Scholars and joe-church members have wrestled with the organization of the Bible’s stories for millennia. Already in 160 A.D., Tatian had written the Diatessaron (meaning “Through Four, One”)–an attempt to harmonize the events of the four different Gospels into one long, chronological story. Prominent churchmen like Augustine and John Calvin have also tried their hand at gospel harmonization, seeking to understand the way the events of Jesus’s life fit together.
But that’s just the Gospels–let’s not even get started with the Old Testament! Things seem to be straightforward enough until the end of 2 Kings–where everything goes haywire. The Chronicles seem to flashback. Psalms are drawn together from authors across hundreds of years. The writing of different prophets are detached from their historical context. And who knows where the book of Job fits into the timeline?
Why four Gospels? Why isn’t the Bible just one long story from start to finish? Why are the books all out of order? Why? Why? Why?! we cry. Let’s all take a deep breath for a moment and ponder this: What if the best way to understand history is not necessarily to see it in perfect chronological order?
First, I’m going to prove that an absolutely chronological Bible is impossible. Afterwards, I want to show you why the Bible as we have it is actually better than the “Chronological Bible” we pine for.
The Bible narrates history.
All historical accounts are–at their core–narratives. You cannot do history without retelling. (I could get all corny on you and point out that you don’t have history without a story, but I wouldn’t do that to you.) Suffice it to say, the Bible does the exact same thing that any modern historical non-fiction does; it recounts events.
A historian’s job is to choose which events to recount. An author who is writing a book about Winston Churchill will naturally include events dealing with Churchill. He will not insert in the middle of his book the story of Oklahoma A&M winning the 1946 NCAA Basketball Championship, even though it happened during Churchill’s lifetime. Why? Because it has nothing to do with Churchill.
Every historian is an editor. He chooses which events–from the billions of events that occur every day–will be included in his historical account. For argument’s sake, let’s say an historian tried to recount every event that simultaneously occurred at 9:53AM on January 30, 2017, across the whole globe. He would find his task impossible. It is literally impossible for words on a page to recount simultaneous events at the same time. A historian can only recount one event at a time.
If I had a car accident at the exact same time that you won the lottery, a historian would find it impossible not to retell one of our stories first. As soon as he tells the story of my car accident first, he has told actual history out of chronological order.
The moment a historian chooses to tell a certain story, he chooses not to tell a million other stories that took place at that exact same moment in time. So we see that even if a strict chronological retelling of history was the design and purpose of God in the Bible, the constraints of language make it impossible.
Take a lesson from your T.V.
We pretend we like stories told chronologically, is that really true? Flip on your T.V., and you will be hard-pressed to find a single show that from start to finish is one long shot from a single camera. Instead, we find separate camera angles. Flashbacks. Flash-forwards. Repeated scenes. Overlaps. Even reality television is broken up with anachronistic interview portions and overlaid narration. These are not violations of storytelling. They are the very elements of telling a good story.
A month ago, my wife and I watched the Glenn Close series Damages. Each season begins with a flash-forward to some catastrophic event 6 months in the future. The season then begins episode by episode to march slowly toward that final climax, filling in the details and showing more and more glimpses of that final scene. By the season finale, we have gotten the whole story, but it came to us bit by bit and out of strict chronological order. The story actually makes more sense when retold this way!
(Note: I’m not sure if Damages was the first to do this, but many other series have followed suit including How to Get Away with Murder, Motive, etc.)
Good history writing highlights significance.
Divergence from strict chronology allows for better storytelling. It opens the door for creating suspense, foreshadowing, and a host of other literary devices. It’s what makes storytelling fun. More than that, it allows the historian to tell the story in a way that highlights the significance of the events.
We mentioned earlier that a historian is by nature an editor. Part of that editorial duty is to show his readers that the events he is retelling have specific significance.
Take the Winston Churchill illustration from above. Perhaps the author chooses only to piece together events that highlight Churchill’s leadership skills. Maybe another author puts together a volume to illustrate Churchill’s military prowess. These authors are not mis-telling history. They are telling history in a way that helps us to see the significance of the story.
As we approach Scripture, we have to realize that strict chronology is not the author’s main objective. The authors wants to retell God’s Big Story in a way that is engaging, illustrative, and truthful. A story told out of order is not false or unfortunate. In fact, a story told out of order can actually illuminate more truth. God’s Word has this primary objective: To illuminate the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).
We have a God who engages us in history. Let’s push past the misguided desire for Scripture to be one long string of bland events, names, and dates. Let’s allow the authors of Scripture to capture our attention not just with the content of their stories but also with the way they tell them–chronological or not.