Monday, August 3, 2009

Book Review: A Harmony of the Gospels for Students of the Life of Christ

No, this is not the harmony that I'm writing. This is the one prepared by A.T. Robertson, published by Harper & Row in 1922. The book I picked up at a thrift store (for a dollar) was printed by H&R in 1950.

Dr. Robertson's work was based on that of Dr. John A. Broadus, published in the mid-1890s. Robertson was a student of Broadus, and took over and expanded on his work whenever some discovery of a new Biblical text came to light, or when new textural criticism better explained the difference between the different gospels.

I bought this book after I had finished my own harmony, while working on appendixes and passage notes (still an on-going, off and on effort). The is a parallel-column harmony. Neither Broadus nor Robertson believed that the texts should be interwoven, for to do so would eliminate the distinctness of the language each gospel has. My harmony is the interwoven type, with each gospel compared to the others and the different texts blended into one (hopefully) seamless narrative. But I thought this would be a good book to review to see how the chronology of the professors compared to the chronology I came up with (with the assistance of some study Bibles).

The book does a couple of things I like. First, it is not based on the King James Version, but rather the Revised Standard Version. This is still difficult to read compared to my preferred NIV, but it's an improvement. Next, it gives the Gospel of Mark the left hand column, believing, as I do, that Mark's gospel was the first one put in final form, and that Luke and Matthew used Mark as one of their sources. Next, it does not waste a lot of blank column space when less than four gospels cover an event. If only one covers it, the text of that one utilizes the full width of the page. If two cover it, wide columns are used. If the number of lines needed to show parallel passages differs greatly, narrow columns start out and then wider or full width is used later. This is all done in such a way that the reader has no problem figuring out which gospel contributed which text. Not only does this save paper, it makes reading much more enjoyable.

The end of the book contains a number of discussions, equivalent to the appendixes I'm writing, to explain decision making that went into the Harmony. This is in addition to many footnotes added to passages to clarify, cross-reference, and explain something in a way that doesn't require a long note at the end. In these end discussions, Robertson explains not only the way he thinks the harmony should be but also the main competing theories, and explains why he chose the route he did.

I did find a couple of negatives with this book. First, the font is small, very small by today's standards. The main text is probably an 8 point font, Robertson's footnotes 6 point, and the RSV footnotes 5 point! Too small on many evenings for my $5 reading glasses from Dollar General. Next, Robertson (probably after Broadus' example) is overly concerned with exact dates. One of his notes goes into considerable length to discuss what year Jesus was born in; another into what year he began his ministry. I'm not really concerned about the exact year so much as the exact order of events in Christ's life. Then, the footnotes and end discussion are perhaps too brief. Many decisions on order of the gospels, for example how Matthew seems to be non-chronological whereas Mark is chronological, could have been much better developed.

I found this book most useful in explaining Jesus' movements. When was he in Galilee? When in Jerusalem, or Judea? How does Jesus' statement in Luke chapter 9 about going to Jerusalem make sense in light of all the rest of the material in Luke 10-21? How did Jesus' trip to Tyre and Sidon happen relative to other departures from Galilee? These relative movements are nicely explained. I will have to review my chronology and see if I need to make any adjustments. Of course, Robertson doesn't agree with some of the decisions I made. I probably should re-think those areas, but I won't. I feel pretty strongly about some of those.

This is a keeper for me. It would be a good book for anyone who is a serious student of the Bible to have.

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