On Not Harmonizing

I’ve just wrapped up teaching the Synoptic Gospels part of my Gospels and Acts course. Going through the individual books, looking over proposed solutions to the Synoptic Problem, and seeing how the seemingly harmonious stories portray Jesus’ ministry in quite different lights, we are left with a few conclusion that are surprising to many of us. Here are a couple:

  • The Gospel writers have different ideas about how Jesus’ death works, which means they have different ideas about how God brings salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
  • The Gospels we have used sources, including, probably, Mark as a source for Matthew and Luke, and yet they felt free to change this source for various reasons, including: style, making a somewhat different point, causing the story to more clearly echo an OT antecedent, eliminating theological claims that they did not want to make, or including new theological claims that are somewhat at odds with the theological claims of the original story.

This means that there is not only a plurality of voices in the NT, there is an irreducible theological diversity.

But more importantly, this theological diversity is no accident of history but, on the human level, has been intentionally introduced into the texts we have in front of us. Luke intentionally modifies Mark (and Matthew?) to increase the continuity between the OT narrative and the work of Jesus, and to eliminate the idea of Jesus’ death procuring salvation for people as such.

Two questions came up that I think are important for us to keep working through, especially as evangelicals for whom such conclusions seem to push against our prior conception of what it means to call the Bible the word of God.

First, what does this mean for “scripture interpreting scripture”? This rule became quite popular at the time of the Reformation, or at least, if you Google “scripture interprets scripture” the people who are the most fierce advocates for the view are likely to be appealing to the Reformation traditions in their defense.

But what do we do when Luke says, “Blessed are the poor,” and Matthew says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”? Is Matthew clear here where Luke is ambiguous, thereby telling us what Jesus really meant? Or are we to hear in Luke’s version his special concern for the socially marginalized?

What are we to do when Mark says that you don’t put new wine in old wineskins, but Luke feels compelled to add, “No one wants new wine, old is better!”? Do we let Mark’s apparent meaning stand, where Jesus is the new wine that cannot be contained by the older Jewish practices? Or do we allow the “more clear” Lucan conclusion to change our reading?

Image: WikiBooks, Gospel of Mark ch. 8

My response: (1) allow the scripture one author wrote help interpret that author’s other passages; and (2) allow the NT’s example of rereading the OT in light of Christ to train us to reread the OT as a witness to the saving life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus.

If we insist on giving the one meaning made clear by the other texts, we start to force the Bible into our preconception of what kind of Bible would be good for us, what kind of Bible would qualify as “word of God,” and in so doing we spurn the actual Bible that God did give us, and that God thought was adequate for conveying God’s word.

Question two is what do we do with this stuff as pastors?

My answer here: it is your pastoral responsibility to help people recognize that the Bible we actually have, rather than the Bible of our imaginations, is the word of God.

If you don’t give your people a category for this kind of diverse Bible being the word of God, then you will create a false sense of connection between a supposedly uniform, univocal Bible and the Christian faith as such. So what happens when they go off to college and take a Bible class at State University? What happens when they get bored one Saturday and map out (or try, anyway) the last week of Jesus’ life in each of the four Gospels?

Uh oh.

That’s when they discover that the Bible isn’t what you led them to believe. And if that imagined Bible is necessary for believing what God has to say about Jesus and the Christian faith in general, then the latter are apt to crumble as well.

Make no mistake, there are tremendous pastoral issues at stake in affirming correctly what the Bible is. But one of the worst mistakes we can make, especially in a day and age where media will tell people the truth if we don’t, is to affirm a vision of a single-voiced scripture that fails to correspond to the text we have actually been given.

33 thoughts on “On Not Harmonizing”

  1. I’ve been studying the Synoptic Problem this semester and all I can say is that you are 100% correct that we need to let these differing voices have their say. I made a decision early to avoid trying to harmonize. Rather, I asked myself what I could learn from the nuances of each Evangelist. This has led me to an even greater appreciation for a Jesus who was more complex than we’d sometimes like to image.

  2. This issue also goes beyond the synoptics, obviously. Consider the very different ways that Paul and the author of Hebrews use and define the word ‘faith.’ If you try to slavishly fit the definition given for the word in Hebrews into the epistle to the Romans you will most likely miss a good deal of what Paul is trying to say. Letting “scripture interpret scripture” sounds good and protestant and all, but the Bible is more nuanced than that.

    I can’t count how many times I’ve heard (or thought!) “Why couldn’t Paul just lay it out for us?” Yet, the Bible is not a systematic theology textbook. Do we really want it to be?

    It’s good to see some folks willing to look beyond the tidy Evangelical hermeneutic and appreciate the Bible for what it is!

  3. You’ve hit this nail on the head. The church wants people to trust the Bible, but the image they promote in defending it creates an image that doesn’t jive with reality.

    I took one of “those classes” at “state university” (from a believing minister/history professor) that caused us to look at some of the tough issues, and there were a lot of kids that really struggled with their foundation being shaken.

    I think the church is doing our youth a disservice and not equipping them to defend their faith when they try to ignore these issues instead of facing them head on. And it’s not just the differences in the Synoptic gospels, or the factual discrepancies (one gadarene demoniac or two? wilted fig tree in evening or next morning?), but it’s also the question of what to take figuratively vs. literally in regards to subjects like the creation story in Genesis, the endtimes, and Hell/judgment day.

    Great post….

  4. “it is your pastoral responsibility to help people recognize that the Bible we actually have, rather than the Bible of our imaginations, is the word of God.” Nice.

  5. This is fascinating and at some point I’m going to need to take some of your theology classes. Until then, I hope it’s OK to ask questions as some of this is new thought for me. (Guess you *can* teach an old dog new tricks! Ha!) What I *think* I’m hearing you saying is that instead of trying to look for the overriding story-arc presented in the Scriptures, we need to take things at face-value and wrestle with the differences presented. Is that what you’re saying? So you don’t believe that putting the three Synoptic stories together creates one complete picture? Or do you? Yes, I’m confused.

    The way I’ve reconciled all of this in the past is to think of the Gospels like the famous movie “Rashomon” (which I haven’t actually seen; can’t handle the violence. Yes, I’m a card-carrying wimp and not ashamed of it!). The point being that different people can give completely different accounts of the same occurrence. It’s never really bothered me that certain details in the Gospels are different, or even conflicting. It doesn’t mess with my faith or my belief that the Bible is the Word of God. For me, it just adds to the mystery of it all. This might fly in the face of you wonderful theologians, but I don’t think we’re supposed to figure all of this out. If my God becomes so small that I understand Him and His Word completely, then that’s not a God that’s big enough to be GOD. Sometimes I think I’m just a simple girl,,,and I’m OK with that. :) But I am open and interested and will keep reading.

    I very much appreciate how you present these things, Daniel. I’ve read other writings that are offensive to me as they see these discrepancies as a way to denounce the Bible as God’s Word. I like that you are able to hold these things in tension…something I continually try to do in my faith is to see the “both-andness” of it all. (Sovereignty of God or free will of man? Yes.)

    You and the Eucharist guys are the first people who’ve been able to help me approach things in a different way without making me feel I’m walking down a path of heresy. So I’m excited to be on this journey. I think it’s only going to deepen my faith. Will look forward to having some actual face-to-face conversations in the future. (Maybe at the retreat?) Blessings!

    1. Nina, I’m saying that we need to let each Gospel writer tell his own story, and not try to piece together one harmonious whole from them. They had the choice of presenting the same story as one another–and declined. So I’m more inclined to let Luke tell his own story, Matthew his own, Mark and John their own. None (or one?) were likely eye-witnesses, so it’s not like compiling different testimonies about an event. They had each other, to a certain extent, so it’s more like, “No, that’s not exactly how I’d put it.” So we have four different stories, and the “harmony” is had not in meshing them all into one, but in letting each sing its own part.

  6. Good thoughts – thanks for the post. Reminds me of a paper I wrote as an undergrad trying futilely (or, successfully, as I thought at the time) to harmonize the crucifixion timelines in the gospels. At the time I hung the intellectual credibility of my faith on whether or not the gospels could be harmonized in such a way. I don’t have a clear memory of how that perspective was shaped by church experience growing up, but it was undoubtedly a large part of the ethos of the college Christian group I was a part of – we saw ourselves as being in constant war with (and under persecution from…) the secular professors (which were all of them we thought) and atheists on campus. We had to stand up for the integrity of the bible! It’s been quite a shift in my thinking – from reading I&I by Enns, Christian Smith’s Bible Made Impossible, your blog and many conversations with a good friend – to figure out what it means to accept the Bible God gave us, how that doesn’t mean Christian faith is bunk (although perhaps some of our doctrine might need to be revised/thrown out as a result), and how doing so makes one a better reader of scripture.

    1. By the way – just reflecting on how my college christian group probably would have gotten on with life and faith just fine if we hadn’t been unnecessarily holding onto some imaginary idea of what the Bible was. However, for us, I think a large part of it – and probably the larger motivation for why I felt compelled to write a harmonization paper – had to do with how we needed to maintain our identity apart from (above and against?) the “secular godless atmosphere” of the college campus and those “liberal professors.” In that sense the urgency of defining our group identity blinded and deafened us to accepting the Bible as it is – I know for myself the instinct was to get defensive and stand up for the faith rather than humbly listen and maybe actually learn something new.

  7. Thanks for this one.

    I grew up with and until the last year or so took it as obvious that “Scripture interprets Scripture” and that harmonization was a great tool to finding the one true meaning.

    I know more than a few friends who have abandoned Jesus altogether because something like contradictions between the Synoptics or deutero-Isaiah began unraveling the thread of what they believed the Bible to be.

    I am now in the process of developing a way to present something like this to my youth group, not least in order to prepare them for college. Your thoughts are helpful. Of course, I have a somewhat less interested group!

  8. To claim the Gospel writers saw things from different perspectives is really not that controversial.

    Here is what I’m trying to understand:

    (1) Luke says, “Blessed are the poor”

    (2) Matthew says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”

    Now here are the only logical options on the table:

    (a) Jesus didn’t really say either 1 or 2

    (b) Jesus really said 1 or 2, but not both

    (c) Jesus said both 1 and 2

    Now, which of the above options are you suggesting is the right one?

    1. We don’t know “what Jesus said,” since God did not see fit to canonize the historical Jesus; however, we do have two witnesses to Jesus. One says that Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” which is an important message for the church. The other says that Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor,” which is also an important word to the church.

      1. I’m confused: we don’t know what Jesus said but we trust two people claiming to quote Him?

        Either they were quoting Jesus, and thus we know what He said, or they were putting words in His mouth. I see no alternative.

        1. One of those classes at the “state college” taught us about the reliance on “Oral Tradition” that was prevalent a few millenia ago. If Moses wrote down the Pentateuch, as church tradition holds, the stories had been passed down for generations before they were written down. The same is true for the gospels — the stories weren’t written down immediately.

          The question that has been debated (and I’m not an expert) is at what point were the gospels written and by whom? Nobody thinks that the gospels were written down immediately by the eyewitnesses, but they were written somewhere between 20-40 years after the crucifixion/resurrection. Were they actually written by the initial witnesses? Even if the answer is yes, how well would you or me or a disciple remember an eyewitness account 25 years after you witnessed a sermon?

          So Matthew remembered “blessed are the poor in Spirit” and Luke (who wasn’t an actual witness by any account but summarized the stories that had been passed down) said it was “blessed are the poor”. I’m sure they were both attempting to quote Jesus. But, we don’t have physical proof that the quotes were accurate… we believe it, but we don’t have proof. And since we don’t have “proof”, we “don’t know what Jesus said.”

          The bottom line question to me is, are the gospels accurate portrayals of Jesus? And, did God inspire the gospel writers to write what they shared? To me the answer is “yes”. And because of that, I trust the Bible as “God’s Word”, even if there are a few discrepancies… the discrepancies that exist aren’t central to the message.

      2. This “we don’t know what Jesus said since God did not see fit to canonize the historical Jesus” is a bit glib and also a bit too clever by half. Each witness (gospel) says Jesus (an historical figure) “said” what it says he said. So I would say that there is (to understate it) a clear bias in the texts towards option c. Also the history of interpretation by the church for most of two millenia is to believe with near unanimity that these two witnesses said that Jesus said these things rather than that they are just putting words they like into his mouth.

        If one wanted to be really “critical” one could just as easily criticize us and ask what it is about our “western academic [with an epistemology based on doubt rather than on "pistis"]culture” (where on the whole Christianity is in decline)that causes us to believe the historical Jesus is as inaccessible in the text as your answer suggests.

        This is in no way to deny the difference in the two witnesses regarding poor and poor in spirit.It is not to deny that both have deep and rich meanings. Some might even want to say that one or both of these remarks belongs not to the historical Jesus but to the sprit of the Risen,ascended Jesus (D. Moody Smith made this sort of argument about John). What seems to me to be problematic is to suggest that the simple and stark subjectivity of the early church is all we can really be sure of encountering in these texts.

        Winfield Casey Jones

  9. “This means that there is not only a plurality of voices in the NT, there is an irreducible theological diversity.” Nicely done. The belief that Jesus would come in and disrupt all previous theological convention yet leave us with a neat little package before he left is misplaced at best.

    I agree that not working through these issues pastorally is a risky venture. We have nothing to apologize for, but we do need to be honest.

  10. “The Gospels we have used sources, including, probably, Mark as a source for Matthew and Luke.”

    A telling statement indeed. “Probably” being the most operative word. Upon the word “probably” rests your whole theory of non-harmonization. If the “probably” is wrong, then your conclusion is wrong, and yet neither you, nor anyone else can prove that “probably.” It is a conclusion based upon deduction, not from any actual historical evidence. So what you are setting forth is one theory – and yet you proceed as if your theory were fact. All of your conclusions certainly do or at least can follow from what you deduce, but your theory is not fact, it is only an unprovable hpothesis.

    As Eta Linneman points out in her excellent book (“Is There a Synoptic Problem?” – Answer: No!):

    “One should learn, in the science of New Testament introduction as in mathematics, to distinguish between assertion, presupposition, and proof. A hypothesis is an assertion to be proven, not the proof.

    Therefore, the tradition hypothesis does not prove “the extensive involvement of oral tradition in the formulation of the Gospels:’ it merely presupposes it. The oral tradition is an assumption that presupposes another assumption: Oral tradition was integral to the formation of the Gospels. The use of a hypothesis at the primary level to establish another hypothesis at a secondary level does not change the primary hypothesis into fact.”

    I trust that you are exposing your students to alternative explanations of the so-called synoptic problem since your explanation is unprovable, and therefore a very shaky foundation upon which to rest so many other conclusions.

    1. I was the one that mentioned Oral Tradition, not the author of the post. And I was just sharing what I was taught nearly 30 years ago at a secular college, not what the author of the post teaches or doesn’t teach his students.

      If JR Daniel’s statement about Mark “probably” being a source for Matthew and Luke is coming from the same research as I was taught about way back when, the “other source” was a document that was referred to as “Q” for “Quella” which means source (I’m going on 28 year old memories here… don’t expect a perfect explanation), and as far as I know, no one ever found “Q”.

      I flipped open my NIV study bible and lo and behold, the first page on the NT side is a discussion of the questions behind the sources of the Synoptic gospels, and they cite the common theories explaining how the gospels may have been put together. If the Bible translators agree that the documents were all written at least 20 years after the initial events, it’s a little difficult to argue that “oral tradition” didn’t play some part in passing down the stories of the New Testament.

      Maybe part of the “problem” is referring to the debate as the “Synoptic Problem”. Personally, I don’t have a “problem” with the gospels if the authorship is in question, as I still believe the gospels to be the Word of God and that God speaks through His word to His people. Have you ever considered that, if Matthew and Mark don’t contain any language that claims authorship, maybe that was intentional, and that the question of who actually wrote down the books isn’t supposed to be that big of a deal? Like people like to say about our own works in ministry, “It’s not about me… it’s about bringing glory to God.”

    2. Hi, John, it is actually quite simple to recognize literary dependence. It is more complicated to determine who copied from whom, but the fact of copying is clear. And, this is precisely what Luke 1 would lead us to expect. Previously extant Gospels were sources for Luke.

      1. “Previously extant Gospels”? Do you mean Matthew and Mark or some other Gospels? If other Gospels can you point me to some evidence of these?

  11. It seems to me the creation of two unyielding and totally separate poles (harmonizing versus taking each gospel separately and seriously) is itself an un-necessary simplification. I believe that that the foundational motivation of harmonizing is a desire to emphasize the objectivity of the text—in other words that it is referential and reveals more than the intent (subjectivity) of the writer/editor. On the other hand, those who oppose harmonizing would seem to be motivated by a desire to mainly discover and emphasize the intention of the author/editor of each text.
    Both of these motivations have merit. I can remember as a seminary student at a PCUS seminary in the late 70’s reading a book that wasn’t on the syllabus—James Barr’s The Bible and the Modern World. My OT and NT courses seemed (to me at the time) primarily to be asking us to look at the intent of the author/editor. But James Barr said there were three ways of reading the Bible: as literature; as revealing the intent of the author/editor; and as referential.
    This last point corresponded to the approach of philosopher Michael Polanyi in a book I had read before seminary, Personal Knowledge. In that book Polanyi was doing at least two things that relate to this discussion: 1. He was trying to be “post critical” and to get beyond the subjectivist/objectivist divide by positing something in-between objectivity and subjectivity—personal knowledge—which contains personal elements but which nonetheless is referential in that it reveals more than the subjectivity of the knower. 2. He was also pointing out the tacit and inarticulable aspects of what we know. This tacit dimension of knowledge means as Polanyi says, that “we say more than we know” and “we know more than we say.”
    The problem with some anti-harmonizers in the church is that for many of them, the text reveals nothing more than these two things: the conscious intent of the author/editor and the faith of the community of faith. In other words biblical texts may be radically subjective in nature and may not be referential at all (although they say they are referential!)
    If, however, texts offer us, at a minimum, as H Richard Niebuhr put it “relative views of an absolute” then the “soupcon” (hunch) of harmonizers that various gospels (for example)give us various inspired views of a real (not imaginary) Jesus is more useful than the thought that these texts are not referential, and that therefore, each must be studied in hermetic isolation from one another in order to give us the only thing they really have to offer—the lonely and pristine subjectivity of the author or of his or her faith community.

    Winfield Casey Jones, D. Min.

  12. This essay reminds me of an interaction with a friend I had a few years ago right after Bart Ehrman’s “Jesus Interrupted” came out. Ehrman details some of the discrepancies between the Gospels and wonders in his book why pastors, who supposedly learned this in seminary, don’t tell their congregations this stuff? My friend, who was raised in a conservative evangelical church, wasn’t shaken by Ehrman’s claims, but did wonder why her pastor had never told her any of this?

    While I have no plans to be a pastor (which is good considering most evangelical churches wouldn’t let me), I do teach Bible study. What I find is that even though I am comfortable talking about these issues (and think they’re important for exactly the reasons you’ve described), many people don’t trust anyone except their pastor. I can talk about these issues all I want, but the bottom line is that it has to come from the pulpit.

  13. An Alternative to Harmonization amongst the Gospels


    Dr. Jones’s reference to James Barr’s assertion that there are “three ways of reading the Bible: as literature; as revealing the intent of the author/editor; and as referential,” seems to allow both for your protest against harmonization and for Nick’s remark that the gospel writers were pointing us to things that Jesus did in fact say. Granting that our word-for-word idea of quoting doesn’t match the practices of the first century, the gospel writers nonetheless claim to bear witness to external events and not to originate their own impressions.

    Your remarks beginning with “We don’t know ‘what Jesus said’” can be taken a couple of different ways. If you mean that we don’t have a direct record of Jesus’ ipsissima verba, but only an indirect witness to them, doesn’t even that tell us “what Jesus said” in a loose sense, i.e., that he did indeed make remarks that are at least the rough equivalent of what Luke and Matthew wrote? To make, without any qualification or condition, the stark claim that we don’t know what Jesus said is as big a claim to knowledge, point for point, as the claim that we do know what Jesus said. I don’t think you intend that.

    I can’t see any objection to saying that we have every reason to believe that the respective remarks that Luke and Matthew attribute to Jesus faithfully represent remarks that he himself made. It backs away from the claim to have Jesus’ “very words” and allows that the NT writers could have been better interpreters of those words than we would be if we had them. It holds together the subjective and objective elements of witness in accordance with Polanyi’s observations. It does not attempt to assemble a “real history” behind the gospels.

    Your protest against harmonization seems to aim at that last-mentioned enterprise, the attempt to get beyond the gospels to some “Life of Jesus” construct and then treat that construct as more important or real or faithful than the witness of God’s commissioned gospel writers. I agree that that kind of harmonization is unfaithful to the gospels God has given us. No, we cannot look at the objective events other than through the gospels we have. But the gospels refer. It would violate the nature of the gospels as reference to stop with looking at them and fail to look through them at the objects to which they refer.

    And, even so, that lands us back with the problems of conflict, if not outright contradiction. To that problem I propose an alternative to harmony, namely polyphony. The harmonies and dissonances there may provide a useful model to what we see in the New Testament. And, in the spirit of which, I need to listen to some Bach about now. ;-)

    As always, thank you for the craftsmanship of your work.


  14. When considering this topic, I often think of Legion in Mark – in one, there are many. The presence of Legion in the story is, in that inimitable Gospel cracked-mirror way, an acknowledgment that in one vessel can come many aspects, and they can only be reconciled into unity through the power of, and faith in, Christ. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Legion is found, crazed with his multitudes, in a cemetery which symbolizes chaos and death. Having been touched by the power of God, he then is of sound mind, found calmly sitting on top of a grave. Symbolically, he has found the unity and conquered death through Christ.

    This theme is repeated if, like some, you read the story to say that it is Legion sitting on the tomb Sunday morning. He tells the confused, chaotic followers of Jesus not to worry, to have faith that Christ is risen and gone on ahead of them. The followers, not believing, flee in confusion back through the cemetery. They become Legion’s original state: a multitude, roiled in confusion in a garden of death, lacking faith in the power and unity of Christ.

    John plays with these themes in his garden story, having two figures in the tomb, and making the cemetery a garden of life, tended by a man that Mary supposes to be the gardener.

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