deriving event sequence from narrative sequence in Gospel accounts
Narrative sequence doesn't always imply chronological sequence, but related sections of narrative can often imply chronological relationships between purported events. In other words, the contents of each Gospel narrative may not be 100% chronologically sequenced, but many elements within each Gospel have clearly been sequenced into chronological order. So the question is not whether the narratives are chronological, but to what extent.
Conservative exegetes sometimes suggest that answering this question depends largely on the presence (or lack thereof) of specifically temporal language - especially transition words that refer clearly to time passing in between narrative episodes. However, temporal language is not the only temporal evidence in language. For balance, an historical approach to this chronological problem could begin by attempting to isolate a series of dynamic events, or 'critical points' in each Gospel narrative, which are moments that demarcate significant change in some particular status quo. From this approach, the task is no longer about finding chronology in narrative, but about finding chronological implications in narrative content.
The five most obvious examples are Jesus’ birth, baptism, public ministry, death and resurrection, each of which bears an indisputably causal relationship to the others. The order of their dependency on one another could not be mistaken, even if their sequence-in-narrative had sometimes been jumbled. Another obvious sequence winding through all four canonical Gospels is John the Baptist’s ministry, arrest, struggle, martyrdom and legacy. Again, the causal dependency of these dynamic events stands as evidence of precise chronological sensibility on the part of each Gospel writer - but this sensibility is applied to each embedded event chain, if perhaps not for the narrative at large.
Such points-of-change in Gospel narratives cannot properly be considered as chronological markers, but they should be utilized as critical points in reconstructing how much of an historical event sequence is being purported by each writer. Although much of the content in each Gospel do not display indisputably causal relationships to key dynamic events, many sections of narrative do reveal strong connections to major critical points, and other narrative content stands connected to minor critical points.
To illustrate: Levi's (Matthew's) calling is a minor critical point in the Synoptics because it cannot be located after Jesus' commissioning of the twelve, or their being sent out as apostles. These two dependent events are not now critical points in themselves, but they are what makes Levi's calling a critical point by itself. Now, the next major critical point following these two dependent events, in all three Synoptic narratives, is John's execution. However, since narrative sequence is no guarantee of historical sequence, we must investigate further. Do these episodes contain evidence of some significant status quo change that occurred when John died? Or do they connect, in some Gospels, with subsequent events which can then be directly tied to the time of John's death? These questions remain to be answered, but doing so must rely strictly on narrated or illustrated causality - not on narrative sequence alone.
However many distinct instances of relative chronology can be reasonably compiled from each narrative, those connected chains-of-events can be compiled into one implied historical sequence for each Gospel. Finally, once each Gospel's event sequence has been so derived, all four can be compared and tested against one another for chronological alignment.
Much attention has been paid in the past to contradictions in narrative sequence, among the four Gospels. However, by looking at claims of the narrative in a historical sense, we may find far more than general agreement on chronological sequence. We may find a large, complex chain of events upon which the Synoptics, at least, all agree. John's content being predominantly unique, we expect to find less in agreement, but perhaps nothing in disagreement. If so, then the option to intertwine all four event chains may boil down to a judgment call... or to a matter of preference.
Note: the Temple cleansing at John 2:14ff is an event dependent on Jesus walking into Jerusalem at 2:13 and can also be seen as a critical event upon which Nicodemus' nighttime visits and possibly Jesus' withdrawal into the Judean countryside both depend. If we accept the incident into John's event chain, we must then either reject its historicity as contradictory from the Synoptic event chain or accept it as a separate incident. However, John's embedded chronological data at 2:20 would still belong editorially to the event period of 2:13 & 2:23.
More cautions are worth mentioning. Simply deriving a valid event sequence from a Gospel's narrative sequence does not prove the historicity (or chronologicity) of that sequence, although contradictions between any two Gospels' event chains absolutely do make suspect either their historicity or the reconstruction of those event chains. Furthermore, it should be clear that this entire enterprise (deriving event sequence from narrative sequence) is not properly to be termed a 'chronological' endeavor, because actually dating any of these events would require a whole other level of inquiry.
Finally, it must be stressed that this endeavor does not aim at 'Gospel Harmony'. The most we might 'harmonize' from this process would be four critically extracted event-chains, which (IF accepted as historical) could indeed be compiled into one dateless timeline of several key events during Jesus' life. In the end, these results might be much less content-inclusive than many would wish, and yet far more comprehensive than others might expect.
Narrative sequence does not imply event sequence, but event sequence is often made clear by details in the content of narrative.
Event Sequence: Mark vs. Luke (Feb '10)
A Dynamic Event: Jesus Separates from Peter (Feb '10)
A Dynamic Event: John's Imprisonment (Feb '10)
Foundations for Gospel Chronology (Nov '09)
Event Sequencing: John's Beheading (Sept '09)
sequence, not harmony (Aug '09)
Sequence of Gospel Events (July '08)