How the Bible Actually Works (4)

How the Bible Actually Works (4)

Today we continue blogging through Pete Enns’s new book on the Bible.

As I’ve said in our recent posts on The Bible and the Believer, one of my tasks this year will be to work on answering two questions that Pete raises regularly in his writings and podcasts:

  1. What is the Bible?
  2. What is the Bible for?

Last time we discussed the diversity of the Hebrew Bible, how it is like a conversation carried on over generations as God’s people interacted with their sacred past by changing, adapting, rethinking, and rewriting the stories and texts they had received to reflect their growing understanding of God and God’s ways. God, in a mysterious way, was intimately involved in this process, and we call that “inspiration.” The community of faith ultimately recognized these sacred stories and writings as God’s words to them, finding in them God’s message of wisdom, faith, hope, and love.

But it is important to see that God did not just drop his words from heaven. The First Testament represents a long, utterly human process of wrestling with what God was doing in the lives and experience of the Hebrew people. And ultimately, it is the product of scribes and religious leaders editing the final product into something that would give the Babylonian exiles wisdom for a whole new reality and hope for the future.

One example of the way this worked, pointed out by Pete Enns, is the book of Chronicles. In our English Bibles, 1-2 Chronicles is placed right after 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings and represents another look at this historical period in Israel’s history. However, in the Hebrew Bible, Chronicles is the conclusion of the whole book.

Chronicles is not a repeat of 1 Samuel through 2 Kings. It is a retelling of those books from a much later point in Jewish history. In fact, it is nothing less than an act of reimaging God.

To make a long story short, 1 Samuel through 2 Kings were probably written before and during the Babylonian exile, and the main question these books address is, “How did we get into this mess? What did we do to deserve exile?” The short answer is, “You committed apostasy by worshiping foreign gods, with your kings leading the way.” In other words, these books interpret events of history and pronounce a guilty verdict on Judah.

But 1 and 2 Chronicles were written centuries later, probably no earlier than about 400 BCE and more likely closer to 300 or even a bit later—so somewhere in the middle of the Persian period (which began in 538) and perhaps as late as the Greek period (which began with the conquest by the Greeks under Alexander the Great in 332). And these books answer a different question altogether, not “What did we do to deserve this?” but “After all this time, is God still with us?”

Once again, we revisit our theme: as times changed, the ancient Jews had to reprocess what it meant to be the chosen people—if indeed that label even meant anything anymore. (p. 108-09)

A main example Pete Enns points to is that of King Manasseh. Manasseh is the ruler in the book of Kings that is deemed responsible for causing Judah to be taken into exile. His wickedness is so epic that its consequences carry on for generations, and even the great revival and reforms under his grandson Josiah could not remedy its effects.

However, in Chronicles, the story of Manesseh is completely reimagined. Manasseh himself goes into exile, humbles himself, and is allowed to go back to Jerusalem. The people are blamed for the exile, and Manasseh ends his days as a repentant, restored, righteous ruler. As Enns says, this portrayal serves as a “symbolic retelling of Judah’s exile and return home after the captives had learned their lesson and repented of their sins” (p. 110)

The author of Chronicles, by retelling this story, wants the exiles to learn the wisdom of humbling themselves and seeking the Lord in their hard circumstances. He illustrates this by showing that even the most wicked sinner — King Manasseh! — was not beyond redemption and restoration.

That is to say, the retelling of the reign of Manasseh (and 1 and 2 Chronicles as a whole) is an act of wisdom—of reading the moment and reimagining what God is doing and, more important, what God will do in the (hopefully not too distant) future. pp. 111-112)

22 thoughts on “How the Bible Actually Works (4)

  1. Michael I agree with the distinction you’re making about authority. We know very little about the anonymous authors of these works but one thing we do know about “Matthew” and “Luke” is that didn’t obviously regard “Mark” as the inerrant word of God simply because you don’t feel free to modify the inerrant word of God. No fundamentalists they.

    It makes moderns queasy to consider that these writers felt free to change the story to make a point. I don’t always get an an enthusiastic response at this suggestion but my advice to folks trying to find a way to enter into the gospels is to set aside at first the question of whether or not any of it happened and read them like short stories. Use the power of your imagination to bring the story alive in your mind. Once you’ve spent a good while doing that then we can have a nice discussion about what’s probably historical and what’s probably not. Frankly the folks who spend all their time picking the texts apart to rationalize the discrepancies seem to never get around to reading them usefully.


  2. The textual tradition of the NT has been traced back to within 20 years of Jesus’ crucifixion. Not even Bart Ehrman contests that. So it’s indeed possible that Matthew or Mark, not to mention John and Luke, were “Jesus’ contemporaries”. The oral tradition was well respected in that day, and the fact that there is so much in common in the Synoptics testifies to the accuracy of that tradition, not its fallibility. We on the other side of the printing press and the nightly news sometimes forget that.

    See this:



  3. It’s difficult, I would think, for there not to be a considerable amount of “re-magining” in the New Testament, when none of its writers have been found to be Jesus’ contemporaries. There may well have been other written sources other than the Gospel of Mark for even later writers, as well as oral traditions; but the other writers had different points to make, just as in the story of Manasseh. If some factual details were lost to time, does it matter if imagination supplied them?

    There were also, for the writers of the Gospels, prophecies of the coming of the Messiah to fulfill. If no-one remembered where he was born, wouldn’t Bethlehem, as the prophecy proclaimed, be the proper place? Who would know whether or not Mary was a descendant of the House of David, except that a prophecy called for Jesus to be? Or that she was a virgin? There are, at minimum, dozens of such prophecies in the Old Testament, which Jesus is said to fulfill. Some of those, I do not doubt, are the “re-imaginings” of the Gospel Writers, to emphasize for their
    readers and hearers that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.


  4. Because if it’s not released, the Rumors and Conspiracy Theories will grow without limit.

    (Not that they won’t grow if it IS released, but having the actual documentation should put some damper on it.)


  5. Doesn’t matter anyway.
    The Spin is In.
    Yesterday morning the first person I encountered couldn’t wait to crow about it:
    “ALL LIES.

    (The Trump True Believer in question comes from a secular “Mad as Hell and Not Going to Take It Any More” background from being on the short end of decades of SJWs in power. When you’re MAHANGTTIAM enough, all you can see is “STICK IT TO ‘EM! STICK IT TO ‘EM! STICK IT TO EM!” with no regard for side effects or collateral damage.)


  6. Come to think of it, wasn’t Dispensationalism an attempt to harmonize all Inerrant SCRIPTURE(TM) by breaking the different versions into different Dispensations?


  7. One wonders how the self-professed literalists harmonize the two versions of Manasseh.

    The versions apply to different DISPENSATIONS.
    The majority of “self-professed literalists” I’ve encountered were Rapture Ready hardcore Dispys.


  8. One wonders how the self-professed literalists harmonize the two versions of Manasseh. I’m sure they manage it, but the contortions required must be impressive.


  9. Hello Michael Bell,
    Do you think that Matthew and Luke might have just had different perspectives rather than being in disagreement? Much is made of St. Luke being a doctor and his profession influenced his writing, for example.
    It’s kinda half empty/half full in a way, but people do see things in different ways that don’t necessarily invalidate one another’s viewpoint. Points of emphasis are simply that, not so much diagreements. Look at the Church. How many of our ‘deep divisions’, when examined together as Christian brothers and sisters, yield some evidence of ‘what is shared’ as well as what is ‘not shared’?

    I do understand the gist of what you are saying, but I want also to speak for the POSSIBILITY of it being also ‘okay’ to see from different vantage points and ‘add to’ (contribute) rather than to go into zero-sum thinking as people so often do and I am no exception. . . . . this Lenten Season weighs heavy on my conscience in that regard.


  10. The evangelical bent has always been to try to harmonize the gospels, instead I think we should be asking ourselves why are they different.

    Problem is, if they harmonize like the evangelical bent, they lose credibility.

    A little fact about witness testimonies:

    If all witnesses agree in every detail, it’s collusion (i.e. they got together and cooked up a fake story).

    If witnesses agree in the main story but differ in exact details (especially if Witness A notices something and Witness B doesn’t but notices something Witness A didn’t) it’s much more likely to be true.


  11. What is the Bible?

    During my time in-country, there was Only One Correct Answer:
    THE! WORD! OF! GAWD!!!!!


  12. “But while they clearly regard Mark’s text as authoritative that doesn’t prevent them from making revisions (and deletions!) to highlight their own points and emphases.”

    I think the fact that they were willing to make revisions, additions, and deletions shows that they treated Mark as AN authority, rather than authoritative.

    The evangelical bent has always been to try to harmonize the gospels, instead I think we should be asking ourselves why are they different. Sometimes it might be because of the audience, but I think that at other times it was because they just plain disagreed with Mark’s perspective. Mark for example had nothing positive to say about Jesus’ family. His parents aren’t even named! Matthew and Luke seek to correct that.


  13. We, who are not deaf or blind, can however discuss plenty of what is SEEN and HEARD openly from the objects of the investigation, but I guess not here, not now. The images are painful, but telling. The language is unprintable.


  14. I hope I’m not jumping the gun but this process of “reimagining” is not confined to the Hebrew Bible but is also evidenced in the New Testament. The scholarly consensus is that Mark is the earliest of the gospels and Mathew and Luke had Mark in front of them while they were composing their own gospels. They both quote vast swaths of Mark’s text verbatim in their versions. But while they clearly regard Mark’s text as authoritative that doesn’t prevent them from making revisions (and deletions!) to highlight their own points and emphases.

    Herodotus famously commented that in his historical accounts of speeches he wasn’t quoting but was composing material that got at the gist of what was said. Well this same process of composition rather than quotation is on display in the Book of Acts when the sermons of Peter and Paul appear.

    This really bothers many moderns, those of the fundamentalist mindset especially. But our ideal of the “objective” disinterested historian, interested only in the “facts”, didn’t exist in the ancient world, and indeed hardly exists today.


  15. Interesting that the figure of Bad King Manesseh should figure so prominently n this essay We are coming to a time in the Church Year when the readings incorporate the apocryphal Prayer of Manesses. It is a powerful prayer, and the fact that it is the product of the Hellenistic age only adds to its force.

    Of course the Orthodox never think in therms of “product of the Hellenistic Age”, except when explaining themselves to Academy-addled Protestants. It’s all of a piece, really. The cracking of the Hebrew egg that began in the Hellenistic age was a precursor to the Messianic age.


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