Here’s a thought experiment that I’ve been musing on since finishing the draft of my dissertation.
Let’s say you have access to a time machine, and you have one round-trip ticket to any location or time period in the past. If you took this opportunity to try and solve the Synoptic problem (and only a scholar would bother with such a triviality) where would you go, and when?
To simplify the parameters, you can arrive at any time, and come back whenever you like. And let’s also say that you will be able to question anyone you want without worrying about significantly changing history.
Here’s my vote.
I would not send myself. I would find someone a little younger and more charismatic with a talent for picking up languages. Tipping my hat to Philip Jose Farmer, a 25-year-old Richard Francis Burton would be ideal. The more Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic they know before they leave, great, but the ability to learn in the field will be far more useful. Besides, if they beam into
Our intrepid adventurer will need to move freely about the
As for time and place, I should eliminate some choices first. Chasing the authors of the four gospels is the least promising idea. We don’t know where any of the gospels were written – Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem – and if we try to chase the authorship of Mark, we’d not only have to deal with the Jewish revolt (65-73 CE) but face the real possibility of arriving too early or too late by a nose. Our time-traveler could spend years sailing around the Med without finding an author, and if they went too early, without finding a gospel, either.
A better plan, I think, is to look for Mack’s Q1, a passion narrative, or a proto-Mark in the mid-50’s CE. There are three people that our time-traveler should look for – Paul, Peter, and James – and they shouldn’t be too hard to find, assuming they exist.
Going later than the 50’s is problematic. If our time-traveler goes in the 60’s, Paul-Peter-James will be probably unavailable for conversation. Going earlier than the 50’s is also problematic – early Christian writings don’t appear until the 50’s, so our adventurer might undershoot the first compositions.
But why bother with the Synoptic problem, you say? Why not hunt the historical Jesus? Well, that’s even harder. The location is easy enough –
Probably the most limiting factor to the entire enterprise is the technology level of the 1st century. Even with mastery of the local dialects, locating anyone could take a very long time. No newspapers, yellow pages, telephones, emails, or reliable and speedy post (the cursus publicus, instituted by Augustus, was for government use, and only moved 50 miles a day). Paul’s letters would have traveled more slowly through private channels. Sometimes I wonder if early Christianity, or at least Paul’s version of it, benefited from converting someone who owned a reliable ocean-going vessel.