In this article, we take a close look at an account in the New Testament that critics love to share as evidence that the gospels are unreliable and contradictory. It’s the story of the centurion, shared in chapter 8 of Matthew and chapter 7 of Luke. In this account, a centurion asks Jesus to heal one of his servants.
The Alleged Contradiction
Here’s the relevant part of the story in Matthew 8: 5-8 (ESV):
5 When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, 6 “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” 7 And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed…
Now, let’s read the same story in Luke 7: 2-7 (ESV):
2Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. 3 When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, 5 for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” 6 And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.7 Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed…
The contradiction seems pretty evident: In Matthew, the centurion appears to speak directly with Jesus. In Luke, the centurion uses intermediaries. So, critics ask, which one of these gospels is wrong? Because, obviously, one of them has to be wrong, right?
The “Contradiction” Explained
Actually, when one considers the literary conventions of the day in which the gospels were written—and to a certain extent, the way we talk and write today—neither gospel is wrong, and there is no contradiction. In ancient biographies (which the gospels seem to be), it was common to speak of something that was done or said by person B, acting under the command of (or on behalf of) person A, as having been done by person A. No mention is made of the intermediary. Matthew uses this convention, keeping his account short and simple, but factually correct. Luke offers more detail, and mentions the intermediaries.
Biblical scholar, Mike Licona explains:
By carefully reading ancient biographies written around the same time as the Gospels and comparing how they tell the same stories differently, I began to recognize that some of the differences resulted from compositional devices. Then when I went to the Gospels, I could see that the authors were probably employing the same compositional devices as other ancient biographers; specifically Plutarch. I began to realize that the differences across the Gospels are not so much contradictions but the result of compositional devices that were the standard practice in historical writing of that day…1
To share an example that is similar to the centurion story, Licona cites Plutarch:
In one biography by Plutarch, the Life of Cato the Younger, Plutarch reports that Pompey wrote an encomium [a speech of praise] on behalf of his friend Plancus and sent an emissary to read it at his trial. But in the Life of Pompey, he narrates Pompey himself going and reading it. The reality is an emissary actually read it as we find in Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger. But in the interest of an economy of words, Plutarch simplifies by narrating Pompey himself read the encomium at Plancus’ trial, even though, in fact, he wasn’t actually present…2
We find something similar going on in the Gospels. The Gospel of Luke tells us about a centurion who had a valuable servant who was very sick. So, he sent some elders of the Jews to Jesus and request of him to heal the servant…In contrast, the Gospel of Matthew narrates the story by having the centurion himself go to Jesus and make the request in person. Like Plutarch, Matthew simplified the story by transferring what one character said to the lips of another.3
In fact, the gospels themselves use this same convention on multiple occasions. One example is in Matthew 27: 59-60 (ESV), regarding Joseph of Arimathea:
59 And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud 60 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.
Joseph did not actually, himself, cut the tomb in the rock. Yet, the author says so because the tomb had been cut on Joseph’s orders.
If you think about it, this is similar to how we speak and write today. For example, you might say, “My wife and I built a new house last year.” Well, most likely, you didn’t actually build a new house. The general contractor and a crew of construction workers did. Yet, your audience would know exactly what you meant, and no one would call you inaccurate or a liar. The house was built on your orders and on your behalf.
Simply put, the accounts of the centurion offer no contradictions. Anti-Christian websites and scholars love to post lists of “contradictions” in an effort to discredit the New Testament. With a little study, most go down at least as easily as the one we just addressed. When we read the gospels and understand the cultural context and literary conventions of the time in which they were written, many of the alleged contradictions simply go away. The gospels are reliable historical accounts of the life, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus.
- Mike Licona, interviewed by Sean McDowell, “New Research on Gospel Contradictions. Interview with Mike Licona”, Sean McDowell Blog, Jan. 12, 2016, accessed Jan. 16, 2016 at http://seanmcdowell.org/blog/new-research-on-gospel-contradictions-interview-with-mike-licona