The Composite Gospel Index


A Fresh Look at the Story of Jesus | Referencing the Whole Story of Jesus | A Reference Scheme, Not a New Text | A Composite, Not a Harmony | Selecting the Pericopes | Using the CGI as Data | What Can You Do with It? | References | Conclusion

Go to the Composite Gospel Index at

A Fresh Look at the Story of Jesus 

Our entire history of interacting with literature is largely linear. Except for the last few minutes (that is, the hypertext era, starting around WW II), the dominant model has been sequential access to written information. Scrolls enforce this in a physical way: to get to a different spot, you have to roll up and lose the context of the place you're looking now. Clay tablets and sheaves of paper don't have the same restriction -- you can spread them out on a table -- but the media still don't lend themselves to Vannevar Bush's seminal notion of "Memex", a system for associative indexing where "any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another".

But in the hyperlinked World Wide Web, the media allows new kinds of non-linear access to texts (the New Testament Hyper-Concordance is one such experiment). This gives us some new techniques for addressing a very old situation: the four Gospels, and their distinct but somewhat parallel views of the life of Jesus. All four authors include events or teachings of Jesus which are unique to them alone, not included in any of the other Gospels. While all include the central events of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, for the most part they are complementary to each other, and only all four taken together give us a full and complete picture of His life.

Though each Gospel provides a unique perspective on Jesus, this four-fold approach can get in the way of a unified view of the whole life of Jesus. There's no easy way to look at the totality of what He did and said, His miracles and parables, the stories of His interactions with individuals and with the religious establishment.

Referencing the Whole Story of Jesus 

The Composite Gospel Index (CGI) is a different view which brings together the whole life of Jesus, across the four Gospels. Instead of the traditional book/chapter/verse organization, it divides the Gospel accounts into about 350 units, each of which describe an event, a teaching, a parable, an interaction, or some other cohesive piece of text. These units are called pericopes (puh-RIH-kuh-pee), from a Greek word meaning "to cut around". Each pericope has a numeric identifier along with a brief descriptive label (e.g. "Jesus speaks to the rich young man"), and each is indexed to one or more Gospel passages that it represents, as illustrated here. Every verse of every Gospel is represented by one and only one pericope: no verses are omitted or duplicated.

The Composite Gospel Index maps pericopes to Gospel passages

Rather than specifying a "one organization fits all" scheme, the Composite Gospel approach identifies the essential elements of the Gospel accounts without specifying a top-level structure. The numeric identifiers follow a rough chronological order, but this is simply for convenience of reference: it is not the focus. Instead, the pericope arrangement supports a variety of different organizations of the story of Jesus: it simply provides a reference scheme for the fundamental units. The pericopes can be organized into higher-level structures by theme (parables, miracles, teachings), topics (faith, the Kingdom of God, eternal life), by chronological order, or other arrangements.

A Reference Scheme, Not a New Text 

The Composite Gospel Index is not an attempt to construct a new text, pulling in bits of each Gospel to form a new, continuous narrative. Many such compendiums have been created, dating back to Tatian's Diatessaron in the 2nd century, which is nearly as ancient as the Gospels themselves. But any approach that combines passages outside their narrative context has problems at the "seams": either the result does not read fluidly, or the texts must be altered to provide more natural transitions. McGarvey's Four-fold Gospel is one well-known contemporary version: the Harmony of the Story of Jesus by JB Phillips has a similar aim, and there are many others.

In contrast, the CGI is simply a reference system: it points to passages, but doesn't attempt to produce a linear text sequence from the underlying sources. Is that useful? Well, it isn't likely to replace chapter and verse references (nor should it), but it makes it easy to refer to natural units from the life of Jesus. In programming lingo, you can view it as an abstraction layer on the Gospels. Because it's independent from the text of any particular translation, you can use it with whatever version you prefer. But by itself, it's only an index: you have to follow the references to the texts that they point to before it becomes grounded in concrete terms.

An additional distinguishing feature is that the CGI is expressed as a XML data structure, using OSIS identifiers. If you know what those acronyms means, that may be enough to convince you this is a Good Thing: if not, it's beyond the scope of this article to describe them. But in short, it means the CGI supports automated processing, and is reusable for other purposes: i don't know of any similar scheme that can make this claim, and it enables some interesting new capabilities (see What Can You Do With It? below).

A Composite, Not a Harmony 

At first glance, this seems like what is commonly called a Gospel harmony. But there's are some important differences. Harmonies typically do two things: they show parallel passages, and they arrange the events in chronological order. The CGI catalogs and identifies the individual elements in the life of Jesus: while has the natural consequence of showing parallel passages, that's not the goal, and the CGI doesn't show all parallels.

There's also no notion here of trying to "reconcile" different accounts into a single one. The CGI represents the unique events and teachings of Jesus, without commentary or other editorial remarks about how they can be "harmonized". Consequently, individual verses that look similar are sometimes included in different pericopes, because that's the context the authors provided. For example, in Luke's Gospel, Jesus uses the illustration of a shepherd who searches for one lost sheep in the context of similar parables about recovering what has been lost (Luke.15.3-7). The same illustration in Matthew supports Jesus' warning against despising the little ones who believe in Him (Matt.18.11-12). This need not be viewed as a discrepancy, of course: as a prolific teacher, Jesus could naturally use the same powerful story for different purposes on different occasions.

Correct chronological arrangement is also not one of my goals, though many of the pericopes are in general chronological order. The Gospel authors each wrote with unique purposes, and their models and standards were different from modern biographers. Since we don't fully know the historical framework of Jesus' life, there are many unanswered questions about how to arrange the Gospel events in chronological sequence. My intent is simply to define the primary elements in the life of Jesus so they're available for different arrangements, including (but not limited) to chronological ones.

Selecting the Pericopes  

Since people have been creating gospel harmonies for almost 2000 years, there's clearly more than one way to do it, and i don't claim this is last word on the subject. In fact, i've included a version number (1.0) anticipating revisions, either to the text descriptions, or to the pericope divisions themselves. I have no aspirations of originality in the organization: quite the contrary, i hope that the vast majority are uncontroversial, and that any disagreement is a natural consequence of the texts themselves, not my grouping.

The taxonomist's dilemma is always when to "lump" and when to "split" (like the old joke: there are two kinds of people in the world, those who divide the world into two kinds, and those who don't). My general approach has been to divide the texts into small enough pieces that each pericope captures a consistent set of subject material, actors, and settings (but no smaller). I'd like the pericopes to be the smallest meaningful groupings before getting down to the verse level. Similarly, i've grouped texts into large enough pieces to capture a complete story (but no larger). In both lumping and splitting, i've tried to follow the divisions implied by obvious commonalities across the Gospels, so that parallels are maintained as much as possible. However, i've always chosen to split when the settings are distinct. As an example, Matthew and Luke's versions of the Beatitudes are in a different pericopes: Matthew's is set on a mount (Matt.5.1-12), and Luke's on a plain (Luke.6.17-26), and though there are overlaps between the content, the organization within individual pericopes are still clearly distinct. There are reasonable arguments on both sides of the question of whether these were the same event in history: but given clear differences between the material, i've left them apart.

Because every verse of every Gospel is represented in some pericope, as a consequence the source from one Gospel sometimes includes transition material that's not germane to the incident in question, but doesn't fit elsewhere. An example might be the parable of the mustard seed (Pericope 81), with sources from Matthew 13:31-32 and Mark 4:30-34. While the text of the parable itself is very similar, the source from Mark also includes a summary of Jesus' use of parables (verses 33 and 34) that isn't directly related to the mustard seed, but doesn't fit better elsewhere. But there's no clear value to making this material its own pericope.

In a handful of cases, the existing versification puts material in the same verse that really belongs in two separate pericopes. Rather than complicate things with sub-verse references like Luke.9.43.a and Luke.9.43.b, i've simply made the best compromise i could.

In other places, Luke or Matthew combine into a single setting what is widely separately in the other (e.g. Luke 12:35ff, Luke 17:1-10). The tradeoff is preserving the integrity of the setting versus aligning parallel passages, even if they are only single sayings. In general, i've chosen the latter course and split into smaller pieces that could be aligned, unless the setting makes clear that these are different occasions where Jesus used the same saying in a different way.

Though i consider this to be an original work, i've drawn on several existing harmonies in their approach, their organization, and some of the textual descriptions. An important starting point was "250 Events in the Life of Christ", a study aid from Tyndale's Life Application Bible. They took the unique step of replacing the standard sectional headings from the NIV text with the headings from their outline. The list of contributors credits this to Dr. James C. Galvin, so i expect his devotional "One Year with Jesus" is closely related.

Another important reference has been Michael Marlowe's arrangement of Kurt Aland's Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum. I've also consulted works by (in alphabetical order) Robert C. Long, J. W. McGarvey, J. B. Phillips, and Herbert R. Rinder. More complete information is in the references below.

Using the Composite Gospel Index as Data  

The CGI serves two purposes: while it organizes the sources into pericopes and shows parallel passages, it's also an XML data file. Each pericope has a unique identifier, and child elements identify the individual Gospel passages that correspond to it. The pericopes also have text labels to make them easier to identify. Following Galvin's work, the labels are brief, present tense descriptions of the content, without any editorial comments about what the point of a particular pericope might be (this is in contrast to some of the harmonies i consulted).

Other XML documents that use ID attributes from the Composite Gospel Index should always incorporate a namespace declaration: that way version information will be included, ensuring that e.g. pericope #23 is grounded against a particular version.

What Can You Do With It?  

I've written one example program, which uses the source references for a pericope to retrieve the source text from the ESV web service. (here's some background information). The results are put in a simple HTML framework so you can view them in a browser. If there are multiple sources, they're arranged in columns so you can compare them side-by-side. As with all ESV clients, you need a developers key to get ungarbled text, though you can get the basic idea with the test key i've included. (i haven't released the source yet: email me if you want it)

Of course, you can always get to the same text by typing its reference into the ESV search box. But this simple application illustrates the potential of reference systems like the Composite Gospel Index. First of all, the references themselves stay behind the scenes: you only need to know the pericope you're interested in (and that could be chosen from a pull-down menu listing the descriptions, or some other user-friendly method). Furthermore, one access point (the pericope) can retrieve several related passages: to do this by hand would require up to four independent searches. And the results are composed for you: otherwise you'd have four independent pages of results.

I hope to develop more interesting applications that use the descriptions of pericopes to dynamically navigate the story of Jesus. And i'm sure there are other possibilities that i haven't conceived of: i'm providing this framework to enable others to build on it as well. For example, it would be great to have an web service that would take an individual verse reference and return the pericope that it's part of (though you can do this visually by scanning down the pericope index with references).


It's my hope that the Composite Gospel Index will provide a useful new perspective on the whole story of Jesus which is more integrated and topical, rather than structural and linear. It is no substitute for viewing the material in each Gospel in its own larger and distinctive context. But it may provide fundamental units which better match the way we think about and remember things: as stories, not chapter and verse references.


Gospel Harmonies

Tatian's Diatessaron is the earliest known example of a "Gospel harmony". Though Tatian was later branded a heretic, there is some evidence that his Diatessaron was used throughout early Christendom: translated manuscripts in numerous widely-dispersed languages have been found. Here's more information on Tatian.

The Diatessaron of St. Ephrem (in French) and St Augustine's Harmony of the Gospels are two other early harmonies. Augustine's includes substantial commentary on the differences between the passages.

Herbert R. Rinder's Composite Gospel is a very similar idea to this one, though i conceived of this approach prior to discovering it. Rinder's work combines many passages across the Gospels with similar topics, even if the settings are clearly distinct: for example, his entry for "two important commandments" combines one story where Jesus affirms the commandments to love God and love your neighbor, and another where a religious teacher affirms them in response to a question from Jesus. His work therefore groups things that i have split into separate pericopes.

JB Phillips' Harmony of the Story of Jesus has a top-level organization that is both chronological and topical: it repeats material from each Gospel to give the full picture. McGarvey's Four-fold Gospel is another fairly contemporary harmony. Robert C. Long's harmony is available for download.

I'm building a longer list of Gospel harmonies and related resources here (in OPML). Let me know if you have one to add.