Each of the Gospels can be read as an independent narrative, but as eye-witness accounts some problems arise. First, they contain different collections of Jesus' teachings, descriptions of different miracles and other events, so to understand the whole story you have to read them all.
This leads to the second problem, which is the repetition you find when more than one writer includes an episode of His life in their Gospel. I found this quite frustrating when I was following a chronological Bible reading plan, often reading the same stories two or three times in the same day. On the other hand, the different writers would sometimes bring out different aspects of the story, or describe it in different ways, so I would find Matthew's account of a particular miracle spoke to me more than Mark's, while some of Christ's teachings were more clearly described by Luke than other writers. There is certainly no way that a single Gospel can be used in isolation as the definitive "Story of Jesus".
But I felt that a single account, removing repetition, and including the 'best' versions of each episode would make a useful document, and I spent several weeks attempting to compile such a document. Of course, choosing the 'best' can be completely subjective, but I tried to be as objective as possible when there were multiple accounts of an episode, in most cases using the most complete version - one that included all the substance of the alternatives. Occasionally I would choose the version that flowed best with previous or subsequent episodes, or which contained a specific verse that I judged to be particularly important.
You will notice that I use the word 'episode' to describe the particular events, parables and so on. I should give some additional background to justify this, because it isn't a word I am completely comfortable with.
I used the New King James Version of the Bible (NKJV) as my source material, and the first stage of the compilation process was to note all the passage headings and their scriptural references in each of the Gospels in that translation. For example, John 1:14-18 has the heading "The Word Becomes Flesh". There would usually be two or three such passages in each chapter, and they might be parables, miracles, events, or more poetic passages such as the one just mentioned. I knew there would be several hundred of these passages making up the entire narrative, and I wondered whether to call them passages, parts, sections or something else. I finally decided on 'episodes' because while it isn't the perfect word to describe each passage, it does reflect the nature of the Gospels as a series of episodes from Jesus' life.
So having listed all the episodes in all the Gospels, I then went through a matching exercise, so that I would be left with a definitive list of every individual episode, whether it was mentioned in one, two, three or all four Gospels. This was easy for the most part. Episodes would often have the same title in each Gospel - for example "The Triumphant Entry" is in all four. But there would be differences too, that I noticed as I studied more carefully. For example, the passage titled "The Scribes and Pharisees Ask for a Sign" in Matthew is equivalent to one titled "Seeking a Sign" in Luke. I don't know enough to be sure whether these are the accounts of two different incidents or two versions of the same discussion. The phrases used are so similar that I am inclined to believe they are the same episode. And I am sure that even if they are not, nothing is lost by merging them. A similar argument can be made about the accounts of "The Beatitudes", also in Matthew and Luke. I have heard arguments that they might have been spoken on different occasions, but if they were, the lessons are the same in both instances.
A different problem occurred when I initially linked all four accounts of "Jesus Cleanses The Temple". I could see when I read the accounts in context that although the wording was similar they did not seem to happen at the same time - the position of the episode very early in John's Gospel was a strong clue. Further research revealed that there were indeed two separate occasions when this incident happened, almost book-ending Christ's earthly ministry, so I separated them in my list. Some scholars actually argue that there were three cleansings, but that is an argument for another time.
Again, as I tried to make the perfect list of episodes I found another issue - inconsistencies. This can be a serious problem for Christians, as it is one of the favourite weapons of non-believers when they want to discredit the Bible. I am comfortable that the argument of inconsistent Gospels is a false one. For one thing, I can accept that when more than one person witnesses an event they will see it in different ways and this is a legitimate source for apparent contradiction. I am also convinced that any attempt to 'fake' the events of Jesus' life would have been put together more carefully to avoid such contradictions. The apparent inconsistencies left in the Bible actually testify to its honesty. Of course I am sure that some critics will claim a double-bluff, but I will leave that between them and God.
There were two kinds of inconsistency I had to deal with. The first was in accounts of episodes that seemed like they were almost certainly of the same incident, but facts in the accounts seemed to contradict this. Perhaps the best/worst example is "Jesus Heals Blind Bartimaeus" (Mark), "A Blind Man Receives His Sight" (Luke) and "Two Blind Men Receive Their Sight" (Matthew). The accounts are remarkably similar in their location and conversation, yet Matthew says there are two blind men while the other writers only observe one. I am convinced that they do relate to the same incident, although I am happy to be proved wrong. In fact, although at first this can be a frustrating situation to be faced with, I am actually quite energised by the puzzle. I think it is a fascinating problem and one that I want to investigate further at a later date.
Another inconsistency is in the chronology of the Gospels. As I was matching up episodes that were clearly the same I found that a sequence would flow smoothly down one Gospel while jumping backwards and forwards around another. I could see that the locations where different writers put Jesus before and after certain incidents would not correspond exactly, so I was left with the dilemma of how to make sense of this in a single merged narrative.
I decided to make Matthew the framework Gospel for my work, so you will find that his sequence is most in step with mine, with only a couple of deviations where the flow wouldn't make sense otherwise. For episodes that aren't found in Matthew, I would find the nearest episode that was found in his Gospel, and try to use that as an anchor point, putting the new episode(s) as close as possible to that in a sensible context.
Again, the discrepancies in the timeline are not very important to me. They may reflect sermons that were given, or parables told, more than once during Jesus' ministry. On the other hand, the Gospel writers may have chosen the particular order in which to relate certain episodes for their own reasons. In many cases the order does not matter as the incidents are discreet and the lessons to be learned from them are not affected by their chronology. In places where it does matter, I pray that I have been faithful to God's Word.
I knew I had the option of using a study Bible or other reference works to find the scholarly view of the chronology, as well as finding the answers to some of the other puzzling questions that arose during this exercise. But I wanted to find my own way through the Gospels, and use the challenge as a way to get deeper into God's Word, and gain a better understanding of Jesus, led by the Holy Spirit rather than academics. It has been a wonderful, eye-opening and rewarding project for me, and I pray that the result will be a blessing to you, and perhaps an inspiration for you to make your own study of the life of Jesus.
Jesus told him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)