|Alan Garrow Didache
the problem page
When Evan Powell offered Bart Ehrman a $1,000 wager at the end of 2017 it looked like the Professor had nothing to lose. If he could find a flaw in my solution to the Synoptic Problem he won $1,000 – if he couldn’t find a flaw, and was prepared to say so, he also won $1,000 (for charity). As things turned out Bart received the $1,000 without having to do anything at all. A friendly colleague, Professor Goodacre, offered to take up the challenge on his behalf. Goodacre exposed a (rather easily corrected) weakness in my presentation and the money was duly paid without a quibble – thank you Evan! Everyone was a winner. Powell and Garrow got an increase in awareness of the case for Matthew’s use of Luke; Goodacre had the pleasure of helping out a friend; and Ehrman gained extra money for his charities. In the midst of all this fun and laughter, however, Bart took another gamble - he opted to swing big while swinging blind.
Let me explain.
In the preamble to the $1,000 Challenge Bart was full of confidence. A ‘new’ solution to the Synoptic Problem, perhaps especially one presented via internet videos, could not possibly be correct. After all, generations of great minds had been applied to this classic conundrum and, surely, they had covered off every option a thousand times. Having endured the ongoing fire of scholarly inquiry one of the two mainstream solutions must, therefore, be approximately correct? Against such a background it makes sense to suggest that anyone properly schooled in the discipline should be able to see off any ‘new’ solution without difficulty. It was at this point that Evan proposed his $1,000 challenge: you have the training, you find the flaw. Ehrman declared himself tempted – but reluctant to spare the time to watch the 52-minutes of video. He was grateful, therefore, when Goodacre offered to bear this burden for him. Note that Ehrman had no reason to watch the videos; he self-confessedly didn’t have the time to do so and a scholar more than competent to dismiss them was now on the case.
It is at this point that Ehrman took (what seems to me) an extraordinary gamble. On the night before publishing Goodacre’s critique he said: ‘I find Goodacre’s argument completely convincing’. When the critique was actually published he said: ‘I consider it a compelling response.’ Scholars might occasionally use the term ‘compelling’ to endorse a view – but ‘compelling’ combined with ‘completely convincing’ takes the personal endorsement to a different level. Recommending any position to this extent (even your own!) inevitably carries a certain amount of risk since, when dealing with ancient history, we never have all the data. In this case, however, Ehrman not only ignored the usual standards of scholarly caution, he did so while operating in the dark. That is to say, he hadn’t watched the videos in question, neither had he read the peer review articles on which they were based. Swinging this big in the dark is definitely a gamble.
If the history of Synoptic Problem studies were actually as Ehrman appears to assume, then the risk involved should not, in reality, have been particularly great. The almost unbelievable reality is, however, that Synoptic Problem studies have, from the start, failed to observe the most basic principle of problem solving: consider all the options. Despite the relatively small range of theoretically viable solutions on offer, and despite the massive amounts of scholarly effort expended over more than a century, the main players have only ever considered two of the three main possibilities (among those who acknowledge Mark as the earliest of the three Synoptic Gospels). Confirmation of this is provided in my exchange with Mark Goodacre. Note the phrasing of the quotation at the centre of this discussion: "The theory that Matthew has read Luke … is rarely put forward by sensible scholars and will not be considered here" (The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze, 109). The implication is not merely that Matthew’s use of Luke has gone relatively unexplored but also that it is the scholars who perpetuate this lack of curiosity who should be regarded as the sensible ones! This attitude is so extraordinary it is hard to believe it is real. It really is real. And, that reality carries with it a potentially startling implication: it might just be that a simple solution to an infamous problem has been overlooked by generations of respected scholars - right up to the present day.
Such an implication naturally requires a reaction - a reaction that might require a bit of a gamble. And so Goodacre and Ehrman (although they advocate competing Synoptic Problem hypotheses) elect to use their considerable combined authority to repel the threat. That is why, although you might not see precisely why Goodacre’s criticism of Garrow is so devastating, you are left with the clear impression that devastating is what it must be – Professor Goodacre has found a flaw, and Professor Ehrman (without reading Garrow) finds Goodacre’s criticism 'compelling' and ‘completely convincing’. The overall message is clear: you can be sure that there is nothing to see here, the status quo deserves to remain firmly in place. But playing this card carries an uncomfortable risk. What happens if others do watch/read Garrow and others like him and discover that the status quo, thus shored up for generations, has never been defensible?
Sooner or later the discipline of Synoptic Problem studies will have to face up to the embarrassment of this whole misadventure. We’ve spent a colossal about of time, effort and money on ‘solutions’ that don’t resolve the data – without considering the possibility that an obvious third option might, after all, be more satisfying. We can face that embarrassment later or we can face it now. I say colour-up now. After all, everybody knows that to hue is Ehrman.
More on the Synoptic Problem.
Alan Garrow is Vicar of St Peter's Harrogate and a member of SCIBS at the University of Sheffield.