History & the Bible (Part 2 of 2)

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.

Manasseh Repented--And We Even Got This Picture of It!

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.

Matthew: "See? Told you there were two!" Mark: "Bah. You used Photoshop."

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.

47 thoughts on “History & the Bible (Part 2 of 2)”

  1. Yep, this all sounds about right. From now on I’ll direct people to this post when the whole inerrancy/historical accuracy thing comes up. Thanks!

    1. Aren’t they related? There’s an assumption about history that goes into attempts to harmonize. It’s because I hold a different understanding of the relationship between the Bible and history that I feel no compulsion to do it, find it mis-directed in light of what the Bible actually is.

      1. Typical harmonizations absolutely tend to be mis-directed. No argument there. But what you’re arguing against still isn’t “History”.

        The Christmas story is a fine example of what I mean. Demure on a few uncertain details and it’s still possible to reconstruct a reasonable account of what may have actually happened, based on Matthew and Luke. We can do a fairly good job at that, actually.

        Harmonization is an effort to explain away seeming contradictions, in the defense of “inerrancy”. Historiography is willing to note discrepancies during analysis, yet unabashedly proceeds to consider how much else still works together to give us a picture of customs, ideas & events of the past.

        Traditional harmonization has often had nothing to do, whatsoever, with History.

        1. quit tacet thinks that there is so much going on in your reply, and things I wouldn’t quite put the same, that he’s not sure how to begin. When overwhelmed, I tend to tacet. :) I don’t think I agree with the last statement. Perhaps many of these things are better thought of as continua than as 1s or 0s.

          1. fair enough. perhaps I went overboard. :-)

            in the last statement, I mainly meant that the goal of most harmonizers is to streamline contradictions. If they were trying to “do history” they’d do much more than just answer objections.

            and continua are usually better than dichotomies, I agree.

  2. Yes!! I love: “the point is not to hand down the history but to preach the theology. ”

    Beautifully articulated… Thank you!

  3. “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.”

    That is really well said.

  4. Although, since you, Daniel, already know I’m in no danger of becoming particularly fussy about histroical accuracy–especially if it obscures obvious and important theologizing apparrent on the part of the biblical writer–let me add a small caveat:

    I think it is important that we recognize that history (and what was considered an appropriate level of historical accurracy) was not UNimportant to the writers of the biblical stories. If it was unimportant, they wouldn’t have bothers with historical narrative at all or they would have felt free to make up anything at all out of whole cloth, so long as it suited their theological aims. No, on the contrary, they felt that it was precisely *within* history–in God’s actual interaction with God’s people–that theological truths became evident. Histroy was not unimportant, but was in fact so important that theologizing couldn’t be done without it. Conversely, histroiography without (what they considered) appropriate theolgizing seems also to have been deemed lacking.

    The bottom line: history, far from being expendable, is so important to the biblical writers that it has to be interpreted theologically.

  5. One problem with the logic being proposed is that it is Chronicles that is not interested in history while Samuel/Kings is – how do you know the reverse isn’t true? Or, worse yet, how can you claim Samuel/Kings wasn’t doing their own thing with the actual historical record? There’s the hang up. It’s a slippery slope.

    You said: 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.

    But this very line of argumentation presupposes certain things, namely that the account must be historically false. That Luke wasn’t concerned with chronology is not the same as saying the event never happened; he simply doesn’t put the event in a certain time frame. And to say Luke “changed” the location, host, and body part presupposes the location and host didn’t simply go by alternate names and that the body part was one of many parts anointed.

    What hurts me most about these two approaches is that I will extend to God the benefit of the doubt (even though I’m the creature) such that I will strive to harmonize these things, using options that have no logical contradictions, while you’re approaching the text with the notion that “if something doesn’t fit, the text itself must be making stuff up”. In the end, my goal is to not make God or His Scriptures look foolish before the pagans, while your approach gives these same folks little reason to consider the Bible any more than a mish mash of outdated human thoughts.

    My previous post still highlights one of the biggest dilemmas at hand: is the Resurrection true history? If so, how do you trust the Gospel accounts which are not historically inspired?

    1. Nick, with both of your comments I think that part of the problem is that you’re coming to the Bible with an expectation that it must be a certain kind of something in order to be accepted and revered as the word of God. For you, if the Bible isn’t harmonizable, then the God who inspired this word isn’t worthy of reverence.

      For me, the God of the Bible is worthy of reverence, and this is the Bible he chose to give us to lead us to himself. I am working with the assumption, though, that we have to trust that this Bible that we actually have is the means by which the God of the Bible speaks so as to draw us as His people closer to himself.

      With regard to Chronicles and Sam/Kings, yes: I think that when we look at Chronicles we not only learn about how Chronicles works, but also how Samuel and Kings works. It’s not about writing an “objective” account of the history of Israel, but a theologically infused account of that story. Similarly, I think that by looking at how Matthew and Luke changed Mark we learn a bit more about how Mark itself likely dealt with its sources.

      In the comment on the previous entry, you talked about the contrast between my vision of someone sitting down with a bunch of documents and a traditional picture of someone writing more or less in simple communion with God. But Luke himself tells us that he researched everything, had access to other accounts, and was using those in the writing of his own story.

      In all these things, I’m attempting have a more biblical picture of what the Bible is, trusting that, since this is the Bible God has in fact given us as the rule of faith and practice, we will be honoring God more when we’re happy with the Bible we actually have rather than insisting that it’s something it’s demonstrably not.

      I’ll deal a bit more with some of the “pastoral” issues in another post today.

      Thanks for your engagement on these things!

      1. I would say harmony is a mark of God’s authorship since disharmony often indicates contradiction. And this is particularly important in regards to history, for how do you determine which historical accounts are real and which are ‘pious fable’.

        Can you answer this question: is the Resurrection true history?

        1. Nick, yes, there are real contradictions. These are nothing new: Were people created after all the animals or was Adam created before all the animals and Eve after? Did God speak humanity into being or form it with His hands? Did Jesus appear to the disciples in Galilee or Jerusalem after the resurrection? Yes, there are real contradictions, but this is only a problem if we presuppose that God cannot speak through a text that contains such.

          Yes, the resurrection really happened, and if it didn’t Christianity is bunk.

          1. You claimed there was a real contradiction in whether Christ appeared in Galilee or Jerusalem. So I’m asking you, which of the two really happened, if either?

              1. But which of the two accounts really happened in history?

                Since you say there is a genuine contradiction here, the options are: (a) Galilee really happened; (b) Jerusalem really happened; (c) neither really happened.

                1. God knows.

                  If I had to choose one, I’d go with Galilee for various reasons, but I don’t, and I think it would be wrong to, because to choose one over the other would be to deny the voice of the other.

                  1. I don’t see the difficulty with you answering if Galilee really happened in history. It’s really a yes or no question. Dr Kirk, is it ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to Galilee?

                    To say choosing one would be to deny the voice of the other would be conflating the genre of history with non-history.

                    1. Uh oh, I just got “Dr. Kirk”-ed!

                      I know that my answers are frustrating to you, but going back to the beginning of this series: I think that your questions are the wrong questions to ask of the Gospels, so I have no commitment to answer them one way or the other. I think it’s important for Matthew that we read his resurrection appearance in Galilee and for Luke that we read it in Jerusalem. If God wanted us to base our belief in the resurrection on independently attested, complimentary data, I’m guessing he would have given us such a thing. But he hasn’t, and I’m ok with that.

                  2. Historical reconstruction is hypothetical by nature, and does absolutely no damage whatsoever to the “voice” of the Gospels as we have them.

                    There is no good reason why Theologians should be anti-History. You guys construct doctrines all the time – and often stake a lot of faith in your finished constructions. Why, then, such a resistance to reconstructing events?

                    But this is a general comment. I’ll demure on the heterogeneity of Jesus’ post-resurrection marching orders, for today. :-)

                    1. Daniel, (I didn’t “Dr Kirk” you this time :-) )

                      I would say your answers are frustrating to me because I’m looking for answers as simple as ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and getting “If I had to choose…but I don’t.”

                      You claimed there is a contradiction (on historical grounds) in Matthew and Luke, so this means the data can be examined from a historical perspective. So why is my simple historically based question the “wrong question”?

                      All I’m asking is if Galilee is real history, yes or no.

          2. Not all of those are contradictions, strictly speaking. If you can blend together four theological views of Jesus, then accepting that he could have reappeared in both Galilee and Jerusalem (on different days, obviously) should be child’s play.


            1. No, that’s just the sort of theologically driven harmonization that sounds like song and dance to anyone not committed to the sorts of “unity in scripture” that drive them. Jesus tells the disciples in Luke/Acts not to leave Jerusalem. He appears to them there after the resurrection, tells them not to leave, ascends from that general vicinity, and then we find them there, still obediently waiting, at Pentecost. That story isn’t compatible with Matthew’s.

              1. Okay. The *instructions* about where to go may be contradictions. That’s much more difficult, I agree. But Luke leaves out Paul’s time in Arabia, some beatings, Timothy sneaking back into Thessalonica and all three early shipwrecks – just for starters. Thus it falls perfectly into Luke’s m.o. that he would have left out a (disobedient?) excursion to Galilee… BUT whether or not such a hypothesis neatly comports with *everything* said by Matthew is a very different concern.

                On the larger topic at hand, you’re still misidentifying – and with such an accusatory tone. ;-) Yes, it is possible to concoct harmonizing explanations for the purpose of defending inerrancy. But is is also possible to analyze both texts’ claims historically and try to work out what may have actually happened. Those are two different activities, “driven” by different ambitions.

                I don’t care about theological doctrines, including “inerrancy”. What I’m interested in is considering History.

                1. I know that you see yourself pursuing a different sort of project, Bill, but going back to the beginning of this series, I just don’t think that this sort of reconstruction is a faithful response to the Gospels we have. You are reconstructing a story, but I rarely find that the end product sounds much like history, in large part because I don’t think it does sufficient justice to the creative hands at work by the authors of the Gospels.

                  1. Whose end product? You’re actually reading *my* stuff? Enough to say ‘rarely’? Yeah, right. ;-)

                    At any rate – if we’re talking about my stuff on the *Gospels* – I am trying to learn better how to “do sufficient justice” to whatever they actually are. I’m still very uncertain, however, about the various opinions on how much is “creative” and how much may be something else.

                    Did you read McGrath’s review of Allison’s upcoming book, which he posted Sunday? Highly recommendable.

  6. “Daniel”… ahh… much better. :)

    I’m just going to keep saying that we have two different stories that we should not try to reconcile or choose between. Galilee is great for Mt/Mk, not so great for making sense of Luke.

        1. Well, as Bill said, that’s essentially a “No, [Matthew's epilogue is not "real history"].”

          The sorrow in my heart that this response causes is indescribable, since if the Gospels are not real history, by definition that means it’s psedu-history/historical-fiction, with a twist of philosophy. This would have to have implication on the previous verses of the chapter, such that the Resurrection is not “real history,” meaning Jesus didn’t really physically resurrect from the dead as a supernatural yet literal historical event.

          Daniel, I appreciate much of your writing/work, but this “answer” pains me for two reasons: first, my simple question was not answered without a lot of ‘spin’ (almost as if embarrassed to admit this or possible negative ramifications for your teaching job); and second, this leaves you with no firm foundation from which to *defend* the accuracy and truthfulness of the Scriptures, nor teachings like the literal, physical Resurrection. :’(

          1. Nick, a couple things: First, I understand the frustration at not getting a direct answer. But this goes back to the beginning of these series of posts: I really meant it when I said that such questions get the genre of scripture wrong. I’m not going to adopt a theology of what the gospels are that I don’t agree with just for the purposes of answering a question that I think mistaken in the first place.

            But I also meant what I’ve said throughout when I’ve said that I receive these scriptures as the word of God and the rule of faith and practice. I don’t receive them because I believe they teach a certain kind of historical truth, but because they are the witness to the saving work of God.

            Finally, one reason I don’t follow you to the conclusion you indicate is because I don’t believe the Christian message because I found it in a trustworthy book. I find the book trustworthy because I believe the Christian message.

            To put it differently, I believe the resurrection narratives speak truly because I believe the gospel of the resurrected Christ that Paul preaches and that was proclaimed to me.

            I’m not worried about scriptural foundationalism because in practice that’s not how most Christian espitemology works. It’s not about building on the Bible as the sure foundation, but on Christ as the sure foundation. And, in practice, there’s often a lot of believing in Christ because of friends, experiences, songs, preaching, community, tragedy, healing, scripture, etc. all coalescing to make the saving narrative compelling.

  7. A couple of points about Manasseh:

    1) You seem to assume that the Chronicler’s description of Manasseh’s repentance was simple fiction. Granted, such a tale conveniently fits the Chronicler’s goal, as you state it, and it does not appear in Samuel/Kings. But is that really enough evidence to decide that the event did not in fact happen?

    2) If the Chronicler invented the tale of Manasseh’s repentance to make him a fictitious model “for how Israel should turn faithfully to YHWH after the exile,” then doesn’t the Chronicler’s method oppose his goal? That is, the point of turning back to God is to re-enter a life in his grace and under his mercy. If God really acts in space-time, then using a fiction takes the narrative OUT of the space-time where the readers live.

    3) Your treatment of the repentance narrative as a convenient but fictitious morality tale also seems to assume that the readers would have no other source of information about how Manasseh ended his life. Even if we don’t have those sources, word of mouth and other records would have given them a picture of what Manasseh was like. How convincing would the Chronicler’s version be if it went against the grain of all that?

    4) None of these points disputes your assessment of what the Chronicler was trying to do, namely, give a theological account of the history of Israel that paid more attention to interpretation than to presentation of blow-by-blow detail.

    1. Re. 3: My whole point with Chronicles is that Kings was probably known, at least to some, which makes the contradictions seem like they wouldn’t have been the problems for earlier readers that they become for later readers.

  8. A question about disparities amongst the synoptics:

    Matthew and Luke obviously worked with a copy of Mark in hand, and yet their respective gospels differ enough from Mark and from each other to cause some problems for the modern reader. Part of that difficulty, as you say, is that we read their gospels with a set of false expectations and assumptions. Thank you for your work in sorting through that. But, in order to appeal to, or even make sense to, us moderns who are trying to re-grind our lenses to read the gospels more faithfully, your rejection of harmonization (which I do not share) will have to show what the gospel writers were doing, why they were doing it, and how we can get a grip on it.

    Again, thanks for your work and your writing.

    1. John, that’s what I do every time I say, “Matthew looks at Jesus as ….” Or, “In Luke’s narrative, we have these stories told together and so…” It’s a lifetime’s work of listening to them as discrete narratives that tell their own story. Every time I write about a passage from the Gospels on the blog (or nearly every time) you are seeing the fruit of that kind of posture.

      What are they doing? They’re telling a story about Jesus with vast theological ramifications.

      Why? To encourage their particular churches, help people understand the on-going significance of Jesus’ ministry, etc. They did what they did for the same reasons your pastor preaches to your church every Sunday. And, if your pastor is a good pastor as well as preacher, s/he (like the Gospel writers) would not preach the exact same message were s/he among a different group of people.

      How can you get a grip on it? Read the Gospels over and over and over and over. Use your synopsis not to tell you what problems need to be harmonized but to draw your attention better to the particular ways that each Gospel is telling its own particular story of Jesus.

      1. 1) Amen. Yes, emphatically we should read the gospels in their own light, listening to their own messages, eager and open to hear each author tell his own story of Jesus. And, if you could recommend a book or two that help display those Matthean, Markan, Lucan, and Johannine dynamics, I would appreciate that very much. And, by the way, does it seem to you that John’s gospel makes its goals and methods a bit plainer than the synoptics do?

        2 – 10) Ditto.

        11) Let’s set aside harmonizing. Given that we listen to each gospel author in his own work, we do have four gospels. I want to learn how to read each with the others. And, in that regard, thanks for your work here.

  9. What do we do with the pre-critical period that just assumed the historicity of these events? Is it enough to simply say, ‘in the world of the Bible, that’s how it happened, and that’s all that matters.’? And that’s essentially how the pre-critical period read the text anyway?

    1. I think we end up at a similar point in a second reading, but as post-critical readers we have to deal with the evidence that things might not have happened in a way that we might assume given our own historical and social location.

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