by Lydia McGrew
I’ll begin this wrap-up by discussing a portion of an e-interview from this past summer that Bible Gateway did with Dr. Licona.
In the e-interview, Licona has this to say about harmonization and the Gospels:
By harmonization efforts, I mean the common practice of laying the parallel Gospel accounts on top of one another, similar to transparencies on an overhead projector. The objective of such efforts is to demonstrate that all of the details—even those appearing to be in conflict—actually fit together without much, if any, tension. Unfortunately, these efforts sometimes lead to subjecting the Gospels to a sort of hermeneutical waterboarding until they tell the exegete what he or she wants to hear.
[snip]Most evangelicals are willing to acknowledge that the Gospel authors used some compositional devices. For example, most agree that Matthew has compressed the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree and narrates it as though the fig tree withered and died the moment Jesus cursed it, whereas Mark narrates the story as though the withering probably took a little more time. But they usually only acknowledge the use of a compositional device when harmonization appears almost impossible.
Where I differ is, I place a priority on genre over harmonization. So, before seeking to harmonize Gospel texts, one should read the Gospels in view of their biographical genre, which includes their authors’ use of the various compositional devices commonly used when writing history and biography. Both of us see harmonization and compositional devices as solutions. Where we differ is which of these should be given priority. (emphasis added)
Notice that by “giving priority” to the use of “compositional devices” in these paragraphs, Licona must mean what I have called fictionalizing compositional devices, because otherwise harmonization wouldn’t even be in the picture; it would not be seen as the alternative to such “devices.” Harmonization involves, as Licona himself states, arguing that the accounts, including their details, actually do fit together. In other words, it involves trying to show that the accounts are not in conflict and therefore can both/all be literally true. Licona is contrasting the use of “genre” and “compositional devices” with harmonization, so he must be talking about those “compositional devices” that are not merely part of the ordinary arsenal of harmonization in which one concludes that both accounts are literally true in a perfectly ordinary sense. This means that the so-called “compositional device” of “spotlighting” is irrelevant to this idea of “prioritizing genre over harmonization,” because it is, and always has been, an instance of harmonization, not a competitor to harmonization. All older harmonizers, who didn’t get the idea from Plutarch, would say that if there were two blind men then ipso facto there was one blind man, and so forth.
What Licona is saying here is that he thinks that one should be convinced that the Gospels belong to a “genre” such that they are often using fictionalizing compositional devices and that one should approach passages with so strong an assumption to this effect that one first seeks to apply some fictionalizing compositional device category before one attempts to harmonize the passage! Hence, even passages that can be harmonized can legitimately be designated as instances of fictionalizing literary devices because one made that designation a “priority.”
This is a disastrous methodology. In this methodological approach, Licona takes such an incredibly rigid notion of unreliable (I unapologetically use the term “unreliable”) genre that he is making it a virtue to jump to the conclusion that the evangelists were fictionalizing, without first attempting to harmonize the passages. This is a recipe for getting it wrong over and over again and engaging in blatant confirmation bias. Having assumed at the outset that the evangelists are frequent fictionalizers, one then “confirms” this pre-existing assumption by “finding” more and more instances of their fictionalizing even when harmonization would be quite possible.
This methodology completely ignores the fact that variation and even apparent, but ultimately resolvable, discrepancies are normal in truthful testimony. It ignores the fact that (I cannot say this too often) harmonization is not a desperate, specially religious activity used for preserving an a priori notion of inerrancy but rather is just good historical practice, applicable to anyputatively historical accounts, not just to Scripture. By adopting this approach to the Gospels, Licona makes it almost impossible for himself to recognize when the Gospels are exhibiting these normal qualities of non-literary, plain, historical reportage, because he has determined to make a priority of giving variations an elaborate, literary explanation instead.
Notice, too, that such an approach to Plutarch (for example) would make it impossible to get a reliable “baseline” frequency of fictionalizing devices even for a paradigmatic document in the genre into which Licona wants to put the Gospels. As I have shown, Licona jumps to conclusions, overreads, interprets rigidly, and ignores plausible harmonizations in Plutarch himself. Did he do so because he thought he already knew approximately what frequency of deliberate changes of fact he should expect to find in Plutarch, since Plutarch was writing “Greco-Roman bioi“? But in that case, where did that frequency come from in the first place?
Neither Licona nor anyone else has ever given good reason to believe that the Gospels belong to a “genre” such that their variations should be expected to be frequently (or ever, for that matter) the result of deliberate changes of fact. He has not even succeeded in showing that about Plutarch, and a fortiori has not shown it concerning the Gospels. But Licona writes here as if he has been handed, by some unimpeachable source, the proposition that the Gospels’ genre means that they contain at least m/n literary fictionalizations, and therefore one is entirely justified in going out and attempting to find that percentage of fact changes simply by looking for differences, before attempting to harmonize.
Licona doesn’t seem to understand that individual claims of fictionalizing compositional devices must be evaluated on their own merits, on a case-by-case basis. This is how one discovers whether this is what an author does or not. One can’t just go around designating things as fictionalizing literary devices with a pre-determined frequency because one has already stamped the documents with a genre designation. There must be argumentative force to the conclusion that a particular difference between two facially historical documents is an instance of deliberate fictionalization. And making that argument in the individual case, in a document that prima facie presents itself as historical in nature (which both Plutarch and the Gospels undeniably do), takes hard work, because there are so many other, and simpler, possible explanations for variations. This is where the flowchart comes into play and is so important. To “prioritize” the conclusion that a given difference is a result of a fictionalizing device before attempting harmonization is to flip the flowchart on its head, to throw all simplicity considerations to the wind, to fail to recognize the burden of proof, and to prefer, as a matter of principle, more complex to simpler hypotheses.
Indeed, it’s difficult to see why one would ever feel driven to harmonize, given this order of priorities. The imagination can go pretty far in thinking about how a given author might be using a “literary device” in a “genre” in order to make up facts or change facts. Why bother harmonizing at all if your initial go-to theory is literary fictionalization?
Nor can we say, unfortunately, that the use of “compositional devices” will be checked and that Licona will robustly prefer harmonization if a suggested redactive fictionalization is far-fetched. For we have seen that, when it comes to something like the difference between two blind men and one blind men or two demoniacs and one demoniac, Licona apparently places extremelyfar-fetched theories about Matthew’s “doubling up” on blind men and demoniacs on a par with a harmonizing theory that Mark mentioned only one of the individuals who was actually healed.
This interview certainly helps to explain why, again and again, we have found Licona jumping to conclusions and even making utterly unforced errors about differences in the Gospels. I’m sorry to have to say it, but apparently he considers those to be features, not bugs, in his preferred approach.
Here, for those who would find it useful, is a list of my posts in the present series. (I’m construing “series” here somewhat loosely to include all posts I’ve written directly on Licona or on very closely related topics during the latter part of 2017.) If you don’t like summaries like this, feel free to skip this part. Posts are listed in chronological order.
New Testament Interpretation in the Real World: This post does not directly mention Dr. Licona but is about the over-reading carried out by Richard Burridge, a classicist whose low view of John’s accuracy has influenced and is cited by Licona when he discusses John. I show how Burridge (in common, I must say, with many New Testament scholars) needs to get out more and how this would help him to interpret the Gospels more plausibly instead of inventing tensions where none exist.
Hoaxer or Historical Witness: The Johannine Dilemma: Here I directly contest the low view of John’s literal, ground-level, historical accuracy promoted by Licona and Burridge.
Flowchart: On Alleged Literary Devices: Here I introduce a graphic to show the many other, simpler possible explanations for differences between accounts and the consequent difficulty of supporting the highly complicated thesis that an author deliberately changed the facts in a way that he thought of as a culturally accepted literary device. The flowchart applies to secular accounts as well as biblical accounts.
Response to Dr. Licona: This post, which I am linking in its fuller version on Extra Thoughts (I put only a stub here on W4), was in a sense an interruption of my planned series. The interruption was occasioned by the resurfacing of some very strange 2016 comments about the Gospel of John by NT scholar Craig A. Evans. Licona apparently defended Evans, I publicized what Licona said, and we were off to the races. See the posts for more.
On Some Examples in Plutarch: Here I get down to brass tacks and discuss a wide variety of examples in Plutarch where Licona claims to have discovered “compositional devices” that involve deliberately changing facts for literary reasons. I show (using the flowchart) that they are all quite easily, and better, explained in simpler ways. This is a pretty important undercutting of Licona’s argument. Of course, even if Plutarch did make fictionalizing changes, it wouldn’t follow that the Gospels do so. Not because it would be “impious” to think so, but because different authors often have different priorities and hold themselves to different standards. One would still have to see on an individual basis whether the Gospel authors appeared to be deliberately changing the facts, and there would still be a heavy burden of proof to be met. But if Licona hasn’t even shown his thesis for Plutarch, the argument that there were these standard fictionalizing devices that were accepted at the time doesn’t even begin to get off the ground.
Licona Gospel Examples Part I: Utterly Unforced Errors: Here I discuss multiple cases in his book where Licona hypothesizes a fictionalizing change when there is not even an apparent discrepancy. Is that what he means by “prioritizing genre over harmonization”? Looks like it.
Licona Gospel Examples Part II: Fictions Only Need Apply: Here I discuss instances where Licona doesn’t even consider non-fictionalizing or harmonizing options, leaving the reader in several cases with a false dilemma–either this evangelist deliberately changed the facts or this one did.
Licona Gospel Examples III: Over-reading: Here I discuss the way in which over-reading, particularly overly rigid interpretation concerning chronology, is involved in Licona’s jumping to the conclusion that an author is deliberately altering a report of the literal facts.
Fake Points Don’t Make Points: Here I argue that NT scholars including Licona are gravely mistaken when they suggest that a Gospel author deliberately made up some historical detail in order to make a theological point, since a fake historical detail cannot objectively lend epistemic support to a theological conclusion, and the Gospel authors seem to have realized this.
Licona Gospel Examples IV: More Over-reading: Here I discuss more examples in which Licona creates unnecessary tensions between Gospel accounts by over-reading and then “solves” the “problems” thus created by postulating a fictionalizing redaction.
Licona Gospel Examples V: Making Things Complicated: Here I describe several instances where Licona considers highly convoluted theories and gives them far higher credence than they should receive. Of course, many of the examples in the earlier posts also meet this description. I note here that this penchant for preferring complicated theories can even cause one to overlook or misunderstand undesigned coincidences that confirm the purely factual reliability of the accounts.
Below I list fifteen places where Licona throws the Gospel narratives into factual doubt. This list is meant to give a sense of the extent to which Licona is calling the normal, ground-level, factual reliability of the documents into question, though he insists (and apparently has convinced himself) that he isn’t doing so. Functionally, what this amounts to is a high-level redefinition of “reliability.”
What follows is not a comprehensive list. There are numerous other unnecessary “tensions” or claims of fictionalization, many concerning chronology, in Licona’s book, and I have detailed many of these in the posts. I have not even included in this list two places where Licona very seriously considers, even treating as one of only two “finalist” hypotheses, the idea that an evangelist made something up out of whole cloth, when in the end he narrowly comes down in favor of a different “literary device.” One of these cases concerns the theory that John made up the entire Doubting Thomas sequence. Licona narrowly concludes that instead Luke fictionalized by combining two appearances of Jesus. The other concerns the theory that Matthew made up out of whole cloth the involvement of James and John’s mother in the request that they might sit on Jesus’ right and left hands, in order to cast the disciples in a better light. Licona attributes this theory to other scholars and treats it as one of his two finalists for explaining a difference between Matthew and Mark. In an endnote he states that he prefers the theory that Mark “transferred” the request to the sons.
This list gives a fairly impressive sample that shows how Licona’s work casts a redactive fog over the Gospels’ picture of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. See the posts for more details.
–Did John the Baptist call himself the voice of one crying in the wilderness, or did John fictionally attribute that saying to him by redaction from the synoptic Gospels?
–Did John the Baptist say that he himself bore record that Jesus was the Son of God?
–Did Jesus actually say, “I thirst,” or was that made up by John as a theological “redaction of the tradition” that Jesus said, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
–Did Jesus actually say, “It is finished,” or was that made up by John as a “redaction of the tradition” that Jesus said, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit”?
–Did Jesus show his disciples his side, or did John “substitute” his side for his feet?
–Did Jesus breathe on his disciples and say, “Receive the Holy Ghost,” or was that incident invented by John to “allude” to the day of Pentecost?
–Did John invent the scene between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the garden in order to “relocate” the first meeting between Jesus and Mary Magdalene?
–Did Mark deliberately suppress the conversion of the thief on the cross in order to make Jesus appear to have been rejected by all?
–Did John deliberately change the day of the crucifixion to make a theological point?
–Did John make up a Temple cleansing early in Jesus’ ministry (this is really what it amounts to for John to “move” the Temple cleansing) in order to make a theological point?
–Does Luke “put” all of the events of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday?
–Did the appearances of Jesus to his disciples in Jerusalem (recorded in John and Luke) occur, or did the first appearance occur in Galilee? (I note that this allegation of a discrepancy concerning Jesus’ first appearance casts doubt upon the Doubting Thomas sequence from a different angle, though Licona does not mention this point and may not realize it.)
–Did Matthew make up an extra demoniac and/or an extra blind man in an incident where they were not present in order to compensate for not telling different healing stories?
–Did Matthew invent a “doublet” incident in which Jesus heals two blind men early in his ministry in order to create a (fictional) healing of blindness to which Jesus could be made to allude in laying to rest the doubts of John the Baptist about his Messiahship?
–Did the disciples dispute about who would be the greatest on the night of the Last Supper, or did Luke invent the connection between this incident (which he took from a different time recorded in Mark) and the Last Supper and redact Jesus’ words of rebuke accordingly to make it seem to fit with the context of the Last Supper?
It’s important to emphasize that the redactive fog surrounding these questions is entirely unnecessary. It is created by the bad habits of New Testament scholarship, including overly rigid reading (this produces unjustified claims of tension), hypothesizing invention out of whole cloth even when there is no apparent discrepancy, and rejection of entirely reasonable harmonization. These are also old habits of “critical” New Testament scholars. They are not something that Dr. Licona has suddenly discovered by studying Greco-Roman literature. Indeed, in several cases Licona does not even allude to any specific “compositional device” that he claims to have found in Plutarch, yet he nonetheless rejects harmonization in favor of conflicting “traditions” or fictionalizing redaction. These include the alleged “discrepancy” concerning where the first post-resurrection meeting occurred between Jesus and his disciples, the supposed “relocation” of the first meeting between Jesus and Mary Magdalene by either Matthew or John, the suggested invention of a “doublet” incident of healing two blind men, John’s alleged invention of the incident in which Jesus breathes on the disciples, and the alleged “dynamic equivalent” redaction of “My God, why have you forsaken me?” into “I thirst.”
That Licona rejects harmonization and follows redaction-critical methods to suggest fictionalization even when he does not suggest any particular “compositional device” helps to show that what is epistemologically driving his method is not a genuine recognition of specific, known literary tropes of the time. Rather, Licona is adopting a general assumption that the Gospels are not literally historically reliable in many areas–both in details and even at times in the reporting of whole incidents. Then, after having decided to make frequent claims of fictionalization, he puts labels on them when possible from the devices he thinks he has found in Plutarch; when he doesn’t think that’s possible or has no particular label in mind, he repeatedly hypothesizes fictionalization anyway. This same pattern of straining to find a label to support a fictionalization conclusion was evident when Licona, admitting that he had no insight into the supposed “problem” of the infancy narratives (hint: there is no problem) from “Greco-Roman bioi” immediately turned around and conjectured that the non-overlapping material therein is invented and “questionable,” calling this (incorrectly) “midrash.”
As happens repeatedly with New Testament scholars, a broad claim or question concerning the “genre” of the Gospels is not anything highly technical, nor is it justified by highly technical information. It is, rather, a generic (pun intended) claim that literal historicity wasn’t important to the authors and isn’t the prima facie case in the accounts, thus opening the door for redaction-critical and other fictionalizing theories that are just waiting in the wings. The theories end up looking similar again and again, whether the alleged justification for them is that the documents are “midrash,” “Greco-Roman bioi,” or (to quote Craig A. Evans concerning John) “wisdom literature” or “parable.” This should make it clear that we are not really gaining new, important, esoteric knowledge from research into the genre of the documents. Rather, the New Testament studies guild is going on doing the same kinds of things that quite liberal NT scholars have been doing for many years, while various evangelical scholars (and those influencing them) justify such interpretations by using different labels. There is some variation among scholars in the frequency with which they conjecture specifically theological motives as opposed to more a-theological literary motives (Licona does the latter more frequently), but both arise from the same invidious approach–the preference for complex hypotheses, the hyper-sensitivity about differences that exaggerates them into difficult discrepancies, the bias against harmonization, the failure to construe differences in accounts as casual, unstudied variation as opposed to highly deliberate redaction, and the refusal or inability to see the marks of normal reportage in the Gospels.
I have argued in this series that Licona’s argument fails at every point. He does not justify his claims concerning Plutarch in the first place, and he does not justify his claims concerning the Gospels, either. He gives us no good reason to accept the conclusion that the Gospel authors ever changed the facts deliberately, either for theological or for literary reasons.
Since his theories severely undermine the literal historical reliability of the Gospels, it is extremely important for us to find out whether his conclusions are justified. Fortunately, they are not, and anyone interested in the reliability of the Gospels, the evidence for Christianity, and the resurrection of Jesus should know this.
Licona’s theories should not be accepted by default merely because he is held in high esteem by evangelicals in the apologetics world. His ideas must be able to stand up to critical scrutiny and must stand or fall on their merits. I encourage readers to follow the argument I have given and to publicize it widely.
This post was originally published at What’s Wrong With the World.
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.