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Everyone (Who Cares about Early Christianity) Has a Dog in this Fight

Mark Goodacre and Alan Garrow are due to meet at this year’s British New Testament Conference at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, 6‐8th September. The issues at the heart of the $1,000 Challenge will be debated in the Synoptic Gospels Seminar. Alan Garrow will present a paper, “Reflections on the $1,000 Challenge” (abstract) with Mark Goodacre offering a response. In anticipation of that meeting, Alan Garrow has written the following:

It is not often that something entertaining happens in the field of New Testament studies. It has been a privilege, therefore, to participate in Evan Powell’s $1,000 Challenge. In this event Mark Goodacre and I wrestled over the quality, or otherwise, of the Matthew Conflator Hypothesis: an approach to the Synoptic Problem in which Matthew used Luke’s Gospel.

Scholars’ reaction to the Challenge suggests that, while most found it entertaining, they did not see themselves as having a dog in this particular fight. Rather than being a debate with far‐reaching implications they saw it as a bit of a sideshow. If I can account for why the Synoptic Problem has been relegated to a sideshow, then I might be able to explain why this status could be due for a change.

A good hypothesis gives birth to further hypotheses. This is to say, it wins ground that allows the exploration of the ground beyond, and thence the ground beyond that, and so on. Scientific progress begets scientific progress. Having established discovery ‘A’, discovery ‘B’ is usually not far behind. Sometimes, however, the first flush of confidence about a discovery starts to falter and, as it does, confidence wanes in all related research. This journey is easily traceable in the case of the traditional Q hypothesis. At one point great confidence in Q generated all kinds of related theories about early Christianity. In the background, however, Farrer, Goulder, Goodacre, and their associates, have also been hard at work. This group has mounted a strong and consistent challenge to the Q hypothesis (as traditionally conceived) but they haven’t quite been able to replace it with a fully satisfying alternative. The result has been uncertainty. Uncertainty promotes caution about engaging in fresh research. A lack of fresh research turns a question that was once front and centre in historical‐critical study of the gospels into one that is increasingly peripheral; the preserve of a handful of specialists who, as in the case of the $1,000 Challenge, occasionally engage one another while others watch from an amused distance – their dogs quietly by their sides.

[callout img=”” text=”Get Mark Goodacre’s essential guide to the Synoptic Problem,” link_url=”″ link_text=”The Synoptic Problem: A Way through the Maze”]

The fact remains, however, that good hypotheses open up new territory. If we were to achieve a genuinely satisfying solution to the Synoptic Problem—and, given the very small number of theoretically viable solutions, this is entirely probable—then that result would impact virtually every other aspect of early Christian studies.

So, for example, if it could be demonstrated that Matthew used Luke, then this would, obviously, open up new information about these two texts and their creators. In particular, this would allow access to detailed information about how Matthew treated two extensive sources (Mark and Luke). This would, in turn, allow more detailed speculation about what Matthew’s other sources might have looked like. And, indeed, we might even find some of those sources amongst the extant texts of the New Testament and early Christianity. This is the implication that interests me particularly. Solving the Synoptic Problem via the Matthew Conflator Hypothesis enhances the likelihood that Matthew and Luke used some parts of the Didache. If this is the case, the Didache belongs not in the shadows but near the centre of the early Christian drama, a text with the potential to answer previously unanswerable questions about Jesus, Paul, Acts, James, the Johannine literature, the very early Church, and so on.

At this point previously docile dogs might start to get more restive. If Garrow, or someone like him, ends up demonstrating that Matthew used Luke, then the ground of early Christianity studies will start to shift in unpredictable, welcome and unwelcome, ways. As one (now senior) scholar remarked to me many years ago: “Alan, if I were to accept your thesis I would have to throw away half the books on my shelves!” This is really bad news if you happen to be the author of one or more of those books – but it is really good news if you are hungry to break new ground in areas such as: what Jesus taught, what Paul taught new converts, where Revelation sprang from, how early Christian faith and practice developed, and so on. To be clear, such developments would either be very good news or very bad news – but what they could never be is inconsequential. This means that, if the Matthew Conflator Hypothesis should turn out to be correct, then this will have positive and negative implications for everyone (who cares about early Christianity).

A good hypothesis wins ground that opens up further ground beyond. The Matthew Conflator Hypothesis offers access to territory of value to every branch of New Testament studies. That is why, even though it might not look like it, everyone (who cares about early Christianity) has a dog in this fight.

The Revd Dr Alan Garrow, Vicar, St Peter’s Harrogate. Member, SIIBS University of Sheffield,

Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is the Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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Written by Tavis Bohlinger