Monday, October 01, 2007

History And Harmonization

A particularly fascinating illustration of the need to explore creative harmonization possibilities before concluding for irreconcilable differences comes from historians Barbara Allen and William Montell. In their book on methodology for conducting local historical research, Allen and Montell investigated two different accounts of the 1881 lynching of two young men - Frank and Jack McDonald ("the McDonald boys") - in Menominee, Michigan. One account claimed that the boys were hung from a railroad crossing, while the other claimed they were strung up on a pine tree. The accounts seemed hopelessly contradictory until Allen and Montell discovered old photographs that showed the bodies hanging at different times from both places. As macabre as it is, the McDonald boys apparently had first been hung from a railroad crossing, then taken down, dragged to a pine tree, and hoisted up again. Sometimes reality is stranger - and more gruesome - than fiction.

This particular episode is all the more interesting because it bears a certain resemblance to the apparently conflicting accounts of Judas's death. Matthew tells us Judas hung himself (Matt. 27:5), while Luke states he "fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out" (Acts 1:18 NIV). Skeptics have consistently belittled the harmonizing proposal that perhaps Judas hung himself from a tree, and either the limb or the rope he hung from broke, causing him to fall. Yet such a proposal seems less far-fetched than what in fact turned out to be true about the double hanging of the McDonalds. Were it not for the discovered photographs, historians who treated the differing traditions of the boys' tragic hanging as skeptically as many New Testament critics treat the Gospels would be insisting that at least one of the accounts must be wrong. In fact, however, both were accurate.

As a final illustration, the necessity of engaging in harmonization attempts was recognized by film writer and director John Cameron while working on the script for his blockbuster movie Titanic. In a documentary interview on the making of his film, Cameron explained that he discovered numerous conflicts in the available eyewitness reports about what happened on the Titanic's fateful voyage. Some of these reports were given in court under oath, and there was absolutely no reason to doubt their essential veracity. Yet, as is typical of multiple eyewitness accounts, these reports contained a variety of apparent contradictions. Despite these conflicts, however, Cameron reported that he found enough in common among the reports to start reconstructing the main lines of what actually happened.

This is how good, critical history should be done - whether we are talking about the sinking of the Titanic, the life of Alexander the Great, the hanging of the McDonald boys, or the life of Jesus Christ. In virtually all cases of independent reports of a single event, we should expect to find some apparent conflicts....

The bottom line, as Gilbert Garraghan explains in his Guide to Historical Method, is that "almost any critical history that discusses the evidence for important statements will furnish examples of discrepant or contradictory accounts and the attempts which are made to reconcile them."...

Interestingly enough, even those skeptical scholars who claim to reject a harmonizing method cannot, in fact, escape it. Often they engage in extraordinary attempts to harmonize conflicting data. For example, in one currently fashionable image of Jesus - that of a radically hellenized Cynic philosopher with little that is religiously Jewish about him - the evidence for the thoroughly "Jewish" nature of first-century Palestinian Judaism must be explained away (harmonized, if you will) to comport with the thesis of a largely non-Jewish Jesus. So too, the strained attempts to reconcile the New Testament data with the "radical early Christian diversity thesis," speculative efforts to redactionally stratify Q and reconstruct the "history" of its community, and attempts to prioritize (both chronologically and ideologically) the Gospel of Thomas over the canonical Gospels all in their own ways incorporate harmonizing strategies.

Indeed, we submit that these attempts to harmonize conflicting data often are as speculative and historically implausible as anything Harold Lindsell or any other fundamentalist ever proposed....

All of this means that if harmonization is appropriate - even necessary - as an aspect of good historical methodology in general, it is all the more so when we are dealing with texts written in orally dominant cultures such as that of the Synoptic Gospels. It means we have to understand that, unlike written accounts produced within a highly literate context, the various episodes recorded in the Gospels very likely were intentionally written and consciously received as what we would consider fragmentary in nature - as composed of "parts" of the Jesus tradition that were intended to signal the "wholes" that stood behind them. They were designed primarily to call to memory through narrative allusion and traditional referentiality a much broader, shared oral history, anchored by the testimony of trusted witnesses. While texts characterized by a literate conception are meant primarily to "convey information," texts such as the Gospels driven by an oral conception are intended to "activate" the shared, orally transmitted knowledge of the community - knowledge that was profoundly constitutive of the community's very identity.

These observations reveal that the basic assumption that fuels responsible harmonization attempts - the awareness that texts that offer apparently conflicting data may represent partial, fragmentary, allusive retellings of a richer, denser, well-known account - is precisely what is intentionally at work in orally oriented texts like the Synoptic Gospels. If ever we should be willing to entertain responsible attempts to harmonize conflicting data, therefore, it is with orally oriented texts such as these. (Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd, The Jesus Legend [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007], pp. 424-426, 428)

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