The Gospel Harmony

The gospel harmony is an attempt to compile the canonical gospels of the Christian New Testament into a single account. This may take the form either of a single, merged narrative or a tabular format with one column for each gospel, technically known as a synopsis, although the word harmony is often used for both.

Harmonies are constructed for a variety of purposes: to provide a straightforward devotional text for parishioners, to create a readable and accessible piece of literature for the general public, to establish a scholarly chronology of events in the life of Jesus as depicted in the canonical gospels, or to better understand how the accounts relate to each other.

Among academics, the construction of harmonies has always been favoured by more conservative scholars. Students of higher criticism see the divergences between the gospel accounts as reflecting the construction of traditions by the early Christian communities. Among modern academics, attempts to construct a single story have largely been abandoned in favour of laying out the accounts in parallel columns for comparison, to allow critical study of the differences between them.

The earliest known harmony is the Diatessaron by Tatian in the 2nd century and variations based on the Diatessaron continued to appear in the Middle Ages. The 16th century witnessed a major increase in the introduction of gospel harmonies and the parallel column structure became widespread. At this time visual representations also started appearing, depicting the life of Christ in terms of a “pictorial gospel harmony”, and the trend continued into the 19th–20th centuries.

The Four Evangelists: Carving by ALBL Oberammergau

The Four Evangelists: Carving by ALBL Oberammergau


A gospel harmony is an attempt to collate the Christian canonical gospels into a single account. Harmonies are constructed by some writers in order to make the gospel story available to a wider audience, both religious and secular. Harmonies can be studied by scholars to establish a coherent chronology of the events depicted in the four canonical gospels in the life of Jesus, to better understand how the accounts relate to each other, and to critically evaluate their differences.

The terms harmony and synopsis have been used to refer to several different approaches to consolidating the canonical gospels. Technically, a “harmony” weaves together sections of scripture into a single narrative, merging the four gospels. There are four main types of harmony: radicalsyntheticsequential, and parallel. By contrast, a “synopsis”, much like a parallel harmony, juxtaposes similar texts or accounts in parallel format, synchronized by time, while preserving their individual identity, usually in columns. Harmonies may also take a visual form and be undertaken to create narratives for artistic purposes, as in the creation of picture compositions depicting the life of Christ.

The oldest approach to harmonizing consists of merging the stories into a single narrative, producing a text longer than any individual gospel. This creates the most straightforward and detailed account and one that is likely to be most accessible to non-academic users, such as lay churchgoers or people who are reading the gospels as a work of literature or philosophy.

There are, however, difficulties in the creation of a consolidated narrative. As John Barton points out, it is impossible to construct a single account from the four gospels without changing at least some parts of the individual accounts.

One challenge with any form of harmonizing is that events are sometimes described in a different order in different accounts – the Synoptic Gospels, for instance, describe Jesus overturning tables in the Temple at Jerusalem in the last week of his life, whereas the Gospel of John records a counterpart event only towards the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. Harmonists must either choose which time they think is correct, or conclude that separate events are described. Lutheran theologian Andreas Osiander, for instance, proposed in Harmonia evangelica (1537) that Jesus must have been crowned with thorns twice, and that there were three separate episodes of cleansing of the Temple. On the other hand, commentators have long noted that the individual gospels are not written in a rigorously chronological format. This means that an event can be described as falling at two different times and still be the same event, so that the substantive details can be properly brought together in a harmony, although the harmonist will still have the task of deciding which of the two times is more probable.

A less common but more serious difficulty arises if the gospels diverge in their substantive description of an event. An example is an incident involving the centurion whose servant is healed at a distance. In the Gospel of Matthew, the centurion comes to Jesus in person; in the Luke version he sends Jewish elders. Since these accounts are clearly describing the same event, the harmonist must decide which is the more accurate description or else devise a composite account.

The modern academic view, based on the broadly accepted principle that Matthew and Luke were written using Mark as a source, seeks to explain the differences between the texts in terms of this process of composition. For example, Mark describes John the Baptist as preaching the forgiveness of sins, a detail which is dropped by Matthew, perhaps in the belief that the forgiveness of sins was exclusive to Jesus.

The modern popularizing view, on the other hand, while acknowledging these difficulties, deemphasizes their importance. This view suggests that the divergences in the gospels are a relatively small part of the whole, and that the accounts show a great deal of overall similarity. The divergences can therefore be sufficiently discussed in footnote in the course of a consolidated narrative, and need not stand in the way of conveying a better overall view of the life of Jesus or of making this material more accessible to a wider readership.

To illustrate the concept of parallel harmony, a simple example of a “synopsis fragment” is shown here, consisting of just four episodes from the Passion. A more comprehensive parallel harmony appears in the section below.

A 6–7th-century use of the Eusebian Canons to organize the contents of the gospels in the London Canon Tables.

A 6–7th-century use of the Eusebian Canons to organize the contents of the gospels in the London Canon Tables.

Early Church and Middle Ages

Tatian’s influential Diatessaron, which dates to about AD 160, was perhaps the very first harmony. The Diatessaron reduced the number of verses in the four gospels from 3,780 to 2,769 without missing any event of teaching in the life of Jesus from any of the gospels. Some scholars believe Tatian may have drawn on one or more noncanonical gospels. The Gospel of the Ebionites, composed about the same time, is believed to have been a gospel harmony.

Variations based on the Diatessaron continued to appear in the Middle Ages, e.g. Codex Sangallensis (based on the 6th century Codex Fuldensis) dates to 830 and has a Latin column based on the Vulgate and an Old High German column that often resembles the Diatessaron, although errors frequently appear within it. The Liege harmony in the Limburg dialect (Liege University library item 437) is a key Western source of the Diatessaron and dates to 1280, although published much later. The two extant recensions of the Diatessaron in Medieval Italian are the single manuscript Venetian from the 13th or 14th century and the 26 manuscript Tuscan from the 14–15th century.

In the 3rd century Ammonius of Alexandria developed the forerunner of modern synopsis (perhaps based on the Diatessaron) as the Ammonian Sections in which he started with the text of Matthew and copied along parallel events. There are no extant copies of the harmony of Ammonius and it is only known from a single reference in the letter of Eusebius to Carpianus. In the letter Eusebius also discusses his own approach, i.e. the Eusebian Canons in which the texts of the gospels are shown in parallel to help comparison among the four gospels.

In the 5th century, Augustine of Hippo wrote extensively on the subject in his book Harmony of the Gospels. Augustine viewed the variations in the gospel accounts in terms of the different focuses of the authors on Jesus: Matthew on royalty, Mark on humanity, Luke on priesthood, and John on divinity.

Clement of Llanthony’s Unum ex Quatuor (One from Four) was considered an improvement on previous canons at the time, although modern scholars sometimes opine that no major advances beyond Augustine emerged on the topic until the 15th century. Throughout the Middle Ages harmonies based on the principles of the Diatessaron continued to appear, e.g. the Liege harmony by Plooij in Middle Dutch, and the Pepysian harmony in Middle English. The Pepysian harmony (Magdalene college, Cambridge, item Pepys 2498) dates to about 1400 and its name derives from having been owned by Samuel Pepys.

The cover of Branteghem's 1537 visual gospel harmony, Antwerp.

The cover of Branteghem’s 1537 visual gospel harmony, Antwerp.

15th–20th centuries

In the 15th and the 16th centuries some new approaches to harmony began to appear, e.g. Jean Gerson produced a harmony which gave priority to the Gospel of John.. Cornelius Jansen (Bishop of Ghent) also published his harmony (1549), focusing on the four gospels and even referring to the Acts of the Apostles. On the other hand, John Calvin’s approach focused on the three synoptic Gospels, and excluded the Gospel of John.

By this time visual representations had also started appearing, for instance, the 15th-century artist Lieven de Witte produced a set of about 200 woodcut images that depicted the Life of Christ in terms of a “pictorial gospel harmony” which then appeared in Willem van Branteghem’s harmony published in Antwerp in 1537. The importance of imagery is reflected in the title of Branteghem’s well known work: The Life of Jesus Christ Skillfully Portrayed in Elegant Pictures Drawn from the Narratives of the Four Evangelists

The 16th century witnessed a major increase in the introduction of gospel harmonies. In this period the parallel column structure became widespread, partly in response to the rise of biblical criticism. This new format was used to emphasize the trustworthiness of the gospels. It is not clear who produced the very first parallel harmony, but Gerhard Mercator’s 1569 system is a well-known example. In terms of content and quality, Johann Jacob Griesbach’s 1776 synopsis was a notable case.

At the same time, the rise of modern biblical criticism was instrumental in the decline of the traditional apologetic gospel harmony. The Enlightenment writer, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, observed:

Oh that most excellent Harmony, which can only reconcile two contradictory reports, both stemming from the evangelists, by inventing a third report, not a syllable of which is to be found in any individual evangelist!

W. G. Rushbrooke’s 1880 Synopticon is at times considered a turning point in the history of the synopsis, as it was based on Markan priority, i.e. the assumption that the Gospel of Mark was the first to be written. Thirteen years later, John Broadus used historical accounts to assign priorities in his harmony, while previous approaches had used feasts as the major milestones for dividing the life of Christ.

Towards the end of the 19th century, after extensive travels and study in the Middle East, James Tissot produced a set of 350 watercolors which depicted the life of Christ as a visual gospel harmony. Tissot synthesized the four gospels into a singular narrative with five chapters: “the Holy Childhood, the Ministry, Holy Week, the Passion, and the Resurrection”. He also made portraits of each of the four evangelists to honor them.

In the 20th century, the Synopsis of the Four Gospels by Kurt Aland came to be seen by some as “perhaps the standard for an in-depth study of the Gospels.” A key feature of Aland’s work is the incorporation of the full text of the Gospel of John. John Bernard Orchard’s synopsis (which has the same title) was of note in that it took the unusual approach of abandoning Markan priority and assuming the synopics were written in this order: Matthew, Luke, Mark.

A parallel harmony presentation

The following table is an example of a parallel harmony, based on the list of key episodes in the Canonical Gospels. The order of events, especially during the ministry period, has been the subject of speculation and scholarly debate. While this harmony compares the work of several scholars, other harmonies may differ substantially on the placement of some events. The episode structure within the table is based on Edward Robinson’s A Harmony of the Gospels in Greek as well as Steven L. Cox and Kendell H Easley’s Harmony of the Gospels.

Event Type Matthew Mark Luke John
1 Pre-existence of Christ miscellaneous John 01:01–18
2 Genealogy of Jesus nativity Matthew 01:01–17 Luke 03:23–38
3 Birth of John the Baptist nativity Luke 01:05–25
4 Annunciation nativity Luke 01:26–38
5 Visitation of Mary nativity Luke 01:39–56
6 Birth of Jesus nativity Matthew 01:18–25 Luke 02:01–07
7 Annunciation to the shepherds nativity Luke 02:08–15
8 Adoration of the shepherds nativity Luke 02:16–20
9 Circumcision of Jesus nativity Luke 02:21
10 Infant Jesus at the Temple nativity Luke 02:22–38
11 Star of Bethlehem nativity Matthew 02:01–02
12 Visit of the Magi nativity Matthew 02:01–12
13 Flight into Egypt nativity Matthew 02:13–15
14 Massacre of the Innocents nativity Matthew 02:16–18
15 Herod the Great’s death miscellaneous Matthew 02:19–20
16 Return of the family of Jesus to Nazareth youth Matthew 02:21–23 Luke 02:39–39
17 Finding Jesus in the Temple youth Luke 02:41–51
18 Ministry of John the Baptist miscellaneous Matthew 03:01–12 Mark 01:01–08 Luke 03:01–20 John 01:19–34
19 Baptism of Jesus miscellaneous Matthew 03:13–17 Mark 01:09–11 Luke 03:21–22 John 01:29–39
20 Temptation of Jesus miscellaneous Matthew 04:01–11 Mark 01:12–13 Luke 04:01–13
21 Marriage at Cana miracle John 02:01–11
22 First Temple Cleansing ministry John 02:13–25
23 Jesus & Nicodemus ministry John 03:01–21
24 Return of Jesus to Galilee ministry Matthew 04:12–12 Mark 01:14–14 John 04:01–03
25 Exorcism at the Synagogue in Capernaum miracle Mark 01:21–28 Luke 04:31–37
26 The Growing Seed parable Mark 04:26–29
27 Rejection of Jesus ministry Matthew 13:53–58 Mark 06:01–06 Luke 04:16–30
28 First disciples of Jesus ministry Matthew 04:18–22 Mark 01:16–20 Luke 05:1-11 John 01:35–51
29 Miraculous draught of fishes miracle Luke 05:01–11
30 Beatitudes sermon Matthew 05:02–12 Luke 06:20–23
31 Young Man from Nain miracle Luke 07:11–17
32 The Two Debtors parable Luke 07:41–43
33 The Lamp under a Bushel parable Matthew 05:14–15 Mark 04:21–25 Luke 08:16–18
34 Expounding of the Law sermon Matthew 05:17–48 Luke 06:29–42
35 Seventy Disciples ministry Luke 10:01–24
36 Discourse on ostentation sermon Matthew 06:01–18
37 Parable of the Good Samaritan parable Luke 10:30–37
38 Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary ministry Luke 10:38–42
39 The Lord’s Prayer ministry Matthew 06:09–13 Luke 11:02–04
40 The Friend at Night parable Luke 11:05–08
41 The Rich Fool parable Luke 12:16–21
42 Samaritan Woman at the Well ministry John 04:04–26
43 The Birds of Heaven ministry Matthew 06:25–34 Luke 12:22–34
44 Discourse on judging sermon Matthew 07:01–05 Luke 06:41–42
45 Discourse on holiness sermon Matthew 07:13–27
46 The Test of a Good Person sermon Matthew 07:15–20 Luke 06:43-45
47 The Wise and the Foolish Builders parable Matthew 07:24–27 Luke 06:46–49
48 Cleansing a leper miracle Matthew 08:01–04 Mark 01:40–45 Luke 05:12–16
49 The Centurion’s Servant miracle Matthew 08:05–13 Luke 07:01–10 John 04:46–54
50 Healing the mother of Peter’s wife miracle Matthew 08:14–17 Mark 01:29–34 Luke 04:38–41
51 Exorcising at sunset miracle Matthew 08:16–17 Mark 01:32–34 Luke 04:40–41
52 Calming the storm miracle Matthew 08:23–27 Mark 04:35–41 Luke 08:22–25
53 Gerasenes demonic miracle Matthew 08:28–34 Mark 05:01–20 Luke 08:26–39
54 Paralytic at Capernaum miracle Matthew 09:01–08 Mark 02:01–12 Luke 05:17–26
55 Calling of Matthew ministry Matthew 09:09 Mark 02:13–14 Luke 05:27–28
56 New Wine into Old Wineskins parable Matthew 09:17–17 Mark 02:22–22 Luke 05:37–39
57 Daughter of Jairus miracle Matthew 09:18–26 Mark 05:21–43 Luke 08:40–56
58 The Bleeding Woman miracle Matthew 09:20–22 Mark 05:24–34 Luke 08:43–48
59 Two Blind Men at Galilee miracle Matthew 09:27–31
60 Exorcising a mute miracle Matthew 09:32–34
61 Commissioning the twelve Apostles ministry Matthew 10:02–04 Mark 03:13–19 Luke 06:12–16
62 Not peace, but a sword ministry Matthew 10:34–36 Luke 12:49–53
63 Messengers from John the Baptist ministry Matthew 11:02–06 Luke 07:18–23
64 Paralytic at Bethesda miracle John 05:01–18
65 Lord of the Sabbath ministry Matthew 12:01–08 Mark 02:23–28 Luke 06:01–05
66 Man with withered Hand miracle Matthew 12:09–13 Mark 03:01–06 Luke 06:06–11
67 Exorcising the blind and mute man miracle Matthew 12:22–28 Mark 03:20–30 Luke 11:14–23
68 Parable of the strong man parable Matthew 12:29–29 Mark 03:27–27 Luke 11:21–22
69 Eternal sin ministry Matthew 12:30–32 Mark 03:28–29 Luke 12:08–10
70 Jesus’ True Relatives ministry Matthew 12:46–50 Mark 03:31–35 Luke 08:19–21
71 Parable of the Sower parable Matthew 13:03–09 Mark 04:03–09 Luke 08:05–08
72 The Tares parable Matthew 13:24–30
73 The Barren Fig Tree parable Luke 13:06–09
74 An Infirm Woman miracle Luke 13:10–17
75 Parable of the Mustard Seed parable Matthew 13:31–32 Mark 04:30–32 Luke 13:18–19
76 The Leaven parable Matthew 13:33–33 Luke 13:20–21
77 Parable of the Pearl parable Matthew 13:44–46
78 Drawing in the Net parable Matthew 13:47–50
79 The Hidden Treasure parable Matthew 13:52–52
80 Beheading of John the Baptist ministry Matthew 14:06–12 Mark 06:21–29 Luke 09:07–09
81 Feeding the 5000 miracle Matthew 14:13–21 Mark 06:31–44 Luke 09:10–17 John 06:05–15
82 Jesus’ walk on water miracle Matthew 14:22–33 Mark 06:45–52 John 06:16–21
83 Healing in Gennesaret miracle Matthew 14:34–36 Mark 06:53–56
84 Discourse on Defilement sermon Matthew 15:01–11 Mark 07:01–23
85 Canaanite woman’s daughter miracle Matthew 15:21–28 Mark 07:24–30
86 Deaf mute of Decapolis miracle Mark 07:31–37
87 Feeding the 4000 miracle Matthew 15:32–39 Mark 08:01–09
88 Blind Man of Bethsaida miracle Mark 08:22–26
89 Confession of Peter ministry Matthew 16:13–20 Mark 08:27–30 Luke 09:18–21
90 Transfiguration of Jesus miracle Matthew 17:01–13 Mark 09:02–13 Luke 09:28–36
91 Boy possessed by a demon miracle Matthew 17:14–21 Mark 09:14–29 Luke 09:37–49
92 Coin in the fish’s mouth miracle Matthew 17:24–27
93 Bread of Life Discourse sermon John 06:22–59
94 The Little Children ministry Matthew 18:01–06 Mark 09:33–37 Luke 09:46–48
95 Man with dropsy miracle Luke 14:01–06
96 Counting the Cost parable Luke 14:25–33
97 The Lost Sheep parable Matthew 18:10–14 Luke 15:04–06
98 The Unforgiving Servant parable Matthew 18:23–35
99 The Little Children ministry Matthew 18:01–06 Mark 09:33–37 Luke 09:46–48
100 The Lost Coin parable Luke 15:08–09
101 Parable of the Prodigal Son parable Luke 15:11–32
102 The Unjust Steward parable Luke 16:01–13
103 Rich man and Lazarus parable Luke 16:19–31
104 The Master and Servant parable Luke 17:07–10
105 Cleansing ten lepers miracle Luke 17:11–19
106 The Unjust Judge parable Luke 18:01–08
107 Pharisee and the Tax Collector parable Luke 18:09–14
108 Divorce and celibacy ministry Matthew 19:1-15
109 Jesus and the rich young man ministry Matthew 19:16–30 Mark 10:17–31 Luke 18:18–30
110 Jesus and the woman taken in adultery ministry John 08:02–11
111 The Workers in the Vineyard parable Matthew 20:01–16
112 Jesus predicts his death ministry Matthew 20:17–19 Mark 10:32–34 (Mark 08:31 Mark 09:31) Luke 18:31–34
113 The Blind at Birth miracle John 09:01–12
114 Son of man came to serve ministry Matthew 20:20–28 Mark 10:35–45
115 The Good Shepherd ministry John 10:01–21
116 Blind near Jericho miracle Matthew 20:29–34 Mark 10:46–52 Luke 18:35–43
117 Raising of Lazarus miracle John 11:01–44
118 Jesus and Zacchaeus ministry Luke 19:02–28
119 Palm Sunday ministry Matthew 21:01–11 Mark 11:01–11 Luke 19:29–44 John 12:12–19
120 Second Temple Cleansing ministry Matthew 21:12–13 Mark 11:15–18 Luke 19:45–48
121 Cursing the fig tree miracle Matthew 21:18–22 Mark 11:12–14
122 Authority of Jesus Questioned ministry Matthew 21:23–27 Mark 11:27–33 Luke 20:01–08
123 The Two Sons parable Matthew 21:28–32
124 The Wicked Husbandmen parable Matthew 21:33–41 Mark 12:01–09 Luke 20:09–16
125 The Great Banquet parable Matthew 22:01–14 Luke 14:16–24
126 Render unto Caesar… ministry Matthew 22:15–22 Mark 12:13–17 Luke 20:20–26
127 Woes of the Pharisees ministry Matthew 23:01–39 Mark 12:35–37 Luke 20:45–47
128 Widow’s mite sermon Mark 12:41–44 Luke 21:01-04
129 Second Coming Prophecy ministry Matthew 24:01–31 Mark 13:01–27 Luke 21:05–36
130 The Budding Fig Tree parable Matthew 24:32–35 Mark 13:28–31 Luke 21:29–33
131 The Faithful Servant parable Matthew 24:42–51 Mark 13:34–37 Luke 12:35–48
132 The Ten Virgins parable Matthew 25:01–13
133 The Talents or Minas parable Matthew 25:14–30 Luke 19:12–27
134 The Sheep and the Goats parable Matthew 25:31–46
135 Anointing of Jesus ministry Matthew 26:01–13 Mark 14:03-09 Luke 07:36–50 John 12:02-08
136 Bargain of Judas miscellaneous Matthew 26:14–16 Mark 14:10–11 Luke 22:01-06
137 The Grain of Wheat ministry John 12:24–26
138 Last Supper ministry Matthew 26:26–29 Mark 14:18–21 Luke 22:17–20 John 13:01–31
139 Promising a Paraclete ministry John 16:05–15
140 Gethsemane miscellaneous Matthew 26:36–46 Mark 14:32–42 Luke 22:39–46
141 The kiss of Judas passion Matthew 26:47–49 Mark 14:43–45 Luke 22:47–48 John 18:02-09
142 Healing the ear of a servant miracle Luke 22:49–51
143 Arrest of Jesus passion Matthew 26:50–56 Mark 14:46–49 Luke 22:52–54 John 18:10–12
144 Sanhedrin Trial of Jesus passion Matthew 26:57–68 Mark 14:53–65 Luke 22:63–71 John 18:12–24
145 Blood curse passion Matthew 27:24–25
146 Carrying the cross passion Matthew 27:27–33 Mark 15:20–22 Luke 23:26–32 John 19:16–17
147 Crucifixion of Jesus passion Matthew 27:34–61 Mark 15:23–47 Luke 23:33–54 John 19:18–38
148 Myrrhbearers resurrection appearance Matthew 28:01 Mark 16:01 Luke 24:01
149 Empty tomb resurrection appearance Matthew 28:02-08 Mark 16:02-08 Luke 24:02–12 John 20:01–13
150 Resurrection of Jesus resurrection appearance Matthew 28:09–10 Mark 16:09-13 Luke 24:01-08 John 20:14–16
151 Noli me tangere resurrection appearance John 20:17–17
152 Road to Emmaus appearance resurrection appearance Luke 24:13–32
153 Resurrected Jesus appears to Apostles resurrection appearance Luke 24:36–43 John 20:19–20
154 Great Commission resurrection appearance Matthew 28:16–20 Mark 16:14-18 Luke 24:44–49 John 20:21–23
155 Doubting Thomas resurrection appearance John 20:24–29
156 Catch of 153 fish miracle John 21:01–24
157 Ascension of Jesus resurrection appearance Mark 16:19 Luke 24:50–53
158 Dispersion of the Apostles miscellaneous Matthew 28:19-20 Mark 16:19-20

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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