NT Scholarship and the Starving Poor

Last night I had one of those classic Bible professor moments.

Ok, so perhaps the form of the interaction wasn’t so classic. I’m teaching Gospels and Acts on two campuses at once using videoconferencing. This means that students will make up for not being able to come up and ask questions during break by texting me or DMing me on Twitter.

So after a particularly wonderful and lucid explication of the Synoptic Problem and its proposed solutions, I took a break and discovered this text message form someone on the other campus:

Can u pls summarize why this matters when there are people starving…?

There it is, the classic moment where the professor who loves all this stuff just because it’s wonderfully interesting has to deal with the student who wants to know how this is going to change the world.

But after grumbling to myself about this, and pondering all sorts of grade deductions in my heart, I began to realize that there was a very good answer to the question.

The Synoptic Problem wrestles with why Matthew, Mark, and Luke look the way they do: what accounts for their similarities, and what accounts for their differences?

In answering this question, we come face-to-face with the reality that these books were intentionally written to be different from each other. The writers of two of them changed what they found in one or two of the books that we have in front of us. This means that the impulse to “harmonize” the various versions of the stories we find is not merely beside the point, it undermines the entire purpose of the documents’ writing.

The Synoptic Problem, with its focus on the human hands at work crafting distinct, particular messages, has the power to shatter our preconception that the story of Jesus is one simple story that must always be told the same way. It has the power to shatter our desire to have difficult passages explained by simpler passages that seem to address the issue more clearly.

And if we can accept it, such study will drive us to more deeply believe that the Bible we actually have, with four different voices depicting four different understandings of Jesus’ ministry, is the Bible God wants us to have–not a harmonized Bible with some fifth “Gospel” that we have thrown together on its own.

Once upon a time, I thought that listening to multiple voices was a way of telling us what the “one meaning” really was.

You know what happens when you do this?

Luke’s “blessed are you who are poor” becomes silenced by Matthew’s “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Obviously, “poor” can refer to penury in any number of realms–friendship, finances, spirituality. Matthew tells us what “blessed are the poor” really means.

Luke’s “blessed are you who are hungry” is muted by Matthew’s “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

You see what happens if we don’t allow the multiplicity of Biblical voices to speak? The concern for worldly poverty and starving kids in my city gets “spiritualized”–and the next thing you know, the church begins to think that having a quiet time is more important than feeding our starving neighbors.

Of course, we must not allow Luke to mute Matthew, either. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness are states of the blessed citizens of the Kingdom.

But we can only allow both voices to speak if we are willing to allow the Bible to be what it actually is. We can only listen to both Matthew and Luke if we are open to see that they shaped their messages in accordance with robust theological agendas that situate Jesus within the world and the story of Israel in unique ways.

So why does the Synoptic Problem matter for the starving people of the world?

It demands of us that we hear the voice of Luke, who would tell the church that any purported pursuit of righteousness that does not manifest itself in giving to the poor and feeding the hungry is insufficient to masquerade as true Christian righteousness.

(Ed. note: Yes, Matthew cares about feeding the hungry, giving to the poor, and the like as well (cf. Mt 25). I get that. But Luke brings the issue front and center in a number of places where Matthew or Mark might provide other ways of getting out of it.)

24 thoughts on “NT Scholarship and the Starving Poor”

  1. Well said! I would have probably answered like the first thought that came to mind: because it is interesting! But this does put the study of the Synoptics in 3-D and invites us to interact with a multi-dimensional Jesus whom we often have the desire to flatten.

  2. Daniel, you did a great job answering this question in the moment. At first I thought it was a digression from the discussion at hand, but it really tied together the WHY of the differences in the synoptic gospels. Well done. Seriously.

  3. Amen! Great response!

    In fact, I think I’m going to print this off and give it to my Bible study group as we are studying Mark and briefly talked about Synoptic Problem a few weeks ago. =D

  4. Wonderfully clever. But I’m not convinced that it really answers the student’s concern.

    I think the question assumes that he believes that the poor and starving are really important to God. He is convinced already that the Bible is calling God’s people to do something about it. He appears unconvinced that learning theories about Q is a worthwhile pursuit when poverty is a more pressing/relevant issue.

    I like your answer – but, I think with only one gospel (or even without them) people who read the Bible would still be commanded to care for the poor.

    I think the question still seems unanswered. Why should I study markan priority (not explicitly commanded by Christ) when I could be out feeding the poor (explicitly commanded by God in lots of places)??

    1. Sam, I just got off the phone with the student who asked the question, and she disagrees with you: yes, I did answer her question. :-)

      Learning to read the Bible well is an important part of creating the kind of praxis that will transform the world. I believe that, or else I wouldn’t be a seminar prof.

      1. haha lucky you :-)

        Maybe I just read-in the question I’ve gotten asked in similar situation. I didn’t answer quite as well as you did, and I suspect that student is somewhere working at a rescue mission instead of reading the Bible well.

  5. Nice work.

    And this runs in the other direction to… having spent more than a decade of inner-city living and working and a fair share of feeding poor people, it is important for those who are feeding the poor to know more deeply why Jesus matters, that reading the bible well is critical for the work, and being prepared to continually reform praxis to be more faithful to the various gospel accounts of Jesus.

    Having spent a fair bit of time in sanctuary, seminaries and the streets each has its own peculiar form of elitism which posts like this challenge. Furthermore it helps build the connections for each to do their work with integrity, but not in isolation.

  6. As a seminary prof myself, I don’t find any dualism in caring for the widows, orphans, poor, maimed, lame and blind, and dealing with the fact that the four Gospels describe events in Christ’s life and His teachings in sometimes slightly, sometimes vastly different ways. The authors were different people, each with a unique point of view and audience. I’ve written two harmonies of the Gospels in two foreign languages, and also teach courses in the social ministry of the Church. Each of the people we minister to are also unique. Even (or especially?) those who are poor, less intelligent, disabled or elderly each have their own gifts to offer to the Body of Christ.

  7. Oh my gosh! Not the dread “Q!?” I was first exposed to Q at a NT introduction course at USC. After the prof got done explaining, I’m like, “Nice theory, sir. Do you have any…you know…actual evidence” (as opposed to conjecture and deduction from other evidence). Short answer: No. Never has such a grandiose theory rested on the complete lack of any physical evidence or shred of documentation. Amazing to see. Reminds me of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, everyone is able to describe Q and explain what was in it, but no one has a single shred of it.

    And yes, having devotions IS more important than feeding the hungry, because it is when we encounter Christ’s heart in devotions that our own heart is changed so that we love the hungry enough to go feed them.

  8. Here is what bothers me the most about the alleged “Synoptic Problem” – it’s built on the thesis that there is no way the Apostles could have written the Gospels. If the Apostles themselves wrote the Gospels, then there is no need for Q or copying eachother. That entire line of thinking falls flat.

    And secondly, we need not worry about making what could be two distinct lessons into one. For example, Jesus could have easily been teaching Luke’s “blessed are you who are hungry” AS WELL AS Matthew’s “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Why worry about conflating them or why worry that Jesus was incapable of teaching both so that some future writers deliberately had to make up different accounts?

    1. I don’t think your first statement holds. Even if two people witnessed the same event, precise verbal overlap indicates literary dependence. Moreover, Luke tells us he did research and used other people’s Gospel narrations. The question left to ask is how are these three related and why.

      1. Literary dependence need not mean a literal Q document, it can range from literally recording the words someone spoke (which happens all the time in news reporting) to one Apostle consulting with another Apostle before writing things down. And Jesus said the sending of the Holy Spirit will cause them to remember everything.

        Luke is actually a very good example to bring up here, because in this case he actually did consult the other Apostles when doing his research. Also, if Luke is being honest about finding accurate testimony from eyewitnesses, then it makes little sense to suggest he deliberately changed the accounts to be different from the other Gospels.

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