Human ancestry and the Synoptic Problem

A recent report in the New York Times has been widely linked, including this summary at Evolution News. It deals with an inter-disciplinary squabble over recent claims by geneticists about human origins, which do not tally with the results in the rival field of palaeontology.

The discussion following the NYT article had one common theme from the (mainly lay) contributors: that everyone knows the fossil record to be sparse and woefully sporadic, whereas the new science of evolutionary genetics has all the information it needs within every single living human. The spat, they say, really represents a kind of Freudian envy by inadequate people embittered by spending all their lives down a hole with only a few shards to show for it.

It’s interesting how little criticism is made of the many subjective assumptions made in evolutionary genetics – the science is new, wonderful and reliable and we can trust the results. It’s also interesting how quickly people forget that for 150 years people said how the incontrovertible fossil record triumphed over unreliable human traditions like the Bible, because the science was new, wonderful and reliable and we could trust the results.

It reminds me of how biblical scholars have wrestled over the so-called Synoptic Problem over almost the same length of time. You didn’t think there was any possible connection, did you? Actually the issue is analogically very close. For non-theologians, the Synoptic  Problem deals with the literary relationship between the first three Gospels, which have long been known to contain shared material suggesting some kind of interdependence. Pretty well the whole of critical New Testament study has grown from this question; from source, form and redaction criticism to the very dating of the Gospels. It is the foundation on which all such scholarship depends.

From the start, the tackling of the Synoptic Problem was seen as departing from the old pre-scientific disciplines of studying traditions, historical sources and so on. These were regarded as unreliable and fragmentary, when all the evidence needed to the critically-trained scholar was in front of their eyes, in the documents themselves. Just as in the case of the study of the Old Testament Pentateuch, the careful examination of words and sentences in a reductionist manner would reveal the sources from which the documents “must” have been constructed. The enterprise was engaged very much in the spirit of that much-quoted phrase of C S Lewis, “the assured results of modern scholarship.”

Again, just as in the case of Pentateuchal Studies, the first major theory proposed, as a key source, a document with absolutely no external attestation, called “Q”, a supposed collection of Jesus’s sayings. That theory proposed that Mark wrote a simple gospel first, that Matthew and Luke used both him and Q, and also added some material from their own “peculiar” sources (I’ve been inordinately interested in this for a long time – in the 70s I formed a folk group called “Peculiar Lukan Sauce.”)

A 2008 major conference suggested that, a century on, this is still the majority view. It also showed that, more than at any time in the history of the discipline, a true consensus does not exist. A trip to a specialist webpage shows that there at least four major, and contradictory, contenders. But this does not count many serious alternative versions of each theory, particularly of the prevalent two-source model. One must question (and some scholars involved do) how much the dominance of the two-source theory depends on just how much effort has been invested in it – and what rests on it, because if it is wrong, one would have to burn down entire libraries of erroneous research that relies on it.

I can’t resist some examples: J A T Robinson was amazed to find how the dates usually given for the gospels depend on projections based on the two-source theory. Mark must circulate long enough to be accredited, digested and recycled by Matthew or Luke. Dispensing with these assumptions led him to suggest dates from the 40s to no later than 70AD, for all four Gospels. That dating makes the assumed contributions of generations of “Jesus communities”, anonymous prophets and legendary accretions impossible to sustain – eyewitnesses again come to the fore – pretty well discounted by most contemporary scholarship. Not only the scholarly works, but the critical commentaries used by students and pastors alike, would have to be re-written.

All that might be less of a threat if it weren’t for the fact that after a century, this pivotal theory remains seriously contested by the specialists. That at least demonstrates that the initial promise – that a document can reliably reveal from within itself details of its history – is plain wrong. Indeed, it is interesting that some of the divergences between the various synoptic theories exist because of the willingness of scholars to take heed of factors outside the text itself. For example my contemporary at Cambridge, Richard Bauckham, takes much more seriously the reliability of the early Christian traditions about authorship, the relationship of the Gospels to classical biography, the consistency of the personal names of minor characters with what is known of Judaean kinship relationships, the anture of eye-witness reporting and other significant factors. The most the dominance of one view shows is that a restricted set of assumptions and methodologies will tend to reach similar conclusions.

In case you didn’t notice, this is the link with studies of early man. The geneticists, like the modern NT scholars, believe that scientific conclusions can reliably be drawn from uncorroborated sources seen within their experimental material, in this case human and ape genes rather than ancient documents. Why should that be any more true than the discredited aspirations of the “scientific” biblical scholars? The palaeontologists, meanwhile, at least have actual data, incomplete though it is. It resembles the tantalising clues of traditions and ancient history – possibly unreliable, certainly not enough to reconstruct the past fully, but at least another strand of information – and one that alters the overall picture considerably if taken into account.

Perhaps we shall never be able to reconstruct either human origins or the synoptic origins in a satisfactory manner. That would be a humbling admission that science, and history, are both limited means of gaining knowledge. But I would argue that we already know that when one type of science, especially one dependent on as many presuppositions as genetics or source criticism, is accorded monopoly rights to delivering truth, then we are almost certainly fooling ourselves.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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12 Responses to Human ancestry and the Synoptic Problem

  1. Alan Fox says:

    Do facts outweigh dogma? It seems obvious to me that if facts emerge then dogma has to change to accommodate those facts. The Catholic Church eventually apologised for persecuting Galileo in 1992. Better late than never!

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    That’s one episode we’re about 300 years late in reopening. And hardly relevant to the OP.

  3. Alan Fox says:

    Well, I wasn’t sure what your point was. That DNA sequencing has become routine and allows another way to look at evolutionary relationships seems to be an admirable thing. Why should textual analysis not be also a way into gleaning something of the provenance of old texts?

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    “Another way” is admirable, both on biology and theology. The post is about the overdependance (and insistence) on one way, especially (in the case of biblical studies) when no conclusive results have been shown after more than a century. In fact the kind of textual work done by so many biblical scholars has been largely given up in other areas – I came across a quote from a Homer scholar (a field in which a century ago source analysis was all the rage) who laughed that they now concluded that if the Iliad wasn’t by Homer, it was by someone else of the same name living at the same time.

    As for Galileo, as far as I know he never opposed any official dogma of the Catholic Church, and had been invited to write a balanced account of both viewpoints by the Pope. He did oppose the prevalent scientific teaching of the day, of course, as is well known, but the evidence for geocentrism had been pretty compelling up till then, so it’s not really blameworthy. Ted Davis did a good series on it last year on BioLogos: http://biologos.org/blog/series/historical-perspective-series.

  5. Cal says:

    If I recall correctly, what got Gallileo in trouble was writing a pamphlet that essentially called the Pope an idiot and an imbecile.

    An angry man or the child in the Emperor’s New Clothes? You decide.

  6. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Cal – it was actually the book the Pope asked him to write that had the “Simplicio” character mouthing the Pope’s own views. Davis seems to think he did quite well just to get house arrest!

    Church opinion was divided – the Jesuits actually used the heliocentric model because it helped navigation. The Pope was following the majority science of the time, which was largely (and logically) based on the lack of observed stellar parallax. Since Copernican theory had initially almost as many epicycles as Ptolemy, it seemed unparsimonious to have to invoke a Universe orders of magnitude bigger than the 90 million mile diameter that had been calculated.

    “Arrogant” rather than “angry” seems to be the judgement of history. Galileo was famously dismissive of his colleagues and opponents – apparently he refused Tycho Brahae access to his telecopes out of professional jealously. And of course Galileo’s explanation for tides, opposed to that of Kepler, turned out to be wrong.

    What Galileo did have was observational evidence, but as we know from James Shapiro’s, that doesn’t necessarily change the accepted paradigm immediately. BioLogos, for example (equivalent to the Pope as a science-religion arbiter, perhaps?) hasn’t carried any articles on natural genetic engineering, even to refute it, despite Shapiro’s long series on Huffington Post. Plus ca change, plus le meme chose…

  7. Gregory says:

    “‘Arrogant’ rather than ‘angry’ seems to be the judgement of history.” – Jon

    “My arrogance, sir, extends, just as far as my conscience demands.” – Eric Liddle (from the film “Chariots of Fire”)

    Bravo, Eric, well run! 🙂

    BioLogos = “equivalent to the Pope as a science-religion arbiter”?

    That’s got to be the joke of the month, if not of the calendar year!! As if any possible USAmerican evangelical organisation could resemble the Pontifical Academy of Sciences or carry weight as the Vatican Pope does! Nevertheless, I agree that BioLogos could and should present positions inconvenient to its ‘evolutionary creation’ viewpoint, including Shapiro and others. That it doesn’t (or at least, not often) marks a scar on its intellectual integrity.

    In the 4th post in this thread Jon cited an article by BioLogos. The author of that thread – Ted Davis – is a self-labelled ‘theistic evolutionist’ (with open sympathies to ‘intelligent design/Intelligent Design’). And so is the author of this thread…an ‘evolutionist.’

    Who cares if its not of the ‘Darwinian’ kind. An evolutionist is still an evolutionist.

    Oops, sorry, this thread is about genetics and theology.

    p.s. big hat tip to Andy Murray; he’s achieved something Roger F. has yet to (and after today, never will) accomplish – congrats to U.K. – Scotland!

  8. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Eric Liddle was interned in the same Chinese prison camp as my erstwile medical partner (also the offspring of a missionary). He was, she said, a wonderful human being even when he was dying of a brain tumour.

    Andy was visibly disappointed at his silver in the mixed doubles just now! But pretty good experience for Laura at 18 years old. I think I can say with quiet pride that Team GB is punching above its nation’s weight at the moment…

    “Who cares if its not of the ‘Darwinian’ kind. An evolutionist is still an evolutionist.”

    True. And Galileo remained a faithful Catholic, of course, like the Pope. Neither would have much on form criticism [see how cunningly I got the thread back on track!].

  9. James says:

    A good column, Jon.

    As you mentioned in passing, the same parallel could have been made with Old Testament criticism as well. It seems that in both theology and biology we encounter an excessive confidence in extrapolations from a theory, so excessive that empirical checking becomes almost beside the point.

    Of course, in the experimental sciences, such excessive overconfidence simply would not be tolerated. No theory is afforded a free ride, no matter how sound its logic seems, and no matter how correct its calculations look. But in the historical sciences, where the ability to do empirical checks is limited, theoretical arrogance has more scope.

    Over time, in Biblical studies, it became possible to question the dogmas of the four-source theory of the Pentateuch. It is still broadly accepted that there were distinct sources for some stories that have obvious stylistic and thematic differences, e.g., Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3, but the ability of scholars, in other sections of the Bible, to isolate tiny little snippets from their context, and prove that these snippets were stuck together in a patchwork by later editors, has been questioned. In particular, the rise of narratological theory within Biblical studies has allowed for the criticism of the “clumsy patchwork” inference on literary grounds — the stories as given often prove to be better written and less internally inconsistent than the higher critics thought they were. But the die-hard German-style text critics tried to strangle the literary, holistic approaches in the crib. So it is with the population geneticists; they will try to strangle approaches from other disciplines — from palaeontology, from molecular biology, or wherever — that challenge their supremacy. But as the case of Old Testament studies shows, no method can completely dominate a field forever. So there is hope.

  10. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi James

    Parallels between the documentary hypothesis and the synoptic problem might be commoner if scholars weren’t partitioned off so strictly into “OT” and “NT”.

    The unwarranted extrapolation you mention is still rife today – I remember Peter Enns on BL speaking confidently about the northern and southern sources J, E, etc being brought together because Cyrus insisted the Jews form a committee to present a unified account of their religion if he was to give it legal status at the end of the Exile. That, apparently, is one of the more popular newer theories – and the only established fact in it is the existence of Cyrus. It’s uncannily like a Darwinian Just-So story.

    When I pointed out to Enns the odd fact that the Genesis writer had managed to weave together disparate flood narratives into a unit with all the usual features of the ANE flood myths in the same order, his reply was that the writer was clever. The simpler answer is that there were never disparate narratives, but that would cut away the roots of two hundred years of OT scholarship.

    The existence of older sources is incontrovertible because it’s actually claimed by the OT (eg the Book of the Wars of the Lord, the Book of Jashar), and because Genesis, at least, clearly talks of events long before the book itself – including genealogical lists. But that would fit just as well with traditional Mosaic authorship as anything else. He was originally excluded because ANE literacy was considered anachronistic until it was found to be common, but by then Moses was beyond the scholarly pale.

    The crux of the documentary hypothesis is that the Book of Deuteronomy was forged in King Josiah’s time. Another Just-So story, as neither the identity of the book nor the forgery have any shred of evidence for them. But like Q, it dictates the whole history of the documents we have, so remains unchallenged two centuries on.

  11. James says:

    Alan Fox:

    I did send along another reply to you on the Mike Gene thread. If you saw it, and see no need to reply, that’s fine, but I wanted to let you know it was there. (And if you see no need to reply, I’m hoping that indicates that we came to agreement on a few points!)

  12. Alan Fox says:

    @ James

    I did miss it, will have a look now.

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