My Anxiety With Chronological Bibles

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.

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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6 Responses to My Anxiety With Chronological Bibles

  1. Good observations. I think even the canonical order provides a helpful interpretive grid for understanding the Scriptures and this also gets lost in chronological Bibles.

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  2. This was very good for me to read. I like reading the whole Bible in chronological format, but not individual books or passages. This is very educational. What bothers me is it seems that those who formed the canon went by the size of the book of the gospels and then each author. Do those people have anything to say about that?

    BTW periscope (and also pericopae I believe) should be pericope.

    Thanks for this post.
    Jeff

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    • Louis says:

      You’re welcome and thanks for your comment Jeff. You’re right about the canonical arrangement. There is something to be said for that as well. It does make a difference (compare the LXX arrangement to the Hebrew arrangement). You’re right on the first typo. I double checked the second and that’s the way it’s in the book so I’m thinking it is right. Good eye!

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      • As for the typo, I had a feeling the second one might be right, even though my spell checker didn’t like it. Them forners spell things differnt. I know we in the US spell it pericope, although scholars/commentary writers are the only ones to actually use it! Why they can’t just say ‘passage’, I don’t know.

        I should have said I’ve always wondered why they went from larger to smaller, not that it really bothers me. Also with the major and minor prophets and maybe history too. I will look at the LXX order which I’ve never really done before. Thanks.
        Jeff

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    • Chuck Wiese says:

      Jeff:

      They didn’t really go by the size when determining the canonical order of the Gospels. It’s often said that Matthew is the longest because it has more chapters but Luke actually has the most words. Mark is the shortest. I think there are deeper theological reasons for the ordering as each book provides an interpretive grid for the next. Mark, Luke, and John often say something about an individual without providing any real explanation. They seem to assume that you are already familiar with Matthew. Although most scholars today would teach that Mark was the first Gospel written, I think it’s actually more likely that it was second or third based upon who it mentions and what it assumes.

      Different communities structured their canons somewhat differently based upon how they believed the Scriptures should be interpreted but the ordering we have today I think is the best way to read them in the orthodox Apostolic tradition.

      James, the Epistle of Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Revelation and Hebrews were not universally accepted by the church and back then just as today people use those books as their primary lens through which to read the rest of Scripture and come to some pretty bizarre conclusions. The canonical order puts these towards the end. During the liturgy there was a reading from an Epistle and a Gospel text and the sermon was usually on the Gospel lesson. The Epistles themselves were originally read as a whole as the sermon for the day and then worked their way into the canon.

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