(Mt. 8:5-13) Does this contradict the account in Luke 7:1-10?

CLAIM: In the account of Jesus healing the centurion’s servant, there appear to be differing accounts. Of course, the biggest difference between the accounts is in the fact that Luke mentions that there are intermediaries between the centurion and Jesus. Matthew makes it seem like the centurion and Jesus met face to face, but Luke explains that they met through messengers. Which is it?

RESPONSE: Before answering this difficulty, it’s first worthy considering the differences in the accounts:

Differences between Matthew and Luke’s Account of the Centurion

Matthew’s Account (Mt. 8)

Luke’s Account (Lk. 7)

Jesus entered Capernaum and met the centurion (v.5)

Jesus went to Capernaum (v.1)
He asks Jesus to heal his servant who is tormented (v.6)

The centurion’s servant was sick (v.2). He sends Jewish elders to speak to Jesus and ask his servant to be saved (v.3)

Matthew doesn’t mention this

The Jewish elders tell Jesus that the centurion is worthy of this request, because he helped build them their synagogue (vv.4-5)
Jesus promises to heal him (v.7)

Jesus was close to the man’s house, so he walked over toward it to heal the centurion’s servant (v.6)

The centurion tells Jesus that he’s unworthy to accept him. Instead he should just command the miracle (v.8)

The centurion sends friends to speak with Jesus, and they tell Jesus that the centurion is unworthy of letting Jesus come into his house (v.6)

Luke adds that the centurion didn’t even view himself as worthy enough to speak directly with Jesus, but sent his servants instead (v.7)

He asks Jesus to just command the miracle (v.7)

The centurion gives a comparison of how he is an authority over his troops. Likewise, he recognizes Jesus as the ultimate authority, so why not just command a healing? (v.9)

The centurion gives a comparison of how he is an authority over his troops. Likewise, he recognizes Jesus as the ultimate authority, so why not just command a healing? (v.8)
Jesus marvels at his faith and says he’s never found it—even in Israel (v.10) Jesus marvels at his faith and says he’s never found it—even in Israel (v.9)
Jesus concludes that Gentiles will make it into the kingdom, while many Jews will be cast out because of their lack of faith (vv.11-12)

Luke excludes these statements from Jesus

 

Remember that Luke was writing to the Gentiles—not the Jews—so this wouldn’t have been relevant to them

Jesus commands that the servant will be healed, and he is healed “that very moment” (v.13)

The servants return to the house and find that he is healed (v.10). Remember, Jesus was close to the house (v.6), so this wouldn’t have been a very far trek

 

How can we resolve this difficulty?

OPTION #1 (The Centurion came AFTER sending emissaries): While the centurion originally felt shame in approaching Jesus (Lk. 7:6), it’s possible that he could have come out to visit him after sending his servants. Remember, Jesus was “not far from the house” (Lk. 7:6), so this is entirely possible. Poythress observes, “Human motivations and decision making are complex and often include some wavering or change of mind.”[1]

OPTION #2 (Matthew records it this way because the emissaries represented him): When Matthew records that the centurion was “imploring Jesus,” it never says that this was “face to face” or “in person.” Of course, the centurion did implore Jesus, but this was via a messenger or representative. We would use this same language today, when a newspaper states, “The President told the Prime Minister to support his foreign policy.” We don’t expect that the two people actually spoke to one another. They may have, or maybe the President sent his ambassadors to do it for him.

Elsewhere in the gospels, we read, “Pilate took Jesus and scourged him” (Jn. 19:1; cf. Mt. 27:26; Mk. 15:15; Lk. 23:16). Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Pilate held the whip himself, but rather, the order came from him to have Jesus scourged.

An difference in purpose and emphasis

In addition to this harmonization, the differences in the accounts can also be attributed to the purpose of the authors. Matthew was writing to the Jews, and Luke to the Gentiles.

Matthew: This author wanted to focus on the faith of the Gentile centurion (Mt. 8:10), showing that the Jewish leaders were unbelieving to Jesus. Luke adds his detail about the Jewish elders coaxing Jesus, because he was trying to show their role in bringing this Gentile to Jesus (Lk. 7:9). If Matthew included this, perhaps his Jewish audience might have pointed to this act as an act of faith and righteousness, which wasn’t his intention.

Luke: His account emphasizes how the Jewish leaders called the centurion “worthy” (Lk. 7:4). Of course, the centurion didn’t have this view of himself (Lk. 7:6), but his Jewish friends did. This further fits with Luke’s emphasis on the Gentiles being “worthy” of hearing the gospel. Additionally, it also fits with the notion that the humble (like the centurion) get into the kingdom (Lk. 1:52; 18:14). Poythress remarks, “We are richer by having the two Gospels draw attention to distinct aspects of the meaning of the events and the meaning of the kingdom of God. We can appreciate what God is doing more deeply than if we just had one account, or if we just paid attention to our reconstructed idea of the events and not to the Gospels’ distinctive ways of explaining the events.”[2]

 

[1] Poythress, Vern S. Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012. 19.

[2] Poythress, Vern S. Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012. 24.