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James Barr on harmonization of the Bible

If two passages in the gospels describe in different terms what seems to be the same incident, they are harmonized in the conservative literature. The most common way to do this is to add the two together, so that what one says compliments what the other says. Certainly it is admitted that one evangelist has seen things or described things rather differently than the another, just as two persons who witness a road accident will describe it differently. But they cannot be in real contradiction, they cannot be saying different things that cannot be reconciled. The most striking example is the famous incident of the cleansing of the Temple by Jesus. In the synoptic gospels this is narrated at the very end of the ministry of Jesus, at the beginning of passion week (Matt. 21:10-17; Mark 11. 15-19; Luke 19. 45-48), while John has it right at the beginning of the ministry (John 2. 13-17). The New Bible Commentary Revised (on Mark, C.E Graham Swift, p. 875b) gives us the simple but ludicrous harmonization: ‘By far the most satisfactory solution is that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice.’ Why not? By the same account, why should the ascension of Jesus to heaven not have taken place twice? This would successfully harmonize the facts that according to Luke 25.51, the ascension appears to have taken place on the same day as the resurrection, while Acts 1 expressly makes it about forty days later. Jesus was carried up to heaven, but later returned, appeared and spoke with his disciples for forty days, and then finally ascended again. Why not?… The commentator then, typically of conservative interpretation, abandons the literal sense as soon as it would imply error or disagreement in the Bible; he achieves harmonization by taking the Acts account literally in this respect (i.e. in respect of the time of events) and holding that the  Luke account is telescoped or otherwise imprecise. Multiple ascensions form a different method of harmonization: in this case one has the advantage that both narratives, that in Luke and that in Acts, can be taken literally. In either case what never enters the head of the conservative interpreter is that there was no certain knowledge of the temporal sequence, or that quite contradictory accounts existed, or that some source represented the events in such a way not because that was the way it happened but because that was important for the theological message of that particular source. Harmonization through the production of multiple events is the most thoroughly laughable of all devices of interpretation. (Barr, Fundamentalism, pp. 56-7, 1977)

Barr J. (1977). Fundamentalism. Tottenham Road, London. SCM Press Ltd. pp. 56-7.

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