So, last week, the Non-Alchemist posted a YouTube video of Bart Ehrman discussing the alleged contradiction between accounts in the gospels of Matthew and Mark involving the death and resuscitation of Jairus’ daughter. Interestingly, the pericope also appears in Luke’s gospel but doesn’t get brought into the discussion.
Almost as soon as the video was shared on Twitter, Eric Manning posted a blog that he had written back in 2019 addressing the passages. The main point that Eric touched on that is relevant to addressing the accusation is that Matthew seems to be employing the literary device known as compression to the pericope. And if that is what is involved, when seen in parallel to Mark (or Luke), is that Matthew’s is significantly shorter in its narration (Matthew’s takes up 9 verses whereas Mark’s contains 23). That would seem to indicate that Matthew either assumes that his audience can fill in details that he doesn’t provide, or that the inclusion is only incidental to the larger narrative.
This dichotomy may seem forced, but it presents the fact that there are always alternatives to whole-hearted dismissal. But to not see other options is equally forced. Probably because no one takes the time to define their terms when it comes to allegations of contradiction.
The Problem of Definition
As, has been stated any number of times, when it comes to claims of “contradiction”, what most people are referring to are differences.
Someone looks at two (or more) reports of an event, and perceive differences that pose problems to the narrative. Such challenges occur because there are multiple points of view, narrative styles, or methods of relating, and so we are forced to engage in reconciliation in order to harmonize the accounts. Differences can technically be understood as “contradictions”, but what most people mean—and by “most people” I mean those who are opposed to God’s rule and desire as expressed in Scripture—is that there is something about the text that makes it incoherent or false. So, when it comes to defining what something is, sometimes it’s best to begin by saying what it’s not, as James White notes:
“Having two sources say the same thing in different words is not a contradiction. Having one author choose to include a different set of facts in his recounting of an incident than another author is not a contradiction. Having one author give more information than another author is not a contradiction. Having one author discuss a situation in another context, and hence having a different emphasis in his relating it than another, is not a contradiction.
With that in mind, it then is appropriate to define what a “contradiction” is, and that depends on, “the law of noncontradiction,” which states, “that A and non-A cannot both be true at the same time and in the same sense. A contradiction involves asserting that A is true and that non-A is true, at the same time and in the same context.”
Unfortunately, most critics of the Bible, do not want to engage with the text fairly or consistently or even historically. And this can be seen in how Amateur Exegete (AE) deals with a number of reconciliations in his critique of those defenses.
The Problem of Prioritization
When it comes to dealing with the “synoptic problem,” which produces many of the so-called “contradictions” that get pointed to, many of the defenses come down to rationalizing why Matthew, Mark, or Luke chose to do something with a particular pericope rather than addressing the substance of the texts themselves.
This is a direct result of the scholarly assumption of Marcan priority, and that the authors are somehow using Mark’s gospel as a framework around which to construct their narratives. There is simply no fair way to deal the differences in the pericopes that allows the authors to have their own intentions in how they present the texts both in their location in their narratives and with how they desire to present their subjects because it requires us to attempt to adduce their psychology rather than accepting their presentations.
Interestingly, AE provides grounds for addressing Matthew’s tendency to compress miracle stories in the recognition that,
“…Matthew’s main interest isn’t in the miracles qua miracles but in their function as substantiating the teaching of Jesus.
But then, the problem appears because of the unjustified assumption of Marcan dependence by asserting that, “…Matthew is abbreviating Mark’s account.”
Such an assumption overrides AE’s recognition that Matthew is, “writing his own Gospel, for his own purposes, with its own emphases,” as well as the necessity to let the author’s be themselves, and not engaging in unjustified assumptions reinforced by fallaciously circular reasoning.
But’s let’s assume, for the moment at least, that Matthew is using Mark as a source, and that he’s editing and adapting it to fit the confines of his narrative then what exactly is the problem?
What exactly satisfies Ehrman’s definition of a “contradiction” defined at the 10-second mark of the Non-Alchemist’s video as, “Two or more accounts that are different from in each other in ways that cannot be reconciled,” once we assume that Matthew is simply pairing down the pericope for integration into his narrative?
That would seem to solve any problem regarding an allegation of contradiction since there are no hard and fast rules regarding such a rhetorical presentation that would have required Matthew to simply regurgitate Mark’s content if it didn’t fit Matthew’s intentions.
The Problem of Agreement—an Aside
This may sound strange, but I also find myself in something of an agreement with AE, especially when it comes to the various attempts to reconcile the two accounts linguistically.
A number of scholars have tried to reconcile the two accounts making arguments involving the choice of verbs used by the authors. I, like AE, do not find such attempts to be necessarily convincing, in fact that can come off as contrived and confusing. In fact, I would argue that such matters should not be argued unless they provide sufficient explanatory evidence relevant to the difference, such as in the seemingly conflicting accounts in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21, where the differences are essentially settled by how what is bought is described.
And that brings us back to the disagreement that exists between what it takes to resolve the differences.
The Problem of Reconciliation
Contrary to AE’s assertion found in his conclusion that there is simply no way to resolve it the alleged contradiction, he provides the very means to do so by writing,
“…these are two different authors, writing with two different purposes, for two different audiences.
For, if that is the case then there is, in fact, no contradiction and only differences.
This isn’t the same author, it is two different authors writing about the same event but using the event for different purposes to different audiences.
If we take Ehrman’s own definition into account, and simply recognize the facts that AE insists upon, we cannot help but recognize that there is no contradiction here, especially when we remember that,
“Having two [or more] sources say the same thing in different words is not a contradiction. Having one author choose to include a different set of facts in his recounting of an incident than another author is not a contradiction. Having one author give more information than another author is not a contradiction. Having one author discuss a situation in another context, and hence having a different emphasis in his relating it than another, is not a contradiction.
When it comes to many of the “contradictions” that are alleged by critics, often it comes down to identifying exactly what the objection is and what is being assumed when the charge is being made.
When it comes to the issue of Jairus’ daughter, it’s often about the timing of her death. Any considerations that might be offered to ease any implied tensions that would be granted in any other historical text will be prejudicially excluded simply because the biblical text is the means by which God has ordained to speak to his image bearers in these last days.
The biblical texts will never be treated fairly or consistently by opponents of the faith, that is simply a fact, but it is up to believers to demonstrate their error and correct them as most of these so-called “contradictions” are instances of gnat-straining-in-order-to-swallow-the-camel.
The issue then is not with regard to what it takes to bring reconciliation between the passages, but with the willingness to try.
- James R. White. Scripture Alone: Exploring the Bible’s Accuracy, Authority and Authenticity. Bethany House Publishing. 2004. p. 291 (ePub)
- Marcan Priority is built around one of two competing hypotheses, neither of which I find particularly compelling, especially when it comes to dating the production of the gospels. Moreover, I find a more compelling case for justifying and explaining the differences in a Supplementarian way that I have outlined here.
- Michael R. Licona. Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?. Oxford University Press. 2017. p. 9-14
- I discussed those passages in this presentation.
- White, emphasis added