When Jairus came to Jesus, was his daughter dead or dying?

Posted on Feb.01, 2009. Filed in Matthew, Mark, Luke. Average rating: 5.2 / 10 (Rate It).

All three synoptic gospels record Jesus healing a little girl, Jairus’s daughter, apparently raising her from death. In each account, Jairus comes to Jesus pleading for help, Jesus goes to Jairus’s daughter who is thought to be dead but who Jesus says is sleeping, and at Jesus’ prompting the daughter gets up. The accounts disagree, however, as to whether Jairus’s daughter was dead or dying when Jairus came to Jesus.

In Luke’s account, Jairus comes to Jesus and begs for help because his daughter is dying:

Just then there came a man named Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. He fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come to his house, for he had a daughter, about twelve years old, who was dying. As he went, the crowds pressed in on him… While he was still speaking, someone came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.’ When Jesus heard this, he replied, ‘Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved.’ When he came to the house, he did not allow anyone to enter with him, except Peter, John, and James, and the child’s father and mother. They were all weeping and wailing for her; but he said, ‘Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. But he took her by the hand and called out, ‘Child, get up!’ Her spirit returned, and she got up at once. [Luke 8:41-42, 49-55a (NRSV)]

If Jairus’s daughter was dying, then she was not yet dead. The subsequent arrival of the news that she has died shows that she was close to death, but does not change the fact that she was alive when Jairus came to Jesus.

In Mark, there is an even greater sense of urgency than in Luke, with Jairus’s daughter described as being at the very point of death:

Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ So he went with him… While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. [Mark 5:22-24a, 35-42 (NRSV)]

Again, Jairus’s words combined with the subsequent arrival of the news that his daughter has died suggest that Jairus’s daughter was alive when he first spoke to Jesus.

But in Matthew’s account, alas, the girl has already died when Jairus comes to Jesus:

While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.’ And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples… When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute-players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, ‘Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. [Matthew 9:18-19, 23-25 (NRSV)]

Matthew, because he has Jairus’s daughter dead when Jairus comes to Jesus, leaves out the subsequent arrival of men with news that the girl has died; in Matthew’s account, that wouldn’t be news.

So was Jairus’s daughter dead when he came to Jesus? If she was, then Luke and Mark contain an error. If she wasn’t, then Matthew contains an error.

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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  1. 1

    I think Matthew has edited the story for length. One might say it’s close enough to the truth to be acceptable… though personally I don’t like it.

  2. 2

    There’s no logical contradiction here: it could be that Jairus’s daughter was dying, but that Jairus nevertheless said everything attributed to him.

    However, I think that Matthew and Mark use reported speech to bring the story to life, not to distance themselves from his claims, that their readers are meant to believe what Jairus said. Because of this, I think that even though the accounts aren’t contradictory, at least one of them is misleading.

    That’s enough for me to want to classify this as an error, even though I accept that a harmonisation is possible.

  3. 3

    Looking at this more closely, I do think that there’s a harmonisation available that doesn’t involve Jairus contradicting himself in his confusion.

    I’ll put a fuller explanation above in the Inerrantist Responses section, but the key is the word “repeatedly” in Mark, describing Jairus begging Jesus for help: if Jairus begged Jesus for help repeatedly, and his daughter really was at the very point of death, then at some point it would be natural for Jairus to think that she would have died and change his plea to reflect this.

  4. 4

    Interesting. “Repeatedly” seems to be a peculiarity of the NRSV. Other translations have “earnestly”.

    I guess the difficulty is in translating the word πολύς which apparently means “much” and is open to some sort of interpretation.

    But yes, some sort of harmonisation along these lines might be possible.

  5. 5

    On “repeatedly” versus “earnestly”, in Mark 5:10, which contains precisely the same phrase, the NRSV gives “earnestly”. Odd.

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