One of the best alternative ways of reading the Gospels is to use a “harmony” that arranges the material of the four books in such a way that we can read the different accounts of each event together. The value of doing this has been understood for centuries. In fact, the earliest known harmony of the Gospels, the Diatessaron by the ancient Christian scholar Tatian, was compiled in the 2nd century – almost two thousand years ago! This work attempted to merge all four accounts of Christ’s life into one continuous story. More refined variations of the Diatessaron using this or other techniques have continued to be made up to the present day, when we can now choose from among many print and online harmonies.
So what can we get out of using a harmony of the Gospels that we would not learn by simply reading through them separately? Not only do we find all the information on a given event together in one place, but also a harmony makes it possible for us to see things that one Gospel account has that may not be mentioned in the others – unique details that may help us better understand the same story in the other Gospels.
In addition to helping us to notice small but important details, harmonies also help us to get the larger overview – almost like merging photographs of a person taken from four different angles into one complete “three-dimensional” image. A harmony also often allows us to understand where stories which only appear in one of the Gospels fit into the overall flow of the others – to see them in their original setting. Seeing what is unique in each Gospel helps us get a sense of what is important to each writer, what he is trying to focus on and what his particular message is.
For example, the birth of Jesus is described in two of the Gospels – Matthew and Luke. The two accounts tell the same basic story, but when we put them side by side we find many details in Luke’s account that fill out Matthew’s story of the Nativity – such as the census that forced Mary and Joseph to go to Bethlehem and the story of the Annunciation to the shepherds. Matthew, on the other hand, gives us details such as the story of the wise men, the flight into Egypt, and King Herod’s massacre of the children in his attempt to kill Jesus. Both accounts tell us the essential story, but a harmony helps us to bring all the details together and in proper order. It also helps us to see that in many cases Luke focuses on the social background of the life of Jesus, while Matthew’s focus is more often on political aspects of the time that affected Jesus’ life. While this is just a simple example, in cases where events are described in three or all four of the Gospels, a harmony can be even more useful in bringing all the facts together.
Harmonies are usually of two types – “synthetic” or “parallel.” Either they synthesize or merge the different accounts into one single story flow as Tatian’s original Diatessaron did, or (more commonly today) they use a format with the material from the Gospels placed side by side in parallel columns. The parallel harmonies are often more useful because they help us to see what is not in a given Gospel as well as what is there so we get the clearest picture of what each author wanted to stress.
Making such a harmony is not simple, however. In the course of his ministry Jesus travelled around preaching in many of the cities and towns of ancient Galilee, Judea and their surrounding areas. This makes it likely that he repeated the same messages at different times and in several places. For example, both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke include Jesus’ instruction on how to pray – the Lord’s Prayer – but Matthew gives this as part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:9-13), while Luke sets the prayer at a separate time after Jesus had been praying and his disciples asked him how to pray (Luke 11:2-4). This means that in some cases it might seem that material in a harmony is not in the correct place or is being duplicated, but most modern harmonies are constructed with careful scholarship that takes this situation into account.
Today there are many harmonies that you can consult or read through in your regular Bible study. Some just compare the three similar or “synoptic” Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – while others also include John’s Gospel, which is sometimes difficult to mesh with the others, but which often adds much additional material, of course.
For a single column harmony with all the Gospels merged into one story, you can try the one online at: https://www.blueletterbible.org/study/harmony/index.cfm
For an online multiple-column parallel harmony, you can look at the one here: http://biblehub.com/parallelgospels/
You can also download a parallel harmony based on the NET Bible here:
Whether you choose to purchase a printed harmony for use in your study of the Gospels or elect to use one of the available free online versions such as those mentioned here, using a harmony can give you a fresh and often fascinating view of the story these books tell. Whether you are a new student of the Bible or have read it for many years, using a harmony can enrich your study in ways that deepen your understanding of the gospel story and give you a much better knowledge of the unique and special emphasis of each verbal portrait of Christ.