This May Be the Coolest "Bible" Image You Have Ever Seen: 4 Things We Learn from It
A few years ago, Lutheran pastor Christoph Römhild emailed Chris Harrison, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, for help on coming up with a visual representation of the over 63,000 cross-references in the Bible. They produced the multi-colored arc diagram in the header of this post. The image, a digital rendering of all the cross-references in the Bible, has a bar graph along the bottom representing books, chapters, and verses. The various colors represent the distance between the verses in a particular cross-reference.
Let me just say, I love this image (and, in true Bible nerd fashion, I am planning on displaying it soon on a wall in my home or office!)! The arc diagram is beautiful, symmetrical, powerful, and wonderfully descriptive. So what does it tell us about how we should think about and engage Bible?
1. First, Scripture is beautifully unified.
The cross-references tell us that the Bible is a beautifully rendered tapestry rather than a chaotic patchwork quilt. Consider the fact that the books of the Bible were written in 3 languages (Hebrew, Greek, and a bit of Aramaic), over a millennium and a half, in a variety of types of literature, by about 40 different people, who lived in sometimes radically different cultures and across a geographical chunk of the world that spans about 2,500 miles. In the face of such diversity, the unity and flow of the Bible’s meta-narrative is breathtaking. In the image above, notice not only the comprehensiveness of touch-points for the references (they fill the whole span), but also the clear symmetry and balance. As Christians we believe in God’s superintending of the process. If the Bible’s development had been completely random, chaotic, purposeless in terms of going somewhere, I don’t think we would have the image before us.
2. Second, Scripture is authoritative.
The authors of Scripture received what had gone before them as foundational and as carrying authority. For instance, there are approximately 350 quotations of the Old Testament in the New Testament and at least 2300 allusions, not to mention many places where an Old Testament person, place, or institution is mentioned without a particular passage in mind. Yet, as the image above makes clear, we also have extensive cross-references between books of the Old Testament (e.g., the Psalms or Prophets refer back to the Pentateuch or the Historical Books), as well as between books of the New Testament (e.g., at times there is an interrelationship between the Gospels and Acts and the rest of the New Testament, such as when the letters or Hebrews or Revelation refer to the events of Jesus’s life, ministry, passion, resurrection, and exaltation). Scriptures or biblical events often are appealed to in order to reinforce what a particular writer is communicating. So authoritative texts are in the very DNA of Judaism and Early Christianity. To be “Christian” is to embrace the authority of Scripture as foundational for life and our common existence in the church.
3. Third, Scripture often points us to other places in Scripture.
At any point in Bible reading or study, we do well to pay attention to the echoes of what has gone before and the impact on what comes after. Our texts were not given by God in isolation but in particular contexts, including the context of the canon of Scripture. This means that as we read the Bible, we receive great help by paying attention to the cross-references in the margins, or the footnotes in our study Bible. As we study the Bible, we need to be sensitive not only to the immediate context of our passage of study, but also to the broader context in a passage to which our passage points us. For instance, when you read Jesus’s words about the temple in Luke 19:46, you can’t really understand them well without considering the context of his allusions to Isa. 56:7 and Jer. 7:11. Go look those passages up, thinking about the context (hint: both in part deal with corrupt leaders, among other important topics). We also get light on earlier passages as revelation unfolds. So, we see Jesus appealing to Ps. 110:1 as messianic (Mark 12:35-37), but we don’t get the full picture of that text’s implications until it is fulfilled in the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God (Acts 2:34-36; Ps. 110:1 is the most quoted Old Testament passage in the New). Considering the cross- references in Scripture gives us a much rich, deeper, and more accurate understanding of the Bible.
4. Finally, Scripture is Story.
Many students of literature speak of stories having a “narrative arc,” moving from the beginning (or exposition, or “inciting event”), to a crisis, a climax, and a resolution, and this certainly is the case with the Bible’s big picture. Thus, the cross-references we find in the biblical literature very often make reference to other places in the biblical storyline, whether the Psalms, or the Prophets, or Paul referring to Creation, or the Wilderness Wanderings, or the Christ event (notice that this can work in terms of anticipation as well as remembering). We get a sense of profound narrative movement as we work our way through the whole of the Bible. Thus, one of the most helpful things we can do to grow as readers of Scripture, is to read Scripture chronologically, putting the pieces of that grand story together.
In short, let’s be thankful for Bible publishers and their various tools that alert us to cross-references—and let’s use those tools as we learn to read the Bible better.