There is an assumption on the part of many that the gospels are chronological. This assumption causes difficulty when one realizes that the gospels do not have the same sequence. As Keener explains in the IVP Bible Background Commentary, though, this assumption is unfounded.
Greek literary conventions permeated most Jewish literature written in the Greek language, and were applied both to historical books (which the Gospels claim to be) and novels alike. Writers of topical biography had complete freedom to rearrange their sources, so it should not surprise us that Matthew and Mark have many events in Jesus’ ministry in different order. Although Jesus, like other Jewish teachers, surely repeated the same sayings on separate occasions, some of his sayings probably occur in different places in the Gospels simply because the writers were exercising the freedom ancient biographers had to rearrange their material. This freedom enabled the Gospel writers, like preachers today, to preach Jesus as well as report about him, while still recounting his words and deeds accurately. Ancient Christians already knew, of course, that the Gospels were not in chronological order, as the early Christian teacher Papias plainly remarked about Mark.

Craig S. Keener and InterVarsity Press, The IVP Bible Background Commentary : New Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993).

What does this mean? At the very least it means the differences in sequence may not be used to question the inerrancy, authorship, inspiration, etc. of the gospels. The gospels must be understood according to the literary norms during the times of the authors. If it is true that all four gospels are topical biographies, then differences in sequence are merely a means of emphasis to communicate the intended meaning.

So, when there are differences the question that must be answered is what point the author was intending to make. There are two tools used in the exegesis of the gospels: vertical analysis and horizontal analysis. In vertical analysis, the exegete does a careful reading of the larger context of the passage, searching for repetitions and themes. In horizontal analysis, the exegete does a careful reading of the parallel passages in all four gospels, looking for similarities and differences. An important clue to the meaning is the intersection of the emphases in the vertical and horizontal analyses. This technique respects the uniqueness and integrity of the individual gospel and the relationship between the four gospels.

Bill Arnold is discussing this topic from a different perspective here.



  1. Re the assumption that the Gospels were written in Greek, are you aware of David Bivin's challenge to that? I am no expert see my notes. I would be interested in your opinion.

  2. Off the top of my head: There is certainly some evidence from the early church fathers that some of the NT books had Hebrew versions. Also, some of the books have hebraisms--though these can also be explained as written by Greek -as-a-second-language writers.

    I'll read up and let you know.

  3. Hi Laura,

    I'm not nagging ... well I shouldn't be nagging. Just wondering if this question found a place in your summer reading.

  4. :-) dropped off the radar.

    I'll put it on the list and see what I can come up with.