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“Scribal Harmonization”: A New Study

June 12, 2019

I commend a newly-published study of what is called “harmonization” of texts of the Gospels:  Cambry G. Pardee, Scribal Harmonization in the Synoptic Gospels, NTTSD, 60 (Leiden: Brill, 2019).  I have just completed a larger review for Review of Biblical Literature which won’t appear till November this year, but the book deserves to be noticed sooner than that!

“Harmonization” is a term commonly used to refer to the influence of the wording of one Gospel upon the wording of another.  We could also refer to the “influence” of the text of one Gospel upon another.  There are various questions involved.  For example:  How frequent is this phenomenon?  Was it systematic or sporadic?  Was it more characteristic of the earliest period or not?  What did it involve, and how much textual material was changed?

Pardee does an excellent job of analysis of the evidence and produces persuasive general conclusions.  He surveys all the Greek manuscript evidence from the first four centuries AD.  He classifies the types of variants produced.  He judges the comparative degrees of likelihood that any given variant is an instance of harmonization to another passage.  He compares the frequency and nature of such variants in each manuscript studied (37 of them) from the first four centuries.

Among his conclusions are these.  Harmonization of one Gospel passage to a parallel in another Gospel is actually not very frequent.  According to the data that Pardee marshals here, about 5% of the 7,405 verses of the manuscripts studied reflect harmonization, meaning that about 95% are free from it.  Moreover, the overwhelming number of variants involving harmonization amount to one or two words, and scarcely ever affect the meaning of the passage.  There is no indication of any programmatic effort to create variants to promote this or that doctrinal stance.  There is no discernible difference in the frequency or extent of harmonization across the period studies.  That is, manuscripts of the second and third century reflect no more harmonization that manuscripts of the fourth century (when we would expect there to have been greater ecclesiastical control of copying).

Furthermore, the frequency of harmonization varies with the copyist/scribe.  Some manuscripts, such as P75 and Vaticanus, show very little harmonization-variants, whereas others, such as P45 and Sinaiticus, show noticeably more such variants.  Even in the case of those manuscripts that exhibit comparatively more such variants, there is no indication of any systematic or consistent effort to align the text of one Gospel with another.  Instead, Pardee contends, all but a very few variants were created unconsciously.  Familiarity with the wording of a passage from one Gospel (e.g., Matthew) influenced the copying of a parallel passage in another Gospel (e.g., Mark).

The Gospel of Matthew exerted the greatest influence upon the other Synoptic Gospels.  But Pardee contends that there is evidence also of the influence of Mark and Luke.  This is particularly interesting.  For, despite the indications that Mark was copied and circulated less frequently than the other Gospels, it seems to have been known and so in some cases influenced the copying of a parallel text in other Gospels.

This book is a valuable contribution to our view of how the text of the Gospels was transmitted in the earliest centuries.   Overall, the impression is one of relatively stable transmission of the Gospels.  Unfortunately, the price ($192) will mean that it will be acquired largely by libraries.  But any library serving research in Christian origins should acquire it.

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  1. My thanks to you, Professor Hurtado, for drawing my attention to this research, and to Malcolm Horlock for the extremely helpful link to the text!
    Trevor R Allin

  2. Claude Pavur permalink

    How long might an autograph have lasted as available control on the earliest copies? What was the shelf-life of a papyrus scroll? Readers may be interested in Craig Evans, “How Long Were Late Antique Books in Use? Possible Implications for New Testament Textual Criticism” BBR 25.1 (2015): 23-37.

  3. The book sounds interesting. On reading your review, one question that immediately came to mind was the methodology used by the author to make his judgment calls about the matters mentioned in the third paragraph of your post, especially:
    “He judges the comparative degrees of likelihood that any given variant is an instance of harmonization to another passage.”

    Are you able to shed light on the methodology — without giving away secrets from your longer RBL review of the book?

    • Essentially, he notes whether the variant is likely something that could have been merely a stylistic matter or distinctive wording that matches a parallel passage.

  4. Timothy Joseph permalink

    Dr. H.,
    Thanks for the quick review! This might be one of the few cases where I would spend $192 as an individual. The question for me right now, or wait for the fuller review by you in November.


  5. RONALD L MINTON permalink

    I am amazed at the amount of careful work this book must have taken. Thanks so much for posting the review. I hate to be picky, but there was one typo which could be misleading for newer readers. The “or” in “Some manuscripts, such as P75 and Vaticanus, show very little harmonization-variants, whereas others, such as P45 or Sinaiticus, show noticeably more such variants.” should, I think, be “and.”
    BTW, in typing this, I had to correct three typos so I can imagine the arduous task of copiers through the ages.

  6. This book is very useful as far as it goes. But far more harmonization must have been taking place earlier; as each successive gospel was first being written.

    We know successive gospels often borrowed extensively from earlier ones. And that borrowing, we propose, was undoubtedly motivated by a desire to make sure later gospels were in substantial agreement with earlier ones. Which amounts, note, to a kind of harmonization.

    • Brettongarcia (real name please!!): You’re again confused and confusing two quite different processes: (1) an author’s use of one or more sources in composing a fresh text, and (2) a copyist of a finished text influenced by a parallel text. Let’s do try to stay on topic.
      Oh, and you have no basis for assuming a greater degree of harmonization earlier than our extant manuscripts. In fact, Pardee’s data indicates a slightly more frequent harmonization in fourth-century manuscripts compared with second/third-century ones. So, following that trajectory, we’d expect fewer harmonizations in the still earlier period.

  7. His dissertation is available online:

  8. John Mitrosky permalink

    Does Pardee share a theory, or hypothesis, as to why the gospel of Matthew exerted the greatest influence upon the other Synoptic Gospels?

  9. Malcolm Horlock permalink

    Professor Hurtado,

    For those (like me) who are unable to fork out the $192 for the book, Cambry Pardee’s 579-page Doctoral Dissertation ‘Scribal Harmonization in Greek Manuscripts of the Synoptic Gospels from the Second to the Fifth Century’ is freely available at


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