Christians have a habit of trying to harmonize the discrepancies found in the Bible. Yet this practice contributes to stripping the Bible of what makes it interesting, and what can make it speak powerfully.
Harmonizing involves eliminating differences, usually by pretending they aren't there or by forcing incongruous pieces into a clumsy agreement. It's like trying to explain to children why it's no big deal that the poem "The Night before Christmas" doesn't mention Rudolph, whom a certain song has led them to expect when the reindeer are named. At first, they'll let you contort the stories, but soon they figure out you're playing tricks.
We do this all the time with the Bible, especially by combining distinctive elements from different Gospels into a composite narrative. Sometimes we have to do it, to keep track of all the pieces available to us for envisioning the big picture of Jesus' life. Sometimes liturgical routines ingrain their harmonizing tendencies in us so deeply as to make us forget we have other options. But then, what's a Christmas pageant without both shepherds (from Luke) and magi (courtesy of Matthew) at the manager?
And what's a depiction of the crucifixion without Jesus' fending off death until he can utter both "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (as in Mark and Matthew) and "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit" (a la Luke)? Hmm ... Then again, this example alone makes a great argument against harmonizing, inflicting as it does upon Jesus quite a drastic mood swing in his final breaths.
The most unhelpful harmonizing comes from people who, for one reason or another, need the Bible to be perfect, utterly consistent, or without error as a historical chronicle. Such hyper-harmonizers will abandon common sense, if necessary, to create such a Bible. Take, for example, far-fetched theories that insist on John's Gospel corresponds with the other three in the timing of Jesus' death in relation to Passover. Sorry, but John puts the crucifixion on Passover Eve, while the others say it happened on the feast day itself.
The better option for Bible readers is this: let the incongruities stand and understand the Gospels as setting the table for a multi-perspectival conversation about Jesus and the significance of his life story. Let each Gospel speak in its own voice, allowing each to offer a sketch of Jesus in its own colors, with its own emphases.
In a recent post-Timothy Beal wrote, "The Bible canonizes contradiction." He's right. But we can also say, as his post implies, that the Bible canonizes a conversation among differing voices. Sometimes the perspectives are complementary; sometimes they clash. The Bible does not promise all its accounts will line up in a univocal consistency.
We approach the four Gospels, then, as we should enter any other lively conversation: willing to let each participant make a case in his or her own words. (Notice at least one biblical author seems to have demanded this courtesy from readers. Whoever wrote the Gospel according to Luke acknowledged the existence of other books about Jesus and intimated that he [she?] could do better than those predecessors, including in all probability the Gospel according to Mark [see Luke 1:1-4].)
Such an approach means we pay attention to each Gospel's themes. We need not always rush to another Gospel to resolve the ambiguity we might encounter in one.
I allow Matthew to impress upon me the fragility of faith, expressed even within an acid environment of us-versus-you sectarian struggles.
I wonder how anybody could ever muster the will to really follow a Jesus who scares the wits out of most folks in Mark yet remains true to his words.
I feel attracted to the Jesus in Luke, who is bent on upending social rules and arrangements, yet I anxiously wonder -- if I read honestly -- what this could mean for people like me who assume so many privileges of a relatively comfortable life.
I wade into John's deep symbolism, with its simultaneously comforting and strident assurances, and I marvel at a Jesus whose ability to keep everything under his control nearly defies his flesh-and-blood existence.
What's interesting about reading each Gospel on its own terms? Jesus can become richer, more multifaceted to us than a set of doctrines. This way of reading insists that we meet him in the particularity -- and perhaps in the limitation -- that is part of human perspective, comprehension, and testimony. Like anyone else, he comes across as most real and unrestrained when we consider him situated within a narrative, as opposed to a set of descriptive claims or abstract ideas.
How can the Bible speak powerfully in this way? Reading each Gospel on its own terms offers our engagements with them a modicum of protection against ourselves. It might keep us from insisting that our understanding of Jesus, his message, and his accomplishments have to fit squarely into a prearranged understanding. We might discover something new, or fresh.
Don't misunderstand me as saying we can't bring any theological preconceptions with us when we open the Bible. Nor am I suggesting there's no place for drawing theological or historical conclusions in response to what the Gospels -- in concert -- present to us. Of course, this is important work.
My point is that we should not come to those conclusions by treating the incongruities we encounter across the Gospels as problems to be solved or idiosyncrasies to be downplayed. Rather, we respect the individual contributions that each biblical book makes to the conversation, even if other data or ideas might finally minimize those contributions or hold sway over them when we form our conclusions.
The fact that we get to those conclusions by attending carefully to conversations we overhear in the Bible's pages should also impress upon us the importance of conducting our reflections on Jesus in dialogue with others. These dialogues should take place between ourselves and the Bible's authors, as well as between ourselves and other readers.
We know that conversations aren't always harmonious, but they embody the overall testimony we find in the Bible better than any homogenized reconstruction can.
By Matthew L. Skinner Associate Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary