Contradiction or Difference?

Jesus carried up to a pinnacle of the Temple, by James Tissot , a watercolor between 1886 and 1894. Was Jesus taken up to a pinnacle on the Temple prior to being taken up to a high mountain and shown the kingdoms of the world, or is the order reversed? Does the chronology really matter?

Jesus carried up to a pinnacle of the Temple, by James Tissot, a watercolor between 1886 and 1894. Was Jesus taken up to a pinnacle on the Temple prior to being taken up to a high mountain and shown the kingdoms of the world, or is the order reversed? Does the chronology really matter?

The sermon this past week was on the Temptations of Jesus. I noticed that in comparing Matthew’s version with Luke’s version that there is an apparent discrepancy in the chronology. I asked my small group what they thought of the discrepancy:  “Does this impact how you view the Bible?”

You probably know the story: Early in Jesus’ public ministry, He spends forty days in the wilderness and after being exceedingly hungry, He was tempted by the devil. Mark simply records the basics (Mark 1:12-13). But Matthew and Luke spell out the order of events of the three temptations. Both Matthew (Matthew 4:1-11) and Luke (Luke 4:1-13) start with the first temptation suggesting that Jesus turn the stones to bread. However, the order of the next two temptations between Matthew and Luke are reversed. Matthew’s second temptation is where the devil takes Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple, urging Him to throw Himself down and trust the angels to catch Him, and the third temptation is where Jesus is taken to a very high place, challenging him to worship the devil in exchange for sharing power. Luke, on the other hand, switches the chronology, putting the “pinnacle of the temple” last, prior to being taken up to a high mountain and shown the kingdoms of the world.

My small group all agreed that the differences in chronology do not in any way impact how they view the authority and integrity of the Bible. We were all curious as to why Matthew and Luke reported things differently, but the discrepancy here is really a minor one. It does not in any way diminish the biblical teaching about the Temptations of Jesus. I found that to be very encouraging.

Unfortunately, some people get hung up on things like this.   I have talked to a few skeptics AND a number of believers who are bothered by differences in chronology among the various gospel accounts. For example, the cleansing of the Temple, where Jesus chases out the moneychangers, is reported late in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, in the last week of Jesus’ life prior to the Crucifixion. But in John’s gospel, it is reported very early at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, some three years before the Crucifixion. Some conservative scholars deal with the apparent discrepancy by suggesting that there were two separate incidents where Jesus whipped through the Temple complex in righteous anger….. mmmmm….. I am left scratching my head.

Consider the stories of the Temptations of Jesus again: Some “defenders” of the Bible have come up with some creative ways to resolve the chronology problem. For example, there is just enough of a unique difference between Luke’s description of the the “worship the devil” temptation and Matthew’s version to suggest that there were not three temptations. Instead there were four: (1) turning the stones to bread, (2) Luke’s “worship the devil” after Jesus being taken to an indeterminate place, (3) the pinnacle of the temple “throwdown”, and (4) Matthew’s “worship the devil” after Jesus being take up to a very high mountain.

I do not know about you, but this type of harmonization, though well-intentioned, is simply not very convincing. After all, if there were really four distinct temptations, then why would both Matthew and Luke specifically mention three? Now, critics of the Bible are quick to complain that such forced harmonizations sound really ludicrous. I would tend to agree. But I stand with the others in my small group. I do not believe that these types of tensions in the gospels should warrant us in any way to question the reliability and authority of the Bible. Sure, there are probably some good reasons to explain the apparent discrepancy, but adherence to strict chronology in all cases does not appear to one of them . Some in my small group suggested that Luke is the more chronological here and that Matthew changes the order for a theological reason, to move from small to large scale. First, there is the individual temptation of the stones vs. bread, the wider-scope Jewish temptation associated with the Temple second, and then the universal-scope temptation regarding the kingdoms of the world (In my view, an approach like this also applies to the “Cleansing of the Temple” incident).

However, the broader point still stands out:  Jesus was tempted to get off track in His mission.   The united witness of Scripture indicates that Jesus came to be a servant, humble himself on the cross for our sakes, and be the savior of the world. The devil wanted Jesus to take His eyes off of the main task. This is a lesson for us when it comes to the task of biblical interpretation as well.  Do not sweat the small stuff. Focus on the clear, main point that God wishes to communicate to us in the Scriptural text.

Or to put it another way: We can often find things in the Bible that apparently “contradict” each other. Many of these apparent “contradictions” can be easily resolved. Others are more difficult. To resolve such difficult apparent “contradictions,” we might be drawn to rework the material, to remove the discrepancy, in ways that might seem reasonable to one person, but that fail to convince others, because such harmonizations sound forced, or even self-serving. Instead, it might be better to take a deep breath, and then step back and look at the larger context within the Scriptural material. Sometimes, it might be better to consider a broader theological explanation for a difference in the Bible, than focusing on more minute details, like exact chronology.

Mike Licona is an historian and apologist. He has traveled the world defending the historical trustworthiness of the Bible, publicly debating skeptics like Richard Carrier (see this other Veracity post) and Bart Ehrman — we have a number of posts on Veracity about our friend, Bart. In this video, Mike Licona on the OneMinuteApologist gives us his insights on how to resolve some of the apparent contradictions that some find in the Bible:

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

6 responses to “Contradiction or Difference?

  • John Paine

    Gotta love this topic. Four different Gospels by four different authors should have differences. To me that type of reporting is exactly what should be expected from different witnesses (or in the cases of Mark and Luke, from their sources).

    I like Mike Licona’s illustration. There are many other possibilities and explanations for these differences. For example, this morning while in the middle of a large corpus of cutting edge research–Travis Simone wondered if the prominent Pharisee mentioned in Luke 14:1 could be Gamaliel–I cooked up a new conspiracy theory. In looking into the Scriptural evidence, it appears that we can rule out Gamaliel, but a stronger case can be made that it was Nicodemus.

    Why didn’t Luke name the prominent Pharisee in Luke 14:1? Maybe he and the other synoptic Gospel writers were protecting Nicodemus. Only John mentions Nicodemus by name in his Gospel, noting that Nicodemus approached Jesus after dark. John makes this point, and the point that Nicodemus was a follower. John 3:16 is said (after dark) to Nicodemus–a ruler of the Pharisees who wanted to keep his interest in Jesus under cover of darkness. After all, Jesus had given the Pharisees a very hard time and vice-versa.

    Nicodemus shows up later (carrying 75 pounds or so of spices), with Joseph of Arimathea to put Jesus in the tomb. And here’s the difference: none of the other Gospel writers mention Nicodemus at all. Here’s the new conspiracy theory that is sure to flash through the field of biblical scholarship: the synoptic authors were trying to protect Nicodemus, but he was dead by the time John wrote his Gospel.

    Nicodemus heard John 3:16 under cover of darkness, and he and Joseph of Arimathea, under cover of darkness (fearing the Jews–read John 19) wrapped the body of Jesus in linen. Talk about a prominent biblical person!

    In all fairness, there’s a lot we just don’t know about differences in the Bible. But of the lack of contradiction we can be certain through a little effort. That’s one of the joyous benefits of personal discipleship. Thanks for the post Clarke!


  • Jon Gleason

    Matthew has a “time” word (“then”) at the beginning of verse five which implies he is writing in chronological order. Luke just says “and.” I’ve always assumed Matthew is chronological.

    I think Luke used a different order to leave for the last the temptation / challenge, “If you are the Son of God.” That’s a major focus of this part of Luke — immediately preceding this account, Luke traces the lineage of Jesus back to Adam a “son of God.” Just after this account we see Jesus in Nazareth, and the implicit challenge to His position as the Son of God — “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

    I do think the differences strengthen the weight of the testimony. These are independent witnesses, even where there are similarities — they weren’t all merely copying from one source.

    I do think there were two temple cleansings. This was a theological claim to be the Messiah, based on the Rabbinic understanding of Malachi 3:3. It makes sense that He would do it at the beginning of His ministry and then again as a final challenge to them (and the people) just before His crucifixion.


    • Clarke Morledge


      I appreciate the clarification of how to handle the order of the temptations, which sounds better than what my small group came up with.

      As to the cleansing(s) of the Temple, I agree about the theological purposes. Malachi 3:3 hits it right on target. However, I am still not inclined to think these were separate incidents(Synoptics vs. John). Now, I can see how if you make the assumption that the gospel writers were “independent witnesses” , it would be fair to conclude that the two reports were about separate events. I am just not convinced that this is a reasonable assumption in its fullness.

      Even the most conservative scholars that I am familiar with place the writing of John’s Gospel later than Matthew, Mark and Luke. Sure, all four of the writers had different perspectives and/or drew from some difference sources, as you indicate. But it would seem highly improbable that John had no knowledge of the writings of the three other evangelists. So for him to report a “first” cleansing and then omit the “second” cleansing makes John look rather clumsy. I can not imagine John thinking afterwards, “Oh, I forgot to tell the reader about the second cleansing that everyone else knows about…. OOOPS!”

      Please help me out here if you think I am missing something.

      Thank you for writing. Very thoughtful stuff!



  • Jon Gleason


    Almost certainly John wrote later than the others. When I say “independent” I don’t mean ignorant of the others. John obviously wouldn’t have been.

    John intentionally left much out, and said so. In fact, he seems at times to be writing to fill in the gaps that the others left. So if there were two temple cleansings, it isn’t that he forgot to mention the second, it was that he assumed his readers knew about it from the other accounts, but he wanted them to know about the first cleansing. In this respect, he is similar to Luke, who appears to be writing later than Matthew and Mark, and supplied much information that they left out. So I don’t think it is clumsy at all, if there were two cleansings. John is supplementing that which was already written.

    So, were there two? Well, the accounts certainly make more sense if we take their timings at face value, which gives us two. John uses “time” words in 2:13-15 that are hard to understand unless it really was an early event. I’ll add a few more points.

    The healing of the lepers gives precedent for two Messianic claims. Undoubtedly, there were two healings of lepers, one early and relatively private (Mk 1:40-44), one late (Luke 17:12-14). There were specific Levitical instructions for a healed leper, but none were ever healed except Miriam (who was leprous for an extremely short time) and Naaman (a Syrian). Thus, the rabbis had an expectation that the Levitical instructions were Messianic, that Messiah would be the one who would heal lepers.

    Jesus made early, but rather muted, Messianic claims. If the apparent chronology of John 2 is correct, Jesus was still relatively unknown, so His claim in cleansing the temple would be noticed primarily by the religious leaders. He may have even cleansed it before the Passover, when the multitude wasn’t present (v. 23 could hint at that). Similarly, He told the single leper to not tell anyone, but show himself to the priest. His first recorded explicit claim to be Messiah was to an obscure Samaritan woman.

    At the end, He makes the claim not just to the religious leaders, but to the nation as a whole. He heals ten lepers, and doesn’t tell them to keep it quiet. He enters the city as a King riding on a donkey. Immediately after, when the whole nation is paying attention to HIm, He cleanses the temple again. Two cleansings fit the early and late Messianic claims.

    Jesus’ words as recorded by John differ from the Synoptics, too. The wording in John is less condemning, more teaching — “Don’t make it a place for selling things.” In the others, it is stronger condemnation — “You have made it a place of thieves.” That would fit with John’s being early, the other account being late.

    The urgency of Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus may be attributed solely to His miracles and teaching, but an early temple cleansing could well lie behind it, as well. John wants to establish a pattern of contrasting believing and unbelieving responses to Christ, and recording an early temple cleansing serves that purpose well (the main group of leaders in chapter 2, Nicodemus in chapter 3). The second cleansing was more about the national response of Israel to Jesus, and John doesn’t really need it to establish that point.

    I certainly do not think that we need to resolve / harmonise every difference between the accounts. I believe there is a harmony, but have no confidence in my ability (or anyone else’s) to find it perfectly in every case. In this case, though, I think it is highly probable that there were two temple cleansings, which obviously resolves the question entirely.

    That’s my best understanding of this one, anyway. It’s an interesting discussion.


    • Clarke Morledge


      I wanted to return to this discussion (after such a long time) because of its importance. You have set out an excellent case for two separate Temple cleansings, one at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in John and one at the end of his ministry in the Synoptics. Your proposal is indeed commendable, and given the assumptions you set out, I would accept it without difficulty.

      But I question your assertion that John assumed that his readers were so well familiar with the second Temple cleansing account from the other Synoptic writers that he saw no reason to mention it. That baffles me. The destruction of the Temple was like the 9/11 incident of John’s age. To think that John, on the most crucial week of Jesus’ life before the Crucifixion, would neglect to mention this vital incident as being unnecessary to establish in the mind of his readers just boggles my mind.

      Could such a reasoning on John’s part be possible? Sure, and you are correct to lay that out. But is it the most probable explanation? Well, I am not convinced, as it just seems rather ad-hoc to me. Alternatively, the evidence of the use of both chronological AND non-chronological (more theological) history in the Gospels, as demonstrated by the incident of Jesus’ Temptations, is very persuasive to me in establishing that John had a more theological purpose, strictly speaking, in moving his account of the (singular) Temple cleansing to the front of his narrative.

      I know that this is an old discussion, and perhaps you have lost interest in it, but if you ever have the time to dig up some evidence to support your reading of John’s case, I would like to learn about it, I am very open to it.

      Thanks, and blessings to you.


  • Jon Gleason

    Hello, Clarke, surprised to see this one come alive again! 🙂

    When did John write? There is no definitive answer. Traditionally, it has been held to be around 90 A.D. That’s 20 years after the destruction of the temple. Would John find it necessary to mention the destruction of the temple if he wrote twenty years later? That’s not certain. The focus of John is that we might believe. He doesn’t deal extensively (as Matthew does, and the other synoptists less so) with the Jewish nation and the consequences of their unbelief. There is no Olivet discourse (Mt. 24-25) in John. The question of what had happened to the temple doesn’t really fit in John’s topics of discussion. He is telling of Christ, not of the Jews.

    But some scholars think he wrote before the destruction of Jerusalem. The last chapter gives a hint that he wrote after the death of Peter (mid to late 60s), and also that he was old enough that the story that he wasn’t going to die was circulating and needed refuted. Perhaps that pushes us to 90 AD after all, but it could be he wrote in the late 60s. Even so, it is highly likely that his readers would have had the other Gospels.

    Origen and Clement of Alexandria both said he wrote last. Clement said he wrote to supplement the other Gospels, writing a “spiritual Gospel” because the facts had been laid out in the other Gospels. Irenaeus said he wrote last, while he was in Ephesus (which could again support the later date).

    I don’t think we can know whether John wrote in 65-70 AD or 90 AD. But I don’t see any reason to reject the very early witnesses who said he wrote last, and to supplement the other Gospels.

    By the way, Edersheim, in Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, argues for two cleansings.

    As I’ve thought about it more, I think there had to be two. The first was necessary because He was arriving on the scene as Messiah, and announced as such by John. To fail to cleanse the temple would be to fail to accept John’s testimony. If the real Messiah came into the temple and found the Bazaars of the sons of Annas in full swing there, He would cleanse it. To not do it would be to say, “John was wrong about me.”

    The second was necessary because he had been acclaimed as Messiah King. To allow it to go on would be to say, “The people who acclaimed me when I rode into town were wrong.”

    There are many, many events in Passion Week which John simply doesn’t record. The cursing of the fig tree, the Passion Tuesday “Day of Controversy”, the Olivet Discourse, these things are just left out. Palm Sunday is mentioned only briefly. John has a different focus.


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