Harmonization and the Gospel Accounts

Jim Warner Wallace, a cold-case detective, in his book gave an interesting account of a robbery case:

“Many years ago I investigated a robbery in which a male suspect entered a small grocery store, walked up to the counter, and calmly contacted the cashier. The suspect removed a handgun from his waistband and placed it on the counter. He pointed it at the cashier, using his right hand to hold the gun on the counter, his finger on the trigger. The suspect quietly told the cashier to empty the register of its money and place it in a plastic bag. The cashier complied and gave the robber all the money in the drawer. The robber then calmly walked from the store. This robbery was observed by two witnesses, who were properly separated and interviewed apart from one another. When the crime report was assigned to me as the investigator, I read the officer’s summary and wondered if the witnesses were describing the same robber” (J. Warner Wallace (2013), Cold-Case Christianity. Pg.75)

The first eye-witness Sylvia Ramos, is
(1) 38 year old woman
(2) married with kids
(3) Interior Designer
On that particular day where the robbery took place, she was picking up milk on the way home from work
The second eye-witness Paul Meher, is

(1) 23 year old male
(2) Single with no kid
(3) Apprentice plumber

On that particular day where the robbery took place, he was paying a visit to the cashier on his day off
Here is the summary of the report given by the eye-witnesses:

(1) Sylvia said that the suspect is a younger boy in his teens while Paul described the suspect as a man between the age of 24 to 25

(2) Sylvia said that the suspect is very polite with a sweet voice while Paul said that the suspect gave a threatening scowl

(3) Sylvia said that the suspect did not have a gun with him while Paul said that the suspect had a Ruger P95 9mm Handgun

(4) According to Sylvia, the suspect bought something from the store while according to Paul, the suspect bought nothing from the store

(5) According to Sylvia, the suspect wore an Izod polo shirt while Paul said that the suspect might have worn a T-shirt

(6) Sylvia said that the suspect had no vehicle while Paul said that he saw the suspect running to a ’90 Tan Nissan vehicle

Wow! These accounts are so contradictory that the hope of reconciling these accounts is very slim. One would be tempted to take one of the accounts as accurate while dismissing the other or dismiss both accounts altogether.

But…

The two accounts are true at least from the perspective of the eye-witnesses. Here is what really happened:

“At first, these statements seemed to describe two different men committing two different crimes. But, the more I spoke with the witnesses, the more I realized that both were reliable in spite of the fact they seemed to be saying different things about the suspect. Sylvia Ramos was hurrying home from work and stopped at the store to purchase some milk and a few small items. She stood in line behind the suspect as he calmly committed the robbery. While she heard the tone of his voice, she never heard his words distinctly, and she never saw a gun. She described him as a polite young man in his teens. Based on the way the cashier handed the robber the bag, Sylvia believed that the robber made a purchase prior to committing the crime. Sylvia immediately recognized the suspect’s blue shirt as a classic IZOD polo because many of the men in her office wore this style of shirt when she first started her career as a designer. In fact, she had recently purchased one for her husband. Sylvia watched the robber walk slowly out of the business and across the parking lot as he left the area. She was sure that he didn’t have a “getaway” car.

Paul Meher was visiting the cashier when the robbery occurred. The cashier was an old friend from high school, and Paul was standing behind the counter with his friend at the time of the crime. Paul couldn’t remember many details related to the suspect’s clothing, but believed that he was wearing a T-shirt. He was certain, however, that the robber pointed a gun at his friend, and he recognized this pistol as a Ruger P95 because his father owned one that was identical. Paul focused on the gun during most of the robbery, but he also observed that the suspect scowled and had a menacing expression on his face. The robber spoke his words slowly and deliberately in a way that Paul interpreted as threatening. Paul described the man as just slightly older than him, at approximately twenty-four to twenty-five years of age. He was certain that the suspect made no effort to purchase anything prior to the crime, and afterward, Paul had a visual angle through the glass storefront that allowed him to see that the robber walked to the end of the parking lot, then ran to a tan-colored, 1990s Nissan four-door.” (Cold –Case Christianity, pg. 76-77)

For centuries, critics had never stopped attacking the Gospels because they appeared to be contradictory. In an age of secularism, the credibility of harmonizers are being questioned because they believed that harmonization is a religious belief that can impair one’s evaluation. In fact, many Biblical scholars are very allergic to harmonization. They hate harmonization and will go to any length to avoid it. During their tirade against harmonization, a typical anti-harmonizer will say, “Oh! Look at the account of Jarius’ daughter, are we to say that Jesus raised Jarius’ daughter twice like some people claimed?”

There are other ways to harmonize the account of the raising of Jarius’ daughter (I don’t have to believe that Jesus raise Jarius’ daughter twice). There is nothing that indicates that raising Jarius’ daughter twice is out of the realm of possibility! However, that Jesus raised Jarius’ daughter twice is only possible but not probable.

For instance, Luke had been accused of making historical error when he claimed that Lysanias is the tetrarch who reigned over Abilene when John the Baptist started his ministry. Now, the Lysanias the historians know of is the king who reigned over the very same region from 40 to 36 BC.

Any harmonizer who tried to argue that there are really two “Lysanias” will be laughed out of the class. Now, it is no longer funny as it was then. An inscription dating from AD 14 to 37 confirmed that there is a Lysanias who reigned as tetrarch over Abila near Damascus! This example alone should give scholars enough reason to tread cautiously when approaching apparent contradictions in the scriptures. The same thing also happened to the issue of Quirinius presented by Luke until archaeological discoveries came onto the scene to settle the dispute by exonerating Luke of the historical crime charge. There are also examples throughout the OT and NT where incidents recorded in the scriptures seems to contradict other historical records. The default position of scholars is to uphold the secular records at the expense of Biblical records. On several occasions, archaeological discoveries always surface to settle the matter by proving the scriptures right. Yet, people DO NOT LEARN!

Whenever the Gospel writers record the same event, scholars conjure up the Q document theory in order to protect their belief that the Gospels were written late – that belief had given them the opportunity to accuse the authors of embellishment and memory retardation and also to avoid conceding the fact that Jesus can predict the future. However, if they record it differently, they cry out, “contradiction! The authors are confused and are cooking up stories”. In fact, some skeptics are so imaginative that they are eager to see contradictions lurking at every page of the Bible.

When two or more witnesses are recording events from different perspectives, we shouldn’t be surprised when their reports are different or seem contradictory. They are not always contradictory but can also be complementary. The example given by Warner Wallace teaches reinforces that fact. There are also numerous incidents I have also witnessed that, if given from witnesses from different perspectives, will appear contradictory.

In fact, when different eye-witnesses are giving the exact report of a detail, we should rather get suspicious because (1) conspiracies often come in such forms (2) if they are not cooked up stories, then it means that the report of one of the eye-witnesses had heavily influenced the other(s) such that the other witness(es) will have to remove some details peculiar to their own perspective in order to align with the witness of the prime eye-witness. Such phenomenon can jeopardize investigations as Warner Wallace noted:

“I can remember a particular homicide that occurred in a restaurant parking lot in our town, late one rainy night, well after our homicide team went home for the day. Patrol officers responded to the scene and discovered that the suspect was already long gone. The officers located three witnesses and interviewed them very briefly. They quickly recognized that the murder investigation would require the involvement of our team. Radio dispatch called our sergeant, and he began waking us up by telephone, summoning four of us to handle the investigation. It took me nearly an hour to get into a suit and drive to the location of the crime. When I got there, I discovered that the officers gathered the witnesses and put them in the backseat of their police unit so they wouldn’t get drenched in the rain. This simple act of kindness nearly ruined the case.
I learned many years ago the importance of separating witnesses. If eyewitnesses are quickly separated from one another, they are far more likely to provide an uninfluenced, pure account of what they saw. Yes, their accounts will inevitably differ from the accounts of others who witnessed the same event, but that is the natural result of a witness’s past experience, perspective, and worldview. I can deal with the inconsistencies; I expect them.” (Cold-Case Christianity, pg. 74-75)

He continued:

“But when witnesses are allowed to sit together (prior to being interviewed) and compare notes and observations, I’m likely to get one harmonized version of the event. Everyone will offer the same story. While this may be tidier, it will come at the sacrifice of some important detail that a witness is willing to forfeit in order to align his or her story with the other witnesses. I’m not willing to pay that price. I would far rather have three messy, apparently contradictory versions of the event than one harmonized version that has eliminated some important detail. I know in the end I’ll be able to determine the truth of the matter by examining all three stories.” (Cold-Case Christianity, pg. 75)

Take a look at the resurrection accounts. It is easy to accuse them of being contradictory. However, the real question remains: Why is it that the Gospel writers will try to appear contradictory especially when it comes to the bedrock of Christianity if they were really cooking stories up? If the resurrection is a conspiracy theory devised by the Gospel writers, they will give almost the same account and NOT different ones in order not to betray their conspiracy.

Upon a closer look, like the incident narrated earlier, the resurrection accounts are ridden with undesigned coincidences give a whole coherent picture because each of the Gospel writers decided to record from their own perspective (though that of Luke and Mark are indirect). When you see contradictory accounts in the scriptures, do not jump into hasty conclusions. Take your time to study them and you can even consult the works of scholars who worked to collate the data that harmonizes the accounts. Do not let anybody deceive you: harmonization is not a religious belief. While excessive and unreasonable harmonizations should be avoided, that does not give you the license to develop allergy to harmonizations. “Harmonizophobes” should beware!!!