This is the second in this last group of posts. The first was splicing the gospels together.
For more than one reason, I've come to view what I did in this paper as deeply problematic. I hope it is fairly obvious how strange this way of thinking is, "harmonization thinking."
Say two people are describing an event. One says a girl with a red dress came up. Another person says a girl with a yellow dress came up. Our first impulse is not to say, maybe there were two girls that came up, one with a red dress and one with a yellow dress. Is it possible? Yes. Is it the most probable scenario? No.
This way of thinking focuses not on what is most likely to be true, but on whether it is possible to maintain what I want to be true. It's called special pleading. Say three people are telling you about how Billy Graham healed a blind man in Marion, Indiana. One says he healed a man named Bartimaeus when he was on his way into town to speak at IWU (Luke 18:35). One says he healed a man named Bartimaeus as he was leaving town (Mark 10:46). A third person says he healed two blind men leaving town (Matt. 20:30).
Now Rev. Graham may have healed three men nearby Marion at the same point in his ministry, two of which had the same name, but we would chuckle if a child suggested this option to us. We certainly would think twice about letting a person who thinks this way in real life do surgery on us or decide whether we should go to war. It's just bad thinking. It's thinking that is not interested in the truth but in preserving its own ideas at any cost, no matter how irrational.
Any sane person is going to say that these are three different versions of the same event. Either going into or coming out of Jericho, Jesus healed a man named Bartimaeus. Matthew, by the way, has two of something in more than one place where the other gospels have one (e.g., the donkeys going into Jerusalem).
I mentioned Harold Lindsell's book earlier, The Battle for the Bible. His suggested harmony of Peter's denials was that perhaps Peter denied Jesus six times, three before the cock crowed once and three before the cock crowed twice. But see how different this explanation is than any of the gospels themselves. In order to preserve his idea about what the Bible can and cannot do, he has created his own gospel account. It is far more different from the other gospels than any of the gospels are from each other!
This is the second reason why harmonization thinking is problematic. The first is that it is just bad reasoning--it makes Christians look stupid and inadvertently disgraces God in front of the world. The second is that it inadvertently twists the biblical texts. It rejects any one of the biblical accounts in deference to its own version. It is thus, ironically, hateful to the biblical text. It violates what the biblical texts actually say in order to make them look like what it wants them to say.
It is thus, ironically, inherently deeply disrespectful to Scripture in the name of a supposed "high idea" of Scripture. The earliest Christian "harmonizer" we know is Tatian. He created a single gospel out of the four gospels. For a time in Syria, some Christians used it in their worship. But in the end, Christians decided to live with the tensions between the four gospels. Tatian's Diatesseron did not become Scripture but the four separate gospels now in our canon.
Harmonizers run the risk of losing the distinctness of each gospel, the richness of the uniqueness of each gospel, because of the false uniformity they insist the gospels must have. They throw away the parts of the Bible that don't fit with their preconceived notions about the Bible. It is a "high view" of an imaginary text and a quite "low view" of the actual biblical text.
The third reason why harmonization thinking is problematic is because, in the end, I can't see how it could possibly be right from a standpoint of the evidence. Is it possible there were six denials? Yes. Is it possible there were three blind men around Jericho? Yes. People with quite a lot of intelligence have come up with the most spectacular "what if" scenarios in the name of harmonization.
So is there an event where you know for sure it's the same event (in other words, not one like Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple where you can just say Jesus did it twice) and there seems to be a detail of the story that can't be resolved by adding characters to the story (three blind men, two servant girls, and an extra man who'd been in Gethsemane).
One candidate is the question of whether Jesus was crucified on the day of Passover (Matthew, Mark, Luke) or the day before Passover (John). In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus eats the Passover meal with his disciples in the evening (e.g., Mark 14:12). But in John, the high priest does not go into Pilate's building so he can eat the Passover, meaning that the Passover meal has not yet happened (John 18:28). It is the day of preparation before a Sabbath that would be a very high day indeed, a Passover that coincided with the Sabbath (19:31).
I'm sure that ingenious solutions have been proposed. I seem to remember someone suggesting that Jesus and the temple were following different calendars, with Jesus on the accurate one and the temple off. Brilliant! Is it likely at all? Not in the slightest. Truth is usually the most probable reading of the evidence, not a possible reading that fits with what I want the truth to be.
So, once again, we set up our children for potential faith crisis when we teach them to read the Bible in this way. A person can only sustain cognitive dissonance for so long, and it is ironically those who are most militant about harmonizing who are most likely to become angry atheists later. Why are so many ex-fundamentalists so angry? They would tell you it's in part because they hate themselves for being so stupid.
And it is entirely unnecessary. Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. The point of the story of Jesus healing a blind man is not how many blind men there were. It is that Jesus healed a blind man. The point is surely the power of Jesus over sickness and his compassion on the rejected of society. Notice how insidious it is for us to get focused on going in, coming out, how many in the light of the real point!!!
And what if a great deal more artistic license was allowed in telling the story in the ancient world than we would use today? What if the gospel writers even at times deliberately presented events in slightly different ways? It's not an error if it is permissible according to the genre rules of the day...