Taking a Staff or Not? A New Solution to an Alleged Gospel Contradiction
Text from the Slides:
Taking a Staff or Not? A New Solution to an Alleged Gospel Contradiction
Hello everyone, and welcome to Original Apologetics, where we seek new ways to defend Christians and Christianity. As always, I hope that you are doing well.
Alright, so, for this video, we are going to be discussing an alleged contradiction within the Synoptic Gospels that some skeptics claim is, in fact, a genuine contradiction that cannot be reasonably explained. So, what is this alleged contradiction? Well, it arises from the fact that when Jesus dispatches his twelve Apostles on a ‘miniature’ commission to spread the Good News to surrounding villages, in some Gospels, Jesus appears to be telling his Apostles not to take anything with them, not even a staff or sandals, and yet, by contrast, in another Gospel, Jesus actually seems to tell his Apostles to take a staff and sandals with them. Indeed, in the Gospel of Matthew, in Chapter 10, Verses 5 to 11, and in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 9, Verses 1 to 4, Jesus appears to command the Apostles not to take any staff or sandals with them, whereas in the Gospel of Mark, in Chapter 6, Verses 7 to 11, Jesus commands the Apostles to take a staff and sandals with them. Thus, we have different Gospels passages which, for all intents and purposes, do appear to be contradicting each other.
Now, just to be sure that we are correctly articulating the alleged contradiction that is claimed to exist from this part of the Gospels, let us refer to the way in which self-proclaimed skeptics bring up this specific scriptural problem. So, consider that in his 1995 article titled “New Testament Contradictions” on the Infidels.org website, author Paul Carlson articulates this particular scriptural difficulty in the following manner: QUOTE – “When Jesus summons the twelve disciples to send them out to proclaim the kingdom of God, he lists the things the disciples should not take with them. In Matthew 10:9-10 and Luke 9:3-5, a staff is included in the list of things not to take. In contradiction to Matthew and Luke, Mark 6:8 makes a specific exception – the disciples may take a staff.” – UNQUOTE. Additionally, consider that the author of The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible also articulates this alleged contradiction by pointing out that in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus tells His disciples to go barefoot and take no staff, whereas in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells His disciples to wear sandals and carry a staff. So, this is the alleged Gospel contradiction that skeptics challenge Christians with, and it is a problem that definitely deserves an answer. And so, we can genuinely ask: What is the answer to this particular scriptural difficulty?
Well, to begin with, consider that most Christian apologists tackle this challenge by dealing with the specific language found in each of the Gospels. For example, the Apologetics Press, in its answer to this objection, notes the following about the difference between Matthew and Mark: QUOTE – “The differences between Matthew and Mark are explained easily when one acknowledges that the writers used different Greek verbs to express different meanings. … In Matthew, Jesus is saying: “Do not acquire anything in addition to what you already have that may tempt you or stand in your way. Just go as you are.” As Mark indicated, the apostles were to “take”…what they had, and go. The apostles were not to waste precious time gathering supplies (extra apparel, staffs, shoes, etc.) or making preparations for their trip, but instead were instructed to trust in God’s providence for additional needs. Jesus did not mean for the apostles to discard the staffs and sandals they already had; rather, they were not to go and acquire more.” – UNQUOTE
The Apologetic Press then notes that an alleged contradiction still exists between the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Luke. And so, in response to this further problem, the Apologetic Press concludes their argument as follows: QUOTE – “Just as [the Greek word for ‘provide’] did not mean the same for Luke and Matthew, the Greek word [for ‘take’] (…in both Mark 6:8 and Luke 9:3) often did not mean the same for Luke and Mark. (Understanding this simple fact eliminates the “contradiction” completely, for unless the skeptic can be certain that Mark and Luke were using the word in the same sense, he cannot prove that the accounts contradict each other.) … Without going any further with these language comparisons, one simply must understand that the Greek language (like most languages) is flexible enough so that sometimes two writers can use the same word to mean different things, and sometimes they can use different words to mean the same thing.” – UNQUOTE. Thus, the Apologetic Press solves the difference between Mark and Luke by arguing that though they use the same word, they do so with different meanings in mind, thus resolving the contradiction between them.
And another Christian apologetics website called ‘Contradicting Bible Contradictions’ argues that the word for ‘staff’ should actually be translated as a ‘stick’ in Matthew and Luke. And if this is the case, then there is no contradiction between the various Synoptic Gospels given that, in Matthew and Luke, Jesus is essentially telling his Apostles not to bring a stick on which their belongings can be hung, but that they can bring a staff for walking as per the instructions in the Gospel of Mark.
So, as can be seen, many apologists do indeed seek to resolve this alleged contradiction using linguistic means, essentially arguing that some critical words used in the Synoptic Gospels around this ‘staff’ issue actually have different meanings, a fact which, if true, effectively counters the claim that there is a clear contradiction in these specific scriptural passages.
Now, there is no doubt merit to this linguistic approach, and the fact is that such an approach may even solve this Gospel problem completely. And yet, even if this is the case, what I wish to do in this video is to provide a new and complementary solution to this alleged Gospel contradiction. And it is a solution which is based on a portion of the text in the Gospel of Mark that is almost always overlooked when discussing this particular scriptural difficulty. In fact, as far as I know, no one, as of yet, has offered this particular solution to this specific Gospel problem.
So, what is this new solution to the alleged ‘sandal and staff’ contradiction in the Synoptic Gospels? Well, to understand this solution, consider Mark, Chapter 6, Verses 6 to 9, in Young’s Literal Translation, which says the following: QUOTE – “And he [Jesus] was going round the villages, in a circle, teaching, and he doth call near the twelve, and he began to send them forth two by two, and he was giving them power over the unclean spirits, and he commanded them that they may take nothing for the way, except a staff only — no scrip, no bread, no brass in the girdle, but having been shod with sandals, and ye may not put on two coats.” – UNQUOTE
Now, the key section of that scriptural passage is the little portion that mentions that Jesus called near the twelve Apostles, and then sent them out two by two. That is the critical section. Indeed, that is the small nugget that can plausibly and reasonably solve this alleged Gospel contradiction in a way that is different from the linguistic approach. But how can this tiny bit of information solve the alleged contradiction under consideration? Well, it can do so in a number of different ways.
First, consider that if Jesus sent out the Apostles two by two, then it is entirely plausible that Jesus gave each pair of Apostles individual instructions before He sent them out. And while the instructions could have been similar in each case, they would not need to be identical. Thus, the writers of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke could have received their information from Apostles who had been told not to take staffs with them—nor sandals in the case of Matthew—while the writer of the Gospel of Mark received his information from Apostles who had been allowed to take a staff and sandals with them.
And note that while there is nothing explicitly stated in the Gospels to indicate that some reason was present to require that some Apostles have a staff and sandals, while others did not need them, the fact is that plausible reasons can be given for why this might have been the case. For example, perhaps a few of the Apostles were sick or injured at the time, thus requiring them to use a staff and sandals. Perhaps some were older, thus leading Jesus to allow those older ones to use a staff and sandals. Perhaps a pair of the Apostles were dispatched to an area with very harsh terrain, and so sandals and a staff would actually be required to get around. And perhaps it was even the case that some Apostles simply had a staff and sandals with them, and so they were given permission to keep the belongings that they already had at the time. Heck, maybe some even asked permission to take a staff after the fact, and were given permission to do so. And all these reasons are not only eminently plausible, but we encounter such reasons in daily life as well. Indeed, we provide similar-but-slightly-different instructions to different people depending on their specific circumstances all the time in our daily lives, and there is no reason that the same could not have occurred in the case of Jesus and His Apostles during this specific event.
Note as well that this idea that Jesus gave similar-but-individualized instructions to each pair of Apostles that He sent out is supported by the fact that the Gospel of Mark appears to indicate that Jesus was sending out the Apostles in pairs before He gave them instructions on what to bring with them, thus allowing the text to be plausibly interpreted as showing that Jesus was giving each pair of Apostles specific instructions as He was sending them out separately. Additionally, this new solution also accounts for why each Synoptic Gospel is slightly different in what it claims Jesus said before sending the Apostles out, for while the instructions that Jesus gave to each pair of Apostles were similar, they were not identical, thus plausibly allowing for differences to occur.
Now, in reference to this first solution, it may be objected that in Mark, Chapter 6, Verses 8 to 10, the term ‘them’ is used, which seems to indicate that Jesus is referring to all the Apostles as one group when He is giving them His instructions. But note that the term ‘them’ is very flexible: it could be referring to all the Apostles together as one large group being spoken to at the same time, or it could be referring to all the Apostles as a group of individualized pairs who were spoken to separately but sequentially, or it could even be referring to just one pair of Apostles who were sent out individually—after all, just one pair can be legitimately referred to as a ‘them’ given that it is composed of multiple individuals.
So, for example, consider that this would be similar to me giving instructions to, say, a platoon of soldiers doing an obstacle course; I might give ‘them’ the instructions, but what I actually did was give each pair of soldiers similar-but-individualized instructions right before each pair separately started the course. And this might be done for a variety of reasons, such as safety—in order to ensure that the instructions were fresh in each soldier’s mind right before they started the course—or because I wanted to give each pair of soldiers a unique challenge that the other soldiers would not receive. But now note that if I were to subsequently write a report or an e-mail concerning the platoon’s daily activities, I could nevertheless still truthfully write that I gave ‘them’, meaning the whole platoon, the obstacle course instructions, even though I did so to each individual pair, but not to the whole group. In fact, given that such a detail might be superfluous to a broad report or e-mail, I actually would write that I gave ‘them’ the instructions, and leave it at that. And note that I speak from personal experience when I give this example. So, what this example helps to illustrate is the fact that Mark’s use of the term ‘them’ does not necessarily mean that Jesus was referring to the Apostles gathered all as one large group (although note that this option will be examined as well shortly).
Furthermore, also note that it is quite plausible that if one pair of the Apostles were given one set of instructions from Jesus, they would have assumed that the same sort of instructions were told to the other pairs of Apostles as well. This could explain why the writer of the Gospel of Mark used the term ‘them’, because the Apostles from the Gospel of Mark could have assumed—or later learned—that what Jesus told them was very similar to what Jesus told every other pair of Apostles, thus leading to the use of the term ‘them’. Note as well that this approach would also explain why the writers of both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke also stated that Jesus told their statement to all the Apostles, because He did, but He could have done so in the sense of telling all the Apostles as a group of separate pairs, rather than telling them all as one group.
And again, there is nothing implausible about this idea. After all, and to use our previous example, note that a pair of soldiers who completed the obstacle course might, later on—perhaps for an article in a Regimental newsletter or something similar—write down the instructions that had been given to them specifically, but they might also extrapolate that similar instructions had been given to all the other pairs of soldiers as well, thus leading the original pair of soldiers to write that such instructions had been given to all of ‘them’, meaning the whole platoon. Now such an extrapolation might be an assumption on the soldiers’ part, but it would be a natural and reasonable assumption given the circumstances. Or perhaps they made such an extrapolation after speaking to a few other pairs of soldiers and learning that they too had received similar instructions. Or perhaps such an extrapolation was done in the interests of saving written space and time, because it was not really that important to list the individual instructions that each pair of soldiers received. And all these reasons serve as a plausible explanation for such an extrapolation. But also note that, in the end, such an extrapolation would still be broadly truthful, in the sense that every pair of soldiers doing the obstacle course did receive similar instructions, even though they were also slightly individualized for each pair of soldiers doing the course. But now note that in the same way, a similar extrapolation, and for potentially similar reasons, could have been done on the part of the Gospel writers when they used the term ‘them’ in this section of the Gospels.
However, for the sake of argument, let’s say that the aforementioned solution to this scriptural difficulty is questioned. Indeed, perhaps the skeptic points to the fact that the most plausible reading of both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke is that Jesus told all the Apostles, as one group, not to take or acquire sandals and/or a staff. Consequently, could the aforementioned solution still somehow apply to this further objection? Yes it could. And to understand why, let me provide another analogy.
Consider that when I have had birthday parties with my young son and his friends, my son’s older sister—my eldest child—is usually also there with one of her older friends. Now, at such parties, there have been times when I have gathered all the children together, including my eldest daughter and her friend, and then clearly and forcefully told everyone the specific rules that they all had to follow, including mentioning that they were not allowed to do, say, a certain activity. However, as I then sent out teams of children to play at different spots, I also pulled aside my eldest daughter and her older friend and told them that they were allowed to do the very activity that I had just told everyone else not to do. Why did I make this exception? Because they were older and more mature than the rest of the other children, so they were permitted to do the thing that the other children were not allowed to do. Thus, even though I told all the children as a group that they could not do that certain activity, in a more private setting, and because of the special circumstances surrounding them, I then told my daughter and her friend the opposite. But this is not a contradiction; rather, it is a natural way of dealing with such issues, in the sense that clear and unambiguous instructions are often provided to a group as a whole, and then, in order to avoid confusion or upset, a few exceptions are dealt with privately on the side.
And again, it is worth reiterating that this is a perfectly normal way of interacting with people, especially in the context of giving orders and instructions, which is what Jesus did. Indeed, for consider that, in the military, I might instruct my whole training platoon that no one was being allowed off-base on the weekend. But then, in private, I might pull Corporal Bloggins aside and tell him that of course he is actually allowed off-base given the fact that his father is seriously ill, a situation which I would have been aware of beforehand. So the point is that there is nothing unnatural about giving a broad and sweeping command to a group, and then dealing with the exceptional cases separately. And that is because, generally-speaking, in most cases, such broad and sweeping statements are not meant to be absolutes with no exceptions, but rather they are meant to convey the fact that no exception will be made unless there is a good reason for it. And so, in the case of Jesus and the Apostles, the same could have been true. Jesus could have made a broad and sweeping claim to all the Apostles, but then privately dealt with the one or two exceptions when He sent out the Apostles two by two. And such an explanation is entirely plausible, natural, and reasonable.
And remember, as previously mentioned, while there is nothing explicit in the Gospels to show that some special reason was present to require that some Apostles have a staff and sandals, while others did not need them, the fact is that plausible reasons can be given for why this might have occurred. Some Apostles might have been sick or injured. Some might have been older. Some might have been dispatched to a place with brutal terrain that required a staff and sandals for safety. And some Apostles might have had a staff and sandals with them, and so they were given permission to keep the belongings that they already had when they were sent out in pairs. And all these reasons are not only eminently plausible, but we encounter them in normal life as well. For example, people who are blind are allowed to bring their seeing-eye dogs into locations where animals are not normally allowed to go, and there is nothing exceptional about such a course of action, because we recognize the accommodation that such a special circumstance requires. Thus, we allow concessions to otherwise firm rules all the time, and there is no reason that the same could not have occurred in the case of Jesus and His command about whether or not the Apostles could take a staff with them.
But perhaps the skeptic could continue to object to this solution by reinforcing the point that there is nothing in the Gospel texts that specifically indicates that there was a reason for any exception to be made to the main command that Jesus seems to give to all the Apostles about not taking a staff or sandals. The skeptic might thus claim that we are reading things into the text that are not specifically there. And in a way, this is true, but it is also not nearly as strong of an objection as the skeptic might think. Why? Because the Gospels are not a detailed record of every minute fact and occurrence that happened to each individual Apostle. Nor are they meant to be. Indeed, they are not a court-transcript meant to record every grunt, hum, and word that each Apostle made.
Thus, it would not necessarily be expected that every single detail would be recorded in the Gospels. However, this is not necessarily a worry, as no human records are so precise as to record every tiny detail of an event. Even police records—such as police officer notes or witness statements, of which I wrote many—are neither meant to copy down every single detail of an occurrence, nor will they be able to do so. That is why follow-up questions are often required in such cases. And even then not everything will be captured. And so, allowing for a plausible interpretation of the text is a perfectly rational course of action to take in this case, especially when such an interpretation largely aligns with our human experience of how real people actually record events that occurred to them.
It is also important to remember that in providing this argument against this alleged Gospel contradiction, I am not necessarily making the strong claim that my offered solution is what actually and certainly happened. Rather, I am simply offering a defense of the Gospels by showing that my solution to this alleged contradiction is an entirely plausible and reasonable solution, which it is. Indeed, the idea that the Apostles were given similar but still individualized instructions as they were sent out in pairs is entirely plausible. At the same time, the idea that the Apostles might have been told one thing as a whole group, but then an exception was made for some of them later on, especially as they were being sent out in pairs, is also entirely plausible. After all, we see such events happen all the time in daily life in all sorts of different circumstances. Furthermore, it is also quite plausible that in a document like the Gospels, such details would not have been explicitly reported for various reasons. Thus, the skeptic’s objection that this solution is not overtly stated in the Gospels in every detail is largely irrelevant to the fact that it is still a plausible and reasonable defense against this alleged Gospel contradiction, for it is a defense that stems from a clearly recorded Gospel detail—namely, that Jesus sent out the Apostles in pairs—and it is also a defense that is in accordance with both a reasonable reading of the text and with normal human experience of how events are recorded in a written format.
And so, finally, to reinforce this whole overall point, let me offer one last analogy for this solution. While serving as a police officer, we often had to police certain events that required the officers doing the policing to be fully standardized in their dress and appearance. Thus, when the officer-in-charge of the event briefed the dozens upon dozens of officers participating in the event, that officer-in-charge would tell all of us that we were, for example, all required to wear our police forge caps—which is a type of dress hat—while policing the event. Furthermore, on the official documents for the event, it would be noted that the official dress for the event was a forge cap, and that all officers had to wear that hat. However, during such an event, I might—and actually once did—see an officer in her police toque instead of her forge cap. So what explained this apparent contradiction? Well, that particular officer would sometime suffer from migraines, which the forge cap made worse. And so the officer had medical permission not to wear her forge cap. Thus, when that officer was being sent out individually for the event, the officer-in-charge already knew, or was made aware, of the officer’s condition and he then told her that she did not have to wear her forge cap and could, instead, wear her toque.
Now remember that the toque-wearing officer was present when all the police officers, including her, were told to wear their forge caps, but that did not negate the fact that later, in her specific case, she was allowed to wear her toque instead. And this was either because the officer-in-charge knew of her medical condition and thus specifically pulled her aside and made an exception for her before she was sent out or because everyone already knew of her condition and they just assumed that she would not wear her forge cap. So this is exactly the point: even though a general order was given to everyone, an exception was still made for a specific person later on. And this is not surprising at all. In fact, we see such human behavior occur all the time, in many different circumstances.
Also note that if someone were to look back on the written records for this event, they would see, in certain records, that all the police officers were told to wear their forge caps for the event. But if, say, they looked into the police notes of the specific officer who wore her toque, they might find that her notes state that she was told to wear a toque rather than a forge cap. Now, would these two written records be contradictory? Not obviously. In fact, not even reasonably. Why? Well, first, because we are not excepting every minute detail to be recorded about an event, and second, because we know, from experience, that there are many entirely plausible explanations for why such a difference in testimony might exist. Indeed, as stated, perhaps all the senior officers already knew about the specific police officer’s inability to wear a forge cap, and so no one felt the need to write down that detail in an official document while the actual officer did mention that point in her own notes. Or perhaps no one felt the need to write down every detail that occurred surrounding the organization of the event because that was not the important aspect of the event itself. So there could be numerous entirely plausible and natural reasons why such details might not be fully recorded. And the exact same thing could be the case for this alleged contradiction in the Synoptic Gospels.
So, in the end, while the linguistic solution that is routinely offered to this alleged Gospel contradiction of Jesus telling his Apostles to either take a staff or not is solid, the alternative solution offered in this work—namely, that Jesus ultimately sent His Apostles out in pairs and thus could have given one or more pairs of the Apostles individualized instructions as they left—is also a plausible explanation for this problem and a reasonable defense against this alleged contradiction. Furthermore, this solution is the sort of explanation which has applied and could apply to numerous other situations, thus further reinforcing its plausibility. And lest the skeptic object that the apologist is simply biased and thus seeks to find any explanation to resolve this apparent contradiction, it can simply be pointed out that, first off, this explanation actually is entirely plausible and reasonable, and that, second, the skeptic himself can be accused of having biases about wanting there to be contradictions in the Gospels, and his biases can just as readily blind him to an entirely plausible solution to such contradictions, such as this one is. And so the skeptic’s objection is itself suspect. But ultimately, those seeing this solution can decide for themselves whether or not it is a plausible solution to this alleged Gospel contradiction.
Finally, as an important side-note, it is also worth pointing out that a case could be made that this solution to this alleged Gospel contradiction can even serve as some evidence for the authenticity of the Gospels. Why? Because the solution offered is a type of un-designed coincidence which resolves the alleged contradiction. After all, consider that the addition of a seemingly unnecessary and throw-away detail in one Gospel—namely, the detail that Jesus sent out His Apostles in pairs—is actually critical to explaining how and why the three Synoptic Gospels, which seem to contradict themselves, can actually be plausibly harmonized once the full implications of that little throw-away comment are actually taken into account. Furthermore, as a former Detective, I can tell you that it is such unnecessary and seemingly superfluous details that serve as a sign that a statement is based on actual eye-witness testimony of an event, and this is especially the case when such details also serve to plausibly resolve a difficulty in the testimony between different accounts, which is precisely what occurred in this case. And so, this alternative solution to the ‘staff’ problem not only provides a plausible and reasonable defense against the problem itself, but it also serves as some evidence for the authenticity of the actual Gospels. And that is an excellent result.
Alright everyone, that concludes this video, which I hope you enjoyed. And remember, if you ever have a question for Original Apologetics or if you would like to submit any material to the site for potential publication, then please e-mail Original Apologetics at ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’. Thank you and good-bye.