Matthew’s Plurals

Comparing different gospels’ versions of the same events shows that, at times, the number of characters described will differ. This generally reveals a difference in emphases, and is never a contradiction[1].

Even more curious, however, is the pattern observed by comparing Matthew, in particular, to the other gospels.


MatthewOther Gospels
“command that these stones become bread” (4:3)“command this stone to become bread” (Luke 4:3)
“there met Him two demon-possessed men,” (8:28)“there met Him…a man with an unclean spirit” (Mark 5:2 = Luke 8:27)
“who was demon-possessed, blind and mute” (12:22) “a demon…it was mute” (Luke 11:14)
“great multitudes” (13:2)a great multitude” (Mark 4:1; Luke 4:8)
they got into the boat” (14:32)He went up into the boat” (Mark 6:51 = John 6:21)
two blind men sitting by the road” (20:30)blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the road” (Mark 10:46 = Luke 18:35)
“the donkey and the colt” (21:7)“the colt” (Mark 11:4; Luke 19:33 = John 12:14)
“when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants” (21:34)“at vintage-time he sent a servant” (Mark 12:2; Luke 20:10)
“said to the women” (28:5 = Mark 16:6; Luke 24:5)“said to her” (John 20:13)

As the chart above shows, Matthew recounts more than 1 character/item where other gospels focus on only 1 virtually every time[2]. This seems beyond coincidental if it was due purely to differences in memory.

However, there is one exception to this that happens after Jesus resurrects:

MatthewOther Gospels
“an angel of the Lord descended from heaven…the angel answered…” (28:2-5 = Mark 16:5-7)“two men [i.e. angels] stood by them in shining garments…they [the angels] said…” (Luke 24:4-7 = John 20:12-13)

Where Matthew (and Mark) record 1 angel speaking to the woman/women, Luke and John record 2.

We are not told why Matthew’s seemingly consistent pattern is broken following Jesus’ resurrection. From a human standpoint, there are lots of reasons (intentional and unintentional) that eyewitness accounts may differ in the details. But for those who recognize God’s ultimate design and intentionality in every word of Scripture[3], it is worth considering what the Lord may be revealing in Matthew’s details and patterns.

Why Does Matthew’s Pattern Exist?

First, it is important to stress that all four gospels—without exception—are truthful in every detail they give[4]. Thus, for instance, if Matthew says there were two blind men healed while Mark says there was one blind man healed, both are 100% accurate in their recording (though they obviously have different angles, themes, and emphases). In this particular scenario, such a seeming discrepancy is easily answered by noting that if 2 were healed, 1 was healed. It would only be a contradiction if Mark said “only one blind man was healed,” or something to that effect.

Holding firmly, then, that the gospels are historically reliable in every detail they record, we may also probe deeper to ask why God included these details in these ways. In other words, in addition to relaying history faithfully, what other things may God be revealing in these accounts and the way they are told? Such an inquiry, in fact, is firmly consistent with various New Testament uses of Old Testament stories, wherein the New Testament writer (while affirming the historicity of the story) sees types, shadows, and principles that have broader messages as well[5].

In consideration, therefore, of why Matthew might generally include more characters/items than other gospel writers (until the resurrection), we tentatively suggest that, perhaps:

  1. In general, Matthew may have been interested in reporting things more precisely. As eyewitness to most of the events, he may have felt compelled to relay more details than others (such as the total number of people present instead of just mentioning the most prominent character).
  2. Further than this, there may be a specific design and message behind Matthew’s numbering pattern itself. Namely, Matthew’s gospel, as a whole, reveals two simultaneous themes: (1) Jesus’ mission to the Jews pre-resurrection (Matt. 10:5-6), (2) Jesus’ mission to “all nations” (including the Jews) post-resurrection (cf. Matt. 28:16-20) (see Carson, Wessel, and Liefeld, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke, 1984, 22–23). Thus, before Jesus resurrected, Matthew sees the Jews as Messiah’s people and the Gentiles as outsiders: two separate groups (e.g. Matt. 10:5-6). But after the resurrection, it is only Matthew who records Jesus’ “Great Commission” (Matt. 28:16-10), which He gave in Galilee (“of the gentiles” – Matt. 4:15). In fact, Matthew’s resurrection focus is almost exclusively on Jesus going to Galilee—where He would preach the “Great Commission (see more in Resurrection Harmonization and Reconciling Matthew’s and Luke’s Birth Narratives). This shows that Jesus is now focused on the nations (including Israel), so the two groups (Jews and Gentiles) become one entity (the people of Messiah, whether Jew or Gentile).
    • Along such lines, it is intriguing to consider that Matthew continually sees “two” (and/or multiples) in his narratives pre-resurrection, but then sees “one” in the post-resurrection narrative (in this case, one angel).Even more, sometimes the two characters themselves in Matthew’s narratives could serve as sorts of types/symbols of Jews and Gentiles, respectively. For instance, in his commentary on Zechariah 9:9’s prophecy, Albert Barnes notes:
      • “The word rendered ‘colt,’ as with us, signifies the young, as yet unbroken animal…Matthew relates that both [the colt and donkey/ass] were employed…But as the whole action was a picture of our Lord’s humility and of the unearthliness of His kingdom, so, doubtless, His riding upon the two animals was a part of that picture. There was no need of two animals to bear our Lord for that short distance. John notices especially, “These things understood not His disciples at the first” John 12:16. The ass, an unclean stupid debased ignoble drudge, was in itself a picture of unregenerate man, a slave to his passions and to devils, toiling under the load of ever-increasing sin. But, of man, the Jew had been under the yoke and was broken; the Gentiles were the wild unbroken colt. Both were to be brought under obedience to Christ.” (Barnes 1870).

Saying all this, we cannot be certain of the reasons Matthew’s accounts consistently differ from the others. These are given merely as possibilities, and nothing more.

However, we can be confident that such a phenomena does seem to occur in Matthew (for whatever reason), showing once again that the gospel accounts (including seeming discrepancies) were by design, not flawed happenstance.

[1] To be a contradiction, one account would need to say something akin to, “There was only one angel at the tomb,” while another account says, “More than 1 angel was at the tomb.” But if one account says, “There was one angel at the tomb,” and another says, “There were multiple angels at the tomb,” this is not a contradiction. For if multiple angels were at the tomb then, indeed, it is also true by necessity that one angel was at the tomb. Perhaps one angel was featured or emphasized more by one of the gospel writers, while they were not excluding the other angel. In fact, this happens all the time in modern storytelling. Consider, for instance, a man excitedly telling his wife that he saw a famous athlete at the marketplace, while in reality the famous athlete was at the marketplace alongside his wife. The man is not wrong to state that he saw the athlete, while ignoring the athlete’s wife, since the focus of his story was the athlete himself.

[2] In comparing Matthew 8:18-22 to Luke 9:57-62 we read of Matthew’s 2 inquirers versus Luke’s 3 inquirers. Though this does break the 2/multiple-to-1 pattern observed in the chart above, Matthew still records 2/multiple characters here (like he does elsewhere). It is Luke who, for untold reasons, breaks the pattern by showing 3 characters instead of 1.

[3] Cf. Ecclesiastes 12:10; Daniel 5:24-28; Matthew 4:4; 12:36; 2 Timothy 3:16.

[4] See John Wenham’s, Christ and the Bible, 3rd Edition (2009) and J. I. Packer’s, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (1958) for more thorough treatments on the inerrancy of Scripture.

[5] E.g. Matthew 12:40; John 3:14-15; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Galatians 4:21-31.

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