December 30, 2010

Q: Are the NT Gospel Narratives Chronological?

A: Sometimes. (Duh!)  Look, this is really simple.

If the story proceeds from birth to life to death to resurrection, then the basic structure is chronological. If John the Baptist baptizes Jesus before getting arrested, and his disciples relay John's question before he's beheaded, then the basic structure is chronological.  If the narrative introduces the disciples before Jesus calls them, and they're called some paragraphs before being named as apostles, which comes before being sent out once or twice, then the Gospel writer absolutely has an eye on chronological sequence, to a significant degree.

The question is not whether, but *how much*.  How much of each Gospel narrative stands in chronological order?  That's where current research should be focused.  And so, therefore, one should not say things like, "[Such and such] suggests that [Gospel]'s orientation wasn't primarily chronological." That's nothing but a convenience for those who would rather dismiss seeming contradictions than deal with them head on.

Regardless, of course, the messy historical trouble hasn't gone anywhere.  For example...

"Did Jesus have one or two Nazareth homecomings?" Hmmm. Well, he traversed Galilee for the better part of some (1, 2, or 3) years. For all we know, he could have gone back several times, which brings a double-edged sword to the debate.  On the one hand, it's baseless to assume he went only once.  However, for those of us who take Luke 4 and Mt.13/Mk.6 to represent separate events, this means we cannot refer to Mt/Mk's episode as "the second homecoming"... at least not without adding "that we know of".

Likewise, we cannot assume the Synoptic writers knew only that which they report. There could be any number of reasons why Mark chose to include only one trip to Jerusalem, and neither Mark nor John was obligated to include every detail of each time Jesus went there. But - and this is a very big BUT - if Jesus only cleared the Temple once, then John OR Mark's placement is inaccurate.  I don't think that's likely, but IF it's true, then we ought to simply accept it, perhaps even without trying to justify the 'mistake'.

However... none of that is my point.  This is:

The general structure of each Gospel IS chronologically oriented, with respect to a significant extent of its content. Comparing episodes within Matthew, Mark and Luke shows that some passages and events are jumbled slightly in sequence, but there's nothing that steps far out of place within the overall chain of causally related events. And yet, here is the rub.

When comparing John with the Synoptics there does arise one glaring challenge to chronologicity - namely, the Temple cleansing(s) - which, if it happened but once, could have been a very different event at the open or close of the Lord's public phase, according to some.  More importantly, there is no other event which two Gospels locate so differently within the general event sequence of Jesus' life.  If this is a chronological oversight, dispute or correction on some writer's part, it is one, two or three years in error, an unprecedented leap when compared with all other chronal discrepancies in the Gospels.

And so, my entire point in this post is just to say this.  That the question of "one or two" Temple cleansings cannot be easily dismissed by saying "Well [Mark/John] isn't necessarily chronological."

Generally speaking, yes it is.

PS: Accepting two cleansings remains the simplest solution, and I find no reason to exclude John 2:15-16, especially if Mark 2:10 is almost as early. Frankly, I suspect conservatives flee from this position largely for strategic/political reasons. But again, none of that is the point of my post. If you want to dismiss it, do better than vague assertions that Gospels "aren't chronological".

2 comments: said...

Consider also Raymond Brown's suggestion about John 2. The dispute with the leaders may have happened early while the Temple action itself happened late. The Fourth Gospel puts the dispute story in the "right" place and conflates it with the Temple action to keep it thematically together. In DEATH OF THE MESSIAH Brown gives evidence for this view, including the fact that at his trial, no good witness could be brought to verify that sayings of Yeshua about destroying the Temple. Why not if he had just uttered them?

Bill Heroman said...

Assuming it's one event, Derek, then I have to admit that's as good an explanation as I've heard. Maybe better.

But again, why can't he have done it twice? Where's the reasoning that says not?

But on your last point, absolutely. That's definitely a key difference in the stories, and I think you're right on this much, at least. Good point.

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