For example, “The next day…,” the gospel of John begins after the introduction of John the baptizer (John 1:29 NIV). Then Jesus enters the story, and a few lines later John writes again, “The next day…” (John 1:35). Often the sequential information is quite specific, as in this instance just a few sentences later: “So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon” (John 1:39). Reading the gospels, I generally have a clear sense of when each event happened with respect to what happened before and after.
That said, although each gospel sounds unambiguously chronological, the same stories told in several accounts often come at crazily different times in Jesus’ last years.
Take Jesus’ famous temple tantrum.
(Sorry. Just can’t resist. It’s either that pun or else an analogy to a similar—though admittedly less virtuous—anger episode of my own, which my daughters refer to as my “closet fit” because it took place in their closet. But temple fit just doesn’t sound as good as temple tantrum.)
Anyway, all four gospels recount this event, but whereas John’s telling happens very early on in his account and early on—just after the wine miracle in Cana—in Jesus' three years of preaching and teaching, in the tellings of Matthew, Mark, and Luke the anger episode comes very close to the end of Jesus’ life.
This really bothers me, I’ve got to say. What bothers me more, though, are the efforts of theologians to smooth my irritation over with tidy explanations, such as that Jesus had more than one temple tantrum. Or that the events are rearranged in John for stylistic or theological reasons and that the chronological references are at best rhetorical and at worst meaningless. I don’t want them tidying God’s story. I want it the way it really is. I want to have to deal with it.
And if this sort of thing happened just this once, it wouldn’t vex me too much—or, anyway, not any more than any other seeming glitch of scripture vexes me. I believe in a holy write that's 100% God-authored but also 100% humanly produced—and thus no more contradictory than Jesus himself. And human-authored texts are rife with contradictions. And errors.
But such chronological misalignments and mismatched tellings don't happen just once. They happen over and over and over again. There are three accounts of the woman who dumps perfume on Jesus’ head and rubs it in with her hair, to give just one example, and each one is different. And again, historians and theologians rush to account for the differences with multiple-story theories and rhetorical arguments. But how could it possibly be that more than one woman ever did that to Jesus?
I take some comfort in one repeated story: the feeding of the hordes. In one account it’s four thousand, in another five thousand. In one there’s a boy’s lunch of bread and fish, in another there's no boy mentioned. In total, there are six separate accounts of the feeding in the gospels. But what fixes things in my mind is that Matthew and Mark each include both a four thousand and a five thousand story, so they’re themselves asserting, in effect, that there were multiple feedings of the multitudes. And these assertions get at, for me, the crux of what might be going on (apart from a millennia-long game of telephone, in which a story gets passed down through so many mouths that it becomes unintelligible).
Here’s what I think: the same things did keep happening over and over again, just as those theologians and Mark and Matthew themselves say. And just as the same things keep happening over and over again in our own lives.
As I was telling my creative writing students this afternoon, people, in real life, repeat themselves. It’s what defines them as individuals—that they always do this or that. That they routinely make these gestures, say these phrases, throw this sort of party, tell this sort of story.
I like to go to funerals, for example—even funerals of people I barely know or don’t know at all. Something about a funeral makes me feel God’s presence especially clearly. I like to pray-worry about the widows and other loved ones left behind. I like to be part of the community supporting them by my own presence. I like the ritual and pomp of it all. And, at every funeral I go to, I run into the same people—other locals who, like me, attend all the funerals and study the corpses and shake hands with the family members and probably sense throughout God’s hovering presence. We repeat ourselves. Repeat one another.
All this to say I’ve come to accept that Jesus probably had more than one temple tantrum. The same irritating stuff kept happening in those days at church. And he kept on getting fed up with it. And every so often he went in and flipped out and flipped their tables over. (Relax: I'm not going to use the word flipping again.) And the more Jesus does the same thing over and over again, the more real he becomes in my mind, the more believable.
Which is to say, accepting multiple temple fits helps me do God’s work, because isn’t that what Jesus said the work of God was: “to believe in the one he sent” (John 6:29)?