Why does the book of Matthew state that the mother of James and John asked Jesus for a special privilege, while the book of Mark declares that James and John actually asked for this honor?
Who asked Jesus for seats to his right and left?
Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him. And He said to her, “What do you wish?” She said to Him, “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.” (Matthew 20:20–21)
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.” And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” They said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.” (Mark 10:35–37)
There are a couple of rather simple explanations for this dilemma. It is often said that the Gospel accounts are not contradictory, but complementary.
One possibility is that Mark recorded one instance where James and John approached Jesus and requested of Him, “
Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.” In Mark 10:40 Jesus told them, “
to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but [it is for those]
for whom it is prepared.”
Slightly disappointed and probably not understanding what Jesus was talking about, James and John returned to their mom and told her about His response. Then perhaps she thought, “Maybe He will listen to me,” or maybe they asked her to ask for them. Surely Jesus could not turn down someone’s sweet mother, especially considering the possibility that she was also the Lord’s aunt.1 And so Matthew recorded another encounter.
Later, James and John returned with their mother, and she approached Jesus herself with the request, “
Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21). Once again, in Matthew 20:23 Jesus replied, “
To sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but [it is for those]
for whom it is prepared by My Father.”
These two Gospel accounts are complementary rather than contradictory.
Another possibility is that Matthew and Mark recorded the same event but focused on different individuals. In other words, James and John came with their mother and asked Jesus about sitting with Him in His kingdom. It may be that all three of them asked the question, or that they asked as a group.
Matthew states that James and John came to Jesus with their mother. When Jesus asked, “
What do you wish?” she asked for her sons to be granted the honor of sitting at the Lord’s side in His kingdom (Matthew 20:21).
In Mark, we are told that James and John came to Jesus and asked for this honor. He does not mention the appearance of their mother, but this doesn’t mean she wasn’t there. Mark may have simply focused on the audacity of the two brothers in asking Jesus this question. After all, the rest of the disciples were quite perturbed that the brothers asked this question.
The fact that the discussion between Jesus and the two brothers following the initial question is virtually identical in both books seems to favor this second possibility. In both accounts, Jesus asked James and John if they could “
drink the cup” that He would drink. They claimed that they could. Then Jesus told them it was not His decision to make. This was followed by the other disciples getting upset with James and John. Finally, Jesus taught them about humility.
Since both of the examples above are plausible, there is no need to accuse the Bible of being in error here. These two Gospel accounts are complementary rather than contradictory.