Past Imperfect

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Now, here’s a thing –  I did French for five years at school and failed my GCE. Some thirty years later I went to an evening class and passed my GCSE.  The ‘past imperfect’ tense was a big part of both of these, and to this day I am still not sure what it is!

I was reminded of this, when I came across a book on my bookshelves, called ‘Past Imperfect’.  Actually, it is about real events in history and how they have been portrayed on film.  In general it seems that film-makers are often keen on ensuring historical accuracy in the fine detail (candlestick, belt-buckles, that sort of thing) but much less so in terms of narrative, motive and character.  Established historical events are often re-interpreted to reflect modern-day concerns and issues. (For example, the 1930’s Charge of the Light Brigade (made in America) reflected concerns about a growing tension in international relations whilst the 1960’s version (made in Britain) much more reflected the iniquities of the hierarchical class structure.

So, why is this important to us? Well, firstly because we do need to be aware that modern culture and entertainment often reflect the same obsession with historical accuracy in the detail combined with a wider interpretation and portrayal of events and actions that reflect modern-day issues.

Secondly, however, it can also lead us to think about the Scriptures, and this gives rise to two questions. The first is – ‘Can we trust the Scriptures themselves, are they in fact a misleading ‘Hollywood-ised version of the history of Israel and the life of Jesus’, with Hollywood in this case primarily represented by Peter, Paul and the other new testament writers putting their own ‘spin’ on the gospel story. In short, how can we be sure of the validity of the scriptures we have? The second question is – ‘How do we know that others, later on, haven’t cut away, added to or amended the texts we now have?

Of course, the Old Testament history presents a somewhat different problem to the New Testament, not least because the events described happened a long-time before. However, Jesus accepted the Old Testament in its entirety.  Some archaeologists have cast doubt on much of what is in the Old Testament, but others stoutly defend it. Having read this statement in an Israeli newspaper article I am sceptical of the doubters –

“If anything, archaeologists find inconsistencies between the biblical accounts and the facts. For example, the Book of Genesis mentions camels, but the earliest domestic camel bones found in Israel date to around 930 B.C.E., about a millennia after their appearance according to the Bible”[1]

In essence, say the doubters, we have not yet found camel bones that old, so there could not have been any! ( A newspaper headline I saw recently said ‘Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’, which surely applies here!)

For the New Testament, I think there are three main things that can be said, that cover both the questions above.

Firstly, we can be confident that our scriptures are accurate and reflect the original documents. On its website the The International Bible Society says this of the underlying historical record [2]:

“…. On this level the evidence is utterly astonishing. No other volume in the world has even a small percentage of ancient manuscripts, parchments, papyri, and other documents which antedate the printing press. They number over five thousand!”

It seems to me to be remarkable that with all the (relatively) recent discoveries only one or two very small parts of the Scriptures have had doubt cast upon their validity.

Secondly, we can look at the consistency and coherence of the New Testament writings themselves. When we properly understand how the gospels were written and how their emphases differ because of their different audiences,  and when we carefully examine what exactly is said in each,  any alleged inconsistencies fade away. Also, of course, they agree entirely in their overall message of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Thirdly, we can test and measure them against our own experience.  Often the Scriptures confirm what faith tells us is true.  We know we are sinners who have done wrong. We have felt the presence of the Holy Spirit and experienced the peace that comes from knowing Christ.  We need both, of course, but our own faith and experience works in harmony with what scripture tells us. Finally, we do need to understand that the Scriptures are not a set of rules, or a textbook.  God has provided us with his Word, for the ages. It has been written to speak to all generations, and inevitably each will come to it with their perspective – that is fine, as long as we recognise that fact and honesty seek God’ truth in His word.

[1] ‘Is the Bible a True Story’?,

[2] ‘Is the Bible True’,