The Sharing Group Discussion on the Synoptic Problem & the Collapse of Consensus

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following thread, on The Sharing Group, developed from a posting from my blog: A Muslim Convert Once More: The Synoptic Problem & the Collapse of Consensus, and is from the 23rd August 2015.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: This is a very technical article concerning the synoptic gospels.  The summary of it is that in recent years, despite the proliferation of theories, there has been a collapse of consensus on the synoptic problem. Rev. John Wenham in his book ‘Redating Matthew, Mark, & Luke’, wrote, “I found myself in the Synoptic Problem Seminar of the Society for New Testament Studies, whose members were in disagreement over every aspect of the subject.  When this international group disbanded in 1982, they had sadly to confess that after twelve years’ work .they had not reached a common mind on a single issue.”

To reiterate, we do not know for certain, the order in which the various canonical gospels were written.  We do not know with any sort of evidence beyond tradition who actually wrote them, and there is enough textual criticism which is not covered in this short article in which we suspect that verses were added, removed or redacted.  Although it is stated by many of the Church Fathers that the oral tradition was in Aramaic, and that the earliest versions were written in Aramaic using the Hebrew script, we only have the Koine Greek text.  Many of these theories, in order to reconcile the various discrepancies raised in the beginning of this article regarding the triple tradition, posit hypothetical documents, from to three others.  We have no hope of proving the existence of these hypothetical documents.  As such, the basis of Christianity is based on texts that cannot be historically ascertained to be the accurate teachings of Jesus (a.s.).

Sister Jennifer: This area of biblical exegesis has seen enormous developments post-1950s through to the current day.  The synoptic gospels each have their own perspective and purpose as does John’s.  Wenham does not do justice in this statement as quoted to the vast amount of exegesis which has occurred in tandem with and informed by other developing disciplines concerning the development of the Christian Tradition, one which continues to develop.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: Consider the issues we have with the canonical gospels, where the authorship is uncertain; where the translation of the text into Koine Greek, and later into Latin, and later still into English, all compounding errors in understanding; and the dubiosity of much of Church doctrine in terms of Biblical basis.  It was all too frustrating.

Sister Jennifer: I understand what you are saying but as one who has studied Christian theology and biblical exegesis over 35 years, I find the hermeneutics increasingly informed.  The problems you speak of, Brother Terence, may lie, however, not in the academic research and hermeneutics per se, as currently pursued, which have become thorough and open-ended but in that developed understanding not being passed on to Christians who have not or cannot pursue their own study and rely on outdated interpretations from others who have not kept up with recent developments.  I find this to be a real problem in general interpretation.  Textual criticism has become sophisticated and is tied in with equally sophisticated literary and historical criticism and redaction analysis.  Paul Ricoeur has much to say beyond this too, on the role of ‘the text’ between that originally intended and the reader’s interpretation according to the culture of the day.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: I do not have 35 years, sister.  I do have 10 though.  And another 16 for Muslim theology.  I admit my Greek and Latin are rusty, and my Aramaic and Hebrew are at working knowledge now; all due to lack of use over the years.  However, I would be interested to see where advances in hermeneutics, textual criticism and overall academic research in the last 60 or 70 years has reconciled the incongruency of the doctrine.

Sister Jennifer: I appreciate the comment.  All I can say is that what you seek is I believe available but the content is vast and one needs to be discerning in which academics one takes cognisance of.  Theology is a science and I believe involves a life time of learning and exploration.  I am still certainly on that path.  I guess what I am saying is that the stumbling blocks you have encountered do not present themselves as incongruencies to many contemporary theologians.  But there is as always more to understand, of course.  Hence the research underway in so many theological fields.  I attend a conference each year of 400 Catholic Theologians in the States whose insights and experience are powerful and ever challenging.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: My primary concern as a former Catholic theologian is actually the status of Paul.  I have to admit that I cannot accept anything he has said since the chain of transmission between him and Jesus (a.s.) is non-existent.  In his epistles, he viewed the actual disciples as rivals, and was not in their company.  His title, ‘Apostle to the Gentiles’, is self-proclaimed.  This, in itself, eliminates an entire branch of Christian thought and calls everything from the Pauline faction into question.  Christianity did a great wrong to itself and abandoned Jesus’ (a.s.) teaching when it took the side of Athanasius over Arius at the Council of Nicaea.

Sister Jennifer: Brother Terence, Christianity is tradition based, which is far broader than scripture only based.  There does not have to be a physical link to Jesus for valid revelation of God.  Revelation is based on a 2 fold arm.  Paul claimed revelation from Jesus.  None of the evangelists had a physical link to Jesus.  This is where Trinitarian understanding enters.  Revelation in Christianity occurs beyond Jesus of Nazareth.  By the way, when I use the term theologian, I refer to those with doctorates and working, teaching and writing experience in the field.  The conference I mentioned is a wonderful collection of those people.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: Is that not the problem?  I am speaking as a former Catholic here, not a Muslim.  Why does a religion that begins with Christ (a.s.) then base the broadest part of its message on other than what he said?  I am legalistic, and that percolates the entirety of my thinking.  I cannot just let faith decide anything without some form of textual or anecdotal evidence that is verifiable to at least be plausible.

Paul never met Jesus (a.s.).  He claimed it.  The only witness was a donkey.  Contrast, for example, the Epistle of James and all the epistles attributed to Paul.  How different a message that is.  We know for a fact that he had an uneasy relationship, sometimes antagonistic one, with the actual apostles.  Paul was a zealot, an extremist who careened from extreme opposition to the message of Christ (a.s.) to one of his supposed champion, infusing it with the same pagan ideas that distinguished early Christianity from polytheism.  This portion is historical record.

Coming back then to the textual criticism itself, there are many passages where the authorship is in doubt beyond the canonical gospels.  We know that Paul certainly did not write all those letters; the style varies too much.  We know that Revelation has remained controversial, and as recent a theologian as Martin Luther himself wanted it excised.  If we want to proceed on faith, then it has to be faith in Christ (r.a.), not those who did not know him.

Sister Jennifer: What kind of Christianity are you referring to, in order to claim it bases itself far more on Paul than Jesus’ reported teachings?  Whatever it is, is not the Christianity I am familiar with.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: I would say much of Western Christianity, sister.  The entire concept of the Triune Godhead, while not from Paul directly, certainly came from the Pauline faction of the Church.  And I believe that Arius was right: Jesus (a.s.) is not God.  This idea only became dominant in the post-Nicene Age.

Sister Jennifer: Really?  You and I have then a vastly different knowledge of the origin and development of Trinitarian Christianity and the role and identity of Jesus.  My theses are on the nature of the Trinitarian God from a range of views including functional, metaphysical, consciousness and psychological in one thesis hand and the other thesis hand is on Trinitarian intelligibility across biblical, patristic, medieval, enlightenment, modern and post-modern Western Christian theology as they all pertain to contemporary thought.  Paul is not mentioned by any major theologians who hold any real credibility across the contemporary board in their recent Trinitarian discussion and writing.  Western Christianity does not, in contemporary theology, centre itself on Paul nor ever has across the board.

Trinitarian thought has a small amount of biblical basis but mostly emerged in Patristic thought cemented by John of Damascene, then lost largely as the notion of ‘person’ took on an individualist notion during the Enlightenment until post-modern thought appropriated the earlier insight of person as both relational and individual.

Jesus is nowhere referred to as God across theological thought which understands the meaning of revelation and the meaning of religious symbolism as opposed to a literalist view.  Athanasius did not win out over Arius.  The Council of Chalcedon sought instead to find a metaphysical explanation of the identity of Jesus never intended to be interpreted literally.  This is the value of Tradition.  The ability to develop hermeneutical understanding of original revelation thereby allowing revelation to speak to each new age.

I have to wonder, Brother Terence, with respect, on what and whom and when your learning was based?  I can see from what you have said why you would have thrown it away.  But those views are not reflective, I submit, of the current reality of the hermeneutics of historical Christian thought outside a narrow conservative view still held by a few theologians.  But they hold little sway today.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: One cannot run away from the fact, sister, that Paul’s Epistles make up most of the New Testament; this from a man who never met Christ (a.s.).  And when we consider much of the writings of the Church father, there is the unmistakable stamp of Paul of Tarsus.

Now, considering Trinitarian thought itself, it is an incoherent theology that is irrational, not non-rational.  The Church then claims it is a Divine Mystery because it cannot stand up to logical examination.  Aside from the fact that it totally contradicts the message of the Torah, if Jesus (a.s.) was part of the Triune Godhead, when Jesus (a.s.) was crucified, did God die?

And all that hermeneutical tradition still cannot resolve the fact that the authorship of the gospels cannot be resolved; neither their authorship, nor the date, nor the chain of transmission.  And there is still no consensus of the synoptic problem.

Sister Jennifer: Okay, Brother Terence.  You clearly are not willing or able to concede any acknowledgement that you may not be up to date or cognisant of current research.  I guess my Masters, Honours and PhD theses in this area which flesh out at length, using fully documented and widely ranging sources are just drivel to you.  You keep repeating yourself, offering no responses to points made.  That is not debate.  You clearly have no intention of debating and clearly are not interested in gaining more complete and more developed knowledge.  Your comments are offensive because they are opinionated and lack any substantial foundation.  You show no interest in gaining a more substantial knowledge than the inadequate state you currently hold.  Conversation over.

Brother James Harris: Sister Jennifer, thanks for your comments.  I was just wondering what you meant that the concept of the Trinity has been reevaluated.  I found this point interesting, and was wondering whether you are saying that many scholars no longer subscribe to traditional notions of the Trinity.  In what way has this changed?

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: Sister, you have not offered a rebuttal to a single thing I said.  Aside from you telling me you have wide ranging sources, you would note that I have been the only one giving points and mentioning sources.  What exactly have you said?  You have told me that you have 30 years in this, a Masters, and a doctorate.  You have said there have been developments in the field.  What developments exactly?  That there is no doctrine of the Trinity?  Or that the Church has revoked the 2nd Vatican Council?  Or are you trying to tell me that suddenly new research has placed witnesses at the scene of Paul’s epiphany?  Or that the Church has disavowed Paul?  What exactly?  I have only seen an opinion that there is ‘more’; I see nothing of that ‘more’.  So please do not talk to me about ‘drivel’.  If you have something, then show it.

Sister Jennifer: Brother James Harris, I do not think I used the term, ‘reevaluated’, did I?  Thank you for asking a specific question.  Trinitarian theological scholarship underwent an explosion of hermeneutical analysis and synthesis during the last 2 decades of the 20th century in the light of 2 millennia of ‘stages’.  My thesis examines this.  Yes, I think it is fair to say that the Trinitarian concept of God has undergone a reappropriation of patristic thought in the light of post-modern thought.

Brother Terence, I have made many specific responses to your assertions.  You respond with your original assertions.  If you truly want to know where Christian theology is at, you may read my two theses and then get back to me.  You will find all your questions addressed there.  I am not going to do your learning work for you, Brother Terence.  I cannot give you here a summation of such an in depth field of thought.  You can believe I may have something worth reading or not.  We are all responsible for our own learning and understanding.  I have indicated to you that your understanding is not up to date.  It is up to you what you do with that.  You have asked no specific questions.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: Much of modern hermeneutics ignores the underlying issues with theology.  For example, Dispensationalism believes that God has related to people in different ways, under different covenants in a series of ‘dispensations,’ periods in history.  From a theological perspective, does that mean God changes?  Because if that were so, that would call into question His Absoluteness.  Also, Dispensationalism is used in the US to justify their support for Israel at all cost.  Or, we have the Ethnic Division principle where there is a different set of laws for Jews and a different set for Gentiles, and later on, a third one for the Church.

You said, “This area of biblical exegesis has seen enormous developments post 1950s through to the current day.  The synoptic gospels each have their own perspective and purpose as does John’s.”  That is a general statement.  It is like me saying the weather in Singapore is often hot and humid, with occasional showers.

And then you said, “Textual criticism has become sophisticated and is tied in with equally sophisticated literary and historical criticism and redaction analysis.  Paul Ricoeur has much to say beyond this too, on the role of ‘the text’ between that originally intended and the reader's interpretation according to the culture of the day.”  Paul Ricoeur combined phenomenological description with hermeneutics, which is to say he used personal spiritual experience to justify the text.  As far as I am concerned, that does not mean there is an underlying theological basis.

We can go on and on, you and I, sister, regarding all the varied principles of Biblical hermeneutics, but I realise that we are looking at this from opposite ends.  That means it is unlikely we will ever agree.  You are looking at this from a primarily textual basis.  I admit there is consideration of anecdotal archaeology, historical context and related texts.  But the limitation of this view is that it breeds a certain cognitive bias where people are all arguing about fine slices of the same cake.  It begins with an implicit acceptance of the books as it is, whether people admit it or not.

Rather, I believe that we should look at this from a theological foundation first and then apply it to all of the Bible.  That means, we begin with the assumption that God is Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent, and Omnibenevolent, Absolute and Unique.  If God is Absolute and Omniscient, that means He cannot be affected by Creation; He Affects Creation.  That alone eliminates perhaps half the groups of theological principles, and the very first I would throw out the window would be Dispensationalism.

If God is Omnipresent, that alone is sufficient to eliminate the Christ-Centred Principle.  Also, if we are being honest here with ourselves, there is actually nothing in the gospels that state Jesus (a.s.) shared in the Godhead.  If we understand the text and read it in the same light as the Ketuviim and the Neviim, that is abundantly clear. 

Certainly, I would be interested in reading your papers; I enjoy my theology.  But in summation, you have not actually pointed out anything.  You would, that in my article, for example, I set forth verse and passages, and where necessary, I quoted people although I kept that brief.

Sister Jennifer: Thank you, Brother Terence.  My first thesis is entitled ‘Does God Change?’  You may be surprised at what you read.  My statement about the synoptic gospels was a counter to your own just as loose statements.  You make a definitive assertion as to my starting point which is incorrect, I consider.  Your own stated starting points or assumptions must rely on or originate from something but you too do not state what.  You go on to make further assumptions about the perceived nature of the Godhead without recognising developments in this understanding.

I am deliberately not giving precise information because this is not the place.  This is the place to indicate there is more to discern.  What you do with that suggestion is up to you.  But as I said I am not condensing 200,000 words here.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: Dear sister, if something cannot be summarised into a few paragraphs prior to unpacking, then I normally assume that people do not know enough about it to do so.  Nothing is so profound that it cannot summarised such that people have an idea of where it is coming from.  Even extracts have extracts.  You have given nothing but vague statements alluding that you ‘know’ something, that you have some papers, that you have 30 years in this.  We are not exchanging resumes here.  In such a case, I would consider that it is you who are wasting my time.  If you have a specific refutation to a specific passage in my 15 page summary, feel free to state so, and explain your position.  I would love to see what you actually have to say.  As it is, I have not been impressed.

Sister Jennifer: My response is that all your assumptions are faulty.  I guess if I do not know enough then that is why the Sydney College of Divinity awarded me the prize for Best Dissertation in the discipline.  And I guess it is why The University of Sydney, hardly a lightweight in global standards, awarded me a PhD in the discipline.  What are your theological credentials, Brother Terence?

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: Is that really the best you can think of, sister?  An appeal to authority?  I have nowhere near your credentials, and I do not pretend to.  What I do have, is an article with a line of thought you are obviously unable to refute.  And that bothers you, does it not?  This idea that hermeneutics alone is sufficient to explain away the incongruencies of Christology does not hold any water.  If it did, you would not be beating about the bush, but would actually have something of substance to say.

Hermeneutics assumes the credibility of the text.  I am calling that into question here.  Hermeneutics does not explain the Divinity of Christ (a.s.), but assumes it and apologises for it.  It is playing around with the minutiae of Scripture, the writings of the Church Fathers and the musings of various Christian theologians.  But it ignores the fundamental logical flaw of the Trinity, for example.  And it ignores the massive break in the chains of transmission of Scripture by postulating imagined ur-gospels, none of them proven.

Since your credentials carry so much weight with you, perhaps you could give a considered answer to this: if Jesus (a.s.) was part of a Triune Godhead, and he was crucified, did God die?  I would like to see how your hermeneutics could explain this.

Sister Jennifer: I repeat for one last time and please read carefully because I am not going to repeat it: I am not interested in refutation. I am interested in informed debate in a proper forum if you really want to debate centuries of theological scholarship.  What bothers me is not my inability to debate you.  My ability to debate you is beyond doubt to me.  What does bother me is your unwillingness to concede that Facebook is not the place.  You can falsely satisfy yourself that I cannot refute, to use your term, you if it soothes you.  It is rubbish and we both know it.  Brother Terence, you really need to find a better way to assert yourself.  It is not working here.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: We have had substantial discussions on this group, and ‘centuries of theological scholarship’ was never used as an impediment, or an excuse.  I only see petty excuses on your part.  Essentially, you are conceding that you have nothing of substance to say.  You are asking for an ‘informed’ debate now.  I have seen nothing informed on your part.  When you are actually able to make a cogent point, do let me know.


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