Friday, October 15, 2004

Private Publishing and Harmonizing

[Writing on the train on the way down to London; having to get up every five minutes to close the door to stop a massive breeze.]

My post Lament over a Gospel Harmony, based on a post from Danny Zacharias on Deinde, generated a couple of comments, the first from "Jim" objecting to the term "vanity publishing" and the second from Wieland Willker objecting to the disparagement of Gospel harmonies. In response to Jim, I would note that my preferred term, and the one I used in the post, is "privately published", a term that I explained by noting that some use the more disparaging term "vanity publishing". Let me be clear here. There is nothing necessarily problematic about privately published work. Sometimes it is, quite simply, the most appropriate, the cheapest, the most cost-effective way to get something out. Most of what is published on the internet, including by established academics, is in a sense privately published -- it is not run through a peer-review process or anything else. It's simply put out there for the world to take or leave as they please. This blog is like that. In some ways the net has decreased the need for disseminating ideas by privately printed work, but the latter still often has an important place too. My dad, for example, writes on Lewis Carroll and children's literature and often finds the most appropriate means of getting his material out to those who want to read it, is to arrange publication himself. It's the same process as those who in the music industry sell CDs at gigs or via the net -- it's often more cost effective, more efficient, more direct and one retains much more control over one's product.

But in the context of my post on the topic, I was commenting on Danny's lament that this is the kind of book that gets into the "pop.christian" book shops where superior books find it more difficult to find their way to the average Church-goer. I was commenting that one should probably not be too concerned in a case like this because the book in question is privately published and it is a particular difficulty, usually, to get privately published material into book shops. That's not the function of the best privately published material, which is rather dissemination via networks of friends and the potentially interested. And it needs to be added, I think, that the publication of academic books by established publishers is often an indicator that the quality of the book in question is superior to a similar book published privately. The reason is straightforward and is nothing to do with "intellectual eggheads" or prejudice. It is, rather, because the book produced by the established publisher will have been through a peer-review process in which it is subjected to rigorous academic scrutiny by experts in the field. And it is a tough business. Much of my time is spent reviewing manuscripts for publication, and it is a demanding, if necessary, job. I would also add that if you publish with Brill, you are highly unlikely to get paid at all, let alone "paid before a single copy sells".

And so to the question of Gospel harmonies. Wieland Willker wonders why it is that they get disparaged by scholars. What is wrong with them? I think that an important point wants making here: it depends on what the function of the Gospel Harmony in question is. If the function is literary, artistic, devotional, dramatic, there often remains a role for the Gospel Harmony. I have myself written in defence of the use of harmony in The Passion of the Christ, complaining about those scholars who have overreacted to its use of harmonizing, criticizing this work of art as if it were an undergraduate essay on the historical Jesus (see "The Power of the Passion of the Christ: Reacting and Over-reacting to Gibson's Artistic Vision" in Jesus and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, Chapter 3, based on an earlier blog post, The harmonizing tradition in Jesus films). But herein lies the important point -- treating an artistic work as if it is an academic one is problematic. Harmonizing does not have a role to play in serious academic work on the Gospels, unless one wishes to argue that the major advances in critical work on the Gospels are wrong-headed. One may wish to argue that but I cannot myself imagine how such an argument could be successfully mounted. Certainly it will not do, if one wishes to be taken seriously, to ignore such work. At the very least it needs to be engaged.

In other words, it is a question of context. When my kids take part in their nativity play this Christmas, I would be an utter nerd if I were to go to the person organizing it to complain about its having harmonized the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. But when I lectured to my first year undergraduates a fortnight ago on Matthew 1-2, it would have been irresponsible for me to be involved in uncritical harmonizing.


Anonymous said...

"Harmonizing does not have a role to play in serious academic work on the Gospels."
This exactly seems to be an axiom one learns in the seminary. But I disagree with it. I remember a course I took on harmonizing problems in the Passion narratives. This was one of the most interesting and instructive courses I ever took in the Biblical field. I know that "harmonizing" has an apologetic touch, but I think we should not leave it to laymen, apologetists and authors. It has its legitimate place in theological scholarship, IMHO.
Best wishes --- Wieland Willker

Anonymous said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Mark meant that gospel harmonies have no place in serious *historical* academic work on the gospels. This, at any rate, is what I take from the distincition made between the "academic" and the "literary, artistic, devotional, dramatic." Harmonizing grossly oversimplifies the complexity of historical reconstruction, though it may also enable the richness of artistic or theological constructions. By noting the importance of context for the use of harmonizing, Mark is also underlining the scholarly commonplace of a gap, a "big, ugly ditch," existing between history and theology (including artisitc theological expressions). Unlike many scholars, though, Mark admits that history is *not* the privileged criteriion by which we judge the truth of aesthetic and theological representations of Jesus. Critiquing Gibson's Passion "as if it were an undergraduate essay on the historical Jesus" is symptomatic of this scholarly orientation and its inadequacies. Biblical scholars, I would add, need to think more clearly about how exactly "history" matters beyond the classroom, while at the same time relativizing the importance of historical methods and criteria by becoming more interdisciplinary. I'm eager to see how Jesus and Mel Gibon's The Passion as a whole addresses these points.

Eric Thurman

Peter Boaz Jones said...

I thought you might want to see the reply to Danny's My Lament....Conclusion. I Quote:

"I had originally sent the book in question for a review to Dr Phillip Seddon of Birmingham University, since he was instrumental in suggesting my approach after he went through my original manuscript. But, since he was very busy, he said didn't know when he could ever get around to it. That was in August last year. I also sent one to Dr David Wenham of Oxford University, for the same reason, whose deceased father Dr John Wenham of Wycliffe Hall, I quote in my book. He also said it would take considerable time to review it, and in the meantime was very interested and pleased in what I was doing. I have not as yet heard from him either. Both Dr Phillip Seddon and Dr John Wenham are mentioned in the Introduction under the sub-heading Why This Book Was Formulated, which is also on my site

The Temple Cleansing can, when putting all the facts together be proven to have taken place firstly at the first Passover, and the final time at the last Tabernacles.
The Sermon on the Mount to have taken place on the Mt. Olivet, also at the first Passover, with the Sermon Down the Mount at Bethsaida, one year later and at Pentecost.
The Baptist was imprisoned when Jesus started His ministry in the first autumn, after the first miracle. Subsequently he was released shortly after. When the following first Passover in spring, Jesus was baptising with his disciples, again the Baptist was incarcerated, this time until the second Tabernacles when he was beheaded.
The preparation day mentioned by the Gospel of John was on the 14th Nisan, in which Jesus was crucified. The Jews held their Passover on the annual Sabbath High Day, at the sunset of the 14th after Jesus died, as when the 15th Nisan began it was their Passover proper. The original Passover in Egypt was eaten indoors, and as Jesus and the disciples partook of the Last Supper. The Passover can also refer to all the immediate days (the whole week) of the seven Days of Unleavened Bread, too, as the disciples had to prepare their Passover meal ready for the beginning part of the eve of 14th when their days were reckoned from and as still in Judaism today.

When all the facts of the four Gospels are not put together correctly, then as you rightly surmise is does give rise to the misunderstanding of the literature and misconstrues history as well - and that is precisely why I was led to put the book together. I quote again from the Introduction in my book:

'Interestingly enough, this is highlighted through the words of John Wenham in his book, Redating Matthew, Mark, & Luke (Hodder & Stoughton), where this dilemma is addressed in his introduction, “In 1979 I found myself in the Synoptic Problem Seminar of the Society for New Testament Studies, whose members were in disagreement over every aspect of the subject. When this international group disbanded in 1982 they had sadly to confess that after twelve years’ work they had not reached a common mind on a single issue” (p. xxi).

He further mentions this dilemma in his book the Easter Enigma (Paternoster Press), saying, “Forced harmonizing is worthless. The tendency today, however, is the opposite - to force the New Testament writings into disharmony, in order to emphasize their individuality. The current analytical approach to the Gospels often has the effect of making scholars more and more uncertain at more points, till eventually their view of Jesus and his teaching is lost in a haze. The harmonistic approach, on the other hand, enables one to ponder long and conscientiously over every detail of the narrative and to see how one account illuminates and modifies another. Gradually (without fudging) people and events take shape and grow in solidity and the scenes come to life in one’s mind. Such study is beautifully constructive and helps vindicate the presuppositions on which it is based. It is sad and strange when immense learning leads to little knowledge of the person studied” (p. 128).

So, when it comes to these basic events in the Gospels, scholars are still in much confusion, leaving question marks, arguments, and statements of contradictions, when comparing the books available on the subject. John Wenham’s works are based on a better approach, which has the basis of a proper rationalized harmonistic foundation, it is with this harmonistic approach that I also proceeded, even though at the time of my first manuscript I was not aware of John Wenham and his works.'

I am sincerely honoured nevertheless that you are willing to review it, and await your appraisal with anticipation. In the meanwhile I have sent you a copy."

Peter Boaz Jones said...

To keep the record straight: the "press release" in question disseminated via eMediaWire was not written by the author, but my an Internet marketing organization.
Best Wishes.