Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, October 5

Jairus’ Daughter and Verb Tenses

One of the most difficult passages in the New Testament to harmonize is the story of Jairus’ daughter. Did Jairus say that his daugther was dead, or at the point of death? Did people come from his house or not, telling him that she had died? The story is told in all three of the Synoptics, and it is a sufficiently unique event that the three Gospels must be telling the same story.


One of the most difficult passages in the New Testament to harmonize is the story of Jairus’ daughter. In Mark this is how the story is told (also Luke 8).

“Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell ἔχει). Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live’” (Mark 5:22–23).

As Jesus was on the way, we read,

“While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. ‘Your daughter is dead (ἀπέθανεν),’ they said” (Mark 5:35).

However, the story is different in Matthew.

“A synagogue leader came and knelt before him and said, ‘My daughter has just died (ἄρτι ἐτελεύτησεν). But come and put your hand on her, and she will live’” (Matt 9:18).

In Matthew there is no account of the people coming to tell Jairus that his daughter had died, and Jairus doesn’t say his daughter is dying but that she has died. So was his daughter dead, or not dead, when her father found Jesus

It is instructive to pay close attention to the verb tenses and the different translations, and then apply a little common sense

In Matthew, Jairus says that his daughter has “just now died” (ἄρτι ἐτελεύτησεν, Matt 9:18). When he left his home, he knew that she “was dying” (Luke 8:42, ἀπέθνῃσκεν), that she was in fact “at the point of death” (Mark 5:23, ESV, ἐσχάτως ἔχει). It would be safe to assume he knew that by the time he arrived she would have died, and the news that she “had died” (Luke 8:49, τέθνηκεν) did not come as a surprise. In fact, I wonder if “just now died” in Matthew reflects his assumption that by the time he found Jesus his daughter had in fact died

This is one of those situations in which it may be easiest to say that Matthew has condensed the two events into one. His daughter was close to death when Jairus left, so close that she died probably a few minutes after he had left. Matthew simplifies the story and simply has Jairus say that she has just died. This is not an uncommon pattern in the Synoptics

To our ears, there is a difference between “is dying” and “has just died,” even if there were only ten minutes between the two assessments, but not according to historical writing standards. While truth was always a goal of ancient historians, they were comfortable with paraphrase, simplification, and even the compression of two stories into one.

In fact, it can be argued that this is how we tell stories as well. Can you think of a time you told a story, and because of time restrictions or for the sake of the flow of the story, you were less than precise in relaying the events, even to the point of removing intervening material in the story, giving the appearance that two events actually happened at the same time? Think about it.

Comments

¶ The word "die" is not even used in Matthew or Mark. That would have been dictionary entry αποθνησκω. In Matthew it is ετελευτησεν, "finished/accomplished," which in context speaks of her life at its end, of course, but he did not use the word "die." ¶ In Matthew this is also yet another instance of the aorist habitually translated into English simple past tense due to translators so used to converting over the abundance of historical narratives into English prose that now every time they see an aorist they mindlessly translate it into past tense. In your blog narrative you actually convert it into English present perfect tense ("...that she has died"). But this is the father of the child speaking, not telling a story of the past, and χρονος αοριστος is timeless, indefinite, and also without aspect either, as even the name of the tense denotes. ¶ Therefore, really, the father says, in Matthew's account, "that the daughter of-me presently comes-to-an-end but, coming, place the hands of-you upon same, and she will live." That's Greek-speak, not English narrative. There is simply no time specified in that verb, only in the adverb αρτι, but that is qualitative, not giving an exact time frame, just adding context to the verb. ¶ Mark's account quotes him, like Matthew's, but does not use the word "die" either. It uses the superlative adverb εσχατως. The verb εχει is in the present tense. If we combine Matthew and Mark, since we hold the Word of God to be accurate, then the father could have said both what Matthew and Mark recite. ¶ There's another point that is important as well: This is a verbatim testimony of the father of the girl. His testimony is not God-breathed. It is just a God-breathed fact that he said that. Even if he had actually said that she was dead, could he be mistaken? Does it matter? Even if he had used the Greek perfect tense ("she has died") it wouldn't matter, because it could just be assumption on his part. He could be wrong. The girl could have died later that day, or soon before Jesus arrived, however long it took them to get there. We only know that the girl was dead when Jesus arrived, because of the mourner drama greeting them at the house. ¶ Luke's account does not quote him, but just states the fact of her dying in the Greek imperfect tense.