9. Harmony Studies

We put these studies into a special department, having, as they do, a character peculiar to themselves. In our later suggestions for systematic work we do not give them a place. They would come in under some special study for which the more advanced student will find time and manner.

The four Gospels here occupy the prominent place in this kind of study, and to these we give the first and larger place.

We would first remark that, had God intended we should have but one narrative, He would have given us the record of the life of our Lord in that form. Our attention, therefore, should be directed to each separate Gospel to ascertain, as far as we may, its general character; its main theme its point of view the manner in which it presents our Lord.

These questions, it will be found, affect the entire narrative, and the very arrangement of subjects will be seen to have been governed by the main object before the inspired writer.

We further remark that there is a fulness and multiplicity of detail in the life of our Lord and in His public ministry, crowded as it was in the three brief years, usually allowed, which would furnish abundant material illustrative of the special object which each Evangelist had before him. We get intimations of this in various ways. For instance: "And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness, and all manner of disease among the people." Here is a simple statement of the tireless activities of a life which had no hours of relaxation or periods of rest.

No doubt, in the various conversations which are recorded (as for instance, John 10, or the period just prior to the last Passover, when there were various discussions with the leaders of the people in the temple), we have abridgments given by each of the Evangelists in which special attention is paid to those features of the discourse which are more particularly related to the general theme of that Gospel. This perhaps will account for the apparently different modes of expression in the different Gospels. For instance, in the parable of the vineyard in Matthew (Matt. 21:40, 41), our Lord's question: "When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen?" is answered by those whom He was addressing; while in Mark He seems Himself to answer it (Mark 12 9), and in Luke also it is the same. We find, however, in examining more closely, that our Lord Himself in Matthew gives an answer in addition to that which His hearers gave (ver. 43): "Therefore, say I unto you, the kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof."

This in itself indicates that the narrators are not in conflict with each other, but simply recording that portion of the conversation which had special reference to their main theme.

But we speak here more particularly of what are called "harmonies." This has been a favorite method of study by Bible students, and quite an account could be given of the various harmonies compiled, from the first diatessaron to the latest "Harmonies of the four Gospels." While these have very much that is in common, and indeed we may say that the general outlines of the Gospel narratives are not so difficult of recognition, yet there is sufficient divergence in the details which indicates that it is very difficult, not to say impossible, to arrange every portion of the four narratives so as to blend them in one smoothly connected whole.

This is not because there are contradictions, but simply that this was not the object of the Spirit of God in giving us the four-fold record. It is difficult for us to divest ourselves of a certain external exactitude which is really not a proof of the highest kind of accuracy. Probably all of us have passed through, if we are not still in it, the stage in which our idea of harmony means that we can piece together the four narratives so completely as to leave no gaps. \ This might be possible, if, for instance, Matthew or any one of the other Evangelists had written. four Gospels instead of one, with but the one object. In doing this, he could dwell, in one, upon certain features, making provision for the addition of other features which could be taken from a second or a third narrative. When, however, we have four different Evangelists, with four different objects in view, as we have said, this becomes impracticable. The entire method of treatment is different.

Minute details may be recorded in one Evangelist which in another are passed over without any allusion, or in a few words of generalization. Sometimes, indeed, the occurrence is so marked, that we can decide its place without difficulty, and therefore find room next to it for what manifestly belongs there. For instance, in the question of the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes in the Gospel of John, we have the record of our Lord's discourse which was based upon that miracle. The feeding of the multitude took place at a distance, but we know that His return to Capernaum was on "the next day" or indeed during the same night, and that the discourse in the synagogue there upon "the Bread of God which came down from heaven" must thus be placed in connection with the miracle itself.

There are numbers of cases like this, particularly in the synoptic Gospels, all of which are an interesting and profitable subject of study, with more or less definite conclusions to show as the result of our labors.

Thus, helpful books on "The Life of Christ" endeavor to weave together the one narrative from all four Gospels in the way above indicated, and we have no fault to find with that kind of study if it is prosecuted in a reverent spirit. But we rise from all such with the conviction that God's order is better than man's, and that in proportion to our understanding of each Gospel in its individual character we will have the material for a clear view of some of the blessed perfections which mark our Lord's life as a whole. We may say unhesitatingly that we would advise a more careful study of each Evangelist separately before attempting any harmony.

This brings us to notice another matter. The order in the Evangelists is by no means always chronological. The facts relating to our Lord's entrance into public ministry, and the close of His precious life by His atoning sacrifice, occupy nearly the same position in each Gospel, but it is difficult always to place in their chronological setting the various acts and teachings of our Lord. Indeed, some have questioned whether His ministry was as much as three years, believing that the feast spoken of in the fifth of John is not the passover, but one of the other feasts. There would thus be but three passover seasons referred to in John — chap. 2, chap. 6 and chap. 13. If these, are all the passovers in His public ministry, it could scarcely have been three years in length. We do not believe, however, that such a conclusion is demanded by the facts, nor does it seem to allow for sufficient time in which to bring together all the occurrences of that wondrous life. Other considerations, too, confirm this.

We instinctively connect certain expressions with His life; the three, or three and a half, years suggest that "midst of the week" to come at a later date, when the sacrifice and oblation shall be made to cease (Dan. 9:27). "Lo, these three years," when the Master was seeking for fruit from the tree, intimates something similar. As already said, the Evangelists are not giving us so much a consecutive, chronological narrative, as selecting certain features in our Lord's life which illustrate the special theme of their Gospel. Luke particularly, probably more than the others, gives what we may call the moral, rather than the chronological order. Events are grouped together by him, not in the sequence in which they occur — sometimes indeed being separated by quite a length of time — but according to their bearing upon some feature of our Lord's character to which the Spirit of God would call our attention. Instances of this will be given as we take up each Evangelist. We refer only to the general subject here.

We might remark in this connection, that a hard literalness will often mislead us. Even the use of certain adverbs usually indicating time does not necessarily imply chronological sequence. For instance, we use the adverb "then" in a moral as well as in a chronological way in ordinary discourse. Thus, if we were giving a number of occurrences which illustrated a certain characteristic, we would connect them together by this adverb without the thought of succession, simply meaning that our evidence was cumulative.*

{*We add a brief illustration to make clear the statement in the text. Suppose our object is to point out the unselfishness of a person as illustrated by a number of acts of kindness. We would not necessarily give these various acts in the order in which they occurred, but with reference to the special feature of his character which they illustrated. We might put it in some such way as follows:

"When a boy, he once gave up his holiday in order to spend the time with a sick comrade. Then he relinquished all his right in his father's estate. Then, when he had a few dollars which he had been saving up to make a purchase for himself, he heard of a widow, an entire stranger, who was in need, and gave it all to her."

These three facts are arranged in a somewhat cumulative order, rather than chronological. They point out that the natural unselfishness of his youth was not a boyish impulse, but found expression later on in a sacrifice of what was his own to other members of his family. The generous care for the utter stranger gives an added feature to the character, though the act itself may have taken place long before what is recorded in the second place. The adverb used, "then," does not, as we said, imply the chronological, but rather the moral order.}

In Matthew, as we shall find, our Lord's teachings are grouped together, and similarly His miracles. Very likely what had taken place over a considerable space of time is massed together with this object in view. It will be found, without doubt, that all is perfectly accurate, although some things may be quite beyond us, as, for instance, the opening of the eyes of blind Bartimaeus. Did it take place before our Lord's entry into Jericho, as it seems to be from Luke 18:35, or afterwards, as Matt. 20:29 seems to indicate?

There are a number of possible explanations; as, for instance, that the narrative of the opening of the eyes in Matthew is not meant to show that our Lord had passed through Jericho before He opened the eyes of the two blind men, but that it falls into its place because of its reference to the beginning of His final presentation to the people.

Thus it would suggest that work of grace in the heart of the remnant which will take place in the latter days. Its relation to Jericho is not so much emphasized as that to Jerusalem, while in Luke the opening of the eyes took place before our Lord reached the town, and our attention is therefore called to that act of grace earlier than in Matthew. But Matthew, at least, does not require us to believe that it took place after He left Jericho, while Luke does seem to show that it actually occurred before He reached the town.

Another explanation might be that our Lord lingered about Jericho, down in the valley, before going up to Jerusalem, and that there may have been two approaches to the town, one of which is given in Matthew, and after which He wrought the miracle, although in fact He had returned back eastward from Jericho, and the actual miracle had taken place there as narrated by Luke.

We notice, too, that Matthew, as is his manner in several other cases, mentions more than one individual who was the subject of this mercy. There is doubtless a special reason for this, though probably Bartimaeus was prominent in the matter. If only we have it settled in our souls that both accounts are absolutely true, and that all we need is to understand the special object of the Spirit of God in the form of the narrative, we will find no difficulty in believing literally both.

But we will not dwell upon further details. What has occupied us will be sufficient to show that an open and reverent spirit, which is not seeking for contradictions, will be amply rewarded. No doubt further study and deeper familiarity with the manner of each narrative will reward our patient and prayerful examination into details which for the time seem impossible of being harmonized.

The opposite of this spirit is seen in much of the higher critical work. Apparent discrepancies are eagerly sought for and given as evidence of fallibility in the narrators. Thus the feeding of the four thousand is but another and contradictory narrative of the feeding of the five thousand. The critics, however, seem to forget that both are not only recorded by the same Evangelist, but our Lord afterward speaks of both in connection with the question raised by His disciples. See Mark 8:19-21.

The two cleansings of the temple, one at the beginning of His public ministry, recorded in John, and the other at the close, recorded in the Synoptists, is another case in point. Each is in beautiful accord with the main object of the narrator. Both undoubtedly took place. In John the one at the beginning of His ministry is given, because in that Evangelist our Lord from the very first is seen as rejected. "He came unto His own, and His own received Him not." The purging, therefore, of the temple at the beginning of His Judaean. ministry, particularly recorded by John, is appropriate to His entire theme, which shows us our blessed Lord outside of the system of things in which He yet tarried, if perchance there might be repentance on the part of the leaders. He repeats the same act at the close of His ministry as recorded in the other Gospels, where His rejection is not emphasized until the close of His public ministry.

It will be found thus that if there is a desire on our part to learn the reason why things are given to us in the order in which we have them, instead of stumbling over that which, after all, were it a mere question of common veracity, would not be raised, the difficulties would largely vanish, and we would be in a fair way to get explanations which the Spirit of God could not give us if we approached the subject in an irreverent, unbelieving manner.

This brief examination will suffice to point out the relation which the four Gospels bear to each other, a relation which is significant; and the recognition of this, and further study here suggested, will serve to confirm our knowledge of the contents of each individual Gospel, and its ordered place in relation to the others. The rays of light which beam from each, all blend together to give us God's thought of Him who is "the image of the invisible God," who is light, and who is love.

Before leaving this part of our subject, it may not be out of place to offer a few practical suggestions as to the method of study to be adopted in seeking a fuller knowledge of the contents and mutual order of the four Evangelists. Of course, there are numbers of books which give these; but it will be found that what the student gathers for himself is often of greater and more lasting profit than the most admirably predigested analysis.

Our suggestion is very simple. In an ordinary blank-book, let four columns be drawn on the opened page, two columns to a page, headed with the names of the four Gospels. In the column under "Matthew" enter each section of his narrative, making these so minute that they cover only one topic. Thus the temptation would be divided into three parts. For convenience, consecutive numbers could be given to these sections, which would reach, perhaps, to more than a hundred in the entire Gospel. Each section would have its number, title, and chapter. Thus:
1. Title of book. Chap. 1:1.
2. Genealogy from Abraham to Joseph (3 parts). Chap. 1:2-17.
3. Testimony to Joseph. Vers. 18-25.
4. Visit of wise men. Chap. 2:1-12.
5. The flight into Egypt. Chap. 2:13-15.
6. The slaughter of the babes at Bethlehem. Vers. 6-18.
7. The return from Egypt to Nazareth. Vers. 19-23.
8. The preaching of John. Chap. 3:1-12.

Thus, let the entire Gospel be dissected with no special reference to the relation of each of the parts to the other, nor to their relative prominence, care only being taken, as we have said, to make the divisions sufficiently small for comparison with the other Evangelists.

Next, in the column of "Mark," let the same course be pursued, each entry numbered with no reference to Matthew. In like manner, the columns of "Luke" and "John" are to be filled. There will thus be before the eye, in four parallel columns, the contents of each of the four Gospels dissected and catalogued in consecutive order. This will form a basis for comparison.

Let the entry in each Gospel be compared with those in the others, and in red ink let their corresponding numbers be put over — thus:

We take The Preaching of John (No. 8 in Matthew) as an illustration.
Mk. (2); L. (13); J.(2) (4) (6)
8. The Preaching of John

Mt. (8); L (13); J. (2) (4) (6)
2. The Preaching of John

Mt. (8); M. (2); J. (2) (4) (6)
13. The Preaching of John

Mt. (8); M. (2); L. (13)
6. The Preaching of John

When this work is completed, the student will have the material before him, not only for the study of each Gospel separately, but for purposes of comparison with the others, in which at a glance he can tell what is peculiar to each and what is common to two or more Evangelists. This is probably as far as most students will care to go, and is the most important part of this kind of study. From this, the portions of the different Gospels can be grouped into their divisions and subdivisions.

For those who desire to construct a "harmony," the above catalogue of subjects will be of help in arranging the parallel passages in their order.

Let another book be prepared with four columns similar to the first, and let "Matthew" be entered in the first column exactly as it was before, only with an interval of say three lines between each entry. Next, let the parallel passages in Mark be entered directly opposite those in Matthew, using the spaces left vacant for the insertion of those portions peculiar to the second Evangelist.

In like manner, Luke and John are to be entered. Let the original numbers of the sections of each Gospel be also inserted. The result will be that at a glance we will be able to see the contents of the four Gospels arranged with reference to the order given in Matthew. This will form a basis for comparison, and much careful study will be required to see whether that order is always to be followed. As a matter of fact, the Gospel of John furnishes certain great prominent occurrences, the intervals between which must be filled in more or less definitely with the events recorded in the other Gospels.

As has been said elsewhere, a certain order of subjects which we have called a moral order is observable in Luke. Only the most patient and careful study will put each narrative in its chronological place. While Matthew is perhaps as consecutive as any in the form of his narrative, exceptions will be noted.

In concluding our subject, we would reiterate our conviction that God has intended special instruction in the four narratives, and that our efforts at "harmonizing" the four must not obscure what is manifestly His purpose.

These "harmony" studies, while most prominent in connection with the four Gospels, have also been used in the book of Acts, where the place of the various epistles in relation to the historical narrative has been,with greater or less definiteness, ascertained.

Similarly, the parallel accounts in the books of Kings and Chronicles have been treated. Effort has also been made to give the Psalms their historical setting,while perhaps next in prominence to the harmonizing of the Gospels, has been the arranging of prophetic truth in its consecutive order. Thus, harmonies of the books of Revelation and Daniel, together with the other prophets, have been made. The Levitical ordinances, given in the three central books of the Pentateuch, have also been similarly compared with those in the book of Deuteronomy.