Chronology in the Bible

Not everything in the bible is written with chronology in mind. Imagine reading a story or even watching a movie, and the story has 3 separate events taking place in 3 different locations at the same time. When the author presents the story, they can’t tell what is happening in all 3 locations at the same time, because writing is a linear action that happens letter by letter on a page, page by page in a book. Normally a writer will write about one event and then use a transition word like “meanwhile” and cut to another location for another event. The writing would be a mess if they were trying to write about 3 faraway events happening at the same time because they would have constantly interjected to explain which even they are talking about.

In a movie, if the events are silent events the director can show three clips on screen at once with time stamps and the names of locations to signify that this is all at the same time in different locations. However, if there is dialogue, then they can’t present different dialogue of different people all at the same time because then the audience wouldn’t understand anything, especially if the dialogue is all in different languages. This is true for even history books, they will present one thing in one section, and then they will repeat events but from a different perspective in another section, because they can write about everything happening at the same time without confusing people, so they categorize. Think about how a US History book may present 1960s America. There was the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Space Race, etc. These events are all associated with the same era but are categorically different with some overlap.

The same is true in the bible, here are some examples. In Genesis, the first chapter is an overall creation account organizing the order of creation itself, while the 2nd zooms into the role of the Man and the Woman in the creation of the world. Chapter 1 is a prologue chapter explaining the creator’s role, and chapter 2 explains the role of humanity and other creations and how they engaged with each other. Chapters 1 and 2 are written to set up the narrative which begins in Chapter 3. There is a literary categorization going on, Genesis 1 being a global/universal scope, and Genesis 2 being a local scope. There are not meant to be chronological but rather explanatory.

Another example: at the beginning of Genesis 25, we learn about Abraham’s death (Gen 25:1-11). Then after that, we learn that Isaac and his wife Rebecca, whom he married in the previous chapter, struggled to get pregnant. He married her at age 40 (Gen 25:20) and God answered their prayers for children when Isaac was 60 (Gen 25:26). Jacob and Esau’s twin birth is recorded in Gen 25:12-26, which is after Abraham’s death. However, Abraham was 175 when he died (Gen 25:7). This means Isaac, who was born when Abraham was age 100 (Gen 21:5), was 75 when Abraham died. 75 is 15 years after 60, so if Jacob and Esau were born when Isaac was 60, then they would have been 15 when Abraham died. Abraham’s death at the beginning of Gen 25 was the end of his saga, then the rest of the writing is the beginning of Jacob’s saga, starting with his birth, which all happened before Abraham died. We don’t know if the rest of chapter 25 (Gen 25:27-34), happens right before Abraham died or afterward. However, we do know the following events in the next chapter are past Abraham’s death because Abimelech’s people take wells that were promised to Abraham’s son Isaac through inheritance. Abraham made a covenant with Abimelech for those wells back in Gen 21:30-34, but Abimelech’s people broke that covenant because Abraham was dead, so Isaac had to make a new covenant with Abimelech in Gen 26:28-33. From Genesis 35-46 there are 3 different timelines that span 22 years each. This 22 years is from the time Joseph was sold into slavery and taken to Egypt, until the family reunion in Genesis 46. Genesis 37 is when Joseph is sold from his perspective and then that story picks up in Genesis 39-45. Genesis 38 is Judah’s perspective on that timeframe, and Genesis 35 is Jacob’s perspective from around the time Joseph was sold because afterward, Rachel (his mother) died giving birth to Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin (Gen 35:16-20).

Another example of fragmented chronology is in the gospels. From all the gospel accounts, we know that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, then went into the wilderness for 40 days. Then, John the Baptist gets arrested at the end of the 40 days. Jesus tags in and takes over the ministry while John is in prison. However, in Luke’s account, he ends John’s saga in Luke 3:19-20, before mentioning Jesus’ baptism in verse 21. Does that mean Jesus was Baptist by someone else? No, Luke frames the ending of John’s public ministry with him going to prison first, then introduces Jesus as an adult being baptized and beginning his ministry at around 30 in verses 21-23. The end of Luke 3 is a prologue that summarizes Jesus’ baptism and how he takes over for John in the mission. However, Luke chapter 4 goes back to the moment right after Jesus was baptized and filled with the spirit when he goes into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. In Luke 3:23 it ends by saying Jesus was about 30 when he began his public ministry, then it shows his genealogy through Mary. Jesus didn’t begin his public ministry until after the baptism right, so how can that be? Luke 3:23 was just a prologue, to prepare the reader for what is next. His ministry starts in Luke 4:14 after he fasted in the wilderness for 40 days (Luke 4:1-13) and then went traveled all over from Judah to Galilee to minister to people.

Another example, in Luke 4:14-32, Jesus was rejected in his hometown Nazareth, then moved to Capernaum which would be his base of operation until he was crucified. Luke 4:38 mentions Jesus staying at Simon/Peter’s (and Andrew’s) house, and even healing Simon’s sick mother-in-law. However, he doesn’t meet Simon until Luke chapter 5. In fact, a new reader would ask the question “who is Simon?”, since he was not been fully introduced in chapter 4. Luke again is setting up a literary framework. Luke 4 is an overview of Jesus setting up his base of operations in Capernaum after begin rejected at Nazareth. Meanwhile, Luke 5:1-11 zooms into what he did when he first got to Capernaum and shows how he met Peter(Simon), Andrew, James, and John. These men were all fishermen that left their job and joined him after he preached from Peter’s boat and did the miracle with a load of fish.

Another conundrum, at the end of Luke 4 (verses 42-44), it says they begged Jesus to stay in Capernaum but he says has to minister to other people through Judea and the surrounding area as well, so he leaves. In Matthew 8 it says Jesus returns to Capernaum in verse 5, and it is here in this chapter that Matthew records the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. So which is it did Jesus heal Peret’s mother-in-law before or after going to Capernaum?

Let’s take a look at the choreography between Matthew and Luke. The story of Peter’s mother-in-law in Luke was categorized with a bunch of healings in Capernaum so it wasn’t placed based on chronology. Matthew’s gospel is more chronological because he meets Peter and the others in Matthew 4:18-22, after getting Baptized in chapter 3, fasting for 40 days in Matt 4:1-11, and then moves to Capernaum in verses 12-17. Then Jesus takes the fisherman-turned disciples with him, to many towns and cities (Matt 4:23-25). The next 3 chapters are all one sermon (The Sermon on the Mount) that Jesus taught outside of Capernaum (possibly in Judea). Then when he comes down the mountain from teaching the Sermon, he heals a man with Leprosy in Matt 8:1-4, which corresponds with the time jump between Luke 5:11 and verse 12. Luke 5:12-16 is when he healed the leper from Matt 8:1-4, this all takes place outside of Capernaum. In Matt 8:5, Jesus returned to Capernaum, and the rest of the chapter shows that he healed a bunch of people in that city, including Peter’s mother-in-law in Matt 8:14. Jesus lives with Peter in Capernaum until the end of his ministry, we see later that he is still staying with Peter in Matt 17:24-27.

Let’s continue through the gospels and look at some more. Luke again makes a time jump in between Luke 5:16 and 17. In Luke 5:17-39 Jesus heals the paralyzed man, calls Levi (Matthew) the tax collector, and has discussions about fasting with John the Baptist’s disciples, which corresponds with Matthew 9:1-17. Matthew’s gospel writes about a bunch of events that occur between Matt 8:5 and 34, that Luke skips. Events like Jesus healing the Roman soldier’s servant (Matt 8:5-13), Jesus teaching people in Capernaum about the cost of following him (Matt 8:15-22), Jesus calming the storm on the sea of Galilee as they sailed across to Decapolis (Matt 8:23-27), healing the legion possessed men in Gadarenes which was their destination in Decapolis (Matt 8:28-34). Matthew continues with the healing of Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the bleeding disorder (Matt 9:18-26). Luke skips those, for now, saving them for Luke 8. Luke 6 starts by referencing some later discussions on the Sabbath, carrying over from the theme at the end of Luke 5. Luke it seems categorizes the parable of the wineskins together with the discussions about the Sabbath because they topically discuss the same theme of abuse of the law vs the true understanding of the law.

Then Luke 6:12-16 shows when Jesus isolates the main 12 of his disciples. From Luke 6:17 onward to chapters 7 and 8, Luke brings up the events he previously skipped from Matthew, as well as some other things that Matthew mentions later in his gospel. In addition, Luke has collected a bunch of other stories that Matt and Mark didn’t record like the Sermon on the Plain which is the same teaching as the Sermon on the Mount, but to a different audience in a different location. Remember Luke said in chapter 1 that he collected a bunch of witness testimonies concerning everything in Jesus’ life. He even talked to Mary about details concerning Jesus’s birth, this is why Luke’s gospel has more intimate details on the Christmas story than Matthew’s. Luke has Mary’s genealogy in chapter 3 while, Matthew has Joseph’s geology in chapter 1. Lastly, Luke 9:1-6 presents Jesus sending out the twelve on their own for the first time, this is a shorter version of Matthew ch. 10, which is a whole chapter of Jesus explaining how to evangelize, before sending out the twelve apostles.

It goes on and on like this but my point is that Luke is often more categorically organizing topics discussed by Jesus, not so much telling the sermons in chronological order, unless necessary. Luke has a lot of stories that aren’t in the other gospels so the placement of those in the larger timeline is not exactly clear, but context clues like transition phrases will tell you how to read these things. Luke wrote his gospel after Matthew’s, in response to questions that Theoplius, (likely a wealthy Roman aristocrat), had about Matthew and Mark’s gospel accounts. This is explained in Luke 1:1. Luke has an entirely different purpose from Matthew with his Gospel account. It’s like if a preacher had a bunch of recorded sermons and one person organized them by date recorded (Matthew) and another person organized them by topic (Luke). The exception to the topic organization would be if they were part of a multipart mini-series, then that would have to be bundled together des[pites covering a diversity of sub-topics.

This is just one of many examples of how reading the bible is a bit of an art form. Some parts are written linearly, while others have overlapping sections. It also depends on the author’s purpose for writing that book and how that author got their information. It is the author’s own words then it is usually linear (like most of the Torah). If the author referencing something from before their time then they are using prior written chronologies like Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. If the author is referencing events they didn’t witness, then they may construct the narrative in a particular way to illustrate a point, like Genesis. Some books are not narrative at all and are either legal code (most of Leviticus and some parts of Numbers) or poetry (Psalms, Song of Solomon), or pros discourse (the letters of Paul). There are four gospels, telling the same stories from four different perspectives, each with its own particular emphasis on certain elements, and only two of them are eyewitnesses (Matthew and John). Luke and Mark are built on the testimonies of others. The bible is a whole unit and must be studied as a whole unit, we cannot cherry-pick certain parts and make up theology, scripture must inform scripture. Read it slowly and study it, if one rushes through it they will miss important principles, patterns, and connections.