On the one hand this is quite beneficial, but it has also proved a gold mine for critics looking to destroy the claim of Biblical inerrancy or reliabilitt, for there are many who hold that the differences in reporting the same events in the Gospels should be classed as contradictions, and further, even apart from inerrancy issues, that these render the accounts unreliable and point to ahistoricity.
Robin Lane Fox, in his book The Unauthorized Version, has written:
Harmony is a misguided method: if we want the truth, we have to choose one of the three or none.
However, nothing could be more incorrect. Harmony is an essential part of any attempt to find the truth where we have conflicting yet similar accounts. Skeptics, of course, view harmony as something illicit when applied to the Gospels or the OT. Jim Meritt, for example, describes harmonization procedures thusly:
"There was more there than...." This is used when one verse says "there was a" and another says "there was b", so they decide there was "a" AND "b" -which is said nowhere. This makes them happy, since it doesn't say there WASN'T "a+b". But it doesn't say there was "a+b+litle green martians". This is often the same crowd that insists theirs is the ONLY possible interpretation (i.e. only "a") and the only way. I find it entertaining they they (sic) don't mind adding to verses.
In the same vein, Dan Barker writes:
Some apologists assert that since the writer of John does not say that there were not more women who visited the tomb with Mary, then it is wrong to accuse him of contradicting the other evangelists who say it was a group of women. But this is a non-argument. With this kind of thinking, I could claim that the people who accompanied Mary to the tomb included Mother Teresa, Elvis Presley, and Paul Bunyan. Since the writer of John does not specifically clude these people, then there is no way to prove that this is not true--if such fragile logic is valid.
Obviously, we cannot get overly creative when resolving seemingly contradictory accounts. When invoking speculative factors - which indeed, ultimately and by nature, are arguments from silence - only reasonable speculations that fit in with the characters, setting, the known facts of the situation, and human nature, can be used. "Litle (sic) green martians" or "Mother Teresa" etc. would indeed by ludicrous - but people who might have truly been there would not be unreasonable.
Glenn Miller has answered these objections succinctly in his own unique way:
For some reason, these arguments don't ever seem to be satisfied. If we have N witnesses to an event, they want "N+1"...And if EVERY SINGLE WRITER talks about the event in EXACT detail, they are accused of "collusion" and "conspiracy". And if EVERY SINGLE WRITER talks about the event, but uses different vocab, style, levels of precison, of selection of details, THEN the antagonists complain about 'contradictions' and 'disagreements'! What's a mother to do?!!!! (I am always amused at these 'argument from silence' literary positions and the ability to spoof it... ("Since Jesus never spoke his own name in the Gospels, he must not have known it!").
The purpose of this series of essays is to give the reader insight into various factors that come into play when arguing for harmonization. To begin, the reader should consult there more detailed analyses of the "whys" behind differences in the Gospels.
- On the healing of the demoniac -- and Jericho
- Terms and Conditions -- considering more the special focus of each Gospel writer
- Culture Wars -- considering cultural reasons for differences, with focus on the faithful centurion's account
- Oral Arguments II -- considering the effect of oral tradition on the Gospel narratives
- John for Readers of Mark -- excursus explaining the thesis that John was intended to be able to complement Mark, and thus giving reason for John's difference from the Synoptics
- Arrangement or Derangement? -- some minor points about ancient editorial freedom
- Precisely the Opposite -- on precision in details in the Eastern mind
- Crimes by Omission? -- on the subject of whether "spectacular omissions" equate with ahistoricity
- Essenes in Harmony -- a look at an example of harmonization/historical detective work concerning a non-Biblical, but Bible-related, subject
- The Jesus Seminar and the Social Sciences -- a summation of a critique of some of the Seminar's assumptions by William Herzog, author of Jesus, Justice and the Reign of God
- Here's Eye in Your Eye -- a little kick for those who think we can't understand history as the ancients did
At the conclusion of this series, we will provide a harmony of the resurrection accounts -- one of the major Skeptical targets for derision -- using the principles learned in this series.
While we are discussing harmonization, there are also a number of other, unrelated presuppositions we can discuss having to do with the way certain critics approach the Gospels as history. These presuppositions are the sort offered by the Jesus Seminar in their "reconstructions" of the Historical Jesus, and may be found utilized in their work date, The Fifth Gospel.
Below is a listing of some of the principles used by skeptics generally, along with suppositions used by the Seminar.
- General Assumption #1. If it is only mentioned in one Gospel, it is doubtful that it happened.
This is nothing more than an argument from silence at its core. Of course, the corollary and logical next steps would be that if it is mentioned in 2 Gospels, it may have happened; 3, it probably did happen, and if it is in all four, it definitely happened; so that would mean that the Resurrection definitely happened.
But of course, critics never take these next steps.
- General Assumption #2: If it reflects the needs, likely questions, or problems of the early church, it is doubtful that
it was said or done by Jesus. Instead, the words and deeds were written back into the Gospel records.
In the words of the Seminar: "Sayings and parables expressed in 'Christian' language are the creation of the evangelists or their Christian predecessors...The Christian community developed apologetics statements to defend its claims and sometimes attributed such statements to Jesus." (pp. 24-5) This is a major principle of form criticism of the sort used by the Jesus Seminar.
To use a simplified but pedantic example, the process functions rather like this: Let us say that Jesus had been quoted as saying, "Do not eat donuts on the Sabbath." Higher critics like the Seminar will regard it as far too simple to suppose that Jesus actually said these words. Rather, it is to be supposed that at some point in the history of the apostolic church, a controversy arose when members ate donuts on the Sabbath.
It is not required by such criticism that there exist some evidence (such as Paul discussing the hazards of donut-eating) that there was actually such a controversy over donut-eating in the church. Instead, the mere attribution of such a saying to Jesus is enough to make a case.
While the above is, of course, a sort of parody, it does reflect the sort of gullibility that is assumed to have been in the early church. Attempts have been made to downplay the "dishonesty" of the Gospel writers so implied, by authors such as Burton L. Mack, who indicates that it was a literary convention of the time to attribute statements falsely to people; but it was not considered dishonest as long as the statements were in keeping within a person's character.
Of course, this does nothing more than change what the Gospel writers were supposed to be lying about: If they attributed statements to Jesus that were not within Jesus' character, then they lied about His character. Nor is there any evidence that this practice that Mack cites was used without qualification, or used in the case of the Gospels; he and others merely assume that it was, by virtue of the assumption that such practice existed and was presumably widespread.
The Seminar, of course, assumes that Jesus was not trying to found a movement and did not claim to be divine; hence such statements by Jesus are fabricated.
- General Assumption #3: If it reflects something that was already being taught in Judaism or some other philosophy
at the time, it is doubtful that it was said or done by Jesus.
The Seminar puts it this way: "Words borrowed from the fund of common lore or the Greek scriptures are often put on the lips of Jesus." (p. 23)
This is rather a stringent demand to place upon any literary work. To their credit, the Seminar does not ALWAYS say that such quotes are invented; they admit that at times Jesus may have used common lore and proverbs when speaking. Actually, that Jesus did use common lore and such should be taken as authenticating the Gospel records, because as scholars of the social sciences note, a teacher of that era would be expected to re-iterate the best wisdom of his age.
- General Assumption #4: If it has a miraculous element, it didn't happen.
The Seminar says: "Sayings and narratives that reflect knowledge of events that took place after Jesus' death are the creation of the evangelists or the oral tradition before them." (p. 25)
This is mentioned for the sake of completeness. Obviously, it will not be addressed here, and properly belongs in another discussion; but we will attempt something of a parallel to it later on. We should also note that to support this standard, the Seminar dates all of the Gospels (except maybe Mark) as late as 80-95 AD, a position which is quite arguable.
- General Assumption #5: The Gospel writers added to or expanded upon Jesus' sayings with their own
interpretations or comments, or attributed their own statements and/or stories to the Gospels.
This is easy to assume, but difficult to prove. The Jesus Seminar creates a variety of scenarios to explain how certain parts of the Gospels have been thusly altered, generally using elements of Assumptions 2 and 3.
- General Assumption #6: Many saying of Jesus are invented for the occasion. (p. 30)
The Seminar applies this mainly to non-teaching words of Jesus. For example, where Jesus exorcises a demon and says, "Come out of him!" this is regarded as just being storytellers' license to fit the situation. This is really rather petty - and may we ask what one does say to a demon one is trying to expel?
It is also said that such sayings could not have been transmitted orally, in the context of a larger story, so they cannot be relied upon - ignoring the possibility that the story itself may have bee transmitted in writing, or that oral tradition can indeed be reliable to the required extent.
- General Assumption #7: Only sayings and actions that fit a specified portrait of Jesus are authentic.
The Seminar has a host of criteria in this regard which we will not recount here. However, it is noteworthy that one admonition to their members is to beware of finding a Jesus that is congenial to them - is this not what they are doing when they set arbitrary criteria beforehand?
For the moment we will set aside these seven suppositions, and return purely to the principle of harmony. It is best proved by application; and to that end, we present two examples.
Harmony #1: News Event
To better illustrate how harmony can be helpful - and is indeed legitimate - let's consider a set of articles from two leading and trusted news magazines, Time and Newsweek. Below are excerpts from three stories from each magazine of the date September 30, 1996. The topics are:
- The investigation into the crash of TWA Flight 800;
- Possible poison gas effects on Gulf War veterans; and,
- The discovery of a North Korean sub off of a South Korean beach.
I am aware that I will be accused of misquoting, quoting out of context, etc. to prove my point. To those who say so: Find my sources and check them yourself. Then challenge me to debate the issue on TheologyWeb, my forum for debate.
TIME (P. 32): "A THEORY GONE TO THE DOGS"
"On Thursday investigators learned that on June 10 St. Louis airport police had used the plane as a testing facility for a bomb-sniffing dog, and that the tiny amount of chemicals used to test the dog could be the source of the residue found on the plane parts."
NEWSWEEK (P. 34): "GOING BACK TO SQUARE ONE"
"...senior officials at the Department of Justice admitted last week that the plane known as TWA Flight 800 had been used to train bomb-sniffing dogs only five weeks before its mysterious destruction July on July 17. That suggests an innocent explanation for the presence of RDX and PETN...in the wreckage of the doomed plane."
So let's become a critic and pick these apart.
Was there just one dog (Time) or more than one (Newsweek)?
Was it "investigators who learned" or "officials who admitted"?
How could the date of the test been June 10 when five weeks before July 17 was June 12?
Why are no chemicals named in Time where they are named in Newsweek?
Why isn't St. Louis mentioned in Newsweek?
It this seems pedantic, know that these are just like "errors" that Bible critics like to point to - such as the "women at the tomb" issue and the story of the healing of the blind men outside Jericho. As Matthew says "two blind men" where Luke and Mark say "a blind man," it is not said in the latter that there was ONLY one. Likewise, Time's story COULD be read to indicate just one dog, but not necessarily.
TIME (P. 42): "THE GULF WAR POISONS SEEP OUT"
"For five long years, the Pentagon steadfastly insisted there was no evidence that U.S. soldiers were exposed to poison gas during the Gulf War..."
"(Symptoms) includes chronic fatigue, joint ailments, rashes and memory loss."
NEWSWEEK (P.38): "A MYSTERIOUS MALADY"
"Is Gulf War syndrome a single illness? If so, what causes it, and how many veterans are afflicted? Government agencies have spent five years and $80 million pursuing those questions."
"(Symptoms) include joint pain, tremors, fatigue, memory loss, and intermittent diarrhea..."
Here's one for the government conspiracy theorists:
Was the government denying the problem, or pursuing a solution? Obviously, it was doing both simultaneously, as we know. But a historian digging up copies of these magazines 2000 years from now might think that there was an error in the texts.
And then there's the lists of symptoms - contradictory or complimentary? The latter, definitely; but in each case, the writers of the article just put down what they thought was most important - just as the Gospel writers sometimes did.
TIME (P.44): "THE SPIES FROM THE SEA"
"..one night last week, a South Korean taxi driver spotted something like a whale wallowing in the surf."
NEWSWEEK (P. 40): "REDS ON THE ROCKS"
"Just after midnight last Wednesday, a taxi chugging along the Kangnung highway on the east coast of South Korea threw its headlights briefly on a group of young men sitting by the roadside..."
"(After dropping off a passenger and returning to the site, the driver said he saw) 'something that looked like a dolphin or a submarine' and called police."
Note how quickly Time deals with this matter, whereas Newsweek delves into some intricate details - just as Mark gives short shrift to some stories that Matthew and Luke expand upon greatly.
Note, too, this difference: Was what the driver saw like a whale, or like a dolphin, or like a submarine? Could the persons translating what the Korean taxi driver said have misunderstood or given their own interpretation to their respective reporters?
If Skeptics accord these magazines the same treatment as they do the Bible, then to be consistent they must also say that these magazines are untrustworthy. But isn't it more charitable to assume that we have misunderstood something, and look for the solutions to the alleged problems?
Thus a simple example of how these principles may be discovered. But for a much larger illustration, we now turn to:
HARMONY #2 - THE QUEST FOR THE HISTORICAL LINCOLN
For this comparison, four biographies of Abraham Lincoln were chosen at random from the shelves of the public library, the only criteria being that they were:
- Of equitable size to one another;
- Focusing on Abraham Lincoln as their primary biographical subject - thus, for example, a dual biography of Lincoln and his wife was rejected.
Through this comparison, we will:
- Demonstrate that the alleged discrepancies and differences in the Gospels are no more problematic than the differences that may be found in any comparison of biographies; and,
- Use the seven presuppositions mentioned above to deduce what the "Historical Abraham Lincoln" was "really like." Thus, we will demonstrate the truly arbitrary nature of the presuppositions.
Our comparison will take place in a fictional world of the future, where a historian of centuries hence will compare these Linvoln biographies as the only recorded remains of the life of Lincoln. This is a long presentation -- because we found so many examples for illustration that "overkill" seemed like a good idea.