Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write an accurate account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught. [Luke 1:3-4 (NLT)]
Both Matthew and Luke tell the story of the Roman centurion so confident in Jesus’ power to heal his servant from afar that he told Jesus just to say the word. Although their versions differ, that does not necessarily mean they are faulty or false. Let’s see if we can reconcile their differences.
In Matthew’s version, the centurion personally sought Jesus’ help but Luke says he sent some Jewish elders on his behalf. From a 1st century viewpoint, however, there is no discrepancy. When an intermediary acted or spoke for someone, it was as if he’d done it himself, just as the Secretary of State or press secretary can speak for the president. Both versions say the centurion sought Jesus’ help and Luke merely explained that he did this through his representatives. While today’s Bibles use quotation marks, they were unknown to Scripture’s writers so the centurion’s words are not necessarily a direct quote. While Luke’s account is more detailed, both can be true.
The central point of both versions is Jesus’ amazement at the centurion’s faith in His authority and His words, “I tell you the truth, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” While both gospels repeat the centurion’s words about his unworthiness and Jesus’ ability to heal, Luke says Jesus started to the centurion’s before being stopped by those words but Matthew never said He started out. Matthew, however, does report that Jesus said He’d come and, since he never said Jesus didn’t start walking, both versions can be correct, especially since they both mention a crowd following Jesus. Again, in spite of their differences, neither version really contradicts the other.
While Matthew repeats Jesus’ words that many Jews would be excluded from the Kingdom, Luke doesn’t. Luke, on the other hand, gives us details about the centurion when Matthew doesn’t. That, however, doesn’t mean that one account is incorrect—just that the authors chose what to include. An explanation for their choices can be found in the identity of the writers. Although the gospels were written for all Christians, with his emphasis on prophetic fulfillment, frequent references to Hebrew Scripture, and focus on Jesus’ work within Galilee among the Jews, Matthew’s gospel is geared toward Jews. Any account of this encounter directed toward a Jewish audience would surely pass along Jesus’ warning to them.
The Gentile Luke addressed his gospel to Theophilus, another Gentile (possibly a new covert). His account was written for a larger predominately Gentile audience to spread the truth that the Messiah came for all nations. Rather than repeating Jesus’ warning to the Jews, He chose to elaborate about the centurion’s good character and explain why Jews would speak on his behalf.
Finally, if the gospel of Matthew was written by Matthew the disciple (as the early church held and a growing number of Biblical scholars believe), his would be a first-hand account told from his viewpoint. Luke, however, consulted several eyewitnesses, maybe even the centurion or those who spoke on his behalf, so his perception would vary from Matthew’s.
By carefully reading both accounts of this encounter, we get a fuller picture of the event, just as we did yesterday by reading all of the reports about that Chicago plane accident. When we come across what appear to be contradictory stories in the Bible, a closer examination will show that they are complementary. 19th century theologian Charles Hodge said, “The best evidence of the Bible’s being the word of God is to be found between its covers. It proves itself.” Indeed, it does.