or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Whole Truth

It happens from time to time; pretty often, in fact. There I am, innocently reading something or other, when all of a sudden a word just comes along and bludgeons me on the back of the head. "Notice me!" it screams. "You never have before!" And what choice do I have but to obey?

Today I was reading the comments section to a frankly rather fatuous interview with an author who, though he claims not to believe in any particular god--he has, after all, written a book called "The Religious Case Against Belief"--nevertheless holds atheists in very low esteem, averring, among other things, that "To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe," which is nonsense.

In one of the comments is the following sentence:

There is nothing in the synoptic gospels of Jesus, however, to suggest a fundamental break with Judaism.

"Synoptic". How can it be that, although I've seen that word a hundred times, I've never really thought about it before?

If you break it apart into its constituents, you can hazard a guess as to its meaning. It must be Greek, of course. "Syn-" occurs in quite a few English words, and it means "together", as in "synchronize", "to cause to occur together in time", or "synthetic", "put together". "Optic" means, well, "optic"; it has to do with vision. A synoptic gospel, therefore, might likely mean a number of individual writings or sources that are similar or related--that is, to be viewed together.

And that is just what it means. However, just so you know I'm not pretending to be smarter than I am, I would like to point out that, although it should be blindingly obvious, it did not occur to me that "synoptic" is also the adjectival form of "synopsis". A synopsis is an overview, many things compressed together so that they can be seen in a smaller compass.


Blogger D.J. said...

Isaac Asimov, in his very fine _Guide to the Bible_, claimed that the first three Gospels were called "synoptic" not because they were to be viewed together, but because they presented essentially the same viewpoint, i.e. "seen with the same eye." This handy term covers the first three Gospels, which have the occasional miracle but are recognizably grounded in reality, in contradistinction to John's "the Word was with God, and the Word was God" mysticism.

Meanwhile, according to a webpage of someone who thinks _IAGttB_ was "a genteel commentary to knock belief in the Bible" and therefore does not excel in reading comprehension, a couple of Bible dictionaries give your definition ("to see the whole together"). Asimov's derivation frankly makes more sense to me. If "synoptic" drew a handy one-word distinction between the canonical books of the Bible and the Apocrypha, then it might make sense, but why leave out John from the Gospels that are to be viewed together? If the term is being used in the sense of "gestalt," why apply that to some Gospels and not others?

I dunno. I'm an amateur Biblical scholar at best, and etymology can be a perilous thicket itself. I guess what I'm really trying to say here is "Thanks for the tip about Left Behind Fridays!"

Tuesday, July 22, 2008 8:59:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

Dictionary.com agrees with you: "seen with the same eye" is the sense of "synoptic" when referring to the gospel. On re-reading what I wrote, I see that I was unclear; I said that the gospels were "similar or related", and when I said they were "to be viewed together", I was (very vaguely and therefore confusingly) alluding to the fact that if you read them concurrently, you can see that they're all versions of the same story: read them all, and then compare and contrast them. This is why I need an editor.

Etymology really is a perilous thicket!

I'm even more of an amateur biblical scholar than you, but I suppose this is where I ought to point out that there are considerable discrepancies between the various accounts of Jesus' life in the three gospels (not mentioning the rogue gospelist John) which are not easily explained away, despite battalions of men having spilled oceans of ink over the centuries attempting to reconcile these problems and therefore demonstrate the inerrancy of the Bible.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008 4:02:00 AM  

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