Class, Week 3: Deharmonizing the Gospels

If your go-to Bible is anything like mine, it has a section either just after the Gospel of John or at the end of the New Testament devoted to harmonizing the gospels. Since Matthew, Mark, Luke and John chose different ways of presenting Jesus’ story, the idea is that if we combine them into one text – or at least one series of headings with references – then we can get a fuller picture of Jesus’ life.

Unfortunately, that leads to some problems.

My Bible – a run-of-the-mill Life Application Study Bible – does its harmonizing at the end of the gospels, listing 250 subject headings and where they appear in each of the gospels, starting with “Luke’s purpose for writing” and ending with “Jesus ascends into heaven.”

But ultimately anything that attempts to harmonize such disparate works as the gospels runs into complications because the gospels are not as uniform as perhaps some of us have been led to believe.

For example, everyone knows the story of Jesus clearing the temple. It’s after he rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, according to Matthew 21, Mark 11 and Luke 19. Or is it? John has a temple-clearing story in chapter 2. How likely is it that Jesus cleared the temple twice? Sure, it could have happened. But it seems more likely that John simply placed the story where he wanted to put it. Nevertheless, an attempt to harmonize the gospels means the heading in Matthew, Mark and Luke must read, “Jesus clears the temple again.”

There are several of these odd scenarios: “Jesus grieves over Jerusalem again,” apparently using the exact same words both times, before he enters Jerusalem in Luke, afterward in Matthew. “Jesus again predicts Peter’s denial,” slightly earlier in Luke and John, later in Matthew and Mark, both times with the familiar wording about the rooster’s crow.

If there is a better example of anachronistic cultural arrogance, I’d like to hear it.

We treat these ancient texts as if they were modern-day historical treatises when they are not and were never intended to be. Each writer had an agenda in picking the stories and teachings he did, and further it seems clear each one adjusted those stories and teachings to suit that agenda.

None of them paid much attention to chronology – if they had, they would agree on when Jesus cleared the temple, grieved over Jerusalem or predicted Peter’s denial – or historical accuracy – if they had, we would have four consistent birth stories instead of two divergent ones or four consistent crucifixion stories instead of the multitude of slight variations about what was said and done on the cross. And most people know this; it’s why my Bible has a chart explaining the audience and intent of each gospel. Even traditional literalists acknowledge the varying emphases of each gospel.

But perhaps it goes further than that.

In Mark, Jesus feeds the 5,000 men (10-15,000 people, in all likelihood) in chapter 6. We all know the story, I think. Then comes chapter 8, when a similar scenario happens with 4,000 men in attendance. When Jesus says he has compassion on the crowd and wants to feed them, the disciples say, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?”

Such myopia really stretches the bounds of credibility. Are they really this stupid? Or is it more likely that Mark making a point, knowing that his readers will identify most with the disciples? Let’s look at the order of chapter 8:

  • Jesus feeds the 4,000 after disciples question how
  • Pharisees demand a sign from heaven; Jesus refuses
  • Disciples misunderstand Jesus’ warning against false teaching
  • Jesus restores sight to a blind man
  • Peter declares Jesus is the Messiah

Our New Testament professor made this point in class. Which is more likely: That all of these events happened exactly this way in exactly this order, or that Mark placed them so that we would have three consecutive stories of people failing to understand the nature and purpose of Jesus’ ministry, followed by sight being restored to a blind man, and then the declaration of Jesus’ messiahship – the first time, by the way, anyone other than demons acknowledges Jesus as Messiah in Mark. The disciples, at long last, had begun to see, though not too well. In the miracle of the blind man, Jesus seems to mess up the first time, and the man says people look like trees walking around. Likewise, though Peter recognizes Jesus as the Christ, he immediately tries to reject the notion of Jesus’ impending sacrifice at the cross, leading to a rebuke.

Again, it’s possible this all happened exactly this way. But it seems more likely that Mark, the first person we know of to write down the life and teachings of Jesus, is collating these oral traditions in order to make the point he wants to make, not preserve a biographical account as we’d understand it in the post-Enlightenment era.

Similarly, Matthew, writing to establish Jesus’ messiahship and perhaps declare just a little the superiority of Christianity over Judaism includes numerous references to Old Testament prophecy, sometimes ripping the original verses badly out of context in ways we would be horrified about if a preacher did it from the pulpit. Was Jeremiah 31 really prophesying the slaughter of infants and toddlers in Israel at the time of Christ or lamenting the impending destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon? Did Hosea 11:1 really refer to Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt with Jesus, or is it referring to the exodus?

Matthew also includes Jesus’ statement that he did not come to overthrow but to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, and while Mark features plenty of conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, Matthew ratchets up the rhetoric. In his gospel alone, Jesus refers to those who are “heavy laden,” twice quotes Hosea in saying God desires “mercy not sacrifice,” hammers home the universality of the gospel (using the phrase “Galilee of the Gentiles,” incorporating magi “from the east” and adding anachronistic references to churches) and offers a rebuttal to the contemporary Jewish argument that the disciples actually stole Jesus’ body from the tomb.

And, most tellingly, only Matthew has the long polemic from Jesus in chapter 23, his last sermon, in which he turns the “Blessed are …” from his first message into a series of “Woe to you …” against the Pharisees. My professor argues the Pharisees were as hard on themselves as Jesus was, and that when Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the Pharisees saved Judaism. In other words, they weren’t as bad as they are described in the gospels (he compared it to learning everything you know about Mitt Romney by listening to Newt Gingrich). But Matthew has an agenda; he’s contrasting the burdensome law of Judaism with the freedom of Christ’s fulfillment, now available to all people. The church, Matthew argues in this narrative, is the new Israel.

So did Jesus actually say and do these things? To an extent, probably. It’s likely the gospel writers had oral and written sources that contained truthful pieces of the historical Jesus. But these were reshaped for their own purposes. When we try to flatten their messages into one harmonized “life of Christ,” we make ourselves look silly, and we rob the stories of their original depth.

In the end, each Gospel describes the incomprehensible love of God to reach down and do whatever it took to restore relationship with his creation. The details and agendas behind that description change from author to author. But God’s love shines through each one. That’s the harmony on which we should be focusing.


One thought on “Class, Week 3: Deharmonizing the Gospels”

  1. I don’t think it’s too hard to deal with these passages in an intellectually honest way without shattering one’s faith. All it takes is a gentle – and it can be quite gentle – loosening up of one’s view of inspiration.
    If these are oral traditions, and we don’t view the gospel writers as stenographers for the Holy Spirit, then there are bound to be differences in method, vocabulary, and even broad themes and emphases. I do not think that the implications of such a loosening up have to be drastic.

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