An Impossible Task
I began a serious study of the Harmony of the Gospels in February 2003, and performed more work in 2007. I have again picked it up in 2019. Harmonizing, or essentially producing a chronological outline of the events in the four Gospels is impossible. McConkie says it well, when he says:
And we repeat that no one is able to make a harmony of the Gospels or to list chronologically the events of Jesus’ life. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not do it, and the accounts they have left us do not agree among themselves. Every reputable scholar who has made an independent study of the issues involved has found himself at loggerheads, in large or small part, with every other analyst. In this present work we are following—primarily but not entirely—the chronology of President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., who often disagrees with Elder James E. Talmage, just as Edersheim does with Farrar, or as Mark does with Luke, or as every independent analyst does with some or all of his fellows. Choices must be made; every writer must make his own, and it is doubtful if any author—nay, it is a surety that no author—has made right choices in all cases. (Mortal Messiah Vol 2. “The Second Passover” McConkie, Bruce R.. The Messiah Series . Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.)
So why do it?
Because the struggle of doing so helps one make the passages more real, more tangible; one has to think of real places, real actions and motivations, actual people and possible timings. It draws one into the content deeper than simply reading the accounts.
And thus I have attempted my own.
McConkie’s list of authorities is excellent. As I have studied the New Testament, I have also studied the following books:
- “The Life of Christ” by Fredric Farrar (1874)
- “Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ,” “The Temple and Its Ministry and Services at the Time of Jesus Christ” and “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah” by Alfred Edersheim (1870’s)
- “Jesus The Christ” by James E. Talmage (1915)
- “Our Lord of the Gospels” by J. Ruben Clark (1954)
- “The Mortal Messiah” by Bruce R. McConkie (1979-1981)
Of these, McConkie, the latest writer, has chosen to follow, for the most part, Clark, the next earliest. Clark’s is the most detailed harmony; it is effectively only a harmony, with no commentary upon the passages. He refers to another set of scholars I have not reviewed, including “Edward Robinson (Union Theological Seminary), Samuel J. Andrews (Irvingate), George W. Clark (Baptist), Willam Arnold Stevens and Earnest DeWitt Burton (Baptists), John A. Broadus (American Baptist), and Archibald T. Robertson (Baptist).” (Clark, Preface)
I have also found other materials, typically scholarship of more recent origin, which I have also included. For example, I have wholly adopted the thinking from Jeffrey R. Chadwick’s excellent articles “Dating the Birth of Jesus Christ” (BYU Studies Journal 49:4, 2010) and “Dating of the Death of Jesus Christ” (BYU Studies Journal 54:4, 2016).
What do I bring to this study? Well, not much. I am not a biblical scholar; I cannot read Hebrew or Greek; I have no formal academic or church position; I have not traveled to the Holy Land. I am simply an interested believer.
Thus I have attempted to focus my contributions to a single chart shown below, with associated links and some explanation of choices made, particularly around dates, order and perhaps places. I began with the chart in the 1979 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Bible Dictionary Harmony. I don’t know if this chart was based solely upon Clark’s work, or perhaps it was from the Cambridge University Press’s Bible dictionary, which was used as the starting point for the Church’s Bible dictionary, or a combination of both.
In 2007 I wrote the church suggesting various points that could be adjusted to make it more accurate, such as expanding by a verse or two some entries, and including other Joseph Smith Translation entries. I noted recently (2019) that the 2013 edition of the bible had indeed adjusted a number of my points–by removing the entries in the table altogether; others were not adjusted at all and the suggestion ignored.
I suspect given the impossibility of creating a truly defensible harmony of the gospels, the church is perhaps simplifying the chart, and avoiding controversial issues.
I, on the other hand, have no such restrictions.
Because I bring so little credibility to this study, I have chosen to use my lack of authority to be a bit audacious in some cases, and go further than what the historical records and erudite analysis of others can justify. I have proposed things on my chart which in some cases are based upon nothing more than my personal feelings.
For example, I propose that Christ was born before daylight the morning of December 23, BC 5 as explained in this entry. And this date is the starting point for all the dates in the chart.
All of the authorities above except for Talmage agree the most likely time for the Savior’s birth was December BC 5 to perhaps February BC 4 (See Chadwick’s analysis of Talmage’s position). So I am not too far out on a limb, but I am certainly more specific than any knowledgable person could justify from any credible evidence.
It is difficult for an author (I have written books) to make detailed actions of characters in a complex story credible. Although there are contradictions in the accounts, to find four sources of the Savior’s life nearly 2000 years old now, which agree on so much, which can be interwoven into actual places, actions, people (notable figures referred to in other histories), and events with so much agreement is very remarkable. It would certainly pass scrutiny by a jury in a court of law.
Jesus Christ is an extremely well documented historical individual. The events of his life strengthen my faith in his divine nature, in his calling of God, in his ability to redeem and to save, in his glory and strength and honor.
The basis for this table is the Harmony of the Gospel table in the Bible Dictionary of the 1979 LDS Version of the King James Bible. It has been modified where I think the order is different.
If one version of the particular story had to be chosen, an outlined box shows which version I would choose.
Dates and places are primarily from J. Reuben Clark Jr “Our Lord of the Gospels” wherein he chose (most often) Samuel J. Andrews’ date from “The Life of Our Lord Upon the Earth”. Italics indicate other possible dates.