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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : III The Harmony of the Gospels

The Life Of Jesus Of Nazareth by Rush Rhees

III The Harmony of the Gospels

36. The church early appreciated the value and the difficulty of having four different pictures of the life and teachings of the Lord. Irenaeus at the close of the second century felt it to be as essential that there should be four gospels as that there should be |four zones of the world, four principal winds, and four faces of the cherubim| (Against Heresies III. ii.8).

37. Before Irenaeus, however, another had sought to obviate the difficulty of having four records which seem at some points to disagree, by making a combination of the gospels, to which he gave the title |Diatessaron.| Tatian, the author of this work, was converted from paganism about 152 A.D., and prepared his unified gospel, probably for the use of the Syrian churches, sometime after 172. His work is one of the treasures of the early Christian literature recovered for us within the last quarter-century. It seems to have won great popularity in the Syrian churches, having practically displaced the canonical gospels for nearly three centuries, when, owing to its supposed heretical tendency, it was suppressed by the determined effort of the church authorities. It is a continuous record of Jesus' ministry, beginning with the first six verses of the Gospel of John, passing then to the early chapters of Luke. It closes with an account of the resurrection interwoven from all four gospels, concluding with John xxi.25. The arrangement follows generally the order of Matthew, additional matter from the other gospels being inserted at places which approved themselves to Tatian's judgment. Some portions -- in particular the genealogies of Jesus -- were omitted altogether, in accordance with views held by the compiler.

38. From Tatian's time to the present there have been repeated attempts to construct a harmonious representation of events and teachings in the ministry of Jesus, generally by setting the parallel accounts side by side, following such a succession of events as seemed most probable. Our evangelists cared little, if they thought at all, about the requirements of strict biography, and they have left us records not easy to arrange on any one chronological scheme. Concerning the chief events, however, the gospels agree. All four report, for instance, the beginning of the work in Galilee (Matt. iv.12, 17; Mark i.14, 15; Luke iv.14, 15; John iv.43-45); the feeding of the five thousand when Jesus' popularity in Galilee passed its climax (Matt. xiv.13-23; Mark vi.30-46; Luke ix.10-17; John vi.1-15); the departure from Galilee for the final visit to Jerusalem (Matt. xix.1, 2; Mark x.1; Luke ix.51; John vii.1-10); and the week of suffering and victory at the end (Matt. xxi.1 to xxviii.20; Mark xi.1 to xvi.8 ; Luke xix.29 to xxiv.53; John xii.1 to xxi.25).

39. These facts are enough to give us a clear and unified impression of the course of Jesus' ministry. When, however, we seek to fill in the details given in the different gospels, difficulties at once arise. Thus, first, what shall be done with the long section which John introduces (i.19 to iv.42) before Jesus' withdrawal into Galilee? The other gospels make that withdrawal the beginning of his public work. A second difficulty arises from the unnamed feast of John v.1. By one or another scholar this feast has been identified with almost every Jewish festival known to us. Another problem is furnished by the long section in Luke which is so nearly peculiar to his gospel (ix.51 to xviii.14). If the section had no parallels in the other gospels we might easily conclude that it all belongs to a time subsequent to the final departure for Jerusalem; but it contains at least one incident from the earlier ministry in Galilee (Luke xi.14-36; compare Mark iii.19-30), and many teachings of Jesus given by Matthew in an earlier connection appear here in Luke. Furthermore, the section has to be adjusted to that portion of the Gospel of John which deals with the same period and yet reports none of the same details.

40. If Mark has furnished the narrative framework adopted in the main by the first and third gospels, the problem of the order of events in Jesus' life becomes a question of the chronological value of Mark, and of the estimate to be placed on the narrative of John. If the fourth gospel is held to be of apostolic origin and trustworthy, the task of the harmonist is chiefly that of combining these two records of Mark and John. The testimony of the Baptist, with which the fourth gospel opens, must have been given some time after he had baptized Jesus, and the ministry which preceded Jesus' return to Galilee (i.19 to iv.42) belongs to a period ignored by the other gospels. The first three gospels contain indications that Jesus must have visited Judea before the close of his life. They give no hint, however, of the time or circumstances of such earlier Judean labor. In giving the emphasis they do to the work in Galilee, they present a one-sided picture. When, therefore, we find in John a narrative of work in Judea, confirmed by hints in the other gospels, we may justly assume that the arrangement which fills out the ministry of Jesus by inserting at the proper places in Mark's record the events found in John is essentially true.

41. The consideration of the one-sidedness of Mark's narrative simplifies the problem of harmony, but it does not solve all of the perplexities. Matthew and Luke have much matter, some of it narrative, which Mark has not, and for which he suggests no place. Where shall we put, for instance, the cure of the centurion's servant (Matt. viii.5-13; Luke vii.1-10), or John the Baptist's last message (Matt. xi.2-19; Luke vii.18-35)? It would simplify matters if we could take Luke's statement that he had |traced the course of all things accurately from the first| (Luke i.3), as indicating that he had arrived at exact certainty concerning the order of events of Jesus' life. It is probable, however, that his statement was simply a claim that he had carefully gathered material for a record of the whole life of Jesus, from the annunciation of his birth to his ascension. While we may believe that some trustworthy tradition led him to give the place he has to many of the incidents which he adds to Mark's story, it seems impossible to follow him in all respects; for instance, in severing the account of the blasphemy of the Pharisees (xi.14-36) from the place which it holds in Mark (iii.19-30).

42. Still more uncertainty exists concerning the historic connection of teachings of Jesus to which Matthew and Luke give different settings; for example, the Lord's Prayer (Matt. vi.9-15; Luke xi.1-4), and the exhortations against anxiety (Matt. vi.25-34; Luke xii.22-31). We have seen that much of the teaching common to these gospels is probably derived from the collection of the |oracles| of the Lord made by the apostle Matthew. Everything that we can infer concerning such a collection of oracles indicates that, while some of the teachings may have been connected with particular historic situations (compare Luke xi.1), many would altogether lack such introductory words. A later example of what such a collection may have been has come to light recently in the so-called |Sayings of Jesus,| discovered in Egypt and published in 1897. In these the occasion for the teaching has been quite lost; the sole interest centres in the fact that Jesus is supposed to have said the things recorded. If Matthew's book contained such |logia| or |oracles,| it is probable that the original connection in which most of them were spoken was a matter of no concern to the apostle, and consequently has been lost This in no way compromises the genuineness of these sayings of Jesus. The treatment of Luke ix.51 to xviii.14 is much simplified by this consideration. To Luke's industry (i.1-4) we owe the preservation of some events and very many teachings which no other evangelist has recorded. Some of this new material (for instance, vii.11-17, 36-50) he has assigned a place in the midst of Mark's narrative. Most of it, however, he has gathered together in what seems to be a sort of appendix, which he has inserted between the close of the ministry in Galilee and the final arrival in Judea. For many of the teachings it is now impossible to assign a time or place. That this is so will cause no surprise or difficulty if we remember that in the earliest days the report of what Jesus said and did circulated in the form of oral tradition only. It was the knowledge that first-hand witnesses were passing away that led to the writing of the gospels. During the period of oral tradition many teachings of the Lord were doubtless kept clearly and accurately in memory after the historic situations which led to their first utterance were quite forgotten.

43. This fact helps to explain another perplexity in our gospel narratives. A comparison of the two accounts of the cure of the centurion's servant reveals differences of detail most perplexing, if we ask for minute agreement in records of the same events. When we see that of two accounts evidently reporting the same incident, one can say that the centurion himself sought Jesus and asked the cure of his servant (Matt. viii.5, 8), while the other makes him declare himself unworthy to come in person to the Lord (Luke vii.7), the question arises whether other accounts, similar in the main but differing in detail, should not be identified as independent records of one event. Were there two cleansings of the temple (John ii.13-22; Mark xi.15-19), two miraculous draughts of fishes (Luke v.4-11; John xxi.5-8), two rejections at Nazareth (Mark vi.1-6; Luke iv.16-30), two parables of the Leaven, of the Mustard Seed (Matt. xiii.31-33; Luke xiii.18-21), and of the Lost Sheep (Matt, xviii.12-14; Luke xv.4-7)? Such similar records are often called doublets, and the question of identity or distinctness can be answered only after a special study of each case. It is important to notice that a given teaching, particularly if it took the form of an illustration, would naturally be used by Jesus on many different occasions. When, on the other hand, we find two accounts of specific doings of Jesus similar in detail it is needful to recognize that definite historic situations do not so often repeat themselves as do occasions for similar or identical teachings.

44. All these considerations show that while the general order of events in the life of Jesus may be determined with a good degree of probability, we must be content to remain uncertain concerning the place to be given to many incidents and to more teachings. Such uncertainty is of small concern, since our unharmonized gospels have not failed during all these centuries to produce one fair picture, to the total impression of which each teaching and deed make definite contribution quite independently of our ability to give to each its particular place in relation to the whole. The degree of certainty attainable justifies, however, a continued interest in the old study of harmony, because of the more comprehensive idea it gives of the ministry depicted in the partial narratives of our several gospels.

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