Sunday, December 27, 2020

One Tiny Adverb and the Synoptic Problem

The synoptic problem, simply stated, is how does one describe the relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The consensus of New Testament scholarship is that a literary relationship exists between them, and that Mark was written first and then was used independently as a source by Matthew and Luke.1 An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, adjective, or other adverb by describing degree or manner. A characteristic, or signature expression in Mark is εὐθύς (euthus), a word that Mark uses forty-one times. On the other hand, this word is only used in Matthew five times and in Luke once. Euthus, classified as an adverb in Greek, is generally translated as immediately or at once.

Since euthus appears so few times in Matthew and Luke, one might conclude that they did not use Mark as a source. One could argue that since Luke uses none of the Markan instances of euthus, and since his one use of euthus (6:49) appears in a story that does not appear in Mark, Luke could not have acquired the word from Mark. Matthew's use of euthus corresponds to Mark's use in the following five instances: Matt 3:16 (Mk 1:10); 13:20 (Mk 4:16); Matt 13:21 (Mk 4:17); Matt 14:27 (Mk 6:50); Matt 21:3 (Mk 11:3). If Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, the probability is that this Markan expression should have occurred more often in Matthew and Luke. Is there a reason why that might not have happened based on the consensus view for explaining the relationship between the three gospels? To check my data using Mark as the key for checking the uses in the other two gospels, it will be easier if one uses a gospel synopsis that provides the parallel passages between the three gospels side by side.2

By comparing Matthew to the Markan passages containing euthus, here is what I found:

1.  In one instance Matthew reads tote (at that time, then, thereupon) not euthus.

2.  In several instances Matthew reads eutheōs (at once, immediately), which the Greek lexicon describes as a more common expression than euthus.

3.  Matthew omits the entire passage in which euthus appears.

4.  Matthew omits the word euthus.

5.  Matthew omits the verse in which euthus appears.

6.  Matthew abbreviates the sentence and omits euthus.

7.  Matthew expands the sentence and omits euthus.

Here is what I found in Luke:

1.  Luke writes the sentence differently and omits euthus.

2.  Luke omits the entire passage in which euthus appears.

3.  Luke omits the word euthus.

4.  Luke omits the verse in which euthus appears.

5.  Luke's text is different and omits euthus.

6.  Luke reads eutheōs instead of euthus.

7.  Luke's text is different and uses paraxrēma (at once, immediately). This word is found in the New Testament only in Luke and Acts, which are both written by the same author.

8.  Luke reads paraxrēma.

In my view this data seems to support the idea that Matthew and Luke have edited Mark rather than attesting to Mark's revision of Matthew and Luke.

            A possible reason for the avoidance of euthus by Matthew and Luke may be found in what the Greek lexicon3 calls a weakening of euthus to a meaning of then or so then. The lexicon offers the following examples of this weakened use in Mark 1:21, 23, 29. In these verses the word euthus becomes little more than a correlative particle indicating a sequential relationship between preceding and following material, much as Matthew saw in Mark when s/he replaces euthus in Mark 1:10 (=Matt 3:16) with tote.4

Why does the literary relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke matter? Because the literary sequence of these three texts establishes the history of the early Christian movement in the first century. With Mark as the earliest gospel and John as the latest, the historical process moves in a logical manner. Displacing Mark from the position of first gospel in effect renders Mark a reactionary gospel that rejects much of the early Christian tradition. For example, if Mark had Matthew and Luke in front of him when s/he wrote, s/he deliberately rejected the birth narratives and the special Matthean and Lukan parables tradition (some 18 parables that appear only in Matthew and Luke). Mark also rejected the sermons on the mount (Matthew) and plain (Luke) and the special sayings tradition that Matthew and Luke share (such as the Lord's Prayer, for example).

How do you see the relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1On the synoptic problem, see Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide. Studying Jesus (Wipf & Stock, reprint 2013), 76-109.

2Here are the appearances of euthus in Mark: 1:10, 12, 18, 20, 21, 23, 28, 29, 30, 42, 43; 2:8, 12; 3:6; 4:5, 15, 16, 17, 29; 5:2, 29, 30, 42 (bis); 6:25, 27, 45, 50, 54; 7:25; 8:10; 9:15, 20, 24; 10:52; 11:2, 3; 14:43, 45, 72; 15:1.

3F. W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd ed.; Chicago, 2000), 406.

4Compare the translations of Mark 1:21, 23, 29 in New Revised Standard Version and the Revised English Bible.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Advent, the Gospels, and the Nature of Christ

By the middle of the 4th century Christians were celebrating the nativity of Jesus on December 25 (the birth of Mithras), and as early as the end of the 5th century they were celebrating an Advent Season. In America today Advent is a month-long period of celebration leading up to the Nativity (birth of Jesus Christ). The birth of Jesus marks the beginning of the liturgical year in Western Christianity, and includes, among other things, the lighting of four Advent candles through the four weeks of the season. The candles emphasize the four themes of Christmas: hope, peace, love, and joy.

            Oddly, two of the canonical gospels, Mark and John, do not even acknowledge a birth of Jesus. Mark begins the narrative with Jesus as an adult disciple of John the Baptizer (1:9-14), and simply assumes that he was born—after all he had a mother, brothers, and sisters (6:3). There is no mention of a father or stepfather. The life of Jesus before his association with John the Baptist is cloaked in obscurity, with the exception that Mark describes him as a carpenter (6:3); presumably it was his occupation before joining John’s movement. He was assumed to be a human being of anonymous birth on whom the Spirit of God descended at his baptism by John (1:9-11).  If there was going to be any subsequent Christian celebration based on Mark’s narrative about Jesus, one would have expected that it would have focused on his baptism, death, and resurrection, since that is what Mark himself stresses (1:9-11; 14:22-28; 16:1-7; 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34).

            The Gospel of John also is out of step with the contemporary Christian celebration of Advent. There is no mention of a birth of Jesus in the Gospel of John. Instead John begins with a poetic section (1:1-18): “the Word,” who was pre-existing with the Father (1:1-5). In this Word was Life (1:4) and this Life was the “Light” of human beings. It shines unextinguished in the darkness (1:5). The Light was “True Light,” coming into the world and enlightening all people (1:5). The Word/Life/Light in the world (1:5) became enfleshed and dwelled among us (1:14). Whatever the poet may have had in mind, this is clearly not a nativity story. This poetically described “figure” has no point of beginning and comes from beyond an earthen vale. He only temporarily pitched his tent amongst us (1:14)—that is (if one may borrow a line from Paul), he was not human but came in human likeness by taking the form of a slave (Phil 2:6-7). More prosaically, John recognized that Jesus was the son of Joseph (1:45; 6:42) by an unnamed mother (2:1; 19:25) and he had brothers, also unnamed (2:12; 7:5). Nevertheless, he was not one of us but came “from above, from heaven” (3:31; 8:23). The family attachments were merely part of his human disguise. From John’s perspective one should celebrate his “lifting up” (3:14; 8:28; 12:32-34) and his “rising up” (2:22; 20:9; 21:14).

            The birth and infancy narratives in Matthew (1:1-2:23 and Luke (1:5-2:52) are completely different, with the exception that they feature the same main characters (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph).1 The principal disagreements are as follows: the announcement of Jesus’ birth is made to Joseph in a dream in Matthew (1:20-24), but to Mary while awake in Luke (1:26-37); In Matthew Joseph plays a major role in events (1:18-25; 2:13-14, 19-23), but in Luke a minor role (named, 2:4, 16; alluded to,2:5, 22, 27, 33, 39, 41, 43, 48); Matthew has the story of the Magi (2:1-12) but Luke does not. Luke has the story of the shepherds in the field (2:8-20), but Matthew does not. In Matthew Jesus was apparently born in a house (2:11), but in Luke he was born in a stable (2:7, 12, 16). Matthew has the massacre of the children (2:16-18) with the House of Herod playing a prominent role, but this account plays no role in Luke; In Matthew Bethlehem in Judea is the home of Mary and Joseph, they flee to Egypt and do not return to Bethlehem (2:1, 19-23), but in Luke Nazareth in Galilee is the home of Mary and Joseph, they travel to Bethlehem because of the Roman census, they return to Jerusalem and return home to Nazareth (1:26; 2:4-6, 22-24, 39-40).2

            The actual conception of Jesus in Matthew and Luke is more like that in John than what one might infer from Mark. In Matthew Mary conceived “like this”: before Mary and Joseph “came together,” she was impregnated “by the Holy Spirit” (1:18, 20). Luke is very similar: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (1:35). He was not the issue of human sperm but in both cases, conception occurred by divine insemination (Matt 1:24-25; Luke 1:34-35). The child to be born will be “the Son of the Most High (Luke 1:32), or “God with us” (Matt 1:23). In other words, he is not human but divine.

            This trajectory in the gospels of the nature of Jesus/Christ from a human being of anonymous birth (Mark), to a figure conceived by divine insemination (Matthew and Luke) to a figure “from above, from heaven” who is enfleshed for the purposes of an earthly career reveals a fundamental confusion in early Christianity as to how explain the nature of Jesus/Christ. The trajectory anticipates the Christological debates of the 4th/5th centuries and raises the question of which model of Jesus’ coming-to-be in the world should Christians be celebrating during Advent.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1See Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide. Studying Jesus (Wipf & Stock, 1999), 22-63.

2Ibid, pages 61-62.