A friend of mine pointed me to this entry over at Michael Spencer’s blog, The Internet Monk. It’s a decent post actually, and I recommend giving it a read. The point that my friend was intrigued by was the exhortation that as we read and interpret the Gospels, “Don’t harmonize the Gospels.”
Don’t harmonise them? Why not? Michael’s reason is fine. He says:
Don’t harmonize the Gospels. That’s like taking four paintings and combining them into one. You come up with something no one painted and no one intended to paint. Let each Gospel author be an artist in his own right. However, a Gospel synopsis, such as those available from UBS, are very useful and important in comparing Gospel texts to one another WITHOUT harmonizing them.
It has long been thought, and rightly so, that each of the four Gospel writers portrayed Jesus differently, and intentionally so. They emphasised a different side of his character, or a different focus of his mission, or a specific angle on his status (e.g. Luke has a clear emphasis on concern for the poor and eschatological reversal of fortunes, and John went out of his way to emphasis the divinity of Christ).
Simply as a matter of respecting what the writers were trying to convey, you should refrain from trying to map one Gospel onto another, blending them to get one picture rather than multiple pictures. But there’s another reason too. This is a subject I’ve been considering broaching for some time, and this question has given me a good platform to do so. Here goes:
The other reason that you shouldn’t harmonize the Gospels is that to do so presupposes a very strong doctrine of inerrancy, and that doctrine is false.
There. I said it. I’m not an inerrantist. Now having said it, let me put it another way: Either the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is false, or once it has been qualified so many times that it becomes acceptable, it also becomes virtually useless. So what is the doctrine of biblical inerrancy? It was most formally stated in “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” and you can read the full text of that statement HERE. Of particular relevance are the following claims:
“WE AFFIRM that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write.”
“WE AFFIRM that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.
WE AFFIRM that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.
WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.
WE AFFIRM that the doctrine of inerrancy has been integral to the Church’s faith throughout its history.
At this point some of my more conservative readers may be getting nervous. Good, because chances are you need to be made a little uncomfortable about this. It’s unfortunate that some proponents of inerrancy have portrayed the debate in a highly misleading way. Without naming names, some proponents of inerrancy have come right out and said that unless you affirm inerrancy, you don’t believe that the Bible is reliable. This is simply untrue, and is either the product of muddled thinking or partisan point scoring to warn people from peering over the walls of the inerrancy camp to see what’s outside.
If the texts of the Bible contain not a single error, then two biblical accounts of the same event will agree. They need not cover all the same aspects of the event, but they will agree in the sense that there will not be any conflict between them. Otherwise there is an error present, since two accounts of an event that conflict cannot both be fully correct. However, we know that this is not the case when it comes to the four Gospels. There are some cases where this is fairly obvious. For example, to choose a fairly trivial example, all four Gospels contain sentences attributed to Jesus, but they differ from one Gospel to the next. They convey a similar idea, granted, but they disagree as to the thrust and wording, and at times (and perhaps more importantly), meaning. As such they are incorrect as quotes. Other examples are popular fodder for sceptics who assume that all Christians believe in inerrancy and who think that they can shatter the faith by pointing them out. For example, Matthew 28:1 tells us that the people who went to visit the tomb of Jesus on Sunday morning and who discovered that Jesus was gone were Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. Mark 16:1 says that the group consisted of these two women as well as Salome. Luke 24:10 gives “Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them” as the list of women who saw this and relayed it to the other disciples. According to John 20:1-2, the only woman involved was Mary Magdalene, who ran and fetched Peter and John to have a look. Granted, none of this presents a contradiction in the sense that one said Peter was there and another explicitly denied that Peter was there, but reading all four accounts, could you tell who was there and who was not? Stated another way: If you were going to write a harmony of the Gospels, who would you include in that early morning trip to the tomb?
Another type of difference between different Gospels is the way that different events are said to have occurred in a different order. A well known example is the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem. In the Synoptic Gospels this event occurs after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, fairly late in the narrative. In John’s Gospel however, this event occurs in chapter 2, before much else has happened.
It might be tempting to appeal to the widely accepted claim among inerrantists that inerrancy is compatible with each biblical author having his own individual style. Perhaps it is, but this is not a matter of style, but a matter of content and fact. Either one thing occurred before another or it did not. Conservative biblical scholars have long agreed that each Gospel writer deliberately changed and presented his material to present Jesus in a certain way, moulding it to deliver a message intended by the writer. This means that at least one version contains claims that are not exactly historically correct. Perhaps you want to qualify the idea of inerrancy still further, then. Maybe you want to rescue it by saying that inerrancy is not only compatible with individual writers using their own style, but it is also compatible with the fact that writers are doing no more than adhering to standards of accuracy that were acceptable in their day, and that is why there are no problems with the existence of conflicting accounts, because the fact is, standards of the day just weren’t very high. But this is inerrancy in name only, and it creates a hilarious spectacle for the sceptics to pour scorn upon. It’s like saying “this book contains no spelling errors because it was inspired by God, and when I say NO spelling errors, I mean that there are actually a few here and there, because where I come from people don’t spell too well.” If that’s what we mean by inerrancy, then what’s the difference between inerrancy and errancy? If we qualify inerrancy this much to save it, it becomes a useless idea altogether.
On other occasions, sceptics raise the claim that the Bible envisages a flat earth. I have no time for ignorant myths about medieval Christians believing that the earth was flat. We know that they believed no such thing. But the scientific knowledge of those who wrote the Old Testament was simply very limited, and as such, they wrote things that presuppose beliefs about the universe that are not true. For example, today we use the phrase “ends of the earth” as a figure of speech in English largely because it was used in the Old Testament as a literal description. For example we read in Daniel 4:11, “The tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth.”
I know, I have used very few examples. I know, I have not offered a detailed or robust case against inerrancy. That would take more time. I know, I haven’t considered the responses that could be made to my denial of inerrancy. My primary point here is not to convince you to reject inerrancy. You can rush off and talk about how bad Glenn’s case against inerrancy is, but that would be to miss the point, and to pick a very scant few comments that I have made, rather than Glenn’s “case” against inerrancy. This is not a case against inerrancy, it is an acknowledgement that I do not believe in inerrancy, and what follows are (again, just a few) comments on why I think commitment to inerrancy may become a problem.
The nagging fear that some Christians have, and the glorious hope that many sceptics have (both of which are equally unfounded), is that if there is a single statement in the Bible that is not 100% historically or scientifically accurate, then the Bible becomes unreliable in general. It’s a bit of a psychological bogeyman in the hands of some sceptics just because they know that some Christians actually think this, thus giving the sceptic power over them. The fact that a small number of Christians really do think this way is what enables sensationalists like Bart Ehrman to gain publicity with apparently shocking announcements that the Gospels do not agree in every respect. In reply, inerrantists engage in all sorts of gymnastics, inventing multiple cleansings of the temple or multiple first visits to the tomb just so they can cobble together a picture with no conflicts whatsoever. This is just silly. It is akin to suggesting that if someone had written an ancient biography and said, somewhere in the middle, that the sun orbits the earth and not the other way around, then the biographical details are also rendered dubious. But this is obviously a conclusion that does not follow. Take the conflicting accounts of the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection. Imagine that these accounts aren’t in the Bible, they’re just four accounts that you’ve gathered when trying to establish what really occurred in history. Let’s say that you’re operating on the assumption that if all accounts agree on an event, then that event (or something a lot like it) took place. All accounts agree that Jesus died by Roman crucifixion. All agree that he was buried in a borrowed tomb. All agree that the tomb was found empty just a few days later, as witnessed by at least some of his followers. All agree that he later appeared to his disciples, alive. Given what these accounts agree on, are you going to be even the slightest bit bothered over disagreements concerning the order in which the events of Jesus’ life were said to occur, or how many people actually did first discover the empty tomb? Here’s the kind of discrepancy that would bother me: Some accounts said that Jesus rose from the dead, but others say that the disciples found his dead body still in the tomb. That would be a problem.
The question is not whether the long, long book that is the Bible contains absolutely no tensions in portraying historical events or not, or where the scientific assumptions made on the part of the writers are true or not. They probably held to all kinds of false scientific beliefs, but the fact is that they were not writing to pass on their scientific beliefs. The question is whether or not the message of the Bible is correct or not. Is Jesus the son of God who came into the world and died to reconcile us to God, rising from the dead to give us the hope of eternal life? If he is, then it’s pretty trivial to sit around haggling over something like how many women visited his tomb, wouldn’t you say?