A Case for Bible Harmonization

Note: I wrote the original version of this article back in September 5, 2016. I have since revised the article, and added a new appendix detailing my view on the current debate over the use of literary devices to explain apparent discrepancies in the Gospels

When I was a teenage Atheist, one of my favourite arguments against those people in my life who held the Bible to be the inspired word of God was to allege that the Bible contained contradictions. I wasn’t just repeating a claim that I heard second-hand from someone, either, as is the case with most people who make this accusation. I actually looked into the alleged contradictions and did my best to press the ones that I felt were the most damning to Christianity. The discrepant Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke, as well as the conflicting genealogies connected with them, were just a few of my favourite examples. I claimed that those who tried to harmonise these accounts were not being intellectually honest, and if only they would just face the facts, they could be as I enlightened as I was.

Fast forward to today, and I can still remember the arguments I made against the Bible. I had since heard plausible explanations for many of these alleged contradictions (though I can’t claim to know an explanation off the top of my head for every single one). While there are many lists of contradictions on the internet, I found that equally impressive explanations also exist out there.[1] I now find myself responding to many of the same claims I used to make myself. As I have done so, I have observed that there is a tendency among those who allege contradictions in the Bible to claim to be more honest and forthright than those who seek to harmonise the text. The latter, it is said, are engaging in “verbal gymnastics,” whereas the former are simply being “scholarly” and following the evidence wherever it leads.

This is a troubling claim, for many reasons. First of all, it is a thinly-veiled ad hominem attack. Instead of engaging harmonisations of apparently discrepant passages on their own merits, skeptics of the Bible dismiss such attempts outright by claiming those who engage in such harmonies are intellectually dishonest. Seldom is any attempt made to actually respond to such harmonies, if any attempt is even made to know what the harmonies are to begin with. This dismissive attitude is best expressed by the popular skeptic Bart Ehrman, who devotes an entire book to the topic of Bible contradictions called Jesus Interrupted. In this book, he states:

There is simply too much evidence [of contradictions in the Bible], and to reconcile all of the hundreds of differences among the biblical sources requires so much speculation and fancy interpretive footwork that eventually it gets to be too much for them [i.e. Ehrman’s students]. . . .  The more they read the text carefully and intensely, the more mistakes they find, and they begin to see that in fact the Bible makes better sense if you acknowledge its inconsistencies instead of staunchly insisting that there aren’t any, even when they are staring you in the face.[2]

A good principle to apply in these kinds of situations is exemplified by a verse from Proverbs which states: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17, ESV). If one reads an article alleging some kind of contradiction or historical error in the Bible, it’s good to see if anyone else has written a response to the allegation in question.[3]

The second troubling aspect about this tendency is that it betrays a dismissive or even downright antagonistic attitude towards the Bible. While this is not always the case, I’ve found that many people who allege that there are contradictions in the Bible will go out of their way to find material they consider to be contradictory. I remember one critic who kept on insisting to me that the Genesis 6 contradicts Genesis 7 because whereas the Genesis 6 talks about Noah bringing one pair of every kind of animal onto the Ark, the Genesis 7 talks about bringing in seven pairs of every kind of animal, despite the fact that the 7th chapter is clearly talking about only select kinds of “clean” animals, and is intended to be a corollary to the previously mentioned instruction about bringing a pair of every other kind of animal onto the ark. This critic’s insistence on reading Genesis disjunctively prevented him from seeing what to most other readers seemed to be a rather obvious interpretation of the two chapters that didn’t necessitate putting them at odds with one another.

This brings us to the fact that we do need to be fair in seeking an explanation for why scripture reads the way it does. Protestant Theologian R. C. Sproul, in his primer on biblical hermeneutics entitled Knowing Scripture, talks about the necessity of giving the benefit of the doubt to any author of any work, not just the Bible:

The simple canons of common decency should protect any author from unwarranted charges of self-contradiction. If I have the option of interpreting a person’s comments one of two ways, one rendering them consistent and the other contradictory, it seems that the person should get the benefit of the doubt.[4]

A similar piece of advice is given by the popular philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler, who wrote a famous book called How to Read a Book. He dedicates the tenth chapter of this book to the topic of how to criticise a book fairly, and gives three general maxims on how to accomplish this: 1) complete the task of understanding before rushing in, 2) do not be disputatious or contentious, and 3) view the disagreement about matters of knowledge as being generally remediable.[5] The first of these three maxims is the most important for purposes of our discussion. Adler writes about the necessity of being slow to judge in one’s reading of texts:

In years of reading books with students of one kind and another, we have found this rule more honored in the breach than in the observance. Students who plainly do not know what the author is saying seem to have no hesitation in setting themselves up as his judges. They not only disagree with something they do not understand but, what is equally bad, they also often agree to a position they cannot express intelligibly in their own words. Their discussion, like their reading, is all words. Where understanding is not present, affirmations and denials are equally meaningless and unintelligible. Nor is a position of doubt or detachment any more intelligent in a reader who does not know what he is suspending judgment about.

There are several further points to note about the observance of this rule. If you are reading a good book, you ought to hesitate before you say, “I understand.” The presumption certainly is that you have a lot of work to do before you can make that declaration honestly and with assurance. You must, of course, be a judge of yourself in this matter, and that makes the responsibility even more severe.

To say “I don’t understand” is, of course, also a critical judgment, but only after you have tried your hardest does it reflect on the book rather than yourself. If you have done everything that can be expected of you and still do not understand, it may be because the book is unintelligible. The presumption, however, is in favor of the book, especially if it is a good one. In reading good books, failure to understand is usually the reader’s fault. . . . When you say “I don’t understand,” watch your tone of voice. Be sure it concedes the possibility that it may not be the author’s fault.[6]

Those who seek to find discrepancies in the Biblical text would do well to heed this word of advice, especially if they are adherents of other holy books who wish for their own texts to be treated with an equal level of fairness, or those who are authors of books themselves, who wish to be understood in their own terms rather than simply attacked and criticised.

The truth is, many alleged contradictions are fairly easy to resolve. It is simply a matter of being careful in one’s reading and not jumping at any feature in the text that appears to be discrepant without first checking the context. The one I just mentioned is a fairly clear example. Another example involves the fact that in John 14:38, Jesus says “Rise, let us go from here” (ESV), and yet the Upper Room Discourse continues for another three chapters. Anyone who has left a venue with a group to go somewhere else knows that dialogues that begin in one place easily continue on after the people have left that place and are en route to a new location.

Omission of details are also common examples of this. For example, much has been made of the fact that Paul states that he spent three years in Arabia before going to Jerusalem (Galatians 1:17ff), whereas Luke omits the Arabian sojourn and has Paul head straight for Jerusalem (Acts 9:26ff). The fact that Luke often “telescopes” his stories by omitting episodes to emphasise the important ones is ignored or overlooked by such critics.

Other examples may be a bit trickier, and usually involve some knowledge of the geography or linguistic structure of the passage in question. A good example of this is the alleged “confusion” that Mark has over the location of the feeding of the five thousand. In recent years, critics of the Bible have pounced on this as the prime example of a contradiction that any “honest” individual should admit to (the implication being that anyone who proposes any harmonization is being dishonest). However, many harmonies have been proposed for this already, and it has been shown that a thorough analysis of the passage shows that Mark is well aware of the geographical context of the story. Those who accuse him of being confused are merely judging from a distance rather than trying to see what is really happening up close.[7]

Finally, the third issue that troubles me about those who allege contradictions in the Bible are the unacknowledged biases and presuppositions operating among them. Our postmodern age has exposed the folly of the pretended scientific objectivity of those who attempt to dissect and deconstruct sacred texts, and yet this pretense of objectivity and freedom from bias still circulates in many skeptical and liberal circles. Skeptics accuse Christians who attempt to harmonise the Bible of operating with an agenda, yet they are either unaware of, or refuse to admit, that similar agendas exist within themselves.

The problem with this is that our biases tend to colour what we see as plausible and what we see as implausible. I have found that many alleged contradictions can be resolved in a way that is not at all intrinsically improbable when seen from a Christian worldview perspective which affirms that there is a God who speaks in history, and does so in diverse settings but with a unified message. Those who do not share this worldview will inevitably not share our same appreciation for such harmonies.

Conversely, because of this disjunction in viewpoint, Christians will often hear non-Christians make allegations that to our ears stretch at credulity or just sound patently absurd. In fact, for adherents of some non-Christian religions, their worldview practically demands that they manufacture such discrepancies, since the existence of a unified text that speaks a message that contradicts their own faith threatens it at the very foundations.

In summary, the practice of harmonising the Biblical text often gets a bad rap, especially in those who try to put on an air of scholarly erudition. However, this bad rap often has nothing to do with any intrinsic problems with the proposed harmonies, but is the result of differences in perception caused by the fact that we approach the text with opposing worldviews. This foundational difference must be pointed out before discussions of hermeneutics and historicity can move forward in a productive direction.

 

APPENDIX: On the use of Literary Devices

In recent years, a controversy has erupted in Christian apologetical circles on the use of literary devices to explain apparent contradictions in the Gospels. This controversy began with the publication of Michael Licona’s Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?. Licona examines the works of Plutarch and identifies a number of compositional devices which Plutarch uses in re-telling a number of narratives, such as conflation, spotlighting, displacement, and paraphrasing. He then applies these compositional devices to several alleged contradictory Gospel narratives and concludes that many of them could be explained via such literary conventions. He likens the use of these devices to a movie that is “based on true events,” where the details are not given with exact precision, yet the underlying story is still true.[8] A summary of his conclusion can be taken as follows:

During the age when the Gospels were written, the finest historians and biographers did not practice writing with the same commitment to precision as us moderns. They wanted to tell a story in a manner that entertained, provided moral guidance, emphasized points they regarded as important, and paint a portrait of important people. If they had to adapt some details on occasion, it was permissible. Such adapting was not intended to distort the truth but to communicate it more effectively.[9]

The extent to which these adaptations where made by the Gospels, however, is much less than is found in other classical works. Comparing the Gospels to Plutarch, Licona notes:

This led me to an interesting observation. Despite the fact that the evangelists employ many of the same compositional devices that were taught in the compositional textbooks and others that were employed by Plutarch, the extent of editing by the evangelists is minimal by ancient standards. As interesting as the differences in the Gospels may be, it is the refusal of their authors to paraphrase more freely that is striking to those readers familiar with both the Gospels and Plutarch’s Lives. This is especially true of the Synoptic Gospels.[10]

Licona’s approach has not gone uncontested, however. Craig Blomberg, writing for the Christian Research Journal, wrote a review of Licona’s book. While Blomberg has some words of praise for Licona, he also criticizes his over-reliance on literary devices. Blomberg divides Licona’s use of these devices to explain the Gospels into three categories:

  1. Minor differences between the Gospels (these make up the majority, and are largely uncontroversial)
  2. More creative but still generally persuasive application of the literary devices to explain Gospel differences
  3. Gospel differences where Licona uses Plutarch’s devices way too readily, and where other ways of harmonizing the accounts are to be preferred[11]

Blomberg’s most serious concern is that Licona occasionally suggests that since Plutarch sometimes invents details in his narratives, the Gospel writes must have done so as well:

Licona adds that Plutarch appears to have free-floating sayings, editorial emphases, varying motives for the same character, differences in names and numbers, locations of events, chronologies, the occasional slip of memory, and the invention of details with historical verisimilitude. Most of these differences involve elements peripheral to the main plot of each episode, and only rarely are we unable to make educated guesses as to what Plutarch was doing.[12]

Blomberg rejects such a solution, stating in the conclusion of his review that “there is no evidence that the Gospel writers ever actually invented out of whole cloth details that they inserted into their narratives. As I have tried to demonstrate in my writing elsewhere, there are always more plausible explanations for the apparent discrepancies than this one.”[13]

A more vociferous critique comes from philosopher Lydia McGrew, who wrote a 42-page review criticizing Licona’s book. She later followed this up with a book-length critique of the use of literary devices to explain Gospel differences titled The Mirror or the Mask. In it, she takes issue with the use of compositional devices to explain Gospel differences, as she sees these as “fictionalizing” devices. For her, the problem with the use of these devices is epistemic: If we grant that such devices were used in the Gospels, then we can no longer tell which Gospel stories authentically portray the life and teachings of the historical Jesus. She writes:

If they really were taking artistic license as suggested by the literary device theorists, and if they placed no tag in their works by which one could tell the true from the false, then their works become epistemically questionable sources for the life and teaching of Jesus, regardless of whether or not the “standards of the time” allowed such factual changes.[14]

McGrew also argues that the Gospels should be seen as historical reportage. Thus, the authors felt it necessary to record details accurately, and did not feel at liberty to change the details.[15] She further argues that many of the Gospel differences which Licona attempts to resolve with literary devices are more easily explained by harmonization.

A prime example of this is the temple cleansing in John 2:13-22. John reports a temple cleansing taking place at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, rather than at the end of it as reported in the Synoptic Gospels. Licona presents this as an example of “Synthetic Chronological Placement,” where an event is shifted to a different point in time to fit an author’s thematic concerns.[16] McGrew responds to this, drawing on the work of Blomberg, that one can plausibly infer that there were two temple cleansings, one at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and one at the end.[17] She argues that, in this and many other places, literary devices are unnecessary for explaining the text.

The debate between Licona and McGrew has not stopped here. Licona has put out multiple YouTube videos responding to McGrew’s arguments, which McGrew has responded in kind. Lack of space prevents a full rehashing of both sides’ arguments, so I encourage readers to watch both playlists and decide for themselves who makes a better case.

As for myself, I will present my own tentative thoughts on the debate as follows:

On the one hand, coming at the issue from a Catholic perspective, I would not absolutely rule out the use of at least some literary devices to explain Gospel differences, at least the ones that don’t involve outright invention of details. The Vatican II document Dei Verbum states that it is the task of the interpreter of Scripture to discern the literary norms used by the sacred authors. It states:

To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to “literary forms.” For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another.[18]

Thus, if it can be shown that the sorts of devices Keener, Licona, et. al., appeal to in their writings can be shown to be a standard part of ancient Greco-Roman historiography, then they are legitimate hermeneutical tools for explaining the Gospels. In fact, Catholic apologists have had no problem commending Licona’s work and appealing to them in discussing Gospel differences.[19]

I also disagree with the contention that such devices would compromise inerrancy. Inerrancy literally means “without error.” This is closely tied to authorial intent. If the Gospel authors meant to convey facts according to certain norms, then we should judge by those norms whether they have erred or not. In this sense, allowing them to use literary devices is acceptable, whereas McGrew’s suggestion that they sometimes made minor good-faith mistakes is not.[20] Besides, we still use these literary devices to recount stories today, yet nobody would accuse someone using them of deception or error.[21]

On the other hand, I agree with Blomberg, McGrew, et. al., that the use of these devices goes too far when it is used to posit that certain events and sayings of Jesus were simply made up. It is one thing to say that an event had been chronologically displaced, and quite another to say that it was invented out of whole cloth. Here, I believe that McGrew’s description of the Gospels as reportage has strong merit and should be taken seriously.[22]

Furthermore, I agree with them that the use of these devices is often unnecessary, and more parsimonious explanations exist. Most of their proposed harmonizations are quite plausible, and there is no reason (apart from academic snobbery) why they should not be admitted as acceptable explanations.[23] I completely agree with McGrew when she states that “harmonization” should not be seen as a bad word, but rather a totally legitimate enterprise:

Christians studying the Bible should not allow themselves to be bullied by the implication that they are engaging in harmonization only because of their theological commitments and hence are fudging the data for non-scholarly reasons. To the contrary, reliable historical sources can be expected to be harmonizable, and they normally are harmonizable when all the facts are known.[24]

In summary, my own view can be taken to be a middle ground between Licona and McGrew, neither ruling out the use of literary devices altogether, nor slavishly using them to explain all (or even most) Gospel differences to the exclusion of traditional harmonization (which often does the job satisfactorily). We allow both options on the table, and the interpreter decides which of the two makes better sense given the facts.

 

Endnotes

[1] As a good illustration of this, see Shabir Ally’s article, “101 Clear Contradictions in the Bible,” Answering Christianity (http://www.answering-christianity.com/101_bible_contradictions.htm), and the corresponding rebuttal by Jay Smith, et al., “101 Cleared-up Contradictions in the Bible,” Debate.org.uk (https://www.gluefox.com/min/contrad.htmhttp://www.debate.org.uk/debate-topics/apologetic/contrads).

[2] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), Kindle Edition (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 2009), ch. 1.

[3] The classic work on this topic is Gleason L. Archer’s New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001). This book deals with hundreds of alleged contradictions from Genesis to Revelation. For a similar, more recent work from a Catholic Perspective, see Trent Horn, Hard Sayings: A Catholic Approach to Answering Bible Difficulties (Catholic Answers Press, 2016). For more academic works that deal more specifically with allegations of contradiction between the four Gospels, see Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2nd edition (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), and Darrell Bock, Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017).

[4] R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, Rev. Ed. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 52.

[5] Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, Revised and Updated Edition (New York: Touchstone, 1972) 151.

[6] Adler, How to Read a Book, 144-145.

[7] Craig Blomberg, in his review of Michael Licona’s work (see addendum below), provides the following plausible explanation of what is going on in the text: “Licona thinks the feeding miracle had to occur very close to Bethsaida because Jesus and the disciples went there first in Luke 9:10. But two verses later, Luke agrees with both Mark and John that they have moved on to “a remote place” (v. 12). The most likely region for such a place is east of the Sea of Galilee, from which one could easily refer to two different cities (both to the northwest) as the destination of the little troupe, especially if they stopped at Bethsaida en route to Capernaum. In fact, if Jesus knew the weather was going to be bad, He could have told them to head for Bethsaida first so they would stay closer to shore and not be in the open and most exposed parts of the sea.” See Craig L. Blomberg, “How to Approach Apparent Contradictions in the Gospels: A Response to Michael Licona,” Christian Research Journal 40.2 (2017), 5. https://www.equip.org/article/how-to-approach-apparent-contradictions-in-the-gospels-a-response-to-michael-licona/.

[8] Michael Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (Oxford University Press, 2016), 6.

[9] Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, 198.

[10] Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, 199.

[11] Blomberg, “How to Approach Apparent Contradictions in the Gospels,” 1.

[12] Blomberg, “How to Approach Apparent Contradictions in the Gospels,” 4.

[13] Blomberg, “How to Approach Apparent Contradictions in the Gospels,” 7. For Licona’s response to this, see “How to Approach Apparent Contradictions in the Gospels: Response,” Christian Research Journal 40.4 (2017), https://www.equip.org/article/how-to-approach-apparent-contradictions-in-the-gospels-response/. Licona’s response in a nutshell is to deny that he regards Plutarch as the key to resolving all Gospel differences, and to reiterate that his solutions are tentative and subject to revision in light of new evidence. Blomberg’s rejoinder is to point out that this still does not address his concern about the insinuation that the Gospel writers have invented some details of their narratives—a charge which, according to Blomberg, would undermine their reliability as a whole.

[14]Lydia McGrew, The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices (Tampa, FL: DeWard Publishing Company, 2019), 26.

[15] McGrew, The Mirror or the Mask, 293-420.

[16] Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, 195. This explanation is also provided by Craig Keener in The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 518-519.

[17] McGrew, The Mirror or the Mask, 80-81, 359-363, 465-473. See also, Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2nd edition (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 216-219.

[18] “Dei Verbum,” §12, The Holy See, https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html.

[19] See, for example, Trent Horn, “Do the Gospels Contradict Each Other? (with Mike Licona),” Catholic Answers, March 3, 2020, https://www.catholic.com/audio/cot/do-the-gospels-contradict-each-other-with-mike-licona.

[20] See McGrew, The Mirror or the Mask, 76-77, 82-83.

[21] A great example of this can be found in the late Nabeel Qureshi’s autobiography, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. In his introduction, Qureshi notes that he uses these devices to recount his own story: “The words I have in quotations are rough approximations. A few of the conversations represent multiple meetings condensed into one. In some instances, stories are displaced in the timeline to fit the topical categorization. In other instances, people who were present in the conversation were left out of the narrative for the sake of clarity. All of these devices are normal for narrative biographies — normal, in fact, for human mnemonics.” (Nabeel Qureshi, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 19). If these are acceptable in modern day biography, I see no reason why they can’t be acceptable in the Gospels.

[22] This is not to say that I disagree with the view made popular by Richard Burridge in What are the Gospels?, that the Gospels are examples of βίος, or Greco-Roman biography. One can classify the Gospels as βίος, while also positing that the authors did not subscribe to all the genre’s norms (which even Licona admits, as shown above). Thus, “reportage” can be seen as a subset within the broader βίος genre.

[23] A good example of this is when Licona (following Keener) posits that Matthew added a second blind man to the Bartimaeus story to compensate for the fact that he only has one such healing story, whereas Mark has two (see Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, 135). As both Blomberg (“How to Approach Apparent Contradictions in the Gospels,” 6) and McGrew (The Mirror or the Mask, 432-436) point out, there is no need to posit this when simple spotlighting does the job adequately. McGrew rightly critiques this move when she states, “This notion of doubling up people to compensate is an unforced error, showing a preference for hyper-complexity that is unjustified by any evidential considerations” (436).

[24] McGrew, The Mirror or the Mask, 80. Contrast this with Licona, who refers to harmonization as “strained,” “hermeneutical waterboarding,” and “doing violence to the text” (Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, 197, 201).

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