The Story of Jairusí Daughter And Its Relevance to the Seattle Debate

Shabir Ally and James White Seattle, October 19, 2007

Topic: Was Jesus Christ Crucified as a Willing Sacrifice for the Sins of God’s People?

In his “A Stormy Night in Seattle,” Dr. James R. White criticized me for raising again a point in Seattle that we had previously discussed in the Biola debate. The point of his criticism is that this discussion was irrelevant to the Seattle debate. I wish here to recount the story of Jairus’ daughter, and the discussion it entailed, to show why it was relevant to the latter debate.

The story of Jairus’ daughter is told in the three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mark, the earliest of the New Testament’s four gospels, relates that one of the synagogue rulers, Jairus by name, came and besought Jesus saying:
My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” (Mark 5:23 RSV)

While Jesus was on his way to heal the girl, however, some people came from the ruler’s house saying:
“Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” (Mark 5:35)

Ignoring them, Jesus continued on his way, exhorting Jairus to believe and not fear. Arriving at the house, Jesus assured the crowd of mourners: “The child is not dead, but sleeping” (Mark 5:39). Entering where the girl lay, he commanded her to arise. Immediately the girl got up and walked.

Luke’s version of the story (Luke 8:40-56) is quite similar to that of Mark. Matthew’s report is shorter than that of Mark, but this fact has not been my point of objection. Rather, I agree that there is some benefit in summarizing the story even as we have done herein above. However, Matthew’s version is not a mere précis of the story. Matthew’s story is different in an important respect. Matthew has Jairus saying to Jesus from the start:
“My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” (Matthew 9:18)

I argued in the Biola debate that Matthew’s change in the story line fits a larger pattern, not only involving other such changes within Matthew’s Gospel, but across the Gospels in general. Modern scholars are in considerable agreement that Mark is the first of the four Gospels; that John is the last; and that Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources.

My point about the raising of the dead girl is that both Muslims and Christians believe that Jesus raised the dead. Muslims believe thus on the strength of the Quran’s testimony. The Quran does not show precisely how Jesus brought a dead person back to life, but merely says that he raised the dead by God’s permission. One can easily understand that Jesus may have had some knowledge, given to him by God, of how to resuscitate near-dead persons who, at the time, would have been declared dead. Mark’s story especially lends itself to this simple interpretation. Jesus himself had assured the crowd that the girl was not dead but merely asleep.

The Gospels, however, give us four such dead-raising stories. Curiously, the time between the person being declared dead and the raising of the person gets progressively longer as we go from Mark to Matthew and Luke, and finally to John. In John the possibility of resuscitation is definitely ruled out, as the person’s body had already been rotting, and we must conceive of the event as no less than a resurrection from the dead.

It is true that Luke did not modify the Marcan story of Jairus’s daughter in this respect. But Luke has another story of such a near-death experience: the story of the son of the widow of Nain. In this story the man was already being carried away to be buried when Jesus halted the process by raising him and handing him over to his mother alive (Luke 7:11-17).

John has neither the story of Jairus’s daughter nor that of the widow of Nain’s son. Instead, he has a remarkable story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus. This man had been dead and entombed for four days (John 11:17), and by this time there was a bad odor coming from the tomb (11:39). Jesus nevertheless commanded Lazarus to come out of the tomb, and “the dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face” (11:44 NIV). Clearly, this story is of a different character from those of the synoptic gospels. Whereas those could be explained in terms of resuscitation, there is no question of resuscitation here in John’s Gospel.

Now we can see a pattern in which the story evolves. The most dramatic story is told only in John’s Gospel, the last of the four. The next dramatic story is told only in Luke’s Gospel. The least dramatic story is found in the earliest of the four Gospels: Mark. It seems that there was a tradition that Jesus raised a person back to life, somewhat like the story of Mark’s Gospel where the girl is still in her bed and may be thought to be in a deep sleep resembling death. Over time this evolved into two other more dramatic stories: one where an unnamed man is already being borne away to be buried, and another where a named man had been in his tomb for four days such that his body is rotting.

With reference to this evolving story, I made two points at Biola about Matthew’s Gospel. First, the changes wrought therein were a part of that progressive increase in the length of time between the pronouncement of death and the declaration of life in the once-dead individuals. If Jairus had from the start declared his daughter dead, as in Matthew’s Gospel, then the girl had been dead longer than if news of her death comes subsequently from someone else as in Mark. Second, in order to effect this change, Matthew changed the words of Jairus. As seen above, in Mark Jairus says:
My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” (Mark 5:23 RSV)

But at the same point in the story in Matthew’s version Jairus says to Jesus:
“My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” (Matthew 9:18)

Dr. White’s answer to this, ignoring the further development in Luke and John, was that Matthew did nothing wrong in summarizing the story. He referred to Matthew’s action as ‘telescoping’, by which he obviously means that Matthew has drawn in the ends of the story to make it shorter. He correctly pointed out that Matthew achieved brevity by omitting the later part about someone else coming with news of the girl’s death. To Dr. White, Matthew did not change the broad facts of the story in having Jairus declare the girl dead from the start, since we still get the same basic information from both Matthew and Mark.

I maintained my objection that this manner of changing the fact of the girl’s condition, and of changing a person’s quoted speech, was unacceptable. Moreover, in my conclusion, I emphasized that the fact that the Gospel writers have telescoped their narratives in this way implies that no speech of any person in the Gospels can be taken as the Gospel Truth. We can no longer have confidence that any of the reported speeches of Jesus, for example, are really his. These too may have been ‘telescoped’ in the sense of having been changed significantly as has been the speech of Jairus in Matthew’s Gospel.

Though Dr. White would not agree with that conclusion, the relevance of this discussion to the Biola debate is beyond dispute. However, Dr. White questions my judgment in bringing this up again in the Seattle debate. On the contrary, I feel that this discussion does much to decide the outcome of this debate as well. Both debates hinged on the question of the authority and authenticity of the Gospels. This was more clearly expressed in the title of the Biola debate, but is latent in the Seattle debate. If, as I have argued in both debates, the Gospel of Matthew has changed the stories from they way they appear in Mark’s Gospel, then the Gospels are not entirely reliable. One has to be on the lookout for ways in which Matthew and others have evolved the tradition about Jesus, and one may expect that Mark has likewise, in his own way, altered the traditions available to him.

In my earlier “Report on the Seattle Debate,” I argued that it was James’s responsibility to prove three things: that Jesus died on the cross; that he died as a sacrifice for sins; and that he died willing to be such a sacrifice. James’s support for each of these three points comes from the more evolved stages of the Gospel tradition as I have shown in the debate. The later the Gospel the more it proves that Jesus definitely died; that he was a sacrifice for sins, and that he came into the world for the very purpose. If it is true that the stories evolved in this way, then James’s assertions fall flat.

Now we should distinguish between a fact and the significance of that fact. From our discussion at Biola as well as in Seattle, it is clear that James and I agree as a matter of fact that Matthew has changed the speech of Jairus. What we disagree on is the significance of this change. For James Matthew has legitimately telescoped the narrative. For me, Matthew has taken what someone else said later in the story, and put that into the mouth of Jairus earlier. This is unacceptable. But I count it as a step forward in our dialogue that James and I at least agree on the fact of the change if not its significance.

Naturally, in any subsequent debate or dialogue we should build on what gains are already achieved rather than start again from square-one. My hope is that even if James does not see the significance of this fact the audience will. This is why when he asked if I really wanted him to comment on the story again in the Seattle debate I indicated that we have a new audience who needs to hear of it.

Someone in the audience did see the connection between this point and the question of the inspiration and inerrancy of the Gospels. He put the question to James, and, as was mutually agreed, I had the chance to comment on it as well. James can hardly fault me, as he does in “A Stormy Night in Seattle,” for commenting on a question that he had already addressed in stride.

In sum, I believe that James’ acceptance of the fact of the change is a significant step towards seeing the significance of the change as a major point in my favour. 

Shabir Ally
October 23, 2007

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