One cannot study the gospels without the idea of harmony coming to the fore. Specifically, in the synoptic gospels, the idea of laying one gospel alongside the other two has a very long history. Beginning with Tatian’s Diatessaron in the 2nd Century, putting the gospel records side by side to see both similarities and differences can show you an awful lot. Tatian intended to highlight the fact that the gospels are one story. He reduced the 3780 total verses of the four gospels to 2769 in his “harmony” – a reduction of about 25%(!) One can see some logic in his method. The Lord Jesus did not live four different lives, each evangelist giving us but one of them. His earthly ministry, death, and resurrection are relatable as a single narrative story. What Titian’s method obscures, however, is that the Holy Spirit inspired not just one evangelist, but four. Each of the four has a distinct perspective on the life of Christ, and so attempts at harmonization can mask the diverse pictures each gospel writer provides.
In one of the books I’ve been using for gospel study, the author recommended marking in your Bible which gospel incidents (aka ‘Pericopes’) occur in which gospels. An pericope is not just a narrative of an event, or a parable, but any unit teaching Jesus spoke, or something the evangelist recorded. It can be as short as a single verse, such as Mark 14:51, the young man who flees from the garden after the arrest of Jesus. In looking at the gospels in these incidental portions, you’re better able to better compare them, and importantly, to glean from them more of what each author put there differently from his fellow evangelists. I did this, and I believe it has indeed given me a better understanding of the gospels. It isn’t a short exercise, and it requires a fair bit of grunt work, but I see it paying dividends. There are a couple of steps to doing this.
1. Get a list of gospel periscopes. There are several online, and various folks count them differently. The one I used is from the Semantic Bible site. This list has 355 distinct periscopes. Note that things like Matthew’s genealogy and Luke’s genealogy are counted as different. Your first thought may be, “Both Matthew and Luke contain genealogies of Jesus.” They do, but they differ enough from one another that you should ask how and why, and it makes sense to count them as different.
2. Mark your Bible with an different colored dot for where these periscopes occur. I chose purple to represent Matthew, green for Mark, red for Luke, and blue for John. Any color will do, you just need to be consistent. It took me several hours over 3-4 days to do this. It’s laborious, because you have to constantly refer back to the list, and make sure you’re in synch. This is the result:
The above is from Matthew 12, and you can see that beginning at verse 22, this pericope is found in all 3 synoptic gospels. However, with verse 31, only Matthew and Mark record the portion about the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. At verse 33, the tree and its fruit is found only in Matthew. You can thus see how each writer frames the same story a little differently, and you begin to ask why. You ask not only about the material they include, but how they record it is significant. For example, all three synoptic gospels record the baptism of Jesus. Only Matthew contains the dialogue with John about needing to baptized by Jesus, and Jesus’ answer about fulfilling all righteousness. Why? Matthew and Luke both say that afterward the heavens were opened, (though Matthew says “the heavens were opened to him”) but Mark says the heavens were “torn open.” Why? These are examples of the subtle differences you begin to notice in the gospel records, and doing so helps you go deeper into these narratives of the Lord Jesus. Asking good questions of the text of Scripture helps you better understand God’s Word.
Another thing you notice is what material is unique to each writer. For example, all of Luke 15, and about half of chapter 16 are unique to this gospel. Why? Even without the markings I describe above, it’s fairly easy to see that a huge amount of John is unique (On the basis of verses to be found in other gospels, it’s nearly 86% of them that are found only in John.) But something else I noticed is that as the gospels progress, and Jesus comes closer to his death and resurrection, this material is found in all four gospels. This tells me what Paul echoed to the Corinthians, that what is of first importance is, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” The atonement is the heart of the gospel, and it is the heart of the gospels. That is but one small example of the benefits of studying the gospels in this degree of closeness.
Jesus is the Logos, the Word, the one in whom God has, in these last days, spoken to us. The very words of Scripture are the way we know him. Studying these words with greater focus, greater detail, can only yield spiritual treasures.