Statistics and the Synoptic Problem

Statistics and the Synoptic Problem June 15, 2013

Statistics tell us… well, even though they are numbers, statistics do not automatically provide answers to questions.

And 73.2% of all statistics are made up on the spot – as that one was.

But sometimes statistics can tell us something important. They can quantify what otherwise may seem vague and merely impressionistic.

I regularly cite statistics in talking about the differences between the Gospel of John and the Synoptics. Comparing how often “kingdom,” “father,” and “I” occur (as James D. G. Dunn does in The Evidence for Jesus) shows that it is not just a subjective impression that the style and content of John is significantly different from the other Gospels.

And statistics are striking when it comes to comparing the Pastoral Epistles with other letters attributed to Paul (see the charts in P. N. Harrison's book The Problem of the Pastoral Epistles).

So what about the Synoptic problem? Can statistics help us there?

On Ian's blog Irreducible Complexity, he had a post recently that addressed this very subject. Some work done by Dave Gentile (someone with an interest in statistics and the Synoptic problem as a hobby) inpid Ian to do some work of his own on the topic. Both provide moderate statistical support for Markan priority.

And what about Q? That's what you really want to know, isn't it?

Both Gentile and Ian looked into that too, and the results are…


Ian wrote in response to this state of affairs:

So one of those (very common) statistical experiments where the results tell you nothing of interest. Which is a shame.

I came to the conclusion that the decisive arguments were likely to arise out of close analysis of textual patterns…

And he goes on to mention Mark Goodacre's work as one example of that. I would love to see further statistical work done on this by academics. Has anyone tried to determine whether Luke's or Matthew's Q material stands out as more like the other's material, than that author's own style and vocabulary? That would provide significant support for one of the alternatives to the Q hypothesis. Or is that what Ian and Dave Gentile did?

Perhaps further statistical study will help. But don't count on it.


Browse Our Archives