Four Simple Truths About the Bible Everyone Seems to Forget, Part 1

Obviously the Bible is an incredibly important book.  Even non-Christians have to recognize that biblical principles are foundational to Western culture.  You can say what you want about certain parts of the Bible that you might not like for whatever reason, but without the Bible, the world would look very different today…and not in a good way.

In terms of law and justice, Alvin Schmidt may have said it best:

“The liberty and justice that are enjoyed by humans in Western societies and in some non-Western countries are increasingly seen as the products of a benevolent, secular government that is the provider of all things. There seems to be no awareness that the liberties and rights that are currently operative in free societies of the West are to a great degree the result of Christianity’s influence. History is replete with examples of individuals who acted as a law unto themselves often curtailing, even obliterating the natural rights and freedoms of the country’s citizens. Christianity’s influence, however, set into motion the belief that man is accountable to God and that the law is the same regardless of status. More than one thousand years before the birth of Christ the biblical requirement given by Moses comprised an essential component of the principle that ‘no man is above the law.’[1]

The positive influence of the Bible, extends well beyond boundaries of Western law.  The Bible has exerted a powerful and, in many cases, foundational influence on the fields of religion (obviously!), government, science, economics, the arts, education and family.

But in spite of the Bible’s immense contribution to the world we live in, it remains a surprisingly misunderstood resource.    I’m not talking about any of the particular passages that are hard to interpret.  I’m just talking about basic facts about the Bible that nearly everyone seems to forget, such as:

1.  The Bible is not simple history but theological history.

The Bible’s primary concern is not to record a bunch of names and dates, facts and figures, times and places.  The Bible’s primary concern is to communicate truth about the God who stands behind and is revealed through history.

You remember in the Wizard of Oz, when Toto pulled the curtain back, revealing the little man working the big machine?  That’s the Bible.  It pulls back the curtain and gives us a glimpse of the reality behind the scenes, behind history.  But where that little man said “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”, the Bible invites us to do exactly the opposite.

I’m not saying that the Bible isn’t historical; that it isn’t interested in historical events or that it doesn’t depend on historical accuracy.  On the contrary, since the Bible seeks to communicate truth about a God who has revealed Himself in historical events, the Bible is very concerned with historical truth.  When the Bible makes claims about things that happened in history, it assumes that it is getting its facts straight.  If the Bible was wrong about what actually happened in history, then it would likely be wrong about the theological implications of those events.  So the Bible is historical in the sense that it claims to be, and depends upon, accurate reporting of historical events.

But there’s a difference between saying that the Bible is historical and saying that it’s a history book or that it’s a book of simple history.  The main goal of simple history is to report what happened; that is, a simple history’s primary concern is the names, dates, fact, figures, times and places.  That’s what I mean by “simple history”:  a primary concern with the historical data.  But the Bible is only concerned with historical data insofar as it pulls back the curtain and reveals truth about who God is, what He is like and what He wants from us.

Christians often forget this simple fact and end up treating the Bible as though it were nothing more than a report of what happened in the past.  Sometimes this happens because Christians get so caught up in defending the historical accuracy of the Bible that they forget the forest for the trees.  They get so caught up in proving that a particular historical claim in the Bible is factually accurate that they forget to ask why the Bible reported that historical fact in the first place.  For instance, there are hundreds of books and websites devoted to proving that the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, though different in a few minor respects, can be reconciled with each other and with other historical information.  And that’s fine; it’s important that we be confident that the Bible has gotten its facts straight.  But it’s amazing to me how few people ever get around to asking why those genealogies are there in the first place or why they are written in the way they are.  Matthew’s genealogy explicitly identifies four women with very messy stories (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba).  Why does Matthew draw attention to those women?  I contend that it’s because Matthew wanted us to understand that we serve a God who was willing to incorporate their stories, messy as they were, into His story.  It’s not really surprising that Matthew, a tax collector with a pretty messy story himself – but one that Jesus redeemed, would have wanted us to see this theological truth.  That’s what I mean when I say that the Bible is theological history, but when Christians treat the Bible as simple history, content only to prove the accuracy of its historical claims, we miss out on a lot of what God has to say to us.

Non-Christians and/or skeptics of the Bible also frequently make the mistake of treating the Bible as though it were simple history.  Consequently, they make unfair accusations against it.  For instance, skeptics have often claimed that the Gospel of John contradicts the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) because in John the cleansing of the temple occurs in the beginning of the book whereas in the Synoptics the cleansing occurred at the end of the books.  In works of simple history, the chronological presentation of historical data is a primary concern.  If we assume that the Gospels are works of simple history, then this mis-match of when we find the story of the temple cleansing is problematic.  However, as anyone who reads the Gospels carefully can attest, none of the Gospels are overly concerned with chronological sequence.  All of the Gospels bring together various events from Jesus’ life and present them together because they are connected thematically, rather than chronologically.  Why else are all the parables of Jesus presented in one group in the middle of Matthew?  Did Jesus just suddenly have one day in the middle of his ministry when he decided to try speaking in parables?  Of course not.  Matthew just brought all the parables from Jesus’ ministry together into one place in his Gospel.

The authors of those Gospels weren’t saying “this happened and then, right after that, this happened” but rather, “look at these things that happened that show the same reality about who Jesus is, about who God is”.  Certainly in some cases there is a chronological sequence to the Gospels and the writers had clear ways of indicating this, but in many instances, it is just as clear that stories were put together because they were thematically connected.  Once we recognize this, it just doesn’t make sense to claim that there is a contradiction between two Gospels simply because of where in the text they report a particular incident. And, by the way, for those of you who are interested, it is also possible that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice, once at the beginning of his ministry (which John reported and the Synoptics did not) and once at the end of his ministry (which the Synoptics reported and John did not).  Either way, the point is that the location of that story in the different Gospels is only problematic if we assume that the Gospels are intended to be simple history, which they are not.  They are theological history.

Again, theological history still has to be accurate.  It has to get all its facts right, precisely because it is depending on those facts to pull back the curtain and reveal truth about the God who stands behind history and is revealed through it.  But saying that the Bible is historically accurate isn’t the same thing as saying that the Bible is simple history.  When we make that mistake, we not only end up finding so-called “contradictions” where none exist but we also end up missing a lot of what the Bible has to say.

[1] Alvin J.Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2004), 248-249.