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: