How Important is Chronology?

Most of us were taught that Jesus’ ministry was three or four or five years long. How the events of the gospels fit into this timeline is not obvious, so we assume their order is insignificant. Time is, at most, a secondary consideration.

But then, how important is chronology? Should we be concerned about a timeline in our study of the Gospels?

The Value of Time

If we think about it, the timeline we envision is a basic assumption that underlies all our thinking. Time is so prevalent in our lives that often it is where we begin our evaluation, perhaps without realizing it.  We assume Jesus’ ministry was three years long or longer. What if it was only one year long?

In The Gospels Unified we determined the timeline of Jesus’ ministry was set by the pairing of Luke and Mark together. The Gospel of John centers around the yearly feasts and is easily integrated into their calendar. Ten sections of the Gospel of Matthew are not chronological and can be rearranged to fit with Luke and Mark.

The result is that all the events of his ministry in all four gospels can easily fit into a one-year timeline. Now the challenge becomes, not the chronology of the gospels, but whether their unique perspectives complement, support, and complete one another to present a unified view of Jesus’ life and ministry.

Where Do We Start?

When we recognize the order of events is key to our studies, we are willing to take a closer look at obvious similarities and differences. We may begin thinking, “How can the records of an event, which are so different in the individual gospels, fit together?”

But A Does Not Equal B !

It is not as simple as in mathematics, where two sets of numbers are only identical if they contain the same elements. That works for mathematics, where the elements are numbers. When comparing two events, the components we need to consider are the time and location, the people involved, what was said, and what was done.

A Simple Example  

For example, consider the records of the last supper. Matthew and Mark are similar, but they also give the least information. Luke begins with introductory remarks made by Jesus before the meal, and includes much that does not appear in the other gospels. Of course, the record in the gospel of John is completely different from Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Luke and John contain more elements, or components, than Matthew and Mark. Also, some components of Luke and John are different, particularly what was said and done. Does that mean there were three last suppers?

We recognize that certain events occurred only once, although they are reported differently in the individual gospels. We glimpse the idea there, even if it is “through a glass darkly.”  

The Value of Perspective

As an illustration, picture a room having an observation window on each of its four sides. Someone looking in from one window could see things differently than one looking in from another. From one perspective factors are hidden that are obvious in another.

Added to the different physical viewpoints are those of the individuals. Actions will stand out for some viewers that others dismiss. When asked to describe what they saw, one could take a completely different tack than another, so it sounds like they are talking of two different things, when in fact they are describing the same action.

When it comes to the gospels, the four viewpoints illustrated above are all of God, Who sees all and knows all. He could have given us just one gospel that included everything Jesus did. The fact that He gave us four different gospels indicates a purpose, a design is involved. What is included or not included in the individual gospels was by His design, not man’s judgment. We see more of the design by examining how the gospels complement one another.

Other Biblical Considerations

When weighing Biblical records, there are several factors we should consider. The perspectives of the particular gospels. Eastern culture and customs. Figures of speech. The different names used for people and places. Whether one record is giving a straightforward sequence of actions while another is merely summarizing.

We will continue this study with an example in our companion post, The Three Blind Men of Jericho.


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