For several years now I’ve noticed an increased interest (and sales) in chronological Bibles. These are Bibles which rearrange the canonical material into a chronological format—that is, in the order of the events as they occurred. I understand why people like this. They want to gain a perspective of the relationship of events. They want to know if X occurred before or after Y. For a couple of reasons though I’ve never quite warmed up to the idea.
First, the rearrangement of the material is much more subjective than most readers realize. The Chronological Study Bible is one of the more helpful chronological Bibles since it offers notes which alert the reader that a particular book/passage could go in another place. For example, in the notes on Job it says “many scholars have set the book in Abraham’s time during the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1500 B.C.).” (901) This is precisely where The Reese Chronological Bible places it (just after Genesis 11) while the Chronological Study Bible opted to place the book “in the context of Israel’s wisdom tradition.” (901) But even the Chronological Study Bible offers no notes on the resurrection accounts which are notoriously difficult to harmonize. (A good work on this is Easter Enigma by John Wenham.) Imagine how the reader might approach the chronological arrangement of the resurrection accounts as set forth in the Chronological Study Bible if a note were included like this from the very conservative Henry Alford: “Of all harmonies, those of the incidents of these chapters are to me the most unsatisfactory … they seem to me to weaken instead of strengthen the evidence … I have abandoned all idea of harmonizing throughout.” (As quoted in Easter Enigma, 9. All my page references are to the original Zondervan edition.) The reader would be alerted that any harmonization of these accounts is very difficult but not impossible as Wenham himself admits: “It now seems to me that these resurrection stories exhibit in a remarkable way the well-known characteristics of accurate and independent reporting, for superficially they show great disharmony, but on close examination the details gradually fall into place.” (Easter Enigma, 10)
Second, a chronological arrangement destroys the theological message the author was attempting by his particular placement of the events. Speaking in another context I think these words by D.A. Carson are appropriate here:
“Observe the distinctive emphases bound up with vocabulary choices, themes and development of the plotline. It is the tracing out of the plotline in each book that will spare the preacher from making ghastly mistakes generated by focusing so narrowly on the text at hand that he cannot see its place in the flow. For example, it is well know that Luke describes Jesus resolutely setting out for Jerusalem and the cross from 9:51 on: the so-called Lucan travel narratives shapes how one ought to read the account all the way to chapter 19. Luke regularly groups blocks of material in various topical ways, but the marker in 9:51 warns us that in Luke’s mind the trajectory towards the cross carries huge significance. Among other things, that means that any interpreter should be asking what each periscope contributes to the journey to Jerusalem, and, conversely, what Jesus’ commitment to take the road to Jerusalem says about the meaning of each pericope. Read the parable of the good Samaritan (10:25-37) in splendid isolation, and you may be tempted to imagine that Jesus is teaching that the manner in which we inherit eternal life in line with the achievement of obedience envisaged by the lawyer—loving God with heart and soul and strength and min, and one’s neighbor as oneself—is precisely by behaving like the Samaritan. If things are as cut and dried as that, why is Jesus resolutely heading for the cross? How does the parable of the Good Samaritan tie itself to the pericopae that immediately precede and succeed it? That Jesus demands such behavior is clear (‘Go and do likewise’, 10:37); yet the way it is configured in the flow of the narrative demands a more sensitive reading than that suggested by merit theology.” (“Preaching the Gospels,” in Preaching the New Testament, 23-24)
Carson’s point is that Luke has a particular theological reason for the arrangement of his material. To the extent that we rearrange Luke’s material we lose the broader theological message that Luke is attempting to give us. Carson’s observations show one of the weaknesses in much of contemporary “exegetical” preaching. There is so much focus on “verse-by-verse” preaching that we are not aware of the way passages relate to each other in the flow of a book. This unawareness then produces no caution when passages are simply rearranged in order to see their chronological relationship. I’ve had customers tell me that they didn’t understand why the Bible wasn’t originally written in a chronological format. Some have gone so far as to tell me they would probably stick with reading a chronological format rather than going back to the canonical arrangement. This pains me to hear.
Chronological Bibles have a place but I fear they are training their readers to focus too narrowly on the chronology of events at the expense of losing sight of important theological messages which lay behind the original arrangement of the authors.