Friday, February 25, 2011

Combinations and Permutations

Jesus has just completed His epic Sermon on the Mount with a parable, explaining that if you completely obey His teachings, you will be on a foundation of rock. Yet anyone who followed all of these teachings would be on a foundation of sand in terms of making a living in this life. Jesus then walks down the mountain with huge crowds following Him (Matthew 8:1).

Combinations and Permutations
Sequence is not always important. When you order a combo meal at McDonalds, it does not really matter if they put the burger or the fries on the tray first. It just matters that you get both of them. Order independent events are known as combinations. Well, at least they are to geeks. ;-)

However, sometimes the sequence is important. If someone told you that U.S. President Ronald Reagan said “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”sometime after the ninth of November, 1989, the date when the tearing down of the Berlin Wall had begun, you would have to seriously question that person's grasp on facts. History is not a combination. In a manner of speaking, history is known as a permutation, because its order does matter.

The four Gospels are touted to be historical accounts of Jesus' life on earth which originated from four separate eyewitnesses, regardless of if these witnesses were the first to write the accounts in their present form. These four people witnessed the most significant and memorable event in the realm of mankind since creation; the incarnation of God. So let us take a closer look at this history.

Right after coming down from preaching the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 8:2-4 records that a leper knelt before Jesus and said to Him “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus touches the man and says “I am willing. Be clean!” Immediately the man was cured. Jesus commanded the man not to tell anyone, but to go make offerings per God's Law for the cleansing. Mark 1:40-45 and Luke 5:12-16 both record a healing of a leper using wording so similar that scholars believe it to be the same healing recorded in all three accounts. (Apparently, John did not think that this healing was important enough to record.)

Let us take a bird's eye view around this healing according to these three accounts:

Jesus gets Fishers of Men (Matthew 4:18-22) Jesus gets Fishers of Men (Mark 1:16-20) Jesus casts out a demon (Luke 4:33-37)
Jesus heals many, and gets followed (Matthew 4:23-25) Jesus casts out a demon (Mark 1:21-28) Jesus cures Simon's mother-in-law, healed others, and prays alone (Luke 4:38-44)
The Sermon on the Mount Jesus cures Simon's mother-in-law, healed others, and prays alone (Mark 1:29-39) Jesus gets Fishers of Men (Luke 5:1-11)
Jesus heals the leper Jesus heals the leper Jesus heals the leper
Jesus heals the Centurion's servant (Matthew 8:5-13) Jesus heals a paralytic carried by men (Mark 2:1-12) Jesus heals a paralytic carried by men (Luke 5:17-26)
Jesus cures Simon's mother-in-law and healed others (Matthew 8:14-17) Jesus calls Levi and eats with tax collectors (Mark 2:13-17) Jesus calls Levi and eats with tax collectors (Luke 5:27-32)

When did Jesus heal this leper? Before or after curing Simon's mother-in-law? Right after going fishing for men, or later than that? The answer: Yes. ;-) You do not find a unified historical permutation. You see a combination of episodes. This is not even the worst case disorder found in the Gospels.

The sequence discrepancy is fairly typical throughout the four Gospels. Trying to wrangle these accounts into a harmonized history is a dizzying task full of cut-and-paste rearrangements and arbitrary decisions. If you think that I exaggerate, check out this sample of the Gospel hatchet job required to harmonize the Gospel accounts into one coherent timeline.

The usual defense is that the writers of the Gospels were not trained as historians, and that they were more interested in recording the content accurately than preserving the timeline. That defense holds up like a wet paper bag. Historian or not, people tend to remember chronology, especially chronology regarding particularly special events, such as God embodying Himself as a man.

To think that these writers could remember the words exactly but that they would haphazardly make a combination of these anecdotes, while possible, does not seem probable. Any eyewitness intent on recording the life of Jesus for future generations probably would have tried to get it right. When you consider that two of the writers took the time to learn and record the (conflicting) lineage of Jesus, it seems like they were putting in a lot of effort to be accurate and complete.

Also, with so many supposed eyewitnesses (the large crowds always following Jesus around), it should have been pretty easy to resolve any order issues into the proper permutation. Easy, that is, if there really were eyewitnesses...

Putting some circumstantial evidence icing on this combination cake, consider Mark 1:45. Mark records that this healed leper went out and spread the word about Jesus, and "As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere." Yet Matthew 8:5 records that right after healing the leper, Jesus walked right into Capernaum. That is the kind of problem you get, when you haphazardly combine your history. You get a lie.


  1. I went reading your First Quoted Romans 1:22, and then proceeded to read verses 19, 20 and 21 and found out it was all talking about someone like you

  2. Ah, Anonymous, it is a pity you cannot understand irony.

    I invite you to read Romans 1:23 to see who that passage was really aimed at; idolators. Alas, I do not worship any god. My tag line is meant as a humble reminder that I could be completely wrong and foolish, but obviously you could not recognize that, nor could you identify the proper context of the verse.