Credible Faith

Review of B. Ward Powers' The Progressive Publication of Matthew: An Explanation of the Writing of the Synoptic Gospels

An examination of the order and composition of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In a February 2013 email, Paul shared much of this review with supporters of his ministry.

Text Publication: February 2013

Author(s): Paul Larson

The general direction is laid out in the first two of twelve chapters of the book, which also contains a bibliography, and name, subject, and scripture indices. Chapter one, 'What This Book Is All About', introduces the five propositions of Power's progressive publication thesis, and in the second chapter, he draws upon first-century evidence bolstering a now extensive elucidation of his proposal. From the beginning, documents of various lengths, in different languages, and about some part or another of the life of Christ, were produced by Matthew, the disciple of Jesus and one-time tax collector, for dissemination to members of the nascent Christian community. After arriving in Palestine around 56 CE with his companion Paul, Luke the doctor did research for his own gospel, obtaining some accounts originally from Matthew and yet still others from different sources. After collecting enough material, Luke went with Paul towards Rome and published his gospel around 60 CE. According to Powers, given that Matthew did not know Luke's gospel (or Luke Matthew's), Matthew would have produced his gospel around the same time. Mark then took the gospels of Matthew and Luke and published his own special-purpose gospel around 65 CE.

Opening his third chapter, 'Explaining Mark's Gospel', with a quote from G. M. Styler that 'Given Matthew, it is hard to see why Mark was needed', Powers then proceeds to address the common objection to Markan Dependence. Why would Mark produce a much shorter gospel, bereft of so much of Matthew's and Luke's teaching material and lacking their birth narratives and resurrection appearances? He counters with the obvious answer that given Matthew and Luke, Mark did not need to repeat such material as it was already available. But much of the chapter is devoted to examining Mark's gospel on its own terms, and the fruits of such a study indicate that much of that material was not necessary to Mark's purpose in writing. Further, the objection here against Markan dependence is valid to an extent for Markan priority, as any defensible view of synoptic relationships must admit that Mark had more material than he used.

In chapter Four, 'Fleshing Out the Facts and Figures', contrary to those who have asserted that there is very little in Mark that is not in Matthew or Luke, Powers contends that the 'total of material in Mark that is not paralleled in either Matthew or Luke' is 'more than 25% of Mark's Gospel' (149) and that the source for some of this unique material is Peter himself, whom Mark heard and accompanied. Chapter five surveys a range of arguments that have historically been used to advocate Markan Priority and finds them all lacking. Chapter six gives both internal and external evidence in favor of Powers' thesis that Mark was written third, distinguishes his view from that of Farmer, who thought Luke used Matthew, and contends that Griesbach's Commentatio maintained Markan dependence on Luke and Matthew while shying away from clearly and explicitly stating a relationship between Matthew and Luke. Chapter seven gives seventeen things that Markan priority asks one to believe for which Powers finds it difficult or impossible to give his assent, and four more items whose improbability he finds so great as to be substantial barriers to belief in Markan priority.

In chapter eight, 'The Relationship Between Matthew and Luke', Powers, who concludes that Luke did not know Matthew's gospel in its final form, says that some of the material in Matthew and Luke is of such nature as to have a common literary origin, but that most of the material in Matthew and Luke does not require such an origin. A typical four source Markan priority explains this by appeal to Q and the use of Mark by Matthew and Luke, but Powers' alternative explanation allows him to discard Q and Markan priority (or for Q, to substantially redefine it in comparison to how some Markan Priorists envision it) by explaining areas of close literary agreement with Luke's use of texts earlier produced by Matthew and later incorporated by Matthew into his own gospel.

This leads to the discussion of ch. 9 on the broader issue of pericope order among the synoptics, and to one of Powers' strongest arguments. While some have claimed that Matthew and Luke's never agreeing against Mark in pericope order (one always being in agreement with Mark when the other does not) as evidence for Markan priority, Powers calls this 'wishful thinking or poor logic', requiring, on the view that Matthew and Luke did not know each other's gospel, a 'coincidence of a very high degree'. (446) Further that the frequent occurrences in which one or the other comes back to Mark's order just at the time that the other abandons it requires, he thinks, 'incredible explanation' from advocates of Markan priority. (447) Powers is right to present pericope order and the frequent occurrences of one major synoptic coming back to Mark's order at just the time the other abandons it as one of the strongest arguments for Markan dependence, and he argues the point well.

Powers gives a simple explanation of Mark's method of selection. Mark always follows the pericope order of Matthew or Luke. He follows Luke's framework to around Luke 6:14-16, and from there follows the framework of Matthew's gospel. Into his Lukan framework, Mark adds four sections from Matthew, and into the Matthean framework he adds four section from Luke, in both cases inserting them into the material into the framework where the gospel from which the material is taken has them (413-414). If this is correct, it answers the question for Markan Dependence of why Matthew and Luke agree so much in order with Mark but never against him, but the question of why Matthew and Luke would agree so much in pericope order, if they were not using Mark, would still need to be addressed. Powers contends that much of the similarity in pericope order between Matthew and Luke can be explained by the consideration of absolute order, which determines where something must come in the overall sequence of Jesus' life, and consideration of relative order, which requires that some material come before or after some other material (416). When the agreements in order stemming from consideration of absolute order and relative order are removed, the remaining differences in pericope order between Matthew and Luke, and the significantly reduced number of agreements in pericope order between Matthew and Luke not explained by pericopes already clustered prior to Luke's collection of them, combine to make quite plausible the idea that the order of all the pericopes in Luke and Matthew could have been produced without either knowing the final form of the other's gospel, and without either of them using Mark.

Chapter ten looks at some other proposed solutions to the synoptic problem and gives reasons why Powers finds them unconvincing. Chapter eleven compares pericopes of the rich young man in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Differences and similarities between synoptics for this episode have been used to argue for Markan priority, but Powers convincingly argues that the situation is actually the reverse. The pericopes together support Markan Dependence much better than Markan priority.

The final chapter explains how Powers thinks the synoptics were written and makes some remarks on the reliability of the synoptic gospels. In this chapter, he presents five considerations against a Mark plus Q version of Markan priority (549-550), for which argument and evidence have been given previously in the book: the nature, extent, and significance of the agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark, the vagueness, dubiousness, and insubstantial nature of Q, the Mark-Q overlaps, the order of the pericopes in the synoptics, and the extent to which Matthew and Luke have rewritten Mark if Mark were written first. For the first consideration, he says that 'Streeter's approach was to identify different types of agreements and discuss them separately, a methodology that - as Farmer and others point out - atomizes the evidence and makes it appear less significant than it is, so that the problem this data poses for Markan priority is side-stepped rather than dealt with', and, Powers observes, many agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark are 'difficult if not impossible to see as being redactional modifications made to Mark independently by both Matthew and Luke'. (548-549) Passages in which the Matthew-Luke agreements against Mark are so numerous and significant as to force the admission of some Mark-Q overlaps open the way for the accusation of arbitrariness. Here his direct words are worth quoting at length, at least partly for the justification they provide in his dispensing of the need for Q (as conceived by some scholars) and Mark as sources for Matthew and Luke:

'There is no way that Q can be confined to being merely a "sayings source." Once we face the significance of Mark-Q overlaps, we find that carrying the argument for Q to its logical conclusion leads us to Q being a full Ur-Gospel, used by Matthew and Luke. It would seem that the argument for Q "proves" too much! But in any case, it is clearly invalid to conclude that something cannot have been in Q simply because it also occurs in Mark. Thus the argument for Q removes the necessity for seeing Mark as a source for Matthew and Luke. All the common material in Matthew and Luke can be attributed to the Q Source, and not merely material that is not in Mark. Thus the way is open to view Mark as also derived from the Q Ur-Gospel, or from Matthew and Luke. In practice, Q advocates will not follow the logic of their arguments to this conclusion. Rather, they argue for Q from the existence of material that is common to Matthew and Luke but that is not in Mark, without justifying their basis for deciding that other common Matthew/Luke material could not also be in Q if it is also in Mark. The recognized Mark-Q overlaps continue to point to the deficiency of their reasoning.' (549-550)

At least partially through such reasoning Powers dispenses with Mark as a source for the two major synoptics and transforms Q from a single written source to a variegated mass of sources - some oral, some written, some from Matthew, some from others - that was used in the production of Luke and Matthew. With this, much of the argument for Powers' progressive publication of Matthew thesis has been made. Having first published his view in his 1977 work, Progressive Publication of Matthew - A New Explanation of Synoptic Origins (215-216), Powers has been engaged in this subject for more than three decades. It shows. As far as whether Mark was first or third is concerned (to say nothing of the relationship of Matthew and Luke to each other), the thesis of this more recent foray into the topic is convincing and more than enough to make Markan priority an unjustified heir to future dominance in synoptic scholarship.

A few areas need comment before closing. Powers says that 'There is little that is totally new' (541) in his position and that many of the components of his argument 'have in fact been put forward and often advocated vigorously over the decades by competent Gospel scholars', (7) but many of the thinkers who made valid observations about one aspect or another of the synoptic problem also committed some error in reasoning or evaluation of evidence. (553-554) Powers is persuasive because he has so successfully separated wheat from chaff. Other Gospel scholars have made similar arguments to Powers, but, according to him, their 'insights were overshadowed by difficulties left unresolved or were simply overlooked because they did not easily accord with the currently fashionable theory.' (541) If Powers' work suffers the same fate, it will not be for want of evidence and argument.

Despite the massive size of the work, there is one argument not explicitly treated by Powers that is worth addressing. In Robert Stein's The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction (p. 81-83), he argues from usage of euthys and eutheōs ("immediately") and gar ("for") that Matthew used Mark, and the argument may initially appear persuasive and with an air of objectivity, but it depends on the reader's inability to easily perceive why such usage would have occurred if Mark was using Matthew and on the reader not digging deep enough to reach a satisfactory explanation for for this usage if Mark was third. Power does not explicitly discuss this, but his comments on or related to Mark's purpose in writing and his method in selection of material if he was writing third could go a long way towards providing such an explanation. Remedying this omission would profit the book.

Although he can at times be quite open in his view of inerrancy (cf. 201-202, 204, 240, 460, 458, 461, 462, 463, 573), it would be a disservice to the arguments and evidence he presents were he to be accused of putting dogma before evidence. When he says that 'the methodology of this inquiry has been totally academic and from a scholarly perspective, not dogmatic or doctrinaire', (571) there is a large measure of truth to the statement, but he does not shy away from the significance of his conclusions for assessing the reliability of the synoptic gospels. Allowing 'each synoptic author to be his own man', (571) he says that on his view 'each Synoptic Gospel gives a wholly authentic and reliable account of the life and teachings of Jesus, and where they differ they supplement and do not contradict each other', (571) and that 'the Synoptics may be accepted as being independent and wholly reliable accounts of what they record.' (573) Further, 'the evidence does not require or support any view for any part of the Synoptic text as being the result of subsequent redaction in the church by anyone other than the authors Matthew, Mark, and Luke; nor of rewriting or reworking or imaginative addition by the church of a later time to reflect and meet the needs of its own Sitz im Leben; nor of any Synoptic author deliberately altering the writing of one (or both) of the other Synoptic authors so as to correct him or improve him in any way whatsoever.' (572)

The effect of Powers' book is to call into the question the value of much historical Jesus scholarship, based as it is on a view of synoptic relationships that is demonstrably false and on the assumption that a scholar's task is to reach some earlier and authentic layer of Jesus tradition. Powers has made himself largely believable when he says that 'we do have enough data from which to judge that to accept the reliability of the Gospel accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus, so far from being naïve and unscholarly, is to accept the conclusion to which reason, logic, and all available evidence points, as does the work of sober, careful scholarship that respects the known facts and does not engage in wild conjectures and unsubstantiated speculations.' (344) A similar comment applies, only a litter earlier, when he says that 'to hold the theory of church invention of what is now found in the Gospel record is to accept pure speculation devoid of the slightest foundation of objective evidence of any kind and to fly in the face of all the evidence that does exist. This theory is totally suppositional and devoid of the slightest piece of actual objective evidence.' (343) Such bold remarks are balanced by Powers' generally more measured tone, but by the time he reaches them, much of his conclusion and confident attitude are warranted. Those familiar with critical scholarship against which he intones might find The Progressive Publication of Matthew devotional reading, encouraging them to praise the one whose action in history has not only been reliably recorded, but is also capable of demonstration in its reliability.

Paul Larson

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