As a New Testament scholar, and especially as a gospel scholar, one of my pet peaves is the practice of harmonizing the gospels. That is, to fill in gaps from one gospel, say Mark, with elements from another gospel, say Luke. This is done all of the time. Mark says something like, Jesus speaks in parables in order to confuse those on the outside so that they won't repent and be forgiven. Matthew comes along, and mutes this point, making the responsibility for being blind and deaf fall on the people, not on Jesus.
Harmonization also often occurs in the birth narratives of Jesus. We have two accounts of Jesus' birth: one in Matthew and one in Luke. Yet, they are quite different (See my previous posts on the birth narratives Here, Here, and Here). We see this in our nativity scenes. Only in Matthew do we get the wise men. Only in Luke do we get the stable and manger. Yet, in nativity scenes we see both side by side (and by the way, this harmonization does not really bother me in nativity scenes).
When we harmonize, whether it be to fill in missing information, or to reconcile apparent contradictions, we lose sight of what each individual author was trying to say. There is a reason why Mark said that Jesus spoke in parables in order to confuse the people. If we just jump to Matthew's account because it makes us feel better, we miss Mark's point.
So, that said, why do we harmonize? I noticed something the other night, while watching Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship of the Rings for the umpteenth time. I was watching the scene in Bree, where the Nazgul come and drive their swords into the Hobbit sized beds, thinking that the Hobbits are laying in them. This got me thinking: did this happen in the book? Now, I am remiss, I have not re-read the books for a few years now, and I am rusty. I could not remember the Bree sequence from the book, or I should say, I had an amalgam in my head, part book, part movie, and perhaps even part of my own construction that my mind had unknowingly crafted. I was unconsciously harmonizing.
Our minds are made to complete stories. A Baylor colleague of mine, Kathy Maxwell, recently published her revised dissertation in which she argued just this. She argues that in the ancient world, and I believe this holds in the modern world as well, that authors actually leave some information out of their narratives in order to invite audience participation. Our minds naturally do this. In any story, our minds subconsciously fill in gaps. It is part of actively engaging in a story.
This happens all the more when we are reading a story for which we have other versions in our head. So, while watching Peter Jackson's film version of the Lord of the Rings, my mind will be unconsciously filling in gaps with information in my head from Tolkein's book, and vice versa.
While this is a natural and understandable tendency, I think we ought to try and fight it as much as possible. To harmonize is to obliterate the unique point of view of each version of the story. Jackson had a story to tell in his version of the Lord of the Rings, as did Tolkein. To harmonize them is actually to lose the full power of either. So too, with the gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each gave us wonderful accounts of the life of Jesus. To harmonize them is to perhaps lose the unique message of each.