June 2010

We interview David Alan Black on matters relating to the Synoptic Gospels and Greek linguistics; most of these questions were supplied by students at KEDS. 

Dr Black received a D. Theol. in New Testament from the University of Basel in 1983. The following interview will be useful material for students studying modules in The Synoptic Gospels, New Testament Survey and Biblical Greek.

1. I'd like to start with a discussion on the Synoptic Gospels. Firstly, what are your main reasons for taking the traditional view that Matthew was written first?

For many years I have been studying the writings of the early church fathers and particularly what they had to say about the historical origins of the Gospels. It has been exceedingly rewarding. You might say that my little book Why Four Gospels? is the tangible result of all this rumination. The book grew out of a visit I made in 2000 to Ealing Abbey (London), which has an excellent patristics library. There I was able to retranslate the statements of the fathers from the Greek and Latin into English. I then felt led to popularize their views (as well as the hypothesis of my colleague Bernard Orchard) for a general audience. The plan of the book is simple. It is to lay out in a clear, straightforward, and easily understandable way how I believe the Gospels came to be written. And a huge part of the discussion concerns the unanimous agreement of the fathers of the church that Matthew was our earliest Gospel.

2. Do you support the idea of Q in the history of the creation of the Synoptic Gospels?

It is obvious that the Q theory is not going to go away soon. In fact, in a book I co-edited with my colleague David Beck (Rethinking the Synoptic Problem) an entire chapter is devoted to this document (written by Darrell Bock of Dallas Seminary). For my part, the Fourfold Gospel Hypothesis (which I espouse) does away not only with Q but with all such hypothetical documents.

3. Do you think that the general academic acceptance of Markan priority today has distorted scholarship and study of the Gospels? Or is the question of priority a relatively small issue in terms of its impact upon wider Biblical Studies?

Someone has said that if the Markan Priority Hypothesis should ever be falsified it would entail the rewriting of about 95 percent of evangelical commentaries on the Gospels. This may a bit of an exaggeration. I am not sure that most pastors who teach from, say, Mark’s Gospel, dig very deeply into the Synoptic Problem. Still, the consensus of New Testament scholarship on such matters seems to be bending. I know of no reason why we should ignore the rich resource we have in the fathers of the church if we wish to resolve this problem.

4. When it comes to dating, what should be the weighting of criteria when deciding on relative and absolute dating of biblical books?

My own approach is to place a great deal of weight on the external evidence provided, again, by the earliest writers of the church. Why should we not take very seriously what they had to say about such matters as authorship, date, purpose, etc.? Of course, many times we will never be able to speak with any kind of certainty about the dating of the Gospels. My own view is that Matthew was written within ten years of the resurrection and that Paul had a copy of it with him on his second missionary journey, from which he seems to quote.

5. There have been some claims that Matthew's gospel was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic. What do you think of the evidence behind this?

I spend a great of time on this issue in my book Why Four Gospels? The long and short of it is this: The statement of Papias has been largely misunderstood by New Testament scholars. Origen, mistakenly thinking that Papias was referring to the language in which Matthew was written, stated that Matthew “was composed in Hebrew characters.” This error was perpetuated by later authors. J. Kürzinger has shown that the words hebraidi dialekto almost certainly means “in a Hebrew style” rather than “in [the] Hebrew language.”

6. I understand that you believe Mark's gospel should be seen as a record of Peter's teachings in Rome. I would be interested to know what would be the reasons for this.

The tradition asserts explicitly that Mark is the result of a series of public lectures given by Peter in Rome that were carefully recorded by Mark (who served as the hermeneutes or interpres of Peter). Moreover, we are told by Clement of Alexandria that the audience was so appreciative of what was said that they demanded to be given a copy of what Peter had spoken, that Mark was able to satisfy them, and that, when Peter learned of their request, he took no action either to promote or suppress the text of what was said. Again, all of this is laid out my book Why Four Gospels?

7. What is your view on a modern interpreter's use of midrash/sensus plenior not already used by the NT redactors? Also, did the Gospel writers use Midrash in making their hermeneutical decisions regarding the OT and the work of Jesus?

I have no particularly strong opinions on these matters. The Gospels, I feel, are essentially biographies, though a number of specific sub-genres are discernable in them. These would include no doubt Jewish Midrash.

8. Thank you for those responses on the Synoptic Gospels. I would like to deal with a matter discussed in our recent interview with Dr David Allen where he argues that Luke wrote the book of Hebrews. I understand from your blog that you disagree on this -- can you tell us why?

For what it’s worth, I have published my views on the Pauline authorship of Hebrews in a series of articles that appeared in the journal Faith and Mission. (I am happy to send your readers .pdf copies of these essays upon request.) [For contact details see Dr Black's website www.daveblackonline.com] Suffice it to say that my views concerning authorship are based, again, upon the testimony of the fathers. Even Origen, who is often misquoted as professing agnosticism as to the authorship of Hebrews, consistently quoted the epistle as Paul’s. At best, Luke may have been an amanuensis; but direct authorship, it seems to me, is excluded by the external evidence.

9. Dr Black, I would like to move on to another area that you have researched, namely Greek linguistics. I note the publication of your book titled Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek. How high which you place the study of linguistics for Seminary Greek students?

As I have often said on my blog, we cannot think of Greek as the Abracadabra or Open Sesame of New Testament interpretation. But knowing Koine Greek can be very useful in our panoply of tools as we approach the New Testament text. If, then, we are to study Greek, why not study it scientifically as much as possible? A basic overview of linguistics is invaluable in helping us to think and write more accurately about the texts we are exegeting. It is hard work, but very rewarding. I have found that even a basic introduction to the subject in my Greek classes is useful.

10. And finally, one last technical question! Regarding the study of Greek linguistics, what do you think of the view of Stanley Porter and others regarding Verbal Aspect Theory, and how might this alter our interpretation of the Bible?

Let me just say this: My views about verbal aspect have not changed since the appearance of Dr. Porter’s works on the subject.

Dr Black, thank you for your time.

David Alan Black is currently Professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Dr Black has published a number of books including Why Four Gospels?; Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek; Learn to Read New Testament Greek; It's Still Greek to Me; Using New Testament Creek in Ministry; New Testament Textual Criticism, as well as editing the volume Rethinking the Synoptic Gospels. His website can be found at www.daveblackonline.com

The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty members of the King's Evangelical Divinity School. The Talks with Scholars series is a regular feature at KEDS. Visit the interview page for more engaging discussion and conversation with world class academics.