12 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on 12 December 2003
Studying the Synoptic Gospels does not live up to its title. It does not tell us about the Synoptic Gospels, but only about truncated excerpts from them. It almost totally omits any discussion of the birth narratives in the first two chapters of Matthew and of Luke, the accounts of the Baptism of Jesus, his Transfiguration, the incident at Caesarea Philippi (“Who do you say that I am?”), the Johannine-style pericope about the relations between the Father and the Son, and his Passion, Death and Resurrection. On trial before the Jewish authorities, Jesus is asked in all the Synoptics: “Are you the Messiah? … Are you the Son of God?” Before Pilate, he is asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” These momentous questions are never explicitly discussed in the book: what would they have meant in the context of Jesus’ life, and in the later context (by forty or fifty years) of the production of the final versions of the Gospels?
A reader of Studying the Synoptics would close the book with an inadequate, indeed false picture of its main subject, Jesus Christ. The book has long chapters on the Synoptic Problem (Source Criticism), Form Criticism (chreiai or pronouncement stories, miracle stories and parables), Redaction Criticism, and other forms of ‘criticism’, but all the detailed synoptic examples that are studied are of these types only. We are not told who Jesus is, why he was killed (the Passion narratives dominate the Synoptics), why the Synoptics were written in the first place.
Sanders and Davies never clearly establish the aim of the evangelists to depict Jesus as the climax and fulfilment of all God’s dealings with mankind; though such ideas get the occasional brief mention in the final chapters of the book, they are never closely examined. A look at its Index of References might give the impression, from the number of NT texts listed, that practically every verse of the Synoptics is commented on. This is not so. Many of the textual references occur in clusters, adduced because they are related to some point which the authors are discussing, but they are often not quoted or analysed. It is a pity that there is no subject index to the book. It would show up the inadequacy of the treatment of the main topics whose (relative) absence I deplore.
The book never studies in detail the sourcing of the Person and work of Jesus Christ in the OT and in the ‘inter-testamental’ Jewish writings. A look at the index of quotations from or references to the Old Testament, e.g. in Nestle-Aland’s Greek New Testament, will show that almost every verse in the New Testament (and that includes the Synoptics) is closely rooted in the Old Testament (including the Deutero-canonical books). Such OT-NT linkage is the special strength of Margaret Barker’s work, notably in The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God. This deals exhaustively with the pre-Christian sources that justify the attribution of divinity, indeed of the specific title and role and Person of Yahweh, to Jesus Christ in the New Testament - and also in the very earliest Christian writings, e.g. those of Justin Martyr around 150 AD. See also her The Risen Lord: The Jesus of History as the Christ of Faith.
One must deplore the almost total silence of Sanders and Davies on the Dead Sea Scrolls and their exegetical techniques. Most of the expectations of the Qumran community are in fact illuminated and fulfilled in the Person and work of Jesus Christ: Messiah(s), Son of God, Son of the Most High, definitive interpreter of the scriptures, resurrected one, God’s final emissary, the founder of the final kingdom, etc. For all his sanctity and nobility, the Qumran Teacher of Righteousness fulfilled none of the roles that he adumbrated. Only Jesus. Another example: our book deals at great length with the question of divorce but never once mentions that some Qumran texts imply (like Mark and Luke) an absolute ban on divorce, with the very high probability that Matthew’s exceptive clause, which forbids divorce ‘except on the ground of unchastity’, is referring, not to general ‘unchastity’ as the NRSV translates it, but to marriage within the close family relationships which were forbidden by Jewish law, but which gentile converts in Matthew’s church might have contracted in their pagan days and which they now had to renounce as invalid. So Matthew too is upholding an absolute ban on all divorce from a valid marriage. Again, the authors do not mention the twice repeated command, found in the Qumran Community Rule, that the members of the community were to hate the sons of darkness - surely a current view that Jesus is correcting: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. But I say to you: ‘Love your enemies … “ Our authors three times refer to this text from Matthew (5.43f) but never to the Qumran connection.
Finally, Sanders and Davies never remind the reader that by the time the Synoptics were written the great majority of the other New Testament books had already been written and circulated. The local Christian churches to which the Synoptics were addressed would have been thoroughly catechized in the stories of the saving life, death and resurrection of the divine Jesus Christ. These gospels were not creating Christian belief, but recording (and interpreting) the well-known Christian story. To atomize the Synoptic pericopae and try to understand them against any other background than this is to distort them.
What Sanders and Davies have to say about the various ‘criticisms’ is very interesting, but as a study of the Synoptic Gospels their book fails.