Justin Schieber of Real Atheology recently suggested that there was a discrepancy between these two passages:
(1) Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him. And He said to her, “What do you wish?” She said to Him, “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left…” (Matthew 20:20–21)
(2) Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.” And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” They said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left….” (Mark 10:35–37)
Schieber shrewdly observes that whilst Matthew says the mother of John and James makes the request of Jesus, Mark says that James and John made it themselves. Take that inerrantists!!
Now, what follows from this claim? First of all it doesn’t follow that the event never happened. After all, many modern media outlets provide conflicting accounts of real events all the time. Schieber, however, means to say that these passages present a problem to the one who believes in inerrancy. Such “discrepancies” are nothing new, but this one in particular is hardly troubling to the inerrantist, unless we insist on ridiculously wooden readings of the text.
There are, of course, certain explanations which clearly won’t do. For instance, one suggestion is that Matthew and Mark report different events: one in which James and John ask Jesus this question, and the other when their mother does on their behalf. The accounts strike me as far too similar for that suggestion to be plausible. I think we can safely say they are intended to report the same event. Even here there are several possibilities discussed by inerrantists, but I want to mention just one which seems to me (a non-inerrantist) eminently plausible.
In order to understand this rather simple explanation let’s take a detour through the world of criminal law. In criminal law we find a principle called “joint enterprise.” Let’s say Bill and Ben plan to murder Mary. They organise their venture, set off and break into Mary’s house. While Bill goes to find her valuable possessions, Ben holds her at gun point. After a few minutes of taunting her, Ben pulls the trigger, killing Mary, and then he and Bill make their escape. Suppose a newspaper ran a feature on Bill 5 years later in which he was called a murderer. Is the newspaper feature wrong, since it was Ben who fired the shot? Not at all. Under the doctrine of joint enterprise both Bill and Ben are guilty of Mary’s murder.
Let’s return then to James, John, and their mother. It seems to me a rather simple reading to see the matter as a “joint enterprise” in the same way. In Matthew’s version the mother speaks, but she does so on behalf of her sons. She is speaking what they want to say. It is their words that come out of her mouth. She makes the verbal petition, but it is actually James and John behind it. So, in Mark’s version the mother is simply ignored. Even though she spoke the words Mark reports them as the words of James and John. Why? Because the words were those of James and John even if spoken by another. Even though literally “Their mother said,” it remains true that “John and James said.”
There is, therefore, no significant problem here for the inerrantist. There is only a problem if we, (as I suspect Schieber has done), confuse the doctrine of inerrancy with biblical literalism.
Stephen J. Graham