This is the third article in a series on the quality of eyewitness evidence and the implications it has for the gospels. The full list of topics covered in this series are as follows: The problems of suggestibility, bias, chronology, transience, the unreliability of eyewitness testimony in a court of law, and finally the implications of all of this for the gospels.
The Problem of Chronology
When it comes to eyewitness memory, it is rare for these memories to contain within themselves details concerning chronology in general and dates in particular. While things like people, emotions, locations, and settings are hallmarks of eyewitness memories, exact order and chronological placement are not. Richard Bauckham explains that “If people wish to date these memories, they usually do so by inference from other information that the memory does contain.”
When people today are relating stories that they themselves witnessed, or even participated in, the exact order of events may become fuzzy. One might vividly remember several episodes at a previous workplace, and yet not be immediately aware of exactly when those episodes took place, or even when they took place relative to each other. Of course, their chronology may be inferred by other information. But that just is the point: Chronological information is generally not intrinsic to eyewitness memories.
Given this weakness of eyewitness memory, it might be concerning, from a purely historical perspective, if the gospel authors attempted to give a ridged chronology of Jesus’ life. Indeed, since we know that eyewitness memory rarely preserves such details, if those details were insisted upon by the gospel authors, we would be within our historical rights to be wary of their accuracy. How encouraging, then, to find that the gospels rarely insist on exact chronological progression. While it is common to find the gospels describing a location or setting for an event, there is very little in the way of chronology – except the beginning and end of Jesus’ public ministry. And so, Bauckham concludes that, “While this issue deserves further study, it is relatively easy to see that the chronological data in the Gospels fit the phenomena of recollective memory, in which memories would include indications of dating…only for specific reasons.”
A Problem for the Gospels?
But how does that help the gospels? Doesn’t this just prove that eyewitness testimony is unreliable in this respect? It would seem that all this point would prove, at most, is that the gospels are no worse than other accounts dependent on eyewitness memory. But just because they are no worse doesn’t mean they are good! What we need is some reason for thinking that a lack of chronology does not necessarily imply unreliability. To establish this, let me direct your attention to the greatest biographer of the ancient world: Plutarch.
Should we consider Plutarch's account historically unreliable because he has altered the chronology, and altered intentionally? It hardly seems so.
Plutarch wrote over fifty biographies of such figures as Alexander the Great, Caesar, Pompey, and Augustus. Curiously, he exhibits a tendency to fudge the chronology of various events that, in many cases, he himself recorded in his previous biographies. In fact, this practice is so common that classical scholars have given it a name: Displacement. And it isn’t just Plutarch who does this. It seems that the genre of ancient biography as a whole felt free to diverge from strict or known chronology, “especially when they had literary reasons to do so.” A few examples of something qualifying as a “literary reason” would be if it helps to emphasize a theme, helps to emphasize the life or character of the subject, or if it helps to make the story more understandable.
Perhaps a few concrete examples will help:
Philippus…would not give Marcia in marriage until Cato himself was present and joined in giving the bride away. This incident occurred at a later time, it is true, but since I had taken up the topic of the women of Cato’s household I decided to anticipate it. (Plutarch, Cato Minor, 25.5)
Take note that Plutarch is injecting an event that "occurred at a later time" into the narrative. Should we consider Plutarch's account historically unreliable because he has altered the chronology, and altered intentionally? It hardly seems so. Suppose Plutarch had decided not to tell us that the chronology had been altered, would it be unreliable then? It's hard to see why it would.
For just such an example, consider Plutarch’s biography of Cato Minor. In it he records Pompey’s marriage to Julia prior to Caesar’s proposal of various land distribution laws:
Accordingly, Caesar gave up his triumph, entered the city, and at once attached himself to Pompey and sought the consulship. After he had been elected consul, he gave his daughter Julia in marriage to Pompey, and now that the two were united with one another against the state, the one would bring in laws offering allotment and distribution of land to the poor, and the other would be at hand with support for the laws…Accordingly, not only was the law for the distribution of lands passed, but also a clause was added requiring the whole senate to swear solemnly that it would uphold the law. (Cato Minor 31.1-5; 32:1-6)
However, in his biography of Pompey, Plutarch records Pompey’s marriage to Julia after Caesar’s proposal:
Caesar was, indeed, chosen consul; but he at once paid his court to the indigent and pauper classes by proposing measures for the founding of cities and the distribution of lands…However, by his [Pompey’s] subsequent acts he made it clear that he had now wholly given himself up to do Caesar’s bidding [passing land distribution laws]. For to everybody’s surprise he married Julia. (Pompey 47.1-6)
So which is it? Does Pompey marry Julia before or after Caesar begins proposing land distribution laws? More importantly, does this threaten the historical reliability of these accounts in particular, or of Plutarch in general? Again, it hardly seems so. And these are not isolated cases. Plutarch is prone to disagree not only with his own chronology, but also with the chronology of other historians.
All in all, it would seem that chronological precision is much more important to modern Western readers than it was to ancient readers. But just because it is important to us does not mean that its absence implies unreliability. In fact, a rigid adherence to chronology may actually frustrate the more important goal of showing the reader a facet of the subject’s life. Perhaps some aspect of the subject’s life lends itself to being emphasized thematically, but not chronologically. For example, the five episodes in Jesus’ life recorded in Mark 2:1-3:6 may not have happened in exact chronological succession. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Mark intends for the reader to see all five of these episodes as a single unit (note the repeated structure in all five: First Jesus’ surprising behavior, second the push-back by those who are watching, and third Jesus’ surprising response). Their arrangement here brings into sharp relief important themes in Jesus’ life. Namely, Jesus’ astonishing authority, His counter-cultural practices, and His conflict with the religious leaders of His day. Perhaps such themes would be obscured if the gospel had been written chronologically.
Insisting on chronological order may actually obscure what the subject was really like, or what they really believed.
Finally, even in our own lives, we recognize that a lack of chronology often does nothing to hurt the reliability of one’s recollection of past events. “When you go home for vacation and your parents ask what did you do this semester, nobody gets out their date book and says, I did this on September 1…”
In summary, it is rather uncontroversial to say that eyewitness memory, and therefore eyewitness testimony, does not do a good job of keeping track of exact chronology. However, this shouldn’t pose a significant problem for the gospels. Most biographies of history don’t concern themselves with strict chronology, and the greatest of ancient biographers felt free to reorder events for literary purposes. And yet, we consider these authors and their accounts to be reliable enough to give us large swaths of historical knowledge. Further, a lack of chronology may be necessary in order to accurately relate the more important features of a subject’s life. In other words, insisting on chronological order may actually obscure what the subject was really like, or what they really believed. And finally, a lack of chronology doesn’t bother us when relating events most of the time in our own lives. The gospel’s reliance on eyewitness testimony, and therefore their lack of chronology, causes them to suffer no deficiency with respect to historical reliability.
 Richard Bauckham. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Second edition, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 333.
 Bauckham, Eyewitness, 344.
 Michael R. Licona. Why Are There Differences In The Gospels? What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 20.
 Craig Keener. Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019), 383. See also Licona, Differences, 32-33, 47, 50-51, 89-91, 110 (with reference to the Gospels on 136, 163, 185-96), cited in Keener, Christobiography, 383 (footnote).
 Licona, Differences, 47.
 Plutarch, Caesar 30.3 // Pompey 59.1. Caesar 15.3; 35.1-37.5; 39.1-41.3; Antony 6.1-4; 8.1-2 // Pompey 62.1-67.6. Caesar 60.3-5 // Antony 12.1-4. Cicero 44.2-4 // Antony 16.3-4. See also Licona, Differences, 70.
 Suetonius, Caesar 79.1; Dio, History of Rome 44.10.1, 11.1; Appion, The Civil Wars 2.108-9 // Plutarch, Caesar60.2; 61.4. Suetonius, Caesar 79.10; Nicolaus of Damascus, Life of Caesar 130.20-21; Dio, History of Rome44.10.2-11.3 // Plutarch, Caesar 60.2, 61.4; Antony 12.1-4. See also Licona, Differences, 89.
 Keener, Christobiography, 383, 138-142.
 Matthew is probably doing something similar when he records Jesus’ sermon on the mount in Matthew 5-7.
 Keener, Christobiography, 142.