Friday, July 1, 2011

Synoptic Demoniacs

If Wednesday hadn’t been a solemnity, the gospel would have been Matthew 8:28-34. In that passage, Matthew recounts how Jesus, coming into the region of the Gadarenes, cast the demons from two possessed men into a herd of swine, which then destroyed itself by running down a hill and into a lake.

Wait a second! Two demoniacs? I’ve commented before on the parallel passage from Mark 5:1-20. In Mark’s account, there was only one demoniac.

The skeptic would be quick to pick up on this and crow, “Aha! Your gospels contradict each other! How can they possibly be considered reliable? Any religion based on such flimsy texts must be false!”

Well, not necessarily. If you’ll indulge me, I’m about to engage in some wild hypotheticals. I make no claim that any of what follows has any firm basis in anything other than my monkey brain.

First, we don’t know for certain how the individual gospels are related in terms of chronology or dependence. The most popular school of thought seems to be that, of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Mark was written first and all three borrowed from a mysterious source document known as Q. I’m very skeptical of this, since there doesn’t appear to be any external evidence for the existence of Q. There is a traditional position, which was held by the early Church fathers, that Matthew was the first gospel written, and there are modern scholars who defend Matthew’s priority.

Let’s assume for the moment that Matthew was written first, and that Mark (or Peter, if you believe that Mark was putting quill to paper on Peter’s behalf) had a chance to read it. On reading the tale of the Gadarene demoniacs, he might have said to himself, “Ah yes, I remember that incident, but Matthew left out the most important part! One of those chaps came back and wanted to go with Jesus, but Jesus wanted him to stay behind and share his story. I’ve got to write that down, but if I include both demoniacs, that will just blur the point that I’m trying to make. Therefore, I’m only going to mention the one that I want to focus on.”

Mark doesn’t say in his gospel that there was only one demoniac. He just says that there was this guy who had a really bad case of demonic possession. The difference between Matthew and Mark is a difference of emphasis, with Mark adding details that Matthew lacks in order to highlight the situation of the one possessed man upon whom he wishes to focus.

This makes sense if Matthew wrote his gospel first. If Mark was first, then part of the explanation can still be used, but you would have to assume that the gospels were written independently of one another.

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