Why are the accounts of the demon possessed men/man in Matthew, Mark, and Luke different?1
Many individuals have studied the Scriptures and the gospels, in particular, to see the consistency and validate their authenticity. One book I can recommend is Cold-Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace.2 Mr. Wallace is particularly interesting because he was an atheist and worked for many years as a homicide detective. When he applied his skill to analyze the gospels he became convinced of their authenticity and eventually became a believer.
The passages in question here are Matthew 8:28–34, Mark 5:1–20, and Luke 8:26–40. Because of the length of these passages, I will not include them here. The difference in question is the number of men who were possessed by demons. Matthew gives the number as two and both Mark and Luke mention only one. At first glance, these texts do seem to conflict. These kinds of differences often perplex Christians and offer fodder to skeptics3. However, we trust the truth of Paul’s words to Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). So, we expect to find consistency and instruction as we look closely at any passage that seems strange.
One of the points that Mr. Wallace makes is that independent witnesses may differ in details in their testimony. The job of the detective is to arrive at a consistent picture of the events by examining the common elements of the narrative given to him. This works well for resolving the apparent discrepancies in the gospel accounts we are looking at. However, I want to go further and seek to present an explanation of why the Holy Spirit has moved these three writers to write accounts that differ from one another. This actually will be seen to be easier than it might first appear.
What “really” happened?
All accounts have common elements and each gospel’s differences do not contradict the other gospels. In the accounts by Mark and Luke, it is essential to notice that neither of them said explicitly that there was only one demon possessed man who came out of the tombs. They both focus solely on the man who eventually expressed their desire to follow the Lord (Mk. 5:18; Lk. 8:38). It is significant that Matthew does not mention this at all.
Based on the account in Matthew, we can reasonably conclude that there were in fact two demon possessed men who came from the tombs to meet Jesus. One of them responded to the grace shown to them. This is similar to the account of the ten leprous men recorded in Luke 17:11–19. Only one of the men out of the nine returned to thank the Lord for his healing. In this case, the ten were mentioned because the purpose of the record was to show the contrast between the nine ungrateful lepers and the one that was grateful.
Why are the accounts different at all?
Both Mark and Luke are focused on the full gracious work of the Lord in subduing the power of Satan and the effect that this had on the man. So, the second demon possessed man who was healed but was not morally affected by the experience was of little interest to the objective of the narrative of Mark and Luke.
Matthew, on the other hand, mentions both men because both alike were healed and typified the power of Satan over Israel and the power of the Lord to heal. It is very significant that the account is given before Matthew 13. Before chapter 13, the Lord is being presented to the nation as their Messiah. Chapter 12 is a climax after which the Lord speaks of the kingdom as a “mystery” (Mt. 13:11). Thus, the incident of the demon possessed men is perfectly consistent with the theme of Matthew.
Another reason Matthew may show the two men being freed from being demon possessed is for a plural witness to the nation of Israel. Jewish law required two or more witnesses for a testimony (Dt. 19:15, Jn. 8:17) and Matthew’s gospel was written as a witness to the Jews.
The question being put before the nation was that their king was present to heal their unbelief. Would they receive him? The narrative puts this into relief and leaves the question dangling. Thus, it is very significant that the narrative ends so abruptly compared to the narrative in Luke and Mark. The eventual rejection of the nation’s Messiah is effectively prophesied.
What is the lesson for us?
Finally, the full story can be seen when comparing the details of the casting out of the demons. Matthew’s brief account focuses on the Lord Jesus and His miraculous power and authority over the kingdom of darkness. The Lord’s work is the witness. Mark and Luke provide details of the man’s violent strength and self harm prior to his healing. Both also give the response of the man and of the local inhabitants to the Lord’s miracle. The man himself is the witness and is sent by the Lord to the city (Lk. 8:38-39) and the region (Mk. 5:18-20) which had just rejected Him.
1. Full question submitted to the website was “Matthew 8 says there were 2 demon possessed men while Luke and Mark say one. The wording in Mark and Luke seems to suggest it’s not just Luke mentioning 1 of 2 men. He seems clear that there was only 1.”
2. J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity, (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013).
3. Matthew also is the only gospel to have two blind men healed near Jericho compared to one blind man mentioned in Mark and Luke (Matt. 20:29-34, Mark 10:46-52, Luke 18:35-43). Skeptics will point out differences here, too, such as the healing occurring as Jesus was leaving Jericho in Matthew and Mark, but entering Jericho in Luke’s gospel. These differences can be explained by local geography and history. There were two Jerichos in Jesus’ time, the old city and the new city built by Herod the Great a short distance to the southwest. The healing may have happened as Jesus was leaving the old city and entering into the new city on His way to Jerusalem. (Daniel Hayes, Ed.)