As great as the Beatles were in their individual careers (the inclusion of Ringo as great is questionable here, but I suggest “It Don’t Come Easy” squeaks him by), something was definitely lost when they disbanded. The whole was truly greater than the sum of the parts. I guess it’s possible that McCartney’s “Yesterday,” “Hey Jude” and “Let it Be” could have been written with Wings, but I seriously doubt it. Which leads ineluctably to the next question–what about the original Fab Four: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? No, I’m not asking whether McCartney could have written the gospels after the Beatles folded (or before, although it makes you wonder), but whether the four gospels harmonized as a whole are greater than the sum of their accounts individually? Let’s explore this issue.
Those who view the whole of the four gospels as greater than their sum individually generally want to harmonize them, read them together in an intertwined, single, continuous whole narrative. No doubt, there’s benefit to that, especially if you can read them side-by-side to see how they compare with each other. I mentioned J. Reuben Clark’s, Our Lord of the Gospels a while back, an LDS church manual that contained a continuous narrative of the intertwined gospels, a text that benefitted me years ago in my studies.
Interestingly enough, this idea of a gospel harmony is fairly ancient. Tatian, an early church father in Syria circa 175 AD, prepared such a text called the Diatessaron, a synthesis of the four NT gospels. This work was so popular it was nearly the only gospel text used in Syria until the fifth century when it was replaced by the four separate gospels in the Syrian churches.
Nowadays, such harmonizations of the gospels have fallen into disfavor with scholars, except as a tool of comparison of differences. It is generally recognized that each evangelist wrote with a specific point of view in mind, particular themes, and that each marshaled his data about Jesus to support a particular message. Using a narrative analysis of each gospel suggests the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. In fact, advances in NT scholarship in the last century make it fairly clear that harmonizing the data of all four gospels will result in a serious misunderstanding of the theological message of each individual gospel writer, distorting their narratives and minimizing their, sometimes intended, differences. Although 19th Century “lives” of Jesus came up with ingenious ways of smoothing over differences between the gospels (Talmage’s Jesus the Christ falls into this category), upon closer examination today, their explanations haven’t passed the test of time, making complete harmonizations difficult.
That the gospel writers had different tendencies, points of view, or themes, has been recognized by most LDS NT authors, just in varying degrees. Interestingly, Robert Millet has suggested that the JST itself follows each individual gospel writer’s literary style and themes. (See Robert L. Millet, “The JST and the Synoptic Gospels: Literary Style,” in The Joseph Smith Translation: Restoration of Plain and Precious Things, 161 (BYU, 1985)). Says Millet: “That Joseph Smith made changes in the text consistent with the peculiar styles and themes of the Gospel writers suggests that the Prophet was sensitive to the intent, as well and the content of the original writers.” (emphasis in original) Whether this view of the JST is correct bears further scrutiny, but it’s worth considering.
By focusing on the different gospel writers’ portraits of Jesus individually, you see their individual Faith Jesus and have to be able to juggle some ambiguity. While this is not the best analogy, it’s the best I’ve got right now, although, regretably, it doesn’t involve a frog. Being aware of each gospel writer’s unique point of view is similar to listening to versions of a song that’s been recorded in different musical styles. Say, listening to “Crossroads” by Robert Johnson, followed by Cream’s version (“Eric Clapton, lead, vocal”). Or, listening to “Rock & Roll Hoochie Koo” performed all bluesy by Johnny Winter, all space-rocked up by Rick Derringer and then jazzed up by Derringer again later in life, after he’s a born-again Christian. Or Van Morrison doing “Gloria” with the band Them and later bluesing it up with John Lee Hooker.
Here’s where this gets weird, though. When you search for the Historical Jesus you DO end up with a kind of harmonization of the gospels! By applying the “recognized criteria” to dig up historical nuggets from each of the gospels (whether performed too narrowly or not, is open for discussion), at the end of the exercise you pile them all together to come up with a composite construct of what the tools of history can say about the person of Jesus of Nazareth, resulting in a true distortion of each gospel writer’s theological message in the name of history.
So, with the four gospels, is the whole greater than the sum of the parts, or vice versa? Put it another way: Is the Faith Jesus greater than the Historical Jesus, or vice versa? I say both. Or neither. My study of the Faith Jesus in each gospel separately and the Historical Jesus gleaned from all of them is a cross-training exercise for my spirituality.
Incidentally, 40 years ago this month John Lennon remarked in an interview that the Beatles “were more popular than Jesus.” Result? In England, not much–they knew it was an off-handed remark from a mercurial talent. In the USA, however, radio stations stopped playing Beatles records, Beatles albums were burned, and the Ku Klux Klan even nailed Beatles albums to burning crosses. I was 6 years old at the time and still remember my own mother’s negative reaction when Lennon’s quote was read over the car radio. The Walrus later apologized, but, at least in my house, it took a while for time to heal the wound.
The Beatles’ popularity continues in many circles today, but I’d say Jesus has since recovered from his momentary setback in John Lennon’s opinion poll of the mid 1960s. Will people still be listening to the Beatles on their I-Pods 200 years from now (by then no doubt a micro-chip in the brain)? Maybe. Will they still be reading the Original Fab Four? I’m betting my eternal life on it.