Contradictions in the Infancy stories?



Feb 3/2008, revised Feb 10


Over the last six months or so, I have received a couple of emails about “chronological oddities” in the Infancy stories:


Here’s one:


I am reading through "God is not Great" (2007), by atheist Christopher Hitchens.


Hitchens raises a point that I am having some difficulty refuting.  He writes that Matthew and Luke “flatly contradict each other on the ‘Flight to Egypt,’ Matthew saying that Joseph was ‘warned in a dream’ to make an immediate escape and Luke saying that all three stayed in Bethlehem until Mary’s ‘purification according to the law of Moses,’ which would make it forty days, and then went back to Nazareth via Jerusalem” (page 111).


In other words, Luke’s account makes no mention of the flight to Egypt.  It also makes no mention of a need to escape.  Rather, Luke indicates that Jesus was circumcised eight days after His birth (2:21). Luke then proceeds to write that Jesus’s parents took Him to the Temple to present Him to the Lord.  In sum, the problem, from my perspective, is twofold: 1. Luke does not seem to leave a gap of time for Jesus’s family to flee to Egypt and then travel to Nazareth. 2. Luke provides no reason for the family to need to escape.


What would be some good apologetic responses to this issue?


In Christ, abc


And here’s another:



Dear Mr. Miller,


I have a question about an apparent contradiction between the accounts in Matthew and Luke regarding the infancy of Jesus.


In my blog, a visitor is questioning the integrity of the Gospel accounts. He's using apparent discrepancies to discredit the truth of the Bible. I have already refuted him sufficiently regarding the resurrection narratives, but he has given me a tough question regarding differences in the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. 


He questions why Matthew locates the family of Jesus in Bethlehem while Luke locates them in Nazareth, during overlapping periods. Specifically, he asked why "One gospel has a flight to Egypt, the other a relatively short trip to Jerusalem for post-birth ritual and back".



The two issues mentioned (“Bethlehem versus Nazareth” and “no room for Egypt”) are well-known, but opinions on ‘how contradictory they are’ vary widely.


For example, Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown—in his impressive, detailed, and generally helpful Birth of the Messiah—asserts that they are flatly contradictory:


“This leads us to the observation that the two narratives are not only different—they are contrary to each other in a number of details. According to Luke 1:26 and 2:39 Mary lives in Nazareth, and so the census of Augustus is invoked to explain how the child was born in Bethlehem, away from home. In Matthew there is no hint of a coming to Bethlehem, for Joseph and Mary are in a house at Bethlehem where seemingly Jesus was born (2:11). The only journey that Matthew has to explain is why the family went to Nazareth when they came from Egypt instead of returning to their native Bethlehem (2:22-23). A second difficulty is that Luke tells us that the family returned peaceably to Nazareth after the birth at Bethlehem (2:22,39); this is irreconcilable with Matthew's implication (2:16) that the child was almost two years old when the family fled from Bethlehem to Egypt and even older when the family came back from Egypt and moved to Nazareth. Of the options mentioned before we made the detailed comparison of the two narratives, one must be ruled out, i.e., that both accounts are completely historical. [Brown, Birth of the Messiah, p.46; bold and italics mine]


Now, when I read the above quote—and all other ‘obviously contradictory’-like accusations—I scratch my head and wonder how these folks actually make the leap from the meager textual data to such a strong conclusion! Most of the ‘conservative’ scholars I have read on these passages don’t express any alarm at all, and we will go through the data (a) of the text; and (b) of the ancient literary world to show why this is not really an issue.



So, our approach here will be to:


·        Examine how closely the actual biblical text conforms to the assertions above (e.g. “flatly contradict”)


·        See how ‘conservative’ commentators understand the textual data (relative to the ‘problem’ here)


·        Examine how the ancient literary world would have judged this—what were the conventional and/or preferred ways of delivering historical narrative


·        Examine the NT writers in light of these ancient literary practices


·        Do a ‘Reality check’ using the first major anti-Christian writers




One: How closely does the actual biblical text conform to the assertions above?


OK, so first, before diving into the literary conventions of the ancient world, let’s see how obvious-from-the-text these ‘contradictions’ are.


First, let’s look at the statement of Hitchens that Luke and Matthew “flatly contradict one another on the Flight to Egypt”. Now, to verify this claim it is necessary first to take the two statements by each author and look at them side by side. Then, we can look into more detail about the two statements to see if they are in fact ‘contradictory without a doubt’.


So, let’s first arrange the statements about the Flight to Egypt by Matthew and Luke side-by-side to see how contradictory they look – at first blush.


Here is Matthew’s statement about the Flight to Egypt (with some omissions):


Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him.” And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he began to inquire of them where the Christ was to be born. And they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet,

‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,

Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah;

For out of you shall come forth a Ruler,

Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called the magi, and ascertained from them the time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, “Go and make careful search for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, that I too may come and worship Him.” And having heard the king, they went their way; and lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshiped Him; and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country by another way.… Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise and take the Child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.” And he arose and took the Child and His mother by night, and departed for Egypt; and was there until the death of Herod, that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “Out of Egypt did I call My Son.”  Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its environs, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the magi….But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise and take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.” And he arose and took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he departed for the regions of Galilee, and came and resided in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”




Compare that with Luke’s statement about the Flight to Egypt:--oops, there is no statement by Luke on the Flight2Egypt. In fact, he doesn’t mention it one way or the other. He doesn’t support the historicity of the Flight, nor does he disparage it.


OK, that was easy. There cannot be statements that ‘flatly contradict’ (note the ‘-dict’ part of the word… means ‘something SAID’) one another on subject X if there is only one statement about X!


But we all know what the atheist-fellow means: the accounts flatly contradict one another if you make the silence in Luke (about the Magi/Flight) mean more than silence, and if you insert the word 'immediately' into the silence in Matthew about WHEN the warning to Joseph came… If ‘silence about event X’ means ‘denial of event X’ or 'immediately' (smile), then maybe they are correct. But this is a BIG, BIG step—from silence to denial (especially in historical accounts!)—and even if it is true, it is certainly not obvious, explicit, or a case of ‘flatly contradicting’. Silence can mean many things other than ‘denial’ (e.g., lack of interest, irrelevance to the argument--even ignorance of the fact itself is not ‘denial’!). To read 'immediacy' into a silence is just as bad.


But you should all see by now what I mean, too: in the absence of EXPLICIT contradiction, one has to interpret the text in such a way as to CREATE a contradiction. There is no contradiction in what the text 'presents'--at a surface level--but one has to re-create the historical scene "behind" the text, in such a way as to GENERATE a contradiction. In other words, we take textual statements and 'visualize' or 're-create in our minds', if you will, the historical sequence BEHIND those texts. Our author has taken the gospel narratives and 're-created' the historical scene as one in which the sequences are out-of-synch. But the text itself does not make that explicit at all, and the same textual data can be used to 're-create' in-synch sequences as well (at least two plausible ones, as we will note toward the end of this discussion).


So, in the absence of other data from Hitchens, it would not be unfair of us to say that his ‘flatly contradicting’ statement is unwarranted and needs more evidence to support it.



Secondly, the location of the family (from the blog-visitor). Here’s the statement from above:


“Matthew locates the family of Jesus in Bethlehem while Luke locates them in Nazareth, during overlapping periods. Specifically, he asked why "One gospel has a flight to Egypt, the other a relatively short trip to Jerusalem for post-birth ritual and back".


So, do Matthew and Luke locate the family in two different towns, during ‘overlapping periods’? Specifically, does Luke locate the family in Nazareth and have them make a ‘short trip to Jerusalem (from Nzy) for post-birth ritual and back (to Nzy)”?


 Here’s Luke’s narrative about the post-birth ritual (note the place indications):


Now it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all were proceeding to register for the census, everyone to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David,  in order to register, along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. And it came about that while they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her first-born son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.


And in the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,


 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”


 And it came about when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came in haste and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. And when they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.


And when eight days were completed before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.  And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every first-born male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord” ),  and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”  And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for Him the custom of the Law, then he took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said,


 “Now Lord, Thou dost let Thy bond-servant depart In peace, according to Thy word;

 For my eyes have seen Thy salvation, Which Thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, A light of revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Thy people Israel.”


 And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him. And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed— and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with a husband seven years after her marriage,  and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. And she never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. And at that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. … And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth.


Note a couple of things from Luke:

Joseph and Mary are from Nazareth

(No mention of pregnancy-crisis)

They travel to Bethlehem

Jesus is born in Bethlehem

Shepherds visit Jesus in Bethlehem

Joseph/Mary/Jesus make a trip to Jerusalem for various Jewish rituals

(No mention of Magi/Flight)

Sometime after the various rituals, they return to their own city of Nazareth.


When we compare this list with Matthew, here’s what we see:

Joseph and Mary are introduced without reference to B or N.


Jesus is born in Bethlehem

(No mention of Shepherds)

(No mention of family trip to Jerusalem for obligatory Jewish rituals)

Visit of Magi

Flight to Egypt

Family settles in Nazareth



But notice that Luke does NOT indicate a short trip from Nazareth to Jerusalem (for ritual purposes) at all. Neither M nor L have such a trip in their respective narrative, so the blog-visitor’s statement (at least the ‘specifically’ part) is inaccurate.


But also notice that both authors are only reporting some of the events—they share the key elements (i.e., Jesus born in royal city of Bethlehem, Jesus ends up in a despised town of Nazareth), and they each select a subset of the history for their particular point (e.g., Luke has the ritual-trip to emphasize the law-biding character of the family and the acceptance of Jesus by godly Jews; Matthew has the Flight/Secret-Return story to emphasize the early rejection of—or indifference to-- Jesus by the Jewish leadership)


With the various omissions of each, it is hard to really construct ‘overlapping periods’ in which to situate anything but the barest of events. The centerpiece birth in Bethlehem anchors everything, and the story ‘ends’ at Nazy in both. Thus, it would take more explicit textual data to make this into a problem…



Thirdly is the R. Brown citation.


This is sorta similar to the above, developing the ‘contrary’ positions from omissions/silences in the text. Look at the wording in his passage, as a first indication of how these inferences are being made:


“In Matthew there is no hint of a coming to Bethlehem…”

“…are in a house in Bethlehem where seemingly Jesus was born…”

“The only journey Matthew has to explain…”

“…the family returned peacefully to Nazareth after the birth…”

“…irreconcilable with Matthew’s implication that the child…”


There is just too much ‘inferring from implications’ going on here, for my epistemic cynicism!


What emerges from this first-glance look at the objections, is that much is being made from the omissions and silences in the text. To be sure, one COULD CHOOSE to interpret these silences/omissions in such a way as to construe these problems, but how would one defend such choices? Developing arguments from silence is notoriously dangerous, and rarely is certain enough to carry the conclusion single-handedly!


There are, of course, times where an argument from silence can be decisive. For example, here is a statement about a case of ‘concealment’ (where the silence is used to prove the existence of an event, as opposed to ours):


“Of course, an argument from silence can serve as presumptive evidence of the "silenced" event only if, as in this case, the person suppressing the information was in a position to have the information, and was purporting to give a full account of the story from which he omitted the crucial information, and if there were no compelling reasons why he should have omitted the information (other than the wish to conceal). Hence, it is usually a considerably greater leap to conclude that "silence" means "concealment" than it was in the case of Shamir's selective omissions during his interview. In most cases, historians have to guess a bit more. They must presume that a suspected fact was an integral part of the story being reported and so central a part of such a story that the reporter would automatically have included it. That he did not becomes, then, presumptive proof that he was deliberately suppressing this piece of information.” [From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods, Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier, Cornell:2001, p74]


Notice that our objectors have made two unwarranted assumptions in violation of the above: (1) they have assumed that both Matthew and Luke have ‘purported to give a full account of the story’; and (2) that the omitted events were ‘so central a part of such a story’ that they would have been ‘automatically included’.


Biographical writing is notoriously selective—hence the assumption of ‘full account’ will be wrong almost all the time (especially in antiquity). And whereas the birth-in-Bethlehem and the homesteading-in-Nazareth would fit the ‘so central… automatically included’ criteria, it would not be obvious that ANY of the other details would be so central (e.g., the pregnancy-crisis, visits by Magi, flight to Egypt, slaughter of innocents, visits of shepherds, etc could easily be considered subservient to each author’s narrative purpose).


Notice that this difficulty only arises if the simple statement of Luke in 2.39 ("and when they completed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee") is made to say something 'tighter', like "and immediately after they completed the final offering of the firstborn in the Temple, they went from Jerusalem straight to Galilee..." But the difficulty does NOT arise if the statement is interpreted as: "and sometime after they had completed all the legal requirements in Jerusalem, they eventually returned to Galilee from where they had been staying in Bethlehem" Either of these interpretations COULD BE correct, but the text itself does NOT specify which. [It should be noted, however, that the latter interpretation 'imports less extraneous detail' into the verse (smile). Both interpretations 'add something' to the summary statement in Luke, but the former interpretation adds more detail (requiring more proof).

This reduces the number of ‘facts’ which can be used to construct a ‘contradiction’ to only two [birth in B; settlement in N]—and accordingly, these alleged contradictions would need more evidence than these authors have given us so far, in order to be taken seriously as ‘clearly in the text’.




Now, let’s see how ‘conservative’ commentators (or “conservo-moderate” …smile) understand the textual data (relative to the ‘problem’ here)


Here we want to simply note what commentators have observed when viewing these obvious omissions. Are they ‘embarrassed’? Do they consider the omissions a ‘challenge’ to the historicity (or inspiration) of Scripture? Do they consider the omission ‘central’ or merely supportive of a narrative argument?


Let’s look at a couple, on both Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts:


Luke takes another opportunity to mention the fidelity of Jesus' parents to the Jewish law as he continues the narrative (v. 39). He omits mention of the flight to Egypt. It is important to Matthew, providing another example of fulfilled prophecy (Matt 2:13-15); but this is not so significant at this point in Luke. What is significant is that Jesus' parents were faithful to the Jewish law and that the child grew normally, the object of God's grace (v. 40; cf. v. 52). [EBCNT]


Bethlehem, the place near which Jacob buried Rachel (Ge 35:19) and Ruth met Boaz (Ru 1:22-2:6), was preeminently the town where David was born and reared. For Christians it has become the place where angelic hosts broke the silence and announced Messiah's birth (Lk 2:8-20). Unlike Luke, Matthew offers no description of Jesus' birth or

the shepherds' visit; [EBCNT]


“…they returned to Galilee. Luke does not mention the coming of the Magi, the danger from Herod, or the flight to and return from Egypt (cf. Mt 2:1–23).” [NIV study bible notes]


“Bethlehem in Judea. A village about five miles south of Jerusalem. Matthew says nothing of the events in Nazareth (cf. Lk 1:26–56). Possibly wanting to emphasize Jesus’ Davidic background, he begins with the events that happened in David’s city. It is called “Bethlehem in Judea,” not only to distinguish it from the town of the same name about seven miles northwest of Nazareth, but also to emphasize that Jesus came from the tribe (Judah) and territory that produced the line of Davidic kings. That Jews expected the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem and to be from David’s family is clear from Jn 7:42. [NIV study bible notes]


2:39-40. Joseph and Mary then returned with Jesus to their home in Nazareth of Galilee, about 65 miles north of Jerusalem, where Jesus grew up. Luke omitted Jesus’ sojourn in Egypt from his account (cf. Matt. 2:13-21) since it was not his purpose to show the early rejection of the Messiah. In Nazareth He was first rejected after He publicly declared that He was the Messiah.  [The Bible knowledge commentary]


Lk. appears to know nothing of the visit of the Magi. It would have suited his theme of the universality of the Gospel so well, that he would hardly have omitted it, if he had known it. In that case he was not familiar with our First Gospel. From Mt. 2:11 we infer that the Holy Family, after the Purification, returned to Bethlehem and there occupied a house. The parents may have thought that the Son of David, born in Bethlehem, ought to be brought up there. Thence they fly to Egypt, a flight not mentioned in the authority used by Lk. [Plummer, A. (1896). ICC]


“(39) The note about the family’s departure to Nazareth prepares the way for the following story (2:41-52); for the phraseology cf. Acts 13:29. Luke stresses their conscientious fulfillment of all that  the law prescribed….Luke says nothing about the visit to Egypt, which according to Mt. 2:13ff. preceded the settlement in Nazareth (cf. Lagrange, 91f.). [Marshall, I. H. (1978). The Gospel of Luke : A commentary on the Greek text. The New international Greek testament commentary (124). Exeter [Eng.: Paternoster Press.]


“Luke apparently did not know the story or else he deliberately ignored it (cf. Luke 2:39).”

[Hagner, D. A. (2002). Vol. 33A: Word Biblical Commentary  : Matthew 1-13. Word Biblical Commentary (25). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.]


[tanknote: For purposes of (a) analysis of a narrative; and (b) assessment of a sacred text, it makes no difference whether a biblical author ‘knew the story’ or not—the issue is what was written on the media, not what other ideas were in the author’s head at the time. The theological doctrine of ‘inspiration’ applies to the text—NOT to the authors. The Bible is ‘inspired’ and ‘inerrant’—not the human authors of that Bible. Huge difference. If Luke didn’t know about the Flight, or Matthew didn’t know about the shepherds, it doesn’t matter—they didn’t assert that their account was exhaustive.]



Notice that most of these commentators simply note the omission and don’t make a big deal out of it. Also note that many of them offer an ‘explanation’ for the omission, along the lines suggested above—that the omitted event was neither ‘central’ to the story, nor was it necessary to achieve the narrator’s authorial aim in the storyline. Omission had a different set of implications for these commentators, than for our objectors.


Are our commentators correct in assuming that omissions are legitimate, and that narrative strategies (at least in ancient biography and/or history writings) even prescribe such omissions?


This brings us to our next section…




Examine how the ancient literary world would have judged this—what were the conventional and/or preferred ways of delivering historical narrative


Omission—in a historical narrative—is a form of abbreviation. It serves literary devices such as summary, condensation, background, and telescoping.


Of special interest in ancient texts is the technique of telescoping. gives as one definition of ‘telescope’ this: “to shorten or condense; compress: to telescope the events of five hundred years into one history lecture.” American Heritage gives “To make more compact or concise; condense.”


Telescoping, in particular, often deliberately presents events in thematic order—for presentation to an audience. A great example of this in the modern world is in theatrical productions of historical biography. Note the description of this in this account of a biography of Nigerian history:


“This dramatic interpretation of the biography of one of the makers of southern Nigerian history is a challenging venture for any playwright. This is also, not merely because of the orthodox status of a story that comes with a ready-made audience, but because it is a true narrative whose incidents are not open to fictional manipulation. It is a challenge for any playwright to attempt creative variations of any significance on this almost intractable material. Osofisan is master of theatre enough to accept this challenge. The other challenge in this choice is the problem of chronology and scale. This is usually dealt with through flashbacks or the telescoping of events, with predictable effect on the attention and concentration of the theatre audience. Osofisan tackles this problem by focusing on political intrigue and betrayal within the early church in Nigeria, the comforting domestic relationship from which the central character draws emotional support, and the never failing entertainment value of songs. The playwright demonstrates beyond doubt that a ready-made story, biographical or historical, orthodox or sacred, may be successfully made into theatrical fare by a playwright in control of his craft. [cited from]



So, how did the ancient literary world view omissions, telescoping, and thematic (versus chronological) ordering?


It viewed the practice favorably, as a standard means of good historical writing.


The clearest statement of this is the often-cited passage from Lucian’s How to Write History, 56:


Lucian, 56: "Rapidity is always useful, especially if there is a lot of material. It is secured not so much by words and phrases as by the treatment of the subject. That is, you should pass quickly over the trivial and unnecessary, and develop the significant points at adequate length. Much must be omitted. After all, if you are giving a dinner to your friends and everything is ready, you don't put salt fish and porridge on the table in the midst of the cakes, poultry, entrees, wild boar, hare, and choice cuts of fish, simply because they are ready too! You forget the cheaper articles altogether."


Hengel notes that this influence was pervasive:


“Lucian of Samosata, the Voltaire of the ancient world, drew up a set of rules for the budding historian in his book How to Write History. In it, he counseled the historian against having an eye for his own advantage and the favour of his reader, as this would destroy his freedom and veracity (9, 61, 63), but he did promise him success with his readers if he attracted their attention and curiosity as early as the foreword: 'If he shows that what he is going to say will be important, essential, personal, or useful' (53). On the other hand, all inessential and minor matters ought to be left on one side, since those who entertain their friends with an opulent meal do not produce salt fish and pea soup at the same time (56). So from this perspective, too, there was pressure towards a strict limitation and selection of material. Lucian was concerned to enjoin this narrow perspective on the historian.” [HI:AHEC, 13]



And this is applied to NT writers vis-à-vis telescoping by Blomberg:


"Perhaps the most perplexing differences between parallels occur when one gospel writer has condensed the account of an event which took place in two or more stages into one concise paragraph which seems to describe the action taking place all at once. Yet this type of literary abridgement was quite common among ancient writers (cf. Lucian, How to Write History 56), and once again it is unfair to judge them by modern standards of precision which no one in antiquity required." [BLOM:135]



And this is fairly standard practice in the ancient world. We might look at the following examples, from ancient Mesopotamia to Greek and Roman historians:


From a monument of ancient Assyria:


TELL AL RIMAH STELA (2.114F) [TCS2:275, K. Lawson Younger, Jr.]

The stela was discovered at Tell al Rimah, near Jebel Sinjar, where it stood in “position inside the cella of a Late Assyrian shrine, set beside the podium, a placing that is unparalleled among the find spots of other royal stelae”. The monument is 130 cm in height and 69 cm in width. … it has a relief of the king with divine symbols on the top and the text below. It also contains… an inscription of Adad-nirari III with a text of Nergal-ēreš, although this portion has been deliberately erased. It is uncertain when Nergal-ēreš fell from power and when the erasure would have taken place. …


‘To Adad, the greatest lord, powerful noble of the gods, first-born son of Anu, unique, awesome, lofty, the canal-inspector of heaven and earth, who rains abundance, who dwells in Z-, the great lord, his lord.


Adad-nirari, mighty king, king of the universe, king of Assyria; son of Samši-Adad, the king of the universe, king of Assyria; son of Shalmaneser, the king of the four quarters.


‘I mustered (my) chariots, troops and camps; I ordered (them) to march to the land of Hatti. In a single year [footnote here reads: “A literary convention in which several campaigns to Syria have been telescoped into one”.], I subdued the entire lands of Amurru (and) Hatti. I imposed upon them tax and tribute forever.



From Josephus:


“One may assume that either Nehemiah or Josephus or both are hopelessly confused, and adherents of each position have not been wanting... Evidence from the Samaria papyri, uncovered in 1962 (F. M. Cross, BA, 26 [1963], 110–121), has helped unravel at least a part of the mystery. From the data at hand F. M. Cross posited a succession of Sanballats: Sanballat I, who was governor of Samaria when Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem (ca 445/4); his grandson Sanballat II, the figure mentioned in the papyri (early 4th cent); and the latter’s grandson, Sanballat III, the governor mentioned by Josephus. Evidence for the reappearance of a name in alternate generations (papponymy) has strengthened the argument for more than one Jaddua as well, with the result that Nehemiah’s reference to that figure need no longer be seen as equally problematical. Josephus has obviously telescoped certain events and people; Nehemiah, on the other hand, carries the picture down to only the beginning of the 4th cent B.C.. [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia]


From Thucydides and Dionysius of Halicarnassus:


“We might certainly draw just such a negative conclusion from surveying Josephus' retelling of the Jewish Scriptures. We have seen from James Edwards that there are not in the Scriptures many intercalations of the sort analyzed above for Josephus to deal with; but, as I have myself illustrated elsewhere, Josephus is in fact noticeably concerned to 'improve' the flow of his narrative, either by removing all sorts of items that might seem to interrupt it, or else by reordering them. The people do not return to the Jordan for commemorative stones, they bring them with them; the booty taken from Jericho is described along with Achan's theft and what he took all in one sequence; and so forth. Where possible each event or sequence of events is narrated from start to finish and left there. The 'order' Josephus claims is thematic, one theme at a time, one narrative sequence at a time. And I certainly cannot recall any instance where Josephus himself interrupts a given sequence with a distinct but thematically related incident… Lucian, in the next century, would seem to indicate much the same attitude to avoidable interruptions, digressions, in a historical narrative, however vivid and interesting in themselves. In a battle the narrator will describe initial deployments and plans in turn and completely; only when battle is joined will he switch attention between the two sides, and then only when the turn of events demands it. Thematic order and clarity seem to be the overriding aim. 'Let the clarity of the writing be limpid, achieved, as I have said, both by the diction and by the interconnecting of events.' The historian 'will make everything distinct and complete, and when he has finished the first topic he will introduce the second, fastened to it and linked with it like a chain, to avoid breaks and a multiplicity of disjointed narratives'. .. I do not claim to have read widely among the historians for this study. However, a brief skim through Dionysius of Halicarnassus and through Thucydides afforded no obvious counter-examples. What we seem to find are strings of individually coherent events arranged in sequences; we may well switch from one sequence to another as we follow different protagonists in turn.”  [NT:DTWW, 121-122]



From Jason of Cyrene and the Roman Jurists:


“We have an excellent example of the deliberate literary abbreviation of a historical work in the account of the Hellenistic reform in Jerusalem and the victorious struggle of Judas Maccabaeus. Jason of Cyrene, a Diaspora Jew, wrote a history in five volumes which in the first century BC was compressed into one volume, known to us as II Maccabees, by an unknown epitomator. The epitomator did this to provide the reader with better entertainment by making the work easier to read, for 'wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious and enhances one's enjoyment. So also the style of the story delights the ears of those who read the summary account' (II Macc. 15.39). The works of the Roman jurists suffered a similar fate of abbreviation and compression. At the time of Justinian they were concentrated in the Digests. The rigour of this procedure emerges from the fact that at that time two thousand books of three million lines are said to have been reduced to fifty 'books' of one hundred and fifty thousand lines.” [HI:AHEC, 11-12]


……………………………………….. ……………………….

RabbitTrail: Epitome.  One could—with profit—research the techniques of epitomizers for cases of this. Epitome was a genre of writing which was specifically a condensation of another’s work(s), or a group of authors’ works on a specific theme. It was literally filled with such omissions, telescoping, summarizing, and thematic ordering.


Jane Lightfoot can describe Theopompos’ work thus:


“When he produced a prose epitome of Herodotos [sic], he became the first known exponent of a genre with a great future—the boiled-down, user-friendly, easy-to-take-in summary.” [HI:LGRW,254]


Brill’s New Pauly defines it as such:


“[A]s an ideal type, it is a form of reduced written text somewhere between an excerpt and a paraphrase, generally of prose works, and themselves written in prose. Extreme brevity is the declared aim of an epitome: decorative features of the original, such as speeches, or digressions, or lengthy passages of text, are omitted or ordered differently. However, the wording of the original is often kept in the retained passages; however, occasionally changes were made deliberately. .. This first kind of epitome, conveying the works of one particular author, was joined by a second, based on a broader choice of literature and providing a condensed overview of a particular subject…. Of the more than 120 known pagan epitomes, 38 are partially or completely extant, of the 36 epitomes, 33 have survived. Their subject matters are accounts of historical events, philosophical and theological treatises, as well as other specialized literature.” [Brills New Pauly, s.v. “Epitome”]


The techniques used in that genre would have been similar to those used in these other extra-biblical works cited above. And, even though this refers to summarizing written works, this could easily apply to the creation of the written gospels—especially to the extant any of the “multiple-source” theories are correct.

………………………….. ………………….



What this means is that we have to re-prioritize our emphasis on chronological order. The ancients seemed to be interested more in thematic order, and chronology was of minor importance, typically.


Furthermore, chronological sequence, which is indispensable for us, played a secondary role in ancient biography: as Diogenes Laertius' lives of the philosophers or Suetonius' lives of the emperors show, chronology could be largely dispensed with; or, as in the case of Plutarch, it could be treated in a fairly cavalier fashion. In biography in particular, the tendency was less towards a continuous and consecutive account; authors were quite content to string together a series of typical anecdotes with virtually no connection between them.


1.7 Even in a number of the larger historical works, however, the author limited himself to linking individual events and scenes loosely together; he would even jump over long intervals of time in a few sentences, after which he would once again describe particular incidents in very great detail. " [HI:AHEC, 16-17]



And our gospel authors were typical writers of that milieu:


“A further problem arises from the fact that John’s record seems to require a public ministry of three years, whereas the other three Gospels do not on the surface give the impression that it was more than a year. Whereas no definite solution can be reached, it is most likely that the longer period is correct and that the other Evangelists have telescoped events, with the resulting effect of suggesting a one-year period. It is generally admitted by scholars that none of the evangelists was particularly interested in chronology. It is impossible, in short, to attach precise dates to the life and ministry of Jesus.” [Baker encyclopedia of the Bible.p1144.]


“This position is an alternative that Coleman doesn’t mention. But I think that it comes closest to what advocates of inerrancy have in mind. There is still a certain vagueness in the expressions “inerrant” and “is the case.” But a sympathetic reading of position 6 leads to reasonable treatment of the problems. It means that “There is no God” is false and “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” is true. It also allows that biblical writers can paraphrase, summarize, translate, use their own favorite words, use metaphor, hyperbole, and the like. It allows for historical telescoping (Matt. 9:18; cf. Luke 8:41, 49) and for omission of pedantic qualifications (Mark 1:5). It allows, in other words, that biblical writers use ordinary language rather than hyper-precise language. [Poythress, “Problems for Limited Inerrancy”; The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.]


"...since we must reckon with the fact that from the beginning the earliest Christian writers and their successors tended to reduce their narrative material much more often than they expanded and elaborated it." [HI:AHEC,11



What this means is that it will be very, very difficult to find a ‘chronological contradiction’ anywhere in the gospel narratives, since the gospel authors are not even trying to maintain strict chronological sequence—it just was not that important to writers of that period. They arranged their material in the interests of clarity of logical or thematic presentation, instead of chronological.


And this condensation, omission, and telescoping is pervasive in all of biblical literature.


For example, in (probably) the two most striking cases (i.e., cursing of the fig tree and Jairus’s daughter’s healing) are understood in exactly this way:


“The sequence of events here differs from Mark (cf. Mk 11:12–14, 20–26); ancient biography was not required to be chronological, and Matthew’s changes in Mark’s sequence would have been considered negligible.” [The IVP Bible background commentary  : New Testament (electronic ed.) (Mt 21:19); on the fig tree incident]


“(4) A passage may be so abbreviated that it seems to contradict a fuller parallel. Mark has Jairus and his companions come to Jesus twice, once to tell him of his daughter’s illness and once to say that she has died (Mk 5:21–43). Matthew so compresses the account that Jairus comes only once and tells Jesus right at the outset of the story that his daughter is dead (Mt 9:18–26). This type of literary abridgment was common in antiquity and not perceived as misleading or in error (cf. Lucian, How to Write History, 56). Similar telescoping appears in Matthew’s account of the withered fig tree (Mt 21:18–22; cf. Mk 11:12–14, 20–21) and in Luke’s account of  Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, if Luke is not in fact using a different tradition altogether, rather than Mark (Lk 22:66–71; cf. Mk 14:53–15:1).[ Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (electronic ed.) (295). ]



Now, before we do a ‘reality check’ by seeing what aspects of the NT are attacked by the first several skeptics in Antiquity, let’s just document that this kind of literary style/device is everywhere in the NT narratives:


“...provides a transition out of the infancy material proper, since in the next event Jesus is twelve years old. In discussing the return to Nazareth, Luke appears to be telescoping events in Jesus’ life (see the third additional note on 2:22). The actual order of events between Luke and Matthew is difficult to establish, since chronological facts are limited. Alford (1874: 464) notes that one cannot state for certain that a contradiction with Matthew is present. Hendriksen (1978: 178–79) suggests that Luke’s limiting of a Gentile emphasis to Acts explains why he omitted the Matthean material, but it is possible that Luke did not know Matthew or his tradition at this point. [Bock, D. L. (1994). Luke Volume 1: 1:1-9:50. Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament (253).]


“The setting of Simeon’s and Anna’s prophecies about Jesus involves three separate ceremonies that have been summarized together in 2:22–24: the purification ceremony involving the wife, forty days after birth (Lev. 12:2–4, 6; Luke 2:22a, 24); the presentation of the firstborn to the Lord (Exod. 13:2, 12, 15; 34:19; Num. 18:15–16 [which notes the ransom payment of five shekels]; Luke 2:23); and the dedication of the firstborn to the Lord’s service (1 Sam. 1–2). [Bock, D. L. (1994). Luke Volume 1: 1:1-9:50. Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament (234). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.]


“There is obviously a compressed account here, but it also seems natural that if the parents were dedicating the child to the Lord, they would want to be ceremonially clean at the time of dedication. Thus, either view 1 (the birth-cleanliness view) or view 2 (the parental-dedication view) could explain the plural reference. The point of the passage should not be missed in the debate:  Jesus’ parents are piously following the law by bringing the child before the Lord.”

[Bock, D. L. (1994). Luke Volume 1: 1:1-9:50. Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament (236). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.]


“Matthew’s largest group of healing miracles occurs in chapters 8–9. Here Matthew presents Jesus as one mighty in deed, while sharply focusing on his sovereignty and authority. Matthew regularly abbreviates the healing stories, eliminating distracting detail and dialog in order to focus more exclusively on Christology (e.g., 8:28–34; 9:1–8). At times this compression or telescoping of narrative is so drastic as to border on contradiction with his sources (9:18–26; cf. Mk 5:21–43).”  [Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (electronic ed.) (302). ]


“Has one or the other of the Synoptics dislocated a single Jewish trial in the narrative sequence, or were there two sessions of the Sanhedrin, one at night and a second in the morning? Among those who defend the historicity of the Sanhedrin trial, the former option of a single trial is widely accepted, but its timing is debated: (1) a single morning session, according to Luke, the night setting being a Markan literary technique (Catchpole, Black, Robinson); or (2) a single nighttime session extending to dawn, following Mark and Matthew, with Luke telescoping the trial summary to the morning (Blinzler, Smalley, Sherwin-White). Luke’s narrative does not fill the night with trial activity but does retain a nocturnal mocking and abuse by those guarding Jesus (Lk 22:63–65). A minor agreement here with Matthew, the tag line in blind man’s bluff, “Who is the one who hit you?” (Lk 22:64 par. Mt 26:68; omitted in Mk 14:65), hints at Luke’s knowledge of the nighttime trial. Since the morning assembly went to Pilate with expanded allegations (Lk 23:2), the entire Sanhedrin may well have rehearsed the previous night’s dialog (22:66–71) in order to devise the sedition charge. Luke’s arrangement shows that these political accusations were obtained by a legally convened Sanhedrin in a religious prosecution.

[ Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (electronic ed.) (846). ]



“A further problem arises from the fact that John’s record seems to require a public ministry of three years, whereas the other three Gospels do not on the surface give the impression that it was more than a year. Whereas no definite solution can be reached, it is most likely that the longer period is correct and that the other Evangelists have telescoped events, with the resulting effect of suggesting a one-year period. It is generally admitted by scholars that none of the evangelists was particularly interested in chronology. It is impossible, in short, to attach precise dates to the life and ministry of Jesus.” [Baker encyclopedia of the Bible. Map on lining papers. (1144).]



“But the precious only daughter is not well. In fact, she is beginning to die: apethnēsken must be taken as an ingressive imperfect, because in 8:49 the envoy announces that the daughter has in fact died. Some argue that Matt. 9:18 disagrees with Mark 5:23, which speaks of the daughter being “at the end,” and also disagrees with Luke in that Matthew has Jairus announce the daughter’s death at the beginning of the account, a death that has just occurred (Schürmann 1969: 490 says that Matthew’s rendering is different from Luke’s). But this is more of a literary issue than a real problem (Plummer 1896: 234; Arndt 1956: 246). Matthew, as he has before, telescopes the account and does not narrate any report by envoys. Because he lacks this detail, he does not report the death in two stages. Such telescoping occurs often in Matthew throughout this section (e.g., Matt. 8:5–13, 28–34). Mark 5:23 agrees with Luke in rendering the sequence of events, though Mark uses a slang expression to point out that she is near death. The difference between Matthew and the other accounts is a matter of literary choice, since most recognize either that Matthew knew a version like Mark’s or that Mark would have known Matthew. [Bock, D. L. (1994). Luke Volume 1: 1:1-9:50. Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament (792).]


“Luke’s wording to describe the woman’s approach from behind matches the participle in Matt. 9:20 and the adverb in Mark 5:27 = Matt. 9:20. The description of the touch on the hem of the garment also matches Matt. 9:20. Luke is briefer than Mark, while Matt. 9:21–22 further telescopes the account by having Jesus turn and declare the woman well, after which Matthew notes that she was healed. In other words, Matthew omits Jesus’ search to see who touched him. [Bock, D. L. (1994). Luke Volume 1: 1:1-9:50. Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament (795)]


“7:7a  The messengers’ report of the centurion’s humility continues. He is not worthy to have Jesus come into his home, but neither is he worthy to go to Jesus, a point that shows that defilement by entering a home is not the centurion’s main concern. This comment is not in Matthew, because in his telescoping of the account the friends who bring the centurion’s message are not mentioned at all (Creed 1930: 102). The wording of this verse is Lucan. But this detail may well reflect sources to which Luke gained access and summarized in his own words. What is clear is that the centurion did not feel worthy of direct contact with Jesus.” [Bock, D. L. (1994). Luke Volume 1: 1:1-9:50. Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament (640)]


“Mark 5:34 repeats the reply and adds the point that the woman is healed as well as saved. This Marcan wording clearly distinguishes between Jesus’ remarks about her healing and her restored position before God (Foerster, TDNT 7:990). Matthew 9:22 mentions Jesus’ declaration that her faith has saved her and then mentions the instant healing. This order is a reflection of his telescoping the account. [Bock, D. L. (1994). Luke Volume 1: 1:1-9:50. Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament (799). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.]


“Nevertheless, seeing two events is also possible (Carson 1984: 119; Alford 1874: 484–85; Geldenhuys 1951: 180–81; Marshall 1978: 201 [apparently]). (1) In Mark 1:19 the fishermen are mending nets, not washing them as in Luke. This difference is not great, as both might occur at the same time, but the difference in detail is noteworthy. (2) In addition, a distinct set of nets may be in view in each account (Marshall 1978: 202; see the exegesis of 5:5). (3) The absence of Andrew is peculiar, if Mark’s account is being developed by Luke, since the structure of two pairs of fishermen from Mark is ignored here. Good arguments can be assembled either way. It is quite possible to explain the differences simply as Mark’s telescoping his account…” [Bock, D. L. (1994). Luke Volume 1: 1:1-9:50. Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament (450). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.]


“Mark 9:20–27 contains a much more detailed version of this event. The boy goes into a convulsion. Jesus asks how long the boy has had the condition. “Since childhood” comes the reply. There follows a request for Jesus to heal him. Jesus calls on the father to believe. The father says that he believes and asks for help with his unbelief. As a larger crowd begins coming to the scene, Jesus rebukes the deaf and mute spirit (a description unique to Mark), commanding the spirit to come out permanently. The spirit shrieks, causes convulsions, and comes out of the boy, who now looks like a corpse. Jesus takes the boy’s hand and helps him to stand. Luke clearly has a telescoped version. Matthew 17:18 is similar to Luke: Jesus rebukes the demon, it departs from the boy, and he is healed from that hour. Mark emphasizes the key role of faith, the importance of prayer, and the severity of the boy’s condition, while Matthew and Luke stress Jesus’ healing power. Luke’s omission of prayer is interesting, for he normally stresses it. This may be yet another indication of a complex situation with [Bock, D. L. (1994). Luke Volume 1: 1:1-9:50. Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament (884)]



“1.  Mary made two trips to the tomb (J. Wenham 1992a: 83, 90–95; Osborne 1984: 149 n. 2; Westcott 1908: 2.337). First, she saw the tomb empty and ran away immediately without checking inside. She left the other women, not mentioned in John, to go in and discover what actually happened. When Mary returned behind the running disciples, she still did not know what had happened. She then saw Jesus (Matt. 28:9–10; John 20:11–18). An apparent problem with this view is that the Synoptics indicate that the disciples went to the tomb as a result of the women’s report about Jesus’ resurrection (Luke 24:10–12), a detail that could fit only John 20:2 if Mary reported that the tomb was empty and the others came later to fill in the details. Telescoping is possible: Mary arrived first and the other women brought their report, having trailed slightly behind her. But there is also the question of where Matt. 28:9–10 fits, since these verses look as if they belong to the first return home. Matthew (and the shorter version of Mark) lacks a visit by Peter, making Matthew’s event look like the first trip home. Wenham’s suggestion can be right only if Matthew truncated the first report so that Matt. 28:9–10 equals John 20:11–18. The major obstacle is how Mary was in doubt in the second scene in John if an appearance occurred on the first return home. Matthew’s truncation would mean either that Mary was not party to the Matthean vision (despite its similarity to John) or that Matthew (again telescoping) described this later vision here since he does not mention Peter’s visit. [Bock, D. L. (1996). Luke Volume 2: 9:51-24:53. Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament (1886).]


“Matthew 19:20 lacks a reference to the ruler’s youth as the temporal framework of his obedience, but is alone in telling us that the man is young. Perhaps Matthew is suggesting that the reply is a part of youthful carelessness. But Matthew’s account is fuller, for he alone notes that the ruler asked an additional question about what was still lacking. This suggests that the ruler is disappointed with Jesus’ reply and wants to know if that is all there is to his answer. In contrast, Mark 10:21 = Luke 18:22 note how Jesus initiates the idea that the ruler still lacks something. This difference may well be the result of their telescoping the conversation. Mark 10:20 alone has the ruler addressing Jesus as teacher. All three writers use a different verbal form to introduce the reply…[Bock, D. L. (1996). Luke Volume 2: 9:51-24:53. Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament (1480)].


“Matthew is different and briefer than the other two Synoptics: Matt. 26:18 simply notes that they are to go into the city and tell a certain man that the Passover will be held in his house. Matthew’s account looks telescoped, as is his habit (e.g., Matt. 8:5–13 versus Luke 7:1–10).  [Bock, D. L. (1996). Luke Volume 2: 9:51-24:53. Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament (1712).]



“The narrative omits all details of Christ’s life, ministry, and death and moves directly from his birth to his ascension. As Beale (1999: 639) points out, such abbreviation or telescoping of events is common both elsewhere in the NT (John 3:13; 8:14; 13:3; 16:5, 28; Rom. 1:3, 4; 1 Tim. 3:16) and in Revelation itself (1:5; 2:8; 17:8). There is a logic to the omission, for his destiny to rule is linked closely with his ascension and exaltation.” [Osborne, G. R. (2002). Revelation. Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament (462).]


“7:26-28. After all, He is the kind of High Priest who meets our need. His character is utterly without blemish and He has been exalted above the heavens. Consequently too, He had no need like the Levitical priests to offer sacrifices day after day, first for His own sins, and then for the sins of the people. At first sight verses 27-28 seem to refer to the ritual of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), but that was yearly, not “day after day.” Probably these verses telescope that ritual with the regular sacrificial routine. There seems to be some evidence from Jewish tradition that a high priest was thought to offer daily sacrifice, and the stipulations of Leviticus 6:12-13 may refer to him. [The Bible knowledge commentary ]



“As with all other attempts to synchronize Paul’s report in Galatians with Acts, there are difficulties with this solution, too. … In the account of the present chapter, I have taken as a premise that the “answer” provided by the apostolic decree in Acts 15 admirably fits the “question” posed by the episode related by Paul in Gal 2:11–14. I leave undecided whether this should be explained by (a) Gal 2:11–14 being a flash-back, recounting an episode preceding Gal 2:1–10; or (b) Luke having telescoped into one meeting in Acts 15 decisions really taken at two meetings, the second after the writing of Galatians. [In the shadow of the temple : Jewish influences on early Christianity. 2002 (169).].


“Mark describes a lengthy trial by night in the high priest’s house. At this substantially the same dialogue as is recorded in Luke took place, and it was then followed by a brief meeting of the Sanhedrin in the morning. Luke says nothing about the trial at night but sticks to what happened in the morning. Two things are clear—that there was an unofficial session at night in the high priest’s house (which Luke omits altogether), and that an official meeting of the Sanhedrin (which Mark passes over hurriedly) took place in the morning, at which the earlier decisions were confirmed. It is not certain whether the reported dialogue actually took place only at night, or was repeated briefly in the morning. (Since both evangelists are telescoping the narrative, they recorded the conversation in the most convenient place.). New Bible Commentary (Lk 22:54)


 “According to the majority text, the two disciples found the Eleven declaring that the Lord had risen and appeared to Simon. This affirmation has been thought to be difficult in view of 24:1-11, 22-24 and of 24:37, 41 (cf. Mk. 16:13f.). The former passages create no real problem, since the implication is that something fresh has happened since the departure of the two disciples earlier in the day. As for the latter passages, it may seem strange that the disciples should be afraid and disbelieving if they knew that Jesus was risen; but psychologically it is perfectly understandable that a supernatural appearance should cause consternation even when people are half-expecting it. Moreover, the effect of v. 12 is to prepare the reader for Peter to have some further experience. Mk. 16:13f. is a telescoping of the whole narrative, Lk. 24:13-43, and should not be played off against v. 34 in particular; it is clear that there was some division of opinion over the reality of the resurrection. [Marshall, I. H. (1978). The New international Greek testament commentary/Luke]


And we should mention that it is present in Tanaach/OT narratives too (in keeping with ANE praxis, as well—as we noted above on the Assyrian monument text):


“The terse description of the fall of the Northern Kingdom to the Assyrians (2 Kgs 17:1–6) and subsequent happenings in the province of Samerina (2 Kgs 17:24–41) telescope a number of events. Although Shalmaneser V probably captured the capital city, Samaria, in 722, the city had to be retaken in 720 by Sargon II, who was responsible for the massive deportations of the kingdom’s inhabitants. “ [Freedman, D. N. (1996, c1992). The Anchor Bible Dictionary (4:81)]


“The narrative of conquest that appears in the Book of Joshua is not a detailed battle account. It describes a thrust into the middle of Palestine around Jericho and Ai, a southerly drive to defeat the Amorite league, and a northern campaign against Hazor and other towns. The history of Joshua is extremely telescoped, for his major military action must have required about 6 years. Joshua’s friend Caleb was 79 when the conquest began and 85 after the last great battle with Jabin, king of Hazor (Jos 14:7, 10). [Baker encyclopedia of the Bible. Map on lining papers. (1057). ]


“Another possibility is that the conquest of the Argob was accomplished in two phases: a national one, in which Og’s army was defeated by the entire Israelite army (vv. 3–5), and a local one in which Jair defeated the local defenders of the cities in its territory (v. 14). In that case, verse 3 has telescoped the two phases into a single summary that includes the phase mentioned in verse 14. [Tigay, J. H. (1996). Deuteronomy. The JPS Torah commentary (36). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.]




Time for a Reality-Check…


If, as the above argues, the ancient world in NT times would not have had a problem with these omissions, telescoping, ‘harsh abbreviation’, and condensation of accounts, then we would expect that the first set of NT ‘opponents’ would not have used ‘chronological contradictions’ as a point of attack. In other words, among all the problems with the NT that its opponents raise, little-to-none of those problems should be ‘chronological contradictions’. If, on the other hand, the literary environment was otherwise than that described above (based on the Lucian-type literary conventions/ethics), we should expect these skeptics/critics to raise a large number of ‘chronological contradiction’ arguments, against many of the passages in the NT using this device. (I listed at least 15 above, apart from the birth/resurrection narratives).


So, what do we find?


Cook’s excellent work—The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism [HI:INTGRP]—explores the attacks of the first major NT opponents: Celsus (175-180?), Porphyry (270-300?), Macarius Magnes (c375-400ad?), Sossianus Hierocles (303-310?), Julian (362-363). For each of these figures, he lists (roughly in Synoptic order) the arguments each raises against the verses of the NT.


Let’s see how many of these objections are accusations of ‘chronological contradiction’, of the type we have here (i.e., based on omission, condensation, telescoping):


For Celsus, Cook discusses 22 criticisms of the Gospels, and a dozen or so attacks on theological and social issues. Celsus is familiar with multiple gospels—and actually refers to the Magi/Flight incidents:


"Borret identifies twenty one references to texts from Matthew by Celsus, no references to Mark, eight references to Luke (most of which are parallel to Mt), four references to John, one to 1 Cor 10:20, and one to Col 2:18." [HI:INTGRP, 25]


Although he considers the gospels to be fictions (plasmata) [HI:INTGRP, 26], he discounts the Magi and Flight accounts on theological grounds (although he does confuse the Herods in the gospel accounts), and doesn’t mention anything about chronological issues.


“He criticizes the narrative, but on theological grounds: "Why, when still a baby, was it necessary that you be carried out to Egypt lest you be slaughtered? It is not reasonable for a god to have feared death. But an angel came from heaven commanding you and your family to flee lest being abandoned you should all die. Was the great God, who had already sent two angels because of you, unable to protect his own son there?'" [HI:INTGRP, 33]


Generally, Celsus does not surface contradictions, and especially no chronological ones (even within the resurrection accounts):


"As will be seen in the next chapter, Celsus does not approach NT texts with the critically honed razor of a Porphyry. He rejects allegory of Christian texts, as did Porphyry, but (unlike Porphyry) does not spend time looking for internal contradictions" [HI:INTGRP, 101]


"Julian thus found the resurrection narratives to be riddled with contradictions. This approach is slightly different from those of Celsus, Porphyry, and the anonymous philosopher." [300f; foot ref to 1.2.23, 2.3.32, 3.51]


He does, however, try to find contradictions within the theological system (but not within the text, per se):


"…Celsus' attempt to find an inner contradiction in the God of his opponents" [HI:INTGRP, 42]



Celsus is a philosopher, but not a philologist like Porphyry. He is well-read in the literary tradition:


“His love for the traditions of the past is evident in his quotations of Plato (29), Herodotus (24), Homer (6), Heraclitus (5), Hesiod (3), Aristotle (2), Pherecydes (2), Empedocles (1), and Pindar (1).” [HI:INTGRP, 24]


As such, he probably would have been familiar with the canons of writing bios/history, and it is significant for our study to note that he did not raise a single chronological contradiction issue—even in the Infancy texts under discussion.



Porphyry is a different matter. He is probably the brightest in the bunch (and certainly the best educated), and DOES seek out contradictions:


"Both Porphyry and Macarius' anonymous philosopher made extensive use of this principle of contradiction to attach the NT". [HI:INTGRP,10]


"His method of looking for contradictions in scripture is similar to that of Porphyry...Hierocles must have shared some of Porphyry's interest in looking for contradictions." [HI:INTGRP, 262f; footnote gives references to discussions in the book of Porphyry’s contradictions—discussed below—as 2.3.6, 17, 25, 40]



Let’s look at the sections in the footnote now, to see the kinds of contradictions Px goes after:


2.3.6 is entitled “A Pacatus Fragment: The Beginnings of the Gospels”. He is the quote:


“One of Pacatus' responses to Porphyry (contained in Victor of Capua's work) treats the different beginnings of all four gospels. Although the text does not preserve Porphyry's objection, one can assume that it was concerned with inconsistencies between the gospels' beginnings. Pacatus concludes that nothing "contrary" (contrarium ) is found. Finding "contraries" was one of Porphyry's best loved methods of attacking the New Testament. Porphyry discussed Aristotle's logic of contraries and contradictory propositions. From a literary standpoint, Porphyry could have found the technique of looking for inconsistencies in an author among the Homeric critics. Dio Chrysostom, for example, finds contradictory lies in the Homeric poems... Dio also referred to Zeno's attempt "to save Homer from appearing to be at war with himself in certain matters which are held to be inconsistent with each other as narrated by Homer" [HI:INTGRP, 135]


Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly what Px’s objection was, but since neither of the gospels under question here actually begin with this post-birth period, it would be unwarranted to assume that Px’s objection in this fragment is about our issue (especially when he IS going to comment on the Luke passage elsewhere).



2.6.17 is about Lk 14:12-13, and Px does have an issue here:


"Porphyry's method is off to look for contradictions between verses of the NT. His presupposition is the Aristotelian principle that two statements that contradict each other cannot both be true… Although Aristotle's logic is for propositions and not commands, Porphyry uses it to show that the command [Lk 14.12-13] is incoherent--on his reading." [HI:INTGRP, 142]


But this is a different kind of contradiction—it’s about the inner logic of the ethical system. It is about a contradiction between teachings, not about chronology. If these are the kinds of contradictions Px alleges, then the chronological ones must not have even registered with him. Perhaps he understood the literary point we argued at the beginning. It certainly looks like it so far.



2.3.25 is about Eternal Punishment. Px objects that Christ contradicts himself when He asserts eternal punishment and ‘with the measure you measure it will be measured back to you’. This is not a chrono-contradiction, nor anything about omission, telescoping, etc. [HI:INTGRP, 148]


2.3.40 is about the title ‘Son of God’. Px finds a contradiction between this title of Jesus and a weird interpretation of Eccl 4.8 [LXX; making the ‘one without a son’ into God?!]. This is not a relevant case either.



Now, these are the cases given by Cook in the footnote, but there are some other passages which MIGHT be closer to home for us. These will be more interesting, relative to history-writing canons.


2.3.10 seems very on-point, entitled “Inconsistencies in the Gospels: the Birth Stories” [HI:INTGRP, 137f]. Here’s the text:


Epiphanius writes that several Hellenistic philosophers (Porphyry, Celsus and Philosabbatios) "examine the gospel material for the sake of its refutation and accuse the holy evangelists...". The philosophers ask how the events recounted by Luke on and following the day of Jesus' birth (birth, circumcision eight days later, journey to Jerusalem forty days later, things done by Simeon and Anna) can happen at the same time as the events of the night of Jesus' birth in which an angel appeared after the magi left (Mt 2:13) and told "him" to go to Egypt. If, on the night he was born, he was taken to Egypt until Herod died, how can he remain and be circumcised eight days later or after forty days ...? Luke "is found to be lying ... when he says 'On the fortieth day they brought him to Jerusalem and returned to Nazareth'" (Lk 2:21, 39). Origen (Contra Celsum 1.66) mentions Celsus' objections to the flight to Egypt because a god would not be afraid of death. The objection to the birth stories that Epiphanius recounts could come from Porphyry, Celsus, or the Jewish philosopher Philosabbatios. The method of looking for contradictions in Biblical narrative is very consistent with Porphyry's scholarly technique. One cannot claim that Epiphanius preserves an explicit Porphyrian quotation. He may well, however, have preserved the sense of one of Porphyry's objections… Epiphanius responds to the objections by nothing that Matthew and Luke have different time frames since the magi came two years after the birth.


Well, this looks ‘promising’ at first (for an objector), but there’s an obvious problem: they are NOT arguing from an omission of data (i.e., the ‘gap’ inside Luke’s 2.39a), but from explicit data (? “of the night”). They have (somehow?) interposed (or did their text/memory HAVE some time marker in it?) the phrase/sense “of the night of his birth” into/in the narrative. The biblical text, of course, makes no time reference to the visit of the Magi (and it is therefore not anchored at the birth night—commercial nativity scenes notwithstanding). Most evangelical scholars would put the Magis’ visit between Jesus’ 9th and 18th months [and most toward the later, as did Epiphanus].


At least one of our philosophers here (and we cannot be sure that it was Px—but we don’t need to make it so either, since any of historiographically-sensitive Greco-Roman philosopher could provide some evidence against our position), seems to be making an accusation that the time-details in the text do not work together. The nature of this contradiction is that of two EXPLICIT DETAILS (according to them) in the text: (1) departure on the exact night of Jesus’ birth; and (2) appearances in the temple at 8 and 40days later. Their problem arises ONLY IF the text says (or even ‘indicates’) that the Flight occurred on the birth-night.


But there is one other oddity here about Ephiphanius' statement: it doesn't match up with the other data we have seen about Celsus, Porphyry. We have the text from Celsus on this, and HE doesn't make this argument. We have Porphyry's comments on the birth stories and HE doesn't make this argument. So that leaves the Jewish philosopher Philosabbatios to lodge this objection. But in his case, we have no way of knowing how 'sensitive' he would have been to Greco-Roman historiographical conventions, so we cannot conclude that he would count FOR or AGAINST our position.


What this means is that we cannot use this as a case of de-legitimizing telescoping, condensations, etc. We cannot be sure that the source Epx refers to falls into our "people who should know" category, nor can we be sure that the objector is not arguing from a text, paraphrase, or (probably) faulty memory in which the word 'immediately' or 'on the exact/same night of his birth' was present--making it a case of 'explicit detail versus explicit detail' and NOT a case of 'extrapolation from a telescoped account'. We will put this in the ‘might be contrary data’ but if this is all we end up with, it’s not gonna have enough weight to carry the day…



2.3.26 is about the Logos of John, and


"Porphyry also found the Gospel of John to be full of contradictions and incoherence…"


But this passage is about theological contradictions again.



2.3.31 is another non-chrono contradiction:


"The method is Porphyry's usual attempt to find contradictions between verses of the Christian scriptures." [on John 17.4, on why 'finished' if not even Risen yet?]



2.3.35 is about a contradiction in ethical teaching:


"It is also possible that Porphyry derived some kind of contradiction from the golden rule or found Christian behavior to be inconsistent with it."



2.3.38 is about a ‘contradiction’ in the Peter-Paul argument in Galatians:


"Porphyry's technique in this argument is his usual attempt to find a contradiction"



The closest I can find is a section dealing with the time of the Crucifixion. Here’s the text from Cook [HI:INTGRP, 147]:


“The time of the crucifixion also apparently posed a problem for Porphyry. Immediately after giving Porphyry's criticism of Mt 13:35, Jerome refers to another question: "How is it written in Matthew (sic) and John (19:14) that the Lord was crucified on the sixth hour, but in Mark it is written that he was crucified on the third hour (Mk 15:25)?" That Porphyry was the source of this objection is confirmed by its presence in the work of Victor of Capua who is the source of Pacatus' response to Porphyry (Contra Porphyrium): "How does he assert the crucifixion on the third hour while John bears witness to the sixth hour?" The objections' proximity to Porphyry's name in Jerome and its presence in Victor's work make it probable that Porphyry is the source. The method of finding contradictions in Christian scriptures is certainly Porphyry's. [HI:INTGRP, 147]


This is clearly a chrono-issue, but is it OUR kind of chrono-issue? Does Px argue from placing one ‘telescoped passage against another’? Not at all. His argument is from explicit details in a detailed text, to other explicit details in a detailed text. [The crucifixion narratives may be telescoped on other topics/themes, but the time marker is given explicitly here.] As such, this does NOT count against our thesis either.



Important: Remember, my thesis here is not that ancient authors didn’t find any chronological contradictions to attack, but rather that they did not argue the existence of contradictions from telescoped, condensed, high-omission-count, summarized passages.


For examples, consider the two “best known” cases of telescoping in the NT: the Jairus story [Matt 9.18-26; Mark 5.22-43; Luke 8.41-56] and the Cursing of the Fig Tree event and lesson [Matt 21.18-19, 20-22 with Mark 11.12-14, 20-25].


These passages are riddled with ‘distractingly-divergent-details’ that frustrate young bible students (smile)!  These would have been perfect targets for our ancient skeptics, all of which were familiar with these passages—had they been taken as ‘chronologically rigorous’ (as opposed to ‘as telescoped’) passages.


Yet our ancient skeptics didn’t attack here. They hit everywhere else they could find, but didn’t raise ‘divergence’ issues with these passages. They did attack aspects of the passages (so we KNOW that they were familiar with the details):


·        Porphyry and Macarius only attacked the ‘faith as a mustard seed’ and ‘moving mountains’ teachings in the Fig Tree sequence.

·        Celsus and Macarius argued that the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter was done by magic.

·        Julian complained that Jesus was always touching the unclean dead…



Nobody attacked the sequence/timing/divergence/etc.


See, this is my point: modern attacks/assertions of objectors/believers alike are just often off-the-mark, given the ancient literary world. The conventions we see in OUR passages here are such that nobody should be ‘exorcising extraneous detail’ out of them, because they were not written for that purpose.


Note that this applies to ANY/ALL ‘chronological contradiction’ issues, not just our Infancy Story case. Many objections against the NT will simply be off the mark for this reason alone.


Ok—back to the ancient skeptics. But you can probably already anticipate what kinds of contradictions they will NOT advance against the NT text, surely (smile).




Cook summarizes Porphyry’s approach and notes:


“Porphyry's logical skills helped him find contradictions or apparent contradictions in Christian texts. His historical skills enabled him to find problems such as the implausibility of the disciples' immediately following Jesus when he called them or Mark's conflation of Isaiah and Malachi in Mk 1:2-3. His abilities in philosophy enabled him to construct artful dilemmas such as those used against the resurrection of Lazarus and Jesus and against the concept of the logos as applied to Jesus. In addition to the consternation his argumentative skills caused in the Christian community, if Porphyry put his work to use during the Great Persecution one can perhaps partially understand the fury of the book burners who let nothing survive but small fragments of his creation.” [HI:INTGRP,167]


But we have already seen that these contradictions are not the kind that count against our observations about ancient literary conventions of telescoping, condensation, omission, summary, etc.


Next up is Macarius Magnes (or actually the ‘Hellene’, pagan figure who is in his work)


The fictional Hellene raises several contradictions in his argument with a fictional Christian.


"Thus Jesus' words [only the sick need physician] would thoroughly contradict themselves. This method is Porphyrian…" [HI:INTGRP, 179; note again that this would imply that Px’s contradictions were internal/teaching-related]


"The unclarity of the parables contradicts Mt 11:25, because Jesus revealed things to babes and not to the wise." [HI:INTGRP, 183]


"The technique is Porphyrian -- looking for contradictions. Jesus is inconsistent or irrational and absurd." (on the 'get thee behind me, Satan…' passage) [HI:INTGRP, 186]


"a contradiction between Mark 10:18 par (No one is good but God alone) and Mt 12:35 par (the good person brings forth good out of the good treasure of the heart)." [HI:INTGRP, 189]


"The technique of finding contradictions is also consistent with Porphyry's attack on Christian texts. The contradiction in Matthew is quite obvious to the philosopher." (‘The poor you will have, me you will not have’; against ‘I will be with you always…’) [HI:INTGRP, 193]


"Peter's death (after a few months as a pastor) contradicts Jesus' promise in Mt 16:18, according to the philosopher (reading 'him' instead of 'it')" [HI:INTGRP, 211]


"The Hellene finds a contradiction between the words of the Lord to Paul in Acts 18:9-10, the words of Jesus to Peter in John 21:16, and the fact that both Paul and Peter were martyred…" [HI:INTGRP, 212]


"Paul's problem is one of intolerable contradiction--telling some that they will be cursed if they accept circumcision, he circumcises Timothy." [HI:INTGRP, 214]


"Two of Paul's statements that apparently denigrate the law contradict his frequent attempt to persuade people to obey the law, according the Hellene" [HI:INTGRP, 217]


"The text from Ps 8:8-9 (LXX) contradicts Paul's insistence that God is not concerned with animals." [HI:INTGRP, 223]


"The philosopher finds a simple contradiction in Paul's advice to the Corinthians (idols being nothing, versus being demons)… Like the philosopher, Porphyry was concerned with the contradictory or inharmonious nature of Christian teaching." [HI:INTGRP, 224]


"He finds Paul's assertion in Gal 3:1 to be contradictory to Paul's favorable statements toward the law." [HI:INTGRP, 226]




These are all non-chrono and all teaching/ethical related. No data here for/against our thesis.


However, there is one passage that might count. Here’s the text from Cook [HI:INTGRP, 197]:


“The Hellene found the narrative of the passion to be utterly discordant...’For each of them wrote an account of the Passion which was not harmonious but as contradictory as could be.’ The philosopher then quotes (with some pronounced textual variants) Mk 15:36, Mt 27:33, 34, 46, John 19:29-30, and Lk 23:46. His conclusion from these various accounts of Jesus' passion is:


‘From this out-of-date (tn: lit: ‘stale’) and contradictory record, one can receive it as the statement of the suffering, not of one, but of many. For if one says "Into thy hands I will commend my spirit," and another "It is finished," and another "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" and another "My God, my God, why didst thou reproach me?" [Mk 15:34] it is plain that this is a discordant invention, and either points to many who were crucified, or one who died hard and did not give a clear view of his passion to those who were present. But if these people were not able to tell the manner of his death in a truthful way, and simply repeated it by rote, neither did they leave any clear record concerning the rest.”


This argument is a bit odd, it seems, but we should at least note that it is not chronological for starters. This too—like the case we examined from Porphyry—is dealing with extreme levels of detail, so this might disqualify on the same grounds.


But it still looks a little different to me—it doesn’t actually seem reasonable. Although there are plenty of puzzles surrounding the Passion narratives, the variance in the Sayings is radically overstated by this guy. Matthew and Mark have zero variance. Luke follows their chrono-sequence, omits the Jewish-insider Messianic Ps 22 references, makes the ‘un-worded’ cry in them explicit (“…into your hands…”) and paraphrases the “certainly this man was the Son of God” remark. Good grief—this is no different from what three newspapers covering the same event would look like. It would be really difficult to maintain that the Synoptic authors “each wrote an account… as contradictory as could be”!


Even John’s unique material – which would have taken less than one minute for Jesus to say—isn’t contradictory (unless you assume so at the outset). With approximately  6 hours on the Cross, Jesus probably said more things than those few seconds’ worth recorded by the onlookers!


It is difficult for me to understand how the Hellene could actually argue this point like this. But in any case, he is still arguing from explicit data in the account (although he is assuming that these explicit statements are ‘alternatives’, somehow), and not from assumed ‘details’ from gaps.


So, the Hellene doesn’t provide any data against the thesis.



Now, Hierocles.


 This one is simple—he looked for contradictions but NOT historical ones:


"...Hierocles must have shared some of Porphyry's interest in looking for contradictions." [HI:INTGRP, 262]


Hierocles’ attack seems not to have been on the historicity of the Christian texts.” [HI:INTGRP, 198n190]


"Heirocles attempted to reveal the falsity of Christian texts about Jesus by showing them to be entirely self-contradictory." [HI:INTGRP, 337]


Hieroles mostly compares Jesus to Apollonius, and ridicules Christian credulity (especially the argument from miracle). No historical contradictions are mentioned in Cook.



And, finally, Julian


Julian (a post-Constantine Roman emperor, known as “Julian the Apostate”…sigh) was probably the most scripture-literate of all our objectors discussed, but he might not have been the brightest (“…the least talented of the Zeppelin brothers…”—5 points if you know THAT obscure reference…bleary-eyed smile).


He really gets venomous in his attacks, and uses arguments that he doesn’t even believe in (e.g., Jewish arguments!) to discredit the Christianity of his day.


But, like the others studied above, the contradictions he pointed out were generally about teaching or Christian (mis)use of the OT/Tanaach:


"Julian may have attacked Jesus' consumption of vinegar or found a contradiction between Mt 27:34 and Mk 15:23" [HI:INTGRP, 292]


"Like Julian, Celsus also emphasized the contradictions between the Old Testament and Christian practice and teaching" [HI:INTGRP, 293]


"Julian found a contradiction between Deut 6:13 (…"him only shall you serve') and Mt 28:19. [HI:INTGRP, 295]


"An anonymous pagan objected that Jesus' teaching in Luke 14:33 contradicted his acceptance of Zaccheus and Joseph of Arimathea as disciples." [HI:INTGRP, 296]


"Julian finds John 1:18 and 1:14 to be a clear contradiction" [HI:INTGRP, 306]


"Peter's contradiction with Mosaic legislation invalidates the Christian diet in Julian's interpretations of the texts." [HI:INTGRP, 308]


"In any case, he [Julian] finds Rom 3:29 to be contradictory to the view that only the Jews are God's chosen people." [HI:INTGRP, 311]


"Thus Julian shows a contradiction between the teaching of Moses and Christian monotheism" [HI:INTGRP, 329]



But he does raise a historical objection which might be relevant to us, concerning the resurrection narratives. Here’s the quote from Cook:


“The synoptic accounts of the resurrection contained a contradiction in Julian's view because of the indications of the time of the events. In one of the Syriac fragments of Cyril's work against Julian the text has:


‘He wrote that the holy evangelists contradict themselves when they say: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (following Matthew [Mt 28:1]), late on the Sabbath when the first of the week began to dawn, came to the tomb; according to Mark, [16:2] however, after it began to be daylight and the sun had risen. And according to Matthew they saw an angel [28:2]; according to Mark a young man [16:5]; and according to Matthew they left and told the disciples about the resurrection of Christ [28:8] — according to Mark they were silent and told no one anything [16:8]. By means of these things he brings censure on the holy scriptures and says that they contradict each other.’


Julian thus found the resurrection narratives to be riddled with contradictions. This approach is slightly different from those of Celsus, Porphyry and the anonymous philosopher [HI:INTGRP, 300]


Now here we might have something, since Matthew and Mark (and more so Luke, actually) have some level of telescoping and omission here. They are selective in their details, of course, and vary in precision, but they still basically are telling the same story.


All the previous anti-Christian authors knew these narratives, and they even complained about aspects of them—Celsus that bodily resurrection was repugnant, Porphyry that there was an inconsistency between Christ’s resurrection, Lazarus’ resurrection, and the Christians’ hope of their own resurrection, and Macarius’ Hellene that it violates the ‘eternal order of things’. But they don’t even offer a whisper of ‘discontent’ with the narratives themselves, and as Cook points out, Julian is unique here.


Why does it all of a sudden crop up with Julian? Why does he treat the text differently from the others? Does he know something they don’t? Or, does he NOT know something they DO?


All indications point to the latter—that he simply didn’t really know the canons of G-R history writing. (Or he ignored them for the sake of polemics…)


The fault probably lies in his educational background—it was radically different from the previous objectors. Their educations were “100% Greco-Roman”—Julian’s was only “50%”.


Julian was raised as a Christian, and so his education would have been split between G-R and Christian texts/subjects. And according to his autobiography, he spent the first 20 years (--the formative, educational years) as a Christian.


Here is some of the data on his mixed upbringing:


“When he was only six years old, Julian was sent to Nicomedia, sixty miles from Constantinople, and was put in the charge of his maternal grandmother and the Christian bishop Eusebius. There he was given his first instruction in the Greek classics, Homer and Hesiod, and through Eusebius was introduced to Christian learning. It was customary for the sons of the wealthy to study both the Greek classics and the Christian Scriptures, but in Julian's case pagan literature made the greater impression. When he was ten or eleven years old he was transferred, with his half brother Gallus, to an imperial estate in Cappadocia, and he lived there in complete isolation from society for the next six years. Most of his time was spent reading and studying works of rhetoric and philosophy. When he was approximately eighteen he was allowed to begin rhetorical studies with two rhetors, Nicocles, a pagan, and Hecebolius, a Christian. After studying with these two men, he moved to Nicomedia, where he became, in spite of Hecebolius's protestations, a disciple of the great fourth-century pagan rhetor, Libanius of Antioch.

His rhetorical studies completed, he became interested in philosophy and began to seek out the best teachers in Asia Minor. He went first to Pergamum to study with Aedesius, a disciple of Iamblichus, who had been a disciple of Porphyry. Aedesius emphasized the religious and ritualistic elements of the Neoplatonic school, and this attracted Julian. Iamblichus, who lived early in the fourth century, had been instrumental in transforming the philosophical religion of the Platonists into an experiential religion nurtured by religious rites and theurgy. Theurgy is the belief that the divine can be approached through "magical" acts, the use of salves and ointments, herbs and roots. It is not "thinking" that links men with the gods, said Iamblichus; union is attained "by the efficacy of the unspeakable acts performed in the appropriate manner, acts which are beyond all comprehension, and by the potency of the unutterable symbols which are comprehended only by the gods. . . . Without intellectual effort on our part these tokens accomplish their proper work by their own virtue" (Myst. 2.11).



“He was born in Constantinople in 331 (or early 332), the son of Julius Constantius, Constantine's half brother, and Basilina, whose father Julius Julianus had been virtually head of government under Licinius. His mother died a few months after his birth, but six years later, on 9 September 337, another even worse tragedy struck. His father and elder brother were murdered along with Constantine's other half brother Delmatius and his sons… Julian was sent away from the capital to the former seat of government, Nicomedia, and made a ward of Bishop Eusebius. In 338/39 that ambitious prelate gained his prize, the see of Constantinople, and Julian was entrusted to the care of Mardonius, a eunuch, perhaps a Gothic slave, and a nominal Christian, but one who had cultivated a love of Homer and the Greek classics. He was a brilliant though severe teacher and imprinted his puritan virtues on his pupil's mind. Years later, Julian remembered how he persuaded him to read Homeric descriptions of horse races, dances, and lyre playing rather than participate himself. … Julian was not allowed to stay in Nicomedia. In 342 Constans was threatening Constantius with war over Athanasius. Perhaps for dynastic reasons, fearing the formation of a party around the princes in favor of Constans, the emperor ordered their removal to an imperial estate in the heart of Anatolia. The Macellum, north of Mt. Argaeus in Cappadocia, was about as isolated as it could be, consistent with reasonable comfort and, above all, security. Here, in what may have been a hunting lodge, Julian and Callus experienced six years of "glittering servitude" under the eye of royal eunuchs. Their education was given a more Christian turn. They became readers and found themselves dedicating churches to the martyrs. Their tutor was Bishop George, a man of humble background and tactless manner, later to be the ill-fated supplanter of Athanasius (356-61), but now in his prime, an Origenist cleric whose richly endowed library contained both Christian works and Neo-Platonist commentaries on Plato and Aristotle. He represented fully the new generation of educated Christians in the East, men who followed Origen and accepted Christianity as the climax of traditional philosophic studies, moving beyond Neo-Platonism toward a rational understanding of God and his universe.

… Julian might have taken the same road, combining his love for philosophy with a passive adherence to victorious Christianity. But emotion began to play its part. He came to understand how his father and brother met their ends, and he formed a deep and lasting hatred for his cousin and all he stood for. His uncle, Constantine, he despised also, while Helena he regarded not as a saint, but as a "wicked stepmother." … In 348/49 the long exile ended. … Julian studied rhetoric with the philosophers, Nicocles and Hecebolius, one a pagan and the other not too firm a Christian, while Gallus remained at court. … Through the years 349-54 he remained on the sidelines. He was approaching manhood…  Julian was moved to Nicomedia and further studies. Thanks to the academic rivalries among his tutors he was able only to hear the lectures of Libanius indirectly, but at last he was free to move about in the provinces of western Asia as he would. While Callus was Caesar, he traveled to Pergamum and then to Ephesus where he stayed. There he came under the lasting influence of two of the finest representatives of the late flowering of Neo-Platonism—Maximus of Ephesus and Priscus, both of whom were to accompany him on his fateful Persian campaign. Meantime in 354 Julian himself was summoned to Milan, but en route he was able to disembark near Troy. There he met the bishop Pegasius, another classicist at … By 351 Julian had become a convert to a mystical form of Neo-Platonism. [FRC:594-596]



Julian is an odd duck. He was as religious/superstitious/mystical as they came, but had great gifts in writing and strategy. In his romantic ‘return to the Golden Age of paganism’ dreams, were components of the occult and sacrifice. Frend notes that even the pagan senators were somewhat relieved at his death, since they had not really bought into the idea that Rome’s future was critically dependent on the annual sacred bull sacrifice(!), enshrined by Julian on their coinage.


But there is no indication from the above that Julian had a strong enough education in history to know enough about this subject. His love was for esoteric philosophy and mystical religion, the ancient Homer/Hesiod fantasies, and the power of rhetoric.


In fact, Cook even points out that his ‘history’ skills were not notable:


While not having the historical and philological skill of Porphyry, Julian’s literary gifts were formidable.” [HI:INTGRP,277]


And Hillgarth noted that Julian was not characterized by “critical/scientific” approaches:


“The pagan intellectuals, from the Emperor Julian down, who opposed Christianity in the fourth century were no more critical or "scientific" than any Christian, and were quite as dogmatic in their adherence to Homer and other authorities as Christians were in their appeal to the Bible.” [HI:CP48C]


So, there is a strong possibility that Julian honestly didn’t know any better—that he did NOT receive enough training in history to know the rules.


On the other hand, he really could have known this, but chose to ignore it anyway! Julian is well-known for his duplicity in matters religious. For someone to repudiate/ridicule the Jewish faith, and then to deliberately attempt to rebuild the Jewish temple—just as an attack on the Christian position—boggles the mind. This is duplicity at its most outrageous (and ‘most expensive’—smile). He clearly did not ‘believe in’ the Jewish temple, but he ‘argued it’ nonetheless. Perhaps this is our case too: he knew his argument was wrong, but argued it anyway (knowing that many Christian readers would NOT know any better themselves, not having the benefits of elite education).


Another reason to believe this later ‘duplicitous’ alternative is Julian’s ‘unfairness’ in his method/criticism here. He was the emperor who wanted to restore pagan values, and force everybody to study Homer etc—and accept their religious values at the same time. This approach was designed to co-opt the Christian’s growing usage of the educational system (i.e, they would teach the Greek classics—but only as literature, and NOT as a source of religious values… Julian wanted the latter reinstated). He issued an edict that required classics teachers to be ‘men of character’, but he didn’t mean ‘virtue’. So Wilken [CRST:173f]:


“What is new in this law is that teachers are to be evaluated not only on their competence in language and literature (‘eloquence’) but also on their ‘character’. By ‘character’ Julian did not mean that teachers should exhibit the generally accepted virtues of integrity, uprightness, honesty, and so on, but that they should believe in the specific religious and moral values that were transmitted through Greek literature… ‘if they are real interpreters of the ancient classics, let them first imitate the ancients’ piety toward the gods. If they think the classics wrong in this respect, then let them go and teach Matthew and Luke in the church.’”


In other words, Homer, Inc are reliable communicators of religious truth…


Now, the inconsistency problem surfaces like this: Anybody who knew Homer, knew that HE was riddled with contradictions, but Julian did not fault Homer. Yet Julian discredited the NT from being a reliable religious sourcebook on this very ground of ‘contradiction’. Julian was either being unfair (i.e. applying the criteria to the NT but not to Homer, Inc) or didn’t have enough real G-R education to KNOW that Homer would fall to his same criteria. Consider how widely the criticism of Homer was [HI:INTGRP, 10f]:


“Besides ancient rhetoric, Hellenistic historical and literary criticism are also a source of concepts important for understanding the critique of the NT in Greco-Roman paganism. In summarizing the various criticisms of poetry (and Homer in particular), Aristotle wrote, "The censures they bring are of five kinds: that things are either impossible or irrational or harmful or inconsistent or contrary to artistic correctness." These problems assume that the poet represents reality. An impossibility appears in Iliad 22.205 where Hector is pursued, and the Greeks do not shoot at him on Achilles' orders. Homer has "taught the others the proper way of telling lies" according to Aristotle. Plutarch is impressed by the presence of mutual contradictions in the poets. He asserts that when "comparison of passages makes their contradictions evident, we must advocate the better side". Plutarch believes that the solutions to these problems are obvious if one directs the young to the better side. He offers an example in which a poet asks why sacrifice when we must die and then says the worship of the gods is not toil. Both Porphyry and Macarius' anonymous philosopher made extensive use of this principle of contradiction to attack the NT.


Aristotle includes the criterion of whether something is morally good or bad. In this context he mentions Xenophanes who argued that stories about the gods were untrue because immoral. Rudolf Pfeiffer refers to one of Xenophanes' statements in which he attacked Homer and Hesiod: "Homer and Hesiod have imputed to the gods all that is shame and blame for people: stealing, adultery, and deceiving each other." According to Diogenes Laertius, Xenophanes wrote iambics against Homer and Hesiod. He also criticized the conception of the gods in different nations using a philosophical argument: "Ethiopians say their gods are snub-nosed and black, Thracians believe they are blue-eyed and red-haired." Pagans used arguments based on morality in their critique of the NT. Macarius' anonymous pagan, for example, found it immoral that Jesus would send demons into the swine.


Plato's critique of Homer in his Republic is similar to that of Xenophanes. Homer and Hesiod told "false stories" (or "lying myths”). The wars of the gods in the poets are objectionable: "...the battles of the gods in Homer's verse are things that we must not admit into our city either wrought in allegory or without allegory". Homer errs by making the gods cause of good and evil. Homer's verse, "The gods, in the likeness of strangers, many disguises assume as they visit the cities of mortals," is unacceptable because the gods do not deceive in word or in deed. For Plato "there is no lying poet in God". The gods do not lament (as often in Homer), nor do they lack self control (as Zeus does when he is overcome by sexual passions). Plato was also concerned with the depiction of heroes: "Neither, then, said I, must we believe this, or suffer it to be said, that Theseus, the son of Poseidon, and Pirithous, the son of Zeus, attempted such dreadful rapes, nor that any other child of a god or hero would have brought himself to accomplish the terrible and impious deeds that they now falsely relate of them." For the poets to depict the gods as causes of evil or to depict heroes as no better than humans is both impious and false’”


The charges leveled against Homer, Inc here are the same ones Julian uses against the NT authors—but he doesn’t slam Homer for these! No, instead, he wants Homer and company reinstated as moral guides to true behavior… see what I mean about either duplicity or lack-of-education?


In any case—and I think the educational argument is sufficient for our task here.


So, this brings us to the end of our Reality Check, and I think the data warrants us to maintain our premise: that well-trained G-R anti-Christians would have known better than to make a telescopic passage into something other than it was…




Now, at the ‘curious level’, we should note that Christians have themselves attempted to build harmonies (even where the data was silent):


“2:22. A few commentators tackle the issue of reconciling the timing of the Lucan purification visit to Jerusalem with the Matthean Magi episode (many commentators ignore the question or reject the historicity of one of the accounts). Plummer (1896: 64, 73–74) argues that the Magi incident must come after this visit, on a later journey of the family to Bethlehem, reasoning that the family would never have risked a journey to Jerusalem after the Magi’s visit to Herod and also positing that the family, after the temple visit, originally planned to live in Bethlehem, thinking it was right to raise Jesus there. Only after the Magi visit, which was after the temple visit, did they flee. Such a view is possible, but the impression of the Lucan text is that Bethlehem was not Jesus’ home after the temple visit. This Lucan implication probably argues against the solution of Thomas and Gundry as well (1978: 30–31, who differ from Plummer only in arguing for a residence in Bethlehem for the family). They argue that the family lived briefly in Bethlehem after the temple visit, then saw the Magi there, and planned to return there to live after the flight to Egypt (Matt. 2:21–22) only to be warned away. However, another possibility is suggested by Matthew’s implication of some delay between the Magi’s visit and Herod’s action against Jesus in that it took the ruler time to realize that he had been tricked. There is no indication when Joseph received his dream, other than that it was after the visit. It is quite possible that the Magi’s visit came before the trip to Jerusalem and then afterward, perhaps immediately afterward, the family escaped to Egypt, having been warned by the dream. … Luke seems to have used material that Matthew did not know, while Matthew has material that is unique to his Gospel. Either Luke does not know Matthew’s Gospel, and thus the events of that Gospel, or Luke chose not to narrate the Matthean events for reasons we cannot ascertain. Of course, those who reject the essential historicity of these accounts make no effort to bring the Gospels together, rejecting either Matthew’s picture or Luke’s or both. In addition, some on literary grounds avoid drawing any implications from these accounts for Synoptic studies. Though the reconciliation of these two accounts cannot be established with certainty, two plausible scenarios exist.  [Bock, D. L. (1994). Luke Volume 1: 1:1-9:50. Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament (256). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.]

The 'traditional' sequence given in the back of many bibles, then, involves placing the Magi/Flight sequence 'inside' Luke 2.39. As can be seen in the 'conservative' commentators we cited above, one can visualize those events in a "telescopic gap" in Luke's account (who has already telescoped 3 trips to Jerusalem into 2). The sequence then becomes: (1) after the last trip to Jerusalem, the holy family returns to Bethlehem [Joseph perhaps supposing that the Son of David should grow up there]; (2) the proclamation by Simeon and Anna probably reaches Herod's ears and sensitizes him to the prophetic timeframe; (3) Magi arrive at Jerusalem and travel on to Bethlehem, and then depart; (4) warning to Joseph/Flight to Egypt; (5) Slaughter of the Innocents--with the 'two years and under' clause indicating the lack of precision in the timing, but also that the Magi visited sometime AFTER the first several months of Jesus' life; (6) death of Herod; and finally (7) return of the holy family from Egypt to Galilee. This easily fits the scant data we have in the gospels.



Quick Summary:


  • The initial objections are based too heavily on assumptions, omissions and alleged implications in the presenting texts, and cannot stand as currently stated.
  • Arguments from silence in historical narratives require (at least) that the author was attempting to give a full account and that the details omitted were absolutely central to the story line (as used by the author for his/her narrative aims).
  • Conservative bible commentators are not ‘embarrassed’ by the silences of Mt/Luke, and many offer plausible reconstructions of narrative intent (which explain the omissions’ roles in the ‘surface’ of the text).
  • The literary world (even today) knows of the telescoping and summarization techniques, and the ancient literary world both prescribed (Lucian) and widely used (many authors) these.
  • The implication of this for us is that we need to read ancient narratives more through thematic than chronological eyes—in cases of abridgment and telescoping.
  • The NT writers—as members of the class of ‘ancient writers’—used this technique heavily, too. [And so did the writers of the Hebrew Bible.]
  • The first major anti-Christian writers in history never seem to deny this principle—they never attack such usage as ‘where contradictions lie’. There are little-to-no attacks on chronology, and those that do appear do not conform to the pattern under study.
  • The most famous cases in the NT of telescoping are not ‘taken to task’ by any of the classically-trained ancient objectors, including Porphyry.
  • The single case of the emperor Julian—even though it is not fully in our pattern-- can be understood as due to his abnormal (and imbalanced) education.




So, it looks basically OK: the problems raised at the outset simply did not exist under the literary conventions/canons/practices of the milieu in which they wrote.


“No contradiction to see here , folks… move along now…”


littleG, Feb3/2008




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