Meandering through the Synoptics

Ok, I promised to write stuff I find interesting as I go through my diss research, so here’s a couple thoughts I had tonight as I was researching. These will doubtless seem somewhat stream-of-consciousness, so I apologize in advance for any seasickness that results from an attempt on your part to read through the meandering thoughts of this Synoptic explorer.

(Please bear in mind that although I had a good class on the Synoptics over ten years ago, I’m not really conversant in the literature. My subject is primarily linguistic and related to early translations of the Synoptics from Greek, so I’m having to approach these biblical studies questions as a rank amateur.)

It strikes me once again that explaining the parallels between the Synoptics isn’t as difficult as explaining the differences. These are so perplexing because it appears at times that whole swaths of shared material are meticulously reworded so as not to be verbatim; tenses in verbs, number in nouns, virtually interchangeable lexical items, etc. are switched seemingly to avoid being word-for-word the same. Yet these will frequently occur amid whole phrases and sentences that are virtually identical between two or more of the Gospels, above and beyond the obvious identity of the general narrative enclosing them. The question arises, why is there this fluctuation between trivial differences in wording that don’t seem to play into authorial thematic emphases and entire sentences showing verbatim agreement?

Here and there in reading words attributed to Jesus I wish I knew something of Aramaic, because I wonder if we may be seeing differences attributable to independent translations from a uniform Aramaic original passed down orally. Then when you take into account the fact that they were almost certainly sharing sources, trivial stylistic variation starts to look more like intentional creation of uniqueness, or perhaps even dialect preferences. That in turn makes me muse, has there been anything done on the dialectology underlying these Gospels based upon consistent differences notable in extra-biblical texts?

Other times I wonder if mere oral transmission could account for these close-but-not-identical, almost thought-for-thought parallels. And of course the likelihood of the interplay of all these options makes the Synoptic Problem seemingly intractable — but endlessly interesting, nonetheless!

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