When reading the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, one notices very quickly that the stories are in a different order in many places between them. This has led some to conclude that they invented the stories, and were playing fast and loose with the facts. But is this the correct way of looking at them?
It is true that some of the gospel stories are arranged in different order in each of the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). For example, look at the story of Jesus when He is in the boat and calms the storm on the Sea of Galilee. In Matthew 8:23-27, this story comes after the account of the healing of the Roman centurion’s servant (vv. 5-13), and followed by the driving out of the legion of demons and then in Chapter 9 by the healing of the paralyzed man. In Mark 4:35-41, this same story is preceded by Jesus’s teaching of the kingdom parables (Mark 4:1-34), and followed by the driving out of the legion of demons, and the healing of the paralyzed man does not follow, but rather precedes the calming of the storm by two chapters (see Mark 2:1-12). In Luke’s gospel, the calming of the storm (Luke 8:22-25) is preceded by the kingdom parables and the account of Jesus’ mother and brothers (Luke 8:4-21), and followed by the driving out of the demons, and again the story of the healing of the paralyzed man is before, not after the storm calming (see Luke 5:17-26). How do we explain the differences?
First, some of the gospel writers, particularly Luke, seem to group stories more by themes and topics rather than by time order. For example, Luke moves the notice of John the Baptist being in prison to the beginning of his gospel to form a conclusion to his section on John the Baptist (Luke 3:20), whereas in Mark this is found later in the gospel( Mark 6:17) and not connected to the first section on John the Baptist (Mark 1:3-8) They grouped certain stories together to drive home a theological point or emphasis. This did not mean that the stories themselves were fiction. Inaccuracy as to what actually happened can only be shown if it can be demonstrated that each author intended to put the stories in time order. But as we will see with this example, and through all the gospels, that cannot be shown.
A key fact in this matter is the language used to connect the different units or stories together. Often we see the word “and” or “then” in between stories and we assume they indicate that one follows the other in time. But in the Greek, “and ” (Greek-kai) and “then” (Greek-de) do not necessarily mean that one event follows from another (1). They can simply mean “this happened, and then another time (whether before or after) this also happened.” Only when there is a definite time connection, such as “on the same day, both of these events happened” or “while this was happening, something else happened” can you prove a definite chronological relationship between events.
Let’s look again at the above example. In Mark, after the teaching of the kingdom parables, it definitely says that the calming of the sea incident happened on “the same day” (Mark 4:35). So these two eventt are definitely time-connected. It also seems that the driving out of the demons follows their trip across the sea (Mark 5:1) and in fact does so in all three gospels. However, the same calming of the sea event in Matthew is introduced by simply “And when He was entered into a ship”, not specifying connection in time to what comes before (Matt. 8:23). Notice that this includes no specific time connection with the story of the centurion’s servant. In Luke, the storm at sea account is again introduced by a non-chronological phrase “Now it came to pass on a certain day”.
In Mark 2:1 the healing of the paralyzed man accountis introduced without a definite time connection phrase with the events in the preceding chapter or with any other unit.The same is true of the parallel account of the healing of the paralyzed man in Luke 5:17-26 except that it does say that the calling of Matthew happens after these things (Luke 5:27, which puts these events in the same order as in Mark 2:13, and in Matthew (Matt 9:9).
And we see also that the story of the healing of the paralyzed man is introduced without a definite time connecting phrase in Matt. (9:1) : “And he entered into a ship”, which as we discussed above, simply means “at another time He entered into a ship” , not necessarily earlier or later.
The kingdom parables show up in Matthew in Chapter 13, and are time connected to the mother and brothers incident by the phrase “the same day” (Matt. 12:50 to 13:1). Putting this together with Mark’s gospel, this means that the kingdom parables, the incident with Jesus’ mother and brothers, and the calming of the sea, all happened the same day. Also notice that the calming of the sea event in Luke is also preceded by the kingdom parables and the mother and brothers accounts, so Luke agrees with Mark and Matthew that they must have happened in the same day. The mother and brothers coming is also time connected to Jesus’s speaking about a house divided in Matt 12: 46 by the phrase:”‘while he yet talked to the people.” But the parallel account of the house divided in Luke’s gospel (Luke 11:15-32) does not contradict Matthew by saying it happened on a different day. Instead, it has a time connector (Luke 11:37 ) “while He yet spake” to yet another teaching Jesus apparently gave on that same day, the “woes” to the Pharisees and lawyers (Luke 11:38-54). Get the idea?
Stay with me! In Luke and Mark these same two accounts (the kingdom parables and mother and brothers) are next to each other but in different order, but since there are no definite time connection phrases between them, whether Jesus’ mother and brothers came first or after (or during) the time He was teaching the kingdom parables is not specified in Mark or Luke (see Mark 3:35-4:1, and Luke 8:18-19). Most likely Luke shows the correct order, that Jesus’ mother and brothers came while He was still teaching the crowd the kingdom parables. Also,these two units (the kingdom parables and the mother and brothers accounts) are not specified in Matthew as to whether or not they happened on the same day as the sea calming, since the latter has no time connectors as shown above, however, we know that they were on the same day by Mark’s gospel.
What this rather tedious analysis above shows is that no true time contradictions can be proven here between any of the three Synoptic gospels for these events. Speaking of tedious analyses, I have personally gone through the rather complicated process of examining all the Synoptic Gospels in their entirety this way, diagramming the different stories and units and time connectors or lack thereof, and have determined that there is no proven chronological contradiction in any of them. Many of the accounts are connected as groups in the same way in all three of these gospels, even though the groups themselves are placed in different order. Most likely this is because they indeed were time connected within the groups and were taught together.
It’s only when we unfairly expect first century writers writing in a different language to follow our modern English practices that we create imaginary time “contradictions” and jump to incorrect conclusions about the accuracy of the Bible accounts themselves.
(1) Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2nd edition, IVP Academic, Downer’s Grove, IL, 2007, p. 168-169.