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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Context of Genre, Part 3, by Craig S. Keener

Other sayings of Jesus help us further. For instance, Jesus himself did not take Mk 10:11 literally: he regarded the Samaritan woman as married five times, not as married once and committing only adultery thereafter (Jn 4:18). Further, Jesus himself allows an exception in two of the four passages where he addresses divorce. A follower of Christ must not break up their marriage, but if their spouse breaks it up by sexual unfaithfulness, Jesus does not punish the innocent person (Matt 5:32; 19:9). In that case, the marriage may be broken, but only one person is guilty of breaking it. (Because both Jewish and Roman law required divorce for adultery, Mark and Luke could assume this exception without having to state it explicitly.) When Paul quotes Jesus’ prohibition of divorce, he tells Christians not to divorce their spouses, whether or not the spouses are Christian (1 Cor 7:10-14). But if the spouse leaves, the Christian is not held responsible for the spouse’s behavior (1 Cor 7:15). His wording, “not under bondage,” “not bound” (7:15), is the very language used in ancient Jewish divorce contracts for freedom to remarry. Paul therefore applies Jesus’ teaching as a demand for faithfulness to marriage, not a statement about breaking up marriages: Christians must never break up their own marriages, but if the marriage is broken against their will, we must not punish them, either. Jesus spoke to defend an innocent spouse, not to make their condition more difficult!

We need to listen carefully to why Jesus speaks certain ways, and to examine all of his teachings to discern when he speaks literally and when he overstates his point parabolically.

Even though Jesus is not really calling Christians to break up remarriages, this does not mean we should not take seriously what he is saying. The point of a deliberate overstatement is not to let us say, “Oh, that is just overstatement; we may ignore it.” The point of overstatement is to grab our attention, to force us to consider how serious is Jesus’ demand. Genuine repentance (expressed in restitution) cancels past sins, but one cannot premeditate sin and expect one’s repentance to be genuine. Christians are not held responsible for marriages broken against their wills, but they are responsible before God to do everything genuinely in their power to make their marriages work. In this example, we have tried to show how we need to listen carefully to why Jesus speaks certain ways, and to examine all of his teachings to discern when he speaks literally and when he overstates his point parabolically. But overstatements are not meant to be ignored; they are meant to grip our attention all the more! We should also add two words of caution: Jesus himself uses principles like “compassion rather than sacrifice” (Matt 9:13; 12:7) and looking for the heart of the message (Matt 5:21-22; 23:23-24). But also we should be honest in grappling with what he says: proper fear of God will give us integrity in searching for truth—rather than trying to justify how we want to live (cf. Prov 1:7).

 

Gospels

The Gospels are a specific kind of narrative, but rather than treating them only as narrative we make some special points here. The Gospels fit the format of ancient biographies. (Some early twentieth century scholars disputed this premise, but more recent scholarship has increasingly returned to the historic view that the Gospels are ancient biographies.)

Proper fear of God will give us integrity in searching for truth—rather than trying to justify how we want to live.

Ancient biographers followed some fairly standard conventions in their writing, but some of these differed from the ways we write biographies today. For example, ancient biographies sometimes started with their subject’s adulthood (as in Mark or John) and sometimes arranged their story in topical more than chronological order (so, for example, Matthew’s reports of Jesus’ teaching; that is why events are not always in the same order from one Gospel to another). Nevertheless, biographers were not free to make up new stories about their heroes; they could choose which stories to report and put them in their own words, but other writers criticized those who made stories up. Further, one need not quote people verbatim, though one did have to get correct the sense of what they meant. Knowing such details about various kinds of ancient narratives helps us be even more precise when we learn principles for interpreting narratives. (We can also identify other kinds of narratives in the Bible more specifically than we have; for example, the Book of Acts is a special kind of history book that was common in the first century.)

The Gospels fit the format of ancient biographies.

Here we offer just a few comments on the historical trustworthiness of the Gospels as ancient biographies, using Luke 1:1-4 as a simple outline. We know from Luke 1:1 that by the time that Luke wrote, many written sources (other Gospels) were already in circulation. (Most of those Gospels no longer exist. Apart from the Gospels in the New Testament, all first-century Gospels have been lost. The so-called “Lost Gospels” some people speak about are forgeries, novels, or sayings-collections from later eras.) Luke himself writes in the lifetime of some of the apostles, and already many others have written before him! People were writing Gospels when others still remembered Jesus’ teachings very accurately.

Teachers expected their students, their disciples, to memorize and propagate their teachings—that was the main duty of disciples.

Further, there were many oral stories about Jesus being passed on that went back to the eyewitnesses (Lk 1:2). Many African societies have members of the tribe (in some places called a griot) who can recall centuries of information that matches well with written records of European travelers. Ancient Mediterranean people were excellent with memory. Schoolchildren learned by rote memorization, focusing on sayings of famous teachers. Orators regularly memorized speeches that were hours in length. Teachers expected their students, their disciples, to memorize and propagate their teachings—that was the main duty of disciples. Students regularly took notes, and often ancient teachers attest that students reported their teachings exactly as the teachers gave them (for documentation, see the introduction in Craig Keener, Matthew [InterVarsity, 1996], or the more detailed volume I wrote for Eerdmans). It is historically naive to doubt that Jesus’ disciples accurately passed on his teachings; that was precisely what ancient disciples were for!

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2005

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. sites.google.com/site/drckeener

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