Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Early Christian Tradition of Biblical Harmonization

I recently read some comments in a thread at another blog regarding how the writers of the gospels allegedly weren't as concerned with history as they were with theology. The comments were made in a context in which the historicity of the infancy narratives was being downplayed. Critics of the historical credibility of the Bible, including critics who profess to be Christians or are conservative on many other issues, often suggest that their lower view of the historicity of scripture is consistent with what the earliest Christians believed. We live in a day when homosexuals will claim that the Bible accepts homosexuality, or abortionists will claim support for abortion in scripture, for example, so it's not too unusual to see radically unhistorical views presented as if they're rooted in early church history.

People who hold a less conservative view of scripture will often criticize attempts to harmonize scripture, often piously making references to how it's an abuse of scripture to attempt to harmonize one portion of the Bible with another. During this Christmas season, we'll probably be hearing a lot from critics of Christianity and less conservative Christians regarding how we shouldn't read the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke too literally.

It's true that the authors of scripture were concerned with theology, but they also were concerned with historical issues, and the two are intertwined. We know that the authors of the gospels, for example, were writing in the historical genre of Greco-Roman biography. The earliest Christians spoke of the contents of the gospels as historical accounts, and the earliest enemies of Christianity responded to the religion in a manner that suggests that they interpreted the gospels in the same way:

"A careful reading of the patristic evidence suggests that indeed the vast majority of early Christians did believe that the type of information the Gospel writers communicated was historical fact, even as they recognized the more superficial parallels with the mythology of other worldviews" (Craig Blomberg, cited in Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2004], p. 327, n. 27)

Note that, as Blomberg explains, these early Christians were aware of the possibility that the gospel accounts were unhistorical. They knew of the possibility and rejected it. They were surrounded with a world of fictional religions and fictional documents, with many allegories and naturalists and other skeptics. In that context, they interpreted the gospels in a highly historical manner.

On the infancy narratives in particular, we see the earliest church fathers referring to events such as the virgin birth and the census of Luke 2 as historical. And we see widespread attempts at harmonization. In a previous post, I discussed the example of Julius Africanus, one of the most knowledgeable scholars of the early church, who advocated a high view of scripture and of the historicity of the infancy narratives specifically. Tatian published his Diatessaron, a harmonization of the gospels, around the middle of the second century. Justin Martyr, in the same timeframe, combines elements from Matthew and Luke, treating the infancy narratives as harmonious historical accounts (Dialogue with Trypho, 78). Regarding the differences between the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, Eusebius writes that "every believer, in ignorance of the truth, has been zealous to invent some explanation which shall harmonize the two passages" (Church History, 1:7:1). While Eusebius criticizes many believers for being "ignorant" in the harmonizations they offer, he doesn't criticize them for seeking harmonizations, and Eusebius goes on to offer a harmonization himself, the one advocated by Julius Africanus.

Interpreting scripture in a highly historical manner, including the harmonizing of the infancy narratives, is an early Christian tradition. The tendency toward a lower view of scripture isn't so early and, more significantly, can be shown to be contrary to what the authors of scripture themselves intended.