Hidden Harmonies in the Gospels
BY Jimmy Akin
| Posted 3/6/14 at 4:29 PM
It’s obvious that the four Gospels agree on the main facts about Jesus’ life:
All that’s obvious.
Contradictions Among the Gospels?
Critics of the Gospels therefore tend to focus on lesser matters—various differences among the Gospels on matters of detail.
The charges of contradictions among the Gospels tend to vanish, however, if one reads the texts carefully and if one understands the way ancient narrative texts worked and the freedom that authors had in how they presented their material.
They were, for example, free to paraphrase, they were free to place events in non-chronological order for literary effect, they were permitted to simplify and streamline events to just the main facts, and they were free to draw out different implications.
Defenders of the Gospels sometimes point out that these kinds of differences are what we would expect of Gospels written by eyewitnesses or based on eyewitness testimony.
After all, in a courtroom you expect eyewitnesses to see things from different perspectives, to not all say exactly the same things, to paraphrase, and to alternately overlap and omit detail.
If the witnesses have too much harmony in their testimony—if they all say exactly the same things in exactly the same words, with no variation of detail—then it’s a sign that the witnesses have been rehearsed and their testimony becomes suspect.
They may be colluding with each other instead of telling what they really experienced.
Signs of Credibility
When evaluating testimony, lawyers (and juries!) look for signs of credibility in the testimony of the witnesses.
One sign of credibility is when tiny details do line up, but they’re the kind of details that the witnesses would not have thought to conspire about.
At first, these details don’t leap out at you. They’re hidden until you do a closer study of the testimony.
But when they harmonize, they give added evidence that you’re hearing the truth.
Are there such hidden harmonies among the Gospels?
A Question for Philip
Here’s a hidden harmony between the material recorded in John’s Gospel and Luke’s Gospel.
In John, at the Feeding of the Five Thousand, we read:
Then Jesus, when he looked up and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, said to Philip, “Where can we buy bread so that these people can eat?”
(Now he said this to test him, because he knew what he was going to do.)
Philip replied to him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for them, in order that each one could receive a little” [John 6:5-7].
There’s something a little odd about this: Jesus asks Philip where they can buy bread for the crowd.
A Second Tier Apostle
Philip isn’t the usual spokesman of or representative for the apostles as a whole. That’s Peter.
Philip is a second-tier apostle—literally.
Whenever the Twelve apostles are named, it’s always in three groups of four names each, and they display a clear ranking scheme.
Peter is always the first name in the first block, which is fleshed out by the other three major apostles (James, John, and Andrew). Judas Iscariot is always the last of the last block.
Philip (along with Bartholomew, Thomas, and Matthew) is always in the second tier of names.
So he’s not a particularly important apostle. He’s a second stringer.
So why would Jesus ask him where to buy bread?
A Possible Answer
One possible answer is that Philip knew the area really well—that is, he would know the closest places where bread could be bought.
Okay, so do we know anything about where—around the Sea of Galilee—the Feeding of the Five Thousand took place?
According to Luke’s Gospel:
And when they returned, the apostles described to him all that they had done. And he took them along and withdrew privately to a town called Bethsaida.
But when the crowds found out, they followed him, and welcoming them, he began to speak to them about the kingdom of God, and he cured those who had need of healing.
Now the day began to be far spent, and the twelve came up and said to him, “Send away the crowd so that they can go into the surrounding villages and farms to obtain lodging and find provisions, because we are here in a desolate place.
But he said to them, “You give them something to eat!” And they said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish, unless perhaps we go and purchase food for all these people” [Luke 9:10-13].
So the event took place in “a desolate place” near the town Bethsaida.
Do we have any reason to think that Philip might be familiar with the region near Bethsaida?
Oh yes. Yes, we do.
Back to John
In John’s Gospel, we read that at the beginning of his ministry:
On the next day he [Jesus] wanted to depart for Galilee, and he found Philip. And Jesus said to him, “Follow me!”
(Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the town of Andrew and Peter.) [John 1:43-44].
Here John likely points out that Philip was from Bethsaida because it is the introduction of his figure, and he’s showing how he knew the circle of those who would become apostles: Philip already knew Andrew and Peter, for they had the same hometown.
Later, we read:
Now some Greeks were among those who had gone up in order to worship at the feast.
So these [Greeks] approached Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and began asking him saying, “Sir, we want to see Jesus” [John 12:20-21].
Why would the Greeks approach Philip? And why would John point out—again—that Philip was from Bethsaida?
Likely because Bethsaida was “in Galilee,” and Galilee had a large, Greek-speaking population of Gentiles.
Matthew 4:15 (following Isaiah 9:1) even calls it “Galilee of the Gentiles.”
As a Galilean, Philip had some knowledge of Greek (he may have even been one of the better Greek speakers among Jesus’ disciples).
And so he was approachable, and John wants to make sure that his readers know this, so he reminds us of where Philip was from.
In any event, John attests—twice—that Philip was from Bethsaida.
What John Doesn’t Say
What John doesn’t say is that the Feeding of the Five Thousand took place near Bethsaida.
You only learn that if you read Luke—and if you pay really close attention to the details.
There is thus a “hidden harmony” between Luke and John on this subject.
From John we learn that Jesus asked Philip a question that presupposed knowledge of the area where they were, from Luke we learn where that area was, and from John we learn that Philip was from the area that Luke names.
This is the kind of thing that provides “the ring of truth”—evidence that the witnesses aren’t conspiring but are telling the truth about what happened.
It’s the kind of small detail that conspiring witnesses would never have thought to manufacture.
And it’s not all that there is.
More Hidden Harmony
John indicates that three of the apostles had Bethsaida as their hometown: Philip, Peter, and Andrew.
Why doesn’t Jesus pose his question to Peter or Andrew? They were from Bethsaida, too!
In fact, since Peter was the normal spokesman for and representative of the apostles, one would expect Jesus to ask Peter, given that he was from the area.
Is there a reason that he doesn’t?
Jesus’ New Home
There is, indeed, a reason why Jesus may have turned to Philip rather than Peter or Andrew: The latter two moved out of the area some time before.
Mark indicates that Jesus had moved from Nazareth to Capernaum, which also was located on the shore of the Sea of Galilee:
And when he [Jesus] entered again into Capernaum after some days, it became known that he was at home [Mark 2:1].
This followed an incident in the synagogue at Capernaum where Jesus had exorcized a man possessed by a demon:
And they went into Capernaum and immediately on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue.
And they were amazed at his teaching, because he was teaching them like one who had authority, and not like the scribes.
And so then there was a man in their synagogue [in Capernaum] with an unclean spirit, and he cried out [Mark 1:21-23].
So Jesus had relocated from Nazareth to Capernaum, which was his new home town.
Had anyone else relocated there?
Peter and Andrew
Between these two references, Mark also refers to Jesus going into a specific house in Capernaum: that of Peter and Andrew.
And so then he departed from the synagogue and came into the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John.
Now Simon’s mother-in-law was lying down, suffering with a fever, and at once they told him about her.
And he came and raised her up by taking hold of her hand, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them [Mark 1:29-31].
So Peter and Andrew had also relocated to Capernaum.
This could be why Jesus asked Philip rather than Peter or Andrew where to buy bread in the vicinity of Bethsaida: The two brothers, though originally from there, had moved some time ago and acquired a house in Capernaum.
Philip presumably had more current knowledge of the area and where bread could be bought.
And so we find another hidden harmony that explains part of why Jesus posed the question to Philip.
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