A look at an alleged contradiction in the Gospels: Was Jairus’ daughter alive when Jesus was approached or was she already dead?

For historical documents to be reliable, they can’t be full of contradictions. That’s just common sense. As Christians, we say that the Gospels give us an accurate portrayal of historical events, but critics are quick to call foul. They say that the gospel accounts are so full of contradictions that it’s hopeless to even try and argue for their reliability. Or so critics like Bart Ehrman would like us to believe.

When asked on his blog if there was a “slam-dunk” contradiction that would be impossible to defend, Bart’s reply was“I don’t have ONE that is [a] slam-dunk. But there are dozens that are pretty good. Here’s one: Jairus came to Jesus to ask him to help his daughter: was the girl dead already and he wanted Jesus to do something about it? Or was she very sick and he wanted him to heal her before she died? (See Mark 5:21-43 and Matthew 9:18-26) I don’t see how it could be both!”

Since this is one of Bart’s go-to objections, let’s take a look at it and see if it’s really so difficult to defend. Here are the verses in question:

Matthew 9:18: While he was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.”

Mark 5:22-23: Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing him, he fell at his feet and implored him earnestly, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.”

Matthew and the bottom line

Now at first glance, Bart looks like he has a point. But if we look deeper at Matthew’s account compared to Mark’s, one of the first things we notice is that it’s a lot shorter. Matthew gives us 9 verses, Mark gives us 22. Here’s a quick list of seven things Matthew omits in the story:

  •  Jairus being a ruler of the synagogue. Matthew calls him a ruler.
  •  The crowd following Jesus and pressing him.
  •  The second stage of the story where someone comes and tells him that his daughter is dead.
  •  Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him.
  •  Jesus takes the girls’ parents into the room with him to raise her.
  •  Jesus’ direction to give her something to eat.
  •  Jesus’ command to keep silent.

That’s a lot of details left out, but Matthew does include the most important ones: Jairus’ daughter died, Jesus said she was sleeping, people laughed Jesus to scorn, Jesus raised her. Matthew’s a bottom line kind of guy.

Now, there’s only a contradiction here if you’re expecting the Gospels to include video-like precision. But what critics fail to understand is that it’s perfectly normal for ancient and modern historical accounts to summarize details. Note that Matthew also does a similar thing with the cursing of the fig tree. (Compare Matthew 21:18-22 with Mark 11:12-14, Mark 11:20-25)

Reducing a piece of literature in terms of time or length to include only its necessary elements is a literary device called compression. Writers use it all the time. In fact, here’s a writing coach teaching his students how they can use compression to tighten up their story:

  • Combine several elements with a single use into a single element with multiple uses (this is the very essence of compression).
  • Remove redundant bits of information.
  • When writing scenes: start the scene as late into the action as possible, end the scene as soon as possible.
  • Reduce your cast of characters to only those who advance the story or reveal character, preferably both.

Here we see Matthew practicing all of these things to an extent. He takes out redundant bits, jumps straight to the action, ends it quickly and cuts back his cast of characters as much as he can. He focuses on the main event.

This alleged contradiction has been addressed centuries ago

This isn’t a modern solution being proposed here. Here’s Augustine, writing in the 5th century, shares similar thoughts:

It becomes necessary for us, therefore, to investigate this fact, lest it may seem to exhibit any contradiction between the accounts. And the way to explain it is to suppose that, by reason of brevity in the narrative, Matthew has preferred to express it as if the Lord had been really asked to do what it is clear He did actually do, namely, raise the dead to life. For what Matthew directs our attention to, is not the mere words spoken by the father about his daughter, but what is of more importance, his mind, and purpose. Thus he  has given words calculated to represent the father’s real thoughts. For he had so thoroughly despaired of his child’s case, that not believing that she whom he had just left dying, could possibly now be found yet in life, his thought rather was that she might be made alive again. Accordingly, two of the evangelists have introduced the words which were literally spoken by Jairus. But Matthew has exhibited rather what the man secretly wished and thought. Thus both petitions were really addressed to the Lord; namely either that He should restore the dying damsel, or that, if she was already dead, He might raise her to life again. But as it was Matthew’s object to tell the whole story in short compass, he has represented the father as directly expressing in his request what, it is certain, had been his own real wish, and what Christ actually did.

Elaborating on this passage from Augustine, John Frame and Vern Poythress write: “Augustine is invoking the principle that a report may express a speaker’s. To make his point, Matthew must indicate somewhere that the daughter is dead and not merely sick. This he indicates in the compact summary of Jairus’s interaction with Jesus intentions rather than his exact words.”

And here’s another scholar, Craig Evans, with a similar explanation: “Matthew, knowing that by the time Jesus and the father arrive they will find the girl dead (as implied by public lamentation; (cf Mk 5.38), has the father say “My daughter has just died.” Nothing about the sequence and timing of events being narrated is altered.”

I can relate to Matthew

I admire Matthew for being a ‘bottom-line’ guy. I’m built the same way. My wife likes to give a lot of details. Early in our marriage — and even now — I have to watch my patience at times when she’s telling a story because I just want to know what the main point is. She can get frustrated with me because I tend to leave out details that she thinks are important regarding who said what, how they said it, etc. Once when I was getting a little impatient with what I felt was too many details, she told me I was a bad listener.  I mustered up the courage to say “no, you’re a bad summarizer!” As you can imagine, that didn’t really go over too well!

For Matthew, the important part of the story is less about the little details but the important ones – Jairus’ daughter died and came back to life because of Jesus. And if you read Matthew 8-9, he’s jampacking a lot of miracles in between accounts of Jesus’ teaching and leaving out lots of details we read in other Gospels. Matthew keeps the main thing the main thing – Jesus works wonders.  Are we to fault him for that?

BONUS: An alternative resolution

Tim McGrew points out that according to G.A. Chadwick, Matthew’s phrase “has died even now” (ἄρτι ἐτελεύτησεν) is very close in meaning to Mark’s “at the point of death” (ἐσχάτως ἔχει).

A worried dad of a sick daughter might say “she’s dead by now” and mean what we’d convey by saying “she’s at the point of death.” Jairus knew that his daughter was at death’s door when he went looking for Jesus. He may have used words to express that his worst fears already came to pass.

If this is one of Bart’s “best” contradictions to undermine the reliability of the Gospels, then we can assume that the others probably don’t fare as well, either.