A gospel harmony is an attempt to compile the Christian canonical gospels into a single account. This may take the form either of a single, merged narrative, or a tabular format with one column for each gospel, technically known as a "synopsis", although the word 'harmony' is often used for both. Harmonies are constructed to establish a chronology of events in the life of Jesus depicted in the canonical gospels, to better understand how the accounts relate to each other, or to establish events in the life of Jesus.
The construction of harmonies has always been favoured by more conservative scholars. Students of higher criticism, on the other hand, see the divergences between the Gospel accounts as reflecting the construction of traditions by the early Christian communities. In the modern era, attempts to construct a single story have largely been abandoned in favour of laying out the accounts in parallel columns for comparison, to allow critical study of the differences between them.
The earliest known harmony is the Diatessaron by Tatian in the 2nd century and variations based on the Diatessaron continued to appear in the Middle Ages. The 16th century witnessed a major increase in the introduction of Gospel harmonies and the parallel column structure became widespread. At this time visual representations also started appearing, depicting the Life of Christ in terms of a "pictorial gospel harmony", and the trend continued into the 19th–20th centuries.
A Gospel harmony is an attempt to collate the Christian canonical gospels into a single gospel account. Gospel harmonies are constructed and studied by scholars to establish a coherent chronology of the events depicted in the four canonical gospels in the life of Jesus, to better understand how the accounts relate to each other, and to critically evaluate their differences.
One approach to harmonizing consists of merging the stories into a single narrative, although as John Barton points out, it is impossible to construct a single account from the four Gospels without changing the individual accounts. This approach, almost as old as the gospels themselves, has largely been abandoned in the modern era. Another approach is that of rationalisation – attempting to show that inconsistencies between Gospel accounts are only apparent, an approach Barton says is associated, in the English-speaking world at least, with fundamentalism. A major problem with harmonizing the accounts is that events are often described in a different order – the Synoptic Gospels, for instance, describe Jesus overturning tables in the Temple at Jerusalem in the last week of his life, whereas the Gospel of John only records a counterpart event towards the beginning of Jesus's ministry. Harmonists must either choose which they think is correct, or conclude that separate events are described. Lutheran Theologian Andreas Osiander, for instance, proposed in Harmonia evangelica (1537) that Jesus must have been crowned with thorns twice, and that there were three separate episodes of cleansing of the Temple. A similar problem arises with the centurion whose servant is healed, at a distance. In the Matthew Gospel he comes to Jesus, in the Luke version he sends Jewish elders. Since these are clearly describing the same event, the harmonist must decide which is the more accurate description.
The modern view, based on the broadly accepted principle that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written using the Gospel of Mark as a source, seeks to explain the differences between the texts in terms of this process. For example, the Mark Gospel describes John the Baptist as preaching the forgiveness of sins, a detail which is dropped by Matthew, perhaps in the belief that the forgiveness of sins was exclusive to Jesus.
The terms harmony and synopsis have been used to refer to approaches that aim to achieve Gospel harmony, although they are different approaches. Technically, a "harmony" weaves together sections of scripture into a narrative, merging the four Gospels. There are four main types of harmony: radical, synthetic, sequential and parallel. A "synopsis", much like a parallel harmony focuses on key events and brings together similar texts or accounts in parallel format, usually in columns. Harmonies may also have a visual form and be undertaken to create narratives for artistic purposes, as in the creation of picture compositions depicting the Life of Christ.
To illustrate the concept of parallel harmony, a simple example of a "synopsis fragment" is shown here, consisting of just four episodes from the Passion. A more comprehensive parallel harmony appears in a section below.
Unlike the example above, a textual approach to harmony does not use tables and columns but combines the verses in the gospels into a merged narrative, producing a piece of text longer than any individual gospel.
The gospels accounts show a great deal of overall similarity, but the scholarly process for constructing a detailed harmony is complicated by issues of text or the uniqueness of material in each Gospel. Specific issues at times resists distillation into a single harmonized chronology, as the variety of readings that appear in multiple harmony efforts attests. An example is determining whether Jesus cursed the fig tree before or after the Cleansing of the Temple. However, the construction of harmonies remains an important element of biblical study and to gain a better understanding of the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus.
Tatian's influential Diatessaron harmony which dates to about AD 160 was perhaps the very first harmony. The Diatessaron reduced the number of verses in the four gospels from 3,780 to 2,769 without missing any event of teaching in the life of Jesus from any of the gospels. Some scholars believe Tatian may have drawn on one or more noncanonical Gospels. The Gospel of the Ebionites, composed about the same time, is believed to have been a gospel harmony.
Variations based on the Diatessaron continued to appear in the Middle Ages, e.g. Codex Sangallensis (based on the 6th century Codex Fuldensis) dates to 830 and has a Latin column based on the Vulgate and an Old High German column that often resembles the Diatessaron, although errors frequently appear within it. The Liege harmony in the Limburg dialect (Liege University library item 437) is a key Western source of the Diatessaron and dates to 1280, although published much later. The two extant recensions of the Diatessaron in Medieval Italian are the single manuscript Venetian from the 13th or 14th century and the 26 manuscript Tuscan from the 14–15th century.
In the 3rd century Ammonius of Alexandria developed the forerunner of modern synopsis (perhaps based on the Diatessaron) as the Ammonian Sections in which he started with the text of Matthew and copied along parallel events. There are no extant copies of the harmony of Ammonius and it is only known from a single reference in the letter of Eusebius to Carpianus. In the letter Eusebius also discusses his own approach, i.e. the Eusebian Canons in which the texts of the gospels are shown in parallel to help comparison among the four gospels.
In the 5th century, Saint Augustine wrote extensively on the subject in his book Harmony of the Gospels. Augustine viewed the variations in the gospel accounts in terms of the different focuses of the authors on Jesus: Matthew on royalty, Mark on humanity, Luke on priesthood and John on divinity.
Clement of Llanthony's One from Four was considered an improvement on previous canons at the time, although modern scholars sometimes opine that no major advances beyond Augustine emerged on the topic until the 15th century. Throughout the Middle Ages harmonies based on the principles of the Diatessaron continued to appear, e.g. the Liege harmony by Plooij in Middle Dutch, and the Pepysian harmony in Middle English. The Pepysian harmony (Magdalene college, Cambridge, item Pepys 2498) dates to about 1400 and its name derives from having been owned by Samuel Pepys.
In the 15th and the 16th centuries some new approaches to harmony began to appear, e.g. Jean Gerson produced a harmony which gave priority to the Gospel of John. On the other hand John Calvin's approach focused on the three synoptic Gospels, and excluded the Gospel of John.
By this time visual representations had also started appearing, for instance the 15th-century artist Lieven de Witte produced a set of about 200 woodcut images that depicted the Life of Christ in terms of a "pictorial gospel harmony" which then appeared in Willem van Branteghem's harmony published in Antwerp in 1537. The importance of imagery is reflected in the title of Branteghem's well known work: The Life of Jesus Christ Skillfully Portrayed in Elegant Pictures Drawn from the Narratives of the Four Evangelists
The 16th century witnessed a major increase in the introduction of Gospel harmonies. In this period the parallel column structure became widespread, partly in response to the rise of biblical criticism. This new format was used to emphasize the trustworthiness of the Gospels. It is not clear who produced the very first parallel harmony, but Gerhard Mercator's 1569 system is a well-known example. In terms of content and quality, Johann Jacob Griesbach's 1776 synopsis was a notable case.
At the same time, the rise of modern biblical criticism was instrumental in the decline of the traditional apologetic gospel harmony. The Enlightenment writer, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, observed:
Oh that most excellent Harmony, which can only reconcile two contradictory reports, both stemming from the evangelists, by inventing a third report, not a syllable of which is to be found in any individual evangelist!
W. G. Rushbrooke's 1880 Synopticon is at times considered a turning point in the history of the synopsis, as it was based on Markan priority, i.e. the assumption that the Gospel of Mark was the first to be written. Thirteen years later, John Broadus used historical accounts to assign priorities in his harmony, while previous approaches had used feasts as the major milestones for dividing the life of Christ.
Towards the end of the 19th century, after extensive travels and study in the Middle East, James Tissot produced a set of 350 watercolors which depicted the life of Christ as a visual Gospel harmony. Tissot synthesized the four Gospels into a singular narrative with five chapters: "the Holy Childhood, the Ministry, Holy Week, the Passion, and the Resurrection". He also made portraits of each of the four evanglists to honor them.
In the 20th century, the Synopsis of the Four Gospels by Kurt Aland came to be seen by some as "perhaps the standard for an in-depth study of the Gospels." A key feature of Aland's work is the incorporation of the full text of the Gospel of John. John Bernard Orchard's synopsis (which has the same title) was of note in that it took the unusual approach of abandoning Markan priority and assuming the synopics were written in this order: Matthew, Luke, Mark.For a visual representation of the events, please see
: Gospel harmony gallery
The following table, containing events for which there is also a Wikipedia article, is an example of a parallel harmony, based on the list of key episodes in the Canonical Gospels. The order of events, especially during the ministry period, has been the subject of speculation and scholarly debate. While this harmony compares the work of several scholars, other harmonies may differ substantially on the placement of some events. The episode structure within the table is based on Edward Robinson's A Harmony of the Gospels in Greek as well as Steven L. Cox and Kendell H Easley's Harmony of the Gospels.