Harmony of the Gospels
When you carefully read the four Gospels, you will inevitably compare accounts and wonder, “Now how does what John writes here fit with what Matthew writes there?” In other words, you will encounter what might appear to be discrepancies or contradictions between the Gospels. How should you approach apparent contradictions? The following four starting points will help readers of the Gospels approach apparent contradictions in a helpful way.
1. Presuppose That the Gospels Do Not Contradict Each Other
Your heart’s posture toward the Bible is important. A big difference exists between approaching the Bible as a skeptic or as a humble worshiper. God says, “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isa 66:2b). The Gospels are God’s words, so we should presuppose that they do not contradict each other.
A presupposition is “a thing tacitly assumed beforehand at the beginning of a line of argument or course of action” (New Oxford American Dictionary). We all have presuppositions. The issue is whether what we presuppose is true. We should presuppose that the Gospel accounts are completely true—that they harmonize without error—for at least two reasons.
Reason 1: The Gospels Are God-breathed Scripture. 1
This reason is based on the character of God and the nature of Scripture.
The Character of God. God is entirely truthful—without error (inerrant) and incapable of error (infallible). God does not and cannot lie (Num 23:19; 1Sam 15:29; 2Sam 7:28; John 3:33; 14:6; Rom 3:4; Titus 1:2; Heb 6:18; 1Jn 5:6).
The Nature of Scripture. The Bible is inspired—that is, God-breathed: “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2Tim 3:16). How? “Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2Pet 1:21b). God the Holy Spirit carried along the Bible’s authors to write God-breathed Scripture.
If the entire Bible is God-breathed, then it necessarily follows that the Bible is entirely true—that is, it is without error and incapable of error. But that does not mean that the Bible is without difficulties or apparent discrepancies. We cannot perfectly interpret the Bible because (1) we do not have all the data relevant to understanding the Bible (e.g., archeology continually discovers new facts), and (2) we are finite and sinful and thus misinterpret the data we already have. We cannot demonstrate inerrancy to everyone’s satisfaction until all the facts are available and it is possible to perfectly interpret the Bible. In the meantime, the proper way to respond to God’s words is to trust that what the all-knowing, all-good God has spoken is completely true.
Some might object, “You are deriving your doctrine of the Bible from the Bible. That seems like circular reasoning.” Yes, but that does not necessarily invalidate the reasoning. The evangelical doctrine of the Bible is no more circular than scientific theories. Everyone uses circular reasoning to defend the ultimate authority for beliefs. Although the ultimate standard of truth for evangelicals is God and his Word, for most others it is something else—usually themselves. The debates about whether the Bible is God-breathed and without error hinge on one issue: Do you accept what the Bible claims about itself? Many useful arguments show that what the Bible claims about itself is reasonable (e.g., its historical reliability and fulfilled prophecies), but ultimately God’s Spirit must convince us that what the Bible claims is true because sin has distorted how we perceive reality. We cannot prove that the Bible is God’s Word by appealing to any authority besides the Bible itself because such an authority must be superior to God—and such an authority does not exist.
Reason 2: The Gospels Are Historically Reliable
The Gospels are historically reliable for at least three reasons: (1) They date early—in the first century. And their manuscript evidence is far better than for any other ancient literature outside the Bible. (2) They feature credible eye-witness testimony. They include details that someone fabricating an apologetic account would exclude (e.g., women are the first people to witness that Jesus rose from the dead). (3) They are strikingly consistent with the historical-cultural context of first-century Judea (e.g., proper nouns and details about geography and customs). They do not falsely report facts.2
2. Understand Why the Gospels Have Apparent Contradictions
Three days ago, my school’s IT person planned to transfer my previous MacBook Pro to a new (refurbished) one. (I say “my” MacBook, but my school owns it.) The plan was for a seamless transfer. I was supposed to receive a carbon-copy of my previous computer on the new one. But the transfer was unsuccessful, and it damaged the hard drive on my previous MacBook. Then I discovered that my online backup program had not backed-up my digital library for the past nine months. Among other things, I lost over 2,300 PDFs of books and articles plus any annotations I made on PDFs in the past nine months. I have shared this story with some friends over the past few days but with different levels of detail. With my tech-savvy friends, I shared more details. With others, I may have simply said, “My computer crashed, and I had to start from scratch on a new one.”
If someone examined all of my statements, what would you think if they accused me of making contradictory statements? (1) The MacBook does not belong to you; your school owns it. (2) The computer is not new; it is a refurbished one. (3) Your computer did not crash; someone accidentally damaged the hard drive while trying to transfer it to another computer. (4) You did not have to start from scratch; you had backed up most of your documents.
That would not be a fair way to evaluate what I said, would it? The critique is nitpicky and does not respectfully consider what and how I intended to communicate.
Some critics of the Bible are far more nitpicky—unfairly and unreasonably so—in how they critique apparent contradictions in the Gospels. But Mark Strauss explains,
Most claims of contradictions result from demanding more historical precision than the Gospels intend to provide. The Gospels were never meant to be videotapes of events or word-for-word transcripts. It is the normal method of history writing—both ancient and modern—to summarize accounts, paraphrase speeches, omit extraneous details, and report events from a particular vantage point. Most supposed contradictions in the Gospels can be readily explained from common practices in history writing.3
The Gospels have apparent contradictions for at least four reasons. (What follows paraphrases Strauss.)4
Reason 1: The Gospels Paraphrase and Interpret Events and Sayings
Jesus probably spoke in Aramaic most of the time, and the Gospels are in Greek. That means the Gospels translate and thus interpret to some degree.
For example, compare “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20) with “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3). Jesus may have spoken exactly those words on different occasions, or Matthew (who is already condensing what was probably a longer sermon) may be clarifying what Jesus intended.
We cannot be certain when the Gospels either authoritatively explain or cite verbatim what Jesus said. But it does not follow that such instances are contradictions.
Reason 2: The Gospels Abbreviate and Omit Events and Sayings
The authors of the Gospels select what events and sayings to include and exclude. And when they choose to include the same events and sayings, they may present them in different ways.
Matthew often abbreviates events that have more details in Mark or Luke such as when Jesus curses the fig tree (Matt 21:18–22; Mark 11:12–14, 20–25) or heals Jairus’ daughter (Matt 9:18–26; Mark 5:21–43; Luke 8:40–56) or heals the centurion’s servant (Matt 8:5–13; Luke 7:1–10).
Sometimes one Gospel mentions two individuals (Matt 8:28; 20:30; Luke 24:4), and another mentions one (Mark 5:2; 10:46; 16:5). But in such cases, the author who identifies one person does not specify that there was only one. The author may simply be highlighting the primary figure and omitting the other.
Reason 3: The Gospels Reorder Events and Sayings
The authors of the Gospels do not always present events and sayings in strictly chronological order. They may arrange them topically or theologically.
For example, when Satan tempts Jesus three times in the wilderness, temptations two and three are in reverse order in Matthew 4:1–11 and Luke 4:1–13. The chronological order is unclear. In Luke’s third temptation, Jesus is “on the pinnacle of the temple” (Luke’s Gospel emphasizes Jerusalem and the temple). In Matthew’s third temptation, Jesus is on “a very high mountain” (Matthew’s Gospel pictures mountains as places where one receives revelation). But an event is still historical if the author reorders it.
Reason 4: The Gospels Report Similar Events and Sayings
Some episodes are sufficiently different that they must be separate events. For example, the Gospels present Jesus calling Peter and other disciples gradually in three episodes: Peter (John 1:35–42); then Andrew, Peter, James, and John (Matt 4:18–22; Mark 1:16–20); then Peter, James, and John (Luke 5:1–11).
Jesus did a lot of teaching and miracles. So it should not surprise us that he told similar stories on various occasions—such as parables about feasting (Matt 22:1–14; Luke 14:16–24) or money (Matt 25:14–30; Luke 19:11–27). And it should not surprise us that he performed similar miracles on various occasions—such as feeding large crowds (Matt 14:13–21; 15:32–39) or healing two blind men (Matt 9:27–31; 20:29–34).
Yes, the Gospels are different. But they do not contradict each other.
3. Compare the Gospel Accounts with Each Other, and Responsibly Discern How They Harmonize
This is where “harmony of the Gospels” books are helpful. They attempt to portray the four Gospels as a single, chronological, historical biography. When events and sayings overlap, harmonies of the Gospels typically use multiple columns (two, three, and sometimes four columns) and place the events and sayings parallel to each other.5
It is important to responsibly discern how Gospel accounts harmonize. In our zeal to affirm everything the Gospels teach we might notice different details in how different Gospels recount an event and then mistakenly conclude that they are reporting different events. For example, in a polemical book that argues for inerrancy, Harold Lindsell argues that Peter denied Jesus six times!6 (Jesus told Peter, “You will deny me three times” [Matt 26:34b].)7
If you get stuck when trying to harmonize Gospel accounts, then you may consult outstanding resources that helpfully consider options. You might want to start with study Bibles8 and then check out commentaries9 and other resources.10
4. Focus on Understanding Gospel Passages in Their Literary Context
If you become preoccupied with trying to harmonize every detail in the four Gospels (e.g., calculating the precise chronological storyline), then you may miss out on how each Gospel is distinctively portraying Jesus the Messiah. The New Testament preserves four perspectives on the one gospel: the Gospel according to Matthew, the Gospel according to Mark, the Gospel according to Luke, and the Gospel according to John. These Gospels are similar in that they focus on what Jesus taught and did—especially during the final week in his life up to his death on the cross and victorious resurrection. But these Gospels differ in how they present what Jesus taught and did. Each Gospel has its own theological message:
- In Matthew, Jesus the Messiah-King climactically fulfills the Old Testament.
- In Mark, Jesus the Messiah and Son of God is a Suffering Servant and a model for his followers.
- In Luke, Jesus the Messiah fulfills God’s plan by seeking and saving the lost.
- In John, Jesus the Messiah and Son of God gives eternal life to everyone who believes in him.
The starting point for understanding what a particular passage means is its immediate literary context. Then you can work outwards to sections within the book and the book as a whole.11 If you do not understand what a Gospel passage means in its literary context, then you will be more likely to misunderstand how it compares to a passage in a different Gospel. Although it is helpful to ask historical questions about how the Gospels harmonize, our primary interpretive task is to understand Gospel passages in their literary context.12
T. Desmond Alexander. Discovering Jesus: Why Four Gospels to Portray One Person? Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010.
Craig L. Blomberg. Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey. 2nd ed. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2009.
Darrell L. Bock. Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.
Steven L. Cox and Kendell H. Easley, eds. Harmony of the Gospels. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2007.
Andreas J. Köstenberger and Justin Taylor. The Final Days of Jesus: The Most Important Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014.
Dane Ortlund. Defiant Grace: The Surprising Message and Mission of Jesus. Carlisle, PA: EP Books, 2011.
Vern Sheridan Poythress. Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.
Mark Strauss. Four Portraits, One Jesus: An Introduction to Jesus and the Gospels. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.
Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry. A Harmony of the Gospels with Explanations and Essays: Using the Text of the New American Standard Bible. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978.
Peter J. Williams. Can We Trust the Gospels? Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018.
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