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The story of Jesus won't stay still

By Sara Gallant / July 8, 1999



A HISTORY OF THE SYNOPTIC PROBLEM By David Dungan Doubleday 526 pp., $39.95

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Caught between fundamentalists who claim the Gospels are a factual record dictated by God and Jesus Seminar radicals who treat these stories as cultural myths, many thoughtful Christians are eager for reliable information about Jesus that resonates with their heart and mind.

In answering this need, David Dungan, professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee, provides an engaging history of the controversies surrounding "the synoptic problem," the apparent contradictions among the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life.

Dungan covers the entire history of Bible study and not just its modern era, giving him an exceptionally broad perspective. He considers four fundamental components to the debate:

*Which Gospels should we use?

*Which text of the normative Gospels is most accurate?

*How were the Gospels composed?

*How do we interpret them?

Consensus on the Gospels continues to shift, and Dungan shows how these questions have transformed the debate. He also explores the cultural, political, economic, and technological presuppositions ever-shaping Bible interpretation.

Origen of Caesarea (185-253), the first towering figure in Bible study, was convinced that the Scriptures has both a literal and a spiritual meaning. To him, the literal discrepancies were of little import compared to the spiritual harmony produced by the authors' elevated thought. Dungan feels Origen's approach is virtually extinct, a claim open to challenge.

Augustine, bishop of Hippo (354-430), came into prominence after Christianity had become the favored religion of the Roman Empire and church councils had closed the canon. This father of literalists insisted that he had worked out the harmony of the Gospels on the literal level. The force of his presentations closed debate for a thousand years.

Tracing the development of Bible translation provides an exciting history of its complex development. We learn, for instance, of the race to publish the first printed New Testament in Greek. Erasmus of Rotterdam, influenced by his publisher's greed, rushed to beat out a team of Spanish scholars.

By the time the Spaniards had painstakingly completed their definitive Bible text in 1522, Erasmus' slapped-together New Testament, published in 1516, had already gained the hierarchy's stamp of approval as textus receptus. Translations based on it (starting, sadly, with the King James) would be riddled with errors.

Baruch Spinoza, a 17th-century Jew who had fled the Inquisition, unwittingly opened the modern era of Bible study. He intended to interpret the Bible in such a way that it never again could become the justification for torture and murder. Instead, Spinoza's method of historical criticism was later adopted by many scholars who use it, if also unwittingly, to bury the Bible's spiritual meaning under a barrage of secular questions.

Dungan's comprehensive research enables him to see how destructive modern scholarship has been to traditional Christianity. And he's not barking at just the Jesus Seminar. The much-admired German Bible scholars get reappraisal, too.

Today's popular "two-source" theory, originating in Germany, holds that Mark was the first Gospel written and that it was based on a hypothetical document called "Q." Dungan writes that the German government, in its 19th-century eagerness to combat Roman Catholicism, placed "two source" scholars in prominent university posts.

Since Catholics base church authority on Matthew's traditional place as the first Gospel, Dungan claims Germany's political agenda forced the direction of Bible interpretation toward the Q theory. He reconsidered, then abandoned, his own espousal of the "two source" theory.

Dungan has provided a readable survey of this debate from its beginning to the present day. His questions are as valuable as his answers.

*Sara Gallant is a graduate student at Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine.