The Bible Project New Testament Overview: story and history

Read time: 10 minutes

Alex asked what I thought of The Bible Project’s telling of the biblical story in this video. The video is called a “New Testament Overview”, but really it’s a lively, line-drawn, animated presentation of the “epic complicated story of God’s covenant partnership with Israel and all humanity”. The point is pressed that both parts of the Bible tell “one unified story that leads to Jesus”. The Old Testament offers “core themes” and “plot conflict” arranged in “design patterns”—everything you need to make sense of the story to follow. The drama is worked out in three acts, a pattern which is repeated in the literary structure of the New Testament. You can watch it here or a larger version on YouTube.

Act 1: God and humanity. Humans are created as God’s partners in ruling the world but they are foolish and rebel and are exiled from the garden temple of Eden. There is a downward spiral of violence and oppression leading to the “big, bad city of Babylon”. But God loves the world and its foolish humans and sets in motion a rescue plan, promising the eventual arrival of a “new human who will destroy the evil that has lured us into self-destruction” (Gen. 3:15).

  • I would not say that the Bible gives us the story of “God’s covenant partnership with Israel and all humanity”. Yes, the story is “epic” and “complicated”, and the whole of humanity is sometimes in view—notably, of course, in the creation account. But it is really the story of God’s covenant partnership with his people in the context of the more powerful nations of the Ancient Near East and, later, the Greek-Roman world. This will be a recurrent criticism: the video repeatedly generalises from a historical story about Israel and the nations to a cosmic story about God and humanity.
  • The emphasis on the the whole of Genesis 1-11 as the setting the stage for what follows is important. It preserves the element of personal responsibility but also brings into focus the social and political dimensions of humanity’s revolt against the creator. Babel anticipates Babylon. But I disagree with the argument that Genesis 3:15 sets in motion a rescue plan. On the one hand, I don’t think that the prediction of conflict between the “seed” of the serpent and the “seed” of the woman is in any way meant as a messianic prophecy. On the other, the explicit response of God to humanity’s revolt is not to send a messiah but to call into existence a new creation people. This programme is not presented as a rescue plan.

Act 2: God and Israel. The pattern of Act 1 is repeated in the story of Israel. Abraham and Sarah are the beginning of a new creation in the Land. God promises that “through them divine blessing will be restored to all the nations”. Surely, then, these are the new humans that we are waiting for. Again, it all spirals out of control and ends in exile, but the assurance remains: a new human will come from Abraham’s lineage who will be a priest-king, who will now have to rescue both Israel and humanity from Babylon to restore God’s blessing to the world.

  • God says to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2–3). I’m not sure that this is the same as saying that “through them divine blessing will be restored to all the nations”. The nations remain distinct from Israel, but they will be blessed—benefited in some way—by the presence of faithful Israel in their midst.
  • The idea that humanity needs to be rescued from Babylon takes us well beyond the narrative logic of the Old Testament into old-fashioned allegorisation. Babylon is not an ethical abstraction, another word for “sin”. Babylon is a real place, a powerful empire, ideologically and politically hostile to Israel, with a real king and a real population. Only Israel is in exile, only Israel needs to be rescued. But the outcome of that salvation will result in the far-reaching political-religious realignment of the ancient world, with the real city of Jerusalem, rather than the real city of Babylon, at its hub.
  • It is too much to suggest that the diverse figures who were expected to play a part in the restoration of Israel and establishment of YHWH’s rule over the nations consisted in a single messianic person.
  • I don’t think there is any basis for the claim that the “priest-king” descended from Abraham was expected to be a “new human”. The concept doesn’t exist in the Old Testament.

Act 3: the prophets and poets. The prophets accuse Israel and all nations of evil. They announce that one day God will arrive to bring the day of the Lord and deliver his world from Babylon through a promised royal priest, who will suffer like a slave and die for the sins of Israel and all humanity. But then he will be exalted as king over the nations. He will call others to leave Babylon and join the new covenant people who will partner with God to rule over a new Jerusalem, that is a new creation.

  • The prophets are not much interested in all humanity. Their criticism is directed at Israel’s hostile and idolatrous neighbours. They are dealing with history; they prophecy within the limited horizons of history. The “day of the Lord” is a moment in history—there are several of them—when YHWH will rectify a real historical mess; it is not the absolute or comprehensive deliverance of “his world” from an abstract Babylonian captivity.
  • There is no composite “suffering royal priest” in the Prophets. This is a blatant retrojection of statements about Jesus that even in the New Testament remain largely distinct.
  • Isaiah describes the restoration of Jerusalem and the Land in “new creation” language: he “makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD” (Is 51:3). But “the new heavens and the new earth” of Isaiah 65:17; 66:22 is a metaphor for covenant renewal: “the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Is. 65:17). This is not the final renewal of all things that John describes in Revelation 21:1-8.

The Gospels. The same story is found in the New Testament carried forward through Jesus. He is the promised son of Abraham and the “new human” who will defeat evil and restore the partnership with God. Jesus acts and speaks as if he is Israel’s divine king but he refers to himself as the “Son of Man”, that is, the “human one”, who will act like a servant. In Jesus Israel’s God has become the faithful Israelite and true human that we are all made to be but have failed. Jesus defeats the evil in us by allowing it to kill him on his paradoxical throne, the cross.

  • The Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels acts and speaks as one who has been given the authority to act and speak on YHWH’s behalf. The kingship relation is clearly and unambiguously defined by reference to Psalm 110:1. The kyrios who is YHWH says to the kyrios who is the greater king than David, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool” (cf. Matt. 22:44; 26:64; Mk. 12:36; Lk. 20:42).
  • To speak of the “Son of Man” as the “human one” obscures the point of the allusion to Daniel 7:13-14. Daniel’s “one like a son of man” is not the beginning of a new humanity but the symbolic representation of the persecuted righteous in Israel, who will eventually be vindicated before the throne of God and given rule over the nations formerly under the power of the beastly empire.

Letters from the apostles. Jesus was raised to life as the “prototype of a new humanity”. His followers are empowered to “spread the light and love of Jesus out into the world” and to invite people to join Jesus’ “multi-ethnic family, the new humanity”. All humanity was trapped in a Babylonian exile but Jesus came to create a new home.

  • I agree that the resurrection of Jesus marked the beginning of a new ontology. But the New Testament makes very little of this aspect. The focus is almost entirely on the fact that by his resurrection from the dead and exaltation to the right hand of God, in “fulfilment” of Psalm 110:1, he has been made the king who will judge and rule over both Israel and the nations currently subject to the Roman oppressor.
  • The apostles do not “spread the light and love of Jesus out into the world”. This is a very modern inoffensive reinterpretation of the gospel. The message was that YHWH had made his Son king, that the old political-religious order of the ancient world was about to be overturned, and that sooner or later the nations of the empire would bow the knee to Jesus and confess him as Lord. For many of those involved it would mean death and destruction.

The Revelation. There whole biblical story comes together in the book of Revelation. Jesus is the slaughtered Lamb who is exalted as the divine king of the world. He leads his people out of Babylon into a final new creation. Heaven and earth are reunited and the new humans take up their appointed task from the Bible’s first page to rule the world together in the love and power of God.

  • Again, the book of Revelation has been turned upside down and the historical content tipped out, leaving us with an empty box. The Lamb which was slain is expressly authorised to open the seals that will unleash the wrath of God—first, I think, against Israel, then against Rome, Babylon the great.
  • I don’t think that John depicts the new heaven and earth as a reversion to the first creation. There is no attempt to depict the beginning of a new humanity, no restatement of the creation mandate to multiply and exercise dominion over the natural order. The dead are raised, they are judged, and those whose names are found in the book of life will live with God (Rev. 21:6-7). That’s about it.

So I think that what The Bible Project people have done is to retell the biblical story from a modern universalising, creation-oriented perspective. They have made it a story about how God produces a new world rather than a story about how God manages the concrete existence of his people in history. Far too much is made of the theme of a new humanity, far too little of the political dynamics that shape the story of Israel into the New Testament and beyond.

This has been a critique from a particular point of view. If we take the video on its own terms, I would say that it does a remarkably good job of demonstrating both the power of a narrative theology and the narrative coherence of the Bible; and it does it better, and certainly more succinctly, than a lot of narrative reconstructions that I’ve seen. But it falls short of a narrative-historical hermeneutic.

Narrative in scripture functions on three main levels. There is a lower level of personal and family stories, which is the level at which much evangelical theology operates. There is a rarefied upper level which houses the story of humanity and the cosmos, running from creation to new creation, which to my mind is the level that The Bible Project video attempts to include in its reading of scripture. The Bible is not interested in a cosmic story apart from humanity, which is why we struggle to accommodate modern scientific perspectives on the origins and extent of the universe.

But between these two levels, and far more important than both, is the dominant, persistent narrative of God’s covenant people and their relation to the powerful nations and cultures of the ancient world in history, in all its complexity and messiness. It is a story about historical events and it has in view historical outcomes.

The personal and cosmic narratives impinge on the historical narrative at certain points, but we turn the whole thing inside out if, for example, we make the exile in Babylon a metaphor for humanity’s captivity to sin or Jesus’ resurrection only the beginning of a new humanity and not the inauguration of a new political state of affairs.

If the biblical narrative teaches us anything, it is that maintaining a credible witness to the reality of the living God over time, under changing historical conditions, is extremely difficult. The church in the West today cannot afford to overlook that lesson.

Thanks Andrew, you are exactly right that Babylon is being allegorized under the weight of Genesis 1-3. When juxtaposed with Luke’s use of Psalm 2 in Acts 4:25-28 this is wrongheaded. Luke does not transform the political enemies of the Lord and his anointed into spiritual elements like sin, death, and demons—he identifies them precisely as rulers, nations, and authorities.

If the biblical narrative teaches us anything, it is that maintaining a credible witness to the reality of the living God over time, under changing historical conditions, is extremely difficult.

The video seems apathetic at best when it comes to this historical witness. I don’t think it gives the respect due to the hopes and expectations of the prophets and at the same time implies that those who concern themselves with such things are misunderstanding the kind of Messiah Jesus came to be. It’s an ever-popular idea: that Jesus came to show the Jews that their political hopes were in and of themselves idolatrous. That the desires for land, security, internal integrity, and the obedience of the nations to YHWH were all along misplaced.

I wonder if this allegorization of Babylon and emphasis on the cosmic narrative is ultimately an attempt to dissociate the Bible from Christendom and the entangling of Judaism/Christianity with political power.

@Alex :

I’ve often wondered if it wasn’t the result of Greco-Roman Gentile believers trying to find relevance for themselves in Scriptures primarily concerned with the experience of Israel among the nations.

@Alex :

I wonder if this allegorization of Babylon and emphasis on the cosmic narrative is ultimately an attempt to dissociate the Bible from Christendom and the entangling of Judaism/Christianity with political power.

I think Phil has a point. In the first place, allegorical interpretation was an attempt to retain the relevance of the Old Testament as the church in the Greek-Roman world lost touch with the historical narrative and developed a rational theology.

But I agree that a reluctance to take ownership of Christendom now gets in the way of a historical reading of the biblical narrative. Or more positively, the evangelical movement is perhaps rightly looking for good ways to tell the story in an increasingly global culture that is very much preoccupied with both the question of what constitutes authentic humanity and the threat of environmental catastrophe. As an imaginative, self-conscious, “missional” or polemical retelling with those concerns in mind, I think the video has a lot to recommend it. But we have to preserve the hermeneutical tension between that retelling and the necessary historical reading of the texts.

@Andrew Perriman:

Or more positively, the evangelical movement is perhaps rightly looking for good ways to tell the story in an increasingly global culture that is very much preoccupied with both the question of what constitutes authentic humanity and the threat of environmental catastrophe.

That’s a great point I hadn’t considered.  

peter wilkinson | Fri, 09/28/2018 - 21:39 | Permalink

By a curious coincidence, a group I am part of was watching this last night. I have a copy of the diagram, which is just as well, as the presentation rattled through in just over 12 minutes.

The presentation simplifies a much more complex story considerably, and my response was not dissimilar to yours. Nevertheless, following the threefold division of the Hebrew scriptures is a step in the right direction, I think, as it helps explain more fully the purpose of the earlier narrative books, for instance (the former prophets). The OT is using history to serve the needs of Israel in its post exile present, and is to an extent mythologising its past, just as Paul imo reinterpreted the OT in the light of Jesus. So the presentation could be said to be following in the line of precedents set by the scriptures themselves.

As it happens, I may be leading a discussion on the section on the exile in a few weeks’ time, once I have discovered what it says. The presentation last night certainly stimulated lively discussion.

@peter wilkinson:

Actually 8 minutes and 17 seconds, unless you have an extended version.

It seems to me that the three part structure works much better for the Old Testament than for the New Testament. The attempt to match Genesis 1-11 against the Gospels and Acts, the Torah and historical writings against the epistles, and the prophets against Revelation seems especially contrived. But I agree that it is a step in the right direction.

@Andrew Perriman:

I haven’t got to the parallels with the NT yet. I was thinking more about the Torah/Prophets/Writings division, but not as any kind of three act drama. I must have missed that in the speed of the presentation. At the foot of the video clip it had 12 minutes 23 seconds — I think!

@Andrew Perriman:

Just realised you were looking at the Bible Project’s New Testament, while I was looking at the Old (Tanak). I thought your post wasn’t really connecting! But at 12:23 it’s worth watching too.

Daniel Lowe | Fri, 07/05/2019 - 22:07 | Permalink

Dude this is awesome! I’ve been looking for something like your narrative-historical theology. It really captures a lot of the different ways I’ve been thinking about scripture in the past couple of years. 

A couple questions: 

What do you think of the idea that story and narrative are not the same thing? I think a lot of literary thinkers make this distinction in that story is a wider meaning making enterprise, whereas narrative is a subset of “story”?

Also, what do you think of the argument that history is also a subset of story? I think it was Milton Meltzer that argued that history is a type of collective memory and meaning making practice that helped us to locate and make sense of our current experiences. 

Could it be possible that both “narrative” and “historical” are subsets of “story”? If so, could your narrative-historical theology be called simply “story theology”?

@Daniel Lowe:

Thank you, Daniel.

1. This may just be a matter of personal preference. Because “narrative” is the more “technical” term (to my ear), I’m inclined to give it the “wider meaning making” sense, keeping “story” for the individual stories that are told within it. But I also tend to alternate between the two indiscriminately for stylistic variation.

2. I’m reluctant to subordinate history to story/narrative. There’s a good reason for doing so—there is no history apart from historiography. But I think it’s important that we retain some sense of the continuity between the historical experience of the biblical communities and our own historical experience. So “narrative-historical” is my way of maintaining that tension.