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Harmonizing the Gospels

I mentioned yesterday that one of the quotations of the Gospel of the Ebionites, as preserved in the writings of Epiphanius, appears to represent some kind of harmonization of the Gospels, an attempt to explain how the three different versions of what the voice from heaven says at Jesus’ baptism can *all* be right (since the voice says different things in each of the three Gospels).  Solution:  the voice spoke *three* times, saying something different each time. (!)

This way of solving discrepancies in the Gospels has persisted through the ages.  Most people don’t realize that it goes way back to the early church.  I’ll say more about that eventually.  For now I want to say something about it in modern times.

When I was in college – as a good hard-core fundamentalist who did not think there could be any real discrepancies in the Gospels (since they were inspired by God, which means there could be no mistakes, which means there could be no contradictions) – I was an expert at reconciling differences among the Gospels.   This was years and years before I had ever heard that there was such a thing as the Gospel of the Ebionites!  But I took a very similar approach.

Many people still do (including many of my undergraduate students).  So what does one do with the fact (it *is* a fact!) that in the Synoptic Gospels Jesus “cleanses the Temple” (when he goes in and overturns tables of money changers and drives out those selling sacrificial animals) during the last week of his life – this is what ultimately leads to his opposition by the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, which led him to be crucified – but in the Gospel of John, it is virtually the first thing that he does at the beginning of a two or three year ministry?   Which is it?  Well, back in my college days, the answer was: it is both!  Jesus cleansed the Temple at the beginning of his ministry and he cleansed it at the end.  He did it twice!!

It never occurred to me at the time that there might be problems with this view (like: why didn’t he get in trouble the first time?): it was only “logical” to me.

I bought a book at the time that took great pleasure in reconciling *all* the discrepancies of the Gospels in this way.  The book was written by a man named Johnston Cheney, and was called The Life of Christ in Stereo (get it?  You have *four* speakers?  Stereo?!?   I guess today we would call it “Surround Sound,” but I’m not sure that existed in 1973).  It’s still in print.   All the problems of the Gospels are smoothed out if you simply place all the Gospels together into one BIG Gospel; the differences then disappear.

And so, for example, what does one do with the fact (another fact) that in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus predicts Peter’s denial by saying that “he would deny him three times before the cock crows”, but in the Gospel of Mark he predicts that he would deny him three times “before the cock crows *twice*”?   It’s very simple.   Peter denied Jesus *six* times: three times before the cock crowed and three times before the cock crowed twice!

Today I look on this way of approaching the Gospels as rather humorous.  But in a more serious vein, I have to say that I find it highly objectionable.  The reason is this:  those who take what one Gospel says, combine it with what another Gospel says, and thereby create the “true” and “real” story/Gospel have not interpreted the Gospels as they have come down to us.  They have instead created their *own* Gospel, writing a new one that is completely unlike any of the Gospels of the NT.

Of course anyone and everyone is  free to do this – it’s a free country!  But realize that once you do that, you’re refusing to read the Gospels as they were produced, and have produced an alternative version of your own, one that isn’t in the Bible and one that never existed before you created it.  The real problem with that is that this destroys the integrity of each of the Gospels as they stand, and in the process robs each of the authors of these Gospels of his own unique understanding of who Jesus was and what he said and did.

Surely it is not the best way to read a book to make it say something other than it says in order to understand it better.  We don’t do this with other literature.  No one would take a book that *I* have written, combine it with a book that Jerry Falwell, or Dan Brown, or even N.T. Wright or Dominic Crossan has written, and then claim that *that* is what I really meant all along.   So why do it with the Gospels?  Why pretend that Luke has to be interpreted in light of John, or Mark in light of Matthew, and so on?

The reason people do this is because the Gospels – separate books – come to us as a collection within the same covers as *one* book.  But again, we don’t do that with other anthologies of texts.  We don’t take a collection of American short stories and pretend that the way to understand a story by Mark Twain is to combine what it says with a story by Steven Crane.   We *could* read books that way.  But we don’t.  And why?  Because we assume that Mark Twain has something different to say from Steven Crane.

But the same is true of the NT Gospels.  Each author has his own point of view, and we rob him of his perspective – and his integrity as an author — when we pretend otherwise.

Locusts or Pancakes?
Fun with the Jewish Christian Gospels



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 11, 2013

    One of your top 10 posts. Thanks.

  2. Avatar
    Zurcherk  September 11, 2013

    Technically, 4 speakers would be quad, in the event that each speaker was receiving a different signal, whereas stereo is 2 (or sometimes, four) speakers receiving 2 signals (left and right). Off topic, I know, but I spent my younger years in a recording studio.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 12, 2013

      Yes, I’m not sure Cheney realized that. I don’t think he was into hard rock, for example….

  3. Avatar
    toddfrederick  September 12, 2013

    A couple of years ago my wife wanted to know more about the Bible and what it was saying. She had only heard portions of the Bible read to her in Church with the pronouncement : “This is the word of the Lord.”

    She asked me to find something for her. I took a look at many different books designed for beginners, but thought the best was actually “The Bible For Dummies.” written by Dr. Jeffrey Geoghegan (Boston College) and Dr. Michael Homan (Xavier University of Louisiana). Looking through it casually it seemed they did a good job of looking at the various ways it was written as well as tell the stories of the Bible in a way a beginner could understand…


    …When it came to the new testament, even though they fully acknowledge the differences and discrepancies, they simply indicate that such are just in the “details” and they go on to say:

    ** However, in order to give you a coherent and full-bodied portrait of Jesus’ life, we also weave these accounts together into one story**

    This is a current book that does basically the same thing as the book you mentioned in your post from the 1970’s.

    I would bet that there are many more that do the same thing.

    For all the good information in it, that was very disappointing !!

  4. Avatar
    Jeff  September 12, 2013

    This is a point I have been trying to make to my religion teacher, that the Gospels are very much individual books, offering separate interpretations, not biographies, of Jesus.. I go to a Catholic high school and while it is by no means fundamentalist, it tends to lean towards a conservative view of scripture. My teacher, who I should add is very open to my sharing, likes to view each of the Gospels as separate portraits which can be combined to find the actual Jesus. In other words, she has no problem with the fact that John’s divine view is different from Mark’s human emphasis; by combining them, the problem is solved.

    On a separate note, in your post about your PhD Seminar, you mentioned that your students need to know French, German, Greek, and another language is recommended. Are there any textbooks you can think of that would be good for self-teaching Latin, Hebrew, or Coptic? My French is proficient, but I want to start preparing early.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 12, 2013

      I think for these ancient languages you really need to take a class and get personalized instruction. Good universities teach all of these languages (at least mine does!) So maybe your first year in college?

      • Avatar
        Jeff  September 13, 2013

        Does UNC offer online courses in any of those languages?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  September 13, 2013

          I don’t know, but it probably wouldn’t be too hard to find out if you would search through their course-offerings online. Languages are a bit hard to learn without face-to-face instruction. (As I have learned on numerous occasions!)

  5. Avatar
    James Dowden  September 12, 2013

    Incidentally, Bart, you mentioned a few posts back that you are setting your students a “write your own gospel” assignment. Are you letting them be authentic enough as to plagiarize previous gospels? Or is that out of the question in the university environment?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 12, 2013

      I told them that I don’t want them simply to string together a bunch of their favorite quotations/passages, but to come up with something themselves.

  6. Avatar
    Yvonne  September 12, 2013

    I read ZEALOT THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JESUS OF NAZARETH by Reza Aslan and found it very interesting. Most of it was not new news to me but I found the book very well written and interesting. It prompted me to read BEYOND FUNDAMENTALISM: Confronting Religious Ext. So, I thank you for bringing Reza Aslan to my attention.

  7. Avatar
    billgraham1961  September 12, 2013

    When I was a student at the Moody Bible Institute (MBI), we read about the synoptic problem. Thankfully, we were not required to read Cheney’s book. Even then, I think I would have found it hard to swallow that kind of reasoning. It’s interesting, because MBI is where I began to have second thoughts about biblical inerrancy. I would have defended it back then, but the thing that gave it all away is when one of my theology professors said none of our translations were inspired. I didn’t take that off-the-cuff remark lightly. I let it sink in.

    The class that had the greatest impact, however, was the one where we studied the synoptic problem. I forget what year that was, but I think it was in 1988 or about then. We studied biblical development, the synoptic problem and the King James controversy. Our professor was intellectually honest and admitted there were issues that could not be easily resolved with the lack of harmony between the gospels. That course was probably the most pivotal course I took at Moody. It changed my thinking forever, though I didn’t realize how it would unfold at the time.

    If you check Moody’s doctrinal statement on biblical inerrancy today, it comes across very carefully crafted. It is almost as if a lawyer wrote it. From my perspective, it seems to affirm biblical inerrancy while avoiding the risk of being tagged as extremist. To be more specific, they make the following claims:

    1) The original autographs are inerrant, but we don’t have them.
    2) The Bible’s authors were not mere copyists or transcribers.
    3) The authors were writers of scripture guided and controlled by the Holy Spirit.
    4) The original autographs are preserved to a “remarkable degree.” (without specifying how remarkable)
    5) The original documents of the Bible are free from error about geography, history, science and God.
    6) This is true only of the original manuscripts, not the copies or translations.
    7) Its authority extends to all matters about which the Bible speaks.
    8) Even though the Bible is God’s revelation, it must still be interpreted.
    9) Revelation is a divine act. Interpretation is a human responsibility.
    10) The Bible is infallible in all it affirms to be true and therefore absolutely reliable.
    11) We, however, may be fallible in our interpretation of the Bible.

    To my way of thinking, the key concepts are 1, 4 – 7 and 11. They can talk all day long about biblical inerrancy, but they have in essence dismissed any responsibility for actually standing fast on that position. By stating we do not have any of the original manuscripts, they can comfortably affirm biblical inerrancy despite issues such as the synoptic problem. I can just imagine the thinking on this position: “We don’t have any original manuscripts; therefore, we can’t be sure if there are actually any harmonic discrepancies in them.”

    Wait a minute! I don’t want to attribute that kind of devious mindset to my former colleagues. That’s my mind at work. I am spawn of Satan I tell you. Anyway, the point I have wanted to make for a long time is that this kind of doctrinal statement appears in many bible colleges, not just MBI. I think it’s actually brilliantly crafted to tout a stance on biblical inerrancy while avoiding some of the more extreme positions and offering a little wiggle room in the event that an original manuscript ever comes to light.

  8. Avatar
    billgraham1961  September 12, 2013

    I see that I forgot to cite my source for Moody’s doctrinal statement on inerrancy. Here it is: http://www.moodyministries.net/crp_MainPage.aspx?id=600.

  9. Avatar
    dikelmm  September 12, 2013

    “The book was written by a man named Johnston Cheney, and was called The Life of Christ in Stereo (get it? You have *four* speakers? Stereo?!? I guess today we would call it “Surround Sound,” but I’m not sure that existed in 1973).” In 1973 it was called Quadraphonic sound.

  10. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  September 12, 2013

    I would like to know your absolute “slam dunk” discrepancy that would be impossible to defend. You have mentioned numerous over the years, but not the “one.” Thanks.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 12, 2013

      I don’t have ONE that is slam-dunk. But there are dozens that are pretty good. Here’s one. One Jairus came to Jesus to ask him to help his daughter: was the girl dead already and he wanted Jesus to do something about it? Or was she very sick and he wanted him to heal her before she died? (See Mark 5:21-43 and Matthew 9:18-26) I don’t see how it could be both!

  11. Fearguth
    Fearguth  September 12, 2013

    As an undergraduate, I used Robertson’s ‘Harmony of the Gospels’. Then, as a graduate student, I used Throckmorton’s ‘Gospel Parallels’ and Huck’s ‘Synopsis of the First Three Gospels’. Incidentally, one of my early stereo receiver/amplifiers was ‘Quadraphonic’. I think the best analogy to attempts to ‘harmonize’ the gospels would be The Who’s ‘Quadrophenia’.

  12. Avatar
    hwl  September 12, 2013

    Some moderate Christians say the concern for historical accuracy in the gospels, and the need for complete harmony between the gospel accounts, is a modernist concern – something people in antiquity did not demand from narrative texts. People in antiquity were more concerned about meaning and significance rather than historical accuracy, so the argument goes. However, does the fact that there are texts in the patristic period, like Gospel of Ebionites, show that historical accuracy and harmony of historical details, were already ancient preoccupations? People of antiquity were troubled by apparent contradictions in the gospels, and wanted to smooth them out?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 13, 2013

      Yes, anyone who says that would do well to read some ancient sources, like Origen and Augustine!!

  13. cheito
    cheito  September 12, 2013

    Who told Matthew, Mark, or Luke to write their books? Did God tell them? Where did they get their stories from? Were they eyewitnesses? The fact that there are contradictions between the authors prove that they were not eyewitnesses. As for their reasons for writing the accounts only God knows the exact truth. I would only be speculating if I said I knew why. Out the three authors mentioned I only trust Luke to some degree. When I read Luke’s account I’m aware that passages have been added or taken away from his version. I believe the genealogy in Luke was not in the original document but added later but I can’t prove it. Etc, Etc.

    My understanding of scripture is: Words written down by a man that were originally spoken by God Himself. A good example of this is The Ten commandments. The Ten Commandments, I believe, were spoken, literally by God, and also written by His finger on a tablet of stone. Moses then wrote them down by the instruction of God who was present there in the wilderness of the Sinai. So God is the author of the Ten Commandments. I believe this you or others may not. So who’s right?

    Matthew, Mark and Luke’s words were not spoken by God and they had no way of knowing if what they were writing down was exactly what Jesus said because they themselves did not hear Jesus speak. Out of these three only Luke spoke the exact truth that was spoken to him by the eyewitnesses but unfortunately we don’t have his original words. So all we can do is guess what Luke most likely said or didn’t say.

    As for the gospel of John, I believe this individual knew exactly what he was saying because he was an eyewitness or at least was writing down what the eyewitness dictated to Him. The Jesus portrayed by John sounds to me like the real Lord of Glory, The Son of the Living God. Again you and others may not agree. So who’s right?

    Of course we’ll all have to give an account to God of what we believe. Only then we’ll know who is right and who is in error. As for myself I believe we do have God’s word but it has been perverted.
    The one thing, that the scribes or whoever altered the original message of God, could not corrupt; is the idea that God is Love. His love surpasses knowledge and understanding. His Love is embodied in a person who I believe is The Lord Jesus Christ.

  14. Avatar
    billgraham1961  September 13, 2013

    Hey guys,

    You get Creative SoundBlaster speakers and it’s Creative SoundBlaster X-Fi Surround 5.1 Pro.

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