Passages of Time
Charles J. Colton on the Gap Theory & Biblical Chronologies
When I was a student in my church’s youth group, we debated the “Gap Theory,” which posits that there is an unspecified span of time between the first two verses of the Bible. The venerable Scofield Reference Bible had left open the door to that possibility, which made our discussion of the subject acceptable. The adults in charge didn’t really like the theory, however, because of the way it gave ground to all those “atheistic evolutionists.”
The concern, it seemed, wasn’t really about propositional truth; it mostly was about proper associations. So we were made to understand that Genesis 1:1–2 said what it said, and that the earth was quite young,―if only to make us different.
I’ll bet that more than a few readers now have me pegged as a conflicted post-fundamentalist who clings to decidedly old, discredited solutions to questions about early Genesis that few are even debating today. But I am suggesting neither that there is a gap, nor that there isn’t one. We simply don’t know, and it’s okay to be agnostic over things about which Scripture is not clear. I have met folks for whom everything is perfectly clear, and uniformly found that they don’t seem to be nice people. They are not bad people,―just not nice people.
The Biblical Narrative Mode
From my own reading of the Scriptures I have found that, while the inspired Hebrew writers apparently bothered themselves with sequential accuracy, they did not concern themselves as much with spatial precision. They were not inaccurate; they simply did not trouble themselves to mark out the exact time between events. They were not unscientific, but prescientific, at least in this regard.
Unannounced “gaps” are common in the narrative literature of both the Old and New Testaments, and not just in the genealogies. Just as Hebrew poetry is quite unlike our own, so Hebrew narrative differs from ours. It is real history and all true, but not the kind of true history that we would write.
Of course, literary scholars are not unaware of this and other “tricks” of the writing trade. They would draw our attention to the fact that narratives may contain sizable gaps in time for any number of purposes, such as to allow rapid movement toward a climax or to connect related events that would otherwise be separated.
But a distinctive feature of the Hebrew Bible is the extent to which this is true. This observation leads Shimon Bar-Efrat (Narrative Art in the Bible) to write about the prevalence within the Hebrew Scriptures of “empty spaces of time” and about the “highly selective nature of biblical narrative.”
Sequence over Spacing
This penchant for temporal thrift shows up in the New Testament as well. In three places where John, a Galilean Jew, uses the phrase “after these things” (meta tauta) in his Gospel to introduce what happens next, with unmistakable reference to those events of which he has just written (5:1, 6:1, 7:1), there is a considerable passage of time. Within those gaps, several other significant events occur, as attested by the Synoptic writers. Aware of this “problem,” the New International Version in two places has “some time later” and “some time after this,” but in neither case is any duration of time supported by the Greek. It was supplied for spatial clarification.
So whereas the sequence of events is correct, the spacing of those events, as recorded, can appear to be a bit misleading, to us at least, no matter what connecting words the writer may have supplied. That is hardly to impugn the Bible’s accuracy; rather, it is to question what is in our bag of assumptions as we read the Bible for ourselves. Nor is it to question the Bible’s clarity, or its sufficiency; one’s view of the “gap” has no bearing upon one’s grasp of Christ, what he did to save us, and what we must do to be saved and sanctified. On those things the Bible is reasonably clear.
This attention to sequence but not spacing explains why Moses could write of Arphaxad “begetting” Shelah, all the while skipping over Cainan. Luke, good Greek that he was, would have none of that (3:35–36). Perhaps that is also the reason why Matthew, a Jewish man writing to Jewish people, could claim fourteen generations from Abraham to David, from David to the exile, and from the exile to Christ, omitting as many generations as was necessary to make it all “work out.” His concern was sequential, not spatial.
Reading with an Oriental Mind
Students of Scripture are aware that prophetic passages work the same way. There are passages that, while consistent with our modern penchant for sequential exactness, are at best ambiguous in terms of spatial accuracy. A well-known example is found in Isaiah 61:1–2, where the coming Messiah is said “to preach good news to the poor [and] . . . to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus will quote this passage as concerning himself (Luke 4:17–21), but leave off that last part about vengeance. That is because God’s vengeance is set in motion at Christ’s second advent, not his first. A sizeable gap separates the two halves of Isaiah 61:2.
So what does this have to do with Genesis 1:1–2? While we may argue for the sequence of events (i.e., the Spirit of God was hovering over a formless and empty earth sometime subsequent to its creation), we must not insist that those events are immediately connected. The unfinished and empty state of planet earth (v. 2) is consequential to what went on before (v. 1), and circumstantial to what follows (v. 3). It is the result of what went before, and the starting point for what comes next. But knowing that does little or nothing to suggest how long the earth had been that way.
To read the Hebrew Bible requires that we think like Hebrews think, and not just know Hebrew. It is far better to read from the English with an Oriental mind than to read from the Hebrew with a Western mind. We import more of our modern (Western) assumptions into our reading of Scripture than we realize. It is right to build a bridge between the sacred text and ourselves, so long as we’re careful to understand that traffic (i.e., meaning) along that bridge moves in but one direction.
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“Passages of Time” first appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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