Thursday, February 18, 2016

How to harmonize

[Metaphor alert: this post contains an overabundance of metaphors.]

1. I normally avoid debates over evidentialism because I think that's usually a cul-de-sac. Since, however, that's how Lydia McGrew has framed the issue on Gospel harmonization, I'll bite.

2. One objection to inerrancy is that commitment to inerrancy is a house of cards or row of dominoes. Or like pulling a thread. It only takes on error for the house of cards to topple and the dominoes to tumble. When that happens, Christians lose their faith. 

Evidentialism is said to be more stable. A protective against apostasy. Because evidentialism only requires Scripture to be generally reliable, the faith of an evidentialist can survive Biblical errors. 

This is often combined with a Resurrection apologetic. If Jesus rose from the dead, then Christianity is true regardless of whatever else is false. If Jesus rose from the dead, then Christianity is true, even if Adam and Eve never existed, Abraham never existed, Noah's flood never happened, the Exodus never happened, &c. (I'm not attributing that position to Lydia.)

I sometimes wonder how evidentialists like that would ever witness to an orthodox Jew. 

To use yet another metaphor, we might compare evidentialism to the "web" of belief–popularized by Quine. A spider web has redundant structural integrity. You can snip a strand here or there, but the web will retain its form and function. Some strands are central while others are peripheral.

3. Now, what I found curious about Lydia McGrew's position concerning Gospel harmonization is that it seems like the weight of even one or two stock examples will collapse the evidentialist web, depending on the harmonistic strategy. 

I understand what she's opposed to with respect to Licona, because she's spelled that out. She's also given some examples of what she considers to be acceptable harmonizations. For instance:

Jairus is distraught, he knows that even coming to Jesus has taken some time and that the child was dying when he left, and he says something to Jesus like, "My daughter is on the point of death. By this time, I'm sure she is dead! But come and lay your hand on her and she will live." One gospel reports "on the point of death" and the other reports "is dead." This is an economical and not at all implausible harmonization.

However, much of the discussion suffers from an abstract, hypothetical quality, due to the absence of actual, concrete examples from writers other than Licona. At the risk of using another metaphor, I don't know where all the tripwires are planted in her position. I know she thinks Licona stepped on a tripwire. But that represents one extreme. I'd like to probe the boundaries of her position. The inner and outer limits. What's the spread of acceptable harmonistic strategies?

I'm going to quote some notable inerrantist scholars on three representative examples she mentioned. Does she think their harmonizations step on the tripwire? Dropping the metaphor, does she think their harmonizations, if true, would render the Gospels untrustworthy? If that's what the Gospel writer were really up to, would that destroy their historical credibility? Let's get very specific. 

Centurion's servant

Matthew has the centurion speaking to Jesus directly, while Luke has Jewish emissaries speaking to Jesus, and the centurion never talks directly with Jesus. So what is taking place here?

Two things are happening at once. The cultural context of the sent emissary (shaliach) and literary compression are both in play. Matthew often compresses accounts. For example, his telling of the healing of Jairus's daughter is more compact, as is his telling of the triumphal entry…Luke, given his concern for Jew-Gentiles relations, offers more detail by noting the representatives. When the shaliach, as an emissary, spoke on behalf of someone, it was as good as that person speaking. Jesus said as much of his disciples when he said that to accept the disciples was to accept him (Jn 13:20; also 2 Kgs 19:20-34). A modern analogy would be how a press secretary speaks for the White House and the president. So Luke gives us the detail of the event, and Matthew simplifies its telling by compressing things literarily. Each account is accurate, but Luke's is more precise. D. Bock, "Precision and Accuracy: Making Distinctions in the Cultural Context," J. Hoffmeier & D. Magary, ed. Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? (Crossway, 2012), 373-74.

A more recent scholar, R. T. France, writes as follows:
His [Matthew’s] omission of the means of the centurion’s approach to Jesus is a valid literary device to highlight the message of the incident as he sees it (on the principle, common in biblical and contemporary literature, that a messenger or servant represents the one who sent him to the point of virtual identity).9

As a further illustration of the principle, Craig Blomberg points to Matthew 27:26 and Mark 15:15.10 Both verses report that Pilate scourged Jesus; but, given the social and military protocol of the Roman world, Pilate would not have taken up the scourge in his own hands. The verses mean that Roman soldiers would have physically handled the scourge, acting on Pilate’s orders. That is to say, the Roman soldiers represented Pilate because they acted under his authority. Pilate did scourge Jesus, though he did not do it “in person” but through representatives acting on his behalf. Likewise, the centurion really did address Jesus, but he did it by means of persons acting under his authority and on his behalf—the elders and friends represented him.

We have the accounts in Matthew and Luke, which are inspired by God. They are what God says and are therefore trustworthy. That is the conviction we have and the basis on which we work. But we do not have a third account, also inspired, to tell us exactly how the original two accounts fit together. We make our own reasoned guesses, but they are fallible. We do not have complete information. Our reconstruction, though it may be plausible, is subordinate to the Gospel accounts as we have them. V. Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels (Crossway, 2012), 21-22. 

A careful reading of the text raises the question, "Who actually spoke to Jesus? Was it the centurion as Mt 8:5-9 records or was it the elders of the Jews and the friends as Lk 7:3,6 claim?…The problem can be resolved by the use of a present-day example. If a conversation between the President of the United States and the Premier of Russia were reported, it could be described in at least two ways. First, the president says in English to his interpreter, "A". The interpreter then says in Russian to the premier, "A". The premier says in Russian to his interpreter, "B", and the interpreter says in English to the president, "B". Second, the president says to the premier, "A". The premier responds "B".  Both descriptions are correct! The last account, which every newspaper report follows, chooses to omit for brevity's sake the role of the interpreter.

The apparent disagreement between Matthew's and Luke's versions disappears when it is understood that Matthew eliminates the reference to the messengers from his account…Matthew may have done this for the sake of brevity. He had other materials that he wanted to include in his Gospel. The length of a papyrus was limited…Both Matthew and Luke would take up an entire scroll. 

Which is correct? Both are correct, for both accurately report what happens between the centurion and Jesus. To be disturbed by Matthew's omission would be to require greater historical exactness in this account than in present-day reports. Neither Matthew nor Luke err in their reports of this incident. It is important to understand how they tell their story of this incident and not demand that they do so in a specific format. R. Stein, Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament (Baker, 1996), 35-38.

Common to modern Western and ancient Eastern cultures is the habit of speaking about people as acting for themselves even when they use intermediaries. A news reporter may state flatly, "the President of the United States today announced," when in fact it was his press secretary who spoke on his behalf, and quite possibly a speechwriter who composed the words, yet non-one accuses the commentator of inaccurate reporting…This type of linguistic convention undoubtedly explains the differences between Matthew's and Luke's narratives of the Capernaum centurion. C. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (IVP, 2nd ed., 2007), 176.

Raising Jairus' daughter

The more challenging difficulty has to do with when the daughter died. In Matthew Jairus says, “My daughter has just died” (Matt. 9:18). In Mark and Luke we have two stages. First, Jairus asks Jesus to come because “my little daughter is at the point of death” (Mark 5:23). Next, while Jesus is saying his final words to the woman healed from her bleeding, someone comes from Jairus’s house announcing, “Your daughter is dead” (5:35).

Here it may be useful to remember Matthew’s tendency to compress material. We saw compression clearly in the opening genealogies. In this account of Jairus’s daughter, Matthew’s is the shortest of the three accounts, both in the number of verses and in the number of words. He has nine verses compared to twenty-two in Mark. Matthew omits the name Jairus. He mentions that the father is a “ruler,” but omits the detail of what he is a ruler of—“a ruler of the synagogue.” He omits the crowd around Jesus. He omits the second stage in which someone comes to say that the daughter has died. He omits the mention of Peter, James, and John. He omits the parents’ going into the room with Jesus. He omits Jesus’s direction to give the girl something to eat. He omits the charge to tell no one.

The collapse into one stage—the daughter has died—is in harmony with the kind of thing that Matthew indicates in his opening genealogy. It is compression. 

Matthew makes a choice to give us a compressed narrative. How much can a person say once he has chosen this kind of option?…If the narrative is going to unfold two distinct stages, there needs to be something that intervenes to differentiate them. In practice, this differentiation requires not only more specific information about timing of various events, but also the addition of a report to Jairus, so that Jairus comes to know of his daughter’s death. So a commitment to narrating two stages leads to the inclusion of an explicit mention of people from Jairus’s house who deliver the message to Jairus and to Jesus. Some complexity must be added to the narration.

But then, if a person has decided to give a compressed narrative, it does not really leave space for a full explanation. The narrator must be content with a summary… Compression reduces the number of options available. Hence, Matthew’s account, which wraps together what in Mark and Luke are two stages in Jairus’s interaction with Jesus, does not contradict Mark and Luke. He is not making a contrastive assertion that stands over against (“contrasts” with) a two-stage narration. 

The ancient context did not have special apparatus from modern medical technology to determine the exact moment of death. Even with our technology, there is a region of uncertainty, since, for example, it takes some time for cells in the brain to die after the heart stops beating. V. Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels (Crossway 2012), 206-209,211.

The problems that Matthew's account raises can be resolved once the literary style of Matthew is recognized…Matthew obviously abbreviates the story by omitting the following details…It is clear that Matthew has a tendency to abbreviate the various accounts he incorporates into his Gospel…In his desire to include additional material Matthew was concerned with the limitation of his scroll. Our present Gospel of Matthew contains about much material as a single scroll could contain.

Matthew summarized the story of Jesus' raising of Jairus's daughter. He records that a ruler of the synagogue comes to Jesus for help concerning his daughter and that Jesus goes to his home and raises her from the dead. What he omits are various interesting but unnecessary details such as that when Jaurus first arrives his daughter is not yet dead. R. Stein, Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament (Baker, 1996), 40-42. 

Perhaps the most perplexing differences between parallels occur when one Gospel writer has condensed the account of an event that took place in two or more stages into one concise paragraph that seems to describe the action taking place all at once. Yet this type of literary abridgment was quite common among ancient writers (cf. Lucian, How to Write History 56), so once again it is unfair to judge them by modern standards of precision that no-one in antiquity required. The two most noteworthy examples of this process among the Gospel parallels emerge in the stories of Jesus raising Jairus's daughter and cursing the fig tree.

In the first story, Matthew drastically abbreviates Mark's three-part account, which includes (1) the initial summons for Jesus to come to Jairus' home before the girl dies, (2), the intervening delay while he heals the hemorrhaging woman, and (3) his climactic arrival after the death of the daughter, and her subsequent revivification (twenty-three verses compressed into nine). As a result, Matthew omits the initial appeal "my daughter is dying", and has Jairus in stage 1 declare that she has just died. C. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (IVP, 2nd ed., 2007), 177.

Temple cleansing

On the other hand, there is the possibility that this event took place only once. If so, it is likely that what John did was move it forward as a type of foreshadowing capsule of Jesus' conflict with the leadership and their  failure to appreciate his authority. In favor of this view might be the point that 2:23 alludes to numerous signs that Jesus had done in Jerusalem when none have yet been described in John. D. Bock, Jesus According to Scripture (Baker, 2002), 427. 

The Synopticists make it clear that Jesus' cleansing the temple proved to be "the last straw" for the Jewish authorities, sealing his imminent doom (Mk 11:18), so a convincing harmonization would require John to be the Evangelist who has relocated the passage. The strongest evidence in support of this is twofold. First, Jn 2:13-25 is the only passage in the opening four chapters of John not linked to what precedes or follows it by an explicit reference to chronological sequence. Second, many commentators recognize a major division in John's Gospel between chapters 11 and 12, and chapter 12 introduces the second "half" of the gospel with a chronologically dislocated passage (see p219). One could therefore assume that the cleansing of the temple introduces the first "half" the same way, with the six-day sequences of 1:1-2:12 as an introduction. On the other hand, it is at least possible that Jesus cleansed the temple twice. C. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (IVP, 2nd ed., 2007), 216-17. 

Perhaps we read John and picture the cleansing described in John 2:14–15 in immediate connection with the preceding and following parts of John’s narrative. We picture it as occurring near in time to the “first of his signs” narrated in 2:11. We picture it near the beginning. But this is a mental picture, not necessarily reality.

We have to ask whether John or any of the synoptic accounts make contrastive claims about temporal location. John 2:13 says, “The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” Which Passover? We are not told. It is natural for readers to see this going up to Jerusalem as proceeding from the location last mentioned, namely Capernaum, where Jesus stayed a few days (John 2:12). But John does not explicitly tell us about a direct temporal succession here. The “hint,” if there is one, is simply the juxtaposition of two episodes in the written neighborhood of one another. But might John have had other reasons for a juxtaposition like this one?

Do we get any help from what follows the cleansing of the temple? What follows is John 3:1ff., the passage about Nicodemus. Thematically, it is connected with the general statement in John 2:25that Jesus “knew what was in a man.”But there is no explicit temporal connection. We do not get information about the chronology of events. The placement of the episode in the text is, in my opinion, chronologically flexible. V. Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels (Crossway, 2012), 137. 


  1. "Now, what I found curious about Lydia McGrew's position concerning Gospel harmonization is that it seems like the weight of even one or two stock examples will collapse the evidentialist web, depending on the harmonistic strategy."

    I would really challenge this wording. My concern is not with the number of examples but with some so-called "harmonistic strategies." (To be more neutral, I would prefer the term "interpretive strategy" or "interpretive approach.")

    It should be pretty obvious that there are interpretive approaches, whether motivated by supposed difficulties or not, that undermine the credibility of the gospels.

    For example, there are numerous alleged contradictions surrounding the Easter narratives. Obviously, any so-called "harmonistic strategy" or "interpretive strategy" that dealt with these by saying that the *entire Easter narrative* is a legendary addition to the gospel in question, arising from the sitz im leben of the early church, is going to undermine our confidence in the reliability of Scripture and is going to have apologetic implications!

    So we can see just by picking extreme examples that there are obviously ways of "resolving" difficulties and ways of approaching the text that are going to be problematic from the perspective of thinking of the gospels as reliable. This isn't peculiar to evidentialism or anything else. This is just common sense. If I picked up any book of history and told you that I think large chunks of it are made up out of whole cloth, then I'm telling you something about how reliable I think the book is! This doesn't mean that you have some kind of "fragile" approach to the book. It just means that what I've just said would, if we accepted it, have a certain necessary impact upon our reliance on that particular book!

    Similarly, if someone _reacts_ to alleged Bible difficulties by saying certain things about *the kind of writers the gospel authors were*, those characterizations of the gospel writers can in principle call into question their trustworthiness in other passages.

    Non-evidentialists and evidentialists alike should be able to recognize this fact. It's a fairly straightforward matter of how the authors are being charcterized. That it arises under the aegis of "dealing with difficulties" doesn't really change anything. It would be the same if the person came up with an undermining theory about the gospel authors and didn't relate it to some alleged difficulty.

  2. In my original post at W4, I explicitly addressed what you quote here concerning the centurion. Here are some of my remarks apropos of that:

    One can argue that, if Matthew knew that the centurion did not come to Jesus personally, he is using a figure of speech in this passage. Perhaps Matthew knew that the messengers were saying only and specifically what the centurion told them to say, that the very words were his, that a "dialogue" took place between Jesus and the centurion by way of specific words delivered by messengers. This would especially make sense concerning the "I am not worthy for you to come under my roof" portion of the exchange. One has to decide whether that is a legitimate interpretation on the basis of one's judgement as to whether Matthew would be seeming to say to his intended audience that the centurion personally went to Jesus.

    Compare earlier in the passage in Luke where the Jews say that the centurion has built them a synagogue, though of course no one thinks that the centurion built it personally. When the Jews say that the centurion built a synagogue, they are not "brushing out" the builders nor "having the centurion build the synagogue directly"! On the contrary, the point is that a phrase like "he did this" may be ambiguous precisely on the question of whether he did it personally or commissioned it....

    So (this isn't in the thread) if Matthew was using a recognized figure of speech, in the same way that I might say, "We put in a new bathroom last week," meaning that we commissioned contractors to do so, and in the same way that the Jews say that the centurion built them a synagogue, this is not a problem at all. It's merely a matter of understanding the meanings of words.

    Bonus response: If someone argues that the Greek word translated "immediately" as used by Matthew in the passage about the fig tree could mean "quickly relative to what you would expect to happen," that that is part of the linguistic range of the word, I may _disagree_ with him, but he's not doing anything that means that Matthew or anybody else is unreliable, deceptive, etc. He's just arguing about the range of meaning of a Greek word!

  3. On Jairus's daughter, it seems to me that both Blomberg and Poythress (if I can take the quotes above their names to be entirely from them) are eliding some of the problems with what they _seem_ to be saying. They are rather inexplicit, though (much more inexplicit than Licona on the same subject), so it's difficult to pin them down. They seem, however, to be saying something similar to what Licona is saying--namely, that Matthew deliberately "has" Jairus say that his daughter is already dead even though Matthew knew or believed that Jairus did not say this at that point in the narrative.

    If so, of course, that has problems for all the reasons I have given--i.e., that you are attributing to an author a willingness deliberately to pretend that someone said something that you know he definitely didn't say.

    Again, it isn't the so-called "difficulty" concerning Jairus that is creating the problem here. It is a claim that Matthew deliberately changed something from true to false.

    But Poythress and Blomberg are not super-explicit that this is what they are saying. Stein is even less clear. If it were just a matter of *omitting unnecessary details*, there would be *not the slightest problem at all* concerning other implications for Matthew's reliability.

    By the way, Poythress seems to me to exaggerate the difficulty Matthew would have had with abbreviating without changing what Jairus says. It would have been extremely simple (contra Poythress) to do this. If Jairus _didn't_ come and tell Jesus that his daughter was dead but _only_ told him that she was dying, and if Matthew _knew_ this but wanted to shorten the account, he could easily have told of Jairus's coming, saying, "My daughter is dying, but if you come and lay your hand on her she will be healed," tell about their going to the house (he could include the woman with the issue of blood if he wanted to tell about that, which apparently he did), leave out the coming of the servants, and when they arrive, simply say something like, "When Jesus entered the synagogue leader’s house, he saw the noisy crowd and people playing pipes, for the girl had just died. But he said, 'Go away. The girl is not dead but asleep.' But they laughed at him."

    This is extremely economical, and it shows that the "compression" explanation does not really get to the heart of the problem concerning the differences between the accounts.

  4. On the Temple cleansing, Blomberg is, again, unclear about what he means by a "chronologically dislocated passage." If he means what Licona means--namely, that John _deliberately implied or stated_ that something happened at a *different* time from the time when it actually happened, then I don't need to repeat what I think about this. And I think he may mean exactly what Licona means. Blomberg has for a while, I believe, been touting some kind of "new version of inerrancy."

    Bock is quite unclear, and I can't tell which of the two things we have repeatedly distinguished he means. In fact, the fact that he says that John 2:23 favors his interpretation (though I disagree that it does), would at least be some indication that he thinks that John is not deliberately giving the impression that this occurred early in Jesus' ministry.

    Poythress is quite clearly arguing that John does not intend the passage to be understood chronologically. As I have said repeatedly about this view, I *disagree* with it, but I think it is significantly less problematic for ideas about the reliability of the gospels than the Licona (possibly Blomberg) view. The main problem that I see with it is just that (in my opinion) it is not weighing the evidence for chronological sequence properly. (Poythress doesn't even, in this quoted passage, mention all of the relevant evidence.) This could cause an unnecessarily radical notion of the "looseness" of chronological sequence in the gospels, leading to other incorrect interpretations elsewhere and to an exaggeration of the extent to which we cannot rely on the prima facie chronological sequence of the gospels. But I regard this as a relatively minor matter *in and of itself*, given the types of arguments Poythress is making. Indeed, one would like to hope that someone who takes his view would be open to changing his mind on the basis of the evidence that I think is there concerning what John was saying. But his very (presumed) openness to that evidence is based upon his relatively reasonable *methodological* approach, as compared with the Licona (and possibly Blomberg) approach. For example, Poythress and possibly Bock are presumably going to consider themselves bound to take indications (if they become convinced that there are any) that John *meant* to say that this occurred at the beginning of Jesus' ministry as evidence for two cleansings. This leaves them open to evidence in an important way that the other view would not, and it also means that they are viewing John as intending to be truthful in a fairly straightforward sense of "truthful," which is important for evaluating what John says elsewhere.

  5. The following will assume Markan priority.

    I don't know if this is true in comparison to M and Q, but Matthew does seem to tend to compress those stories it has in common with Mark. And when he does, he doesn't go out of his way to drastically change what he has in common with Mark. That seems to me to indicate that Matthew knew that the eventual readers of his Gospel would have already read or will end up reading a copy of Mark. In which case, it makes sense that the writer of Matthew would assume readers of his Gospel would fill in what's missing in his compressions with the fuller account in Mark. This is not like in the case of the spurious Gospels where the stories are massively changed and a spin put on them completely foreign to Mark or Q's intentions. In which case, it seems Matthew wasn't trying to replace or contradict Mark. Or even subverting Mark's authenticity/accuracy. But affirming Mark's authenticity and supplementing it with M and Q traditions.

    Obviously this is even more true of the Gospel of Luke since Luke specifically acknowledges the existence of other Gospel accounts and traditions that were circulating, their general authenticity and his dependence on them to some degree.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. I think it is widely recognized that, *if* Matthew is copying Mark, he doesn't make massive changes in what he takes from him.

    I have no problem with Matthew's leaving stuff out and leaving others to "fill in what's missing." I've said that again and again and again. For example, Matthew could have even left out the woman with the issue of blood, and that would have been no problem. I've spoken time and again now, typing it out again and again, about different senses of "compression." Compression can well mean leaving stuff out because you're just telling what happened in a shorter form. That is not inconsistent with reliability, honesty, or anything else we should look for in an historical document. The problem would be saying, "I'm going to tell this in a short form, so I'm going to _have_ so-and-so say something he didn't say." This isn't fiction. This is supposed to be sober memoir. The authors aren't _having_ people say and do things, as if they are characters. They're supposed to be _telling_ what they said and did accurately when they tell it at all. It would have been _less_ of a change to Mark to compress the account in the way I have just indicated, if Matthew was working from Mark and trying to compress him. The idea that _having_ Jairus say something that Matthew *knew he didn't say* is an essential part and parcel of _compressing_ the story is just _incorrect_. I've said this now many times.