Toward a Harmonious Reading of the Gospels

Introduction

Happy Easter! He is risen!

This post’s title is adapted from a valuable section of my NIV study Bible, “250 Events in the Life of Christ / A Harmony of the Gospels.” And I want to acknowledge upfront that I will be using it and drawing from it in this post. I’d also like to endorse The One Year Chronological Bible (Tyndale House Publishers) here, which was likewise very useful. (By the way, reading the different Gospel accounts of the same event back-to-back-to-back-to-back highlights that supposed “inconsistencies” often aren’t and frequently reinforces rather than undermine the Gospels’ essential trustworthiness.”)

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Needless to say, there’s nothing wrong with reading each of the four Gospels straight through, as four separate books. But I think there’s also something to be said to dividing the Jesus narrative into parts, and then — especially to understand best each of those parts — to read each Gospel on it. You lose some insights, but you might gain some others. And sometimes this can highlight a difference in one Gospel’s perspective compared with another’s.

Look at it this way: If you want to understand a particular issue, you might consult four different books that each had a little to say about that issue, but you would probably use the table of contents or an index to read just what each book said about the issue, rather than read each book all the way through and try to remember what each had to say about that issue even as you read what the book was saying about everything else. So if you were trying to learn about Abraham Lincoln’s pet cat during the White House years, you might consult several Lincoln biographies as well as books on presidential pets and histories of the White House, but you wouldn’t read each of them all the way through.

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With that said, dividing the Jesus narrative into parts is sometimes straightforward but not always.

Here’s the easy part: There are three basic divisions, namely pre-ministry, ministry, and post-ministry. Or, as my study Bible labels them, “I. Birth and Preparation of Jesus Christ,” “II. Message and Ministry of Jesus Christ,” and “III. Death and Resurrection Jesus Christ.”

It’s also I think pretty straightforward how to subdivide parts I and III, the pre-ministry and post-ministry sections. Thus, before Jesus’ ministry begins, the Gospels give us (a) background about who Jesus was, His birth, and His early life, as well as (b) a discussion of John the Baptist. After the ministry ends, we are told about (a) the run-up to Jesus’ arrest, including the Last Supper, (b) Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and burial, and (c) Jesus’ Resurrection and post-Resurrection appearances up through His ascension to Heaven.

The hard part is outlining His ministry, and of course this is the bulk of the Gospels. You’ll see below that to some extent I throw in the towel on this.

I. Pre-Ministry Notes

A. Background about Jesus

Most of the pre-ministry information about Jesus is in Matthew and Luke, especially if we separate out (as I will) the discussion of John the Baptist.

There are two big exceptions. The first is John’s famous theological opening, “In the beginning was the Word …” (John 1:1-18). The second exception follows Jesus’ baptism: His forty days in the desert and temptation there by Satan. John does not discuss this, and Mark says only, “At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert for forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him” (Mark 1:12-13). Matthew (at 4:1-11) and Luke (at 4:1-13) give longer and nearly identical treatments, except that the order of the last two of the three temptations is switched (irrelevant to my mind, since nothing hinges on the order), and the last verses in the two accounts differ: “Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him” (Matthew 4:11), and “When the devil had finished all his tempting, he left him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). Those closing words in Luke are chilling, are they not? And of course the two closing verses are not contradictory: The angels are with us all — but Satan is always lurking, too.

We’re left with Matthew (chapter 1 through chapter 4:11) and Luke (chapter 1 through chapter 4:13). It’s interesting that — besides, as discussed above, Jesus’ forty days in the desert; and, as will be discussed below, the material on John the Baptist — the only overlap in subject matter is the two genealogies of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38); the point is commonly made that in Matthew, the “more Jewish” of the two, the genealogy starts with Abraham, while Luke (the Bible’s only Gentile author) traces Jesus’ lineage all the way back to Adam, all humankind’s first ancestor.

So we have, then, in Matthew and Luke complementary rather than overlapping accounts relating to the birth and early life of Jesus: an angel appearing to Zechariah, promising the birth of John the Baptist to his wife Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin; an angel soon thereafter promising the birth of Jesus to Mary; Mary visiting Elizabeth; John the Baptist’s birth; an angel appearing to Joseph, telling him about Jesus’ impending birth to Mary; Jesus being born in Bethlehem and visited by shepherds there; Mary and Joseph bringing Him to the temple; the visit of the Magi; the escape of the Holy Family to Egypt and then return to Nazareth; and then Jesus’ meeting with and impressing the religious teachers in the temple courts when He was only twelve years old.

B. John the Baptist

All the gospels have something to say about John the Baptist. Luke alone talks about his birth (Luke 1:5-25, 39-80), and it’s noteworthy that John mentions him even in his famous theological prologue (John 1:6-9). The synoptic Gospels then discuss his ministry — fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy, “I will send a messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way — a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him'” (Mark 1:2; see also Matthew 3:3 and Luke 3:4-6) — and his baptism of Jesus; regarding the latter, John mentions as well the proclamation by the Baptizer that Jesus is the Messiah. I think it’s significant that all four Gospels discuss Jesus’ baptism and the descent upon Him then of the Holy Spirit “like a dove” — a scene, then, that includes all three parts of the Trinity (with the synoptic Gospels recording that God the Father is “well pleased” with His Son, and John recording that the Baptizer testifies that God tells him then of Jesus’ identity).

In part II (regarding Jesus’ ministry), by the way, John is of course also mentioned, and while it’s not really a non-Jesus event, it is the only thing reported that is rather separate from what Jesus is doing. So not only is John’s baptism of Jesus a key event in the Gospels, but one is struck, too, by how John the Baptist’s presence remains throughout Jesus’ ministry after it gets under way. There’s his beheading, of course, and there are a variety of other references to him as well. See, for example, John 3:23-36, Mark 1:14, John 5:35-36, Matthew 11:1-19 and Luke 7:18-35, Matthew 17:13, Luke 16:16, and John 10:40-41. John’s formidable reputation is evidenced in all three synoptic Gospels in their recounting how afraid the religious leaders are to cast aspersions on him (Mark 11:27-33, Matthew 21:23-27, Luke 20:1-8).

If there were a patron saint for modesty and humility — doing one’s difficult job, then selflessly stepping aside, and finally meeting a violent end — it would be John the Baptist. That job was necessary to fulfill scriptural prophecy, as noted, and it’s interesting to think about the impact it had on Jesus’ ministry. I speculate in another post — the one on Hebrews — that the New Testament figure it would have been most desirable to hear from via his own book would have been Barnabas; but I considered John the Baptist, too, and — though his untimely death might still mean that Barnabas would get the nod — one would indeed love to have the perspective of this remarkable man.

II. Ministry Notes

I would mark the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with His recruitment of the first disciples (John 1:35-50) and His turning of water into wine at the Cana wedding feast (John 2:1-11); for some reason, my NIV study Bible considers this to be pre-ministry activity.

A. Pre-Jerusalem ministry

It makes sense to treat Jesus’ closing ministry in Jerusalem separately, as I do below. Dividing his ministry before that is harder, but still desirable, since it is such a large chunk of the gospels. My NIV study Bible divides Mark and Luke into Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and “beyond Galilee”/”on the way to Jerusalem.” There’s something to that (some scholars refer to a “Perean ministry”) but, even if this works for those two gospels, apparently the NIV folks don’t think it works for Matthew and John (I’d note that Jesus’ itinerary is not always clear, at least to me, and of course He goes to Jerusalem more than once).

I will say, though, that it does seem to me that there is a turning point of some kind around the time of the Transfiguration. In addition to that momentous event itself, at around this time Peter recognizes that Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus predicts His own death, and He starts to explain to His disciples that He must go Jerusalem to suffer and die.

In addition to using Jesus’ itinerary, one could also classify and separate out Jesus’ actions. For example:

  • the parables Jesus uses;
  • the miracles He performs (see post here on this blogsite);
  • Jesus’ run-ins with religious leaders (and other unbelievers);
  • His prophecies (by which I mean His statements about the future — see, in particular, his teaching on the Mount of Olives, Matthew 24:1-25:46 — including His description of God’s Kingdom); and
  • key meetings or physical actions (e.g., His ministry begins and ends with a temple cleansing).

Of course, there is some overlap among the bulleted points and much that doesn’t fall into any of those categories (to give just two obvious examples: the Sermon on the Mount and the Transfiguration) . I should also note that the bulleted items continue to appear after He arrives in Jerusalem.

B. Jesus’ final ministry in Jerusalem

It makes sense to separate out Jesus’ closing ministry in Jerusalem. Note that this is all covered by John in just his chapter 12 (starting with verse 12 and continuing through the end of the chapter, covering Jesus’ entry into the city on a donkey and his meeting and speaking with the crowds; the first 11 verses concern an event — namely a woman anointing Jesus’ feet — that, contrary to my NIV study Bible, I’m including as part of the run-up to Jesus’ arrest, since it doesn’t really involve ministering and it apparently precipitated Judas’ betrayal). In the synoptic Gospels, more chapters are devoted to this part of the ministry, with the physical action — Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, and His clearing the temple — likewise discussed first. The synoptic Gospels are devoted then to parables (including many of the most famous), pugilism (that is, his conflicts and questioning with the religious authorities), and prophecies, by which again I mean statements of the future (including the fall of Jerusalem and the End Times).

III. Post-Ministry Notes

The last three chapters of the synoptic Gospels fall into this section, but John devotes eight chapters to it. To put it another way, that’s 11 percent of Matthew’s chapters, 19 percent of Mark’s, 12 percent of Luke’s, but 38 percent of John’s.

A. The run-up to Jesus’ arrest, including the Last Supper

All four Gospels relate that Jesus and the disciples had a Last Supper together, and include His announcing then that He was going to be betrayed by one of those there. The other item in which there is overlap in this section between the synoptic Gospels and John is in both noting Jesus’ predictions of Peter’s denial of Him. It’s interesting that there is no first communion in John; on there other hand, only John has Jesus’ foot-washing and the long farewell in his chapters 14-16.

B. Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and burial

It’s interesting that, of all the parts of the Jesus narrative catalogued by my NIV study bible, it is this part — that is, the events from Jesus’ betrayal through his burial — in which there is most consistent overlap among all four Gospels.

Here’s a theory for why this might be true: Some believe that the John who authored that Gospel was not the apostle but another disciple of that name, who was a Jerusalem-based follower of Jesus. So he would presumably have been absent for some non-Jerusalem events in Jesus’ life — but he would have been there for the crucifixion and its surrounding events. So we have an additional eyewitness to them.

Speaking of which: In John 19:35, is the Gospel author emphasizing that he was an eyewitness to the crucifixion?

One exception I’ll note to my overlap point in this section: Judas hanging himself is just in Matthew (though Dr. Luke recounts Judas’s death in Acts 1:18).

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There are many, many earmarks of truth in the Gospels, and I’m always on the lookout for them, so here are a few that jumped out at me during my latest read through this particular section of the Gospels in writing this post:

  • I like two of Pilate’s lines in John — “What is truth?” (John 18:38) and “I wrote what I wrote” (John 19:22, my translation) — not only because they are pithy but also because they sound exactly like something a rather cynical top government official would say, dismissively, do they not?
  • At the other extreme, I am always moved by Peter breaking down and weeping after he realizes that, indeed, he has denied Christ just as He predicted he would. Mark 14:72 is apparently Peter’s own version. Note that the cock crowing is in all four Gospels, but John doesn’t mention Peter’s weeping, which makes some sense if John had not actually seen this, as he probably wouldn’t have.
  • Mark 15:35 and Matthew 27:47 are darkly funny and again have that ring of truth: The members of the crucifixion audience who didn’t know Aramaic might well confuse “Eloi, Eloi” or “Eli, Eli” with “Elijah, Elijah,” right? And the gentile Dr. Luke might not include it in his account if he didn’t know Aramaic and so didn’t understand the mistake.

C. Jesus’ Resurrection and post-Resurrection appearances up through His ascension to Heaven

Unsurprisingly, all four Gospels relate Jesus’ Resurrection, and all four discuss specific post-Resurrection appearances, but it is interesting that there is a wide variety of the latter, and the sort of overlap is different, suggesting to me even more independent sourcing than usual.

Two other notes:

  • Matthew alone talks about the tomb guards: 27:62-66 and 28:8-10.
  • One might add to the Gospels’ post-Resurrection appearances at least two passages from Acts, namely Acts 1:1-11 (or is this just a summary and the same Ascension — see Mark 16:19-20 and Luke 24:50-53?) and His appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus.

Conclusion

Again, Happy Easter! He is risen indeed!