3D graphic stating, "The Skeptical Review Online"

   Print Edition: 1990-2002

Jairus's Daughter:
Was She Dead or Wasn't She?
by Farrell Till

1994 / July-August

All three synoptic gospels relate the story of Jairus's daughter, whom Jesus allegedly raised from the death. The accounts by Mark and Luke are in substantial agreement, but Matthew's version differs in one significant point that cannot be reconciled with the other two without resorting to typically ridiculous fundamentalist "explanations." Although the passages are quite long, they all need to be read to see the problem, so we will look first at the two accounts that are in basic agreement. An ellipsis will be inserted in each version to signal omission of the healing of the woman with the issue of blood, a miracle that allegedly happened while Jesus was on his way to Jairus's house. All three versions report this miracle, but it is not relevant to the matter of inconsistency in the story of Jairus's daughter; hence, it will be omitted in order to save space and focus attention on inconsistencies about the raising of Jairus's daughter:

MARK'S VERSION: Now when Jesus had crossed over again by boat to the other side, a great multitude gathered to Him; and He was by the sea. And behold, one of the rulers of the synagogue came, Jairus by name. And when he saw Him, he fell at His feet and begged him earnestly, saying, "My little daughter lies at the point of death. Come and lay Your hands on her, that she may be healed, and she will live." So Jesus went with him, and a great multitude followed Him and thronged Him.... While He was still speaking, some came from the ruler of the synagogue's house who said, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?"
As soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken, He said to the ruler of the synagogue, "Do not be afraid; only believe." And He permitted no one to follow Him except Peter, James, and John the brother of James. Then He came to the house of the rule of the synagogue, and saw a tumult and those who wept and wailed loudly. When He came in, He said to them, "Why make this commotion and weep? The child is not dead, but sleeping."And they ridiculed Him. But when He had put them all outside, He took the father and the mother of the child, and those who were with Him, and entered where the child was lying. Then He took the child by the hand, and said to her, "Talitha, cumi," which is translated, "Little girl, I say to you, arise." Immediately the girl arose and walked, for she was twelve years of age. And they were overcome with great amazement" (5:21-24, 35-42, NKJV).
LUKE'S VERSION: So it was, when Jesus returned, that the multitude welcomed Him, for they were all waiting for Him. And behold, there came a man named Jairus, and he was a ruler of the synagogue. And he fell down at Jesus' feet and begged Him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter about twelve years of age, and she was dying....While He was still speaking, someone came from the ruler of the synagogue's house, saying to him. "Your daughter is dead. Do not trouble the Teacher."
But when Jesus heard it, He answered him, saying, "Do not be afraid; only believe, and she will be made well." When He came into the house, He permitted no one to go in except Peter, James, and John, and the father and mother of the girl. Now all wept and mourned for her; but He said, "Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping." And they ridiculed Him, knowing that she was dead.
But He put them all outside, took her by the hand and called, saying, "Little girl, arise." Then her spirit returned, and she arose immediately. And He commanded that she be given something to eat. And her parents were astonished, but He charged them to tell no one what had happened (8:40-42, 49-56, NKJV).

At this point, the significant thing to notice is that both Mark and Luke reported that Jairus's daughter was yet alive when her father came to Jesus to ask for help. This is not the case in Matthew's version:

While he spoke these things to them, behold, a ruler came and worshiped Him, saying, "My daughter has just died, but come and lay Your hand on her and she will live." So Jesus arose and followed him, and so did His disciples....
When Jesus came into the ruler's house, and saw the flute players and the noisy crowd wailing, He said to them, "Make room, for the girl is not dead, but sleeping." And they ridiculed Him. But when the crowd was put outside, He went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose. And the report of this went out into all that land (Matthew 9:18-19, 23-26).

The major problem in the story, then, is quite simple: was the girl dead when her father came to Jesus for help or wasn't she? Mark said Jairus told Jesus that his daughter was lying at the point of death, and Luke simply said that "she was dying." Matthew, however, had the girl's father say, "My daughter has just died." It couldn't possibly be true that the girl was both alive and dead at the time Jairus came to Jesus. She was either dead at the time or she wasn't. If she was yet alive, then Mark and Luke were right and Matthew was wrong; if she was dead at the time, then Matthew was right and Mark and Luke were wrong.

Fundamentalists, of course, will not allow a simple thing like glaring contradiction to deter them from believing that the Bible is the inerrant, inspired word of God, so they have an explanation to offer. Matthew, you see, was writing the story from the point of view of the girl's death being so certain (if Jesus didn't intervene) that he had Jairus say, "My daughter has just died." Inerrantists will usually suggest an analogy like a basketball team whose star center suffers a serious injury just before the big game. "We have lost the game," someone might say under the circumstances, not at all meaning that the game has already been played and lost but that defeat is certain without the star player. This, they will argue, is all that Matthew meant. Jairus's daughter was so ill that death was certain without divine intervention, so it was appropriate for him to have Jairus speak figuratively and say, "My daughter has just died." Mark and Luke, on the other hand, chose to write more literally; hence, they stated that the girl was in a state of serious illness but still alive when her father came to Jesus. "So, you see," inerrantists will gleefully (and arbitrarily) declare, "there really is no contradiction here."

Although a how-it-could-have-been explanation like this may satisfy Bible inerrantists desperately looking for a solution to an embarrassing problem, it will not satisfy objective minds who can't help noticing its failure to resolve all problems involved in reconciling the three accounts of this story. Inconsistency in what Jairus said to Jesus is just one of several difficulties in the story. Let's notice, for example, that Mark and Luke both have five elements in their versions of the story: (1) Jairus came to Jesus to ask him to help his daughter, (2) Jesus and his disciples then went with Jairus to his home, (3) on the way there, they were met by some [Mark] or someone [Luke] coming from Jairus's house who announced that the daughter had died, (4) Jesus nevertheless continued on to Jairus's house, and (5) at the house, he raised the girl from the dead.

All of these elements are also in Matthew's version except number three. Matthew said nothing about anyone from Jairus's house meeting Jesus to announce that the girl had died. On this point, inerrantists will of course argue that omission does not constitute cotradiction, but I am not citing Matthew's omission of this detail as proof of contradiction or even inconsistency but rather to challenge the likeliness of the figurative interpretation that inerrantists apply to what Matthew's Jairus said to Jesus. They insist that the statement could have had the figurative meaning mentioned above, i.e., the death of the girl was certain and imminent enough to warrant Jairus's saying, "My daughter is dead." However, Matthew's omission of the message brought by some[one] from Jairus's house gives sufficient reason to reject their explanation. Mark and Luke, who began their versions of the story with the premise that the girl was still alive, stated that Jesus and Jairus were met by some[one] who announced that the girl had died. Matthew, on the other hand, who began the story with Jairus saying that his daughter had just died, said nothing about anyone coming to announce that the girl was now dead. Why? The answer is simple: Matthew was telling a story about Jesus going to raise a girl who was already dead, so it would have made no sense at all to have some[one] meet him to announce that the girl was dead. He would have already known that, because it was exactly what Jairus had said to him: "My daughter has just died." Hence, Matthew's omission of this detail is sufficient reason to reject the premise that he wanted readers to understand that Jairus was speaking figuratively in this version of the story.

Another serious fallacy in this figurative "explanation" is the obvious fact that Matthew and Mark both purported to tell what Jairus said to Jesus, as opposed to Luke's indirect method, which simply stated that the girl "was dying," without attempting to relate what Jairus had said to express the facts of her condition. Had all three writers used Luke's method, then perhaps there would be some merit to the inerrantist attempt to resolve the problem in the manner stated above; however, the fact that two of the writers (Mark and Matthew) wrote their accounts as if to convey what Jairus said to Jesus makes the figurative "explanation" entirely unsatisfactory. What a person says is what he says, and two accounts of what someone said can't both be inerrant accounts unless both use the exact words to convey what was said.

Let's imagine that someone named Jones should say, "The sun set yesterday at six-thirty P. M." That being the case, which of the following statements would be inerrant accounts of what Jones said?

  1. Yesterday, the sun set at six-thirty P. M.
  2. The sun went down yesterday at six-thirty P. M.
  3. Yesterday, the sun went down at six-thirty P. M.
  4. The sun set yesterday at eighteen hundred thirty hours.
  5. Yesterday, the sun set at eighteen hundred thirty hours.
  6. At six-thirty P. M. yesterday, the sun set.
  7. The sun set yesterday at six-thirty P. M.

Although one could correctly argue that all seven statements accurately convey the meaning of what Jones said, number seven is obviously the only statement that could be considered an inerrant account of what Jones said. This is true because of the fact previously stated: what a person says is what he says and not something else. If Jones said, "The sun set yesterday at six-thirty P.M.," then he said, "The sun set yesterday at six-thirty P. M." He didn't say, "Yesterday, the sun set at six-thirty P. M." or anything else that may accurately state the meaning of what Jones said.

Fundamentalists will protest that such a position as this demands more than is necessary in order to have biblical inerrancy. They insist that inspiration could have been verbal without being dictational, so to "explain" variations in the way that different writers recorded the same stories, inerrantists will talk about personal choices that the writers exercised. To explain, for example, variations in the gospel narratives concerning the number of people who went to the tomb on resurrection morning, inerrancy defenders will say that John chose to tell only about Mary Magdalene, whereas Matthew chose to give more details about who went to the tomb, so he informed us that "the other Mary" was with Mary Magdalene. Mark wanted to give even more information, so he mentioned Salome too, and Luke, the most detailed writer of them all, added that Joanna and "other women" were also in the company. "However, there is no contradiction," inerrantists will rhapsodize, "just variations in details that resulted from the writers exercising personal judgments about which details to include and which to exclude." They apply this reasoning to various parallel accounts in which details vary from writer to writer.

What this argument fails to consider is that, no matter what vague lines inerrantists may try to draw between "verbal" and "dictational" inspiration, the doctrine of verbal inspiration, which is believed by practically all Bible fundamentalists, virtually eliminates all elements of individual choices. "No prophecy ever came by the will of man," inerrantists delight in reminding us, "but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21 ). What would the "will of man" be except personal choices, and that is precisely what the writer of this statement said had not been involved in prophesying. Rather than speaking by their own will, those men spoke "from God" as they were "moved by the Holy Spirit." So individual and personal choices were not involved.

This conclusion is in complete agreement with what George DeHoff said in his book Alleged Bible Contradictions Explained as he discussed the full implications of the doctrine of verbal inspiration:

The Holy Spirit taught the apostles what to say--what to write. We have, therefore, the Word of God. If God had wanted another "i" dotted or another "t" crossed, He would have had it done. The writers did not use one word unless God wanted that word used. They put in every word which God wanted them to put into the Bible (p. 23).

If DeHoff is right, then how would variations of any kind be possible in verbally inspired accounts of the same incidents? If Mark did not use "one word unless God wanted that word used" and if the same was true of Matthew and Luke, why would there be any variations at all in the telling of the story of Jairus's daughter? Are inerrantists arguing that the Holy Spirit wanted writer A to use certain words when recording an event but wanted writer B to use entirely different words when recording the same event? If so, why? Was the first account that the Holy Spirit inspired somehow imperfect and thus in need of improvement when the second account was inspired? This is something that inerrantists absolutely must explain if they expect anyone but hopelessly indoctrinated fundamentalists to take seriously such explanations as the one they offer in the matter of Jairus's daughter.

In particular, DeHoff's statement makes variations impossible in what characters said in verbally inspired parallel accounts of the same incidents. If Jairus said, "My little daughter lies at the point of death," as Mark indicated, then he couldn't even have said, "My daughter is about to die," because the two statements are not identical, and he certainly could not have said, "My daughter has just died," as Matthew indicated in his account. Jairus said what he said (if the incident actually happened), so no rational person can believe that Mark's and Matthew's accounts are both verbally inspired, inerrant accounts of what Jairus said. To argue otherwise is to put one in the ridiculous position of claiming that the omniscient, omnipotent Holy Spirit verbally inspired Mark to say that Jairus said that his daughter was still alive and then later verbally inspired Matthew to say that Jairus said that his daughter was dead. So the problem would remain unresolved even if we could determine beyond question that Matthew meant for his readers to understand that Jairus was speaking figuratively, because if he did indeed speak figuratively to Jesus (Matthew's version), then he couldn't have spoken literally (Mark's version). By necessity, one writer had to have recorded his words inaccurately. Only a Bible fundamentalist can see merit in such irrational, straw-grasping "solutions" as the one offered to "explain" the problem in this story.

When this point is applied to other uses of dialogue in the different accounts of the story of Jairus's daughter, we see the same problem. Mark, for example, had the messenger(s) from Jairus's house saying, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?" whereas Luke had them saying, "Your daughter is dead. Do not trouble the Teacher." Although inerrantists will dismiss this point as a quibble, I must insist that it is a legitimate objection. If we remember that what a person says is what he says, the legitimacy of the objection is apparent. If DeHoff is right and Bible writers did not use "one word unless God wanted that word used," then we must wonder why the Holy Spirit would not have wanted both inspired writers to use the exact words that the messenger(s) spoke when they announced that Jairus's daughter was dead. As a matter of fact, Mark and Luke both used the exact same words in recording what the messenger(s) said in their first sentence: ""Your daughter is dead." So if the Holy Spirit could inspire this kind of exactness in one sentence, why not in the next? It is a problem that inerrantists must confront.

A simple analogy will demonstrate the obviousness of this point. Let's suppose that two reporters at the scene of a fire witness someone in flames running from the house, shouting, "Help me! Help me! Somebody please help me!" Since the reporters are both professionals, we can reasonably assume that they want to report accurately what happened. However, in writing her story, one reporter said that the person on fire shouted, "Please help me! Somebody please help me!" whereas the other one wrote that the person screamed, "Help me please! Please help me, somebody!" Although both reporters wrote accurate accounts of what happened, neither one wrote an inerrant account, because neither one reported exactly what the person shouted. We would understand that the failure to report the exact words of the person on fire was due to human fallibility. No one, however, would believe that the failure to report exactly what was said was an intentional matter of choice, for what professional journalist would purposely report what he knew wasn't accurate? In other words, if the reporters had been able to recall exactly what the person had screamed, they undoubtedly would have both reported his exact words.

Now let's apply this to the matter of what Jairus said to Jesus. If Jairus really did come to Jesus and ask for help, he had to have said something. An omniscient, omnipotent deity would have known exactly what Jairus had said, so if this deity later verbally inspired three people to write accounts of what Jairus had said, all three accounts would have attributed the exact same words to Jairus. If not, why not? So the fact that all three accounts did not use identical words in reporting what Jairus said to Jesus, what the messenger(s) said to Jairus, what Jesus said to the mourners at Jairus's house, and what Jesus said to the girl when ordering her to arise, we can know that the three accounts can't all be verbally inspired.

We can probably expect inerrantists to resort to their old standby: "If three people witness an accident, the police reports that they file will contain variations...." Yes, this is true, but inerrantists who use this argument conveniently forget one important thing: the three people who witness the accident are not verbally inspired by an omniscient, omnipotent deity while they are writing their police reports. If they were, we would have reason to expect all three accounts to be in perfect agreement.

Variations in the three versions of the story of Jairus's daughter is just the tip of a biblical-inconsistency iceberg. The fact that parallel accounts in the Bible so often vary, sometimes significantly, in reporting what characters allegedly said is more than sufficient to reject the claim that the Bible was verbally inspired by an omniscient, omnipotent God.

Rollover button for Main Menu pageRollover button for Print Edition Main Menu pageRollover button for Search Engine pageRollover button for Contact Us page