What Jairus Said to Jesus: One Attempt to Reconcile the Matthean and Markan Accounts and Why It Doesn’t Work

Recently my friend @AlchemstNon posted a video over on his YouTube channel discussing a fairly overt contradiction between the Markan and Matthean accounts of the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43; Matthew 9:18-26). The short video (which can be viewed below) features fundamentalist lightning rod Bart Ehrman explaining why the two accounts contradict, with @AlchemistNon following up by aptly describing the discrepancy as “flagrant.” 

As expected, not everyone agreed with @AlchemistNon’s (and Ehrman’s) claim that a contradiction can here be found. One pop-apologist trotted out an attempt at reconciliation promoted by evangelical scholar Craig Blomberg who wrote the following in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew:

As consistently throughout his Gospel (and esp. with miracle stories), Matthew abbreviates Mark, this time to such an extent that he seems to contradict the parallel accounts (Mark 5:21-43; Luke 8:40-56). Instead of coming to plead with Jesus while his daughter is still alive, Jairus apparently arrives only after her death. Yet to call this a contradiction is anachronistically to impose on an ancient text modern standards of precision in story telling. What is more, in a world without modern medical monitors to establish the precise moment of expiry, there is not clearly so much difference between Matthew’s arti eteletēsen in v. 18 (which could fairly be translated “just came to the point of death”; cf. Heb 11:22) and eschatos echei in Mark 5:23 (which could be rendered as “is dying”). What is important is not the precise moment of death but Jairus’s astonishing faith.[1]

One the face of it, this seems like a fairly reasonable way to resolve the contradiction: Matthew is simply abbreviating Mark, and Jairus’ words to Jesus in both Mark and Mathew pretty much mean the same thing. Its veneer of verisimilitude has made it a fairly popular way of reconciling these two texts among apologists.[2] However, once we peel away this façade, we will see that it does nothing to actually resolve the contradiction.

Matthean Redaction of Mark

Blomberg notes that Matthew has a habit of abbreviating Markan pericopes, especially in miracles stories. For example, the pericope that directly precedes the subject of this post, the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20), is in Mark over 320 words long while Matthew’s redaction of it in Matthew 8:28-34 reduces it to around 130 words.[3] Why abbreviate? What is the payoff for Matthew? A cursory reading of Matthew’s Gospel makes it clear: such abbreviation creates all the more room for Jesus’ teaching. One of the most prominent examples of this is the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7. Mark has nothing comparable in his own Gospel. Matthew, then, in his redaction of Mark subordinates miracles to Jesus’ teaching.[4]

One consequence of Matthew’s redaction of Mark is that the two often do not line up well. For example, when did Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth take place (Mark 6:1-6; Matthew 13:54-58)? Was it before the sending of the Twelve (Mark 6:7-13) or after (Matthew 10:5-15)? They cannot both be true. Yet it is easy to see why Matthew has made such a change. In Mark’s Gospel, the call of the Twelve (Mark 3:13-19) and the sending of the Twelve are not connected. Matthew, however, has a better story in mind and thus connects the two together in ch. 10. Additionally, to the calling and commissioning of the Twelve Matthew adds a series of teachings that do not appear in the Gospel of Mark. Again, Matthew’s emphasis is on Jesus’ teaching and he is willing to do whatever he needs to do to accomplish it. But this creates a contradiction of chronology. 

It is precisely Matthew’s redaction of Mark that creates an issue between the two accounts. The first major block of Jesus’ teaching in Galilee, the Sermon on the Mount, is followed by a series of ten miracles, all intended “to dramatize Jesus’s power as a teacher sent from God.”[5] As I already indicated, Matthew’s main interest isn’t in the miracles qua miracles but in their function as substantiating the teaching of Jesus. Since Mark’s miracles often take up a lot of space, Matthew has no choice but to strip them down and, if need be, change them. This is precisely what he does with the raising of Jairus’ daughter (though he never names him Jairus). Matthew knows full well that at the end of the story the girl is raised from the dead. So, why not cut to the chase? 

That he does, beginning with having the unnamed Jairus say, “My daughter has just died” (v. 18). But in order to make the story coherent, Matthew has to make other changes. So, instead of Jairus asking Jesus to heal a dying girl as he did in Mark (Mark 5:23), he asks him to raise her back to life again (Matthew 9:18). Additionally, Matthew has removed the entourage that had come from Jairus’ house and met him on the way to tell him that the girl was dead and there was no further (eti) need to bother Jesus with it. In other words, while the girl was alive there was hope Jesus could save her; now that she’s dead, what more could be done for her? Finally, because the girl starts the Matthean pericope dead a funeral procession has already begun when Jesus arrives (Matthew 9:23),[6] whereas in Mark’s account the death is still fresh (Mark 5:38). 

So yes, Matthew is abbreviating Mark’s account. But he is not merely summarizing it; he’s changing it. And in changing it he is making his version incongruous with the version he had before him in the Gospel of Mark. In other words, his abbreviation is what creates the contradiction. But why should that matter? Why should the Matthean author care that his account is different than Mark’s? Why would it matter to him that in his version the girl is already dead but in Mark’s she’s alive? Matthew isn’t maintaining Markan status quo, preserving Mark exactly as he found it. No, he’s writing his own Gospel, for his own purposes, with its own emphases. If he needs to amend Mark’s empty tomb narrative so that it includes resurrection appearances, he does it. If he needs to create a backstory for Jesus that extends to his birth because Mark begins with only his baptism, he does it. If he needs to cut down the verbiage of Mark’s miracle stories to emphasize Jesus’ teaching, he does it. If he needs to directly connect episodes from Jesus’ life to what he thinks are prophecies in the Jewish scriptures, he does it. In other words, Matthew had no problem with changing (adding to or subtracting from) what he received. So, let Matthew be Matthew and let Mark be Mark

Do eschatos echei and arti eteletēsen Mean Basically the Same Thing?

In a further bid to reconcile the two accounts, Blomberg suggests that what Jairus claims in both versions is, “in a world without modern medical monitors to establish the precise moment of expiry,” essentially the same thing. That is, Mark’s eschatos echei (“is at the point of death”; Mark 5:23, NRSV) and Matthew’s arti eteletēsen (“has just died”; Matthew 9:18, NRSV) are equivocal expressions given the state of medical knowledge at the time. Vern Poythress takes a similar track, arguing that while the Matthean eteletēsen expresses the ending or finishing of the girl’s life, it may not mean that’s dead but that “she has finished her life,” i.e., she is in its final stages and has just a little more life to live.[7] Is all this so unreasonable? 

The answer to that question is found in Matthew’s redaction of Mark. Had he intended to express that the girl was still alive but near the point of dying, he could have retained Mark’s exact words. Not only is Mark’s eschatos echei a suitable means of expressing the idea of being near death but still alive, literally meaning something like “she has it terminally,”[8] Matthew has no problem whatsoever in carrying over Mark’s exact wording in other places in his Gospel.[9] Why not do so here? Moreover, Matthew appears to be quite conscious of what arti eteletēsen means given the changes he makes to Mark’s narrative on account of it: no mention of healing the girl, no entourage to declare she has died and there is no need to further bother Jesus, and the addition of a funeral procession. It should also be noted that Poythress’ explanation leaves out the adverb arti which, when coupled with the aorist, is a forceful way of saying that the girl’s life just recently ended.[10] This oversight by Poythress renders his explanation untenable. 

On teleutōn in Hebrews 11:22

Blomberg lists as a cross reference for his rendering of arti eteletēsen as “just came to the point of death” Hebrews 11:22. It isn’t exactly clear what bearing Blomberg thinks this instance of teleutaō has on the conversation. The word teleutōn in Hebrews 11:22 isn’t a verb but a present participle modifying the subject “Joseph.” Since the main verb is the aorist emnēmoneusen (“he mentioned”), the action of the participle coincides with that of the main verb.[11]Thus, it is as his life is coming to an end that Joseph mentions the Israelite’s exodus. 

This isn’t what is going on in Matthew 9:18. The Matthean author doesn’t use a present participle but an aorist verb. Had he intended what Blomberg suggests, he could have used a present tense form of the verb teleutaō with the adverb arti. He had before him in Mark an example of this kind of usage: the adverb eschatos and the present tense verb echei. But what does Matthew do? He changes not only the word but the tense as well from present to aorist. This is instructive. Coupled with all the other changes Matthew makes, it is clear that he intended for his readers to think that the girl was dead, over and against Mark’s claim. This is a blatant contradiction. But that only matters if you are committed a priori to a strict view of inerrancy. 

Conclusion 

There is no reasonable way to get around this contradiction between Mark and Matthew. And we shouldn’t want one: these are two different authors, writing with two different purposes, for two different audiences. It is only when we expect something that these authors themselves did not expect that we run into trouble. Apologists would do well to abandon the silliness of trying to defend the indefensible. 


[1] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), 160.

[2] E.g., Erik Manning, “A Look at an Alleged Contradiction in the Gospels: Was Jairus’ Daughter Alive When Jesus Was Approached or Was She Already Dead?” (1.8.19), isjesusalive.com

[3] In Nestle-Aland 28th edition I count 325 words in Mark 5:1-20 and 135 in Matthew 8:28-34. I did this in a hurry so it might be off by 1 or 2 words. 

[4] Keith F. Nickle, The Synoptic Gospels: An Introduction, revised and expanded (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 115.

[5] L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 300.

[6] White, Scripting Jesus, 187; cf. Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary, translated by James E. Crouch, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 43; Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, third edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 244.

[7] Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 211.

[8] Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Yale Anchor Bible (New Haven, CT Yale University Press, 2000), 356. 

[9] For example, Mark 2:14 says, Kai paragōn eiden Leuin ton tou Halphaiou kathēmenon epi to telōnion, kai legei autō; akolouthei moi. kai anastas ēkolouthēsen autō (“As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him,” NRSV). Similarly, Matthew 9:9 reads, Kai paragōn ho Iēsous ekeithen eiden anthrōpon kathēmenon epi to telōnion, Maththaion legomenon, kai legei autō; akolouthei moi. kai anastas ēkolouthēsen autō (“As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him,” NRSV). I have placed in bold those words in Matthew that are directly from Mark.

[10] See LSJ, s.v. “ἄρτι.” With the aorist, arti expresses the idea of a very recent past event. 

[11] Evert van Emde Boas, Albert Rijksbaron, Luuk Huitink, and Mathieu de Bakker, The Cambridge Grammar of Classical Greek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 607. 

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons

One Comment on “What Jairus Said to Jesus: One Attempt to Reconcile the Matthean and Markan Accounts and Why It Doesn’t Work

  1. Pingback: Irreconcilable Differences?: Matthew, Mark, and Jairus’ Daughter  – Triggermanblog

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