Most Christians are well aware that although the Bible is divinely inspired, this hasn’t stopped its human authors from expressing their own writing styles.
What Christians often fail to recognise, however, is that the inspiration of Scripture has also allowed the authors, and Jesus, to express the particular ways of thinking and speaking that were present in ancient Jewish culture.
Often, modern Western Christians approach the Bible assuming that the authors thought and spoke like we do, when in some key respects they actually didn’t. This frequently leads to puzzlement and mistakes in interpretation. Many of the problems that modern readers of Scripture experience when reading it can be solved by taking account of the authors’ cultural ways of talking about things.
ATTITUDES TO PRECISION
One important difference between the authors of the Bible and us concerns attitudes to precision. The biblical writers (and Jesus Himself) often spoke much less precisely about things than we do. They also tended to be less concerned about precisely sticking to traditions that they held in high esteem.
To be sure, when it was important, the authors of the Bible could be very precise. But often they were imprecise in ways that we find strange, at times even amazing.
In what follows, I will highlight some areas in which this difference in attitude to precision reveals itself in Scripture. I will concentrate on the New Testament, since that is the part of the Bible that I know the most about.
GENERAL EXAMPLES OF IMPRECISION
To begin with, here are two general examples of how first century Jews could use astonishingly imprecise language by our standards.
First, there is Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 12:40:
‘For just as Jonah was in the sea monster’s stomach for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.’
Being in the heart of the earth here refers to the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection. And three days and three nights, at least on the face of it, is approximately 72 hours. Yet Matthew himself, who records the words in this verse, portrays the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection as roughly 36 hours (Matthew 27:46-28:7)!
In Matthew the three days and three nights must be referring to three consecutive Jewish calendar days. Jewish days began and ended at sunset. So the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection fell on the last part of the day before the Sabbath, all of the Sabbath day, and probably a bit less than half of the day after the Sabbath. Therefore the time between His death and resurrection fell on part or all of three consecutive calendar days.
Matthew clearly regarded it as true to say that this period of about 36 hours was three days and three nights! But in modern Western culture we couldn’t possibly truthfully describe a period of about 36 hours as three days and three nights!
In comparison with how modern Westerners speak about things, the lack of precision in Matthew is truly amazing.
1 Corinthians 1:14-15
Consider also 1 Corinthians 1:14-15. In this passage Paul tells the church in
‘I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say that you were baptized in my name.’
Paul has clearly been concerned that some of the Corinthian Christians were putting him on a pedestal and regarding him more highly than they should. And he is implying that he baptized so few of them to counter this. But the way he refers to why he acted as he did is astonishing in comparison with what modern Westerners are used to.
Paul speaks as if the Corinthians had said to themselves:
‘This guy Paul is amazing. You know what, when I was baptized, I think I was actually baptized in the name of Paul.’
But Paul cannot possibly have thought that Corinthian Christians who had been baptized in the name of Jesus, or in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, would really have thought this! Yet he speaks as if they had!
The difference between the concern that Paul really has and the words used to describe that concern is amazing in comparison with modern Western ways of speaking about things.
I have given these two examples to set the scene for what follows by showing to what extent the biblical authors could be imprecise about things in a way that we wouldn’t be. I am in no way criticising this imprecision. I am just noting that it is a way of speaking that is very different from what we are used to.
Let’s look now at some specific types of imprecision in the Bible.
First, there is the issue of hyperbole. This is a figure of speech that uses deliberate exaggeration for effect without any intention to deceive.
Modern Western culture uses hyperbole very frequently. For example, someone might pick up a bag and say, ‘That weighs a ton!’ In this case, ‘a ton’ is not meant to be taken literally, and both speaker and hearers understand this perfectly. The idea is that the bag is extremely heavy, and the exaggeration is used to stress this.
Although we commonly use hyperbole, first century Jews used it more often and in ways we wouldn’t. Here are some New Testament examples:
In Mark 10:29-30 Jesus promises:
‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, who will not receive a hundred times as much in the present time – houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields . . .’
In comparison with the way Westerners use language today, the hyperbole in this passage is really amazing. We can note too that Jesus even emphasises this promise by beginning it with ‘Truly I tell you’, yet the promise can hardly be taken literally. Jesus is promising blessing before death to those who give up things for His sake. But the language used to describe this blessing is astonishingly exaggerated when compared with what we are used to.
Another example can be found in Mark 1:5. Here Mark tells us:
‘And all the country of
Judeaand all the people of went out to [John the Baptist]. And they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.’ Jerusalem
Actually, we know that there were many Jews, including Pharisees and Sadducees, who didn’t do this. The point is that large numbers of people went to be baptized by John. But this is stated in very hyperbolic language.
Hyperbolic ‘every’ and ‘all’
In fact, there are many places in Scripture where ‘every’ or ‘all’ is used hyperbolically. In addition to the example I have just given, see, e.g., Luke 6:30; Acts ; ; Hebrews 4:15. There are also numerous places in the Old Testament where the phrase ‘all
’ doesn’t literally
mean all Israel . See, e.g., 1 Samuel 7:5; 25:1; 1 Kings 12:1;
2 Chronicles 12:1; Daniel 9:11. Israel
Failing to recognise hyperbole
Failing to recognise hyperbole can sometimes lead to misinterpretation of a biblical passage.
One such text is Revelation 5:9, which refers to those who receive salvation as coming from ‘every tribe and language and people and nation’.
It is a fact that there have been tribes that have existed and died out during the Christian era without ever having heard the gospel. And it is often claimed that because this verse says that the saved come from every tribe, some members of these tribes must therefore have been saved without faith in Christ. This also means, the argument goes on, that we can expect significant numbers of people today to be saved without faith in Him.
However, once we recognise that ‘every’ in Scripture is often used hyperbolically, it immediately becomes clear that this verse doesn’t prove this at all. It could easily just mean that those who are saved come from a huge diversity of ethnic groups.
EXCEPTIONS TO THINGS
Another way in which Jesus and the authors of the Bible tended to be more imprecise than we are used to concerns exceptions to things. This actually overlaps with the issue of hyperbole.
First century Jews often didn’t mention that there would be exceptions to something, even when there might be many exceptions. Here are a couple of New Testament examples:
In Matthew Jesus teaches:
‘Give to the person who asks you, and do not turn away from the person who wants to borrow from you.’
There are in fact obviously many situations when we shouldn’t give to someone who asks us for something or wants to borrow from us. For example, if someone asks us for money to buy illegal drugs, we should certainly not oblige!
Jesus, in line with ancient Jewish cultural habits, sees no need to mention the fact that there will be many exceptions to the principle that He is outlining. We wouldn’t speak like this in our culture. We would express the same concept differently.
Luke is another example. Here Jesus states:
‘That which is highly valued by people is detestable in God’s sight.’
Actually, we can think of many things that would have been highly valued by people in Jesus’ day but which wouldn’t have been detestable to God. For instance, helping someone who has been hurt in an accident is just one of a multitude of examples that could be given.
Again, in line with His Jewish culture, Jesus takes it for granted that there will be numerous exceptions to the principle He is outlining, although He doesn’t refer to these exceptions. We wouldn’t speak like this in the modern West. We would probably express the same concept by saying, ‘Much that is highly valued by people is detestable in God’s sight.’
Failing to recognise unexpressed exceptions
Sometimes, failing to recognise unexpressed exceptions to things causes difficulties for modern Western Bible readers.
For example, in Mark 10:2-12 Jesus teaches that whoever divorces his wife and ‘marries’ another woman is in fact committing adultery. That might seem to conflict with Matthew ; 19:9, which allows for divorce and remarriage in the case of sexual immorality.
However, once we understand that first century Jews often allowed for unexpressed exceptions to a principle, the difficulty disappears. Mark provides a general principle whose exceptions have been left unexpressed. Matthew then goes into a bit more detail, specifying exceptions to the principle in Mark. There is no need at all to see a conflict between these passages.
QUOTING THE OLD TESTAMENT
Something else that modern Western Christians find strange is how the New Testament writers sometimes altered the Old Testament text that they were quoting. They had enormous respect for the authority of the Old Testament. But often that didn’t stop them changing the wording to make it more relevant for their purposes.
Comparing Acts 2 with Joel 2
There is an example of this in Acts 2:17-21, where Peter quotes Joel’s prophecy in Joel 2:28-32.
The Greek words in this passage of Acts correspond very closely to the Greek words in this passage of Joel in the Septuagint, i.e., the standard Greek Old Testament translation of the first century. And this correspondence shows that Peter is quoting Joel in these verses, not paraphrasing it. What is more, the first Greek words in Acts – kai estai – are the same as the first words of this passage in the Septuagint, which shows that the quotation starts at the beginning of Acts 2:17.
In the Septuagint this prophecy begins:
‘And it will be after these things . . .’
Very similarly, in the original Hebrew underlying our English translations of Joel the prophecy begins:
‘And it will come to pass afterwards . . .’
In Acts 2:17, by contrast, in Peter’s quote, the prophecy begins:
‘And it will be in the last days . . .’
‘In the last days’ is not in the Old Testament text. Luke (and also Peter, if the quote is strictly historical – see the discussion on history below) has correctly understood that Joel’s prophecy applied to the last days that began with Jesus’ crucifixion/resurrection/giving of the Spirit. But instead of just realising this, he actually alters the Old Testament quotation to make this connection clear!
This is another example of how the Jewish mindset of the first century could allow imprecision in a way that a modern Western mind finds problematic. (Even if Luke wasn’t a Jew himself, he was certainly very influenced by Jewish ways of thinking, as scholars agree.)
Comparing Galatians with Genesis
Another example can be found in Galatians 4:30, where Paul cites Genesis 21:10.
In the Septuagint, Genesis reads:
‘Expel this slave woman and her son. For the son of this slave woman will not be an heir with my son Isaac.’
The original Hebrew underlying our English versions of Genesis 21:10 has a virtually identical meaning.
In Galatians 4:30, however, Paul writes:
‘But what does the scripture say? “Expel the slave woman and her son. For the son of the slave woman will not be an heir with the son of the free woman.” ’
Apart from the last few words, the words Paul uses correspond very closely to the Septuagint translation. And this shows that Paul is quoting Genesis, not paraphrasing it. His initial question, ‘But what does the scripture say?’ also suggests quotation.
Note, however, the big change at the end of this passage. ‘My son Isaac’ in Genesis has been changed to ‘the son of the free woman’ in Galatians.
Paul has altered the Old Testament text that he received in order to help him further his argument in Galatians. At this point in the letter he is rounding off his allegorical treatment of Sarah and Hagar. And he wants to emphasise that Christians, whose allegorical mother is Sarah, are free. He therefore modifies the text of Genesis to aid him in making his point.
It is, of course, true that the points that are being made from the Old Testament in these examples from Acts and Galatians are legitimate ones. Nevertheless, it tends to strike us as a bit dishonest to alter the text in this way. But Luke and Paul apparently didn’t think it was dishonest at all. And, more importantly, apparently neither did the Holy Spirit who inspired the text!
WRITING HISTORY IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
At times, then, the New Testament authors clearly felt a liberty to modify the Old Testament text they were quoting. And they did so despite holding that text in very high esteem.
Similarly, when writing their historical accounts of Jesus and the early church, at times they clearly felt free to make certain modifications to their traditions, despite holding those traditions in very high regard. If they were prepared to alter the Old Testament text, it shouldn’t surprise us that they were also prepared to alter their historical traditions.
Jesus’ resurrection in Matthew and Luke
An example of this can be seen when we compare Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ resurrection.
In Luke’s resurrection account, on the Sunday Jesus rises from the dead He appears to the inner circle of eleven disciples (Judas Iscariot having defected) in
(Luke 24:1, 13,
In Matthew’s account, however, on the day Jesus rises an angel appears to Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’, who instructs these women to tell Jesus’ disciples to go to Galilee, where they will see Him (Matthew 28:1-7). Immediately after that, Jesus meets the women and repeats the instruction: they are to tell the disciples to go to
Galilee, where they will see Him
Then in vv. 16-17 we are told:
‘The eleven disciples went to
Galilee, to the mountain that Jesus had designated. And when they saw Him they worshipped Him, but some doubted.’
There can be no doubt that in Matthew’s account, this meeting in
Galilee – a few days’ journey
from – is being portrayed
as the occasion on which the eleven see Jesus for the first time after His
resurrection. It is impossibly
implausible to suppose that the eleven are being portrayed as those who have
already seen and spoken to Jesus in Jerusalem on the day of the
resurrection. Verses 16-17 cannot reasonably
be read in that way. Jerusalem
This means that Matthew’s and Luke’s portrayals of the first resurrection appearance to the eleven cannot both be historical. And the best solution is that one or both of these authors felt a liberty to depart a little from writing pure history. Unless we assume that at least one of them has made a mistake, there must have been a conscious decision by one or both of them to modify historical traditions or to accept already modified traditions.
Another example of modification of historical tradition can be seen when we compare Luke 24 and Acts 1.
As I have just noted, Luke 24 has an account of Jesus’ resurrection appearances on the Sunday He rises from the dead. This narrative includes words of Jesus to His disciples in vv. 46-49. And these words are certainly portrayed being spoken either on that Sunday or perhaps in the early hours of the following Monday morning. Then immediately following these words, Luke continues in verses 50-51:
‘And He led them out as far as
, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He left them and was carried up to heaven.’ Bethany
By far the most natural way of understanding vv. 50-51 is that they are portraying Jesus’ ascension taking place on the Sunday of His resurrection or early the following Monday.
If we turn to Acts 1:1-11, however, we find that Luke – the same author! – portrays the ascension taking place forty days after the resurrection!
To claim that there must have been two ascensions is a very dubious explanation. And this is surely not what the church has believed down through the centuries.
Similarly, trying to force the interpretation of one or both of these passages to make them agree historically is the wrong thing to do. We need to let the Bible stand as it is. Instead, the best solution is that in at least one passage Luke felt a liberty to modify his traditions.
Altering historical traditions
Just as with altering the text of the Old Testament, so altering the history of Jesus and the early church strikes us as strange and even dishonest. Besides, it is in the psyche of us modern Westerners to want to know exactly what happened.
But a close analysis of the New Testament text shows that the authors of the Gospels and Acts were often not as concerned as we are about recording history precisely. If they could modify their historical traditions to a certain extent to make them more edifying for their readers or to simplify things, they frequently did that.
Imagine we were able to ask Luke, for example:
‘Luke, after looking closely at your Gospel, it seems clear that you haven’t written pure history. Is that right?’
I am sure he would reply by saying something like this:
‘Yes. I’ve modified some of the historical traditions I received to make them more applicable to my audience and to simplify things. Nevertheless, my Gospel approximates fairly closely to history. I’ve done something similar in some of my quotations of the Old Testament.’
It is important for us to recognise that the Gospels and Acts are first and foremost works of theology. They are aimed primarily at teaching us important spiritual truths. They are only secondarily works of history. Once we understand that, the fact that the history has at times been modified is a bit easier to understand.
It is surely also true that God wouldn’t have allowed the Gospels to give us portraits of the life of Jesus that are basically unhistorical. They doubtless give us largely historically accurate portraits of His life. Similarly, Acts surely gives us a basically historical account of what went on in the early church.
Treating the Gospels and Acts as history
The Gospels and Acts are historical enough that a pastor need not bother to try to differentiate between what is historical and what is modification of history when teaching. When I write about Christian matters and I want to cite the Gospels or Acts, I myself usually just treat the text I am dealing with as though it is fully historical. Treating these works as if they are fully historical will not cause any problems. And, in any case, these works infallibly teach us what is true in all that is of importance for life and faith.
It is also worth noting that understanding the Gospels and Acts as something other than pure history is not an invention of modern theological liberalism.
For example, the second-third century theologian, Origen, stated:
‘There are many . . . points on which the careful student of the Gospels will find that their narratives do not agree.’ (Comm. Joh. 10.2)
Similarly, the fourth-fifth century church leader, John Chrysostom, wrote:
‘But if there be anything touching time or places, which [the Gospel writers] have related differently, this nothing injures the truth of what they have said . . . [but those things] which constitute our life and furnish out our doctrine nowhere is any of them found to have disagreed . . .’ (Hom. Matt. 1.6)
Problems with insisting that the Gospels and Acts are pure history
We can only read the Gospels and Acts as pure history, if, over and over again, we take very unnatural interpretations of passages. However, this is problematic for various reasons.
To begin with, there is the matter of honesty. In my experience, when Christians interpret biblical passages in very unnatural ways, they almost never admit that this is what they are doing. However, when someone does something and claims not to be doing it, they are being dishonest. And dishonesty is a sin. What is more, when non-Christians think they see Christians being dishonest, they are often put off the Christian faith.
Non-Christians are also put off the faith when they are given the impression that in order to be a Christian, they must interpret biblical texts in ways that seem very unnatural. And those who insist on taking the Gospels and Acts as pure history frequently give this impression.
Finally, when a Christian takes a very unnatural interpretation of a Bible passage, this gives a green light to those who want to do so in other passages too. So trying to make the Gospels and Acts pure history unintentionally encourages people to misinterpret the Bible.
ACCEPTING IMPRECISION IN THE BIBLE
The examples I have given show that in various ways the Bible refers to things much less precisely than modern Westerners are used to. Many other examples could also be cited.
We should accept and embrace this feature of Scripture. However, sadly, there are large numbers of Christians in Western countries who fail to do this. Time and time again Western Christians can be found explaining away imprecision in the biblical text. These Christians rightly have a very high view of the authority of Scripture. But they fail to understand that Jesus and the authors of the Bible didn’t always speak about things as precisely as we do today.
Other modern Christians, who are more honest with the text, will admit that the features I have discussed are present when it is really forcing things to deny them. But in cases that are not so clear-cut they will always deny that they are there.
This not only makes no sense, but also shows that these Christians are not really at peace with the ancient Jewish mindset of the Bible. They are still trying to fit Scripture into a modern mould whenever it is conceivably possible to do so.
Instead, what we should do is let the Bible stand as God inspired it. And that includes accepting all its ancient Jewish ways of thinking and speaking about things.
IMPRECISION AND TRUTHFULNESS
A large part of the problem is that the modern Western mind connects precision very closely with truthfulness. If writing is imprecise in any way, modern Westerners often tend to feel that there must be something untruthful about it.
It seems clear, however, that this is not how the ancient Jewish mind worked. Ancient Jews were happy to regard some things as truthful even when they were more than a little imprecise.
Of course, there must have been a limit to this. There is only so far a person could have gone in speaking imprecisely before they were regarded as untruthful.
Nevertheless, there was clearly less of a connection between truthfulness and precision in the ancient Jewish mindset than there is in the modern Western one.