Fake Points Don’t Make Points

Fake Points Don’t Make Points

by Lydia McGrew
November, 2017

We pause in our series of detailed discussions of Dr. Licona’s examples for a broader theological reflection.

It is all-too-common in New Testament circles, and certainly not unique to Dr. Licona’s work, to hold that a Gospel author changed some historical fact in order to make a theological point. If anything, Licona concentrates on literary motivations (such as making a story run smoothly, telling a story more briefly, and the like) more often than on theological motivations. But he does at times accept or hypothesize a theological motivation for an alleged change. Sometimes Licona borrows these theological hypotheses from other scholars.

Examples of this sort include John’s allegedly changing the year of the Temple cleansing in order (in some metaphoric sense) to include all of Jesus’ ministry in Passion Week, overshadowed by his “hour” (Why Are There Differences in the Gospels, p. 195) and John’s allegedly changing the day and time of Jesus’ crucifixion in order to emphasize that he is the lamb of God (pp. 191, 195). Licona borrows both of these ideas from Craig Keener. Another example, which appears to be Licona’s own idea, is the hypothesis (p. 165) that Mark knew of but deliberately suppressed the repentance of one of the thieves on the cross in order to emphasize the fact that Jesus was “rejected by all.” Licona does not positively conclude this about Mark but makes it one of his frequent dichotomies, arguing that either Mark engaged in this deliberate suppression or that Luke (for some reason) moved the repentance of one thief back from the time when it really happened so as to narrate it as part of the “same incident” with the reviling from the other thief.

In all of these cases the idea is that the Gospel authors thought they could make some thematic point by reporting things in a way that appears factual within their narrative but is not the way that events really occurred. Jesus really didn’t die at the very day and hour when the Passover lambs were killed, but John reported as if he did in order to make a theological point that he was the Passover lamb, and so forth. It is particularly interesting that, in the context of describing the Temple cleansing, Keener refers more than once to the “story world” of John (Commentary on John, pp. 518, 530). The phrase “story world,” used apparently to refer to a “world” that might or might not be the real world, occurs frequently in Keener’s commentary.

What all of this assumes is that the Gospel authors viewed God’s working in the world in such a way that they could make powerful theological points by mingling history and fiction. We are not talking here about a parable or some other totally fictional story. We are talking, rather, about taking a real person–the most important person in the world, Jesus Christ–and making up fake “facts” about him that are nonetheless somehow supposed to support theological points.

I submit that this is not how it works in history. Since the story about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree with his little ax is non-historical, it doesn’t show us that George Washington was honest. At most, it might weakly support the conclusion that people who knew him knew that he was honest in some other way and that this motivated them to make up such stories about him. But this is weak sauce indeed. After all, for all that that tells us, they might have been wrong. Or maybe (very likely) the story was made up by someone who didn’t really personally know Washington. Similarly, the legend that the young Arthur pulled a sword out of a stone tells us nothing about whether a real King Arthur was chosen by God to resist the heathen Anglo-Saxons in Britain.

The evangelists themselves understand that God dips His pen in history and writes His story using realities, not literary inventions.

When the evangelists say that an event occurred that fulfilled prophecy, they are stating that the event itself really occurred, for otherwise, the prophecy would not have been fulfilled by that event. Prophecies are fulfilled by things that really happen, not by fictional occurrences in a “story world.” If the soldiers did not really divide Jesus’ garments, that portion of Psalm 22 would not have been fulfilled there and then. If Jesus’ legs were broken, then the prophecy “not a bone of him shall be broken” was not fulfilled. If Jesus was not pierced, the prophecy “they shall look on him whom they have pierced” was not fulfilled in history. Hence John the evangelist’s vehement evidential declaration:

Then the Jews, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came, and broke the legs of the first man and of the other who was crucified with Him; but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe. For these things came to pass to fulfill the Scripture, “Not a bone of Him shall be broken.” And again another Scripture says, “They shall look on Him whom they pierced.”

For John, theological significance and literal events are inextricably woven together. The evangelist agrees that fake points don’t make points.

You can disagree with the Gospel authors’ interpretation of the Old Testament at times. Why take “Out of Egypt have I called my son” to be a prophecy at all, as opposed to merely a statement about the history of Israel? One has to take it that the Holy Spirit knew about an extra meaning in the Exodus that we wouldn’t otherwise have suspected. But their occasionally rabbinic use of the Old Testament is built on their belief in actual historical events–both those in the Old Testament and those in recent history. Matthew may be interpreting the Old Testament verse in a typological way, but that does not at all mean that he disbelieves in the historical reality of either the Exodus or the flight into Egypt. To the contrary, he is saying that the flight into Egypt fulfilled Scripture by actually occurring. Whether one agrees or not with St. Paul’s theological use of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, there is no doubt that he believed that the event actually happened, and that is why he bases his theology of justification upon it. As D.A. Carson points out in this insightful article (p. 191), even when Paul interprets Israel’s history from the perspective of his theology of justification by faith, he does so on the basis of what he takes to be literal historical fact, such as the fact that God made his covenant with Abraham long before the Mosaic law was established at Sinai.

If Jesus wasn’t really crucified on the day and at the time that the Passover lambs were killed (and I think that he wasn’t), his crucifixion at that day and time cannot make the point that he was the Passover lamb. Fake points don’t make points. John the Baptist of course does call Jesus the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, and I am strongly inclined to think that his crucifixion at the general time of Passover was no accident at all, theologically or Providentially. But the fit between Jesus and the Passover lamb cannot be made better by the insertion of a false fact into the narrative.

Similarly, if the thief on the cross did actually speak to Jesus as he does in Luke, repenting and asking Jesus to remember him, then in just that sense Jesus was not strictly “rejected by all,” and it would have been misleading for Mark deliberately to suppress the thief’s conversion in order to make the point that Jesus was “rejected by all.” Fake points don’t make points. (Mark, of course, may well simply not have heard about the second thief’s conversion. As usual, this extremely simple hypothesis doesn’t make it onto the New Testament scholar’s radar.)

In his insightful review of Robert Gundry’s attempt in the 1980s to recast the Gospel of Matthew as “midrash,” Douglas J. Moo makes the same point I am making:

[Matthew] writes from the conviction that the decisive revelation of God had recently been manifested in the historical actualities of Jesus’ life and teaching. To say, as Gundry does, that “’Jesus said’ or ‘Jesus did’ need not always mean that in history Jesus said or did what follows” … attributes to Matthew an unconcern with history that seems to me at odds with one of the most distinctive features of the Christian message….I am suggesting that concern for historical actualities, which is the essential byproduct of the incarnation, kept [Matthew] from combining history and nonhistory…. “Matthew and Midrash,” pp. 38-39.

There is a very real danger that, in attempting to define “mere Christianity,” we may develop a Barthian or semi-Barthian unconcern for any historical facts beyond those that we have put into the “mere Christian” box. Another danger is that we will flinch away from any epistemic connection between other facts and those propositions on which we have decided to hang our theological hats. We may lose our nerve and get into the habit of saying, “Phew! I’m so relieved that I don’t have to defend that in order to defend Christianity,” then repeatedly offer as a concession to skeptics that “that” may well be false, where “that” could be almost anything but, say, the bare statement of the resurrection of Jesus. We should explicitly acknowledge these dangers and resist these shifts. Our message in defining a minimal set of Christian distinctives should never be that nothing else matters. Most urgently, the message should never be that history doesn’t matter, nor that it is a virtue to make Christianity immune to the evidential impact of history. Those Christian distinctives themselves, even if we settle on a fairly short creedal list, are both metaphysically and epistemically based upon a wealth of historical particulars and upon the factual nature of the records we possess.

We are surrounded by voices right now lecturing us that the concern for factual truth and for distinguishing fact from fiction is anachronistic, but the apostles do not agree. It was not a hung-up, post-enlightenment philosopher but St. Peter (2 Peter 1:16) who emphasized that he and the other disciples were not promulgating cunningly devised fables but were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ majesty. (Yes, I’m aware that “many scholars” reject the Petrine authorship of 2 Peter. Yes, I’m aware of their arguments. Yes, I think Peter wrote 2 Peter.) It was Peter and John who told the Sanhedrin that they would keep preaching, because they must testify to what they had heard and seen (Acts 4:20).

God has wrought our salvation by means of literal history. Since both God and his apostles emphasize the importance of what is written in the language of history, we should care to know what is history and what is not. Nor should we project onto those who gave us the Scriptures a postmodern unconcern with bare, boring fact. That would be truly anachronistic.

Originally posted on What’s Wrong With the World.

Lydia McGrew

Lydia McGrew

Dr. Lydia McGrew is a widely published analytic philosopher specializing in formal epistemology, probability theory, and philosophy of religion. She is the co-author, with her husband Tim McGrew, of the article on the resurrection of Jesus in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2009). Her articles have appeared in many professional philosophical journals, and she is the author of the entry on historical inquiry and theism in the Routledge Companion to Theism (2012). Her recent book, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts, revives a largely forgotten apologetic argument for the reliability of the Gospels, Acts, and the Pauline epistles. Without using any technical terminology, Lydia brings to bear her training in the evaluation of evidence and argues that this internal evidence strongly supports the eyewitness nature of these books of the Bible.

More posts by Lydia.

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