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Two soldiers, one badly wounded, being comforted on the battlefield by a vision of Christ. Oil painting by G. Hillyard Swinstead (1915)
The Politics of Scripture

Looking for White in the Synoptic Problem

As a White interpreter who has been examining the phenomenon of whiteness in biblical interpretation, both popular and academic, for nearly a decade now, I want to know just what whiteness looks like.

Ekaputra Tupamahu begins, “I see whiteness everywhere.” Even groceries are white; that is, anything that is new to white people is labeled as “ethnic.” Quoting Sara Ahmed, he notes that we White people cannot see whiteness because we inhabit it. People who do not inhabit whiteness see it everywhere.

I affirm Tupamahu’s outlook. But I remain frustrated. As a White interpreter who has been examining the phenomenon of whiteness in biblical interpretation, both popular and academic, for nearly a decade now, I want to know just what whiteness looks like. 

As Tupamahu and others characterize whiteness, it functions as privilege: doctoral programs require us to read French and German, but rarely would a non-White language qualify. Whiteness functions as exclusion: a White reviewer rules out contemporary experiences of race and ethnicity from the domain of biblical scholarship. Whiteness functions as a sort of willful cluelessness, characterized by Sharon Jacob as “white incredulity”: in part this cluelessness entails absolute ignorance that our assumptions about what counts as public biblical interpretation might be less than obvious. In short, whiteness is colorless. 

So whiteness exists as privilege, exclusion, and ignorance. But there is a further question for which I have yet to find satisfactory answers: what generative work does whiteness do in the process of interpretation?

Tupamahu advances a case study, the Synoptic Problem, as an example of whiteness in action. This is the essential move: identifying whiteness as a generative factor, rather than simply a prohibitive one. The idea, he says, “is a retrojection of whiteness into biblical texts.” I’d like to examine that claim, partially confirm Tupamahu’s insight (as if he requires my help), and raise a question concerning the whiteness of the Synoptic Problem and of global Christianity.

My own context informs my reaction to Tupamahu’s claim. I teach in a historically White theological seminary that has committed itself to racial equity. The commitment began with a commitment to diversity, but the seminary has learned, as have many among us, that diversity does not eliminate injustice. Equity is a different matter. Today, about one-third of our students are non-White, most of whom are Black. 

Like many instructors, I lean heavily on the Synoptic Problem. My own teachers used it to defamiliarize students from their conservative roots, but I rely on it to help students appreciate that each of the Gospels has its own way of presenting Jesus. I see it as a resource, not a weapon. In helping students process the question, I invite students to imagine each Gospel as a friend who brings unique value to their lives. This pedagogy does not evade ethical and theological problems in the Gospels, but rather explicitly names the value of diversity. 

Tupamahu identifies the “problem” with whiteness, pointing to B. H. Streeter’s classic analogy concerning copyright. Writing in 1924 as an Oxford Don, Streeter is about as White as they come. His cultural assumptions concerning property rights place him squarely in the place of a privileged White man living at the heart of empire. Streeter explains that modern readers forget how the invention of printing forever changed our relationship to texts. Lacking the concept of copyright, ancient readers and writers handled texts with far greater flexibility than we would today. 

On this basis, Tupamahu presents the Synoptic Problem as a “White” problem, rooted in our commitment to private property, even intellectual property. With this insight we might imagine White people dividing the globe into spheres of White ownership and B. H. Streeter residing proudly in the intellectual capitol of the dominion on which the sun never sets.

The copyright problem strikes home. Years ago, one of our students, a Black citizen of the former British Empire, came up after class and walked away with my teaching notes. I was flummoxed. I explained to the student that I was uncomfortable with my notes going public. He replied that in his home culture learning is for everyone. 

Point taken.

Moreover, one dirty secret in US theological education is that Black and brown students are far more likely to run afoul of institutional plagiarism standards than are their White peers. I’ve often been told this in part derives from non-White cultural contexts in which wisdom is shared and where people learn through imitation. In my own institution this experience evokes deep pain. Whiteness.

For these reasons it makes sense to me that whiteness, embodied via copyright as the capitalization of personal intellectual property, underlies Streeter’s analogy. At the same time, I read Streeter very differently than does Tupamahu, and in ways that deeply complicate the Synoptic Problem as a “White problem.”

Streeter is not upholding the copyright model. He is using his own cultural assumptions in order to educate his readers in a sort of cross-cultural sensitivity. Copyright did not apply in the ancient world as it does in Western print cultures. Streeter is hoping to minimize the potential “problem” of the Synoptic Problem for White readers, not to exacerbate it. 

This White author has personally experienced the Synoptic Problem as my own problem. A high school convert who did not grow up in church, I did what I was told and began reading the Bible all the way through. Once I arrived at the Gospel of Mark, I encountered stories I’d already seen in Matthew. I mused: “I remember this, but wasn’t it different the last time?”

Being a product of American culture, I perceived diverse accounts of a single story as a potential problem. But I lacked the resources to track it down. On a college visit, however, I attended a class in which the (White) professor used a color-coded flip chart to introduce the Synoptic Problem. Everything he said made intuitive sense because I had already read the Gospels: there must be a literary relationship among these stories. Of course!

And that was a problem. It undermined my assumption—is this a White assumption or not?—that the Gospels provided straightforward access to Jesus’s words and deeds. This was a crucial early step in my journey toward critical theology. I’ve written about it.

But is it a White problem? I think that’s complicated. I can easily imagine cultures in which multiple, sometimes conflicting, accounts would pose little or no problem. But in my classes Black students struggle with the Synoptic Problem and its implications just as deeply as White students do. So do my international students, all of them from non-White cultures. And so do most students at the few theological schools I’ve visited in other global contexts.

In the end, I wonder whether the “problem” of the Synoptic Problem is nearly universal or whether it’s a problem White Christianity has imposed on the rest of the world through its missionary activity. During a visit to denominational offices in Thailand, I asked a church official, “what is distinctive about Thai Christianity?” The man, who earned a Ph.D. at a highly ranked American university, replied, “why should we be distinctive? We are all one in Christ.” My limited experience suggested his was the mainstream view in his own church. It is not mine to judge it but rather to remain curious.

We have ample evidence that some early Christians—do we consider them White?—perceived the diversity among the Gospels as a potential problem. Today I see mostly White male faces in the Synoptic Gospels Section at Society of Biblical Literature meetings, so maybe the Synoptic puzzle poses an interesting problem primarily to White scholars. It appears many non-White scholars find other questions more pressing—or perhaps they have gravitated toward spaces in which they can flourish. 

Outside those contexts, I see whiteness pretty much everywhere when it comes to reading the Bible. Occasionally I see it clearly, as when interpreters individualize Paul’s address to communities (plural) or appeal to early Christianity’s “universalism” as opposed to (1) the (2) ethnic (3) particularities (4) embedded (5) in (6) its (7) texts. More often it remains pale and opaque.

The Stubborn Invisibility of Whiteness in Biblical Scholarship

Because whiteness lies at the center of biblical studies, the accepted way of doing biblical scholarship is one that engages white questions, white concerns. The system forces scholars of color, especially those who receive their doctoral trainings in the western educational system, to be familiar with white scholarship.

Occupying Whiteness: A Reflection in 2020

Biblical scholars could yield profound insights into the deep and dangerous ways the Bible has been employed in the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny. They might also have to reckon with the role of biblical scholarship in justifying imperialism.

Invoking Paul’s μὴ γένοιτο and Sofia’s “Hell No” Against the Stubborn Whiteness of Biblical Scholarship

First, we must all remember our history and stop the blatant amnesia behind racial and power dynamics in our field…Women and enslaved persons were not a part of the founders’ initial understanding. The same is true for the founding identities of the Society of Biblical Literature.

Banishing Baur: The Antisemitic Origins of White Supremacy in Biblical Studies

What worries me…is the fact that Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism forms the historical and theological ectoplasm out of which the invisible specter of whiteness emerges.

Looking for White in the Synoptic Problem

As a White interpreter who has been examining the phenomenon of whiteness in biblical interpretation, both popular and academic, for nearly a decade now, I want to know just what whiteness looks like.

One thought on “Looking for White in the Synoptic Problem

  1. What does it say about the early church that the compilers of the canon (who surely were perceptive enough to detect the “problem” of different versions of the Jesus story) “created” the synoptic problem by binding the volumes together with no attempt to address it?

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