Scriptural discrepancies at the crucifixion

Straight Talk

The Question

In both Matthew’s and Mark’s account they tell of both thieves berating Christ. They see the crucifixion differently than Luke. Is there any significance to this?

JW From North Platte

The Answer
Part 1: Different details
Part 2: Handling discrepancies

Different details (Part 1)

First let’s look at the differences. Matthew tells it like this: “The robbers who had been crucified with Him were also insulting Him with the same words.” (Matthew 27:44) Likewise, Mark tells us: “’Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe! Those who were crucified with Him were also insulting Him.’” (Mark 15:32)

It is Luke who gives us additional information. I’m so glad he did because those details have provided insight into the nature of redemption and God’s mercy to countless people who need it. Without them we might not realize that deathbed conversions are not only possible but also welcome.

In Luke’s rendition, abuse was being hurled at Jesus by the soldiers and the rulers and by one of the men hanging with him. “One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, ‘Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!’”(Luke 23:39) But the other thief asked for mercy. “And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!’ And He said to him, ‘Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.’” (Luke 23:42-43)

Are the scriptures contradictory? No. We simply have a case where each writer accentuates different aspects of the story depending on their perspective and the intended audience. I have noticed that often it is Luke who gives us additional personal details found nowhere else, enriching the narrative greatly. No doubt both thieves started off berating Christ as Matthew and Mark mention, but one had a change of heart. Luke is the only one who records it. Gratefully, it was not too late for the condemned man.

Handling discrepancies (Part 2)

That particular difference in the gospel accounts is fairly easy to resolve but some things are much more difficult. What do we do when a scripture passage seems to outright contradict another one? For instance, there is one that bothered me for a number of years. Jesus himself initiated it.

When the scribes and Pharisees kept asking him for a sign, Jesus told them, “’for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’” (Matthew 12:40) Of course he was describing the time between his death and resurrection.

The problem for me was: how could Jesus say so precisely three days and three nights when it was literally much less time than that? He died on Friday afternoon and rose on Sunday morning so that’s only two nights in the grave and two of the days were not full. Hmmm. What was I missing?

Finally I came across a random note in a Bible commentary that resolved it for me. The author explained that in the Jewish culture of the time, if any part of a day were involved in an event it might be described as a full day. Jesus was simply speaking the language of his day, not prophesying a literal amount of time he would be in the grave.

Often it is the Bible that interprets itself if you are diligent to read every available portion of scripture pertaining to your subject of study. That’s what you did when you compared passages between Matthew, Mark and Luke regarding the thieves at the crucifixion. Sometimes just reading the same passage in different translations clears things up considerably.

What else? If you have a study Bible, read all the notes and cross-references associated with an unclear passage. Use a Concordance to look up the original word and it’s meaning in either Hebrew or Greek. Have on hand a Bible dictionary, a good Bible Commentary and a Handbook of the Manners and Customs of the Bible. Between all of these resources, most puzzling passages can be understood.

Most, but not ALL. When all is said and done, there are some scripture passages that are shrouded in mystery or that are open to a number of different interpretations. While the Lord tells us quite a bit in his Word he doesn’t tell us everything and even what he does say is not always fully explained. “Just as you do not know the path of the wind and how bones are formed in the womb of the pregnant woman, so you do not know the activity of God who makes all things.” (Ecclesiastes 11:5)

I guess that leaves us plenty of conversation points for eternity!