Lets say, for the sake of example, that I was stranded on the proverbial desert island. This island, however, is special because I am not entirely cut off from the outside world. I have a few books at my disposal. In this small library, there are several books labeled history, and a few books labeled fiction. Among these books, I find an outlier, the Bible. It is not labeled fiction or fact. As I turn through the pages, I recognize several names and places that also correspond with my books of history. How could I, in this hypothetical situation, have greater confidence in my ability to discern fact from fiction in this literary work? What tools would help me know that the Bible is factual work like a book of history?
Proverbial islands aside, by looking at the content itself, there are several ways we might determine whether any literary document is telling the truth or not. One such tool is known as irrelevant or incidental details. Gregory Boyd says,
“All other things being equal, the inclusion of incidental details in a document tends to bolster a historian’s confidence in the historicity of the document. It’s evidence that the author was either an eyewitness to the events he records or is at least relying on material that goes back to eyewitnesses.”
JP Moreland agrees stating,
“ Some of the material in the Gospels is irrelevant to the issues facing the early church (50–90). So it is hard to attribute the creation of this material to the church. It must have been preserved, in spite of its lack of immediate relevance, because it came from Jesus himself.”
Typically, made up stories only include details that point to the main idea. Authors often include only the details that contribute to the fabrication. The inclusion of irrelevant details then is taken to be a mark of genuineness.
The endings of many of Paul’s letters contain irrelevant details. For example, he speaks to people we do not know (Colossians 4:7ff), or he addresses concerns in his final words that are not expounded upon (What happened to Tychicus in 2 Timothy 4:20?).
Mark also includes irrelevant details. Notice Mark 15:21:
They pressed into service a passer-by coming from the country, Simon of Cyrene (the father of Alexander and Rufus), to bear His cross.
This passage is an interesting example of insignificant details. We know the name of Simon of Cyrene, but nothing else. Additionally, the author includes the names of Simon’s two sons. These details are irrelevant to us today, but not to those in the first century. These would not have only been names to the readers, they would have also been people known by the early church, eyewitnesses.
Let me conclude by noting that irrelevant is not synonymous with theologically void. Many details in the Bible have a great deal to teach us, though they do not necessarily move the narrative forward or point us to the main idea.