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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.