In the four gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), there seem to be discrepancies in the recording of various incidents in the life of Jesus Christ. We will address them under two primary categories: healing incidents, and other incidents.
Throughout the New Testament, there are numerous recorded incidents of healings by Jesus Christ. A number of these incidents are recorded in more than one of the four gospels. And, the facts presented in the written accounts of several of these incidents seem to differ (i.e., there appears to be some discrepancy as to what occurred). We will address the following healing incidents:
- Healing of the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:2-10)
- Healing of the demon-possessed man or men (Matthew 8:28-33; Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39)
- Healing of the blind man or men (Matthew 20:29-34; Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43)
[Note: When quoting Scripture, we will use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, except when we quote a non-biblical source that is using Scripture from a different version of the Bible.]
Healing of the Centurion’s Servant
Matthew 8:5-6 states, “Now when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, pleading with Him, saying ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented.’” In contrast, Luke 7:2-5, states, “[A] certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him, was sick and ready to die. So when he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to Him, pleading with Him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they begged Him earnestly, saying that the one for whom He should do this was worthy, ‘for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue.’”
Obviously, there seems to be discrepancy as to whether the centurion or elders of the Jews spoke to Jesus about healing the centurion’s servant. A number of writers, including Basil Atkinson, Ph.D., believe that the centurion was speaking by proxy. On pages 118-119 of his book entitled Is the Bible True?, Atkinson provides the following reconciliation of the two accounts:
The contradiction occurs in the English translation, but not in the original Greek. The word translated “came unto” [or “came to”] is a very general term meaning “approached,” much as we might say, “I approached my solicitor,” when we mean that we merely sent a letter or did something to attract his attention. This is exactly what the centurion did. He “approached” the Lord Jesus by means of those he sent. We might perhaps feel a further difficulty because Matthew uses the words “said” and “saying” of the centurion. In English “to say something to someone” generally means to utter words in their presence. But even in English this is not always the case. We are often asked after writing a letter, “What have you said?” In the Gospels these words are quite general terms meaning “communicate with.” A good example of the use of the word “said” is to be found in Matt. xi. 2, 3 [i.e., Matthew 11:2-3]: “Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, and said unto Him.” What John saidwas spoken by his disciples. So it was with the centurion.
Similarly, on page 134 of his book entitled The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Craig Blomberg says,
Every language and culture has many conventional expressions which do not mean what they literally seem to say. One of these common to modern Western and ancient Eastern cultures is the habit of speaking about someone acting for himself even when he uses an intermediary. . . . This type of linguistic convention undoubtedly explains the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives of the Capernaum centurion. . . .
Healing of the Demon-Possessed Man or Men
Matthew says that two demon-possessed men approached Jesus, whereas Mark and Luke mention only one demon-possessed man. On page 78 of his book entitled Inerrancy, Norman Geisler, Ph.D., declares, “Eyewitness accounts of the same episode often vary in what they summarize or generalize and in what they give in detail.” The account of the demon-possessed man (or men) is such a case. Geisler and several other writers believe that there were two demonics, but that Mark and Luke mention only one, possibly because one of them was more noticeable or outspoken.
Atkinson offers a different explanation. On pages 119-120 of his book, he states,
Matthew tells us there were two possessed men . . .; Mark and Luke only mention one. They [i.e., Mark and Luke] both imply, however, that there was a period of time . . . during which Jesus and His disciples remained on the shore talking to the man who was cured. . . . It may have been during this time that Matthew’s second demoniac came . . . out of the tombs and was also cured by the Lord. . . . But the first man’s case created such a sensation by reason of the things that followed and accompanied it, that everyone forgot about the second man. . . .
Healing of the Blind Man or Men
Matthew’s account says that Jesus Christ healed two blind men as He was leaving Jericho, whereas the accounts of both Mark and Luke say that Christ healed one blind man. Mark indicates the blind man was healed as Jesus was leaving Jericho, whereas Luke indicates the blind man was healed as Jesus was entering Jericho.
In an attempt to reconcile the discrepancies in these biblical accounts, several plausible explanations are offered by various writers. With regard to the number of blind men, Gleason L Archer, on page 325 of his book entitled Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, states his believe that Mark and Luke focused on the more articulate of the two blind men, and therefore mentioned only one.
Also, with regard to the number of blind men, Geisler and Thomas Howe, M.A., on page 352 of their book entitled When Critics Ask, make the following comments:
[T]he fact that Mark mentions the name of one blind man, Bartimaeus, and his father . . . indicates that Mark is centering on the one that was personally known to him. If two men were to receive a medal of honor from the president of the United States and one was your friend, it is understandable that when you relate the story you might only speak of the one whom you knew receiving the medal.
Some writers, including John W. Haley, M.A., suggest that there may have been two separate incidents at Jericho involving the healing of blind men by Jesus. On page 386 of his book entitled Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, Haley notes, “[S]ome think there were three blind men healed – one when Jesus entered the city, the other two when he left it.”
Geisler and Howe speculate that, if Jesus healed one blind man as He entered Jericho and the news of the healing spread, this may be related to what apparently happened subsequently. On page 353 of When Critics Ask, they state,
[I]t might . . . explain why two blind men were waiting on the other side of the city to plead for Jesus to heal them. Perhaps the first blind man who was healed went quickly to tell his blind friends what happened to him. Or maybe the other blind men were already stationed at the other end of the city in their customary begging position.
In addition to the healing miracles of Jesus Christ, there a number of other incidents in His life that appear to have discrepancies in the biblical accounts. We will consider the following:
- Temptations faced by Christ while He was in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13)
- Cursing of the fig tree by Christ (Matthew 21:18-19; Mark 11:11-17, 20-21)
- Cleansing of the temple by Christ (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46; John 2:15-16)
- The final words spoken by Christ (Matthew 28:18b-20; Mark 16:15b-18)
Temptations Faced by Jesus While He Was in the Wilderness
The first of the three temptations faced by Jesus Christ while He was in the Wilderness (i.e., to turn stones into bread) is the same in both Matthew and Luke. However, the order of the other two temptations differs. The second temptation recorded in Matthew (i.e., to cast Himself from the pinnacle of the temple) is the third temptation in Luke, whereas the third temptation presented in Matthew (i.e., to bow down and worship Satan) is the second temptation in Luke. How can this discrepancy be resolved?
Geisler and Howe offer an explanation that is supported by a number of other writers. On page 328 of their book, they speculate,
It may be that Matthew describes these temptations chronologically while Luke lists them climatically, that is, topically. This may be to express the climax he desired to emphasize. Matthew 4:5 begins with the word “then” while verse 8 begins with the word “again.” In Greek, these words suggest a more sequential order of the events. In Luke’s account, however, verses 5 and 9 each begins with a simple “and.” . . . The Greek in the case of Luke’s account does not necessarily indicate a sequential order of events.
Atkinson provides further perspective on this matter. In reference to the discrepancy between Matthew and Luke, he states on page 116 of his book,
Neither professes to give what happened in order. If both had done so, there would have been a contradiction. Each however ends with the temptation he wishes to emphasize. Matthew is presenting the Lord Jesus as King, and so to him the culminating temptation is the offer to Him by the devil of the sovereignty of the world. Luke presents Him as the ideal Man, and therefore emphasizes a temptation which appeals particularly to His human nature – to create a sensation and manifest Himself as a sort of super-man.
And, on page 122 of his book, Atkinson asserts, “No writer ought to be presumed to be presenting [his account] in an exact chronological order without a definite statement from him that he is doing so. . . .”
Cursing of the Fig Tree by Christ
Matthew seems to indicate that Christ cursed the fig tree in the morning after He drove the moneychangers out of the temple, but Mark makes it clear that the cursing of the fig tree by Jesus occurred in the morning before He drove the moneychangers out of the temple.
This apparent discrepancy seems difficult to reconcile. However, on page 123 of his book, Atkinson provides the following explanation:
We know from Mark that this took place on the morning after the entry [by Jesus into Jerusalem], and before the cleansing [of the temple, by Jesus]. Matthew says nothing to contradict this. If he had said, “On the next morning,” he would have made a mistake that could not have been defended. But he does not. To conclude that there is a mistake, we have got to assume (without evidence) that he means the next morning. All he does is to narrate the principal event of the day, the cleansing of the Temple, and then, with the same day in mind, to say “Now early in the morning as he [i.e., Jesus] was going up to the city. . . .” This is exactly what anyone of us might do after going out, for instance, for a day’s expedition. When we came home we should speak first of the most important or outstanding thing that happened, and then add something that happened in the morning soon after the start.
This point of view is supported by Archer. On page 334 of his book, he notes, “As we study the narrative technique of Matthew in general, we find that he sometimes arranges his material in topical order rather than in the strictly chronological order that is more often characteristic of Mark and Luke.”
Cleansing of the Temple by Christ
Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, and Luke 19:45-46 all indicate that the “cleansing” of the temple by Jesus Christ was toward the end of His ministry, whereas John 2:15-16 indicates that the event occurred near the beginning of His ministry. How can this be explained?
Several sources suggest that the episode cited in the first three Gospels is different than the one noted in the book of John. In other words, it is likely that Christ cleansed the temple on two separate occasions: one early in His ministry and the other late in His ministry.
Probably, the two strongest reasons to take this position are (1) what is mentioned as happening immediately after Christ’s cleansing of the temple is quite different in John than it is in the other three Gospels, and (2) Scripture that has been inspired by God does not contradict itself (i.e., there is a rational explanation for all differences in biblical accounts of what seem to be the same event).
The Final Words Spoken by Christ
The final words spoken by Jesus Christ to His eleven disciples are considerably different in the book of Matthew than they are in the book of Mark. Is there a satisfactory explanation for this?
In the last conversation between Jesus Christ and His disciples that is recorded in Matthew 28:18b-20, Christ tells them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
In contrast, in the last conversation between Jesus Christ and His disciples that is recorded in Mark 16:15b-18, Christ says to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
One possible explanation of why the two accounts differ is provided by the New International Version of the Bible, which states, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.” Therefore, the passage in Mark may not be inspired Scripture. In this regard, Geisler and Howe say on page 378 of their book,
Scholars are divided over the authenticity of these verses. Those who follow the received text tradition point to the fact that this text is found in the majority of biblical manuscripts down through the centuries. Thus, they believe it was in the original manuscript of Mark.
On the other hand, those who follow the critical text tradition insist that we should not add evidence, but weigh it. . . . They point to the following arguments for rejecting these verses: (1) These verses are lacking in many of the oldest and most reliable Greek manuscripts, as well as in important Old Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Ethiopic manuscripts. (2) Many of the ancient church fathers reveal no knowledge of these verses. . . . Jerome admitted that almost all Greek copies do not have it. (3) Many manuscripts that do have this section place a mark by it indicating it is a spurious addition to the text. (4) There is another (shorter) ending to Mark that is found in some manuscripts. (5) Others point to the fact that the style and vocabulary are not the same as the rest of the Gospel of Mark.
It is also possible that the verbiage recorded in Mark pertains to a different occasion than the verbiage recorded in Matthew. Matthew 28:16 indicates that the eleven disciples were standing on a mountain when Christ appeared to them before He spoke to them for the last time. (However, the first part of verse 18 makes it unclear if Christ’s final words to His disciples were on a later date at an unspecified location.) In any case, Mark 16:14 plainly states that the disciples were sitting at a table (presumably, indoors) when Christ spoke to them.
A third possibility is that the two writers were inspired to record two entirely different portions of the same discourse. This seems very unlikely, however, since both accounts convey such important messages that it is virtually inconceivable that either would be entirely omitted from the other account.
Although the explanations from various sources that we have presented may not satisfy every reader, we believe the explanations are reasonable. In any case, if the Bible is reliable because it was inspired by God, there is a valid explanation for each of the apparent discrepancies regarding the incidents that we have discussed in this article. [For reasons to believe that everything the Bible reports is reliable, click on “Is the Bible Reliable?”]