Here's a little passage from Mark 4 (ESV), with the verse numbers left in to keep us all on the same sheet of music:
- 30 And he said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. 34He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side." 36And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" 39And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40He said to them, "Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?" 41And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"
The Gospel of Mark is a historical account of jesus' life, and as such, this passage of Mark reports historical events in the life and ministry of Jesus.Now, here's where many people will bail out of the discussion: How much time elapses between v. 32 and v. 35 in Mark 4?
I mean, this is a historical account, right? So it doesn’t seem very problematic to say, without being very cheeky, "The rest of the day, cent. Pay attention."
That's fine, I guess – no reason to argue about that. But what did Jesus say during the rest of the day? We know in general what Jesus said – Mark says, "With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything" – but we don't have any kind of a record of what Jesus said in the rest of the day.
Now, that's pretty much undeniable – we don't have any way to tell what Jesus said specifically the rest of that day. And worse still, when v. 35 begins, "on that day, when evening had come," Mark may also be saying "on that day when this next stuff happened", so it's another day entirely.
And I bring this up not to impugn the clarity of Scripture, but to instead ask what it means to have a class of literature which conveys historical facts. In the first place, we can see that not every minute detail has been included in Scripture – how often Jesus drank water, for example, is not included in the holy writ. In the second place, there are massive omissions of dates and time – so much so that there's no way to say that the "synoptic" Gospels actually list the events of Christ's life as if they were a travelogue.
But if this is so, how does the good Christian say that the Bible says things which are true, let alone that the Bible is truth? How do we trust them, for example, as history when these texts are practically date-free?
Well: we have to be better readers than my first-grader. We have to be somewhat literate readers who understand things like genre and type and authorial intent. Because it turns out that Scripture is clear, and is truth, but not in some wooden sense where words don’t do what they do in every other place we use them.
So on the one hand, to stick with my example of Mark, we can say that Mark wrote a historical account of the life of Christ. But on the other hand, he wasn't transcribing Jesus' diary of his 3-year ministry: Mark was ordering the events, or grouping them, or relating them, to underscore specific truths about the life of Christ – building contrasts and comparisons in the events in order to make what we can call expositional points.
That's going to rub a lot of people the wrong way, but who asked them? Here's what you can't do with the Bible: you can't demand that it be "narrative" and not define what kind of "narrative" it is, especially in its diversity of text types. But once you define its genre – its type by book and author – you then have the broad opportunity to read and receive what's written as it was intended to be received.
And I say all that to say this: we can't get all broken up when somebody comes to us and wants to tell us that the Bible is a shaky foundation for faith. For centuries – millennia almost – the Bible has been recognized as one of the great sets of literature man has available to read. And in that, we can’t read it like it's simple hack writing; we can't receive it as great literature but expect it to be easier to read than Milton or Shakespeare or Spencer. The Bible is a beautiful thing, and in that it has all the attributes of beauty: simplicity and complexity, accessibility and incomprehensibility, small handles that even a kid can grasp but massive weight that grown men will strain at to carry.
We have a beautiful thing in the Bible and we can't let someone scare us off that just because they don’t really understand how beauty works. There's more to be said about this, but I have run out of daylight today, so think about that and we'll come back to it eventually.