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Home > Dictionaries > Holman Bible Dictionary > HARMONY OF THE GOSPELS

Holman Bible Dictionary

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The arrangement of the gospels in parallel columns for the purpose of studying their similarities and differences. Andreas Osiander (1498-1552), a German Bible scholar of the Protestant Reformation, was the first person to use the phrase “harmony of the gospels” for a parallel organization of gospel texts which he designed. By choosing a musical term as a metaphor for his columnar arrangement, Osiander likened the total picture of Jesus supplied by all four gospels to the sound of several musical notes being played together in one chord. A harmony of the gospels may also be called a synopsis or a parallel of the gospels.

History of Harmonies While the term “harmony of the gospels” was not used until the sixteenth century, Bible scholars began efforts to compare and harmonize the four accounts of Jesus as early as the second century. At that time, Tatian, a Christian from Syria, compiled the four gospels into a single paraphrased narrative called the Diatessaron. All we know about Tatian's work is from references to it by other writers.

The Diatessaron represents one approach to harmonizing the gospels: the weaving together of material from the gospels to present one, continuous narrative of Jesus' life. Several biblical scholars in the past two hundred years have attempted similar works. William Wrede, Samuel Reimarus, and the Europeans of the 1800's each tried to write the definitive “life of Jesus.” While Tatian apparently tried to accomplish his goal by combining and harmonizing the texts of the four gospels, picking and choosing passages he wanted to include or omit, Reimarus, Wrede, and their contemporaries took a different approach and analyzed the information contained in the gospels (not the actual texts themselves). The result was more akin to a biography which used for four gospels as sources than it was to an actual harmonization.

Few contemporary scholars give credence to attempts to “harmonize” either the texts or the information contained in the gospels into one, exhaustive record of Jesus. Rather, they recognize the differences and compare the variations between the gospels and use their findings as an aid for interpretation. The first great work in this second approach to harmonizing the gospels was done by Amonnius of Alexandria in the third century. Ammonius took the text of Matthew and wrote beside the text in parallel columns any passages from the other three gospels which corresponded to them. Consequently, Ammonius' work only showed the relationship between Matthew and the other three gospels. Any parallels which existed independently among the other three were ignored. In the fourth century, the church historian Eusebius developed a cross-reference system which provided a way to locate and study a passage which had parallels in any of the other gospels.

J. J. Griesbach, another German, made one of the most significant contributions to this field when he produced his Synopse, a parallel arrangement of the texts of the first three gospels, in 1776. Griesbach derived his title from the Greek word which means “to view at the same time,” and, consequently gave Matthew, Mark, and Luke the designation “synoptic gospels” because of their similar perspective (in contrast to John) on the life of Jesus. Greisbach's work still serves as the basic model for scholars who make comparisons between the gospels in order to aid their interpretation of a given text. Based upon Greisbach's pattern and the recognition that John is strikingly different from the synoptics, few contemporary scholars attempt to harmonize the texts of all four gospels.

Need for Comparative Study Even the most casual reading of the New Testament reveals the need and helpfulness of a comparative study of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Note the following:

1. Some of the material contained in one gospel is repeated almost word for word in one or both of the other gospels (the story of Jesus' disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath, Mark 2:23-27, Matthew 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5).

2. Some material, part of which appears vital to the record of Jesus' teaching, is included in only one gospel (the parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11-32).

How are these facts to be explained, and what help do their answers provide for understanding the gospels? A comparative study helps answer these questions.

The Synoptic Problem As noted above, scholars have long noted the particular similarities which abound between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In all three gospels:

1) The appearance of John the Baptist, Jesus' baptism and temptation, and the initiation of Jesus' public ministry are linked together.

2) Jesus' ministry is confined to Galilee until He attended the Passover celebration in Jerusalem where He was crucified.

3) The story ends with His crucifixion and resurrection.

In addition to the rough similarity in their plots and similar points of view, the three gospels exhibit an undeniable interrelatedness with respect to actual content: Luke contains 50 per cent of the substance of Mark's verses, while Matthew contains a full 90 per cent of Mark. Yet, for all these similarities, the three gospels also possess significant differences. How does one explain these facts? Scholars have labeled the issues surrounding this question “the synoptic problem.”

1. An Early Solution One of the earliest and most influential answers to the synoptic problem was offered by Augustine (A.D. 354-430). He decided that Matthew wrote first and that Mark produced his gospel by abridging what Matthew had written. Luke was thought to be dependent on both of them. Augustine's position was the orthodox view for over 1400 years.

2. Later Solutions During the 1800's, advances were made in archaeology and the study of ancient languages. New methods were introduced to biblical studies. These changes produced several fresh solutions to the synoptic problem.

The first “modern” solution focused on the hypothesis of a single, original gospel which is now lost to us. Some scholars believed it may have been an orally transmitted gospel which had become formalized through constant repetition, while others believed it was an actual document. In either case, those who believed this hypothesis assumed Matthew, Mark, and Luke individually selected material from this gospel as they wrote their accounts.

Other solutions to the problem centered on the belief that two documents were used by the gospel writers. Reversing the established view that Matthew was written first, proponents of the two document theory concluded that Mark was actually the first gospel and that the other two synoptic gospels were dependent upon Mark. Because of the similarities between teaching passages contained in both Matthew and Luke, these scholars also theorized that Matthew and Luke both had one other source, a collection of Jesus' teachings.

3. The Four Document Hypothesis In the early part of the twentieth century, B. H. Streeter, a British scholar, proposed the four document theory as a solution to the synoptic problem. Streeter agreed with the two document theory to a point, but thought it failed to go far enough in explaining the existence of material which was exclusive to either Matthew or Luke. Therefore, Streeter offered the hypothesis that the writers of the synoptic gospels used a total of four documents as sources for their works.

a. The Priority of Mark Like the proponents of the two document theory, Streeter believed Mark was written first and served as a source for both Matthew and Luke. Several facts led to this belief. First, all three gospels usually agree on the order in which they arrange their material. However, when they do disagree, Matthew and Mark frequently agree compared to Luke, or Luke and Mark will agree compared to Matthew. Matthew and Luke hardly ever agree compared to Mark. The same is true in word usage and sentence structure. Mark often agrees with Matthew or Luke against the other, but Matthew and Luke rarely agree against Mark. These two facts would indicate Mark was used by the other writers. A third piece of evidence indicating the priority of Mark is that statements in Mark which could offend or perplex readers are either omitted or presented in a less provocative form by the other two synoptics (compare Mark 4:38 with Matthew 8:25 and Luke 8:24). Streeter believed that when taken together, these three facts can only lead to the conclusion that Mark was written first and used by Matthew and Luke.

b. The Existence of “Q” Streeter also agreed with the proponents of the two document theory that Matthew and Luke used a common source other than Mark. German scholars gave this source the name “Q” from the German Quelle, which means “source.” Its content can only be deduced by comparing passages common to Matthew and Luke but absent from Mark. Scholars agree that Q was primarily a collection of Jesus' teachings with little narrative and no mention of the crucifixion and resurrection. The most significant contribution of Q is the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6:20-49).

c. The “M” Source Streeter believed Matthew had access to a body of material unknown to (or at least unused by) Mark and Luke. This source derives its name “M” from the initial for Matthew. Because Matthew's infancy story differs from Luke, it is considered part of the material contained in this source. M also contained many Old Testament proof texts related to Jesus' role as Messiah.

d. The “L” Source The fourth and final source in the four document hypothesis is believed to contain the material exclusive to Luke. This source contained at least an infancy story and many parables. The stories of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are a part of this “L” source. Streeter's “M” and “L” sources involved the implausibility of sources containing, for example, infancy narrative, assorted parables, and nothing else. Few contemporary scholars believe “M” or “L” ever existed as documents. Conservatives trace the materials unique to Matthew or Luke to multiple strands of oral tradition. Radical critics treat these materials as the free creations of the evangelists.

The Place of Inspiration Many persons believe the discussion of “sources” used by the gospel writers impinges on the inspiration of the Scriptures. If Matthew, Mark and Luke used other documents to write their gospels, does God still have a place in their authorship? Careful thought will reveal that “sources” and inspiration are not mutually exclusive. Old Testament writers clearly show they used written sources (Joshua 10:13; 2 Samuel 1:18; 1 Kings 11:41; 2 Chronicles 9:29).

Luke says, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you… (Luke 1:1-3). Luke made an important admission in this statement: he indicated knowledge of other accounts of Jesus' life and message. No known theory of inspiration violates a person's humanity to the point of negating his or her memory. Therefore, the gospel authored by Luke would certainly have had something in common with the sources known to him. Additionally, no theory of inspiration states that the human authors of biblical material used information or words which, until the precise moment of writing, had been entirely unknown to the writer. To assume that inspiration cannot involve the process of helping a human being to recognize divine truth and to shape that truth into the specific message God wants communicated is to limit the abilities of God's Spirit. Inspiration of both Testaments included God's leading writers to proper sources and directing in the use of the sources.

Summary While most contemporary scholars hold to the two document hypothesis (Matthew and Luke used Mark and “Q” but no other written sources), one must recognize any solution to the synoptic problem is a theory and not a proven fact. Many Bible students today are returning to the view Matthew was written first. It must be admitted that many of the answers we desire about the origins of the gospels are not available to us. Therefore, some modern questioners will find themselves extremely frustrated when they expect scientifically precise answers about documents, the original purpose of which was to be religiously reliable about the exciting good news from God through Jesus Christ. We can trust and obey the gospels without having the answer to every question about their origins and relationships.

P. Joel Snider

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor.. "Entry for 'HARMONY OF THE GOSPELS'". "Holman Bible Dictionary".
<>. 1991.


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