My Assumptions About the Bible, Part 2: Its Priorities May Differ From Mine

This is related to the conversation about genre, and also to Ben Witherington’s comments I quoted below.  Next in the list of assumptions:

2) Some things that seem important to me don’t matter to the Biblical writers

Actually, that Witherington post covered a lot of what I intended to say.  The point is this: even in the New Testament period, when there is an established discipline of history, the ancient standards are still very, very different from our modern ones.  Compare the temptation accounts in Luke and Matthew, and you’ll see pretty quickly that the chronology differs.  In Matthew it’s stones to bread, jump from the temple, bow down to Satan to receive the kingdoms of the world.  In Luke it’s bread, kingdoms, jump.  At least one of these is presented in an order that doesn’t represent the actual historical chronology.  It’s easy for a skeptic to point to this as an example of the Bible being “wrong,” but that’s a pretty silly critique.  More likely each writer has chosen to present the temptations in the order that best presents the themes of their book.  Matthew’s Jesus is the rightful king, who already is heir to all power and authority.  Notice that Matthew surrounds the temptation accounts with the exact same line, said once by John the Baptist, once by Jesus: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (3:2, 4:17).  Luke, on the other hand, is well-known for his strong sense of geographical movement.  In Luke’s presentation, the Temple (and, by extension, Jerusalem) has enormous symbolic significance.  Jesus is dedicated there as an infant, and at age 12, when his family was leaving Jerusalem after Passover, Jesus stayed behind in the Temple.  When an anxious Mary and Joseph found him, he said “Didn’t you know I had to be in my father’s house?” (2:49).  After that, Luke doesn’t show Jesus in Jerusalem again until he enters it for his crucifixion, a journey that he makes gradually but inexorably (see 9:51, 13:33, 17:11, 18:31, 19:11).  Because Jerusalem is the climax of Luke’s story, he makes it the climax of the temptations.  There are always people who want to say that either Matthew or Luke must have erred in their temptation account, but in reality, both did it the right way for their own purposes, and in keeping with the literary conventions of their own time.  As they say in marriage counseling, neither is wrong, they are just different.

So, if you think inspired history has to be meet modern standards of objective reportage to counter as scripture, the Bible is going to disappoint you over and over again.  Ditto if you feel the need to know what exact words were said on a given occasion.  Or even to whom they were said.  You just aren’t going to get that certainty in the Bible.  Different gospels are going to have somewhat different wording.  Sometimes two or three gospels will cover the same event with very different emphases.  Look at the healing of the centurion’s servant, for example.  To make this a bit easier, I’ll underline some parts that are unique in each account.

Matt 8:5-12

Luke 7:1-10

5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 6 “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.”

7 Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.”

8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

10 When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that very hour.

When Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” 6 So Jesus went with them.

He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

The first time I encountered these texts in my ministry training, my instructor went out of his way to point out that there wasn’t necessarily an historical discrepancy here, because there is a sense in which statements communicated through intermediaries could be honestly recorded as statements between the two principal parties.  His example (this was back in 1991) was that President Bush could send Secretary of State James Baker to deliver a message to Prime Minister John Major, and the newspaper headlines could honestly say “Bush Tells Major “We’re On Your Side!” although the two men hadn’t even been in the same continent, and those exact words weren’t said.

If you find that convincing, I won’t try to talk you out of it (well, not right now, anyway), but that didn’t work for me.  At the time, I thought it was pretty deeply troubling that the people who only had Matthew’s account would have a completely wrong mental image of what happened, and it seemed to me that if the Spirit was going to give fuller details to Luke’s reader, he certainly could have done that for Matthew’s.  Making things worse, the lines from Jesus in Matthew 8:11-12 don’t appear at all in Luke, nor does the information that the servant was healed “at that very hour,” which means that Luke’s account is also flawed!  Neither was meeting my standards for what I thought the Bible should be.

Only some years later did I try to read those texts in terms of what the original audiences needed, rather than what I thought I wanted.  Of course, we’ll never know for sure what was going on in Matthew and Luke’s heads when they wrote their gospels, but each of them were writing at a time when tensions between Jews and Gentiles were high.  Luke, a Gentile writing to Gentiles, probably thinks it is important to reinforce the point that God had chosen the Jewish people first, and the Gentiles were being brought into a grace relationship that already existed.  What better way to do that than to write about an incident where Jewish elders intercede with Jesus on behalf of a Roman soldier–one who “loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”  The soldier serves as a model of Gentile discipleship that is openly supportive of the Jewish people and their religious environment–exactly the kind of example that Luke wants his Gentile audience to follow.  And he wants them to see Jewish religious leaders who are quick to do what they can to bring blessing to a Roman.  That picture only helps them cultivate a healthier attitude toward Israel.

Matthew, on the other hand, is a Jew writing mainly to Jews.  And he could be concerned that if he writes this up the way Luke does, his Jewish readers are going to use this as evidence that Gentiles can’t approach God on their own–they have to either become Jews or use Jewish friends as intermediaries.  They might get the idea that the only Gentiles God will respond to are ones who are building synagogues and actively befriending Jewish elders.  That’s could easily spin into an ongoing sense of entitlement and superiority that Matthew doesn’t want to reinforce.  And so in his version, the centurion comes to Jesus on his own.  And Matthew is sure to include the parts where Jesus makes it clear that some faithful Gentiles will be dining with the patriarchs in the kingdom, and some of the Jewish people won’t.  It’s a matter of faithful response to God, not DNA.

Notice that “I have not found such great faith in Israel!” becomes a rebuke of Israel in Matthew’s story.  (“You Israelites ought to have this kind of faith, but none of you do!”  In Luke, though, it seems like Israel has set a very high standard for faith, but the centurion exceeded it.  “Wow!  Even in Israel no one has quite this much faith!”  It doesn’t seem like a rebuke of Israel at all.  In fact, it seems like Jesus implicitly compliments their faith by using it as the baseline for comparison.

Both authors are interested in history.  I don’t think either of them is making this story up.  But they don’t have accurate historical detail as the highest priority.  And in a situation where giving their audience the most complete possible historical truth could lead them into theological error and ungracious attitudes, it’s obvious to the gospel writers which is the better path.  Ultimately, they aren’t writing history so much as narrative theology with deep pastoral concern.  I might want straight history from them, but they want to form churches in the character and spirit of Jesus.  It could be that those seldom conflict, but when they do exacting historicity takes a back seat to kingdom concerns.

After a while it occurred to me that Matthew and Luke have a better idea what good scripture is than I do.  Part of my submission to the Bible is letting it be what it is, not insisting that it’s flawed if it isn’t what I wanted.

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