the Bible, history, and storytelling–(from The Bible Tells Me So)

the Bible, history, and storytelling–(from The Bible Tells Me So) September 1, 2014


Stories of the past differ because storytellers are human beings. No storyteller is all knowing about the past, but limited by his or her own time and place, and the fact that no human sees every angle of everything.

Stories also differ by what storytellers are consciously trying to “do” in their stories, what their take-away is. They are not objective observers and don’t pretend to be. They are artists bringing past and present together to leave the audience with something to ponder, to persuade—to inspire….

To do their thing, storytellers “shape” the past. They decide what to include, what order to put things in, how to compress or combine scenes to save time and get to the money shot, and so on. They also invent dialogue and scenes to knit the narrative together. They have to, since much of the past is inaccessible to storytellers—they themselves weren’t there to see and hear what happened.

And even if they were, the past is a fragile thing. It is never just “there” waiting for us to press replay. The past lies in our memories and the memories of others, dormant, in bits and pieces, waiting to be gathered together into a story to be told. Recalling the past is actually never simply a process of remembering but of creating a narrative out of discrete, imperfect memories (our own or those of others), woven together into a narrative thread that is deeply influenced by how we see ourselves and our world here and now.

All attempts to put the past into words are interpretations of the past, not “straight history.” There is no such thing. Anywhere.

Including the Bible.

The biblical storytellers recall the past, often the very distant past, not “objectively,” but purposefully. They had skin in the game. These were their stories. They wove narratives of the past to give meaning to their present—to persuade, motivate, and inspire.

To make that happen, like all storytellers, biblical storytellers invented and augmented dialogue, characters, and scenes to turn past moments into a flowing story—not because they were lazy or irreverent, but because that’s what all storytellers need to do to create a narrative. They shifted and arranged the past, or wove together discreet moments, all for the purpose of telling their story for their audience.

The Bible itself gives 100 percent proof that the biblical writers were doing just that: they present the same past events from different perspectives. And by different, I mean very different—big scenes, important details, and dialogue differ among writers.

The story of Jesus, the center of the Christian faith, is told from four different perspectives in the four Gospels. In the Old Testament we have two lengthy, very different, takes on Israel’s past. At times these stories of Jesus and Israel contradict each other. They can’t be combined somehow to make one story without losing large portions of any one of these stories. Each Gospel is meant to stand on its own—as their storytellers intended them to.

What could be more normal than for different people, living at different times, in different places, who wrote about the past for different reasons, to produce different versions on the past? Nothing. And that’s what we see in the Bible.

The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, pp. 75-76

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  • Stephen W

    Sounds cool. I really ought to think about perhaps maybe buying that…

    • peteenns

      Why stop with one?

      • Stephen W

        Or I could just borrow it :p

        • John

          I think my library has a bootleg facsimile of a mechanical duplication of the book’s original first draft. I can use textual criticism to reconstruct the missing portions. Then I will have the original autograph, which is inerrant. QED.

          • peteenns

            What a relief.

  • One of the reasons I like the (non-canonical) Life of Adam and Eve so much is the detailed way Adam and Eve recall their own experiences in the Garden of Eden. Like any storytellers (as you vividly point out), their accounts of their exile differ, even though they went through it together.


    • peteenns

      Good point, Joel. Thanks!

  • Mark K

    Yes, yes, yes! When is my pre-ordered copy going to get here? Have you sent it yet?

    Seriously, though, a couple of weeks to delivery. Ima try not to read the whole thing in one sitting.

  • Just Sayin’

    I hope you’ve written at least half the sequel by now!

    • peteenns

      In my mind. Many pleasant things happen there.

  • Dwight Gingrich

    This is engagingly written, and undoubtedly reflects something of some undeniable factual details. Yet.. why is it that I simply cannot imagine Jesus describing the Bible anything close to the “big-picture takeaway” that is provided here?

    (And if the tension is really that great between the picture of Jesus provided by the Bible and the way I am taught to understand the Bible here, how can I be sure I am getting anywhere close to the real Jesus rather than to one conjured by either the imagination of the evangelists or the imagination of modern scholars?)

    • peteenns

      Dwight, you’ve left severals comment here and there indicating that Jesus’s view of the Bible is similar to your own, without the aid of bumbling scholars. What brought me to see the complexities of all this was looking at Jesus’s USE of the OT, not simply some statements taken as prooftexts that attract inerrantists. Same with Paul. They were both steeped in a complex Jewish hermeneutical matrix where (1) Scripture was revered, and (2) THEREFORE it was handled creatively and quite often against the grain of what the OT writers were saying. No biblical scholar, including a good number of inerrantists, would find fault with that description.

      • Dwight Gingrich

        Thank you for your response, Peter Enns. I do not mean to disrespect you by raising these questions. I understand you are interested in engaging with others on these questions, so I am being forthright with what still appear to me to be weaknesses in your position. Thanks for your patience.

        I share your fascination with Jesus’ use of the OT. I read C.H. Dodd’s According to the Scriptures a number of years ago. That fanned my already smoldering interest in the topic. I next read R.T. France’s Jesus and the Old Testament, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Since then I’ve read other authors on the topic, including Longenecker, Beale, and some Hays. And I’ve done some limited study on my own as well, and read from various bibliobloggers such as you on the topic. I mention all that not to present myself as an expert but to clarify that my statements don’t arise from complete ignorance of the scholarly debates or from skepticism about the value of scholarly investigation.

        Based on my readings, I am not convinced that it is accurate to say that the Jesus and the NT authors handled the OT “quite often against the grain of what the OT writers were saying.” (To be clear: You stated that about the Jewish hermeneutical context of Jesus’ day, and I agree there; but I also understand you are indicating that Jesus and Paul handled Scripture in an equivalent “against the grain” manner.) There is no doubt that Jesus and NT authors sometimes use OT texts in ways that the OT authors would never have imagined, but I see continuity and creative development rather than anything “against the grain.” And I am certain that, contrary to your assertion, a good number of knowledgeable biblical scholars would affirm my perspective. (The big commentary volume edited by Beale and Carson, though I suspect you have mixed feelings about it, is substantial evidence for my claim.)

        And we are still left with the evidence that I’ve been mentioning all along–the reported explicit statements by Jesus about the trustworthiness of Scripture, along with his evident trust in its historicity. That evidence still needs to be dealt with, even if one does not agree with my take on how Jesus and the apostles *used* Scripture. If the evidence provided by the evangelists about the latter (Jesus’ use of Scripture) is solid enough to use in the courtroom of biblical scholarship, then so is the evidence they provide about Jesus’ explicit statements about Scripture and his evident assumptions about its historicity.

        Thanks for listening.

    • Daniel Fisher

      Dwight, if a useful perspective, I (as a devout “inerrantist”) agree most firmly with about 95% of what Pete describes here – almost everything he describes here was also taught unapologetically by the professors at my seminary (Reformed Theolgocial – certainly an inerrancy-affirming institution). I would go so far as to say that much of it is even self-evident.

      Specifically, I think it self-evident and incontrovertible that all pre-modern histories — Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War no less than the Bible — MUST be selective with choice of material, choice of arrangement, compression of material, paraphrase or summary of words and dialogue, written from particular angles or perspectives, and written with an agenda. The fact that Jesus’ words are recorded in Greek should be evidence enough that don’t have the “exact” words Jesus said. Further, both Luke and John make explicit statements to the effect that they were intentionally selective with what material they chose, and for specific agendas (in these cases, that their reader(s) would know the certainty of what they were taught or that they might believe that Jesus is the Christ, respectively).

      Point is that none of these factors need affect the veracity or truthfulness of the account – they can be selective and subjective, and still absolutely true – which is why they are in no way troublesome to those who believe in inerrancy. And, to the point, I see no way that any of these aforementioned factors should undermine Jesus’ view of Scripture as being absolutely true and authoritative.

      Where I would respectfully disagree with Peter here is the idea that all storytellers “invent” dialogue, characters and scenes… and not just with the Bible… I have no issue agreeing that Thucydides selectively recorded, summarized, arranged, or compressed events, or that he paraphrased, summarized, or just “gave the gist” of dialogues… but he did this with actual dialogues, characters, and scenes that really did exist or that really happened. “inventing” these things crosses the line from fact, truth and history (however subjective) into plain fiction. I could be wrong (any historians know better than I recall?), but I think you’d be hard pressed to find many historians that think that any particular dialogue, character, or event in “History of the Peloponnesian War” was simply “invented” by Thucydides from scratch because it allowed him to shape his history as he so desired. Someone on the witness stand that accurately “gave the gist” of a conversatin would still be speaking the truth. Someone that “invented” a dialogue, however….

      Additionally, of course, I would respectfully disagree with Peter that the Bible’s divergent accounts of the same events are ever contradictory. But beyond those disagreements, I think it vital to realize that everything else he notes here about histories, including biblical histories, is simply irrefutable and ought to be understood and embraced – these pre-modern histories are going to be paraphrasing, translating, or otherwise summarizing dialogues; events will be compressed, topically arranged, or summarized; and all this will be done according to the subjective agenda of the author. This need not affect the truth of the final product, or, in the Bible’s case, undermine its absolute authority. For instance, I recognize that John recorded Jesus’ dialogues in Greek and explicitly acknwledged that he subjectively selected his material from all available data in order to shape his account to further his evangelistic agenda – but this does not require any of it to be less than true.

      • Dwight Gingrich

        Thanks, Daniel, for this reply. I think I agree with everything you said–I often find myself in agreement with your comments–and I’m familiar with most of the points you made. (I haven’t read Thucydides!)

        Your reply helps me see that I may have been over-reacting somewhat to Enns’ post. (Sorry, Peter.) I think I would have “heard” most of the post differently if I knew it was written by someone besides an active anti-inerrantist, to coin a cumbersome term. As you say, 95% of it could be said by someone at RTS.

        That said, your comment still gives a distinctly different picture than the one I get as I read Enns’ blog articles. And the “5% sentence” near the end of Enns’ book excerpt tips his hand as to what he means by the other 95% of his words: “At times these stories of Jesus and Israel contradict each other. They can’t be combined somehow to make one story without losing large portions of any one of these stories.” That is the point that he seems to be wanting to prepare his readers to affirm, the point he is building towards. And that is the point that I, as you, find myself unable to affirm. He is not just talking about discrepancies and contradictions in details; rather, he speaks of “large portions” that are at odds.

        I am very happy to accept that the evangelists translated Jesus’ speech into another language and even paraphrased it and reordered it to make a coherent whole that accurately summarized the substance of Jesus ministry and message. But I can’t imagine Jesus saying that “large portions” of Scripture contradict each other, nor do I find them to do so in my own reading. Should it not make us pause if our understanding of Scripture is that radically different from Jesus’ understanding?

        Thanks for listening. I’m not looking for a long discussion–I have no time for that right now. But I find myself wanting to respond now and then after reading enough blog posts in a row that seem, to me, to be failing to address important pieces of the hermeneutical puzzle.

        Grace and peace to all,

        • Derek

          Thanks for your insightful contributions Dwight.

          • Dwight Gingrich

            Thank you for your kind words, Derek.

  • Can’t wait to read it!!

  • Bill Norton

    As a layman trying to understand your work, I suggest your second sentence in your opening paragraph belies the intentions of your first eight paragraphs. The way these eight paragraphs are written, they appear to place you, author, as the all-knowing storyteller, something you say impossible. But by making one declaration after another, these sentences imply the author is all knowing.

    These paragraphs may be what you think personally to be true, they may be what you suppose or presuppose, but they are presented as fact, as if these sentences contain facts that you know to be facts. But you can’t know. This is no discredit to you; you simply were not around to witness these stories being written or to interview the authors, editors or redactors to record their slant? What evidence — that is not conjecture — do you have that storytellers worked in the manner you describe? How can you know what ancient storytellers did or what motives they had?

    Unfortunately, your editor(s) did you no favors by allowing such writing in your book. For me, when my pre-ordered copy arrives, I’ll be inclined to be more skeptical than usual just based on what I’ve seen.

    • peteenns

      Bill, this is only an excerpt, and it is preceded by several pages talking about the nature of storytelling (I use the example of Jackie Robinson as told from two different perspectives.) I’m sorry you feel I am presenting myself as all-knowing…but I’m not.

      • Bill Norton

        Thanks for the reply.

        With a little better editing by your publisher, a few words added or deleted, a slight rearrangement of sentences, this glitch could be avoided easily.

        And I don’t begin to suppose that you’re all-knowing. And I don’t thinks that what you intended to say.

        Looking forward to the new book. I’ve read EOA twice, once with the help of rjs4. Now tackling I and I. I know, cart before the horse but I was writing about the historicity of Adam, so I grabbed that one first. Now playing catchup.

        Good luck with book sales. If you tour, will you be coming through Kansas City?

  • James

    I like this description of storytelling that helps clarify the nature of biblical story. It is reminiscent of the intellectual/spiritual journey of C.S. Lewis where finally he is able to see, with the help of his Inklings, that the biblical accounts of Jesus become (uniquely) true myth, or story, we can fully trust.