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Daniel Kirk on History & the Bible

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September 22, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Daniel Kirk on History & the Bible

Today's entry was written by the BioLogos Editorial Team. You can read more about what we believe here.

For the past three weeks, we’ve been looking at some of the issues that arise when we attempt to merge the books of Chronicles with other parts of the Bible into a single direct historical account through a “literal” reading of the text. Today, on his blog Storied Theology, Daniel Kirk offers a look at the consequences of what happens when we try to apply the same literal reading to the Gospels.

First, however, he looks at the problem of Manasseh, whose 55-year reign is the longest in the book and who, according to Kings, is single-handedly responsible for the Babylonian exile. Theologically, Manasseh’s story seems to go against the overarching theme of the book: that sin is punished on earth while righteousness is rewarded. How could such a sinful king be blessed with such a long reign?

The writer of Chronicles addresses this by making Manasseh’s story one of repentance. While this account differs from that of Kings, it does so because, as Kirk notes, “the point [of Chronicles] is not to hand down the history but to preach the theology.” We recognize that the author has changed the story for theological purposes, just as most of his early audience would have, and it would be a mistake to lose the author’s purpose by attempting to turn these two accounts into one coherent, non-contradictory story.

Similarly, Kirk notes that the Synoptic Gospels employ the same sort of textual freedom. Luke, for example, based his account on those of Mark and probably Matthew, but his account is not intended to be an accurate historical picture, but rather to communicate the theology.

As Kirk writes:

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. […]

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.

But what of those who say such a reading is a “low view of Scripture” that ignores the text’s role as God’s word to the church? Kirk responds that it is these human differences that are God’s word to the church. Honoring God’s word, he says, means receiving these books not only as they are given, but trusting that God gave us the text as he wanted us to have it to find salvation through Christ.

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Daniel Mann - #31966

September 25th 2010

Paul D.

I can’t understand how you can be Christo-centric without also being Bible-centric. Here are some things that Christ said about Scripture:

•  Matthew 4:4 “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

•  Matthew 5:17-19 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Being Christo-centric entails knowing who He is and believing and obeying what He said (John 14:21-24). How can you do this without Scripture? Without Scripture, can you have any confidence that your faith is any more than fantasy?

Daniel Mann - #31976

September 25th 2010


I am interested in grappling with textual problems, but I’m also aware that many of the problems do not seem to be amenable to easy solutions, at least not now. However, my trust in the Bible doesn’t arise from my being able to reconcile all the difficulties. (If I could, it might suggest that I have resorted to an erroneous human solution, like the Bible contains fabricated “creative history.”)

Instead, your reasoning goes something like this:

1.  I can’t resolve the problems.
2.  Therefore, the Bible must be errant.

Such reasoning puts too much emphasis on our ability to be able to get our minds around something that purports to be the Word of GOD. You assume that the Bible is less glorious than the world of science, and therefore, you reject my analogy. You are willing to allow perplexities when it comes to our understanding of the creation, but when it comes to the Word of the Creator, you aren’t. I think you are starting with the wrong presuppositions.

Paul D. - #32041

September 26th 2010

@ Daniel Mann - #31966

In Matthew 4:4, Jesus is quoting Deut. 8:3, which draws an analogy between manna and the Israelites forefathers, who listened to God directly (and had no Bible, by the way). I think that reinforces my choice to put my faith in Christ rather than the Bible.

I think Matthew 5:17-19 was an important message to give the Jews as their Messiah, but I don’t think he’s telling 21st century Christians to make the Bible (including books that hadn’t been written yet) the centre of their faith.

> Without Scripture, can you have any confidence that your faith is any more than fantasy?

This is a question I grapple with every day, which is why I seek the truth at places like Biologos.

However, the fact that I put my faith in Christ rather than the Bible means that it can remain standing in spite of the various errors the Bible authors committed. Inerrancy and bibliolotry are serious stumbling-blocks to the faith in my opinion.

Jon Garvey - #32045

September 26th 2010

@Paul D. - #32041

Paul, it seems to me you’ve created an unnecessary dichotomy (and a rod for your back, too).

The desire to avoid bibliolatry does not negate the fact that the Bible is the primary source of information about the faith, just as for the NT writers to OT was the primary source of information about the meaning of Jesus (which is why he and they quote it over 400 times).

Ditch it entirely (or even not entirely) and you have to make some kind of decision about WHICH Jesus you believe in. Here are a few possibilities:
The Gnostic Jesus
The Manichaean Jesus
The Da Vinci Code Jesus
The Bultmann Jesus
The Don Cupitt Jesus
The Quaker Jesus
The Mormon Jesus
The Cathar Jesus
The Jesus Seminar Jesus
The Jesus Christ Superstar Jesus
The Zwickau Prophets Jesus
The Last Temptation of Christ Jesus
The Sedenborgian Jesus
The Christian Scientists Jesus
The Theosophist Jesus
The Muslim Jesus
The Talmudic Jesus
The Children of God Jesus
The Lord’s Resistance Army Jesus

And my study leads me to believe that rumours of the Bible’s death are greatly exaggerated.

Daniel Mann - #32052

September 26th 2010

Paul D.

I would better appreciate your position if God still talked audibly with His children, and everyone could agree with what was being said. However, this isn’t the case today, and I fear that Biologos will not be able to fill your vacuum.

Paul D. - #32073

September 26th 2010

@Jon Garvey #32045

I realize I may have given a wrong impression. To be sure, the Bible is a primary source of revelation about the faith. What I see as both a stumbling-block and a dead end is putting the Bible above Christ (even if the latter gets our lip-service) and insisting on a standard of inerrancy and perfection that nothing short of God himself could possibly live up to. That puts Christians in the unenviable position of have to defend or rationalize everything from factual errors to genocidal slaughters, since even a single mistake renders this “god” to be false.

The early church did the opposite of what do, I suspect. They started with a revelation of who Jesus was and witnesses of those who knew him, and then gradually (and selectively) chose scriptures they felt illuminated his teachings. I don’t think historical or scientific accuracy was ever a prime criterion for selection.

Putting Christ above the Bible gives us the freedom to interpret the Bible in light of science and modern knowledge, giving us a better picture of Christ and a stronger base.

Jon Garvey - #32078

September 26th 2010

@Paul D. - #32073

Thanks for the clarification. I can see where you’re coming from, and have sympathy with it.

But one still has the danger of ending up sitting in judgement on words that should, perhaps, be judging us.

For example, what does one make of a verse like Mark 7.10 (paralleled in Matthew), where Jesus criticises the Pharisees and scribes for replacing God’s commands with men’s traditions. As an example of God’s command, he uses “Whoever curses his father or mother must be put to death.”

Now he’s not, evidently, saying they should apply that law there and then, but he is clearly approving it in context and upsetting our common view of Jesus as “friend of sinners”.

So, do we say that Jesus was mistakenly bound by his culture (despite his opponents not being so)?
Or that Mark falsely put the words in Jesus’ mouth (being even more culture-bound after faith in Christ than the Pharisees were before)?
Or that Jesus was afraid or chose not to tell the truth about Moses’ error?
Or that any weapon against the Pharisees would do even if God were misrepresented?

Or maybe, that both Moses and Jesus were in tune with God, and we somehow need to learn something new and unexpected from the passage?

Jon Garvey - #32083

September 26th 2010

Back to the blog - regarding Chronicles, it’s amazing to realise it predates Herodotus, regarded as “the Father of History”. Samuel/Kings was written several centuries before Herodotus. He was the first person ever to see his job as recording events dispassionately.

So in expecting either Kings or Chronicles to portray objective, factual history we are desiring them to perform a function that didn’t exist anywhere in the world then. Was God supposed to invent a new genre that would make as much sense to Israel as a limerick would?

I read that Aristotle (even later) considered poetry superior to history because it described how the world must be, or ought to be, rather than merely what is - a writer’s purpose was to ennoble the world, not report it. Presumably he was not unique in that, and since prior to Herodotus Epic Poetry was one of the commonest records of people and events, to ennoble the hearer was presumably why history was usually told.

Even Herodotus saw his role as setting worthy examples to follow, so he put worthy words in his subjects’ mouths or just didn’t record unworthy people.

Paul D. - #32159

September 27th 2010

@ Jon Garvey - #32078

It’s not at all obvious to me that in Mark 7:10 Jesus is coming out in favour of stoning children. It seems more to me like he’s telling the Pharisees “you guys are hypocrites, because you say you follow all the laws, yet here’s one you break all the time”.

However, I think most of us agree that Christ’s nature was such that he would not have gone around murdering disobedient children, and use that as a starting point for interpreting the passage.

Christopher Svanefalk - #32164

September 27th 2010

@Paul #32159

I must interject here - when we start calling the stoning of disobedient youths “murder”, are we not already imposing our own contemporary morals upon Scripture, calling these things “wrong” (the same goes for the genocide issues mentioned earlier) simply because said morals declare them wrong?

Paul D. - #32187

September 27th 2010

@ Christopher Svanefalk - #32164

Yes, you’re absolutely correct I was imposing a moral predisposition when I used the word “murder”. However, I don’t believe morality is situational. There’s no “contemporary” morality or “Israelite” morality that is somehow different from other kinds. Sociopaths and certain other insane people aside, we all have God-given consciences that let us know without a doubt certain things are wrong. I would never kill a person just because they dishonoured their parents, and you wouldn’t either. We both know in our hearts it would be wrong and un-Christlike, whatever criminal law Moses may have chosen to give to Israel.

You are free to disagree, of course. I’m certainly no expert in the minutiae of Mosaic law either and may have misunderstood something there.

Jon Garvey - #32188

September 27th 2010

@Paul D. - #32159

So in calling the Mosaic injunction “the command of God” and the Pharisees’ practice “the traditions of men” Jesus is is some convoluted way challenging them to resolve their hypocrisy by admitting the command of God is false, and that the traditions of men are more likely to reflect God’s morality?

And some similar double-think underlies his insistence in the sermon on the mount that he has not come to abolish the law but fulfil it, and his teaching that “Love God, love your neighbour” is the whole meaning of the law (which nevertheless is not from God at all)?

Paul D. - #32196

September 27th 2010

@ Jon Garvey - #32188

I don’t know, Jon. Here’s what Michael Turton thinks in his commentary (tinyurl.com/2d2v7fr):

“Jesus clearly appears to agree that people who curse their parents should be killed. However, this is probably not what is intended. The writer merely has Jesus adduce this as an example of how stringent things were in the old days, much as someone today might praise the toughness and commitment of football players in the days before padding, without actually advocating that anyone play without pads.”

Jesus’ exchanges with the Pharisees don’t always seem to make a lot of sense. There may be some context we aren’t provided with. At any rate, what evidence is there that Christ gave two hoots about the law, other than that we ought to love one another?

Jon Garvey - #32211

September 27th 2010

@Paul D. - #32196

OK Paul, you mean apart from the three instances I gave you above?

Firstly because in his teaching on the mount he takes rabbinic extrapolation of Mosaic Law and invariably makes the requirements even more stringent.
Secondly because he kept it, and challenged anyone to find him guilty of sin - in noticeable contrast to his non-keeping of the oral law, the traditions of men.
Thirdly in explaining his “sabbath-breaking” he not only makes the point that his reason is because he himself is the meaning of Sabbath, but points to the real purpose of Sabbath in the Law.
Fourthly because he quotes its authority in his dialogue with Satan.
Fifthly because his message is repentance and forgioveness from sin - which in Jewish terms can only mean disobedience to God’s law.
Sixthly because he endorsed the prophets whose core message was repentance and return to the Mosaic Covenant. That oincluded his endorsement of John the Baptist, whose death resulted from accusing Herod of breaking the Law.
Seventhly because his list of unclean acts in Matt 15 are all offences against Mosaic Law.
Eighthly because he tells his disciples to obey what the Pharisees teach from the Law, but not follow their example. (...)

Jon Garvey - #32215

September 27th 2010

Ninthly because he condemns those who cause little ones to sin.
Tenthly because he quotes the Mosaic standard of evidence for the Church (Matt 18.16)
Eleventhly because he cites Genesis and justifies Moses’ divorce provision in his teaching on marriage.
Twelthly because he tells the rich young ruler to keep the 10 commandments.
Thirteenth because he quotes Exodus as God’s words in teaching on the resurrection.
Fourteenth because he calls the Moasaic altar and the temple sacred.
Fifteenth because he himself observes the Jewish festivals.
Sixteenth because he says Jews should practise the important things in the law - justice, mercy, faithfulness - without neglecting the lesser.

Right, that’s Matthew - shall I go on?

Jon Garvey - #32218

September 27th 2010

Paul, my point was that the first passage I quoted challenges us to grapple with Jesus’ teaching, whereas without the Scripture, we can maintain a safe image of Jesus in our own image.

If you’re interested in my own understanding of the verse, Jesus is well aware that the function of Mosaic law was always more didactic than prescriptive - it showed what God took seriously rather than insisting on rigid execution. How does one enforce “Thou shalt not covet”? He’s also aware that his opponents had no right to capital punishment under the Romans at that time, so he wasn’t pushing for capital punishment (especially as the Pharisees, as the offenders, would be putting *themselves* to death!)

Yet he’s accusing them of not taking the Law seriously as God’s own word; specifically of dishonouring their parents in favour of gain. In effcet he said, “God told you this command is a life and death matter, and you’re treating it as optional.”

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