Matthew, Mark, Luke and John: The Original Fab Four

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.


  1. OK, so shall we talk about the Beatles or the Gospels?

    I hate harmonization. We should read Mark, Matthew, Luke, John separately.

    As for the Beatles, well, don’t be sure that the Gospels’ place in immortality is any more certain than the Scouse 4!

  2. Steve Evans says:

    Great article, Ed. The urge to harmonize is as old as the urge to Correlate. I agree with Ronan’s idea that we read the 4 gospels separately and on their own basis.

  3. Steve, maybe I’ll do something on what the correlation committee would have left out of the gospels.

  4. S.P. Bailey says:

    So for the ignoramuses among us (not me of course, but others, people I want to help) is there a single or a few good sources that describe and analyze the four evangelists’ different themes, purposes, viewpoints, and so forth? Or is the recent scholarship referenced found only in obscure journals certainly not available in my local public library?

  5. Wow, Ed – quite intruiging. I like the analogy to sepperate covers of the same song, which for a non NT scholar (me) seems like a great way of imaging it. As a non-scholar, my interest is largely devotional and consequently my approach is quite synthetic. I’m trying to understand what these accounts mean in a doctrinal and historical context. How do they effect how I approach God?

    Perhaps that process would be augmented by further education and a more scholarly reading of the independant works as such, but for now I’m going with the whole. For me, it is alot like I approach the KFD from the disparate primary sources. Perhaps that is inappropriate.

  6. S.P. Bailey says:

    Oh, and by the way, The white album was without question the Beattles’ finest hour.

  7. S.P. in #4, I recommend Raymond Brown’s Introduction to the New Testament available in virtually any Barnes & Noble as an excellent intro.

    Brown was considered the Dean of NT scholars before his death a few years ago. I really like this book because it takes faith seriously while still looking scholarship square in the eye.

  8. S.P.–Revolver? Let it Be? Let’s keep this civil, shall we.

    Here’s another question–what’s your favorite gospel? Mine’s Luke. It’s got universal appeal, stories about the needy, improvements over Mark’s rough “outline” of a gospel.

  9. S.P. Bailey says:

    John. Not only for the overpowering testimony of Christ as the Son of God, but also for the writing. John 1:1-14 is probably my single favorite work of Christian poetry.

  10. Gospel of Mark: Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.
    Gospel of Luke: He told me enough. He told me you killed him.
    Mark: No. *I* am your father.
    Luke: No. No. That’s not true. That’s impossible.
    Mark: Search your feelings. You know it to be true.
    Luke: Nooooo. Nooooo.

  11. I read some things lately that suggest that Peter? I’m thinking, purposely left out some things he didn’t like, from someone he didn’t like, I’m thinking it was Thomas. Also, there is supposed to be book about Mary, but I forgot the name. I read it. It says that Joseph was much older than her and a widower. I can’t remember the other stuff.

    But I’m a believer in there being lots of other “gospels.”

    And Hey Jude is my number one favorite song of all time from my teenage years.

  12. Julie M. Smith says:

    “Mark’s rough “outline” of a gospel”

    /falls over in shock

    Mark is my favorite gospel; it isn’t a rough outline; it is a literary masterpiece that tells a radically different story than Mt or Lk’s taming of it does.

    I think every Saint would benefit from reading the individual gospels straight through (particularly Mark, particularly if you can get someone to read it to you so you can listen–no text in front of you).

  13. Julie #12–I like Mark too. It’s dramatic it’s so stark sometimes. Mark is probably my second favorite.

    I also prefer Luke’s treatment/reworking of apocalyptic/kingdom of God materials I guess, compared to Mark’s. And Mark doesn’t have Q! I call Mark an outline merely because it’s … well, shorter. Perhaps “streamlined” is better.

    I don’t dislike any gospel, I just like some better than others, sometimes on different days.

  14. But Julie, the problem with Mark is that it doesn’t have a well developed Christology, or one that involves women.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    I usually read the gospels individually, but when I want to compare and contrast, I use Kurt Aland’s _Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum_ (which also has the Gospel of Thomas) as my harmony.

    There is a kind of gospel harmony built into the 1979 LDS KJV BD s.v. “gospels.” It doesn’t contain the text, obviously, but it is a harmony by citation in a table. So anyone with the LDS scriptures has readily available a tool that will allow them easily to view the parallel passages of the Gospels together.

  16. #10 LOL!

  17. S.P. Bailey says:

    Too lazy to flip back and forth using the bible dictionary, I have used something I found cheap at BYU bookstore a few years back. Its name: Horizontal Harmony of the Four Gospels in Parallel Columns: King James Version, Thomas M. Mumford, ed.

  18. Kevin, does Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum only include the Greek, or does it have the English text as well?

  19. Julie M. Smith says:

    /punches Kaimi in the nose

  20. And here I thought this would be about one of the “non-original” fab four’s statement that they were more popular than the subject of those original’s writings.

    And, for all of you born too late: when Lennon said it, not everybody went ape. It seemed to be a statement of fact, and in the soon-to-be post-Christian Europe of the late-60’s, I think he was right.

    End of threadjack.

  21. Mark B.–not a threadjack at all. In fact, I’m personally disappointed no one took off on “Rock & Roll Hoochie Koo” myself.

    Lennon apparently did mean this as a sad statement about the decline of Christianity, although I recall he got a dig in when he said something about how he admired Jesus, but not his followers(smacks of Nietsche to me). It was blown out of proportion here in the southeastern US where I grew up.

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    The Synopsis is in Greek, but there is an English version available from the United Bible Societies, called something like Harmony of the Four Gospels.

  23. S.P.Bailey: I would also recommend the articles in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, which are very much in the spirit of Raymond Brown but shorter.

    Ed: I am still foggy about what is the sum of the parts here. The Historical Jesus? I think that you are right that this ends up giving you some sort of a harmonization of the gospels, Talmadge with different intellectual tools and ontological assumptions.

    One of the things that facinates me the most about the scriptures is the way in which they play upon and interpret one another. In this sense, I see that sum of the Gospels and the New Testament as being not some underlying historical reality that I can recover but rather the dialogue between the texts. Hence the New Testament is greater than the sum of its parts the same way that a conversation is greater than the sum of its particpants. Obviously, this gets tricky but I find it much more interesting than the Jesus Seminar…

  24. Nate, what I meant by the sum of the parts is a harmonization done in traditional style. The historical Jesus is a sum of only part of the parts, but is a type of harmonization.

    It is interesting how the bible as a whole (or NT or OT as a separate whole) has a certain meaning even though individual books in it compete with each other in outlook and meaning. I do think that the routine statement “the bible says” is very misleading, unless by saying you are saying “the bible says many things about this, some of them in conflict.”

  25. The Romans in their persecution would spare the life of any christian that turned over christian writings to be burned. I believe we lost a lot of scripture that way.
    The abundance of Paul’s writing seems to be due to a slave he helped restore to his master. The slave was freed and later became bishop of the local ward (LDS Lingo), and collected the writings of Paul.
    It would be nice if more of the old writings were to show up.

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