Regular readers of the New Testament are likely to notice differences between the four gospel narratives of Jesus’ life and teaching. While John’s account varies considerably from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it is these three synoptic1 gospels where, by virtue of their similarity, the narrative contrasts appear sharpest.
When we encounter consistency problems between the gospels it is tempting to defend their integrity by appealing to hypothetical rationalisations: perhaps Jesus said the same thing on multiple occasions, and the gospel writers merely selected different events from which to document his speech. Such explanations may justify a discrepancy in isolation but are a poor solution to the wider questions of literary dependence.
Attempts to develop a harmonised gospel began early in Christian history2, and continue to today3. Such approaches typically aim to de-duplicate parallel passages and form a chronological narrative history of Jesus’ ministry, an approach which not only presumes a uniform genre but involves considerable guesswork.
Making sense of how the texts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are related is known as the Synoptic Problem4. Marcan priority is widely recognised, though the subject remains a matter of considerable disagreement5.
This article aims to show that the gospel writers arranged and edited their content according to thematic and literary priorities, and that attempts to “harmonise” the gospels by other schemes do violence to the intent of their respective authors.
There’s no such thing as plain history
In Acts 11 we read about how the early church responded to a famine in Judea by sending relief by the hand of Barnabas and Paul. The famine itself had been foretold by the prophecy Agabus and took place during the reign of Claudius (AD 41-51). This famine is mentioned by Josephus6, placing Paul’s visit to Jerusalem around AD 46.
A little further on in Acts 12 we read of Herod Agrippa’s death. This event is also described by Josephus7, and took place in AD 44. As a result, we can conclude that Peter’s imprisonment around the time of Passover (12:3) took place in AD 43.
Taken together we see that Luke’s arrangement of these events is not chronological. Rather, it appears that Luke’s history is anecdotal8 , arranging key moments and characters to demonstrate the expansion of the gospel in fulfilment of Jesus’ words:
…that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.Luke 24:7 (NRSV)
These words are repeated in the introduction to Acts (1:8). The expansion of early Christianity continued despite opposition and persecution through the provision of divine aid and guidance. Luke is keen to demonstrate this connection: while the Jerusalem church suffered at the hands of Herod (12:1-2), ultimately divine judgement fell upon him9.
Luke shows the ongoing development of “salvation history”10, a goal which is prioritised over the need to provide a (potentially quite dull) chronological history of the church. This narrative is achieved through both thematic and geographical arrangements which demonstrate clearly how the gospel was witnessed “in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
A chronological reconstruction of historical events is rarely the objective of the Bible, and as interpreters we should be cautious not to resort to chronological reconstruction as a de facto method of understanding the text.
A greater purpose
Gospel writers don’t just rearrange history by theme, they also shape the text to create literary structures. Matthew arranges his gospel in five sections, each comprising a set of narrative acts of Jesus followed by a block of teaching.
|1||3-4||5-7 (7:28*) “Sermon on the Mount”|
|2||8-9||10-11 (11:1) “Missionary Instructions”|
|3||11-12||13 (13:53) “Parables”|
|4||14-17||18 (19:1) “Life and behaviour”|
|5||19-22||23-25 (26:1) “The End Times”|
* The “Discourse conclusion formula” which denotes the end of each speech is shown in brackets, typically a variation of: “when he had finished saying these things”.
An overview of each section can be found in the Bible Project’s videos on Matthew1112. Once more we see that chronological history does not appear to be a priority for Matthew, who instead arranges thematically related passages from Mark into a new sequence. Mark 6:6-13 is inserted into Matt 10:5-15 and placed next to Mark 13:9-13 (into 10:16-25) to form a coherent narrative regarding the twelve disciples.
On a larger scale, Matthew is portraying Jesus as a new Moses in fulfilment of Old Testament scripture13:
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like [Moses] from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.Deut 18:15
Beginning with genealogies and chapter 1, Matthew goes on to describe Jesus’ escape from Egypt, ritual of salvation through baptism, wilderness temptations, and provision of God’s Law from a mountain. While a direct mapping between the first five chapters of Matthew and the first five books of the Bible14 is an oversimplification, it’s clear that Matthew is drawing from these rich themes to portray Jesus as embodying the story of mankind, Israel, and Moses.
Crafting a narrative to impress upon the reader the importance of Jesus to the divine plan was clearly more important to Matthew than delivering the exhaustive historical recollection of events, of the type which satisfies the unique demands of post-enlightenment Western minds.
Editorial fatigue in the synoptics
In a 1998 article in New Testament Studies, Mark Goodacre collects several examples of a phenomenon called “Editorial Fatigue”15. This is described as:
… a phenomenon that will inevitably occur when a writer is heavily dependent on another’s work. In telling the same story as his predecessor, a writer makes changes in the early stages which he is unable to sustain throughout.
One of the clearest examples is found in the Parable of the Sower. In Mark’s account the analogy of the seed falling on stony ground is formed of three parts, with corresponding referents in the interpretation. These are shown in the table below.
|Mark’s Parable of the Sower||Mark’s Interpretation|
|Sprang up quickly (4:5)||Received the word with joy (4:16)|
|Sun rose (4:6)||Persecution arises (4:17)|
|It was scorched (4:6)||Immediately they fall away (4:17)|
Luke’s account modifies this parable, omitting many details of the growing seed. Rather than springing up quickly, the sun rising, and the seedling being scorched, we read only that:
as it grew up, it withered for lack of moistureLuke 8:6
However, Luke retains the original facets of the analogy that we find in Mark’s explanation of the parable!
|Luke’s Parable of the Sower||Luke’s Interpretation|
|As it grew it withered for lack of moisture||Received the word with joy (8:13)|
|In time of testing (4:17)|
|Immediately they fall away (4:17)|
Mark’s gospel provides a coherent parable with clear explanation. Luke appears to be using Mark as a basis for his text but has chosen to make changes before reverting back to the main Marcan narrative. Why?
Luke is keen to link Jesus’ ministry to the story of the Old Testament. Here, it seems this element of the parable has reminded Luke of a passage in Jeremiah:
[The righteous] shall be like a tree planted by water,Jer 17:8 (NRSV)
sending out its roots by the stream [LXX: ‘into the moisture’].
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
This passage is apt because it contains elements that complement and contrast the symbols of the parable. The same symbols of roots, heat, and fruitfulness are used to describe how the comprehensive root system of the righteous allows them to continue bearing fruit through times of water stress.
The Septuagint translation of Jeremiah uses a reasonably uncommon word16, ikmas, to describe the water that the righteous man has access to. Luke leverages this same word “moisture”17 in place of the shallow-root narrative, creating another of his characteristic links to the Old Testament that would be recognised by contemporary readers of his account.
While copy-editing the Parable of the Sower from Mark, it seems that Luke has removed several key parts of Jesus’ parable whilst retaining their explanation. Coherence of the narrative has been sacrificed for the sake of inserting a complementary scriptural allusion18.
Confronted by contradictory accounts, events, and discourses across the synoptic gospels, a natural response to the implied attack on the veracity of Scripture is to combine evidence from each account to form a view of “what really happened”. This approach presumes that a modern standard of historical report was the goal of the gospel writers, albeit with events selected to reflect their individual perspectives and audiences.
Instead we find that gospel writers arrange their content according to a reasonably eclectic combination of theme and form, and that this often takes precedence over chronological accuracy. Spread before the reader is the redemptive arc of sacred history and fulfilment of God’s promises, so that they “may know the truth concerning the things about which [they] have been instructed.”
Disharmony in the gospels is not a problem to be fixed, or an accusation to be refuted. The intended purpose of the gospels is not found by piecing them together on a timeline. Each individual writer portrays its own unique perspective on Jesus’ life, which together address the contexts and concerns of their respective interests and audiences.
Our challenge today is not to defend our idea of how Scripture should be, but to follow the examples of these writers who made the Jesus story accessible, understandable, and inspirational wherever it was told.
- Synoptic, meaning “of same appearance”, or taking the “common view”.
- Notably with Tatian’s Diatessaron (AD 170-175), and Augustine of Hippo’s Harmony of the Gospels (AD 400).
- Tucker, C A. (2013). The Chronological Word Truth Life Bible. Route 66 Ministries.
- As usual, the Wikipedia article is a good place to start: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synoptic_Gospels. While there is no consensus answer to the Synoptic Problem, the dominant model is the “Two source hypothesis”, in which Matthew and Luke drew from Mark and a hypothetical “Q” source. A leading contender is the Farrer hypothesis, rejecting “Q” in favour of Luke’s use of Matthew.
- Carlson, S C. (2004). Synoptic Problem Website: Overview of Proposed Solutions. hypotyposeis.org.
- Josephus, F., & Whiston, W. (1987). The works of Josephus: complete and unabridged. (3.15.3, 20.2.5) Peabody: Hendrickson.
- Ibid, (19.343-352)
- Williams, D. J. (2011). Acts. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. Acts 8:4–8.
- For a separate analysis regarding the method of Herod’s demise, see http://living-faith.org/2017/08/23/on-being-eaten-by-worms/.
- Luke is trying to show that the story of Jesus, for all its freshness and newness, is in reality in continuity with the long history of God’s dealings with his covenant people Israel. Luke wants the reader to realize that the life of Jesus represents a major event in what scholars sometimes call Israel’s ‘salvation history.’” Evans, C. A. (1990). Luke (p.6). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. Introduction – 5. Major Themes and Emphases in Luke.
- The Bible Project. (2017) Overview: Matthew 1-13. YouTube: https://youtu.be/3Dv4-n6OYGI
- The Bible Project. (2015) Overview: Matthew 14-28. YouTube: https://youtu.be/GGCF3OPWN14
- Mounce, R. H. (2011). Matthew (p.3). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. Introduction – Leading Characteristics. Matthew extensively quotes the Old Testament, shows fulfilled prophecy, and despite a very Jewish concern for Law and tradition, develops a universalist outlook inclusive of new gentile believers in the church.
- This view is described here. It isn’t widely accepted: Matthew may be reusing themes from these books, but there is little evidence he’s aligning these messages with each book of the Pentateuch. Also, chapter divisions came later!
- Goodacre, M. (1998) New Testament Studies 44, pp. 45-58. Cambridge University Press. Also available online.
- ikmas appears in the New Testament only here, and in the Septuagint in Jer 17:8 and Job 26:14. In the latter it is used in the sense of a drop, fragment, or whisper.
- This is further evidence for the use of the Septuagint by writers of the New Testament.
- The Parable of the Talents is a further example of literary fatigue. Luke appears to follow Matthew’s account, modifying the reward to “cities” (Luke 19:17). He then reverts to the same Matthew narrative, with monetary reward (19:24).