Disharmony, Dat Harmony, Utter Harmony, or Harmony Pennsylvania?
Cleaning out my parents’ home recently I cane across my father’s copy of Our Lord of the Gospels, the Melchizedek Priesthood manual for 1958, the year I expanded our family. That was back when lesson manuals were written by individuals, not committees, like Hugh Nibley (Since Cumorah), Lowell Bennion (Introduction to the Gospel, and others), Harvey Fletcher (The Good Life), or in this case President McKay’s counselor, J. Reuben Clark, Jr.
I looked at the manual many times. I could tell from the title it was some kind of biography, but it didn’t look very kid friendly so I was an adult before found out what kind of a biography it was–a narrative harmony of the Gospels. I hardly need to explain that a harmony is an attempt to arrange the Gospels into a single account, but it might be worthwhile looking at those words attempt and harmony.
The need to harmonize suggests some disharmony, and all harmonies are attempts because there’s not a definitive harmony–can’t be. Your harmonious arrangement of events will depend on whether you think it more likely the Last Supper was a Passover meal, or the meal the night before Passover, or whether you believe there were two cleansings of the temple or only one,with John putting it at the beginning to inaugurate Jesus’s ministry, and Matthew, Mark and Luke putting it at the end as the final provocation of the authorities, the thing that makes them decide Jesus must die.
I suspect most Christians would see the differences as incidental, since the Gospels agree on the important things, like the Resurrection. In an interview on Radio West a few years ago Reza Aslan told host Doug Fabrizio the early Church didn’t care about the little details as definers of truth, truth wasn’t a matter of fidelity to facts. Truth for them was mythic, and we know this because they didn’t try to resolve the discrepancies between the Gospels.
But for the early Christians the differences might not have been incidental. When Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg published The Book of J I read Bloom’s introduction with interest and built my AML paper that year around it, “In the Territory of Irony.” Bloom talks briefly about the documentary hypothesis, the idea that the Torah was developed from four main documents: J which calls the deity Jahweh, E which uses Elohim, P concerned with priestly matters, and D the Deuteronomist, all woven together by R the Redactor–who sounded to me a lot like Mormon, the prophet/record keeper/abridger.
After I presented my AML paper my brother Dennis asked me if I had read Richard Elliott Friedman’s book about the documentary hypothesis, Who Wrote the Bible? I replied that I had avoided the documentary hypothesis because the roots of it were anti-Semitic. He replied that the early scholars may well have been trying to discredit Jewish scholars and religion, but scholarship had left that behind a long time ago. He outlined Friedman’s argument and said, “Does that sound familiar, a prophet taking the records of his people and fashioning a continuous narrative?” (Actually two prophets, since D is also a prophet/redactor/editor.)
So I started reading Friedman and soon learned that in all the brief discussions I’d heard about JEP&D no one had explained (maybe because they were repeating brief discussions they had heard) that JE&P weren’t just three perspectives–they represented rival claims. J was writing in the southern kingdom, Judah, while E was writing to substantiate claims of the northern Kingdom, Israel. (Bloom places J earlier, a woman in David’s court.)
One day I made a note, “sounds like a harmony of the Gospels.” Oh, then were the Gospels rival sources as well? I’ve been thinking through some implications of this question lately, especially since I listened to Reza Aslan’s narration of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
It is fairly well known. I gather, that Matthew is the only source to record a massacre of babies in Bethlehem. There are no secular records, and, Aslan says, Matthew didn’t intend the slaughter and the flight into Egypt as historical accounts. Rather, he intends us to understand that Jesus is the new Moses, surviving a slaughter of infants just as Moses did, someone who fulfilled the prophecy in Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (33).
It is possible, though, that Matthew pictures Jesus as the new Moses not because that’s the portrait he wants to paint of Jesus so he creates incidents to make that portrait, but because in thinking about Jesus’ life he recognizes parallels to Moses’ life.
Matthew might also want to suggest that, as with Moses, the devil knew early on that Jesus was going to be “a disturber and annoyer of his kingdom” and wanted to get rid of him. In Faith in the Face of Empire, Palestinian pastor Mitri Raheb (who grew up across the street from the traditional site of the Nativity) says Herod’s treatment of Jesus and interrogation of the Wise Men fits perfectly with how empires still today treat people they feel threatened by–and those who associate with the threatening people.
I’ll look at Raheb more next month. His perspective is quite a contrast to Aslan’s, but I want to close with an intriguing possibility. Friedman says one way scholars determined E was from the northern kingdom and J the southern was by looking at place names. E places significant actions in Israel, J in Judah, each saying history happened in this kingdom.
To the biblical writers who would have been ancient to the early church the landscape and details of a story mattered enormously, if only as details in claims to land and history–but surely in other ways as well.
So, does Matthew include the story about the flight into Egypt because Egypt was important to the community that produced that Gospel, because that community wanted to be able to say, “I have called my Son out of Egypt”? (in the same way that some later Christians wanted to be able to say Light Came from the East–that is, that Jesus spent the years between 12 and 30 studying in Japan?).
If this is true it may be that other Gospel writers didn’t include the incident because they didn’t want to substantiate the claims of Egyptian Christians. It may also be true that the early fathers included the four Gospels we have in the canon not because three saw with the same eye (synoptic) but in an attempt to unify the church by including holy writings from four powerful factions.
Thoughts, anyone? (And we do not care whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox, or even Mayo docs, as long as you have thoughts.)