Thursday 8 June 2023

The Gospels - Harmonized and Annotated

      This is a work I have been wanting to produce for 57 years. In hindsight, I can see how the information and facilities have been coming in for many decades without any actual planning on my part, but it is only in the last few years that they have all come together. It began when, as a teenager, I attended a Crusader camp in the Blue Mountains, and took along my father's Bible. The publication date was not recorded, but he must have acquired it before the Second World War. More importantly, it contained an appendix, of similar size to the New Testament, entitled Helps to the Study of the Bible, 2nd edition, the first edition having been published in 1890. And in the middle was a Harmony of the Gospels. "What a useful tool!" I thought.
     What, exactly, is a harmony of the gospels? Well, we all know that there are four gospels, that they cover a lot of common ground, but that every gospel includes material unique to itself. A harmony seeks to render the four into a single narrative of Jesus' life by tabulating the verses into the best approximation of the chronological order, and with parallel passages listed side by side.
     Of course, this was long before I knew anything about how the gospels had been written. I was to learn that each had its own perspective and style, the latter frequently more obvious in the original Greek than in translation. The gospels are independent, yet interdependent. In other words, they copied from each other, and from other documents, while each adding material of his own. Also, not only is it established that they were written during the lifetime of the witnesses, but they relate back to sermons and even earlier documents, some of which were Greek translations of even earlier works in Aramaic.
     Not only that, but it all took place in first century Israel, an outpost of the Roman Empire. The past, as they say, is a foreign country, and a distant land really is a foreign country. No doubt you can live a good Christian life without knowing much about it, but I have always been interested to know the details of New Testament life, and whether the innumerable paintings and movies on the subject were accurate. (Not very, is the answer.)
      So I here present the gospels, based on the Nestle Greek text, which is considered the most authentic. The translation is not difficult if you understand the basis of the language. The gospels are harmonized in that they are presented in what I judge to be the most likely chronological order - which is not quite the same as the document in my father's Bible. Where there are parallel texts, these are displayed side by side. Reading them this way reveals the quirks and perspectives of the individual writers, which tends to get overlooked because we are used to compounding them in our thoughts. To take only one example: the story of the "rich young ruler" is told in all of the first three gospels. However, Mark says nothing about the man, only Matthew says he was young, and only Luke calls him a ruler. The writers were all obviously independently familiar with the story, and they individually had information unavailable to the others.
     The gospels are also annotated. I have not written a commentary. Readers are left to decide for themselves what lessons they can derive from individual passages. I have also (mostly) avoided theological controversies. Just the same, facts are stubborn things, as it is said, and might not make everybody happy. The gospels are annotated in the sense that after every passage is appended a discussion on the context of time and place, and how the original gospels were written. This involves asking such questions are: what is this disease, what is the location, and when did it happen? And yes, occasionally an evangelist made a mistake on a minor detail. Following up the texts in this manner produces some unexpected insights. For example:
  • Jesus and his mother would have been pleasantly surprised to meet each other at the wedding in Cana, for they arrived independently from opposite directions.
  • The "daughter of Herodias" is not named in the Bible. However, we know from a Jewish historian that she was called Salome, and she was a teenager already married to a much older relative. When she requested the head of John the Baptist, it was not delivered to her right away at the party, as is usually portrayed, for John was imprisoned at the other end of the country.
  • All the depictions of the Last Supper are wrong, not only because they usually show the diners seated, but because, of necessity, it is shown in daylight. The Last Supper took place after dark in the light of olive oil lamps.
      I hope that these two volumes will prove a useful guide for everybody wishing to study the Bible. Volume I starts with a 54-page section outlining the background to the writing of the gospels, and to their context in first century Israel, then continues up to the date of the second Passover in Jesus' ministry.  Volume II covers the climactic last year in Jesus' life, along with two short appendices: one on what is known of the later activities of the disciples, and one on the origin of New Testament names.
      Unlike my other books, I have not produced a Kindle version, because displaying parallel texts side by side does not sit well with that format. However, both paperback and hardback editions are available from Amazon.