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A possible solution to a long-standing puzzle

Of all of the many alleged discrepancies in the Gospels, the one that I have mulled over most of all for the last couple years concerns Luke 9:51. As long-time readers know, I don't regard myself as an inerrantist per se, though I am a big advocate of harmonization as good historical method. But if the best case seems to be that there is some trivial error in the Gospels or Acts, I will consider that possibility. The trouble concerning Luke 9:51 and other matters associated with the so-called "travel section" of Luke is that it did not look to me like it would be a trivial error but rather a fairly obvious one. I'll give the general layout of the problem, trying not to be too tedious, and then the interesting solution that has recently occurred to me.

Luke 9:51 reads, in the ESV,

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

Here are a couple of other translations.

And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem...KJV

And it came about, when the days were approaching for His ascension, that He resolutely set His face to go to Jerusalem; NASB

The Greek word for "received up" or "ascension" doesn't appear to be used anywhere else in the NT, which makes things more difficult. But the problem arises whether one regards this as referring to Jesus' ascension into heaven or his crucifixion. An extremely literal translation of the phrase for "days drew near," etc., is "in the completion/filling up of the days."

The problem is this: Jesus doesn't go immediately to Jerusalem and die, rise, and ascend in Luke's gospel at this point. He goes wandering all around the lower part of Palestine and even almost back up into Galilee. In this part of chapter 9 he leaves Galilee, passes through Samaria on his way to Jerusalem (the Samaritans aren't very happy about his going to Jerusalem), heading south. In Luke 10 he's at the home of Mary and Martha. Luke may not have known where they lived (he doesn't mention the town name), but we know that this was in Bethany, very close to Jerusalem. Bethany was the "bedroom community" where Jesus stayed at night during Passion Week. If Luke is placing this event chronologically after Luke 9:51, then Jesus has nearly reached Jerusalem at this time. But Luke never describes his entering Jerusalem in these chapters, and in Luke 17:11 Jesus is said to be "on his way to Jerusalem" but back up north again "passing along between Samaria and Galilee." This is an incredibly circuitous route for someone who set his face to go to Jerusalem when the days were being fulfilled for him to be received up back in Luke 9:51! If he traveled through Samaria on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem in chapter 9, what is he doing back up on the border of Galilee and Samaria in chapter 17? In Luke 19 Jesus is back down south and traveling through Jericho, healing the blind, and at this point Luke once more walks in parallel with the other synoptic Gospels and moves on through Jesus' actual final trip to Jerusalem, approaching from (roughly) northeast, passing Bethany on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, picking up a donkey en route and carrying out the Triumphal Entry.

To make things more confusing, in Luke 10:1 the narrative states explicitly that it was after these things--presumably, after Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem because the days were being fulfilled for him to be received up--that Jesus sent out the seventy.

A walking trip from Galilee to Jerusalem, even taken at leisure, in those days could easily be accomplished in a week. There's no way that Jesus was traveling directly to Jerusalem for his final visit there and his death and sent out the seventy only after leaving Galilee on such a final trip.

But that just makes more clear what becomes evident as one reads these chapters of Luke: That Jesus didn't travel directly to Jerusalem when he left Galilee in Luke 9:51. But then why the wording in 9:51? Could Luke possibly have been so ignorant of Palestinian geography that he thought a trip to Jerusalem, or even just from Galilee through Samaria, would take all that time? Surely not.

There are a few more considerations that are true and helpful, but don't go quite far enough:

--There is a lot of material in Luke 9-18 (at least through 18:30) that is just "chunked in" and hence shouldn't be assumed to be chronologically narrated. Luke's time indications are often indefinite in these chapters. He collects sayings in some chapters by topic. So by no means should we assume that his whole narrative here is chronological, nor should we manufacture discrepancies based upon indefinite chronology.

--As mentioned, Luke may not have known where Mary and Martha lived; that narrative in Luke 10 is just "chunked in" and doesn't necessarily indicate that Luke was thinking of Jesus as being down in Bethany so close to Jerusalem at that time.

--John 7-10 make it clear that Jesus went to Jerusalem for other feasts besides Passover--at least one Feast of Tabernacles (in the fall) and one Feast of Dedication (Hannukah, in the winter). The references in Luke 9:51 and 17:11 to his being on the way to Jerusalem may refer to times when he was going to other feasts. I think that this harmonization is correct, but it does not take care of everything without adding some further considerations.

--Most relevantly, Jesus left Galilee in John 7:10 and is never seen in John in Galilee again. If John 7:10 corresponds to Mark 10:1 and Matthew 19:1, where it says that Jesus left Galilee and stayed in Judea and in the trans-Jordan, and if both of these correspond to Luke 9:51, then Luke 9:51 may be describing Jesus' leaving Galilee for the south for the last time, even though six more months or so passed before his death. This goes some distance, but more will need to be said.

--Luke may not have heard explicitly that Jesus visited Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles and the Feast of Dedication in the fall and winter as well as going there for the Passover before his death, so he might be reflecting, in his repeated references to Jesus traveling to Jerusalem, his own uncertainty about how many times Jesus went to Jerusalem.

In all of this, the wording of Luke 9:51 remains a sticking point, coupled with the fact that in Luke Jesus is never described as arriving in Jerusalem until the Triumphal Entry in Luke 19.

What did Luke think? What did he expect his readers to think? Surely both he and his readers knew enough basic geography of the region and had enough common sense to realize that Jesus wouldn't have taken that long to make a beeline from Galilee to Jerusalem and that he wouldn't still have been "hanging out" on the border between Galilee and Samaria in chapter 17 after all the things that had happened since chapter 9, if he'd really been traveling to Jerusalem to die in chapter 9. Even postulating a certain amount of uncertainty on the part of Luke as to how many times Jesus visited Jerusalem doesn't answer all of these questions; it especially doesn't answer the question as to what he meant by the wording of 9:51 and whether he was giving the (almost certainly incorrect) impression that this was the last time Jesus went to Jerusalem in his life.

I have developed a tentative answer to these questions after reflecting on the women who came with Jesus out of Galilee, discussed here, and the words of the angel to them in Luke 24:6. The angel tells them to remember what Jesus said to them while he was in Galilee, when he predicted his death and resurrection, and they remembered his words.

Several of Jesus' followers might well have had what we could call a "Galilee-centric" viewpoint. Philip and Andrew were both from Bethsaida, on the western side of the Sea of Galilee. (John 1:44) Peter apparently had a house in Capernaum. (Mark 1:29) James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were fisherman on the Sea of Galilee. And, as already discussed, there was a whole group of women from Galilee, including Joanna, Mary Magdalene, Susannah, the "other Mary," and more, who were Jesus' followers. (Luke 8:2-3, Mark 15:40-41) To these people, Jesus' leaving Galilee for the last time, six months before his death, would have been very significant, especially if they themselves left Galilee and followed him into the region of Judea at this time, not returning to Galilee until after his death and resurrection.

The next piece of the puzzle is Jesus' own emphasis, while in Galilee, on his leaving Galilee and going to Jerusalem as a sign that his death is near at hand.

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Matthew 16:21

Notice the emphasis upon travel to Jerusalem and its connection with Jesus' death.

In John 7, Jesus' own brothers taunt him and suggest that he go and perform miracles at the Feast of Tabernacles. This may have been the feast in the autumn just before Jesus' death. In his answer, Jesus connects his journeying or not journeying to Jerusalem with the question of whether his "time" has come.

So Jesus said to them, “My time is not yet here, but your time is always opportune. 7 The world cannot hate you, but it hates Me because I testify of it, that its deeds are evil. 8 Go up to the feast yourselves; I do not go up to this feast because My time has not yet fully come.” 9 Having said these things to them, He stayed in Galilee.

10 But when His brothers had gone up to the feast, then He Himself also went up, not publicly, but as if, in secret. John 7:6-10

Jesus' words in verse 8 can be translated, "I do not yet go up to this feast."

If his disciples heard this exchange (as apparently someone did, since it's recorded in John), they would have likely thought of his later decision to go to the feast after all as an indication that perhaps his time had come.

Luke's account of the transfiguration (which takes place in Galilee) also places an emphasis upon Jesus' going to Jerusalem to finish his work.

And behold, two men were talking with Him; and they were Moses and Elijah, who, appearing in glory, were speaking of His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Luke 9:30-31)

It seems, then, that in Jesus' own conversations while in Galilee there was a sense of portent in his leaving Galilee for the last time and traveling to Jerusalem. This was the beginning of the end, one might say, even if in fact there were about six more months before his actual death. John, of course, recounts repeated occasions probably during this period when the religious leaders in Jerusalem do attempt to seize Jesus or when he is almost stoned to death for claiming to be God. The Temple guards are sent to seize him but are so impressed by him that they back off in John 7:44ff. He is almost stoned in John 8:59. And he is almost stoned in December in John 10:31. In John 11:7ff, he is in the trans-Jordan area in the south and proposes to go back into Judea, to Bethany near Jerusalem, because Lazarus is dead, but his disciples try to dissuade him because the Jews almost stoned him the last time he was there. This was presumably some time between December and the next Passover in the spring.

In other words, the entire period after Jesus leaves Galilee for the last time is a time of great tension, a portentious period when Jesus himself is predicting his death and when the disciples never know at what moment Jesus will be stoned to death or arrested. It is a time of plotting against him when his danger in Judea and Jerusalem is common knowledge. (See John 7:13, 25.) Jesus himself has expressly connected his journeying to Jerusalem from Galilee with his approaching death.

It then becomes not at all unlikely that one or more of Jesus' followers would refer to his leaving Galilee for the last time and going to Jerusalem as the time when "the days were being fulfilled for him to be received up" or "in the completing of the days when he was to be received up," or some such expression. The person might have done this even if he (or she, if it were one of the women) knew quite well that Jesus was not actually crucified for another six months and that at that particular time he was traveling to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, not for the final Passover. If such an expression were used by one of Luke's sources, he could very well have simply recorded it in his own Gospel. The rest of the material between chapters 9 and 19 can be accounted for by chronologically non-specific "chunking in" of teachings and incidents and by Luke's own uncertainty or lack of knowledge concerning how many times Jesus actually visited Jerusalem during this period. In that case, the seventy might indeed have been appointed and sent out during the final six months of Jesus' life. Jesus would have spent this time doing a certain amount of traveling. He spent some time in Jerusalem but then would leave Jerusalem and go over the Jordan to the place where John the Baptist had previously been baptizing, as recorded in Mark 10:1 and Matthew 19:1 and in John 10:40. (I note that John 10:40 says that he went again to that place where John had been baptizing, possibly alluding to a similar but unmentioned movement between the Feast of Tabernacles and the Feast of the Dedication, approximately falling between John 10:21 and John 10:22.) During this same period he might well have gone back north as far as the border between Samaria and Galilee, as mentioned in Luke 17:11, but not back into Galilee.

Nonetheless, given all the portentious sayings, in the minds of the disciples the departure from Galilee recorded in Luke 9:51 could have been thought of as the time when the days were being fulfilled that he should be received up. And they might have spoken of it in this way.

I find this a fairly satisfactory solution. It makes use of real-world imagination, and it brings together verses and hints from all four Gospels to form a single, consistent picture.

We know independently that Luke is a careful historian and deserves a lot of credit. I have puzzled over this geographical and chronological oddity in Luke for some time, and it is satisfying to have a plausible solution that does not attribute to Luke a confusion concerning obvious matters.

Comments (7)

I find this a fairly satisfactory solution. It makes use of real-world imagination, and it brings together verses and hints from all four Gospels to form a single, consistent picture.

This riddle may have been solved. Or at least the direction to look for a solution may have been found. Thanks, Lydia.

I don't regard myself as an inerrantist per se, though I am a big advocate of harmonization as good historical method. But if the best case seems to be that there is some trivial error in the Gospels or Acts, I will consider that possibility.

Your epistemological integrity encourages us all, inerrantist or not.

Yes, it's generally said that particularly in Luke Jesus' whole life is set towards his death. This is fine at a high level, but it gets weird when one realizes that in those chapters of Luke he never shows up in Jerusalem until the triumphal entry but keeps being said to be "traveling toward Jerusalem." (Several places, including 13:22 and 17:11.) Our normal use of a phrase like "proceeding on his way to Jerusalem" or "going to Jerusalem" would mean that he was trying to get there, not just sort of meandering around, sometimes traveling *away* from Jerusalem. If you read those places in Luke and didn't know the geography, you'd conclude that it just was a really long trip and that he passed through all these places while he was, in an ordinary sense, *on the way*. But that interpretation can't be right, it turns out, for geographical reasons. One then wonders what Luke was up to and whether he thought that that *was* the normal route from Galilee to Jerusalem--a major mistake.

So I think that has to be confronted, and we have to put several things together, such as the fact that Jesus went to Jerusalem more than once during this time period in his life, and Luke probably just didn't have all that information. I don't think that Luke *was* making a big mistake of that kind, nor trying to lead his readers to do so, but I'm pleased to have confronted the question of the possible *appearance* that he was doing so.

Well, I am an inerrantist, in the sense that the Catholic Church insists upon, that is. But I also appreciate your careful epistemological approach. I don't want to jump at a harmonization just because I "need" one. I would rather wait patiently for something solid.

I have to say, I did not (before this) even realize the degree of tension Luke's 9:51 creates. Not explicitly, anyway, although I think it did register as "something odd". I had just ascribed it to vague "cultural variation" and and did not bother about it, I guess. Frankly, given the amount of jumping back and forth that the gospel writers do, and the a-chronicity involved, I had never really even TRIED to sort through timing issues like this.

I wonder if one might posit that in a less precise sense, his whole public ministry might also be described as "setting his face toward Jerusalem" - not merely in terms of a location but in terms of a destiny, a vocation. He himself comments about Jerusalem being where they put the prophets to death, and even from his early moments in the public ministry (if we accept John's approach) with the money-changers in the Temple we can identify a plan of not only preparing for his death but actually setting it in motion. If so, we could also identify different parts of his ministry as separate moments of a kind of "turning a corner" in terms of making the final event more nearly inevitable (such as, just to pick one, raising Lazarus from the dead creating a public wonder that the authorities could not brush under the rug). We might also describe his last leaving from Galilee as "turning his face to Jerusalem" as an important one of such corner-turnings, even if his ultimate arrival is not immediate. As, in fact, Lydia lays out here.

This post above actually was sent before Lydia's comment at 9:51 am. It appears after due to a muddle which I don't seem to be able to correct.

This post follows Lydia's 9:51 am comment.

and Luke probably just didn't have all that information. I don't think that Luke *was* making a big mistake of that kind,

This, I think, represents an important facet of what we inerrantists (or, generally, what anyone who respects the gospels as inspired even if not perfectly inerrant) should mean by "error". The proper sense of "error" would only apply to a thesis that the gospel writer is asserting and intending to assert, not about an implication that he is not intending to assert. If Luke knew about one trip to Jerusalem, and did not know about a second one intervening, an assertion that "Jesus went to Jerusalem at X time (later)" would not count as an assertion that Jesus DID NOT go to Jerusalem before said X later time. The absence of comment about earlier visits is not a claim about earlier visits. The implication which we are inclined to read into an account of Jesus going later without mention of going earlier is of our own manufacture: it is plausible, and (in some cases) even the reasonable way to read a text, but no more than that. Having to change our minds about whether that's what the writer meant is not a strike against the accuracy of the writer, it's clarifying an ambiguity.

I have no idea how our comments got switched. That is so weird. I read yours that is now listed at 1:34 p.m. this morning and was replying to it. Mysterious.

Anyway, quite right: No inerrantist should commit himself to defending all the possible implications that someone might take from what is actually asserted. That would be a quite unnecessary burden.

I wd. add this, though. Even if there isn't an explicit error, or one can get away from saying that there is an explicit error, orthodox Christians of all stripes should prefer to be able to say that the Gospel authors know what they are talking about. Concluding, "Luke was severely clueless about Palestinian geography" would be unwelcome, even if one could say that he didn't make an explicit erroneous assertion about it. For one thing, it would tend to cast doubt on his closeness to the events and his opportunities to interview the original witnesses. So I'm glad to have been able to conclude by this resolution that that was not the case.

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