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To blend separate tones into a chord. Term used in biblical studies for blending two or more pericopes into a composite version, preserving characteristic elements from each. Harmonizing represents a natural tendency of the human mind to resolve discord by drawing contrasting elements into a balanced composition. It is the opposite of analyzing: separating a composition into its constituent parts.

The harmonizing of different sources is evident in the composition of the synoptic gospels themselves. It occurs at every level of transmission of the gospel texts, especially after the churches adopted a 4 gospel canon in the mid-2nd c. CE. Scribes already familiar with one version of a saying or story, who were copying a parallel account in another gospel, sometimes altered details of the second to agree with the former.

There are four types of harmonizing: radical, synthetic, sequential & parallel.

  • Radical harmonizing suppresses variant details in one text by replacing them with preferred wording drawn from another version. Radical harmonizing tends to produce a uniform official version of a saying or story in separate gospels.

  • Synthetic harmonizing expands a text by adding details from one account to another to produce a conflated version that is not identical with either of the sources. A synthetic version is most evident when compared with other texts that alternate between some of the elements it combines.

  • Sequential harmonizing preserves two or more versions of the same material as separate incidents in the same narrative. This produces repetitions of sayings & stories that literary critics call "doublets."

  • Parallel harmonizing presents two or more versions of the same account side by side in a synopsis for easy comparison. This type of gospel harmony highlights both the similarities & the differences of the versions of a pericope & is the basic tool of modern gospel scholarship.

The composition of gospel harmonies is as ancient as the textual evidence itself. One of the oldest surviving papyrus fragments to mention Jesus (known as Egerton 2) is from an unknown gospel that included controversies paralleled only in the gospel of John with stories echoed only in the synoptics. Whether this text conflated written or oral sources is uncertain.

Justin Martyr, however, quoted gospel passages in a harmonized version of Matthew & Luke (and perhaps Mark), that was probably based on a written text. Justin's disciple, Tatian produced the Diatesseron, a harmonized story of Jesus based on 4 or 5 gospels, which for several centuries was preferred in many circles to the canonical gospels themselves.

Even church leaders who rejected the Diatesseron produced their own harmonizing tools. Eusebius of Caesarea attempted to resolve the obvious discrepancy between the chronology of the synoptics & John. Augustine's influential Consensus of the Gospels minimized discrepancies between the synoptic accounts in favor of Matthew's version. The Lutheran reformer, Andreas Osiander, composed a Gospel Harmony that wove all the differences of the 4 gospels into an expanded composition that did not omit a single detail. If narrative sequence or substance prevented passages from being conflated into a single account (synthetic harmonization), Osiander simply included all versions (sequential harmonization).

The process of harmonizing material from different sources is particularly prevalent in an oral culture. Since the human memory normally files things by motif, similar material is easily confused. The reading of passages with similar themes from different gospels in the same liturgical season also leads to harmonized interpretations of the text. Thus, elements of Matthew's birth story are blended with details from Luke in Christmas celebrations.

Scholars whose research is devoted to establishing the original form of a tradition generally regard all types of harmonies (except gospel parallels) as later distortions. Given the innate tendency of the human mind to create harmonies, an unharmonized version of a saying, story, or text is probably earlier.

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last revised 01 January 2018


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