Reading the four gospels horizontally is an important interpretive strategy. There are so many parallel passages in Matthew, Mark and Luke that these three Gospels are described the “synoptic Gospels.” By reading the parallels scholars make observations about which Gospel was written first and how each synoptic Gospel treats its sources. For some of these details, see my previous posts, Is There a Synoptic Problem? and Why Study The Synoptic Problem? One of the advantages of reading the parallels horizontally is that the differences between the writers becomes more apparent, as do the similarities.
The best way to study the Synoptic Problem is with a Greek synopsis. Kurt Aland’s Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum is the standard scholarly synopsis of the Gospels in Greek, although Huck’s Synopsis of the First Three Gospels is also very useful (and less expensive). Most editions of the Greek New Testament list the Synoptic parallels for each section (or pericope). For many Bible students, these Greek resources are not useful, but English translations sometimes obscure the Gospel parallels. For this reason, an English parallel Gospel is usually called a “harmony of the Gospels” since the parallel columns harmonize the differences between the Gospels and attempt to give a chronologically accurate life of Jesus.
The earliest attempt to harmonize the four gospels was by Tatian. His Diatessaron (through the four) Augustine wrote a harmony of the Gospels (De consensu evangeliorum). A. T. Roberson’s harmony (Harper & Row, 1922) revised the earlier work of John Broadus (1893) using the Revised Version. More recently, Robert Thomas and Stan Gundry edited harmonies using the NASB (1986) and NIV (1987). Thomas and Gundry included brief essays introducing source and redaction criticism. Orville E. Daniel also produced a harmony using the NIV (Baker 1987, second edition 1996).
Since there are a number of English Gospel harmonies already available, Ralph Forsythe must explain why his arrangement of the Gospels is different. In the introduction, Forsythe indicates a major distinctive of his book is the inclusion of John as a fourth column. This is not unique, since Robertson (for example) includes John as well. In Forsythe’s arrangement, all four columns are always present, so that a story appearing in only two gospels appear in parallel, while the other two columns are blank. If a story is unique to a Gospel, such as the Parable of the Good Samaritan or the most of John’s gospel, three columns are blank. Other harmonies print unique stores without columns, which may be a better use of space.
Forsythe begins by dividing the Gospels into 175 sections. By way of comparison, Robertson had 184 sections, Daniel had 188, and Thomas and Gundry had 258. Although he provides a list of his sections with an index of page numbers in the book, he does not number the sections as most harmonies do. One of the reasons for Forythe’s shorter list is his lumping of the Sermon on the Mount into a single unit; the other harmonies break the Sermon up into many sub-sections.
Where Matthew deviates from the order of events in Mark, Forsythe copies the text of Matthew so that it is in parallel with Mark. For example, Mark 2:23-27 and Luke 6:1-5 are chronologically parallel, so Forsythe copies Matthew 12:1-13 to the same set of columns (pg. 111-2). Yet Matthew 12:1-13 also appears on page 139 without any parallels at all. The same is the case for Luke 7:1-10, which is included as parallels to Matt 8:5-13 and John 4:46-54, but then turns up again on page 128. These copied texts are in italics and usually there is a brief note explaining the move. Forsythe’s primary motivation is chronological order rather than placing clear parallels together.
Any attempt to create a parallel Gospel will encounter stories may or may not be parallel. Like most harmonies, Forsythe places the rejection at Nazareth in Matthew 13:53 in parallel with Mark 6:1. But should Luke 4:16-30 be included as a parallel story? The fifth edition of the UBS Greek New Testament lists all three as parallels, Forsythe does not include Luke. The very next pericope is the Sending of the Twelve (Matthew 10:1, 5-15; Mark 6:6b-12; Luke 9:1-16). Forsythe includes Mark and Luke in his parallel columns, but omits the parallels in Matthew. In fact, Matthew 10:1, 5-15 is shown in parallel to the selection of the Twelve in Mark 3:13-19 and Luke 6:12-16. The only real parallel is Matthew 10:2-4, the rest ought to be moved to Mark 6:6b. Since he often deviates from Aland’s list of pericopae, wit would have been useful for Forsythe to include more commentary on his method for placing some texts as parallels, and others not.
Most troublesome is the assumption the Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (beginning in Luke 6:17) are not true synoptic parallels. It is one of the foundational assumptions of source and redaction criticism that Matthew and Luke share a common source, whether this is Q (from Quelle, the German word for source) or a less structured sayings tradition. Forsythe has separated Matthew from Luke for chronology reasons, even when there are clear parallels (for example, Matthew 7:1-6 and Luke 6:37-42). In this book Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount appears alone over the four columns as does the Sermon on the Plain. It is impossible to trace parallels in this arrangement of the text. Since one of the main reasons for using a synopsis or harmony is to trace the variations between these two sermons, Forsythe’s arrangement renders this book less useful.
There are a few other problems with this book. First, there are a few misspelled words (Tation for Tatian, page II). Second, Forsythe claims the “older copy of Mark’s Gospel” was found at “St. Katherine’s monastery” and is now housed at the British Museum. This refers to Codex Sinaiticus, dated to the mid fourth century. The Chester Beatty papyri date to about A.D. 250, P.45 contains Mark 4-9 and 11-12. Perhaps he meant “oldest complete Gospel of Mark.” Less important are the illustrations, inserted to fill pages when there are no parallels. These are all old, public domain illustrations and maps which do not add much to the usefulness of the book. Since he insists on having all four columns on the page at once, there are some pages will only a single column with text. Perhaps following the model of Robertson would have made this a small, handier volume. Finally, Forsythe uses the Berean Study Bible, available from Bible Hub. This translation is not under copyright so it could be used without paying a fee (as would be the case with the NIV or ESV).
Given the method used in arranging the Gospel parallels, it is difficult to recommend this volume over any of the competing harmonies of the Gospels already available.
NB: Thanks to Passageway Books for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.