Table of Contents of Latest Issue
Index of All Issues
Index of Book Reviews
Instructions for Contributors
Subscribe to
Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 54, 2006

HYEON WOO SHIN, Textual Criticism and the Synoptic Problem in Historical Jesus Research: The Search for Valid Criteria (Leuven: Peeters, 2004). Pp. xviii+412. €35.00.

The origins of this work, by Korean scholar Hyeon Woo Shin, lie in a Ph.D. dissertation submitted to the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam (awarded in 2003). The aim of the work is a complex and ambitious one in that it seeks to achieve “a degree of methodological unification in textual criticism, source criticism, and historical criticism” (p. 319). Whilst the ambition of the work is to some extent realised—in that a unified (if not unifying) set of criteria are indeed offered and, furthermore, helpfully applied to a test case (Matt 12:1–8)—the rather more global object is frustrated by the complexities of the multiple areas of study traversed and the varieties of views and positions held and espoused in each—a situation that defies the quest for a unifying criteria in any one area of study, let alone three.

The work begins by claiming a breakdown and collapse of method in relation to the study of textual criticism, of the Synoptic problem, and the quest for the historical Jesus, and then sets out the goal of overcoming dogmatism and a lack of methodology in relation to each of these through the proposal of a set of universal criteria. The introduction meets with some immediate concern in that the grounds for claiming a “collapse of method” (the quote is attributed to K. R. Snodgrass) are relatively thin—is it not more a case of a multiplicity of approaches, presuppositions, and scholars, producing a multiplicity of conclusions? Shin himself concedes that scholars may never agree on criteria for a solution to the Synoptic problem, and it would seem that establishing the historicity, or otherwise, of the Jesus story would fall into the same category. If this is the case, then the raison d’être for the whole study becomes problematic. The author does recognise and address this to some extent (well into the work), asserting that good criteria are needed even where “we cannot agree or know for certain” in order to “lesson the degree of subjectivity and to increase the probability of truth in the results” (p. 136). Whilst the first part of this goal is certainly realised, in that the criteria established by Shin are well defined and shown to be valid, what is far less certain is that these criteria will attain anything approaching widespread adoption and then result in a diminishment of subjectivity and an increase in the possibility of recovering ‘truth.’

The most interesting and innovative aspect of this treatise is not so much the criteria themselves, but the attempt to develop a methodology that traverses each of the disciplines of textual, source and tradition criticism. A further impressive outcome of this is the manner in which Shin demonstrates how the results in one area of study relate to another. This is achieved through a helpful discussion of the way in which the quest for priority constitutes a fundamental similarity, in that each of the three disciplines are concerned to distinguish original or prior tradition from later developments. Hence, the ‘originators’ of biblical tradition are taken to be the original writer, the prior Gospel, and the historical Jesus, and the transmitters of this tradition are, respectively, scribes and copyists, the Synoptic evangelists, and the early church. This is the burden of the main body of the work, in which the author both defines and refines a global set of criteria for reclaiming originality in regards to the text, priority in regards to the Synoptic Gospels, and authenticity in regards to the historical Jesus. The manner in which the three fields of study interrelate is then demonstrated by applying these global criteria to the ‘test case’ of Matt 12:1–8.

The results of the ‘test case’ are important, for they illuminate both the success and limitation of the thesis. The global criteria are, properly, first applied to the textual criticism of Matt 12:1–8 (and parallels) so as to establish the original reading. This is the area of study in which Shin seems most at home and most competent, as the extensive and well-structured appendices testify. The conclusion reached is that the original text is only slightly different to that given by NA27. Next, the Synoptic problem is tackled with a conclusion affirming the long held theory of Markan priority. Finally, the historical question is addressed, resulting in the assertion that the episode recorded by Matt 12:1–8 “probably occurred in the life of Jesus,” although the Markan redaction stands closer to the historical Jesus (pp. 311–16). As is immediately apparent, these are quite acceptable results, but hardly ground breaking in the sense that they do not advance the study of the Gospels beyond the ‘maybes’ and ‘probabilities’ of so many similar studies and methodologies. Furthermore, Shin is (rightly) strenuous in pointing out that the results of the ‘test case’ can apply only to the text under examination and cannot be assumed to be representative of anything more than this. The criteria must be applied pericope by pericope.

Overall, this is a well-written and well-constructed work. The bibliography shows evidence of extensive reading across the several disciplines engaged by the study. At the centre of the book stand the set of criteria offered as a methodology applicable to the multiple quests for originality of the text, priority of source in the Synoptic tradition, and authenticity in regards to the historical Jesus. The criteria are certainly valid, if complex. In this sense, the goal of the thesis (“the search for valid criteria”) is realised. What probably will not be realised is the further ambition for a unifying and universal methodology.

Review by
Bradly S. Billings
P.O. Box 325
Gisborne VIC 3437, Australia