The Religion News Service is reporting that Thomas Nelson, a major player in the Christian publishing business, has announced the fall release of a chronological study Bible. It’s the brainchild of Bob Sanford, head of Nelson’s Bible publishing division. Sanford acknowledges that there have been other attempts to put the Bible in chronological order (like this one, this one, and this website), but he says they weren’t bona fide study Bibles. Of course, “study Bible” means different things to different people. I assume he means the new version will have notes and outlines and maps that would be helpful to the reader.
Some Bible purists, no doubt, will complain that cutting and pasting parts of the Bible are tantamount to heresy. Merging the gospels into one (following Mark’s chronology), as the Nelson project does, is bound to result in some things getting left out or homogenized, which could be anathema to those who believe the Bible was verbally inspired to appear just as it does, whether its internal chronology coheres or not.
Scholars, on the other hand, will almost certainly give little attention to a new chronological Bible. They are already well aware that scriptures’ sequence is often jumbled — and also aware that teasing out a correct chronology is tricky business, fraught some degree of subjectivism.
The Book of Isaiah, for example, begins in the eighth century, B.C., when its namesake Isaiah of Jerusalem preached. Large blocks of the book, however, appear to belong clearly in the Exilic and post-Exilic periods, some 200-300 years later. Some ultra-conservative scholars assume that God must have inspired Isaiah of Jerusalem to write specifically to the situation of Hebrews living in the upcoming exile, and beyond (complete with the vocabulary of later periods). Critical scholars, however, feel confident that multiple writers contributed to the book, hypothesizing a string of Isaianic disciples who added to the scroll begun by their prophetic mentor. They know that writing in a more famous person’s name was common in the ancient world, and aren’t bothered by it. Those scholars have disagreements among themselves, however, and are unlikely to accept Nelson’s Bible as anything other than one publisher’s opinion of what happened when.
How does one decide which proposed chronology is correct? There’s trouble in teasing out the chronology of Ezra and Nehemiah, for example, which appear to be intertwined at several places. And, how does one distribute the Psalms in a chronological Bible? Do you trust the superscriptions — which are not original to the psalms — to tell if a psalm was written by David, and under what historical circumstances? Ancient editors attempted to do so by adding the superscriptions, but were they verbally inspired? And what about the Proverbs? Do you try to determine the age of each proverb, or the time period in which it joined a popular collection?
The truth is, history writing in the ancient world and the modern world were quite different enterprises. Modern Western history writers insist on multiple and verifiable sources in their attempts to put things in chronological order. Ancient writers relied on oral traditions and were not bothered by preserving variant stories that may strike us as blatantly inconsistent. They also did not hesitate to incorporate elements of the supernatural into the record, something modern history writers are unlikely to do. The whole issue of a correct chronology was just not that important to the biblical writers. They were mainly concerned with preserving the various stories of God’s encounter with humankind, and not so worried about chronological details.
Do we need a new chronological Bible? Probably not — nor do we really need the mind-boggling array of specialty scriptures that Bible publishers have tweaked and targeted to every possible demographic. I suspect Thomas Nelson needs the business more than we need a new Bible.
Even so, if the new product inspires even one person to get turned on to a serious engagement with the Bible, it will be worth the effort.