I lied to my wife yesterday.
Okay, maybe I didn’t lie. But I didn’t exactly tell her the whole truth, either.
I work in the produce section at Target. While my wife and I were grocery shopping after my shift, she pointed out that there were no avocados. I told her that we hadn’t had any avocados all day long.
“In fact,” I said, “a woman came in earlier today asking if we had any avocados. I told her we didn’t, but I hunted around a bit to see if I could find any that were out of place. I ended up finding one single avocado, the only avocado in the whole store. But when I handed it to her, she looked at me with sad eyes and said, ‘But I need two.’”
Now, here’s the rub: there were actually two women in this story. They were, I assumed, mother and daughter. The mother is the one who asked me if we had any avocados; the daughter is the one who sadly said she needed two. But when I told the story to my wife, I unconsciously conflated the two women into one.
Immediately after I finished telling the story, I began to wonder why I had told it in the way that I did. It would have been more truthful to say that there were two women. I decided it came down to two primary reasons: setting and content.
First, we were walking quickly through a grocery store. My wife was busy scanning her list and looking for certain items. We were trying to finish our shopping quickly and get home. Thus, I wanted to speak quickly and to-the-point. Due to the setting in which we found ourselves, it was much more convenient a story to tell when there were only two characters.
Second, it really wasn’t a very good story. It wasn’t important to me or to my wife. If I had added the second woman, the story would have had more characters and would have been bogged down in more details than it was worth. Contrary to the women who needed two avocados but only had one, I needed only one woman but found myself with two. So I did what any good storyteller would have done. I killed one off.
The Demoniac of Matthew and Mark
As I reflected on this, I was reminded of the story of Jesus and the demoniac recorded in Matthew 8:28-34 and Mark 5:1-20. There are many differences between these two stories, but by far the most striking difference is the number of demoniacs. In Matthew there are two demoniacs, whereas in Mark there is only one.
One of the first questions most people want to ask when they read these two sections side-by-side is, “Well, which is it? Were there one or two demoniacs?”
On the one hand, we could say that it’s in Mark’s style to write succinctly and to-the-point. It makes sense that historically there were two demoniacs but Mark merged them into one character for simplicity’s sake. This is the same thought process behind my conflation of the mother and daughter in Target. However, we must also take into consideration that Mark’s version of the story, even though it only tells of one demoniac, is much longer than Matthew’s version. So perhaps this theory doesn’t hold up quite as well as we’d like.
On the other hand, we could say that it’s a motif for Matthew to multiply certain things by two. The blind man in Mark 10 and Luke 18 splits into two blind men in Matthew 20. The donkey Jesus rides in Mark 11, Luke 9, and John 12 becomes two donkeys in Matthew 21. Maybe Matthew just likes to embellish and add characters for some reason.
The point is, we can’t be sure if there were one or two demoniacs. And honestly, questions concerning the historicity of the Gospels aren’t all that helpful. The biblical authors are not 21st century historians. They are, however, very good storytellers.
One of the biggest conventions of storytelling is truth-fudging. While this is especially true for fiction stories, it is also just as true for non-fiction. Usually we tell stories with a purpose. We want a response. We want to persuade people to feel a certain emotion, to think a certain thought, to act a certain way. When we tell persuasive stories we delete useless information, add interesting tidbits, and exaggerate boring details. It’s more impactful to tell my boss “I hit every stoplight on my way to work!” than the more truthful “I hit six out of ten stop lights on my way to work!”
If this is true for us, I believe it’s also true for the biblical authors. Modern historical writers do their best to remain unbiased; biblical writers are unapologetically biased. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are very much persuading their audience to understand and believe who Jesus is.
But I’m not saying the biblical writers are lying or writing fiction. To borrow the language of a professor of mine, I very much believe that the events to which the biblical narratives point are real events in a real past. But when we read the narratives in the Bible, we are not reading the events themselves. We are reading one perspective of the event. A theologically bent perspective. With many motivations, including to evangelize, to teach, to warn, to rebuke. They do all of this through the truth-fudging art of storytelling.
The Bible is the inerrant and inspired Word of God. The Bible is a book of history about the work of God on behalf of his people. However, the Bible is also a literary work of art.
My goal with this new blog is to help people understand that just because the Bible is inspired by God doesn’t mean the Bible has to be boring. Biblical authors play with words. They build suspense. They draw out irony. They appeal to emotions. They pique curiosity. They fuel the imagination. They just do it in ways that look a little bit different from our literature today.
Let’s stop trying to get back to the historical events hiding behind biblical narratives, because we can’t. Instead, let’s allow ourselves to be captivated by the masterful literary experiences created by these men and women whose artistic hands were inspired by the creator of all.
P.S. The story I told at the beginning of this post actually happened at two different Targets, but to make the story easier to tell in a blog post, I conflated the two stores into one.