A New Synoptic Gospel? – by Sarah E. Rollens

Sarah E. Rollens on James Barker’s John’s Use of Matthew

James Barker, John’s Use of Matthew, Fortress Press, 2015, 170pp., $59
James Barker, John’s Use of Matthew, Fortress Press, 2015, 170pp., $59
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For someone outside the field, New Testament scholarship can occasionally appear to be preoccupied with myopic topics that seem inconsequential to other scholars of religion. As someone who wrote a book on a hypothetical source behind two canonical gospels, I can attest that we New Testament scholars do often enjoy getting carefully involved in linguistic details. Yet sometimes, those narrowly focused studies have significant ramifications for our understanding of Christian origins. James Barker’s John’s Use of Matthew is one such study; though focusing only on a few similar passages in the Gospels of Matthew and John, it has wider implications for studying the New Testament and the Synoptic Problem.

If you are (happily or unhappily) out of the New Testament scholarship loop, the Synoptic Problem refers to the question of literary relationship among the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. These gospels share a similar sequence of events, and quite often they share the very same wording when they relate the same account. Since this is a remarkable phenomenon in Greek, scholars have proposed for centuries that there must have been some sort of contact among these authors and that one or more may have copied from another. The standard solution to this conundrum that one will find in most New Testament textbooks is the hypothesis that the Gospel of Mark was the first gospel to be written and that Matthew and Luke both independently developed Mark’s basic story and supplemented it with another collection of material deemed by scholars as “Q.” Q is a siglum that stands for the body of common material (mostly sayings of Jesus) that Matthew and Luke share but that did not come from Mark. Mark, Matthew, and Luke are commonly referred to as Synoptic Gospels (“synoptic” coming from the Greek terms meaning “to see together”). At this point, you might be wondering: how does the Gospel of John fit in to this discussion?

John is traditionally not included among the Synoptic Gospels, because its chronology departs from the other three and its writing style and themes are starkly different. Most have found it difficult to argue that John is literally dependent on any of the Synoptic Gospels; it just looks too dissimilar. In his short but detailed study John’s Use of Matthew, which is a revision of his Vanderbilt dissertation, Barker sets forth a fresh and challenging thesis for Synoptic scholars by arguing that John shows evidence of literary dependence on Matthew. Not only was John aware of Matthew’s particular narrative, Barker argues, but John also develops and even competes with Matthean interpretations at key moments, suggesting that John was intended to be read alongside Matthew instead of replace it.

Barker begins by outlining how ancient authorities understood the relationship between John and the Synoptics. They generally saw a great deal of harmony between John and the Synoptics (or perhaps better, refused to see disharmony). Later biblical scholars tended to suppose that the authors had access to a common oral tradition, which would explain their similar, though not identical, accounts. More recently, scholars have begun to argue that John knew at least one of the Synoptics, though most still consider Matthew “the least likely gospel that John would have read.” A handful of scholars have made the case, however, that John knows Matthew’s particular editorial changes to Mark, and it is in this latter conversation that Barker will intervene.

Barker’s methodology for considering John’s relationship to Matthew deserves attention. He aims to consider the way that similar texts could be used alongside one another without intending to displace each other. To support this move, he proposes to treat John as an apocryphal gospel, such as the Protoevangelium of James or the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which unarguably “depend on, and recast, the canonical nativity stories.” These gospels, however, do not intend to supplant those upon which they depend; rather, they “construct self-standing narratives that nonetheless presuppose and supplement the canonical gospels.” Using this model of source use and expansion, Barker explores how John can be seen as a kind of apocryphal gospel that depends on Matthew but does not intend to replace it. In Barker’s words, John is both “in continuity and competition” with Matthew.

The weak version of this sort of analysis would focus on parallel passages between Matthew and John and argue for how John could have possibly arrived at his version from Matthew’s. Barker’s much stronger argument rests (following Helmut Koester’s principles of discerning source use) on showing that John’s versions are aware of Matthew’s specific redactional changes to Mark. Koester had once theorized, “How can we know when written documents are the source for…quotations and allusions? Redaction criticism is the answer. Whenever one observes words or phrases that derive from the author or redactor of a gospel writing, the existence of a written source must be assumed.” If one can isolate John’s knowledge of Matthew’s editorial additions, it means that there must be a strong literary dependence between the two that cannot be explained by their mutual access to similar oral traditions.

At this point, we should pause and highlight the possible implications for this sort of study. Given the conventional assumption that Mark was the source for Matthew and Luke, if John is also derivative of those traditions, then that leaves only Mark as the earliest and most original written version of Jesus’ life in the New Testament. The stakes are thus high for this argument, especially for those interested in uncovering the authentic words and deeds of the historical Jesus in the gospels. Again, the argument that John knew Matthew must show that he was aware of wording and ideas that were unique to Matthew. To make this case, Barker examines three examples.

His first example is John 20:23, a saying about the possibilities of forgiveness that has some affinities with the Matthean doublet on binding and loosing:

John 20:23: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Matthew 18:18b (cf. Matthew 16:19): “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

John’s version of this saying is often considered to be an independent version that was derived from oral tradition, but Barker argues that these two verses are not simply variations on the same theme—that is a “widespread misperception,” according to Barker. Matthew’s binding and loosing phrase, he contends, adopts language found in rabbinic debates about proper actions, and so should be interpreted in terms of accepting or rejecting certain behaviors. Josephus, who wrote in Greek about these debates among the Pharisees, provides evidence to support such an interpretation of Matthew’s verse: “(the Pharisees) were also presently becoming administrators of everything—to banish and recall whom they want, to loose and to bind” (The Jewish War I.111). Josephus here uses exactly the same Greek vocabulary that Matthew does. This, then, indicates to Barker that the thrust of the teaching should be about community regulation and ecclesiastical authority. Thus, Barker:

In Matthew 18, the power to bind and loose indeed relates to the concept of sin, but the terms themselves do not denote withholding and granting forgiveness when someone sins. Instead binding and loosing mean that the disciples have the authority to determine what counts as sin in the first place.

Since Matthew elsewhere encourages forgiveness in all sorts of scenarios, such advice could be taken to an extreme wherein all manner of behaviors could be easily forgiven—not necessarily a desirable situation for a burgeoning community. As a kind of response to this possibility, John’s saying is concerned with church authorities being too lenient about what counts as sin. The saying in John reminds the leaders of their responsibility not simply to issue blanket forgiveness, which is subtle reinterpretation and correction to Matthew’s original injunction. This means that John depends literarily on Matthew and assumes his audience is aware of Matthew’s version as well. John did not expect his audience to reject Matthew in favor of his gospel, but presumed they would continue to be used together.

The second example is John’s episode about Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey in fulfillment of a prophecy from Zechariah (John 12:12-19; cf. Matthew 21:1-9). Barker begins by observing that Mark’s and Luke’s vocabulary choices in this scene are imprecise; their term πῶλος ranges in meaning from horse to mule to ass/donkey to simply a young or strong animal. John and Matthew also have this imprecise term, but they both further specify that it is an ὄνος (donkey), evincing “a closer connection [between these versions] than is usually acknowledged.” Because of the imprecision of the former term in Mark and the addition of ὄνος in Matthew, Barker agrees with those who argue that Mark did not originally have the Zechariah prophecy in mind and that such a connection is a redaction by Matthew. But then the question becomes, how did John end up with the very same precise term connected to the Zechariah prophecy?

One way that scholars account for Matthew’s and John’s similarities here is by their mutual appeal to testimonia, hypothesized collections of Old Testament proof texts that may have circulated among early Christians. If John and Matthew both had access to such testimonia and if they included the connection between this scene and the Zechariah prophecy, then we could explain their similar vocabulary and interpretation. Yet Barker finds no evidence that the Zechariah prophecy was included in any such collections. In fact, he argues that the references in early writings of the Church fathers that are usually taken to indicate dependence on testimonia can be explained just as easily by the fathers’ access to Matthew and John. Admittedly, John’s version (a “makeshift quotation”) is still very different from Matthew’s, but it “more closely resembles Matthew’s quotation and surrounding narrative than any of the eight extant Hebrew and Greek versions of Zech. 9:9 down to the third century.” John’s version also develops Matthew’s version in logical ways, first by turning Matthew’s absurd two donkeys into a realistic single donkey, and second by offering an interpretive key to explain why Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy was not comprehended immediately—according to John 12:16, only after the resurrection and the transfer of the Holy Spirit to the disciples, were they able to put the pieces together. Thus, for Barker, once again, John depends on and supplements the Gospel of Matthew but was not meant to displace it.

The last example, an admittedly “counterintuitive argument,” is John’s emphasis on evangelizing in Samaria, which seems so out of place in comparison with Matthew’s explicit call to avoid evangelizing in Samaria (the “harvest saying” in Matthew 10:5-6) that Barker claims John “must be consciously disagreeing with Matthew”—though perhaps, as we will see, disagreement may be too strong a word. Beginning with Matthew’s gospel, the author depicts the Samaritans as “a distinct ethnicity” alongside Jews and Gentiles. Salvation was originally for the Jews and then later opened to Gentiles via the so-called Great Commission, but Matthew never intended, Barker argues, Samaritans to be among the recipients, which is why the disciples are not permitted to enter their cities. Yet in the Gospel of John, Jesus himself enter Samaria. Whereas some commentators take differences of this sort to be incommensurable and thus to imply John’s independence from the Synoptics, Barker suggests a way to harmonize both accounts. He proposes that John composed his version with knowledge of Matthew’s version and deliberately located the scene within Samaria, making Jesus sanction evangelizing in the region, as he was actively doing, as well as in cities beyond it, “thereby subtly subverting Matthew’s Samaritan exclusion.” The result of this tweak was that readers who already knew Matthew’s prohibition about the Samaritans would have the situation clarified and would see that Jesus was actually preaching to Samaritans first when he instructed his disciples to go on from there to preach to others. The effect would be a message that would not alienate Samaritans in John’s audience, but would rather construct a memory about their inclusion in Jesus’ mission.

Barker’s case studies are intriguing. In my opinion, the first two examples provide the strongest case for his argument. In the first case, he makes excellent sense of the loosing/binding saying in Matthew by reading it in the context of rabbinic writing and makes a compelling case that John’s version is a response (and a kind of warning) to it. In the second, the specificity of the equine vocabulary that John and Matthew share, especially in comparison to Mark and Luke’s vagueness, are striking and do suggest some sort of literary relationship. The third example of John’s Samaritan inclusion as a corrective to Matthew is not impossible, but I do not see Barker making as strong a case here. Moreover, I wonder if John’s audience would have made the subtle connections that Barker proposes, given that many people today easily overlook evident contradictions among the gospels. The larger case for John’s knowledge of Matthew, however, has yet to be demonstrated. But this is understandable, as this study, based mainly on Barker’s dissertation, is published with Fortress’ Emerging Scholars series and so represents only an initial foray into the topic. There is plenty of room to flesh out this sketch into a much larger venture and entertain some more significant questions that typically crop up with source theories in Synoptic studies. For instance, if John knew Matthew, one needs to consider why he would omit the tidy Sermon on the Mount, the details about Jesus’ early life, and so many of the Synoptic parables. One also needs to lay out a thoroughgoing comparison of Matthew’s miracle discourse alongside John’s sign stories. And, of course, one needs to account for the differing chronologies between both stories. There are no doubt plausible scenarios to entertain here, especially building on Barker’s methodological starting point of considering John in a kind of competition with Matthew. I, for one, would be excited to see this more robust project.

Though many will appreciate the careful attention to John in Synoptic conversations, I am actually more excited about his reimagining the uses to which gospel literature was put. He encourages us to think outside the canonical box, so to speak. By treating the Gospel of John as an “apocryphal” text, dependent on but in competition with Matthew, it opens up new ways of thinking about these texts. For too long, many have treated the canonical gospels as individual, singularly unique (even when sources were obvious), and indispensable texts. With Barker’s method of approaching John as a kind of apocryphal development of Matthew, we begin to appreciate the ways that texts could have been written in dialogue with one another and how the connection between a text and a single, discrete community is too simplistic. Most important of all, gospels are not simply reports about the life of Jesus; they are arguments about the way that his life should be understood and remembered. Barker’s evenhanded study invites us to reconsider the particular arguments that the author of John was making, especially if his readers were already familiar with other versions of the story that he may have found lacking.


Featured image: Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch via WikiMedia Commons.