F.F. Bruce, a biblical scholar rather better known in the 1960s than he is today, once said this:
[T]he Bible is not an anthology; there is a unity which binds the whole together.
Bruce, as an “old school” conservative scholar, has long been passe in academic circles, and this kind of statement of his is easily refuted, but since there are fundamentalist apologists who continue to quote Bruce in defense of a literalist reading of the Bible, I think that Bruce’s statement deserves a fresh deconstruction.
First, it’s a ridiculous assertion.
Of course the Bible is an anthology and not a unity. There is no evidence that, for example, the writer of the Genesis story mandating circumcision for Abraham’s children, and setting it as “an eternal covenant”, would have accepted Paul’s assertion that the practice could now be superseded by additional revelation. The unity that one might perceive between Genesis and Paul is contrived by the Christian reader, and not accepted by, most obviously, the Jewish reader.
There is, in short, nothing inherently “harmonious” between the book of Genesis and Paul’s spiritualizing notions about circumcision.
Interpretive contrivance also takes place with regard to the unity of the gospel accounts and Paul’s writings. There is simply no reason whatsoever, for example, to believe that the writer of the Gospel of Mark would have accepted that his book was in harmony with any—let alone, all—of the other three gospels and the letters of Paul. Indeed, there are very good reasons to think that the Jesus of Mark’s gospel is very different from the Jesus found in Matthew, Luke, John, or Paul’s letters.
You can SAY that these writings are all (ultimately) harmonious portraits of Jesus, but this is only because you are intent upon harmonizing them (not because you have any EVIDENCE that the authors would have accepted the harmonization).
Furthermore, we have absolutely no way of knowing whether Paul would have agreed that his doctrines were consistent with, say, Matthew’s gospel (or any of the other gospels) for the very simple reason that Paul had never read any of the gospels, and thus could not tell us what he thought about them!
This needs emphasis. A third of the New Testament was written by someone who had never read the gospels. Scholars universally acknowledge that Paul died BEFORE Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John had been written.
In short, all of our “harmonic” and “unifying” interpretations of Biblical texts take place from the vantage of an a priori premise that they should, in fact, somehow harmonize. We know what we are searching for, and so we find it. It is a form of circular reasoning that one can do with any two (or more) texts.
I can say, for example, that all the ideas in Shakespeare harmonize beautifully with the Bhagavad Gita, the plays of Euripides, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Darwin’s Origin of Species, and the Gospel of Mark. I can build a harmonious intellectual/theological system that “accounts” for every line from all these texts, and yet all that I have done is engaged in a process of creative association and repression, privileging the interpretive importance of some passages over others and making everything “fit.”
In other words, I have simply ignored the authors’s intentions and understandings of their own works, as well as the way that the first audiences for these works would have received them.
Put simply: Biblical “harmonization” is an ahistorical, creative form of reading. If I read the Bible (or any two texts, for that matter) in this way, I have not really harmonized anything, nor do I know whether the original authors or audiences would have accepted—or even understood—my harmonization.