ways to interpret these statements. On the one hand, it may be that Arrian and Tacitus were expressing the view that, when two sources recalled the same event (albeit in different ways) they regard the event as highly likely to have actually taken place. On the other hand, it is possible that what they meant was that, wherever their sources used an identical string of words to describe an element of a particular incident, their practice was to use exactly the same words in their third account.
For Downing’s attack on Mt3rd to be effective, it is important that they meant the latter – and that their practice was one Matthew felt compelled also to observe.
One way to check what Arrian and Tacitus meant by their statements would be to consult their sources and see how they actually behave. Unfortunately, there are very few instances where the full triangle of sources is still available for us to consult. There is, however, a different way we can approach this puzzle. One piece of information we do have to hand is how ancient authors generally treated their single sources; they tended to render these sources in their own words. This creates an initial difficulty for Downing’s interpretation of Arrian’s and Tacitus’ statements inasmuch as it reduces the likelihood that the sources to which these ancient authors had access included extensive verbatim similarities in the first place.
A second relevant piece of information is that, for practical and physical reasons, ancient authors would have found it exceptionally difficult to keep their eye on two sources at the same time. In fact, this reality still persists today inasmuch as human beings still find it hard to read two texts simultaneously. This means that any ancient author seeking to copy strings of letters precisely shared by two sources would be required to devote a great deal of effort to identifying where these duplications actually occurred – so as to be sure never to miss these elements of double witness. This is the point I sought to make in yesterday’s post. And, their reward for success in this exceptionally difficult task would be the security of knowing that they’d got the words exactly right … except that ‘getting the words exactly right’ seems otherwise to be remarkably low on the agenda of these writers; their preference was to paraphrase rather than copy verbatim.
It may be preferable to suspect, therefore, that what Tacitus and Arrian meant was not that they felt bound to identify and copy every string of agreement in parallel sources, but that when two sources recalled the same incident they treated that incident as likely to have taken place. And, when it came to their own presentation of that incident it seems likely that they would have followed one of those two sources, while perhaps also bringing in supplementary details from the other, while perhaps also presenting the entire episode in their own words.
Nevertheless, Downing states: ‘In the light of current conventional preference for common witness, [Matthew failing to copy doubly attested strings of letters found in Mark and Luke] would have been absurd’ (p. 335). According to Downing, Matthew would have had his hands tied. He would have had a duty to seek out exactly agreeing phrases in Mark and Luke, no matter how incidental to the narrative, and a duty to find a way of faithfully incorporating them into his account no matter the effect on his narrative. I suggest, by contrast, that Matthew would always have retained editorial freedom and would have tended to work from one text at time, while also drawing in additional valuable information from his supplementary sources.
Downing’s overall contention is that Mt3rd is ‘impossible’ and that the 2DH faces some difficulties which, with a little ingenuity, may be overcome. I suggest, however, that he overestimates the scale of any problem with Mt3rd to about the degree that he underestimates the multiple difficulties affecting the 2DH.
Tomorrow Ron Huggins reflects on what he sees as the greatest weakness of his Matthean Posteriority Hypothesis.
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Alan Garrow is Vicar of St Peter's Harrogate and a member of SCIBS at the University of Sheffield.