Staff or no staff: the worst Bible “contradiction”

For 2000 years Christians have believed in the authority of the Bible as an inspired document. Christians have believed that God’s inspiration of the Scriptures has left us with a written word that is both infallible and inerrant. That is, that the original manuscripts of the original authors are inspired by God while simultaneously being the product of the intellect and personality of the human biblical author. This means that the Scripture is both the product of the writing of men and the inspiration of God. Yet, because Scriptures are inspired by God, they are fully trustworthy and without error in the original manuscripts.

To confirm or deny this belief, we can look and see if there is anything in Scripture that can be proven false or that is self-contradictory. Because of this, those who have resisted believing in the authority of the Bible have often pointed out passages that they believe are in contradiction to each other—what we might call “apparent contradictions.”

I have been considering dozens of these apparent contradictions for more than 20 years. In general, I find that they are very easily resolved and are not contradictions at all. However, the solutions to some are easier than others. The most difficult I have ever come across is the apparent contradiction of Mark 6:8 compared to Luke 9:3 and Matthew 10:10.

Mark 6:8-9 These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic.

Matthew 10:10 Take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep.

Luke 9:3 He told them: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic.

The apparent contradiction is that in Mark the disciples are instructed to take a staff, and in Matthew and Luke they are instructed not to take a staff. This appears to be as obvious and direct a contradiction as could be possible. Perhaps the best analysis of solutions to this problem is still the article “Staff or No Staff?” in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly by Barnabas Ahern from July 1943.

Ahern offers the following possible solutions:

  1. Palestinian shepherds carried 2 different kinds of staffs. One was a thin and light walking stick, and the other was a shorter, thicker cudgel that functioned somewhat like a police nightstick. These two very different implements were often referred to with the same Greek word. It could be argued that Mark is allowing for the obvious walking stick that everyone would take on a journey, while Luke and Matthew are forbidding the implement of self-defense. This would make sense with Luke’s Gospel since in 22:36 Jesus tells the disciples to take along all the things they were forbidden when Jesus first sent them out—with the difference that he tells them to buy a sword, presumably for self-defense. By doing this, Luke emphasizes that  Jesus told them not to bring an implement of self-defense when he first sent them out, and then told them to bring an even more effective mechanism for self-defense when he sent them out after his death and resurrection, apart from his earthly presence.
  2. Augustine distinguished between a literal and spiritual staff. In numerous ancient traditions, the staff was a kind of scepter which stood for authority. He reasoned that the apostles were to take the staff of God’s authority in the gospel, and not a literal cudgel for self-defense. In Matthew the word refers to a literal staff, and in Mark to the metaphorical sense of the authority and power given to the apostles. (I don’t find this one particularly appealing.)
  3. Charles Burney offered a textual critical solution in 1925, observing that the Aramaic word for “but” and the Aramaic word for “and not” are only one letter different, and a letter that could be easily mistaken. Numerous people have speculated that Matthew was originally written in Aramaic, since it was certainly written for a Jewish audience, or that the source material for this text used in Matthew was in Aramaic. So the difference here could theoretically be a textual corruption. In this case the doctrine of inerrancy would tell us to use textual criticism to correct the error since it would not have existed in the original manuscript.
  4. In some of the manuscripts for Matthew’s gospel, the plural form of staff used is rabdous rather than the singular rabdon, leading some to speculate that Matthew and Luke are rejecting the accumulation of multiple staff’s, or excess provisions for a journey that should be taken as lightly as possible. Mark rather will allow for the single practical walking stick, and nothing else. (I don’t think that this view works, but I think it is related to one that is discussed next.)
  5. A strict verbal harmonization can be attempted through the verbs used in these verses. Not all biblical authors use the same word in exactly the same way. For example, John uses the words phileo and agapao as generally interchangeable words for love. Yet, many Christians have heard of “agape love,” which they understand to be a deeper kind of charitable and self-sacrificial love. (Though saying “agape love” is also redundant. You are saying “love love”.) The claim that agapao means a “deeper, sacrificial” love is both true and false. In most places, the word agapao simply means a generic kind of loving affection. In 2 Samuel 13:1, the word is used for Amnon’s incestuous love for his half-sister Tamar, who he later rapes. Not exactly charitable and self-sacrificial love—though we are meant to believe he felt deeply for her, but in a selfish way that easily turned to hatred. Yet, the apostle Paul does seem to use the word in a specifically charitable and sacrificial sense. Greek had several words for love, and he seems to intentionally use the word to mean more than other ideas of love. The point: biblical authors sometimes use the same words in very different ways, just like any of us. They have speech patterns, and those patterns become clear if you study all of what they’ve written. Here, Matthew uses a different word than Mark and Luke. Matthew’s word, ktaomai, almost always means to acquire, to purchase or to buy. Mark uses the word airo to mean “to take, pick up, or to carry.” That is, you can take a staff with you if you have one, but do not acquire one. You don’t need to make any preparations for the journey; God will provide everything.

Staff or no staff pic

The hitch in this interpretation is that Luke uses the same word as Mark. So although this argument would clearly work for the contradiction between Matthew and Mark, it becomes more difficult when comparing Mark and Luke. So the question is, does Luke use the verb airo the same way Mark uses it? This is a fairly difficult question. In Luke 10:4, when Jesus sent out the 72, he uses a different verb for “taking” or “carrying”—the verb bastazo, as seen in the chart above. Mark does not use this verb anywhere. As you can also see in the above chart, Mark only uses one verb to cover the concept of acquiring, purchasing, picking up, taking, and carrying. Mark’s Greek is simple and direct, and he doesn’t use a very wide vocabulary. Luke’s vocabulary, probably because he is a naturally speaking Greek gentile and literary man, is perhaps the most advanced in the New Testament. Luke uses three different verbs, and uses them with overlapping meaning. So it is impossible to know exactly what he must’ve meant with the use of airo in this context. But since he uses another verb just a chapter later, it may be that there is a subtle intentional difference. Yet it may also mean that we are to see the verb used as interchangeable.

Most New Testament scholars say Luke and Matthew are working from the same tradition—probably Mark’s, but perhaps others. But this gets into speculation, since the early church believed that Mark’s gospel came after Matthew’s and was a simplification and popularization of it. I’ve never been able to see either argument as absolutely compelling. And I don’t think we can get inside of Luke’s head as to exactly why he chose these verbs. Therefore, I would not see Luke’s usage as decisive and would instead look to Matthew and Mark for the best interpretation. Those two authors use different verbs that mean different things, and so distinguishing between it being okay to take a staff that one owns and being forbidden to acquire one in preparation for the journey is a legitimate distinction.

Keeping the right things in mind

It is further important for us to recognize that Jesus almost certainly spoke in Aramaic, and it is possible that some of the source material about Jesus was in Aramaic to begin with. Almost certainly, Jesus actual words, and the testimonies from the people who first heard him, were relayed in Aramaic and therefore translated into Greek. It seems to me that with the amount of material we have, we should expect a few of these sorts of issues. Especially when we can easily recognize that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are all communicating the same thing: you are not to go out and make provisions for your journey. You are going with the most minimal amount of equipment possible, namely, what you have on your person at this second. You will depend upon the people to whom you go, and you will trust God to provide for your needs.

Therefore, some attempts to harmonize these passages focus on their meaning, rather than the apparent contradictions of the Greek words used to translate Jesus’ Aramaic saying. Maldonatus, one of the commentators that Ahern references, says “each evangelist and contrary words aptly expresses the same meaning. For each, setting forth, not Christ’s words, but his meaning, wish to signify that Christ had charged the apostles not to have anything beyond what was necessary for present use.” Many commentators see this as the most straightforward and obvious explanation for the apparent contradiction. Barnabas Ahern says it this way: “These authors contend that the sacred writers were not bound to a full presentation of the exact words of Christ, but only to the exact representation of his thought. In the present instance, according to them, Christ intended to recommend complete poverty and detachment for the apostolic ministry. This thought, these exegetes maintain, has found faithful and exact expression both in the account of St. Matthew and in the account of St. Mark.”

This is precisely what they did, and it is precisely what happened.

The problem of perfection proving too much

Luke’s Gospel records Jesus saying something like “we played you a wedding song and you didn’t dance, and we played you a funeral dirge and you would not cry.” Jesus was claiming that John the Baptist was an austere and poor man, while Jesus was happy to eat and drink and speak graciously to sinners. Jesus was arguing that they should be pleased by either one or the other way of getting across the same message, but they weren’t. A similar argument could be made to modern skeptics. When the Bible proves itself to be without contradiction, the Bible is accused of being conspiratorial. It is simply people copying from people, and its harmony is purely artificial in their minds. Yet if you show them the least contradiction, even if only an apparent contradiction, this is supposed to be evidence of an absolute lack of divine inspiration. So which is it? What kind of text would they be happy with? What would actually count as evidence of God’s inspiration of all of Scripture, and yet not signal to people that it must be some kind of conspiratorial work of man?

I would argue for something exactly like we have: a document that allows itself to have these sorts of variations, which demonstrates a certain kind of independence toward each document. And yet, with little work, harmonization can be done, and honestly so.

In the end I think this kind of apparent contradiction supports what we claim about the Bible: that God inspired various writers to write his word mediated through their personalities and knowledge, including the resources that they utilized, which sometimes included previous writings. This is what Christians have always believed, and upon detailed study, what the text of the Bible appears to display.

Over the years

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been studying these sorts of contradictions now for 20 years. At first, they used to shake my confidence in the Bible. And now, though my handling them is no less interested in finding the real truth, I have more confidence than I did then that there is an answer that will be found. Over the past 400 years unbelieving scholars and writers have attacked the Bible in many ways in thousands of different texts. Over and over again their assumptions have proved to be wrong. Sometimes the answer came through archaeology, sometimes through better understandings of language use, sometimes through a better attitude when looking at the text, but the answers did come to those who wanted them. And so, I can say with complete honesty that 20 years of studying biblical contradictions has consistently fostered my faith in the divine inspirational origin, and therefore authority of the Bible. I trust that as you read the Bible for yourself and study it carefully, the same will be true for you.


4 thoughts on “Staff or no staff: the worst Bible “contradiction””

  1. I’m curious how much weight you place on Biblical infallibility and inerrancy. I take Gary Habermas’s approach in his defense of Jesus’s resurrection: Rather than beginning with the inerrancy of the Scriptures, he begins with historical facts that are granted by the majority of scholars, including skeptics (e.g., the empty tomb, Jesus’s death by crucifixion, conversion of Paul, conversion of James) to argue the resurrection as the most probable outcome. It seems that even if we treat the Bible “merely” but fairly as any other historical document, i.e., biased but with a good deal of historical truth, and use for it the same measure we use for other historical documents, we can still end up where we need to go: the belief in the resurrection of Jesus for eternal life.

  2. is that the only place we need to go? The apostle Paul talks about passing on to the church “the whole counsel of God” – can we derive this from treating the Bible “merely”? There is also the difficulty of the fact that the Bible claims of such authority for itself.
    In my view there are quite a lot of problems with the church not affirming biblical authority that I can’t get into in a blog post comment. However, that doesn’t mean that I disregard the usefulness of Habermas’s approach in doing evangelism. I don’t think that when you speak to non-Christians you should start with biblical inerrancy, and then work to the resurrection of Jesus. I generally take the line that you stayed here- from historicity, to the resurrection, to the word of Jesus about the Bible, to the Bible’s authority for the believer.
    But I do believe you need to get to the Bible’s authority or you will never be able to make disciples of all nations who are taught to “obey everything Jesus taught us”. I think if we treat the Bible “merely”, then we will end up believing minimally in our faith. I think that leads to catastrophic consequences.
    this is all the more true if we grant the Bible’s understanding of human nature – that we don’t want to believe in or submit to the truth. Such creatures need very definite teaching from very potent authority. Treating the Bible as a biased historical document isn’t going to get us there.

  3. stumped me at first until I went to my KJV where it reads to not take staves in Matthew and Luke but “save a staff” in Mark. The disciples were sent out two by two. They were instructed to take one staff between them. Do not take staves. Take only one staff. I don’t have any idea as to why they would be instructed to share a staff but I’m merely pointing out that if the you’ve got the right Bible and the text is read literally there is no contradiction.

    1. Dear Jim, the KJV was my first bible and I am certainly not against people reading it if they understand it’s idiom and word meanings. So don’t take my comment to be attacking it. However, there are two issues with your comment. First, this is how most translation translate that phrase. ESV “except a staff” NAS “”except a mere staff” Niv “except a staff”. This is the same meaning as “save a staff”- “save” in 1611 English meaning “except”, that is, ‘saved’ back form the other instructions of what not to bring. Also, The KJV is based on the “majority” Greek text, and newer translations on text critical version of the NT in which older manuscripts are weighted more than newer ones. But in this verse, there is no disagreement of a single word- though bag and bread are in reversed order.
      the phrase “save only a staff” has been understood by all commentators to mean that they can only take a staff. In all languages, in a context like this, a singular reference when talking to a plurality of people means that all of the individuals in the plurality can avail themselves of the singular referent- that is, each of them are limited to bringing a staff. Result: they can all take a staff. The idea that the plural is a “dual” rather than a reference to all of the 72 is mistaken, since that is the whole group receiving his teaching, or in Mark’s gospel just his “disciples” (Mark doesn’t specify the number).
      So, unfortunately, the KJV doesn’t translate it differently, and the KJV’s translation doesn’t clear up this issue. the KJV does however translate the verse WELL. But as is my experience, the KJV is usually a good literal translation, but it is not superior in any meaningful ways, and is often misunderstood by even it’s most devout readers. I have never been able to clear up an interpretation issue by reading the KJV that the Greek text itself would not clear up. And whatever is clear in the KJV is clear in other literal translations like the NAS or ESV.

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