There are chronological problems related to:
The Cursing of the Fig Tree
The miraculous element of the cursing of the fig tree had already been discussed. Here we will only look at the difference in the sequence of events given by the evangelists.
Both Matthew and Mark say that Jesus cursed the fig tree on the second day of the passion week. But whereas Mark said the fig tree was only discovered by the disciples of Jesus to have withered on the next day (Mark 11:20-21), Matthew made the fig tree wither at once and made the disciples noticed it immediately. (Matthew 21:18-20) The cavalier manner in which the evangelists changes the sequences in their sources does not add to our confidence in their veracity.
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The Cleansing of the Temple
The same problem exist with the episode of the cleansing of the temple. Mark made the event happen on Monday (Mark 11:12,15) while Matthew and Luke made it happen the day of the triumphal entry itself, i.e. Sunday (Matthew 21:12-17; Luke 19:45-48). The gospel of John contradicts all these by putting the event at the beginning of Jesus' career, three years before the triumphal entry! (John 2:13-35) Again we have a discrepancy in sequence of events.
A believer may object by saying that these or only disagreement in details but the fact remains that it happened. The answer to this is simple: when we are ascertaining the historicity of an episode every detail counts, there is no such thing as mere details.
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The Anointing at Bethany
According to Mark, on Wednesday, in the house of one Simon the Leper in Bethany, Jesus was anointed by an unnamed woman (Mark 14:1-9). For once, Matthew followed the sequence of Mark (Matthew 26:6-13). John too gave an account of the anointing of Jesus that share so many similarities with Mark that it must have originated form a common source and diverge by the distorting process of different oral traditions. There is also a similar account in Luke 7:36-50. The table below gives the three accounts in parallel.
|Mark 14:1-9||John 12:1-8||Luke 7:36-43|
|1. Now the Passover and the feast of the Unleavened Bread were only two days away...
2. While he was at Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper
a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
4. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, "Why this waste of perfume?"
5. It could have been sold for more than 300 denarii and the money given to the poor." And they rebuked her harshly.
6. "Leave her alone," said Jesus. "Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing for me.
The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them anytime you want. But you will not always have me.
8. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.
9. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her."
|1. Six days before the passover,
Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.
2. There was a dinner given in Jesus' honour. Martha served while Lazarus was among those reclining on the table with him.
3. Then Mary took a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus' feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
4. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected,
5. "Why wasn;t this expensive perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth 300 denarii."
7. Leave her alone," Jesus replied. "It was meant that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.
8. you will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me."
|36. Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, and so he went to the Pharisees house and reclined at the table.|
37. Then a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisees' house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume,
38. and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them out with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
39. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know, who is touching him and what kind of woman she is-that she is a sinner."
40. Jesus answered him, "Simon, I have something to tell you."
"Tell me, teacher," he said.
41. "Two men owed money to a certain money lender. One owed him 500 denarii, the other fifty.
42. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he cancelled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?"
43. Simon replied, "I suppose the one who had the bigger debt cancelled."
"You have judged correctly," Jesus said,
Although Mark had the woman anointing Jesus' head while John had her anointing his feet, the similarities between the two accounts are so numerous that it could not have referred to two separate events. The similarities include:
- the anointment took place in Bethany
- with the guests "reclining at the table"
- a woman did the anointing
- it was with an expensive perfume, made of pure nard
- some people objected to the waste
- they noted the perfume was worth 300 denarii
- that it should have been sold and the money given to the poor
- Jesus defended the woman's action by using the words "leave her alone"
- he told the present that the poor will always be with them but that he will not
These numerous, often verbal, similarities rule out that two different events were being described by Mark and John.
However, both evangelists could not agree on exactly when it happened. John said it happened six days before the passover but Mark said it happened two days before the festival.
A look at the passage in Luke will also show that the event has essentially the same source but came to him from yet another strain of the oral tradition. The similarities here is again obvious. The similarities include:
- the owner of the house is Simon (agrees with Mark)
- it happened while the guest where reclining at the table after dinner (Mark and John)
- Jesus was anointed by a woman (Mark and John)
- she brought the perfume (Mark and John)
- she brought it in an alabaster jar (Mark)
- she anointed his feet and wiped it with her hair(John)
- a mention is made of money (Mark and John) although in a form of parable rather than a protest from those present.
Again it is obvious that Luke was referring to the same story. [a]
Luke however put this anointing long before the triumphal entry, while he was still preaching in Galilee.
The same story is put on three separate locations: John said in was in Lazarus house in Bethany, Mark said it was in Simon the Leper's house in Bethany while Luke said it was in Simon the Pharisee's house in Galilee. The same story is also placed on separate occasions: John said it happened one day before the triumphal entry; Mark said it happened it happened three days after; and Luke said it happened weeks, probably months before that! 
How dependable are these accounts? All we know is that none of them are completely reliable. Perhaps it happened at another time, another place long forgotten or distorted by tradition. Perhaps it never happened at all.
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|a.||This should serve as a good example just how unreliable oral tradition can be. While we can still tell that the stories are the same, many details have been changed and distorted. For Christians to claim that the Bible was inerrant they have to defend that Jesus was anointed three times under very similar circumstances; a clearly absurd proposition.
|1.||Guignebert, Jesus: p420
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