Were Jesus’ disciples allowed to carry staffs?

Posted on Jul.14, 2009. Filed in Matthew, Mark, Luke. Average rating: 3.5 / 10 (Rate It).

When Jesus sent out his twelve disciples to proclaim the gospel, he told them to travel light. They were not to take money, nor a bag, nor a second tunic; instead, they were to rely on those to whom they preached to provide for their needs. This is recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels. However, they disagree as to whether Jesus allowed his disciples to carry a staff.

In Matthew, the prohibition on staffs is clear:

Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food. [Matthew 10:9-10 (NRSV)]

In Luke, JesusĀ is similarly against the carrying of staffs:

He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money–not even an extra tunic.’ [Luke 9:3 (NRSV)]

In Mark, however, Jesus lists a staff as the one thing that his disciples can take with them:

He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. [Mark 6:8-9 (NRSV)]

So were Jesus’ disciples allowed to take a staff with them or not?

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

    In this issue, Matthew is anti-staff and anti-sandal, Mark is pro-staff and pro-sandal, Luke is anti-staff, but sandal-neutral.

    One argument you might raise here is that Matthew and Luke are recording Jesus instructions as saying “Don’t go get a staff or sandals” while Mark is saying “Take the staff and sandals you’ve got and go”. These instructions are quite compatible.

    But let’s put that to one side and consider the possibility that these accounts actually do contain incompatible packing lists.

    Notice first that nothing turns on the discrepancies:

    – The usual charge against Matthew that he soups up Mark’s account to make Jesus more impressive doesn’t really fly here.
    – There is no obvious error in any of the accounts, so the idea that one account is correcting an obvious error in another is also out.
    – None of the accounts involves an Old Testament prophecy or literary form that one of the authors supposedly misunderstood.

    In short, the only plausible reason that one or possibly two of these accounts contains an error is that somebody simply copied a list wrong. To put it slightly differently, if you’re going to assume any error here, you can only assume a scribal error.

    But there’s no decisive reason to assume that any scribal error was committed by the original author. It is just as reasonable to suppose that damaged manuscripts or early copyist errors are responsible.

    The doctrine of inerrancy does not deny the possibility of errors occurring because of manuscript damage or copyist errors.

  2. 2

    What does turn on the discrepancies is the issue of self-defense. The staff—in that time and place—was not only an aid to walking, but the principal means of self-defense as one traveled the road. So, an instruction not to carry a staff, implies an instruction not to defend oneself with violence. The degree to which Jesus advocated that is much debated, so the contradiction here is significant.

  3. 3

    It is worth-noting, PW22, that the most famous anti-violence command, “Turn the other cheek”, occurs only in the anti-staff Gospels. So, assuming Markan priority, that may provide a reason for the later anti-staff Gospels, Matthew and Luke, to alter the packing lists. It made for a better fit for their pacifist message.*

    So your point has much to recommend it.

    Having said that, I don’t know whether you are right about the use of staves in self-defense. For starters, even Matthew and Luke are not explicit on whether Jesus intended to send them off defenseless. That is, Jesus doesn’t tell them why he doesn’t want them carrying a staff. He also doesn’t forbid them from acquiring staves along the way (just as he does not forbid them from acquiring food along the way).

    Matthew, Mark and John all agree that one of the disciples had a sword (John identifies that individual as Peter). They all probably had knives. But Jesus did not command them not to bear swords or knives, not even in Matthew and Luke. It seems that Matthew, at least (who knew all about the sword and allegedly changed the packing list so as to reflect his pacifist message) would have added a bit to the packing list about not carrying a sword or knife.


    * This point doesn’t fair as well, I think, under the assumption of Matthean Priority.

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