Context is the literary or historical situation surrounding a passage of Scripture. Harmonization is the process of combining different accounts of the same event into a single story. Without careful observation of a passage, we can easily miss the context and unintentionally harmonize narratives, tricking ourselves into thinking we understand the story.
For example, you may have heard of the “rich young ruler,” but you won’t find him in the Bible. Matthew 19:16-22 speaks of a rich young man. Mark 10:17-22 calls him a rich man. Luke 18:18-30 calls him a rich ruler. We think of him as the “rich young ruler” only because we’ve harmonized all three accounts.
This harmless example affects only minor details in the story, but what happens when our tendency toward harmonization (apart from the context) affects how we understand the meaning of a passage?
To answer that question, we’ll look at the feeding of the 5,000. But before we dive into it, I need your help.
This miracle is the only one (other than the resurrection) to appear in all four Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all considered it a necessary part of their narrative portraits of Jesus. Thus, it’s rightly familiar to us. If you’ve been a Christian for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard this story multiple times.
Here’s how you can help: Would you be willing to take a moment to answer the following question in the comments below?
Key question: Why did Jesus feed the 5,000?
Why do you think the Gospels tell this story? What is the point of the story? What did Jesus hope to do or communicate by this miracle?
Here’s another way to think of the question: If you were teaching this story in Sunday School or to an unbeliever (and you had to make it plain and simple), what would be the main takeaway you’d want people to get out of it?
I’ll come clean with you about my intentions. I don’t want you to feel like I’m setting you up to give a wrong answer so I can jump out from behind my virtual candid camera and shout, “Gotcha!” No traps here; I promise.
My point (over the next few weeks) will be this: Each of the Gospels has a different reason for telling the story. They all recount the same event for a different purpose. And I think many people unconsciously harmonize the four accounts and so flatten the unique intentions of each Gospel writer.
But before I unpack those four different points, I’d like to hear what you think “the point of the story” is. That way, I’ll gain an idea as to which of the four Gospels has been most influential for most people.