Explaining Bible Contradictions: The “Lesser Included Details”
Even the most mundane event could be described with verbose minutia. Not every detail, however, necessarily has a point and only the most obsessive writer would attempt to include every excruciating detail when describing some particular event. It’s rather ordinary for a writer to include only the points he wishes to emphasize and omit the rest. When there are two different accounts of the same event, yet each includes some different details, there is no contradiction if all the details could be included in the broader event. They are, what I like to call, “lesser included details.”
To illustrate this point, let’s use the example of a basketball game. Suppose I went to a ball game with my brother (whose name is Ron) and a co-worker (whose name is Victor). If I later told my mother that I went to the game, I might say, “Ron and I went to the ball game.” I would say that because my mother knows Ron but does not know my co-worker. If I told my supervisor about the same event, I might say, “Victor and I went to the ball game.” Again, I do this because my supervisor knows Victor but does not know my brother. In both cases, I’m sharing the information that I believe is important or relevant to the hearer while omitting trivia. Now, a 3rd party observer who heard both statements might think they’re contradictory but we can see that both statements are true.
I’m going to give one more example just to demonstrate how broad this concept can be. Suppose someone asked me if I had a dollar. I look in my billfold and see that I actually have ten dollars so I answer, “Yes, I have a dollar.” Am I lying? Obviously not. Now, if I had said, “I only have one dollar” then I would be lying but that’s not the case. If I have ten dollars, then I also have one dollar.
These same things are also true of the Bible. Sometimes, one passage might give a certain detail of an event while another passage gives some other detail of the same event. When this happens, there is no contradiction if both details could be included in the same broad event. We’ll look at a few examples of this phenomenon from Scripture:
Matthew 8:28, “When He came to the other side into the country of the Gadarenes, two men who were demon-possessed met Him as they were coming out of the tombs.”
Mark 5:1-2, “They came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes. When He got out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit met Him,”
Here are two descriptions of what is certainly the same event. Matthew says that Jesus met two, demon-possessed men but Mark only mentions one. Is this a contradiction? No. It’s like my example about having a dollar. If I have $10, then I also have $1. In that same fashion, if there were two men who were demon-possessed, there was also one man. The second man is a lesser detail not mentioned by Mark but included by Matthew.
Why did Mark only mention one man? I can’t say for sure but here is one possible theory: Mark 5:19-20 goes on to say, “[Jesus] said to him “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in Decapolis what great things Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.”
So we see that this man became a sort of celebrity. He went on a crusade in Decapolis (literally meaning “10 cities”) telling everyone what Jesus had done for him. So Mark may have only mentioned this man in his account because he was the better known of the two. It would be like me only telling my mom I went to a ballgame with by brother instead of telling her I went with my brother and a co-worker. Matthew also talks primarily about this man, but included the lesser detail that there was also a second man whom Jesus exercised of demons.
Some other examples of this phenomenon include the number of angels at the tomb on the Resurrection Morning and the names of the women who went to visit the tomb. Each gospel names different women. Luke 24:4 describes two men in dazzling clothes.Mark 16:5 says they saw “a man” wearing a white robe. Obviously, all the women named visited the tomb but likely they arrived at different times. Depending on when they arrived, they met varying numbers of angels. Nowhere is there a contradiction.
Certain details included in a second account of the same event don’t contradict the other account that doesn’t mention them. It’s rather ordinary. We do it now. The writers of the Bible did it as well. If someone cites two accounts of the same event and claims they contradict each other, see if all of the details could be combined into one account. That usually clears up any supposed “contradiction.”