I couldn’t find the quote, but I remember reading somewhere—maybe it was Robert Capon, who said it’s not the actual day of Christmas that’s so enjoyable, but the weeks leading up to it. That’s what most of us truly like about Christmas. We find a large part of our joy in the anticipation. And then once Christmas is over, and the trash can is filled with torn wrapping paper and turkey remains, that’s it. We’re done. We celebrate New Years, and then move onto whatever’s next in the calendar. All that to say, it’s only during the Christmas season we want to spend much time talking about the Christmas story. Christmas is over; the anticipation is gone, our interests lie elsewhere. But before we move on completely, I wanted to comment on some comments concerning a recent post of mine on the Christmas story.
You can read my original post “Reading the Christmas Story with ‘Middle Eastern Eyes’” at the Logos Academic Blog. But in a nutshell, I attempt to weave the events recorded in Matthew 2 and Luke 2 into a chronologically conceivable sequence. As someone with a high view of Scripture, I believe the work of harmonization is a valid and worthwhile enterprise. But it would be naive to think any academic effort undergirded by these beliefs wouldn’t send at least a few into paroxysms of incredulity. Their objections can be illustrated by what a few folks had to say on a biblical studies forum in response to what I wrote.
One commenter said my post on harmonization was “the opposite of academic” because I was attempting to reconcile separate biblical texts. And another commenter said I was “reading the stories with ‘Biblical inerrancy’ eyes and trying to stretch the text to fit that assumption.” From their point of view, it’s ridiculous even to consider harmonizing separate Gospel accounts. But is it unacademic to try and fit together the details of Scripture? Is it foolhardy to treat the details as historical facts, and believe they can be pieced together into a coherent whole?
Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry clearly believed the endeavor had merit when they produced A Harmony of the Gospels. Their harmony is great, but they also include a dozen essays at the end of their book, one of which asks the question: “Is a Harmony of the Gospels Legitimate?” There they note and address several objections people have against harmonizing the Gospels. Here are a few takeaways that seem to underlie the issues these commenters took with my article.
Objection 1: The four Gospels weren’t meant to be viewed as historical.
Objection 2: The Gospels are compilations of loosely handled traditions.
Objection 3: The Gospel writers messed with the facts in order to fit their own theological agendas.
Objection 4: The Gospels contain errors and cannot be harmonized.
Those who believe in verbal plenary inspiration and inerrancy take issue with each of these objections. As Thomas and Gundry point out, the Gospel writers’ interest in presenting the good news of the gospel doesn’t negate the possibility of doing so with historical accuracy. Why would they lie? Especially when honesty is an important ethical concern for Christians. It also seems odd to imagine that all the eyewitnesses would keep quiet if these were just loosely handled traditions they all knew were false. That sounds more like a conspiracy than academic scholarship. The biblical accounts are true and free from error. And while they are certainly challenging to harmonize at points, there are some good reasons for making an honest attempt.
Reason 1: We’re dealing with historical documents that describe historical people, places, and events. Harmonizing these facts sheds light on the relationships they have with one another. Doing this work can deepen our understanding.
Reason 2: The Bible is true. Harmonizing the historical accounts demonstrates our belief in this reality, and shows how the historical foundation of Christianity is a solid one.
Reason 3: Gospel harmonies can help us learn more about the life of Jesus. Harmonizing helps fill in the gaps of these inspired records. We have the opportunity to grow as we study this record. We have the opportunity to know Him better—a worthwhile endeavor, indeed (Phil 3:8).
I love Christmas. I miss it already, and I can hardly wait for the next one to roll around. And whether or not you wait until then to think about the Christmas Story again, we can know these stories along with every other in the Bible can be trusted. Therefore, they harmonize. Of course, we might struggle with the task, and our accuracy might be stronger in some points than others. But harmonization is a legitimate exegetical labor. To close then, this counsel from Thomas and Gundry make for a fitting conclusion:
For those matters where no satisfactory solution is evident, it is better to leave the matter unresolved than to retort to strained and artificial exegesis of the text …The student believing in the inspiration of Scripture is not obligated to find a solution to every difficulty therein (307–308).