Friday, May 04, 2007

Williams, Two Gospels From One

I have just finished reading a new book (for an RBL review): Matthew C. Williams, Two Gospels From One: A Comprehensive Text-Critical Analysis of the Synoptic Gospels (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006). You'll have to wait for the review, but there was something about this book that I find deeply troubling, its title.

This book has probably the most opaque and inappropriate title and subtitle combination in the history of mankind.
Basically the title is opaque and the subtitle is completely inaccurate.
I am sorry to have to say this, but I really need to get this off my chest so that I can review the actual contents of the book. Having read the book I think that Two Gospels From One means that two gospels, i.e. Matthew and Luke, are derived in some fundamental and literary way from one other gospel, i.e. Mark. There have been other ways to talk about this (‘Markan Priority’, ‘the two source hypothesis’ spring to mind), but for some unexplained reason the title attempts a new and obscure way to suggest this.
But my utter astonishment must be reserved for the subtitle, A Comprehensive Text-Critical Analysis of the Synoptic Gospels. Now let's think about this for just a moment:
  • ‘comprehensive’ normally means ‘complete; including all or nearly all elements’;
  • ‘analysis’ normally means ‘a detailed examination of the elements or structure of a substance, etc.’;
  • ‘text-critical’ normally means pertaining to ‘the process of attempting to ascertain the correct reading of a text’; and
  • ‘the Synoptic Gospels’ normally mean Matthew, Mark and Luke (the quotations come from the Concise Oxford Dictionary, but I have been assured that they also work in American).

So I was disappointed to find that this book actually contains an examination of the Nestle-Aland apparatus to 173 verses of Mark, which yields results that are then applied to the relationship between Matthew and Mark in these same 173 verses, with a view to making a contribution to the study of the synoptic problem, specifically the question as to whether Mark or Matthew should be regarded as having literary priority in relation to the other.

So, just to get this off my chest, it is not ‘comprehensive’, it is not a ‘text-critical analysis’ and it doesn’t deal with ‘the synoptic Gospels’.

Perhaps I am out of line here. After all, I wrote a book entitled Christology and the Synoptic Problem: An argument for Markan Priority, because the subject of the book was the use of christological data in the synoptic problem and I constructed an argument for Markan priority. I write articles with titles ranging from ‘On the Christology of the Gospel of Peter’, through ‘Singular Readings in the Early Fragmentary Papyri of John: Some Observations on the Habits of New Testament Copyists’, to ‘The Gospel of Judas and the Qarara Codices: Some Preliminary Observations’. I may veer to the functional extreme, I don’t know. But this title is patently out of line, it is false advertising. Even more shocking that it comes from an evangelical Christian publisher whose primary mission ‘is to develop and distribute—with integrity and excellence—trusted, biblically based resources that lead individuals to know and serve Jesus Christ.’ So where is the ‘integrity’ here? How does this invite ‘trust’? Just not good enough I’m afraid.


  1. Come on Pete, don't hold back. Tell it as you see it.

  2. Most book contracts (at least in the US) give the right to pick the title to the publisher (though I doubt a publisher would go with a title that the author vociferously objects to).

    Perhaps the title of his dissertation is more appropriate: Is Matthew a scribe? An examination of the text-critical argument for the Synoptic Problem

  3. Kregel is the same publisher that made statements that mischaracterized that recent book that Dan Wallace co-wrote about Christian origins, textual criticism, and the Da Vinci Code. Kregel hasn't been dabbling in scholarly books like this for very long, and I have a feeling that their staff is going through some growing pains in learning how to change gears for this material. The kinds of problems they've had in both examples look like the sorts of thing that would result from trying to give these books a broader appeal without being aware that they deal in topics that have already been worked over for a long time in scholarship and that need to use labels that comport with the categories that already exist in the guild.

  4. Peter, I think you're being too harsh and blowing this up as if the book says it's about the 'synoptics' and the contents are really about John's gospel. The most inappropriate title/sub-title in the history of mankind? Wow. At any rate, it seems your personal expectations from the title were not met. I, on the other hand, understood what the title meant after reading the beginning of the book rather throwing my own expectations on it, but maybe that's just me. I believe the title is acceptable for what the book sets out to prove, and how it is proved. I can't tell if you missed that (I assume not if you're writing a review), or if again, you had prior expectations. I'm not denying that titles can never be misleading, but I don't agree that this one misleads to the extent you claim it does. Out of curiosity, what title would you have given it?

  5. I find this post to be rather uncharitable. Before putting his book under such a bad light, did you attempt to contact the author (or even the publisher) to find out why the title ended up this way? That would have been the charitable thing to do rather than using your blog to leave a long post on why the book title is so bad. I would leave such critiques to the content rather than giving bad press to his book over a mere title. If you don't like the title, leave that to a sentence or two, but it seems uncalled for to leave such a reflection on someone's book. Your post reveals more about you and this blog than it does William's book.

  6. Anonymous: thanks for this. You may be right. They often say, don't post when you are annoyed. In any case I couldn't find an email for the author on his college web-site, but I did email the publisher. And note that the blog mostly took issue with the claims to integrity and trustworthiness made by the publisher. In point of fact I haven't said much about the contents of the book here; just my gripe about the title. Probably you are right that it says more about me than about the book. Is that a problem?
    Anyway, my idea was that I could write a more charitable review if I could vent a little about the misleading sub-title. Or would you think that this sub-title could be defended?

  7. Jordan: Of course my comments are hyperbolic. You 'understood what the title meant after reading the beginning of the book'. Fair enough, but the normal idea seems to be that the title ought to give some idea of the contents of the book, not that you need to read the book in order to figure out what the title means (or in this case, what it doesn't mean).
    Anyway, you've read the book. Do you think this sub-title is acceptable? Do you think it reflects integrity?, trustworthiness?

  8. Eric: I am not too familiar with Kregel as a scholarly Christian publisher. And I would have cared less if they hadn't published their mission statement so clearly and then violated it with this title. But if this title comes from them and not from the author, or was forced on the author (as Stephen suggests), then they have done him a major disservice, and potential authors should beware!

  9. Normally I am pretty calm. What is it about this that winds me up so much?

  10. Peter, I do think it should have used another word like detailed, thorough, or extensive. However, I would rather give the benefit of the doubt to the author and get the story before posting something against his book. What if this was an issue with the publisher, and yet instead, you made Williams look bad? Whatever the extent may be, I think your post reflects poorly on his book and I don't believe this is fair. Hyperbolic or not, I don't agree with your actions. But then again, it's not my blog. ;)

  11. Peter, I understand your feelings about the title and subtitle. As Stephen Carlson mentioned in one of the comments, the dissertation title was different. When it was published as a slightly revised version with Kregel, I proposed this title: Two Gospels from One: A Thorough Examination of the Text-Critical Argument for the Synoptic Problem. It was a play off the title of another book on the Synoptic Problem, One Gospel from Two by David Peabody and others. Upon further thought, however, I was not sure if some would understand by this title that I was in part trying to respond to that book. So, I approached Kregel to see if I could use a different title. I was too late in making a change to the title; the title was already decided. I also learned at that time that my proposed subtitle and the subtitle given it by Kregel were quite a bit different. I should add that my book was one of the first books that Kregel took on as they made the move to publish more scholarly works, and I think some of the details fell through the cracks. They have since remedied many of these issues.

  12. Matt:
    Thanks for joining the discussion! Personally I think your proposed sub-tite: "A Thorough Examination of the Text-Critical Argument for the Synoptic Problem" would have been much better than the current sub-title. Why?
    a) It shows that the book is about the Synoptic Problem - that is a big advantage;
    b) It shows that you are going to examine a particular sort of text-critical argument used in discussing the synoptic problem - and not doing a text-critical analysis;
    c) 'thorough' has a somewhat different nuance from 'comprehensive' - I myself wouldn't have used it, but I can see that it is more reasonable.

  13. Matt:
    Sorry, I should also have said thank you for not taking (too much) offence at my blast.

  14. It is interesting to compare Matt's proposed sub-title and the one given by Kregel and do some redaction criticism:
    MW: "A Thorough Examination of the Text-Critical Argument for the Synoptic Problem."
    Kregel: "A Comprehensive Text-Critical Analysis of the Synoptic Gospels."

  15. I'm wondering if there are anyone else who thinks that Matt's argumentation suffers from circular reasoning? NA27/UBS4 was prepared under the concept of Markan priority (so noted by Metzger), so I think it is a bit odd to use text-critical choices prepared with that assumption to "prove" the Markan priority. I'm not against Markan priority but it seems to me that that the outcome is built into the system in such away that there is a methodological flaw in the argumentation. Any comments?

  16. It is true that Markan priority has been noted by Metzger as a factor in editing the text of the Gospels, but I have not yet been able to find any case in which Markan priority was actually crucial to the determination of which reading to select.

    Markan priority may turn out to be a factor but (so far to me) it does not appear to be a very important factor.

  17. Thank you Stephen. I suppose I'm sort of a methodological purist :)

  18. So when's the review supposed to come out in RBL?