Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Gospel harmonization

The most obvious example of this mistake appears in fundamentalist “harmonizations” of Gospel contradictions: they think they have “rebutted” the conclusion that the Gospels are contradicting each other if they can think of “any” possible way to harmonize the accounts, developing a fanciful “just so” story that makes everything fit, by assuming a hundred things not in evidence. But that ignores the fact that that account is actually extremely improbable. That Matthew is deliberately contradicting Mark because he is arguing against Mark is vastly more probable than that Matthew and Mark are correctly describing exactly the same events. Thus, the fact that the latter is “possible” is irrelevant to what we should conclude.

i) There are numerous problems with Carrier’s objection, but for now I’ll focus on a faulty assumption. Frequently, Gospel writers aren’t describing a single event. Rather, it’s not uncommon for Gospel writers to simultaneously describe at least two events.

For instance, Gospel writers often describe an event in the life of Jesus in terms designed to evoke a similar event in the OT. So the narrative is descriptive of two events rather than one. These are actually two different, but similar events.

So the description doesn’t single out one event. Rather, the description is a comparative description. Hence, the language must be flexible enough to cover two different events. It directly depicts one event, but indirectly depicts another event. Directly depicts one event in terms of another event–borrowing OT language to draw a parallel.  In language and imagery evocative of another, comparable event. Like a montage, in which one image is superimposed on another.

ii) But this isn’t confined to literary allusions to the OT. For instance, there are studied parallels in the way Luke describes the nativity accounts of Jesus and John the Baptist. At the same time, Luke is drawing parallels to accentuate the differences. That Jesus is greater than John.

iii) This is narrative technique. Instead of directly editorializing about the significance of an event, the narrator will implicitly comment on the nature of the event by using descriptive language that obliquely compares (or contrasts) one event with another event. 

In this way the narrator can convey more than he explicitly says through indirect, allusive cues to the attentive reader. Juxtaposing two events generates a symbolic relation, where one event symbolizes another­–in varying degrees.

iv) This is also a source of dramatic irony. For instance, you may have a record of a dialogue between Jesus and his opponents. However, the narrator, writing after the fact, depicts the event in terms alluding to OT precedent. This makes the reader aware of a larger, unsuspected dimension to the event than Jesus’ opponents were cognizant of at the time the event took place. The reader knows something they don’t. The reader is in a position to understand what they misunderstand.

v) Likewise, Gospel writers sometimes summarize analogous events in the life of Christ under a common narrative description.

vi) Bible writers also use stock language to narrate events. As such, the language isn’t meant to be exactly descriptive.  Rather, the linguistic formulation may be conventional or idiomatic.

Carrier’s objection is grossly simplistic. 


  1. If there's a way to harmonise the events, it's not a contradiction, period.

    Maybe the skeptic should find a real contradiction and stick on that one?

  2. Oh, they were talking about the bible! I thought they were talking about evolution. I wondered why they kept mentioning Matthew and Mark... :)

  3. Listen...we have all heard friends talk about the same event with no regard to self styled quotes and non chronological recounts. They even throw in their own ideas about what was going through the subjects mind at the time. And all these styled accounts doesn't make the event untrue. Even if they seem to contradict each other. THE EVENT HAPPENED!