A look at an alleged contradiction in the gospels: Did the centurion ask Jesus directly to heal his servant, or did he send others to ask?

If you’ve ever been in a discussion online with atheists, you know that one of their favorite moves is to dump a heap of alleged contradictions in the Bible and act like it is game over time.

It’s probably a strange way of thinking about it, but I liken it to throwing a bucket of snakes into a crowded movie theater. It only takes a few seconds to dump some slithering serpents and watch people scatter, but it takes a lot longer catch them one by one and deal with them. It can be a pain to play the role of animal control, but someone’s gotta do it. These things do bother people.

One of those alleged contradictions is the healing of the centurion’s servant.

Matthew 8:5-6 says “When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.”

Yet in Luke 7:2-3 we read “Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant.”

So did the centurion ask Jesus directly to heal his servant, or did he send others to ask?

If you’re asking an ancient person, the answer is yes. The elders of the Jews were asking as intermediaries. Them asking on his behalf was like the centurion asking directly himself in the ancient world. Him sending them means they represented him.

The apparent contradiction quickly vanishes. Now you might pull a Lee Corso and say “not so fast, my friend.” Isn’t this special pleading? Do we see this anywhere else? In fact, we do, in more places than one. Here are three other different places we see this in the gospels:

1. Matthew 27:59-60 “And Joseph (of Arimathea) took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away.”

Did Joseph, a rich man and a member of the Sanhedrin bury Jesus himself? No, of course as a respected member of the council, he had his servants do it.

2. Mark 15:15 “So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.”

Did Pilate, a Roman prefect, grab a whip and get himself bloody scourging Jesus by himself? Again, the answer is obviously no. That’s ludicrous. He sent his soldiers to do his dirty work.

3. John 4:1-2 “Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples)”

Here John says that Jesus was baptizing more disciples than John but then stops to clarify that Jesus didn’t himself baptize, it was the disciples.

We have similar conventions in our own times. We may hear in the news “the president announced today” when really it was read by the press secretary and was probably written by a speechwriter. Of course, the president probably did read it and approve it and so the words were as good as his own, as far as he was concerned.

Nothing I’m saying here is original. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) proposed the same solution and appealed to similar practices centuries ago in his work The Harmony of the Gospels: 

How can Matthew’s statement that there “came to Him a certain centurion,” be correct, seeing that the man did not come in person, but sent his friends? The apparent discrepancy, however, will disappear if we look carefully into the matter, and observe that Matthew has simply held by a very familiar mode of expression. . . . This [the practice of using a representative or intermediary], indeed, is a custom which has so thoroughly established itself, that even in the language of every-day life… [we call men] Perventores who… get at the inaccessible ears, as one may say, of any of the men of influence, by the intervention of suitable personages. If, therefore access [to another person’s presence] itself is thus familiarly [in everyday speech] said to be gained by the means of other parties, how much more may an approach be said to take place, although it be by means of others.

As far as contradictions go, this one is a dud. Once we get the cultural and linguistic context the supposed discrepancy falls to the ground.

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