This is a parenthesis motivated by the story of the blindmen healed at Jericho, from Part 4 of my ongoing series. It is also motivated by a very good book by Theologian Michael F. Bird, “Seven Things I Wish Christians Knew about the Bible.” His chapter on the Divine Inspiration of the Bible and its Infallibility (Reliability) covers those subjects very well. However, in the section where he addresses “difficult passages” – like apparent contradictions between different Gospels – Bird’s preferred explanation is that the individual Gospel writers, though inspired by the Holy Spirit, were free not only to use their own literary “voice” but also given “artistic license” in the arrangement of the narrative.
Thus, for example, the apparent contradiction that appears when we compare Luke’s account of Jesus and the blind men at Jericho, and the same passage in Matthew and Mark, is simply a matter of how each gospel writer chose to tell the story to best fit the point of his narrative. Whether the event occurred as the crowd was entering Jericho or as the crowd was leaving Jericho, is not important.
I disagree with that explanation.
Like Bird, I do not expect the Bible to be written with mathematical exactness, but not because the authors are allowed artistic license but, rather, because that is just not the way people talk. And to me the Bible has always been God communicating with us through people. It is a conversation that any person should be able to understand.
This is reasonable.
For instance, I don’t think any of us believes Jesus placed a limit of 490 times (70 times 7) as the number of times we are expected to forgive a brother that sins against us. Anyone reading that passage understands the principle we are being taught: We are called to forgive time and time again until we lose count, and start over again… Namely, always. Since any reasonable person would understand it this way, I don’t think anyone could honestly complain that the 70 x 7 admonition is therefore imprecise.
At the same time, most of us expect people relating a story not to be sloppy with facts. If you say you saw something happen in the morning, there must be a detail in your memory of the event that led you to say that. People telling an important story don’t just make things up. Now, omitting details that are not critical to the point of the story is acceptable; it makes sense.
But I have another problem with Bird’s artistic license explanation: I think it gets us too close to the habit of “allegorizing” away difficult passages. The fact is, there is an alternative that Bird has not considered.
The court of Law viewpoint
Bird seems to have missed or ignored this approach. It is what I call the “court of Law” viewpoint. It is the viewpoint used by Josh McDowell in his book “Evidence that demands a verdict”.
The idea is that if we collect the testimony of multiple witnesses to the same event, as it would be given in a court of Law, we cannot expect that they will all be exactly the same. In fact, if they were, we would suspect the witnesses of having colluded with each other to tell the same story. The differences in the stories are sometimes the key to finding out what the whole story is.
A fundamental principle of this approach is that we cannot assume a witness is lying.
This is especially so if we cannot cross examine that witness. If all we have is a sworn deposition, then we have to assume it is true to the best of that witness’ ability, and we cannot force that witness to contradict himself.
If his testimony differs from that of another sworn witness, then we must consider the possibility that both are true. So that, if a coherent narrative can be put together that keeps each witness’ story intact, and makes sense of the whole, then we are forced to accept that as the true narrative.
Getting the chronology right
Let’s cite here the witnesses’ statements to this event:
(1) Matthew 20:29-34 And as they went out from Jericho a great crowd followed him [Jesus]. And lo, two blind men, sitting by the wayside, having heard that Jesus was passing by, cried out saying, Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David. But the crowd rebuked them, that they might be silent. But they cried out the more, saying, Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David. And Jesus, having stopped, called them and said, What will ye that I shall do to you? They say to him, Lord, that our eyes may be opened. And Jesus, moved with compassion, touched their eyes; and immediately their eyes had sight restored to them, and they followed him.
(2) Mark 10:46-52 And they come to Jericho, and as he was going out from Jericho, and his disciples and a large crowd, the son of Timaeus, Bartimaeus, the blind [man], sat by the wayside begging. And having heard that it was Jesus the Nazaraean, he began to cry out and to say, O Son of David, Jesus, have mercy on me. And many rebuked him, that he might be silent; but he cried so much the more, Son of David, have mercy on me. And Jesus, standing still, desired him to be called. And they call the blind [man], saying to him, Be of good courage, rise up, he calls thee. And, throwing away his garment, he started up and came to Jesus. And Jesus answering says to him, What wilt thou that I shall do to thee? And the blind [man] said to him, Rabboni, that I may see. And Jesus said to him, Go, thy faith has healed thee. And he saw immediately, and followed him in the way.
(3) Luke 18:35-43 And it came to pass when he came into the neighbourhood of Jericho, a certain blind man sat by the wayside begging. And when he heard the crowd passing, he inquired what this might be. And they told him that Jesus the Nazaraean was passing by. And he called out saying, Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me. And those [who were] going before rebuked him that he might be silent; but *he* cried out so much the more, Son of David, have mercy on me. And Jesus stood still, and commanded him to be led to him. And when he drew nigh he asked him [saying], What wilt thou that I shall do to thee? And he said, Lord, that I may see. And Jesus said to him, See: thy faith has healed thee. And immediately he saw, and followed him, glorifying God. And all the people when they saw [it] gave praise to God.
So, we see the apparent contradiction(s): Matthew and Mark say the healing happened as Jesus and the crowd were leaving Jericho. Matthew says there were two blind men. Mark says there was one and gives us his name. Luke appears to set the event as Jesus approached Jericho and also mentions only one blind man.
Before dissecting the statements, we call one more witness to the stand. What does John say? John doesn’t mention this event; however, he has input into the chronology.
John 11:55-56 But the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up to Jerusalem out of the country before the Passover, that they might purify themselves. They sought therefore Jesus, and said among themselves, standing in the temple, What do ye think? that he will not come to the feast?
John 12:1-3,9 Jesus therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany, where was the dead [man] Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from among [the] dead. There therefore they made him a supper, and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those at table with him. Mary therefore, having taken a pound of ointment of pure nard of great price, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair, and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment…
…A great crowd therefore of the Jews knew that he was there; and they came, not because of Jesus only, but also that they might see Lazarus whom he raised from among [the] dead.
Why do I mention these verses from John? First, they give us the background on the great crowd that was accompanying Jesus in the event at Jericho. It appears that Jesus and his disciples had simply joined a growing crowd of Jews from all over Israel, traveling south toward Jerusalem for the upcoming Passover.
It makes sense that that crowd would go through Jericho, a large city which could accommodate many of those pilgrims if they needed food and a place to rest. In fact, since it takes about 8 hours to walk from Jericho to Jerusalem (all uphill), Jericho is a natural place to stop for the night. Apparently, that is precisely what happened with Jesus and his disciples…
Luke tells us in chapter 18:35-37 that Jesus was approaching Jericho, and then mentions that by the wayside to the city there was a blind man who heard the crowd… a crowd that maybe was more boisterous than normal. And upon asking why, people tell him Jesus of Nazareth is in that crowd.
Now it is true that verse 38 tells us of the man starting to cry out. BUT, Luke hasn’t told us that what we call verse 38 happened immediately after verse 37. It follows chronologically, yes, but it also follows thematically. Having mentioned the blind man, it appears to me that Luke wants to jump forward to complete the story of that blind man. Yes, he was there when Jesus approached the city and yes he cried out and was healed… but when?
Let’s go to Luke 19:1 And he [Jesus] entered and passed through Jericho. Now that appears to be a straightforward statement. But is that a sum total of what happened in Jericho that day? Or is that Luke’s way of telling us that having come into the neighbourhood of Jericho, He did not bypass the city but rather He spent some time there?
In verses 2 through 10 of the chapter, Luke immediately tell us the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector that sees this crowd surrounding Jesus and, being short of stature, climbs a sycamore tree to be able to see him. Jesus stops by that tree and says: Luke 19:5 …Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for to-day I must remain in thy house. And from there through verse 27 we are told of the result of Jesus’ stay at Zacchaeus’ house. Jesus apparently stayed there for dinner and taught the crowd that gathered at his house too.
It seems reasonable to assume that all that took place inside Jericho. Jesus apparently spent the night in Jericho at Zaccheus’ house. Luke continues by telling us where Jesus went after this:
Luke 19:28-29 And having said these things, he went on before, going up to Jerusalem. And it came to pass as he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany at the mountain called [the mount] of Olives, he sent two of his disciples…
Maybe it is a bit clearer in the NASB:
Luke 19:28-30 (NASB) After Jesus said these things, He was going on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When He approached Bethphage and Bethany, near the mountain that is called Olivet, He sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you; there, as you enter, you will find a colt tied, on which no one yet has ever sat…
You see how Luke has this habit of giving location information in a unique format: He was here and then went there – beginning and end – and then he gives us the important details of what happened in that traverse.
All three synoptic gospels agree that Jesus, upon departing from Jericho went towards Bethpage and Bethany; and in one of those villages He asked his disciples to get the donkey that he would ride into Jerusalem. But did those things happen like that immediately?
No. And this is the second reason I cited those verses from John.
According to John, Jesus must have gone from Jericho to Bethany, to stay at Martha and Mary’s (and Lazarus’) house, where that dinner we already mentioned was held for him. The Mount of Olives is one sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem. That is ¾ of a mile which means less than an hour’s walk. So, he and his disciples must have walked out the next morning from Jericho and stopped about 7 hours later, at dinner time, at Mary’s house in Bethany.
And it is not until the next morning after that, that the triumphal procession begins toward Jerusalem. It must have been that morning that he sent his disciples to get the donkey.
John 12: 9-13 (NASB) The large crowd of the Jews then learned that He was there [at Martha’s house]; and they came, not on account of Jesus only, but so that they might also see Lazarus, whom He raised from the dead. But the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death also, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and were believing in Jesus.
On the next day, when the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, they took the branches of the palm trees and went out to meet Him, and began shouting…
We know Jesus did not arrive at Jerusalem in the evening (after an 8 hour trip from Jericho) because more than one gospel has him casting the vendors out of the temple, healing, and teaching, all on that same day.
How many blind men and when were they healed?
I went in detail over the chronology that we can develop after careful reading of all the witnesses’ testimonies, to show that taking just the words of one witness and assuming everything they said is all that happened, is an easy mistake to make. Furthermore, we all have the tendency to assume that what was said there in one paragraph all happened in immediate succession. But that is not realistic. That is not how people talk. That is not how people tell stories. They tell you the facts but tell them to make a point. The details they omit are not omitted on purpose to deceive but rather omitted to make that point as clear as possible.
So, did Luke really say that the blindman that heard the crowd arriving at Jericho immediately started crying out?
Isn’t it possible that there is an unspecified gap of time between Luke 19:37 and Luke 19:38? Thematically, that gap does not matter because indeed that man cried out.
But did he do it at the north gate of Jericho?
There was a blind man, the son of Timaeus, sitting by the wayside when the crowd first approached Jericho. And hearing the tumult, he asks someone what is going on. And he is told that Jesus of Nazareth is coming by. That much we know. BUT, at this point, what did that blind man do? Luke does not say that immediately he started shouting. He says afterwards that he started shouting… but how long after?
Well, the answer has to come from the other two witnesses Matthew and Mark who both testify that the shouting incident happened as Jesus and the ever-growing crowd were leaving Jericho.
So, what did that blind man do all that time?
If it had been you, what would you have done?
What if you had a friend, another blind man, that you know likes to sit near another gate of the city, the southern gate? Would you think of him? Would you call out to your cousin that has been standing there that morning with you and ask him to hurry up and take you to that other gate, to find your friend?
And so, he takes you there, and you find your friend and tell him that Jesus is in Jericho. Here is our chance! He hasn’t left. And since we know the crowd is headed to Jerusalem, we know where He will be passing through on the way there.
So, they go together early that next morning and sit by that southern gate, listening, listening…
And lo, two blind men, sitting by the wayside, having heard that Jesus was passing by, cried out saying, Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David…
Probably it was Bartimaeus who started the shouting and also Bartimaeus the one that spoke up first when Jesus answered (which explains why Mark singles him out)… But my point is: Couldn’t it have happened this way? And more importantly, do any of the witnesses contradict this version of the story?