The Art of Harmonization
The art of harmonizing multiple accounts in Scripture—whether in the OT Historical Books or the NT Gospels—begins with the conviction that the Scripture’s claims to inspiration and truthfulness and, therefore, accuracy are to be taken seriously. I use the word “art” because it often involves a degree of imagination and creativity—not reading between the lines so much as between the columns, that is, between the accounts themselves and their relative expansion or compression of the details.
I recently came across a passage in my Thomas and Gundry Harmony of the Gospels that, on first glance, appeared irreconcilable. Matthew 18:1-5, Mark 9:33-37, and Luke 9:46-48 all begin their account of the same incident in seemingly contradictory ways.
Matthew says that the disciples directly approach Jesus with a question: “Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Mark has Jesus raise the question, “What were you discussing on the way?”—to which the disciples respond with a guilty silence because, Mark confides in an editorial aside, “on the way they had discussed with one another which was the greatest.”
Luke goes straight to the internecine dispute and how Jesus, “knowing what they were thinking in their heart,” broaches the issue by using a child to make a point about humility.
At first glance they are three very different depictions of the same incident. It’s like peering into the house where they were (Mk. 9:33) through three small windows from three different sides. Mark’s is the longest account, with Matthew compressing the introduction and Luke compressing the resolution.
If the scene begins with the disciples blurting out this burning question (Matthew), why would Jesus need to ask what they were discussing (Mark)? More to the point, why does Matthew have them asking a question, when Mark says they were too ashamed to speak, and Luke implies they had no need to speak because Jesus already knew what they were thinking?
To conclude that such passages are proof that the Gospels do not agree and do not need to agree because protocols of historical narrative (not to say truthfulness) were far more lax then than now is, frankly, too easy and too lazy.
So how are these accounts to be reconciled? “Not knowing all the circumstances,” wrote John Broadus, “we need not be nervously anxious to harmonize these accounts.” He didn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to harmonize them, but that it’s really not that complicated to unravel. All it takes is a modicum of imagination—as Broadus suggests, “it is not difficult to suppose . . . .”
The first thing to remember is that no harmony is consistently perfect; they all make judgment calls. Sometimes they line up the accounts more accurately than others. In this case, the first line of Mk. 9:33 needs to be aligned—all alone, if necessary—not with Mt. 18:1 but with the first line of Mt. 17:24. That’s four verses earlier than the pericope begins in Matthew’s Gospel; but it’s an alignment that makes more sense out of Matthew’s chronological remark in 18:1 (“In that hour the disciples came to Jesus…”)—which Matthew is clearly tying to his own ongoing record. The phrase doesn’t require “minute” precision; it can also be translated more loosely “at that time.” But some chronological connection is still indicated.
The second thing to remember is that compressing an account necessarily affects the introductory or transitional language that an author uses. That means that a valid harmonization is not required to relate every last transitional phrase to all the other accounts; such phrases are consistent within each Evangelist’s own account.
So which did Jesus address first in Capernaum, the tax problem (which Matthew alone records, Mt. 17:24-27) or the disciple problem (Mt. 18:1-5)? There doesn’t seem to be any way of knowing, and it doesn’t really matter except for keeping such chronological markers in view when we harmonize so that we don’t ignore or distort the details.
With that caveat in view, and keeping in mind both Matthew’s and Luke’s abbreviated compression at points, here are two suggested syntheses, weaving together the language of all three Synoptics.
And [on the way to Capernaum] an argument arose among them as to which of them would be greatest. Then they came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, “What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?” But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who was greatest. [Instead,] the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” But Jesus, knowing what they were thinking in their hearts called the twelve, and sitting down he called a child to himself and stood him by his side and said to them . . . .
In this synopsis, the story moves from the argument on the road, to Jesus’ question, to the disciples’ initial guilty silence and eventually their rather generic question, to Jesus’ perception of the real issue. Ashamed to admit the dispute and ask Jesus which of them (Lk. 9:46) would be the greatest, they answer Jesus’ question with a more generic counter-question as a matter of hypothetical curiosity (“So, who is the greatest in the kingdom?”). But Jesus perceived the personal ambition that lay behind both the question and the dispute.
And [on the way to Capernaum] an argument arose among them as to which of them would be greatest. Then they came to Capernaum. At that time, when He was in the house, the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” But Jesus, knowing what they were thinking in their hearts called the twelve [and] asked them, “What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?” But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who was greatest. And sitting down he called a child to himself and stood him by his side and said to them . . . .
In this synopsis, following up on their argument as they traveled to Capernaum, the disciples (or perhaps a small cadre of them) decide to pose the question generically to Jesus. But knowing their thoughts, he inquires into the background of the question—the dispute on the road. In response to their guilty silence, Jesus then confronted them with the lesson of the child.
For our purposes, the synthesis can end there. Either weaving of the details and dialogue works without compromising the accuracy of any of the texts. Each Evangelist is recording a version of the story that can both stand on its own and also accommodate the details recorded by all, even though none of them includes all the details.
If you don’t like my resolution (personally, I prefer the latter), that’s okay. That’s the beauty of harmonization. There’s usually more than one way to resolve the tensions that result from different authors recording the same events from different perspectives at different times to different audiences in order to make different theological points; and yet all of them are accurately reflecting the infallible speech of the Spirit of truth who was directing them as they wrote.
But aren’t multiple, conflicting solutions a problem? No, they don’t all need to be simultaneously correct; just one will do. The fact that there may be multiple solutions is a reminder that such harmonization is rarely complicated. And when it is, the fact that we may not have an ideal solution does not mean that one does not exist. It’s merely a reminder that any biblical narrative always includes accurate details but rarely, if ever, all the details.
Photo Credit: Isaac Talbert