The Day I Questioned

Okay. Something weightier.

I was raised to believe that the Bible is the Word of God, and is inerrant, infallible. I’d run across difficult passages, but there was always at least a plausible explanation to make it believable.

So about a year ago, I’m reading along in Luke, and I come across the following passage:

Now when He concluded all His sayings in the hearing of the people, He entered Capernaum. And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him, was sick and ready to die. So when he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to Him, pleading with Him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they begged Him earnestly, saying that the one for whom He should do this was deserving, for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue.”

Then Jesus went with them. And when He was already not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to Him, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof. Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to You. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

When Jesus heard these things, He marveled at him, and turned around and said to the crowd that followed Him, “I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” And those who were sent, returning to the house, found the servant well who had been sick.

Luke 7 : 1–10 (NKJV)

Now, I’d read this story many times before, but the version I had read was somewhat different. So, making good use of the handy cross-reference in the inter-column margin, I flipped over to the account of the same story in Matthew:

Now when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented.”

And Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.”

The centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.” And his servant was healed that same hour.

Matthew 8 : 5–13 (NKJV)

There’s a pretty major difference between these two accounts, and it stems from the fact that in the Matthew account, Jesus speaks directly with the centurion, whereas Luke clearly describes the centurion as refusing to speak directly with Him, out of respect.

Now, the usual explanation for differences such as these is that it was common to gloss over the details in historical accounts, and to make statements that are true only directly. This is the same argument that gets applied to the difference between the accounts of the Legion of demons, where one account said Jesus encountered a demoniac, and another account says Jesus encountered two (jointly possessed by the Legion). And it seems to be true (though in the specific case of the demoniacs, I’m skeptical); people seem to have expected a certain amount of simplification as still acceptably true. So, if Jesus spoke to the centurion only indirectly through his friends, it’s still true to say “Jesus said to the centurion,” or “the centurion said to Jesus,” in the same sense that I can be telling the truth when I say “I gave the papers to Mr Smith”, when in actuality I left them with Mr Smith’s assistant.

But as I read the Matthew passage, I realized that, even with this consideration, they still don’t quite match up. The major problem is the next-to-last sentence of the Matthew account:

Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.”

This phrase doesn’t make any sense unless it was said directly. If the “to the centurion” bit had been left out, you could make a case that this phrase he was actually directing at the friends. But it specifically says he was speaking to the centurion. And it’s a phrase that makes perfect sense in the Matthew account.

But in taking the Luke account into consideration, it makes no sense at all. Would you tell your pal Sam’s wife, “Tell Sam to go on his way, and I’ll take care of it,” when Sam is sitting inside his house? “Go your way” is something you only say in parting, to someone with whom you are speaking directly.

My dad (a pastor) put forth the explanation that the centurion, being frazzled by the plight of his beloved servant, might have been subject to sudden changes of mind, and at the last minute, come out to Jesus in the very end, whereupon Jesus actually directed that sentence to the centurion.

While this is technically feasible, it seems like an awfully big stretch. It’s also entirely inconsistent with Luke’s portrayal of the man, who was so humble, and who esteemed Jesus so much that he proclaimed himself a man so unworthy that he shouldn’t even go to speak directly with him—and went out of his way twice to prevent doing so. What would make a man who a moment ago had made such a grand statement, change his mind on a whim and say, “aw, what the heck,” and go out to him anyway?

And thus began the first steps of my journey in really questioning the reliability of the Bible.

Update: more examples and more-detailed explanation of my progression from believer to unbeliever are given in the recent post, Lost Credibility.

20 thoughts on “The Day I Questioned

  1. Chris Cowan

    hey micah.. some good points… but don’t you think that maybe jesus was just saying “go your way” as in… “go on with your life”?

  2. Micah Post author

    It’s pretty unlikely… the “your way” part was actually just added to make the sentence flow better. Literally, it’s just “Go; and as you believed, so it will be done.”

    The word (ὑπάγω – hupago) has a very simple meaning: “Go away; depart; withdraw one’s self.” Basically, “Go.” It appears numerous times in the New Testament (among them, “get thee hence, Satan”), and in each case it is meant literally and could be accurately translated as, “depart.” If this particular usage is meant figuratively, it is the only such instance appearing in the New Testament, and would be a very unusual use of the word.

    But even if it were meant figuratively (and if the words “your way” had actually been part of what he said): you might say something like “go your way,” to a friend—if you were speaking directly with him. But would you relay those words through someone else? It doesn’t really fit.

    Another strong case is where Matt 9 : 18 has Jairus coming to Jesus and telling him that his daughter has died, whereas in all the other versions (Mark 5 : 23, Luke 8 : 42), he portrays (and knows) her only as sick to the point of dying. Both couldn’t have been true.

  3. Laura Cowan

    Dear Micah, Your dad and I witnessed a murder. In court, I explained that the gunman’s car was parked heading west and behind our vehicle. Dad explained that the gunman’s car was heading east and next to us. Does this mean there was no gunman? No murder? Or that we were not accurate in our accounts? No. It means we saw things from different views at different times. Even the court judge understood that.
    It seems to me the real stretch, Micah, is that you risk all on such a small personal assumption. Is it possible your love for other things has choked out your love for God? We love you so much, and it deeply saddens us.
    Jesus is coming soon. We want to see you there. Your Dad has attempted to write, but truthfully, is too discouraged.
    Pressing On Until He Comes, Love, Mom

  4. Timothy Roloff

    On page 49 of K&R’s “white book”, it is stated that shift operators “must be positive”. It might be more accurate to say they “must be non-negative”.

    Does this warrant entirely discounting the significance and truth of Kernighan and Ritchie’s work? Should we stop using C or give up programming altogether?

  5. Micah Post author

    Hi Tim, thanks for the comment.
    I could actually write at great length about this topic, but I think I’ll summarize.

    First off, I agree that the discovery of a few inconsistencies/contradictions in the Bible is not sufficient cause to simply throw it out in its entirety. Which is why I didn’t just immediately leave “the faith” upon discovery of this problem. Even after I became thoroughly convinced that there were inescapable contradictions, I still struggled for nearly a year with what to do about it, and what to do with the rest of the Bible. This article is not an explanation as to why I’ve made my decision, but a glimpse into part of its beginning. Hopefully I will write in more detail at some point in the future.

    In fact, I have not thrown out the Bible in its entirety. It still remains one of the best sources for information on several historical events, and includes many very important teachings for which I have not found an equal from any other source. I’m happy that Sara reads passages from the Bible to the kids.

    The obvious failing point for your analogy, though—aside from the fact that ISO 9899 is the actual authority on the C language and not K&R—is that nobody is trying to claim that K&R (or the ISO standard) is infallible, contains nothing but the absolute and literal truth, or is wholly the work of a supernatural, inerrant and perfect being.

  6. Glenn Roloff

    Micah, your mother is right about the synoptic problem. If all the Gospels agreed perfectly we could expect collusion. The differences in Mathew, Mark and Luke are evidence of the authenticity of the New Testament rather than reason to disbelieve it. Billy Sunday said, “Thw Bible is to be our critic not that we are to be its critic.” Glenn

  7. Micah Post author

    Hi Glenn,

    Differences that are not outright contradictions are to be expected in multiple testimonies. Differences that even amount to contradictions are to be expected in human testimony. But in the Word of God—even as written by humans, if they were all guided and corrected by God Himself living inside them, as is supposed to be the case—differing statements that could not possibly both be true are clearly an impossibility.

    Regarding the quote from Billy Sunday: I’m not familiar with the context, so I can’t be sure of its intentended meaning. If it means, as I understand it to, that we should not be critical of the Bible, then I think it is a very dangerous thing to teach. If the Bible is the Word of God, then it will surely withstand any (honest) critical analysis that we might wish to make of it, and the only possible result of such an analysis would be that we would come out of it more strong, and more sure in our faith, than we did before we had a question.

    Also, once you have a doubt or question in your mind about the Bible, or about God, refusing to satisfy that doubt or question by honestly examining the issues would result in a hypocritically blind faith: a “faith” in which you don’t truly believe, since you didn’t credit it strong enough to withstand closer scrutiny.

    Differences in the gospels may be evidence of their reliability (or, at least, refutation against a certain kind of argument against their reliability); disagreements in the gospels cannot be any such thing.

  8. Glenn Roloff

    According to Dr. Robert Lindsey: the words of Jesus were recorded into Hebrew within 5 years of the Resurrection and then into Greek where fragments were arranged topically probably to help memorization. He continues: These fragments ofter were divoced from their meaningful and original context. My comment: This could account for different contexts in Luke 7 and Matthew 7 of the healing of the centurion’s servant.What most enlightened Bible scholar s believe is that the only infallible Scripture was as it was orriginally given and before any translation. The differences in the Synoptics are no reason to doubt God’s Word or lose faith.

  9. Micah Post author


    Right: only the original scripture as it was first given is considered to be completely inspired: it would be more-or-less impossible to try to reasonably to put forth such a claim for the currently available texts.

    However, if I read your comment correctly, you’re in essence saying that even Luke and Matthew, as they were originally written, were not the actual, originally inspired Word of God, but only the quotations of Jesus as recorded in this Hebrew proto-document.

    If this is what you’re saying, then I don’t see how Matthew and Luke should ever have been included in the Biblical canon (rather, the Herew document should have been). If you’re merely saying that it explains why there’s a difference of perspective, then I should point out again that I have no problem with differences of perspective (which should certainly be expected), but with the actual contradictions of statement that occur.

  10. Glenn Roloff

    Micah, Hank Hanegraaff (the Bible Answer Man) said on 9/11/06 that “None of the Bible is contradictory in the pure sense of the word, but complimentary–written from different perspectives.” Yours truly was definitely not suggesting that the original writings of Matthew and Luke were not God’s Word,but only what Jesus said. under synoptic problem notes, “Matthew and Luke share content not found in Mark, called the Double Tradition. This content is mainly saying material (mostly of Jesus, but some of John the Baptist) but includes at least on miracle story (the Centurion’s Servant) as well.”

  11. Micah Post author

    Hi Kyle, thanks very much for an informative and useful resource.

    The point of the link you’ve given seems to be that “In the view of the ancients, agency and representation was the same as being there.” It then makes a fairly good case to support this.

    I absolutely understand and agree with the writers of that page that “If the skeptics don’t like this answer, well, that’s just too bad­—it was a reality of ancient culture,” and there is plenty of evidence to support this. Hopefully, I’ve made this position clear in my original post.

    The problem I have, is that this consideration does not cover the final passage in Matthew’s version:

    Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.”

    Particularly the “Go your way” bit. It is not possible for me to accept that such a phrase could be transmitted to its intended listener vicariously, and the specific nature of the wording rules out it actually having been meant for the messengers rather than the centurion.

    Thanks for throwing in your input!

  12. Kyle


    I’ve been thinking about it Micah, I can see it being plausible though that “the centurion” would have been directed towards the messengers because they are agents of him. But you say that the specific nature of the wording couldn’t have meant it.

    So the specific nature of the word was meant directly right?

    I feel like I need alittle bit of clarification on the word used.

    Thanks again.

  13. Micah Post author

    What I mean is that, while there is plenty of evidence that culturally, speaking to a person’s agents for that person’s benefit can be considered equivalent to speaking with that person, as if it had been directly with that person, there is no reason to believe that whatever is spoken directly to those same agents, without it being meant for their master’s benefit, can still be described as having been said to the master (since, in fact, it wasn’t; either directly or indirectly).

    In other words, it’s completely natural to describe Jesus as telling the centurion “I will come and heal him,” when in fact he only told his messengers to relay that to the centurion; but it’s not at all common for someone to describe Jesus as saying “Go your way” to the centurion, when in fact he said this specifically to the messengers, and it was not intended to be relayed to the centurion.

    Between this explanation and the explanation that “Go your way” really actually was intended for the centurion, and was relayed through the messengers to him, I find the latter the more palatable, even though (as I’ve already discussed in the post) I still don’t find it very plausible.

  14. R. Hoeppner

    First of all you’re reference to Matthew 7:5-13 is incorrect. You obviously meant Matthew 8:5-13 (as long as we’re trying to be factual, perhaps you should make a correction).

    As a retired peace officer I’ve had to submit written reports on many incidents that I’ve been involved in concerning my actions, the actions of suspects, fellow officers and victims. I’ve also taught report writing. When a supervisor receives the reports from a number of officers who’ve responded to a particular incident there always seem to be apparent contradictions regardless of the fact that each officer faithfully and truthfully (we hope) prepared his documentation. Now that can be a problem when it comes down to whether the DA will pick up the case or not. Since I’ve been subpoenaed and sat before a judge defending my report while the defendant’s attorney tried to pick it apart I make sure that what I’ve written is clear, concise and as complete as I can make it, and I don’t worry about the other officer’s reports. The differences occur because we all arrive at slightly different times, hear and see different things and act according to those circumstances. Usually after all the reports are compiled there will be a clear, consistent and complete picture of entire incident.

    I’ve found that to be the case with the Bible. For instance, Marks account of Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus on his way out of Jericho. (Mark 10:45-47). While Mark focused in on Bartimaeus, Matthew relates the same story (Matthew 20:29-34) but with less specificity; he mentions no name as he reports Jesus healing two blind men.
    Why is only one man mentioned by name? Possibly, since Mark was not an eye witness of the Jericho healing, (Matthew was an eyewitness) Mark met Bartimaeus who related his testimony to Mark as he was still following Jesus (the other unnamed blind man may have gone his own way by that time). That being the case answers and confirms that both accounts are accurate.

    Concerning the centurion you referenced, Bible commentator Finis Jennings Dake says regarding Luke 7:2, “If he was the same as the centurion of Matthew 8:5-13, where it seems the man himself came to Jesus, the seeming contradiction could be explained thus: It is a usual form of speech in all nations to attribute the act to a person even if it is done merely by his authority.” In the military a command that is relayed down through the ranks is always attributed to the highest ranking individual by name or title, who gave the command; it’s always in the first person.

    I would also say that it is apparent that there were two “waves” of messengers (first the Jewish elders of the synagogue followed by a group of ‘friends’) and it is no stretch that the centurion himself would have personally come out to Jesus in the second group or following the second group and spoke directly as indicated in Matthew, making both Luke and Matthew to both be literally correct.

    Both of these scenarios satisfy in my mind at least any supposed conflict between the two accounts.

    Lastly, I would say that you should listen to your mother and dad.

  15. Micah Post author

    Hello Mr Hoeppner, thank you for taking the time to write this comment. BTW, I like the name of your blog.

    First of all you’re reference to Matthew 7:5-13 is incorrect. You obviously meant Matthew 8:5-13 (as long as we’re trying to be factual, perhaps you should make a correction).

    It certainly is. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

    I appreciate your taking the time to write a fairly lengthy comment, but I’m a little disappointed that you haven’t actually said anything that I haven’t already covered. I absolutely agree with your explanation about it being a “usual form of speech”, and have indicated this several times, in the post and in the comments.

    We appear to disagree on how much of a stretch it is to think the centurion would come out to Jesus after all that powerful speech about not being worthy to come to him in purpose. As I say, it’s “technically feasible”, but not very plausible. And there are many, many examples like this in the Bible.

    There are some differences between trying to establish an event in court, and trying to establish infallibility. No court on earth tries to establish infallibility of the witness: fallibility is assumed. If minor details between witnesses are in inescapable contradiction, it obviously does not undermine the credibility of the event itself. However, in proving the Bible to be inerrant, we cannot allow such liberty: if the Bible can be proven to contradict itself, it is thereby proved to be in error, and the entire volume is shown to be suspect, since it, itself, makes the claim of perfection.

  16. Matt

    You threw your faith away for this minor ‘discrepancy’ ? Actually I don’t see much of a problem here at all. Jesus probably communicated indirectly to the centurion through the centurion’s ‘friends’, given that the centurion felt himself unworthy. Perhaps the centurion was even within earshot. Another likely possibility is that the centurions friends included other commanders and even other centurions. Thus one could address the centurion by addressing his friends.

    I find the atheist position much more difficult to comprehend. Their basic assertion is that nothing created everything. All the marvelous detailed complexity of life and the laws of physics, we are to believe are just one big unfortunate accident.

    On the other hand we’ve got some good evidence concerning the truth of Christianity and the Bible. The precise arrival of Jesus, to the day, was predicted in Daniel 9:26. There are lots of others:

    Even better, God is still doing miracles:

  17. Micah Post author

    Matt, I’ve already addressed why it’s not really reasonable to think Jesus communicated indirectly to the centurion. And if the centurion was within earshot, it wouldn’t have been necessary to send friends.

    There are certainly more damning stories than this small discrepancy, but this was the one that broke the camel’s back. There was too large a buildup of frankly unbelievable (but still just possible) resolutions to Biblical contradictions. This was the first that I realized wasn’t even “just possible”.

    There are plenty of detailed analyses explaining why your cited prophecies are not reasonably believable (see this one, for instance). The Daniel prophecy you cited has to be mangled beyond belief in order to fit the biblical story (which, in any event, is the only “historical source” to confirm the event even took place—awfully convenient to make fantastic claims about prophecies when no one can check your story).

    All of which is pointless to mention, I suppose, since if you actually credit the “resurrections” you linked without even a hint of doubt, I have little chance to get you to think critically about any of this.

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