Harmonizing the Gospels 101 - Part III

Click Here for Parts I, II and III - Harmonizing the Gospels 101

Summary of Parts I & II:
In Part I, we explored the relationship between the Inspiration of Scripture, Inerrancy and Harmonization.
• We saw that Inerrancy was a logical implication of the Doctrine of Inspiration.
• And likewise, given Inspiration and Inerrancy, Harmonization of Scripture (especially the Gospels), becomes a pressing issue.
• We found that one’s view of Inerrancy, whether Absolute Inerrancy or Full Inerrancy, directly affects ones view of Harmonization.
• And we suggested that a Fully Inerrant view of Scripture leads to a view of Harmonization of Scripture that is more in line with what Scripture would ask of us.

In Part II, we covered the Divine and Human Stewardship of the transmission of Scripture.
• We saw that God had a “chain of custody” that flowed from the Father, to the Son, to the Holy Spirit and finally to the disciples.
• This “chain of custody” secures the reliability of the transmission.

Additionally, there was also a human dimension in the transmission of God’s word.
• Richard Bauckham described this as Oral History that was transmitted in a Formally Controlled Framework with Eyewitnesses as the “guarantors” of Jesus’ sayings and narratives.
• And finally we found that the Oral History transmitted within the Formally Controlled Framework through the Eyewitnesses consisted of elements that were allowed a certain amount of variation and elements that were fixed – “fixity and variability”.

We now have a sufficient foundation and understanding to dive in to the Harmonization options available to us given all that we have covered.


We will begin this section with the three most common options available to us.
• We will then consider the options available to us that would be problematic for the Absolute view.
    o These views will come from Richard Bauckham and Moises Silva.
• BTW – The options we will present certainly aren’t exhaustive, but are comprehensive.
• The first I call “Common” and the second I call “Contextual”.

Common Harmonization Options:
(1) Happened Twice Option
• This approach suggests that differences exist because, though the stories are similar, the Gospel writers are actually dealing with different stories.
• An example of this to be found in the chronology difference between John’s account and the Synoptic Gospels account of the clearing of the Temple.
    o John 2:13-22 – John puts this event at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
    o Luke 19:45-48 – Luke (and the others) puts this event towards the end of Jesus’ ministry.
• Many believe that the best Harmonization option is that we are dealing with two different clearings.
• A.T. Robertson says of this option, “…there is no inherent difficulty in the repetition of such an act when one reflects on the natural indignation of Jesus at the desecration of the temple on his visit during his ministry and considers that Jesus may have wished to make one last protest at the close of his ministry.”
• We will address this difference again momentarily.

(2) Differing Perspective Option
• This approach suggests that differences appear to exist because, though the Gospel writers are dealing with the same story, they are highlighting or focusing on different aspects of the story.
• Two very good examples of this are the empty tomb narratives and Judas’ death.

Judas’ Death:
Matthew 27:5 (ESV) — 5 And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself.
Acts 1:18–19 (ESV) — 18 (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19 And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)
Did he hang himself or did he fall and split his guts open?

Empty Tomb Narrative:
Mark 16:5–6 (ESV) — 5 And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. 6 And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him.
Luke 24:3–5 (ESV) — 3 but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. 5 And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?
Was there one angel or were there two angels?
What exactly did the angel or angels say?

In each of these cases, harmonization is accomplished by putting the two narratives together.
• Mark chose to focus on the one angel dressed in the white robe.
    o He never said there was only one angel.
• Luke chose to reveal that there were actually at least two angels present.
    o And, apparently, they both spoke.

(3) Time Compression Option
• This approach suggests that the Gospel writer is dispensing with details of time or chronology in order to get to the heart of the story.
• Mike Licona suggests that the differences in the withering tree narrative are an example of this.
    o Mark 11:12-20 shows Jesus’ cursing the fig tree in the morning; clearing the temple in the afternoon; and then on the next day they pass by the fig tree again and it notice it is withered.
    o Matthew 21:19 tells us that the fig tree “withered at once” on the same day Jesus cursed it.
• Using this approach, the solution is simply that Matthew gave us the quick version (the time compressed version).
• A modern day example of time compression is the inclusion of the wise men in the Nativity scene.

These three options are quite good, but when used to accommodate all the Gospels apparent differences, they begin to appear strained or overreaching.
Does it really make sense that Jesus cleared the temple twice?
• Perhaps John was not concerned with chronology and had a theological or thematic reason for moving the temple clearing scene to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
• Or how about the differences in the Rich Young Ruler narrative which we will soon discuss.
Is it really reasonable to suggest that Jesus had two different encounters with Rich Young Rulers?

It is for these reasons that we now turn to the Harmonization options available to us under the Fully Inerrant Approach.

Contextual Harmonization Options:
These options are contextual because they take into account all that we learned about the ways in which Oral Societies transmit Oral History through a Formally Controlled Framework.
• These options seek to demonstrate that some reconciliation is possible only when contextual and cultural considerations are accounted for.
    o Which is to say, Absolute Harmonization may not be possible.
    o It might be that we just accept the differences for what they are.
    o There is no attempt to overreach and force an awkward solution.
• These options consider that the message transmitted through the Formally Controlled Framework was perhaps more important than the order of the narratives, for example.
• These options ask the obvious question, “Why do we have 4 gospels anyway?” – Moises Silva.
    o In other words, what is distinctive about each Gospel and what does this distinctive tell us.

What are these Contextual Options?

The Contextual Options:
1) “We must allow for the probability that Jesus himself used varying versions of his own sayings on different occasions, and that sometimes the traditions have preserved these” – Richard Bauckham.
• This is so obvious, especially in an oral performance culture.
• It perplexes me that I had never heard this before.

2) “Some verbal differences will result from translation variants (in translation from Aramaic to Greek)” – Richard Bauckham.
• For example, translating an idiom from its natural language to a foreign language will result in some necessary differences and/or adjustments being made.

3) “Many differences, especially in narrative, will be due to the variability normal in oral performance and to the degree considered appropriate for the type of material being transmitted. This kind of variation probably accounts for many differences in the triple tradition (the material common to Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Matthew and Luke varied their Markan written source in the same kinds of ways they would have done had they been performing oral tradition” – Richard Bauckham.
• This pertains to the “fixity and variability” discussion in Part II.
• Specifically, this option applies to the “ordinary variability of the more flexible parts of the tradition” – Bauckham.
• That would be the narratives themselves and not the sayings.

4) “Many differences, especially in the sayings material, must be deliberate interpretative alterations or additions, by which a tradent sought to explain or to adapt the teaching when the post-Easter situation seemed to require this. Such changes, it should be noted, are entirely compatible with word-for-word memorization of, for example, aphorisms of Jesus, since the changes would be made quite deliberately to a known form of exact words. Such changes are also quite compatible with a formal process of transmission, since it would be authorized tradents who, from their own familiarity with the tradition, would be competent to make such changes. The Gospel writers, too, would have made such changes, and these are what are commonly treated as redactional changes of the more significant sort, as distinct from merely stylistic and incidental variations” – Richard Bauckham.
• This includes, no doubt, how the discursive sayings of Jesus that we talked about in Part II were incorporated into the Jesus’ narratives and sayings.
• This option, then, explains the changes “in the key elements of the traditions” – Bauckham.
• Additionally, as John’s Gospel often demonstrates, the resurrection vindicated the ministry of Jesus and provided a new theological framework through which to see the events of Jesus’ life.
• The testimony of the eyewitnesses no doubt would have been deliberately filtered through these considerations when they chose to convey a certain message about Jesus and belief in Him.

5) “Finally, there are changes the Gospel writers have made in order to integrate the traditions into the connected narrative of their Gospels” – Richard Bauckham.
• This speaks to the question as to why do we have four gospels anyway.
• It also speaks to differences in chronology.
• Moises Silva stresses that these changes were not errors and not meant to deceive.
• In fact, it is precisely in these changes that we learn about the “distinctives” of each Gospel.
• In other words, what was each of the writers was trying to convey theologically, thematically, etc.
• As we suggested in Part I, it would have done us little good to have four identical Gospels.
• The writers knew they differed from one another, yet thankfully they pressed on that we might have a much richer view of the historical/theological Jesus.

Rich Young Ruler Example:
In order to flesh some of these options out, we will look at the Rich Young Ruler narrative as told by Mark and Matthew.
• Mark 10:17–18 (ESV) — 17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.
• Matthew 19:16–17 (ESV) — 16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”

What is going on here?
• It would be difficult to argue, as we suggested earlier, that the solution here is that there were actually two Rich Young Rulers.
• And suggesting the Differing Perspective Option seems a little disingenuous.
• So, it seems clear that either we have a mix up or Matthew deliberately changed the wording – Moises Silva.
• The Common Options don’t provide us with much help.

But given the Contextual Options available to us, we don’t have to shy away from the suggestion that Matthew deliberately changed the wording.
• In other words, Contextual Options (1), (3), (4), or (5) could be at play here.
• It is perfectly reasonable, and within the accepted framework of the oral transmission we have discussed, that Matthew wanted to teach a truth that Jesus taught (perhaps in his discursive sayings) and used this narrative to do so.
• Or, it seems possible that Jesus Himself spoke of this event at a later date and gave commentary that Matthew found particularly appealing.
• Or, it seems possible that Matthew was drawing our attention to an aspect of good works that Mark didn’t care to draw out.
• The result being that, in the words of Moises Silva:
    o Mark’s focus is on what the Rich Young Ruler thought of Jesus.
    o Matthew’s focus is on what the Rich Young Ruler thought of Himself.
    o There are no errors but simply different “sermons” – Moises Silva.
• We see this distinction not only in the verses cited above, but also in the following:
    o Matthew’s account has Jesus saying, “If you would be perfect, go, sell…” as compared to Mark’s “you lack one thing: go, sell…”.

And what about the differences between our most recent lesson on the Triumphal Entry in John 12 and the Synoptics?
• Mark 11:9–10 (ESV) — 9 And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”
• John 12:13 (ESV) — 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”
Which of our Harmonization Options can account for these differences?

So, finally, even if none of these options seem reasonable, under the Fully Inerrant view, we can rest easy knowing that we simply may not have enough info available to us (or the relevant info was lost) to fully harmonize the Rich Young Ruler or the Triumphal Entry or any other apparent contradiction.
• Inspiration and Inerrancy are not in jeopardy.
• In fact, given the Divine Stewardship of the transmission process, we know we have exactly what God desired us to have.

The Sovereign God who declared in John 9 that a man was born blind some 30-40 years previous to his encounter with Jesus so that God might be glorified when Jesus healed him, is clearly concerned with the details.
• So I rest easy in all the details of Scripture – even the ones that appear to be at odds with each other.
• The God who raised Jesus from the dead is not a God of chance; we have what we are supposed to have.
• And I hope our past three lessons have helped you understand how we got it and how reliable it is.

·        • BTW – we didn't even begin to consider how the practice of worship, the sacraments, use of the OT Scripture and hymns all contributed to the reliability of the transmission of God’s word.


It seems prudent to me to conclude with the thoughts of some highly respected, orthodox scholars on the subject of harmonization.
The evangelists narrate historical facts, but they so select, arrange, and present these facts that little information of the kind needed to piece together a detailed life of Jesus is available. In such cases, it is not a matter of chronological error, but of chronological indifference – D.A. Carson.
We may reasonably suppose that the extent of variation we can observe in the extant records (the canonical Gospels along with the early extracanonical material) is the same — no greater or less — as the extent to which the traditions varied in oral performance – Richard Bauckham.
Nevertheless, there are some places where fully satisfactory answers simply are not available. In such cases, it is better, as Luther put it, just to let it alone than to force unlikely meanings on the text – D.A. Carson.
It is better to acknowledge that we do not yet have all the answers. This humble approach will probably make the Bible more believable than will asking people to accept some of the proffered explanations, and in the process suggesting that the integrity of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy depends on acceptance of such contrived solutions – Millard Erickson.
I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it – Augustine (4th century).
But while we must allow the possibility of being unable to solve a particular problem, it should also be stated that there are many evangelical Bible scholars today who will say that they do not presently know of any problem texts for which there is no satisfactory solution. It is possible, of course, that some such texts could be called to their attention in the future, but during the past fifteen years or so of controversy over biblical inerrancy, no such “unsolved” text has been brought to their attention – Wayne Grudem.