When I was a seminary student in a gospels class taught by scholar R. C. Foster, the students received the challenge of assembling “a harmony of the gospels.” It turned out to be more of a chore than I expected. It was in the 1960s before the time of computers and word processors, which today allow you to rearrange text by electronically “cutting” and “pasting.” We had to literally cut and paste with scissors and glue. We had to take inexpensive paperback Bibles and snip passages from each of the gospels, assembling them into columns in a notebook, creating a timeline of Christ’s ministry. It was my first and only experience with cutting up Bibles.
When only one of the gospels told of a parable, miracle, or teaching of Jesus, the job was relatively easy. When more than one gospel writer told about the same incident, it required juxtaposing the two or more accounts. It was an excellent way to realize that witnesses often describe scenes differently. For example, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell of an incident that happened after Jesus and his disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee and arrived at a Gentile area known as the Decapolis. Matthew tells of two wild, demon-possessed men who lived in the tombs near the shore. These men, who terrorized the locals, came out of the tombs to challenge Jesus. Christ cast the demons out of the men and into a herd of swine. (See Matthew 8:28-34.)
Critics point out that when Mark and Luke tell the story, they speak of only one man. They claim this is an error in the gospels, and the descriptions can’t both be accurate. However, the critics miss the point. Matthew gives us the detail that there were two men, but Mark and Luke concentrate on the one who was the dominating personality, and they give more information on his actions. They tell us that chains couldn’t bind him, and nobody could tame him. He was naked and crying and cutting himself night and day. When he saw Jesus, he took a worshipful pose and called him “the Son of the most high God.” After Jesus cast the demons out of the man, people were amazed that he was sitting and clothed and in his right mind.
The people were then terrified not of the man but of Jesus, and they asked Him to leave their area. As Jesus prepared to get back on the boat, the formerly possessed man begged to go with Him. Jesus didn’t allow the man to go with Him but told him to go back and tell his friends, “what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had compassion on you.” The man became a witness for Jesus in the pagan area of Decapolis. (See Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-39.)
When you read this account from all three gospel writers, you will find details the others omitted. A testimony to the Bible’s divine nature is not only the harmony of the gospels but also their brevity. Only the essentials are there. Matthew chose to reveal that there were two men, but he left out other details. Mark and Luke give more information about the one man Jesus appointed to be a witness for God in a pagan area.
The formerly pagan and demon-possessed man apparently was an effective witness to his neighbors. Months later, Jesus returned to the Decapolis and was met by “great multitudes” eager to see the one who had healed and restored sanity to the man of the tombs. Now the “Son of the most high God” was able to show compassion for multitudes of people. He healed “the lame, blind, mute, maimed, and many others.” (See Matthew 15:29-31.)
As a result of Jesus’ compassion and a restored man willing to share his story with others, many people in a pagan region “glorified the God of Israel.” And as a result of having to prepare a harmony of the gospels to pass R. C. Foster’s class, I came to understand and appreciate why the Bible contains four accounts of Jesus’ ministry.
— Roland Earnst © 2022