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How to Read History in the Bible

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This is part of our series on genre in the Bible. You need to understand the different genres in the Bible if you want to hear what God has to say to us today. This post looks at history and how to read history in the Bible.

 

How to read history in the Bible

 

We tend to think of history as what happened, and of a historical record as the result of someone writing it down.

But it’s not as simple as that.

 

On the Strength of One (or Two?) Witnesses?

 

When the police interview people at the scene of an accident and ask them what they saw, they are likely to give somewhat different answers. It’s not that someone’s lying, or making something up. Different people notice and remember different things.

People are beginning to realize that different news outlets have different political leanings and often tell a story in a way that suits their goals/agenda. If you were not aware of this then you’d be quick to believe the story that they share—but as you’re aware of agendas/different opinions/politics/target audiences you’ll read news reports better.

 

Selecting What Serves the Writer’s Purpose

 

There’s a story in the Old Testament about Sennacherib, King of Assyria, attacking Jerusalem around the year 700 BC. According to this account, 185,000 Assyrians died one night in the Assyrian camp. The people of Jerusalem were spared as God sent his angel in answer to Hezekiah’s prayer for their deliverance. (2 Kings 19:35. You can read the whole story in 2 Kings, chapters 18 and 19.)

Sennacherib’s own account of his reign, carved on a clay prism, was discovered in Iraq. He records his attack on Hezekiah, but he doesn’t say anything about his army dying. Do you post an embarrassing incident on Facebook?

No historical record details every single thing that happened.

At the end of John’s Gospel, John writes that “there are many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). These were written, he says, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31).

A historian selects the things that serve his purpose, just like the news media do. Sennacherib didn’t want his spectacular defeat to be remembered. On the other hand, the biblical story declares the power of God to save his people when they trust him.

 

No historical record details every single thing that happened.

How to read history in the Bible, picture of old carving

 

Parallel Accounts

 

We have parallel accounts of the kings of Israel and Judah in the Old Testament books of Samuel and Kings on the one hand, and Chronicles on the other. Sometimes the two accounts are identical. But not always. Samuel and Kings were written when the Jews were in exile in Babylon, and were searching their hearts to understand what they had done to bring this about. Chronicles was written later after the Jews had returned from exile. The questions uppermost in their minds at that time were different. They were wondering about what had happened in the past and asking themselves how they should behave now.

So Chronicles makes no mention of an incident that figures prominently in 2 Samuel: David’s affair with Bathsheba and its consequences.

With the above in mind, reflect on the fact that we have no less than four accounts of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and resurrection. Do they seem to contradict each other in places? You bet. That in itself is evidence that the witnesses are telling the truth and that it really happened. If any one of those accounts had been made up, the writer would have been careful to make it agree with the others.

Do Historians Record Exact Words?

 

When a person was speaking, do you think that someone was there with an iPhone recording it all?

Of course not.

 

Thucydides

The secular historian, Thucydides, writing in the fifth century BC, makes this explicit. Acknowledging that he didn’t have the exact words, he explains in his preface that he wrote what he thought that person would be likely to have said on that occasion. And he wrote it as though these were the exact words.

 

The Sermon on the Mount

Think about the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-7. Are these Jesus’ exact words, verbatim? If they are, Jesus’ teaching on that occasion lasted about ten minutes.

One significant difference between Thucydides’ speakers and people’s speech in the Bible is that the biblical writers usually had direct access to people who were there, whose memory they could tap. And often there were a lot of witnesses who would have been quick to correct anything that was not accurate. So we don’t need to worry that the Gospel writers just made it up. Paul says as much about Jesus’ resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:6.

 

how to read history in the Bible

 

Is Biblical history in Chronological Order?

 

We in the twenty-first century expect a historical account to be in chronological order, but it hasn’t always been that way. In the New Testament the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple is placed by three of the Gospels in his last week in Jerusalem. But John places that story in chapter 2.

Luke is careful about chronological order and says as much in the introduction to his Gospel, where he explains that he is writing an “orderly” manner, that is, telling things in an orderly sequence. The very fact that he mentions this signals that this wasn’t everyone’s practice.

But John is not simply narrating what happened, he is teaching us to think theologically. Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple shows us who Jesus was, his authority, his conflict with the Jews in Jerusalem, how he quotes Scripture, how we as Christians are members of his body and points forward to his death and resurrection. He wants to put all these ideas into our minds as he writes about the other things that Jesus did.

John is not simply narrating what happened, he is teaching us to think theologically.

“History” isn’t simply a record of what happened. It’s a record of what a witness (or witnesses) reported. It’s often written to persuade the reader of a particular view of what happened.

No biblical writer is distorting the truth or making things up. But every biblical writer tells his story in a way that will lead us to greater faith. We need to understand this if we’re to read well.

“History” isn’t simply a record of what happened. It’s a record of what a witness (or witnesses) reported. It’s often written to persuade the reader of a particular view of what happened.

Does this worry you? Don’t forget that the Holy Spirit was active in the whole process, and, if we’re reading as Christians, he is active in our reading as well. The Bible will teach us not just what happened, but what it means. It’s alive!

Do you have questions? Leave them below!

How to read history in the Bible

 

© Scripture Union Canada, 2021

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