November 29, 2020

Biblical Narrative and History

By Chaplain Mike

One of my primary New Testament professors in seminary was Grant R. Osborne. I loved his infectious enthusiasm and approach to teaching, especially with regard to Greek. He believed that seminaries should be training pastors, and so our projects and examinations were always exercises in taking a passage in the original language and working on it until we could produce a finished product in the form of a sermon outline or Bible study.

He was also another key voice in my life emphasizing the importance of hermeneutics—the art and science of how we study the Bible—particularly the four Gospels. With his studies on the Gospels, he complemented my OT teachers, who were opening new vistas for me in learning to read and appreciate the message of Biblical narratives.

Grant has written a commentary on Matthew in a new series from Zondervan that I am eagerly looking forward to digesting. The series is called The Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Starting next week, I will be blogging on Matthew and using his commentary as my main resource.

Today, I was intrigued by a quote I read in the commentary’s introduction. Osborne writes: “Biblical narratives contain both narrative and historical elements. As narrative, they exemplify real/implied author and reader, point of view, story time, plot, characterization, and dialogue. As history, they attempt to trace what actually happened.”

Then, he quotes a definition to help us “get” the character of Biblical narratives:

“Narrative history” involves an attempt to express through language . . . the meaning . . . that is, a particular understanding/explanation . . . of the relationship of a related sequence of actual events from the past . . . and to convince others through various means, including the theological force and aesthetic appeal of the rendering . . . that the sequence under review has meaning and that this meaning has been rightly perceived.

• From Provan, Long, Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel, p. 84

So then, Osborne is saying, biblical narrative (and I would argue all narrative forms of communication) involve a complex interplay of factual information and authorial or editorial interpretation. They are both history and theology (interpretation). Furthermore, they are a reflection, not only on historical events, but also on the theological movements and perspectives that shaped the world they are writing about.

The Biblical authors were writing “history” in the sense that they believed they were portraying events and ideas that were actually realized in this world. Fiction writers, on the other hand, create an imaginary world that may or may not reflect reality on the ground, and then fill that world with characters and events. Through dramatic development they seek to speak “truth” in more indirect ways. By stepping outside this world, they hope to shine a light on this world. Narratives in the Bible, however, interpret events that the authors believe took place in this world of space-time history. Nevertheless, they still write about them in creative, interpretive ways that bring out what they consider to be the significance and meaning of those events.

In a nutshell, I would call it history presented in an interpretive framework.

Your response?


  1. I have been contact with an old family friend thru facebook. She has a certain ‘nostalgic’ view of our past & how our 2 families interacted. I wrote at some point in the exchange:

    Memories can be tricky. Your recollections of how our families interacted in the positive sense is something you can tell I try to bring some balance to. As I get older I realize I should neither canonize nor demonize my memories in such a way that either exaggerates or detracts how they impact me in the present. I do wish to live in truth & sometimes that truth is not the gilded version we like to point out. On the other hand, some of the more challenging/painful things have lost their sting/hurt as much of those issues I have dealt with in a healthy fashion…

    I cannot with certainty claim my memories are a factual record of what actually happened. But I do know how that event impacted me is how I now interpret its significance.

    None of Holy Writ I believe simply a sterile record of facts & incidents written in a vacuum. Its human authors recording for the first time were writing as a human to humans with the intent to communicate clearly what it was they were writing. Having this written record passed down to us is one of the aspects of faith we live with. I must ‘trust’ the source of texts & the intent of interpretation. I have to rely on previous generations of faithful people to preserve these writings as a holy effort for future generations. Today we argue jit+tottle, version, methodology, credentials, gender usage, inflection, etc. All scholarly elements way beyond my scope. But thank God I have the options today to learn more about the approach & process.

  2. Dan Allison says

    We do great damage to the text when we chop it into fragments like the “verse of the day” or the notorious “proof-text” — the minimum length for a reading should be at least a chapter, usually giving us at least one episode in the longer, overall narrative. Max McLean’s one-man performance of the Gospel of Mark (it’s on YopuTube) is a great place to begin introducing people to the concept of “narrative voice” — the idea that we are listening to a narrator who is telling us a story. By putting the historical events into story form — that is, by using the creative tools of the fiction writer for the purpose of conveying truth — the writers are able to reach us at the heart-level as well as the head-level. That’s what art is supposed to do, and that’s what scripture is supposed to do. Our reading teachers have destroyed narrative voice by teaching us to speed-read and “look for the main idea” in the text. PowerPoint has had the same negative effect on Sunday mornings. Imagine reading “Huck Finn” or “Catcher in the Rye” without hearing in your head the voices of Huck and Holden! When — and if — we learn how to read narratives “as narratives” again, we will be better Christians and the church will be a better church.

  3. Have to agree, if I understand what you’re saying (I think I do). Even Carson has said the gospel writers were all perspectivalists. Hence, the Gospel ACCORDING TO Matt, Mark, Luke and John. What’s so awesome about that? Gospel is singular. So same gospel, different perspectives on it. That, in and of itself, says boatloads about what sort of history we can expect in the hist. narratives, as well as what the authors were trying to do. It helps explain why our cannon has multiple gospels that are all really about the same gospel.

    • It’s a little more than different perspective. Each Gospel author was free to creatively shape the story to communicate his message. This concept is a bit scary to those who see the Gospels and other Biblical narratives as journalistic reporting. Garrett, you and I have talked about this with regard to Genesis, where the creation story is shaped by theological and pastoral concerns.

      • I think if you understand the line of reasoning, it’s easy to see why this approach is threatening.

        First comes the doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration in which it is stated that every word in the Bible is placed there directly by God Himself through the agency of humans. Next comes the derivative belief that there are no contradictions or discrepancies in the Bible from one narrative to another and great effort is made to resolve any apparent difficulties. Why? Because if it can be shown that there are contradictions or discrepancies, it would prove that God contradicts Himself which cannot be or else that the Bible is not inspired and (as secular critics would assert) is unreliable. This culminates in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

        Inhabitants of such an all-or-nothing world would find any ambiguity threatening and as a result their faith is often very strong like a glass brick, but also very brittle – difficult to break, but when it happens it’s catastrophic.

        One of the things I like to do in my Sunday School class is have my college age students imagine themselves back in the scene we are discussing and have them visualize what things actually looked like. In looking at this post: I would ask, “What would it look like to see Uzza touching the ark?” and to us it would probably appear that he had a heart attack and was explained after the fact as a smiting of God. Same for Gehazi. I don’t think it was a case of Poof! Now he is covered in leprosy. It was a case of a gradual creeping persistent dermatitis. Probably the same for Onan who died inexplicably and it was attributed to his unwillingness to fulfill his duty to Tamar (and how do we have this information but from Tamar herself?). Ananias and Sapphira are a lot more explicit, but then there were a LOT of explicit things going on in the NT during those years.

        Suffice to say, a lot of what was going on in the Bible probably LOOKED ordinary and had “perfectly natural explanations” to the unbelieving and skeptical. However, over time as the narrative grows, explanations were forthcoming. Nor has it changed in today’s day and age as 9/11 and Katrina are attributed to America’s abortions or tolerance of GLBTs. The difference is that today’s prophets aren’t necessarily inspired. On the other hand, there were probably just as many scoffers in Jeremiah’s and Ezekiel’s day when they attributed the Babylonian invasions and captivity to Israel’s history of disobedience to God and not Middle East politics as usual.

  4. Better yet, a CANON (never went to the seminary 🙂

  5. “They are both history and theology (interpretation).”

    Yes, I can agree with that, Chaplain Mike. Sometimes I stop and think about the fact that there was a specific day and a time that a person fist sat down and wrote the first words of one of the Gospel narratives. The book did not fall from the sky. Someone sat down and started writing. I begin to wonder how much assistance he (or they…or maybe SHE?) had in doing the writing. Did Jesus’ mother give some of the details that made their way into the Gospel narratives? It would seem that she would have had to, or the writer would have had to use total creative imagination in some sections. (Or, we may say that the Holy Spirit inspired the narratives and even the details but I think we can push that too far.) What sections (if any) were written by the actual apostles who walked with Jesus and what parts were written by their disciples? And, just because one story (about the adulteress that Jesus prevented from being stoned) was not in the oldest copies of the book that we have does not mean the incident did not happen. Perhaps the story was in an OLDER book we have not yet found. Or, perhaps a scribe left it out intentionally and then it found its way back in later copies. I know if I did more study on this I would have more info and someday I will. But I am in the middle of four books now and there is only so much time in a day.

    I look forward to your blogging on the Gospel according to Matthew, Chaplain Mike.

    • “The book did not fall from the sky… Did Jesus’ mother give some of the details that made their way into the Gospel narratives?”

      Yep. I think so. Luke says, early in his gospel, that “since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus…”

      I think Luke went around interviewing people. It’s not known that he was an early disciple or an eye-witness, but his “careful investigation” and “orderly account” would not only have pleased the Holy Spirit, but this is the stuff that historical narratives are made of.

      I have no doubt that he interviewed Mary, and that she probably sang for him the Magnificat, and told him other secrets—such as her argument with Gabriel, her time with Elizabeth, the baby leaping in the womb, the events of Jesus’ birth, the time in the Temple with Simeon and Anna, losing Jesus at age 12 and discovering him in the Temple, etc. Somebody had to tell these stories to Luke, and I think it was Mary.

      • I fully agree. Luke was a great investigative reporter.

      • We quite happily accept this in secular history (nobody imagines that Heterodotus intended to write a history as a modern-day historian would) but we seem to feel awfully threatened by it when applying it to the Bible.

        And even modern-day historians have certain biases and interpretations colouring their work; the idea of the impartial historian compiling a completely accurate list of factual events with no selection, prejudice, preconceptions or omissions is yet another 19th century idea that has gone with the wind.

        When the compliers of the Scriptures were putting them together, they were concerned with Truth, but not in a “Can we get the exact dates so-and-so was King of Babylon? How exactly did Ashurbanipal spell his name and do you realise it isn’t transliterated exactly from the Akkadian?” fashion.

      • I think Richard Bauckham’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, sets forth a strong case for the use of eyewitness testimony by all the Gospel writers.

        “Orderly account” in English may communicate something, however, that Luke didn’t intend in Greek, for Luke did not follow strict chronology or avoid crafting his stories in communicating his message. For example, the Christmas stories in Luke’s early chapters that we so love at this time of year are clearly written using forms and language from OT patriarchal narratives, Judges, and Samuel. Note also my post on Luke 2, which describes how Luke used and highlighted language from the Caesar cults as well as OT background to tell the Gospel of Jesus’ birth.

        • Happy New Year, Mike.

          We discussed a week or so ago the criteria for canonization of scripture, and apostolic authority was among them. Luke is unique among the authors of the NT because he is (probably) the only gentile author, and although it’s not known for sure whether he met Jesus or not, it is certainly possible that he was an eye-witness, as in 2Peter1:16. Bauckham may make a good case for this, and I’d love to defer to him.

          Paul qualifies as an apostle because he saw and followed the risen Christ, not because he was a follower during Jesus’ lifetime. And the author of the book of Hebrews isn’t even known, but because of the content of the work and the commitment of the author there comes a time when one has to say, “OK, this is really from the Lord” and not worry about the details of authorship. And so, whether Luke can be classed as “apostle” or not, with eye-witness testimony, is almost beside the point. The Holy Spirit led him to research and write the gospel, and led Theophilus to fund him, and led others to recognize the truth of the work and include Luke in the canon.

          Thanks for everything. Internetmonk has been an important part of my life for the past couple of years. God bless you and the whole monastery in 2011.

          • I’d have to check more carefully, Steve, but I’m thinking that approval of Luke was helped by his association with Paul (see the “we” passages in Acts), just as Mark was helped by the tradition that he wrote down Peter’s gospel.

      • I think so, too, Ted. And I have always liked Luke writing, “Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.” It brings a sense of the personal into the story. It makes it more “real” to me. It makes me again wish I could have a peek back into time and listen to Mary talk about the birth and childhood of Jesus! Thank God for Luke and for the other writers that have carried the Good News down to us through the ages.

  6. you might want to check out jeffrey gibbs matthew commentary from concordia –
    he is the best matthew scholar in the lcms and he studied under jack dean kingsbury.

  7. Beelzebub's Grandson says

    Sounds like a lot of fancy talk aimed at finessing the question of how much of these texts is true.

    • “True” is not the question. I firmly hold that they are true. The question is whether “truth” can be communicated in other ways besides literalistic, journalistic reporting.

      • Beelzebub's Grandson says

        Quoth the New York Sun to Virginia.

        • BG, a lot of debunkers seem to imagine it’s a crushing blow to announce “You do realise that the fruit in the Garden of Eden wasn’t an apple?” as though I would keel over and get sense from the discovery that the popular notion of Eve and the apple is down to a scholarly pun (‘apple’ in Latin being “mālum” and ‘evil’ being “malum”).

          What? You mean it wasn’t a real actual Granny Smith or Golden Delicious? The scales have fallen from my eyes and I see now that belief in deities of any kind is all foolishness!

          Honestly, I can live with a degree of ambiguity in religion; mystery does not mean “obfuscation”, it means “beyond our ability to comprehend how such a thing may be” (and try imagining an infinite universe, i.e. one with no limits or borders but that simply goes on and on forever, if you want a mystery in science).

          • The scales have fallen from my eyes and I see now that belief in deities of any kind is all foolishness!

            FINALLY……. 🙂

    • Dan Allison says

      If four people tell a true story, they will tell it four different ways. In literary study we call that “style.” Take a song by someone like the Beatles and listen to the way other artists cover it. Same song, different style. Why would anyone think that a story’s not true simply because I tell it in my own way?

      • Beelzebub's Grandson says

        Well, because it affirms things that are impossible. Four crooks can agree on a lie (with three of them collaborating a bit more than the fourth).

        • Faulty reasoning. One cannot prove something is impossible, anymore than one can prove that God does not exist. Edison had tried thousands of times to prove the electric light bulb possible, and failed each time before one successful attempt changed history. We could look at, say, the first 500 attempts, and say, “Electric light bulbs are impossible.”, but history tells us a different story, when we look at it as a whole, complete narrative. There may be a lack of physical evidence for bigfoot and the abominable snowman and even the flying spaghetti monster, but we can’t prove they don’t exist, can we? Richard Dawkins tried over and over to counter CS Lewis’ “proofs” with his own “disproofs”, and it just doesn’t hold water.

          Two hundred years ago, who would have thought that television, space flight, the internet, jumbo jets, or a microwave oven were possible? The “impossible” is proved to be possible time and time again.

          You’re right…four crooks can agree on a lie. But would all four die for that lie? How many times did the first generation of Christians hear the words, “Deny Christ, and live”, and choose death? You should read “The Church History” by Eusebius, so you can see exactly who these men and women were, in name and in character. Scripture is truth because of the testimony of the prophets, Christ himself, and His followers.

          Now, a question…Do you have some secret knowledge that disproves Scripture? If so, please enlighten us all. Just because you don’t like the story, doesn’t necessariy mean it’s not true…

          2 Peter 1:16…”We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

        • That’s true, but I’ve seen this hammer used to crack the nut both ways: the four Gospels are too divergent, so they can’t be true! The Gospels agree too closely, so they can’t be true but must just be copying some lost original, which of course is false!

          (It’s false because there are no such thing as stones falling from the sky ghosts miracles so obviously anything talking about miracles is false).

        • “When [Paul’s] accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive. I was at a loss how to investigate such matters…”
          Porcius Festus, as quoted by Luke in Acts 25:18-20

          The Roman procurator of Paul’s era could neither prove NOR disprove Jesus’ resurrection. Luke was unafraid to note this in his book defending the Christian faith.

  8. Are you limiting this just to the NT (Gospels), or to OT narratives as well?

  9. I’m a firm advocate of inerrancy and yet I find nothing threatening about the idea of history presented through an interpretive framework—I think this is a very sensible description of the Biblical stories. Many evangelicals emphasize the idea of teaching history, science, etc through a “Christian worldview” and this amounts to the same thing—-selection of what’s important and making the connections between those events and cause/effect that might otherwise be missed from someone not seeing the big picture. Certainly in the gospels and in the OT historical books, there is a selectivity in what is recorded and the ordering of events is sometimes non-chronological so that some particular idea can be completed by showing the whole history—then the narrative goes back in time to pick up on some new thought.

    The only caveat with this approach is that one not confuse having an interpretive framework with what in politics is called “spin”. The Biblical authors give us authoritative and absolutely true interpretations of actual events—they’re not making up stories, trying to make one thing “seem” like something else in order to make their favorite politician look good, etc. Along with that idea is that I don’t think that they misinterpreted natural events—it’s a modern myth to think that the ancients were stupid and superstitious and we’re all rational today. When the Biblical authors describe events and interpret them as God’s work, I think they’re giving us an absolutely true interpretation of those events.

    My main point however is not the “caveat” but rather to say that the idea that Biblical narrative is a combination of raw facts and interpretation is sensible and also fully consistent with inerrancy.

  10. You might want to consider Oller’s concept of “True Narrative Representation”

  11. Any lawyer will tell you that multiple witnesses testify from their knowledge at different vantage points and in their own words. There would otherwise be no need to call them repetitively to the stand; but each witness of an event lends a perspective that differs from the other. Interpretation is not a dismantling of the facts but of elucidating them. They help us to unravel what happened. Many dismiss the synoptics as second-hand accounts which perpetuate myths, and dismiss them wholesale from the record. Regardless of the issue of eyewitness testimony of the Gospel writers, Mark and Luke – I cannot say one way or another although I assume Mark was the “naked” eye-witness – there is reliable enough information to forward them as amanuenses of the Apostles who indeed were. Interwoven with the history was their interpretation, for which we must be grateful. Anyone watching the news today always looks to how it is interpreted. Having said that, these were not journalists, biographers or historians, but men who encountered the living Word.