The Revival of the Griesbach Hypothesis

Written by C. M. Tuckett Reviewed By B. Ward Powers

Tuckett’s book is a most significant contribution to synoptic scholarship, which in many ways breaks new ground. It consists of a careful and thorough comparison of the two-document hypothesis (that Matthew and Luke used Mark and Q) and the Griesbach hypothesis (that Mark used Matthew and Luke) in explaining general phenomena and particular passages in the synoptic gospels. His conclusion, from each area of comparison which he studies, is either that no specific support is given either to the two-document hypothesis or to the Griesbach hypothesis, or else that the evidence favours the two-document hypothesis. A comment will be made (below) as to how validly his conclusion may be judged to flow from his data.

Tuckett’s approach differs markedly from that of his predecessors. He has chosen not to rely upon the standard arguments for Markan priority which were given their classical presentation in B. H. Streeter’s The Four Gospels (1924) and which are still found in New Testament textbooks today.

Tuckett’s fundamental basis of argument for the two-document hypothesis is that of coherence: the overall statement of the synoptic position from the viewpoint of the two-document hypothesis makes better sense at every level than the similar statement that could be made from the perspective of the Griesbach hypothesis or any other synoptic source theory.

Thus in his treatment of the argument from order (pp. 6f., 26ff.) Tuckett carefully distinguishes two arguments. The usual argument is based simply upon the fact that in respect of order of pericopes, Mark always agrees with Matthew or Luke or both while Matthew and Luke do not agree with each other against Mark. Tuckett accepts that this phenomenon can as easily be explained by the Griesbach hypothesis as by the two-document hypothesis, so that while it accords with the two-document hypothesis it is not in itself an argument for it. The second argument from order is ‘an argument which appeals to the disagreements in order, and claims that good reasons can be found for the changing of Mark’s order by Matthew and Luke, but not vice versa’. This is thus the application of Tuckett’s ‘criterion of coherence’ to the data.

‘A criterion of “coherence” has been proposed’ (he says) as the basis of assessment of any synoptic hypothesis.

‘Any source hypothesis can in fact be proposed … One can, therefore, postulate any hypothesis and then make a list, in a purely mechanical way, of the changes which the later writer must have made to his source(s).… What is then required, if the hypothesis is to be made credible, is a presentation of the reasons why the later writers made the changes they are alleged to have done. The application of a ‘criterion of coherence’ would then demand that these reasons form a reasonably coherent whole: they must be rational, consistent with each other and also consistent with the facts as they are. With this in mind, the gospel texts can be examined at a number of different levels: one can consider small grammatical changes, the changes of words and phrases with wider theological implications, and the changes involving the choice and ordering of whole pericopes. Any proposed source hypothesis must then give a reasonably coherent and self-consistent set of reasons why these changes occurred in the way that the hypothesis claims if the theory is to be seriously considered. The extent to which an hypothesis gives a coherent, consistent picture of the total redactional activity of each evangelist will then be a measure of its viability (pp. 12f.).’

Tuckett acknowledges that

‘When the criterion is used positively, its greatest danger is its circularity.… This is one of the major criticisms levelled by Stoldt against advocates of the Two-Document hypothesis, viz. they assume their solution and then seek to make it convincing by attributing the changes made to the redactional activity of the later writer.… At the purely formal level this [criticism] is probably justified: to assume the Markan order as original, and then to produce reasons for Matthew’s/ Luke’s alleged deviations from it, is to argue in a circle. Nevertheless, some such form of argument is inevitable.… The argument may be partly circular, but the main point at issue is whether the redactional activity postulated by the hypothesis in question is reasonably coherent and consistent: thus in order to determine the precise nature of this alleged redactional activity, the source hypothesis must first be assumed.… It is here that the Griesbach hypothesis can be tested critically to see if it offers a better, or more consistent, coherent explanation of the redactional activity involved than, say, the Two-Document hypothesis (pp. 13–15).

His study is in effect a comparison of the persuasiveness of the two-document and Griesbach theories in accounting for the synoptic data. The issues which he examines are: Mark’s duplicate expressions; the historic present; the order and choice of the material: conflated texts; patristic evidence; the minor agreements; the Mark-Q overlaps. Tuckett next engages in a detailed examination of seven Markan passages and their parallels, comparing the Griesbach and two-document hypotheses as explanations of the phenomena, and then gives his attention to ‘the double tradition’ and examines it in the light of the assertion of Griesbach supporters that Luke drew this material from Matthew. Tuckett’s study leads him to conclude that the data cannot adequately be explained by the proposition that Luke uses Matthew, but requires an earlier ‘source, common to Matthew and Luke, … a single source with its own distinctive ideas. One is therefore driven to some sort of Q hypothesis’ (p. 185).

In a brief two-page conclusion, Tuckett states where his study has taken him:

In the study of the Synoptic Problem, no conclusions can have complete certainty, and any solution is theoretically possible. One can never prove with mathematical rigour that one solution is right or that another is wrong. Nevetheless, various phenomena considered in this discussion have suggested that the Griesbach hypothesis is considerably less viable as a solution to the Synoptic Problem than the Two-Document Hypothesis.… In all this, it is a matter of weighing probabilities. The Griesbach Hypothesis can give an explanation of the text at one level, but it fails to account for the reasons why the changes allegedly made by the later writers (i.e. Luke and Mark) were made in the way in which the hypothesis must assume. Insofar as the Two-Document hypothesis can often apparently give a more coherent and consistent set of explanations of why the later changes were made (i.e. by Matthew and Luke on the Two-Document hypothesis), that hypothesis is to be preferred (pp. 186f.).

One could point to a long line of advocates of the two-document hypothesis who have sought (often successfully) to silence their opponents with sarcasm and ridicule. Tuckett never does that. He is always fair in his treatment of a position with which he does not agree, and seeks to understand and to present objectively what that position is. He acknowledges the strengths that he observes in an opponent’s case and any weaknesses which he may detect in the position adopted by advocates of the two-document hypothesis. He will frequently state what an opponent would need to prove in order to establish a case, and then carefully explain why he considers that the opponent has failed to do so. Tuckett does not overstate his own case: in fact at times some readers may feel he understates it. This of course makes his presentation all the more effective.

How are we to assess Tuckett’s work?

Firstly, he has acted wisely in putting the usual arguments for the two-document hypothesis on one side (except to the extent that he finds them substantiated by his main criterion). Half these arguments are reversible (that is, they can as easily be seen as supporting the Griesbach hypothesis as the two-document hypothesis), and the other half are subjective and dependent upon one’s opinions about what a synoptic author would or would not be willing to do; and many of them are quite circular arguments.

Secondly, in his criterion of coherence, as he defines it, he has adopted the best criterion for judging between alternative synoptic source hypotheses. This criterion operates at the level of the text and its meaning, not in the sphere of generalities and all-embracing arguments which are inclined to lose touch with the text itself or to depend upon a selection of instances and ignore others which are less favourable. The field selected by Tuckett—the text of the gospels and the coherence of the material—is going to be the arena where the next stage of the battle for a solution to the synoptic problem will be fought.

Thirdly, however, in this assessment I must say that I do not consider that Tuckett has succeeded in establishing the conclusion which he reaches, that the two-document hypothesis gives a better explanation of the synoptic data than the Griesbach hypothesis. He has indeed made out a strong case against the position that Luke knew and used canonical Matthew, but (while this view is adopted by Farmer, Orchard, and some others) Luke’s use of Matthew was not advocated by Griesbach and so is hardly part of the Griesbach hypothesis as such. And Tuckett’s assessment of the extent to which the data he examines favours the two-document hypothesis rather than the Griesbach hypothesis is very much open to challenge. Your reviewer’s own researches lead him to the conclusion that the synoptic data which Tuckett sees as pointing to the correctness of the two-document hypothesis can in fact be even more convincingly interpreted from the perspective of Markan use of Matthew and Luke.

In sum, then: Tuckett’s book is important as initiating something of a new phase in the quest for the resolution of the synoptic problem. But his contribution, though very valuable, is not the last word, and there are answers to his arguments which will call into question the validity of his rejection of the Griesbach hypothesis.

B. Ward Powers

Sydney Missionary and Bible College, Australia