What, then, is this Bible that many of us, on a broad spectrum of Christian belief, want to treat as the word of God, the rule for Christian faith and practice? In particular, what are we looking at when we read the historical narratives? How much should we expect them to resemble the “facts of history”?
The stakes are pretty high when we come to the Gospels, so let’s step back into some books that no one ever reads: the books of Chronicles. (Incidentally, Pete Enns has a three part series on Biologos dealing with this very issue that wrapped up today.)
There are a couple of things we need to keep in mind as we read Chronicles. One of the most important is that Chronicles uses Samuel/Kings; the writer might even be able to assume that some of his readers would know those old stories; and, he freely reconstructs the narratives to comport with his own theology.
One theological given in Chronicles is that sin is punished on earth while righteousness is rewarded. This can be a problem.
For example: what if the guy with [one of] the longest reign (55 years) in the whole book, Manasseh,is the one who according to Kings is single-handedly responsible for Judah going into Babylonian exile? How do you explain the long reign for the most evil of kings? Easy: tell a story of repentance! Even better, make it a story that embodies Israel’s own story of exile in Babylon and restoration to the land. Manasseh becomes a model–for how Israel should turn faithfully to YHWH after the exile.
Such alterations happen regularly in Chronicles: the point is not to hand down the history but to preach the theology. We know that the Chronicler changed the story for his theological purposes, and it seems a lot of his early audience would have known it as well. Because of what he did with his source text, it would be a mistake to think that what we’re supposed to do with his text and Samuel/Kings is to attempt to lace together a coherent, non-contradictory narrative.
This is the kind of history that we have in the Bible–not one that is written for the purpose of preserving a given account of events, but one told for the purpose of proclamation.
We have evidence of the same sort of freedom being employed in the NT with the Synoptic Gospels. Luke tells us that he did his research; we can guess that he probably used Mark, and I think he probably used Matthew as well. But even if he only used Mark, we discover the exact same freedom at work as we saw in the case of Chronicles: he is not interested in telling us the accurate historical picture as we would define and look for historical factuality; he intentionally changes the story he has at his disposal such that his own theology is communicated and the history itself reads differently.
For me, the question of “inerrancy” versus not, or the question of how “historical” the Gospels are, or the question of whether or not we should harmonize different passages pushes in this direction: When we push for inerrancy, harmonizations, and historicity, we show that we have a fundamentally different desire for what these texts might give us than the biblical writers themselves had when they composed them.
If the purpose of the Gospels was to give us the historically identifiable account of the anointing of Jesus, then Luke would not have changed the location, host, time frame, and body part on which Jesus was anointed. If the purpose
of a Gospel is to give a full, historical account, then Matthew would not go around introducing second things such as a second Gerasene demoniac or second donkey that Jesus simultaneously rode into Jerusalem with the other.
The point is that at various points both Matthew and Luke have decided to tell versions of the story that are in ways major or minor different from the story of Mark–and that in trying to smash them all back together into a coherent unity we show that our own desire for the text is antithetical to the impulse that gave us the texts we actually have.
What the Gospel writers have separated, let no man put together.
And this begins to form my response to Adam’s comment on yesterday’s post about where my view ever moves from the messy details to the “high” acknowledgment that this is God’s word for the church, not just a human doing. My response to that is that it is precisely these humans doings that are God’s word to the church. God’s word to the church is Matthew’s post-Torah Jewish Christianity, and Mark’s apocalyptic and surprising messiah, and Luke’s seamless-salvation-history-Davidic-King, and even John’s pre-existent heavenly but now incarnate Son of God.
Honoring them as the word of God means receiving them not only as they are actually given to us, but trusting that God gave us the kind of books he wanted us to have in order to find the salvation that God has on offer in Christ. In other words, it’s precisely by not turning these into history books that I honor them as the word that God has given to guide us into the life that is only found in Jesus the Son.