Harmony of the Gospels,  putting things in order

The first harmonies

In the early days of Christianity, when the faith was spreading fast and each gospel had to copied by hand, the temptation to produce a merged version of the gospels that eliminated the duplication must have seemed overwhelming. It was perhaps such a motivation that led to the early use of gospel harmonies. The best known early harmony is the Diatessaron, produced by the Christian apologist Tatian around 170 C.E., and taking as its core an amalgamation of the four canonical gospels (Peterson 1996, 189). Though the idea of the harmony pre-dates this, for Tatian’s tutor, Justin Martyr, also used a gospel harmony (Peterson 1996, 189). The Diatessaron, though only surviving from copies of the fourth-century or later, was once widely used and for several centuries became the dominant gospel in Syriac (Peterson 1996, 189). The order it adopted is similar to, but not quite identical to that found in Mark+Luke (see below). 

Modern harmonies

Whilst  much of the material in the Synoptic Gospels overlaps, their perspective is fundamentally different to that of John’ Gospel. So, in recent centuries, the focus of gospel harmonisation has been on the alignment of Matthew, Mark and Luke, stopping short of attempting a merged text. Scholars who have produced such alignments have included Burton and Goodspeed (1917) and Aland (2000), whilst today it is possible to find such alignments bundled as resources with electronic Bible software, e.g. Jackson (2007), bundled with Logos.

Deciding on the order

In Luke’s Gospel we have a document that claims to be a well researched chronological account, for its opening lines state -

1:1 “Since many have undertaken to set in order a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, 1:2 even as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word delivered them to us, 1:3 it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write to you in order, most excellent Theophilus; 1:4 that you might know the certainty concerning the things in which you were instructed.”

(Luke 1:1-4 WEB)

Luke’s Gospel suggests an order to Jesus’ ministry and it would seem churlish to ignore it simply because a lack of vision obscures how that framework dovetails with that found in John’s Gospel, for dovetail they do, at least when viewed from the right perspective (as explored in The Emmaus View). Surely such research as Luke’s is likely to have pinned at least the main blocks into their correct positions. Moreover, there are sufficient points at which the sequence in Matthew agrees with that in Luke+Mark to align considerable stretches of the three accounts with reasonable confidence. These can then be set into the general order of Luke+Mark.

The canonical Gospels have a dual function and must serve as both accounts of the life of Jesus and theological presentations of his message. As such, their authors were not averse to moving the context of an incident, should that better suite their theological objective. A good example is Jesus rejection at Nazareth (Matt 13:54-58, Luke 4:16-30). A case may also be made for Matthew having moved the healing of the centurion’s servant (Matt 8:5-3, Luke 7:1-10) and the healing of Simon’ mother-in-law (see below). Any gospel harmony will have to decide how to deal with the clear conflicts of order created by such practices. It should also be recalled that Luke may have written with an agenda, e.g. to provide part of Paul’s defence in Rome. For his two-book compendium of history (Luke/Acts) stops short with Paul yet to face trial.

One Sermon or two

The Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain clearly fall in different places within the Luke+Mark sequence. They are given different settings, are delivered to different audiences and contain partially different material. So has Matthew brought forward an event that happened latter and developed it into the Sermon on the Mount? My personal feeling is that this is not the case, for the Sermon on the Mount fits far too well at the outset of Jesus’ ministry where it addresses foundational questions. The Sermon on the Plain, however, seems like a modified subset in comparison and so was probably the entirely separate event it seems to portray (see comments on Luke 6:20-49). 

Harmony of the earlier chapters of the Synoptic Gospels 

The following list shows the order of passages in the Synoptic Gospels once parallel passages are aligned in order to minimise the re-ordering. It also identifies passages represented in the equivalent portion of the Diatessaron (Dia.). From

which it is clear that, whilst the majority of parallel passages fall into the same sequence in Matthew and Mark+Luke (shown here in green), there are a handful that don't (emphasised here with silver grey, pink and yellow and explored in detail later).

  1. Jesus temptation (Luke 4:1-13, Matt 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Dia. 4:42-5:3);
  2. Jesus hears that John the Baptist is imprisoned (Matt 4:12, Mark 1:14, Dia. 6:20-22, 25)
  3. Return to Galilee (Luke 4:14-15, Matt 4:12, Mark 1:14-15)
  4. Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30, Dia. 5:35-41), but Matthew has this much later (see notes below)
  5. Departure from Nazareth for Capernaum (Matt 4:13-17, Luke 4:31. Dia. 6:36-39)
  6. Call of Simon and John to accompany Jesus to the Synagogue (Matt 4:18-22, Mark 1:16-20, Dia. 5:44-48)
  7. Description of generalized Galilean ministry, probably an introductory summary of what is to come, as discussed in The Emmaus View . May therefore describe the the period at 14 below (Matt 4:23-25)
  8. Teaching and an exorcism at Capernaum (Luke 4:31-37, Mark 1:21-28, Dia. 6:40-45)
  9. Healing of Simon’s mother-in-law  (Luke 4:38-39, Mark 1:29-31, Dia. 6:47)
  10. Sunset healings and exorcisms (Luke 4:40-41, Mark 1:32-34, Dia. 6:47)
  11. Daytime departure to an uninhabited place (Luke 4:42, Mark 1:35)
  12. Jesus goes up a mountain and his disciples come to him (Matt 5:1-2, Mark 1:36-37)
  13. Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:3-7:29, Dia. 8:26-11:2. cf. introductory comment on the Capernaum period at Luke 4:31-32 with Matt 7:28-29)
  14. Proclaiming in the Synagogues of Galilee (Luke 4:43-44, Mark 1:39)
  15. The miraculous catch and Simon, James and John leave everything to follow Christ (Luke 5:1-11, Dia. 5:49-6:4)
  16. Healing of a leper (Matt 8:1-4, Luke 5:12-15, Mark 1:40-44)
  17. Passages probably moved here by Matthew (see notes below)
    1. Healing of a centurion’s servant (Matt 8:5-3, Dia. 6 25-35)  
    2. Healing of Simon’s mother-in-law  (Matt 8:14-15)
    3. Sunset healings and exorcisms (Matt 8:16)
  18. Withdrew into a deserted place to pray (Matt 8:18, Luke 5:16, Mark 1:43)
  19. Discussions concerning following Jesus (Matt 8:19-22)
  20. Stilling of the storm (Matt 8:23-27)  
  21. Driving out demons into swine (Matt 8:28-34) 
  22. Healing of the paralytic, dropped through the roof, in Capernaum (Matt 9:1-8, Luke 5:17-26, Mark 2:1-12, Dia. 7:11-24)
  23. Teaching by the shore (Mark 2:13)
  24. Call of Levi/Matthew (Matt 9:9 Luke 5:27-39, Mark 2:14, Dia. 6:46, 7:9, 7:25-27)
  25. Controversy over eating with tax collectors (Matt 9:10-13, Mark 2:15-17, Dia. 7:28-29)
  26. Questions concerning fasting (Matt: 9:14-19, Mark 2:18-22, Dia. 7:30-36)
  27. Controversy over plucking grain on the second Sabbath (Luke 6:1-5, Mark 2:23-28, Dia. 7:37-46)
  28. Healing of a man with a withered hand on another Sabbath (Luke 6:6-11, Mark 3:1-6, Dia. 7:47)
  29. Ministry from the shore (Mark 3:7-12, Dia. 8:9-17)
  30. The choice of twelve disciples (Luke 6:12-16, Mark 3:13-19, Dia. 8:18-25)
  31. Ministry to a crowd (Luke 6:17-19)
  32. Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20-49, Dia. 8:26-11:2)
  33. Healing of the centurion’s servant (Luke 7:1-10)
  34. Healing of a widows son in Nain (Luke 7:11-17)
. . . and much later comes Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth in Matthew (Matt 13:53-58)

Passages with conflicting positions

The Rejection at Nazareth

Luke, chooses to place Jesus rejection at Nazareth early on (Luke 4:16-30), so that he can use it to introduce the link between Jesus’ rejection by his own people and their failure to pay attention to scripture and the signs of the times (note how Jesus stops mid-couplet in his quotation of Isa 61:2 and expects his audience to supply the rest). This early placing also allows Luke to address at the outset of Jesus’ ministry the question of what a Jewish prophet was doing ministering amongst the gentiles.

Matthew places the rejection at Nazareth later (Matt 13:53-58), Immediately after Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom’s growth from small beginnings (the mustard seed of Matt 13:31-32 and the leaven of Matt 13:33), the need to give up everything to find it (the buried treasure of Matt 13:44 and the fine pearl of Matt 13:45-46) and the significance of judgement in revealing it (the wheat and tares of Matt 13:36-43, the dragnet of Matt 13:47-52). In Matthew, the confrontation at Nazareth serves as a comment on the teaching Jesus has just given. Jesus grew up amongst these people (Matt 2:23, Mark 1:9) and yet they did not recognises the value of the pearl in their midst, so none were prepared to pay the price of accepting him. Yet Jesus’ visit revealed who was right, for their lack of faith meant miracles were in short supply.

It is hard to call which of these two is the more likely to be in the more chronologically accurate position, as both authors have good reason to place the event where it is. On balance one would normally go with Luke’s order, as he claims to be trying to present events in a chronological order. However, if one accepts the time-line proposed in Chapter 27 of The Emmaus View, then this makes Matthew’s placing seem the more reasonable.

The servant and the mother-in-law

Matthew follows the Sermon on the Mount with the accounts of three healings that share the common theme of restoration to service.  It is somewhat easier to see that Matthew has brought these together to make a point. The leprosy addressed by Levitical law was not the disease that we know by that name, but an infliction placed by God upon those who tried to serve him in the wrong manner, e.g. Miriam (Num 12:10) , Gehazi (2 Kgs 5:27) and Uzziah (2 Chr 26:19). The healing of a leper demonstrated Jesus’ ability to restore to service by removing uncleanliness, a process that, under the Levitical law, generally saw restoration in the evening (e.g. Num 19:19, Lev 22:6).  The incident with the  centurion involves a Roman’s servant who is useless until Jesus heals him. Then after Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law she serves him and heaven’s glory is poured out as evening arrives.

The condition of the Levitical priesthood parallels that of the leper, its disobedience has left it unclean in the sight of God and in need of Jesus to restore it. Like the centurion’s servant, it is bound to serve Rome, paralysed, at least in terms of witness to God, and suffering in anguish. The centurion – a non-Israelite – has sufficient faith in Jesus’ authority to see his servant healed. If the priesthood’s leaders would only accept that authority then it too could be healed. Is there someone with sufficient faith to heal God’s servant? The question is posed by this incident and answered by the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. When Jesus arrived at her home she had insufficient strength to serve him, yet once Jesus heals her she can not only wait on him, but evening brings wholesale restoration.