By: Brian Chilton | May 9, 2017
A major issue facing the theological and apologetics world is the issue with the harmonization of the Gospels. The Four New Testament Gospels often present varying details of the life of Christ. Cold-case homicide detective, J. Warner Wallace, notes that the Gospels are replete with eyewitness test as they contain “attributed statements, apostolic strategy, ancient support, and authoritative selection.” Yet, the Gospels do present different details about the life of Jesus. Some of the events of the life of Jesus are not necessarily in order in one Gospel from the next. Harmonization is the process in which the life of Jesus is constructed from the Four Gospels as the scholar deals with differences in the Four Gospels. Scholars are divided on how one can resolve the Gospels’ differences. On the one hand, there are liberal scholars who think that the Gospels are erred, leaving the modern world with an incomplete picture of Jesus, and thus leaving harmonization a futile task. On the other hand, there are conservative scholars who think that the Gospels can be harmonized by evaluating the differences and methodologies employed by the writers.
Craig Blomberg helps in this quest as he discusses three kinds of oral tradition found in the Middle East. Blomberg writes, “Modern analysts of the most traditional communities of the Middle East, beginning a half century ago, when they were considerably more of them than remain today, speak of three kinds of oral tradition.” So, what are the three oral traditions discovered by the researchers? And which most closely matches what we find in the Gospel narratives? Let’s take a look.
1. Formal, Controlled Tradition. The first tradition is found in the educational practices of Judaism in the first-century. Students had to memorize massive amounts of Scripture before they were allowed to exegete the text. Blomberg noted that for Jewish individuals of the first-century, “To memorize the amount of information found in a single Gospel, therefore, was child’s play for many first-century Jews and Greeks. As the first generation of Christians, believing Jesus was God’s heavenly sent Son, began to treat the accounts of his ministry with the same respect and devotion they did the Scriptures, they would have been careful to pass them on faithfully.” In this environment, nothing was allowed to be altered in a story or teaching. Like Blomberg implies, I would concur that this would have been the style used by the earliest Christians. Also, remaining true to the practices of early rabbinic studies, I think that it is entirely appropriate to assume that the disciples wrote down the teachings (and even perhaps his deeds) in early texts. Being a tax collector, Matthew would have been well trained in short-hand writing. With their training in Judaism, most of the disciples would have been able to have documented at least some notation in addition to their excellent rote memory. I think it is quite possible that Paul collected some of these documents as he learned about the life and ministry of Jesus. Remember, when Paul records an ancient creed, he begins with the words, “For I passed on to you as most important what I also received” (1 Corinthians 15:1). Thus, I think the formal, controlled tradition influenced the earliest construction of Jesus material, perhaps this material would have been found in the controversial and hypothetical Q document in addition to the other material preserved by the apostles.
2. Informal, Uncontrolled Tradition. This style of tradition is not very reliable. It is much what one would expect in normal, ordinary conversations including gossip and the like. Many distortions and inaccuracies are allowed in this style. Blomberg notes that this style is used “especially with information not at all deemed sacred or crucially important.” As it pertains to the Gospels, this style is not a valid format as such a format would allow little in the way of consistency. Despite the differences, the Gospels are consistent on several major points, even when different details are presented. Therefore, the informal, uncontrolled tradition holds no influence on the Gospels.
3. Informal, Controlled Tradition. The third form of tradition found in the Middle Eastern communities that were studied was one of the more popular and most easily used. The informal, controlled tradition were used by professional and official storytellers, “who are authorized to recount information, formative traditions to those on a regular basis. But, in part because of the amount of material often involved, they have the freedom on any given occasion to leave out or abbreviate less important or less immediately relevant portions, to amplify or explain other more significant sections, and to paraphrase, rearrange, and otherwise modify the tradition to fit their own purposes, so long as numerous fixed points of the story remain intact.” When the conservative reads the word “modify,” he immediately thinks of an error. But, I do not think this is the case. Now if one assumes that an Evangelist presents an allegory as narrative, then, yes, there is a problem. But, if one thinks of modifications simply being that of highlighting one particular person over a group in attendance, then I do not think there is a problem for inerrancy. For instance, Matthew notes that Jesus exorcised demons out of two men in the Gadarene region. Mark and Luke only note the exorcism of one. There is no error in the story at all! Mark and Luke focus on the individual who gave his life to Christ after his healing, whereas Matthew includes all the demoniacs who were healed. This coincides with Wallace’s description of eyewitness testimony as given above. With the Evangelists writing to different locations, it is easy to consider how the informal, controlled tradition would have been useful in presenting the historical data concerning Jesus of Nazareth. Remember, Matthew was writing to a traditional Jewish audience, Mark was writing to a Roman audience, Luke was writing to a primary Gentile audience, and John was preserving data for the next generation of Christians.
With the information given to us by Blomberg, I think that it is safe to assume that formal, controlled tradition was employed by the apostles as they journaled, memorized, and learned from Jesus of Nazareth. The informal, controlled tradition was used as the apostles Matthew and John, and the secondary sources found in Mark and Luke, historically documented the life of Jesus. Early Christian leader, Papias, notes that
“Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.”
From my studies, I have found Luke to be most chronologically ordered in his presentation of the life of Jesus, Matthew to be second, with Mark being the least chronological. But the differences are primarily in the early ministry of Jesus. John serves as a supplement to the synoptic Gospels. For this reason, I believe we can definitively harmonize the Gospels and I also can hold to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.
About the Author
Brian Chilton is the founder of BellatorChristi.com and is the host of The Bellator Christi Podcast. He received his Master of Divinity in Theology from Liberty University (with high distinction); his Bachelor of Science in Religious Studies and Philosophy from Gardner-Webb University (with honors); and received certification in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. He hopes to enter doctoral studies soon in the realm of theology and/or biblical studies. Brian is full member of the International Society of Christian Apologetics and the Christian Apologetics Alliance. Brian has been in the ministry for over 14 years and serves as the pastor of Huntsville Baptist Church in Yadkinville, North Carolina.
 J. Warner Wallace, “The Apostles Wrote the Gospels as Eyewitness Accounts,” ColdCaseChristianity.com (August 19, 2016), retrieved May 9, 2017, http://coldcasechristianity.com/2016/the-apostles-wrote-the-gospels-as-eyewitness-accounts/.
 Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 40.
 Ibid., 39.
 Unless otherwise noted, all quoted Scripture comes from the Christian Standard Bible (Nashville: Holman, 2017).
 Blomberg, 41.
 Papias, “Fragments of Papias,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 154–155.
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