Harmony/Disharmony of the Gospels

by James P. Dawson


There is considerable historical evidence external to the Gospels for the traditional authors. (168)Papias, bishop of the church at Hierapolis in Asia Minor and an old man by A.D. 130, name Matthew and Mark as Gospel writers, indicating that Matthew wrote in Hebrew or Aramaic and describing Mark as one who recorded Peter’s reminiscences. Papias was himself a student of the Apostle John. (169)

Justin Martyr, after studying many contemporary Greek philosophies, converted to Christianity sometime before AD 130. He speaks of the Gospels as “memoirs of the apostles. (170) He says they were written “by apostles and those who followed them, (171) which matches the traditional ascription to two apostles (Matthew and John) and two followers (Mark of Peter, Luke of Paul). He quotes from or mentions matters found in each of the four Gospels, and apparently alludes to Mark’s Gospel as Peter’s memoirs.(172) It is generally agreed that the Gospels were written between 60 and 90 AD. Most scholars place the writing of John around 85 AD. They also believe that Mark was written before the other two gospels, Matthew and Luke, and the latter had access to Mark’s writing before they wrote their own gospels in the early 60’s A.D. This Triple Tradition was based on the material that was common between these three gospels.

It would appear from the “harmony of the Gospels” that the gospel authors had access to the same document or oral teaching. We know from Scripture that Jesus taught the disciples “in all things.” In John 14:26Jesus informs us:

“the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.”

Through this promise of Jesus, each disciple had access to all that he was taught. It has been postulated that they may have hada common input, a “Q” source. The “Q” terminology being derived from the German word “Quelle” meaning source. The initial or common input information could have come from either a spiritual, an unknown written or an oral source, or more likely, a combination of all three.

K. Lachmann in 1835 observed that Matthew and Luke never agree in order against Mark, but sometimes Mark and Luke agree in order against Matthew, and at times Matthew and Mark agree in order against Luke. Lachmann stated that this lack of agreements in order between Luke and Matthew against Mark proved that Mark was the source document for the three documents. According to Lachmann, the argument from order proved Mark was written first. B. C. Butler in 1951,(173)pointed out there are other possibilities of source material for the gospels and that based on order alone Lachmann’s reason for his conclusion was in error.

Other theories based on content were proposed. They are:

1)The ProtoLuke that the gospel of Luke contained information from an earlier source and this information was not available to Mark.

2)The ProtoMatthew the gospel of Matthew contained information from an earlier source and this information was not available to Mark.

3)Q hypothesis the theory that an earlier source of information was available to Matthew and Luke, but not Mark, and this accounted for the material common to Matthew and Luke.

4)TwoSource Hypothesis the hypothesis that Mark was the first gospel and that Matthew and Luke used another source and Mark in writing their gospels.

5)FourSource Hypothesis the hypothesis that Matthew and Luke used four specific sources in writing their gospels.

There are many other arguments for this conclusion and we will examine most of these arguments.

Agreement in Wording

What significance can be drawn from the “Agreement in Wording” contained within the Gospels? The remarkable agreement in wording between the Gospels can be related to one or more of the following reasons:

1)Each author had access to one or more documents containing the verses where agreement occurs in the Gospels and used these or a rewrite of these verses in their own writings.

2) They were guided by the Holy Spirit in the actual wording in their writings and not just in thought or principle.

3)They in a concerted effort were writing a “single document.”

Jesus promised the apostles that the Holy Spirit would bring to their minds all that He had taught them, so we know that the Holy Spirit guided the writers of the Gospels. That He gave them exact wording is not very probable, because each would interpret these teachings in his own words. We see this in the difference in grammar between Mark and the others. The agreement tends to validate reason number one, and since all of the topics in Mark are covered by at least one other Gospel one would conclude that Mark was available to the other writers. Peter and Mark had a close relationship and possibly Peter had Mark give the other writers a “working paper” that was the start of a “Single Gospel.” The “disharmony” of the Gospels also gives reason number three credence. Each, except Mark, contained a genealogy of Jesus, but each from a different perspective, the lineage of Mary, the lineage of Joseph and direct linkage to God. In many other areas of “disharmony” the writers filled other gaps in the life and times of Jesus not contained in Mark and not overlapping the other Gospels.

Agreement in Order

What does the Agreement in Order suggest with respect to timing of authorship of the Gospels? Since all of the topics in Mark’s gospel, some seventyseven topics, are found in at least one other Gospel and the other Gospels cover the same material and topics in essentially the same order as Mark, one concludes that Mark’s Gospel was available to the other writers. The odds against four authors writing independently would arrive at an order without prior consultation or guiding documents is astronomical. For example, the odds against the first11 topics in Mark to appear in the same order in Luke are 285 trillion to one. In fact, the first 17 topics are covered in order in Luke, but I don’t know what the name would be for 8.27 times 10 to the 20th power. Then based on the probabilities, the Gospel of Mark was available and used as a point of departure for the other Gospels. This would dictate that the Gospel of Mark was written first, but it does not require that there necessarily be a gap in time between the Gospels.

Agreement in Parenthetical Material

The parenthetical agreement between the gospels always contains the Gospel of Mark as one of the Gospels being compared. This would indicate that Mark was probably available to the other writers and they in turn copied or used the special emphasis that Mark had shown for the topic. The probability that different authors would isolate or make a special emphasis on the same phrase or material in their writings without prior review of the other document is extremely low. There may have been other common sources of material for the Gospels that have been lost, but based on the written evidence available we assume that because of the agreement in order, in wording and in the parenthetical agreement dictate the conclusion that Mark or Matthew was written first. The agreement is shown in the following table.

Agreement in Parenthetical Material

Matthew 24:1518 Mark 13:1416
Matthew 9:18 Mark 2:112 Luke 5:1726
Matthew 8:2829 Mark 5:18 Luke 8:2629
Matthew 27:1518 Mark 15:610
Matthew 26:5 Mark 14:2 Luke 22:2
Matthew 26:14 Mark 14:10 Luke 22:3
Matthew 26:47 Mark 14:43 Luke 22:47
Matthew 9:21 Mark 5:28

Luke said in his Gospel, Luke 1:14, that many others had written about activities of Jesus. He implied that he had access to these documents or at least knew of their existence. There undoubtedly was oral communication between the apostles and their followers and we know from scripture that they orally transmitted the Gospel to the believers and unbelievers. The general belief that a “Q” document existed is based on the agreement between the gospels and this reference in Luke would confirm the existence of a prior document. The “Q” document is undefined as to content, origin and may be the name for “many” documents, as Luke suggested.

Since Peter is considered as the titular head of the apostles, it is strange that he did not write a gospel of his own, or maybe one the documents referred to by Luke were Peter’s writings. We will know for sure when the horn blows, but until then it is only speculation. I believe that Peter did have an input to the gospels and that it was through Mark’s Gospel. Some phrasing and wording in Mark are similar to those attributed to Peter, maybe Peter was the instigator of the writing of “the Gospel” to depict the life and teachings of Jesus. Mark could have been instructed to prepare a “working document” and the other gospel writers filled the holes to make a complete picture. In areas where they agreed in full with Mark, they made no changes, in other areas they expanded on Mark’s writings. Based on the disharmony of the gospels, they apparently “agreed” to cover the remaining topics and/or relates the same topic from a different point of view, i.e., the genealogy of Jesus.

Argument from Length

Another argument for the priority of the Gospel of Mark is the Argument from Length. Mark is the shortest of the four gospels, Matthew contains 18,293 words, Luke 19,376 words, John has 16,563 words but Mark has only 11,025 words. The difference in length suggests Mark probably did not use either Matthew, John or Luke for a source, because he would be unlikely to leave out so much material that was available to him from the other gospels. Of the 18,293 words that appear in Matthew, 7392 (40%) have no parallel in Mark, and of the 19,376 words that appear in Luke, 10,259 (53%) have no parallel in Mark. All of the material presented in Mark is covered in Matthew and/or Luke. Why didn’t Mark include information on Jesus’ birth, the birth of John the Baptist, and the Sermon on the Mount? These items would be crucial to the story of Jesus and should be included in each gospel if the author was trying to tell the whole story. If Mark had used either Luke or Matthew, he would not have left out this information. In one instance where Peter and John were present and none of the other gospel writers, the incident was mentioned only in the gospels of John and Mark. If Mark was first then how did he know of this incident, from Peter?

Argument from Grammar

In the English translations of the Gospels, Mark’s errors in grammar are not evident, because they have been corrected upon translation. However, according to Biblical scholars the Argument from Grammar for the priority of Mark is very strong. Based on the text, the grammar in Matthew and Luke is better than in Mark, and if Mark had access to either of the other gospels, it is inconceivable that Mark would change to a lower quality of grammar. In some verses, colloquialisms are found that are not contained in the other gospels. This would lead one to conclude Mark was first, because he would not have added these statements to the other gospels, but this is only evident in the original languages. Also scholars have suggested that these same types of statements have been found in Peter’s writings. Since I cannot go to the original languages to verify the correct use of verbs and the colloquialisms I must depend on the statements of others. These arguments would lead one to conclude that based on length and grammar Mark wrote his gospel first and that it was available to Luke and Matthew, however, this does not address the “Q” source of information.

Argument from Redaction

The Argument from Redaction for the priority of Mark involves the comparison in order of the synoptic Gospels and their use of specific phrases. Matthew’s favorite name for Jesus is “Son of David” and it occurs ten times in his gospel, and three times in each of the Gospels of Mark and Luke. Eight of these occurrences in Matthew are in topics that have no parallel in Mark or Luke and in the topics discussion where the phrase occurs in Mark or Luke, Matthew’s writing is the longest. This would suggest that Matthew added to the Markan source. The word “fulfilled” occurs 18 times in Matthew, four times in Mark and eight times in Luke. All of the topics in Mark which contains the word “fulfilled” are also in Matthew, but none of the topics in Luke where the word occurs has a Markan or Matthean parallel. It is difficult to imagine that one of the writers would delete a reference in Mark that referred to prophecy being fulfilled, but they would add the information for completion. It is also interesting that in the four Markan references, one is the longest discussion of the topic and John’s Gospel has the longest discussion of the topic in the other three Markan parallel verses. None of the Lukan references to “fulfilled” have a parallel in any of the other three Gospels. Only Matthew would show the priority of Mark from these two words or phrases.

Did Luke Know Matthew?

To rephrase the question, did Luke and Matthew have access to what each had written in addition to Mark’s Gospel? In my opinion yes.  Matthew and Luke and their treatments and word selections are very similar. These could have occurred by impressions from the Holy Spirit but the more probable explanation would be that they either discussed it or had access to another source besides Mark. This leads to the question, “Was Q a Written Source? From the above discussions one must agree that Mark was written first and Luke and Matthew had access to Mark’s writings. They have defined the Q information as an unknown source and probably available to Luke and Matthew. Surely, the Gospel writers were exposed to the oral transmissions of the stories about Jesus and His work, and possibly to letters or other written documents about our Lord. These could have been the “Q” source. Nevertheless, because the Gospels in their “Harmony” and their “Disharmony” give such a complete and neat pattern to the information on Christ, in had to be a guided, totally controlled endeavor. The Holy Spirit could accomplish this and I am sure that He was the power and wisdom behind the activity, but the earthly device He worked through was probably a written document. The phrasing and words used in the harmony would indicate a written document. The possibility of Peter being the driving force and possibly the “Q” source is quite high. Peter was not the kind of man to stand apart from any activity and some of Mark’s writing resembles, according to other scholars. Mark or Peter could have gathered such letters that they had passed between the early churches and these could have been the start of the preparation of the Gospels or possibly even the Q source itself.

Is the Griesbach Hypothesis feasible?

The Griesbach Hypothesis was that Matthew was the first Gospel written, that Luke used Matthew, and that Mark used both Matthew and Luke. This seems highly unlikely, since all of Mark is contained in Matthew and Luke. Mark did have the longest discussion on 30 percent of the topics listed in Table I, but why would Mark omit the many topics given in Matthew and Luke which are critical for a full picture of Jesus and His work. Griesbach’s assumption that Matthew would not have used a document supplied by Mark, a nonapostle. However, if Peter was the driving force as postulated above, Matthew would have used Mark. Griesbach’s argument that the agreement between Matthew and Luke also discounts the idea of Mark writing first, but the argument above also defuses that objection. The Griesbach hypothesis is not feasible. Assuming the Priority of Mark and Q, did Matthew and Luke use the same Mark and Q? The existence of different copies of Mark is possible but no proof of such existence exists. It is more likely due to the common material between Matthew and Luke that does not exist in Mark that the two knew the others writing. Q was probably a combination of writings, oral communication and tradition rather than a single written document. As stated above, it is more likely that Peter directed Mark to compile the information available and the other apostles added to the information provided by Mark from their own experiences and he assigned other portions of the story not already covered to the Gospel writers.

Gospel Materials Faithfully Transmitted

The primary proofs that we have that the Gospel materials were faithfully transmitted lies in the written material itself. The Gospels do not sidestep the hard issues as some modern churches are doing. When Jesus said something that did not seem to flatter the cause of Christ, they still recorded and transmitted it to the believers. If the church leaders wanted to alter the Scriptures to fit their own agenda, these are the types of material that they would eliminate in the oral and written communications. Also the Scriptures do not foster any particular theme but Christ, His life, His death and His resurrection. Modern man has watered down the Gospel so that it can appeal to more of the lost. If there are any new generations, they should admit that the neo-orthodox theologians have not maintained this tradition of faithful transmissions. In both I and II Timothy it states that in the last days many will depart from the true Word and seek teachers that tickle their ears. This is being fulfilled.

Early Church’s High View of Tradition

Do we still retain the Early Church’s High View of Tradition? The early church held to the Scriptures and the teachings of the apostles. As the church grew man started taking over and replacing Christ as the head of the church. The Scriptures held true, but man started adding to the requirements and doctrines of the church. In some Orthodox churches the sayings and teachings of the Church Fathers began to have the weight of Scripture. The Catholic church started adding the edicts from Rome and giving them equal weight with Scripture. During the reformation the Protestants also added their own beliefs, not as Scripture, but considered as if they were. We now have in essentially all churches an addition of man made tradition and rituals that essentially control our worship services and church activities. Some nondenominational churches claim that they have returned to the first century church, but they have actually just replaced the neotradition with one of their own. Even with the new tradition, most churches still adhere to the basic principles of the early church. When we strip away the man made rules and doctrines, we have basically a New Testament Church.

Chronological Order

Are the Gospels written in Chronological Order? The Gospels are not Chronological Biographies of Jesus’ life and activities. This can be shown by comparing the events in order as given in the Gospels. A chronological order would make some events occur two or more times if he Gospels were reviewed side by side. Mark’s Gospel evidently was a guide in order, but his Gospel left out many preliminaries necessary for a biography, for example, the announcements of the birth of Christ and John the Baptist. To establish a chronological order the Gospels would have to be merged and portions rearranged.

Gospel Material Originally Independent Units

Was much of the Gospel Material Originally Independent Units? I am sure that each apostle taught new believers about Jesus and they used their eyewitness accounts of many events in Jesus’ life. We have no written record or document from any of the apostles other than the Bible, but Luke refers to many other writings, so we must assume others existed. This does not necessarily suggest that they accepted them or they would have preserved and canonized them. From the structure and content of the Gospels one concludes that Mark was the working document for the Gospels and based on the “disharmony,” the other writers added from their personal knowledge other events in Christ’s life. Also they added some events in chronological order, as Matthew did for his accounts of Joseph’s activities and Luke did about the announcements of the births of Jesus and John the Baptist.


Gospel Materials Preserved for Their Religious Value

Were the Gospel materials preserved for their religious value or their historical value? Although the historical value of the Scriptures is evident, they retained and preserved the Scriptures for their religious values. John states that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Then every word and action of Jesus is dear to our hearts, preserved and taught. Only the Word has the power through the Holy Spirit to convict men of their sins and these materials in the Gospels were preserved for that reason. Also man has retained no other writings in their original form as has been the Bible. For the last 1900 years they have preserved the Scriptures as written, the translations were true and carefully protected from pollution or dilution. More recent translations have varied from the strict interpretations and are now becoming more dilute. In the New American Standard and the New International Version they have removed the word “fornication” and substituted “immoral.” In like manner the words “blasphemy,” “perfect,” “abomination” and others have been removed or their use greatly restricted.(174)The condemnations of homosexual practices have been muted in the new translations. This would indicate that even though the Gospel material was preserved for the religious value of the writing, it is now being polluted by Satanic influences in the new translations.

Evangelists’ Editorial Work

How has the Evangelists’ editorial work influenced the Scriptures? The modern theologians have applied the form critical and literary criticism methods of investigation to the Scriptures. The results of the nonmodernist Evangelists’ editorial work, were normally thrown out by the theologians because they considered it unworthy. However, when theneoorthodox theologians have altered Scriptures through their translations or interpretations they consider it to be an improvement on the Scriptures and to give it the “real” meaning. The Holy Spirit is still at work without a doubt, but His work has always magnified Jesus, not dilute the meaning of His Word or down grade the deity of Jesus. The new translations and the “social gospel” coming from the theologians and the modern churches have influenced the meaning of the Scriptures in a negative manner. They have not applied the same criteria to their own work as they did to the older editorial works.

Synoptic Problem

A comparison between Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13indicates that they have the exact same wording. If Matthew and Luke were dependent on Mark for the order and the topics of the Gospels and did not have any interplay between themselves, then how does one account for this exactness of wording. The exactness of the wording in these two verses would require that Matthew and Luke did have an exchange of writings or exposed to the same written document prior to writing their own Gospel. The probability of choosing the same words in the same order is extremely low if not mathematically impossible. This topic does not exist in Mark, and this is the reason for assuming a “Q” document existed. However, another alternative does exist. The Gospels could have been a directed and controlled operation to produce a “single Gospel” and the writers had interplay and direct assignments as to their addition to the “single Gospel.” This would account for the agreement with Mark in order and topics and would also account for the Matthew/Luke agreements and the “disharmony” of their Gospels. Mark (179) discussed the healing of the sick or those possessed with demons. Luke and Matthew(180) covered the same incident. Why didn’t the accounts agree? Matthew in his Gospel only gave a mention of the incident with no elaboration. If Mark was available to Matthew and Luke, Matthew evidently had nothing to add to Mark’s discussion. Mark told us that they healed those possessed with demons and they accomplished the healings with the whole city witnessed the healings. Luke, however, did not mention the demon possessed healings or that the whole city watched but Luke did add that the laying on of hands accomplished the healings. It would appear that Mark’s coverage of this incident was written first and Luke presented additional material, while Matthew simply acknowledged that the incident took place. This comparison would not require a Q or unknown source, just the availability of Mark. It would also not require an interplay between Matthew and Luke.

In contrast to the above, the topic of the “secret of the Kingdom” was greatly expanded by Matthew,(181) over Mark’s version (182) of the topic. Luke (183)did not elaborate over Mark, but just suggested that the discussion did occur among the disciples. In this Scriptural reference Matthew presented great detail on what Jesus had to say about the kingdom and indicated that he who has will have more and he who has not all will be taken away. All three Gospels explain what Jesus said about the teaching in parables but only Matthew relates this to the fulfillment of Scripture. The addition of the prophecy statements is a literary trait of Matthew and in several areas this has been an added indication of Matthew’s addition to Mark’s version of the Gospel. This comparison does not show a problem in the synoptic Gospels but an interplay between Matthew and Luke. It does lend weight to the idea that each writer expanded areas of Mark’s Gospel.

In the various treatments of the Harmony of the Gospels they essentially ignore the book of John, primarily because he parallels only 22 to the 77 topics covered by Mark whereas Matthew and Luke each cover at least 74 of the topics. In the Gospels the writers(184)relate the event of Jesus appearing before Pilate. In each of these treatments the only comment of Jesus was “Thou sayest.” However, in John 18:2838 John relates that Jesus made more comments before Pilate, for example: Jesus answered him, Sayest thou this thing of thyself, or did others tell it thee of me? Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence. Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. John 18:3437If only Matthew and Luke had access to Mark’s Gospel, why did John’s make such an expansion on verses where the other Gospel writers only mentioned the event. John has expanded on nine such topics that have parallel discussions within the other Gospels. This indicates that John probably had equal access to Mark as Matthew and Luke. Also the disharmony of John with the other Gospels shows that theirs was a concentrated directed effort to tell the whole and complete biography of Jesus.

Similarly, an analysis of the 77 topics covered by the gospels, showed it takes all four gospels to give a complete picture and the task of discussing the topics was divided about equally between the authors. In the table below, Mark’s accounts were the longest on 23 of the 77 topics, 30 percent. Matthew’s coverage was longest on 13 of the 74 topics he covered, or 18 percent. Luke covers 73 of the 77 topics and expanded 15, or 20 percent, of these over Mark’s and Matthew’s coverage. John commented on 22 of the 77 topics and had the longest discussions of nine of the 22 or 12 percent of the 77 topics. Each expanded about the same percentage of topics over Mark’s list. For these 11 items concerning the length, coverage and unique topics to occur accidentally is 3,138,000,000,000 or three thousand trillion to one. This would suggest that the writing of the four gospels was a specific, deliberate and controlled act. That it was inspired by the Holy Spirit is without a doubt, but I think it was directed through the disciples in a very specific manner. The following tables summarize the information presented above.

                                              Mark    Luke    Matthew   John   

All four gospels                    77          75            75            22
Only one gospel                                 49           56            45
Only two gospels                 18          18           12              2
TOTALS                                95         142         143            69
% of Longest Verses           17%       30%        31%         21% 

It would appear that Luke, Matthew, and John had access to Mark’s manuscript. This would explain the coverage in all four Gospels. Also, each of the writers added about the same number of topics to their writing. It appears that the 150 topics above Mark’s list of 77 were evenly divided between the other authors. Based on the percentage of longest versions of the verses on each topic, they each expanded on Mark’s writings about the same number of topics. The “disharmony” of he four Gospels is actually more remarkable than the “harmony,” as shown in the following tables.DISHARMONY OF THE GOSPELS

Genealogy of Jesus
Matthew – detailed the genealogy through Joseph.
Luke – outlined the genealogy through Mary and included John the Baptist.
John – specified the direct lineage to God. It would be quite surprising if by chance each of the writers chose a different lineage of Christ to detail. It would be more likely that as a group they decided that each would take a different lineage. In all of John’s writings he has taken the more spiritual side and described the results rather than the event.

In my opinion the writing of the Gospels were a concerted effort by the Apostles and Disciples as a whole. My scenario would go something like the following.

Let us assume that the Holy Spirit impressed on Peter the need to document the life of Christ and His teachings. Then Peter told Mark to make a topic listing for consideration by the apostles for the documentation of the life of Christ. He would have sent the list of topics or possibly Mark’s (Peter’s) writing to the apostles. Peter’s input to the gospels would be through Mark, and they could have made the assignments to the apostles to expand certain areas, such as discussed above, John the Baptist, Joseph’s experiences, the genealogies, etc. If they made these documents from each apostle available to each other for comment and possibly for expansion of the topics covered. (which would be the way we would do it now, a “white paper”) This could account for the Matthew/Luke similar topics, not mentioned in Mark. By each apostle having possibly made several drafts and circulation of these, could account for the apparent changes found in some “original manuscripts.” The flow of information and the input from the Holy Spirit would be from and to each writer. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would bring to mind all that they had been taught. Also I think that Peter probably was the original human instigator of the documenting process.

I think the final document, THE GOSPEL, was never completed or was lost.

Nevertheless, with all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, we have all the information that they meant for a single document, and it is available to us. If we take what they have provided and study it in reverence and prayer, as the Bible tells us to do, He promises that the Holy Spirit will teach us and reveal all things to us.