Response to Licona
Response to Licona
by Lydia McGrew
Dr. Michael Licona has posted the current version of a response to my remarks here. A fair bit of it is assertion without argument, but there are some points I would like to discuss and reply to. (I should mention that McAfee Site Adviser gives a “medium” risky rating to the Risen Jesus site. It’s difficult to say precisely why. Eventually, after a number of other people had reported going to the link without ill effect, I clicked through anyway and have not seen any resulting problem. I mention the point for readers who might want to know.)
I will say little about the notable alteration Licona’s post underwent between the time that he provided the link in comments and its current incarnation. A big part of the difference consists in cutting out tediously, strenuously repeated assertions to the effect that I, having merely a degree in English literature, am unqualified even to address the subject on which Licona and I disagree. Since I find credentialism boring in the extreme, I will strongly urge readers to remember that the ideas and the arguments are the thing, not who said them. I will also urge readers to believe that they both can and should (if they’re interested in this topic at all and consider it important) make their own judgements on the level of detail rather than just picking a person and hitching their wagon to that person’s star on the basis of bare authority. I would say the same for myself as for anyone else. Check out my arguments. Don’t believe whatever I say because you respect me or think I have good credentials. I have collected in the second update to this post (scroll down) links to all of my previous posts thus far on Licona’s views. More are in the works. Please read and think for yourself.
On the issue of credentials, the only point I will make here in favor of my own credentials is to draw attention to my extensive work in professional analytic philosophy and in particular the analysis of evidence, arguments, and probability. If interested, one can view a list of recent peer-reviewed philosophy publications under the “articles” heading here. While that is not the same thing as the highly specific credentials that Licona has chosen to demand for worthiness to draw one’s own conclusions on these topics (or at least worthiness to disagree with his positions), it seems somewhat relevant. I am guessing that perhaps Licona has been unaware that I’m academically speaking more a probability theorist and epistemologist than anything else.
If an entire field is fairly badly messed up (as we have reason to believe is the case, sadly, for New Testament studies), it is most likely that those who are able and willing to say that the Emperor has no clothes will be “outsiders,” not part of the guild. If the guild of New Testament studies is to be protected from outside criticism, that is a recipe for a self-affirming mutual congratulation society, which others are not allowed to challenge because they lack the Secret Knowledge. I suggest instead that we look at the arguments and see whether they hold up or not.
A note on the question of whether at any time in this exchange I have misrepresented Dr. Licona. I stand by what I have already said in my response to that accusation (Update 1). In his most recent post, Licona (oddly enough) actually incorporates the argument in which he appears at first to argue in his own voice that “we would not expect for Jesus to be claiming to be God publicly and in such a clear manner as we find John reporting”–in other words, that Jesus claimed to be God only implicitly, as in the synoptics, but not more clearly, as in John. In fact, he even adds a new “argument” for it–namely, the weak interpretation of the statement that Jesus “did not teach them without a parable” (Matthew 13:34-35) as a supposed “suggestion” that Jesus wouldn’t have taught his deity as clearly as he does in John. Is it really necessary to point out that such a statement, which can well be interpreted to concern a particular set of Jesus’ discourses, can only be stretched by a kind of bizarre woodenness to mean that Jesus literally did not teach any doctrine explicitly in public? Jesus even teaches things explicitly in public in Matthew itself! And if the argument is that we are to suspect John of making up Jesus’ clear claims to deity as “elaborations upon” nothing more explicit than we find in the synoptics, on the grounds that we don’t find parables in John, how exactly is that argument supposed to go? Why should we think a thing like that? The parables were already available in the synoptics, and John would probably have known that they were there. There was no need for him to repeat them, and indeed it makes sense that he would instead provide discourses and statements that the synoptic authors had not included. These arguments against John’s (real, normal) accuracy are extremely poor.
But now, after offering fairly extensive argument that Jesus didn’t and wouldn’t declare his deity as clearly as he does in John, Licona goes on and disavows the idea that these arguments actually represent his own views, since he claims utter agnosticism on the subject. This disclaimer was certainly not available initially. Licona’s statement in his initial comment, made only after laying out arguments apparently in his own voice, that “those are just some of the reasons why scholars see John adapting Jesus’ teachings” appeared in its original context to be an attempt to muster the opinion of “scholars” to bolster his own argument for his own view as just given. (This invocation of “scholars” to back up his own views is something Licona does quite often, so it was hardly surprising to see him apparently doing so there.)
I’m quite surprised at Licona’s new complaint that my original piece “border[ed] on deceit” when I said this,
Jesus’ claims to deity are, to put it mildly, important, and so people should know when scholars think he didn’t make them.Licona’s complaint, apparently, is that the argument he meant to represent (from which he is now partially distancing himself) against the “I am” statements merely denies that Jesus made the statements claiming deity recorded in John, but that he himself believes that Jesus did consider himself to be God and made (at least) statements such as those recorded in the synoptics claiming the prerogatives of Godhood. Evans’s comments at least leave open the possibility that those synoptic statements (such as Jesus’ claim in Mark to have power to forgive sins) are historical, and indeed Evans seems to have more positive things to say about the historical accuracy of the synoptics than of John.
I would never throw around willy-nilly the claim that my words have been taken out of context, but this objection to my original piece, going so far as to use the phrase “borders on deceit,” is ridiculous, based on a fairly blatant ripping of the sentence out of context. In that original piece alone, not even counting the update, I used the phrase “in John” to describe the claims to deity in question four times. I repeatedly there use terms like “explicit” and its cognates and “overtly” and “publicly” to describe the statements in question being denied literal historicity. I keep referring over and over again to “the I am” statements. It would be clear to any even moderately attentive reader that those statements constitute the referent of “them” in the phrase “didn’t make them,” to which Licona objects so sharply.
Moreover, speaking as an epistemologist, I can say definitely that removing Jesus’ clearest claims to deity precisely because they are his clearest (as the argument Licona represented from “scholars” does) significantly weakens the historical case for saying that Jesus claimed to be God. You cannot delete the historicity of Jesus’ clearest claims, considering them elaborations on his more cryptic claims, calling them merely “‘he is’ confessions of the Johannine community,” and not have a notably weaker case for the deity of Jesus. Cumulative cases depend on their instances and on the force of those instances, and these are some very important instances, epistemically speaking. Indeed, it shouldn’t take an epistemologist to see that. And that is also part of the thrust of the sentence Licona objects to.
I have never said anything about Licona’s views or Evans’s views that “borders on deceit,” and I utterly repudiate that accusation.
Licona himself now claims agnosticism on whether Jesus very clearly claimed to be God as portrayed in John, so we’ll go on from that point.
I want to address Licona’s oddly truncated summary of the views of Craig Evans. Licona says that he “wouldn’t go as far as” Evans, though one is forced to wonder why not, given how reasonable Licona makes them sound! Summarizing Evans’s conversation with Bart Ehrman, Licona says, In the video, Ehrman asks Evans if he thinks Jesus actually uttered the “I am . . .” statements in John’s Gospel. Evans answered that most of them were probably not uttered as recorded and that John was probably of a genre different than the other Gospels. Yet, he adds, “John is studded with historical details” and goes on to say, “Bart, I object to saying it’s not historically accurate.”Licona then patronizingly suggests that it is only his “conservative brothers and sisters in Christ” who will “experience some discomfort” at Evans’s statements. Yet he himself “wouldn’t go as far as” Evans, he says in another paragraph. Does he still experience some of that apparently irrational “conservative discomfort”? Or what?
Perhaps we will understand better why anyone who thinks the historical reliability of John is important would be concerned by Evans’s comments, regardless of whether the “conservative” label applies to that person or not, if we eschew Licona’s cherry picking and instead look at more length at what Evans actually said. I strongly, strongly urge that if you’re interested in this, you watch Evans and Ehrman talking. Evans has plenty of opportunities to make himself clear, and he is utterly explicit. Consider, for example, those “historical details” with which, Licona says, Evans says the Gospel of John is “studded.” Actually, Evans brings those up only to contrast the overall historical accuracy of John with that of the synoptics, raising those details only to downgrade them to mere “nuggets” of historicity in the midst of John, a gospel he likens explicitly in the discussion to a “parable” or to allegory.
My view is the gospel of John is a horse of another color altogether. It’s a different genre. John is often compared to the wisdom literature. It’s like Wisdom is personified. Chokhmah, lady Wisdom, or in Greek, Sophia. She wanders the streets. She calls out to people, she does things. Well, nobody would read that and think, “Oh, did you see Wisdom going down the street the other day.” Nobody would think that is a literal person. What is mysterious to me about John is that once you say that and say, “Okay, perhaps we should interpret the ‘I am’ statements as ‘He is’ confessions – ‘He is the light of the world,’ ‘He is the way, truth, and the life’, ‘He is the bread of life,’” a confession of the Johannine community that likely generated that version of the Gospel – About the time you think John is a gigantic parable, then along comes a scholar who says, “Y’know, it’s loaded with historical details, also.” And so that’s what makes John so tricky. There is a Society of Biblical Literature section devoted to John and the historical Jesus chaired by a scholar named Paul Anderson. So that’s probably more [of an] answer than you want. So, I don’t disagree with you too much on that point. I think John is studded with historical details. Maybe you called them nuggets. That’s not a bad way of describing John. But I think the synoptics are more than just some nuggets.
So he doesn’t disagree with Bart Ehrman too much on this point, and he explicitly praises Ehrman’s deliberately dismissive term “nuggets” to describe those inconvenient true historical details in John.
What about the place where Evans objects to calling the Gospel of John historically inaccurate? Well, Evans expands upon what he means, which (he indicates) is that the concept of historical accuracy does not apply to the Gospel of John (after all, it’s a “horse of another color altogether”), because it is like a parable! Ehrman has just referred to “toss[ing] out John.” Evans replies,
I’m not tossing John out. And by the way, Bart, I object to saying it’s not historically accurate. Well, if something that isn’t…isn’t exactly historical, how is it not historically accurate? It’d be like saying “You mean the parable, the parable was a fiction Jesus told? It’s not historically accurate?”That is Evans’s answer to the accusation that John, on his view, is not historically accurate–that the complaint is a category error, not that John is historically accurate memoir/history.
Again, I cannot urge you too strongly to watch the video for yourself. Evans himself makes points about John as a whole and sets his comments about the “I Am” statements within a larger view of John that is extremely dismissive from the point of view of historical reliability. One need not even merely infer such a view of John from Evans’s comments about the “I Am” statements. He makes it explicit. Any attempt to create confusion on the scope and nature of what Evans says, at this point, is obfuscation, and it is obfuscation that cannot begin to pass muster with Evans’s comments right out there in front of us, available for anyone to see, and quite clear.
But enough of Evans for the moment. Back to Licona’s response.
What I mean by misjudging others is that some folks who have not spent years looking at these matters might be concerned that many evangelical scholars have lost their way using historical criticism and that there ought to be a “clean house.” But consider the unintended consequences of this proposal. Many of conservative Christianity’s finest New Testament scholars would find themselves out of work. Take Craig Keener, for example. He has spent far more time studying the Gospel of John than perhaps everyone reading this post combined. Keener is one of the most informed and honest scholars I know. He is also one who models Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount more closely than almost anyone I know. He walks with God while being committed to scholarship of the highest level. So, if some evangelicals wish to “clean house” in their community then Keener would find himself out on the street. What a loss that would be for that community!
Licona gives an extreme interpretation to the phrase “clean house,” applied to biblical studies, which a commentator on Facebook used. For a person so focused on “literary devices,” Licona is quite wooden when understanding a manner of speaking like “clean house.” He implies, for example, that anyone who holds any incorrect views in the neighborhood of his own views would have to be fired from whatever job he holds and would then be “out on the street” if the evangelical world were to engage in a “house cleaning” in the area of biblical studies. Surely this is a rather extreme notion of “cleaning house.” Would it not be possible to refute those views, perhaps even to convince the scholars in question to change their minds? Would it not be possible even for institutions to make distinctions between and among people on the basis of the degree of wrongness and number of seriously incorrect views they hold? Might it not happen, depending on where the person in question worked, only that such a person’s views on a particular topic were refuted and then not widely believed anymore if the evangelical world engaged in a “house cleaning”? I would take a phrase like “cleaning house” to refer to ideas more directly than to persons. Further, the invocation of Craig Keener’s personal holiness seems quite out of place in a scholarly debate, as I’m sure Dr. Keener would be the first to agree. Let’s keep the ad hominems, whether positive or negative, out of it and talk about truth and arguments. In any event, this is supposedly an answer to me, and I have never at any time in this debate called for anyone to be thrown out of his job, much less out onto the streets, so I think we can easily stick to the arguments.
After this post, I for one intend to go back to working on a post on some of Licona’s Roman examples, which will later be followed by further discussion of his gospel examples. In other words, I’m just carrying on with making arguments about specifics, not with arguing about either credentials or people or who should have what job where.
When Licona gives the argument that Jesus did not explicitly (but only implicitly, as in the synoptics) claim to be God (an argument from which he now wishes to distance himself to some extent) he emphatically states that, even if this were the case, “By no means does this mean that John is historically unreliable.” Similarly, later in his post, he objects to my use of the phrase “factually crappy gospels” for what this degree of fictionalization would demote the gospels to. Says Licona, allegedly summarizing me:
As a result, she makes erroneous assertions that a number of evangelical New Testament scholars think “God gave us factually crappy gospels” and that it is “no big deal if we are left with only a poor and unreliable record in John of what Jesus taught about one of the most important truths in the world—that Jesus is God.” This is hardly the truth.I introduced the phrase “if God gave us factually crappy gospels” with the phrase, “what it comes to is,” so let me clarify here with an analogy: Does Lois Lane think that she is in love with Clark Kent? No, because she doesn’t believe that Superman is Clark Kent. But in fact, Superman and Clark Kent are the same person. Similarly, attributing even the degree of fictionalization that Licona argues for in his book, and a fortiori the degree of fictionalization that Evans is endorsing in the video discussed above, amounts to turning the gospels into factually unreliable history, whether Evans and Licona think/admit to themselves that it does or not. In fact, I included the word “factually” in the phrase quite deliberately. Their theories entail that we cannot tell when the gospels are fictionalizing on the level of empirical and literal facts–e.g., when writing up an incident (a la Evans) in which Jesus explicitly claims to be God, publicly, and the Jews try to stone him, all of which must not have happened if these explicit claims to deity were merely confessional elaborations by the “Johannine community” of the entirely different incidents and statements, or ones like them, recorded in the synoptics.
Here a quotation from Licona’s own recent book is relevant:
John often chose to sacrifice accuracy on the ground level of precise reporting, preferring to provide his readers with an accurate, higher-level view of the person and mission of Jesus. Why Are There Differences in the Gospels, p. 115
Note the word “often” there. This is not just saying that John occasionally “sacrificed” accuracy “on the ground level of precise reporting.” It’s saying that he often did so. Licona in this response to me makes a similar statement, but somewhat confusingly, he drops both the qualifier “often” and “on the ground level of precise reporting.”
They wrote accurate accounts of Jesus and, to different degrees, wrote with literary artistry that sometimes sacrificed precision in order to communicate points more clearly and to bring out the even deeper meanings behind them. The distinction between accuracy “at the ground level” and “accuracy” merely at the level of some higher-level, theological truth is clearer in the quotation from the book. What Licona is not saying is that John was scrupulous about literal, factual accuracy in what Licona himself disdains as a purely modern sense of that word, apparently (according to his recent response to me) first widely accepted only in the 19th century. (A point I’ll return to momentarily.) He’s saying just the opposite, and in his book he applies the notion of license to the synoptics as well. In the quotation from p. 115 he is saying that John in particular considered himself licensed to sacrifice that kind of factual accuracy for other reasons and even did so often.
At that point, I say without the slightest hesitation that this is, de facto, turning the gospels into factually unreliable history. Licona prefers his own euphemisms and ways of talking and thinking about the matter, but others are not obligated to adopt those euphemisms and those evaluations of his views and their implications in order to be understanding and representing him accurately. Others are free to think that Superman is Clark Kent and therefore that Lois Lane, unbeknownst to her, is in love with the man who is Clark Kent–that is, that Licona and Evans are advocating the view that the gospels are factually unreliable history even if they do not think that the gospels, as they picture them, are what they would choose to call factually unreliable history.
And why require the Gospels to have been written using literary conventions for historical reporting that were not generally accepted until the nineteenth century while eschewing attempts to understand them within the cultural and literary context of their own day?
The sweeping idea that trying to tell literal, factual truth in putatively historical work, with the intention of being believed by one’s audience, is itself a “literary convention” (that not using fictionalizing literary conventions is a literary convention) would come as a surprise to a great many people writing and living before the 19th century.
Here it is appropriate to quote Colin Hemer on the subject of the genre of Luke, as I did in an earlier post:
It is my contention that one of the inevitable questions posed as a result of the document [Luke’s gospel] was whether it really happened. Ancient biography, no less than ancient historiography, may need to serve as a historical source. The question here is whether the work is a good source. And it needs to be measured by the stricter rather than the laxer measure. Rigorous concepts of history existed in Luke’s world: Luke must be judged by his performance rather than on the slippery ground of parallels. (Hemer, pp. 93-94, hardcover edition published by J.C.B. Mohr, emphasis added)
Hemer’s statement that rigorous concepts of history existed in Luke’s world, and his sensible point that, if we are going to use Luke as a source, we need to ask whether he is a reliable source in the ordinary sense, runs quite contrary to Licona’s implication that it is anachronistic to apply such standards to Luke because they were so little understood and accepted in the “cultural context” of Luke’s day. I have found repeatedly that the 19th century is a sort of mythic age to which scholars relegate sensible ideas they wish to dismiss, against which they have no better arguments.
At this point I would like to turn to my statement, which I stand by, that Licona in his book hypothesizes that John might have made up the Doubting Thomas sequence. The passage in question, which Licona himself quotes in his reply to me, runs like this, from pp. 177-78 of his recent book.
Moreover, with Judas now dead, there were eleven main disciples. Thus Luke 24:33 can speak of Jesus’s first appearance to a group of his male disciples as including “the eleven and those with them.” However, John 20:19–24 tells us Thomas was absent during that event. Thus, only ten of the main disciples would have been present. Accordingly, either Luke conflated the first and second appearances to the male disciples, or John crafted the second appearance in order to rebuke those who, like Thomas, heard about Jesus’s resurrection and failed to believe. Some have suggested that the “eleven” may have been a way of referring to the core of the apostolic body. However, while scholars generally agree that “the Twelve” became a nickname for Jesus’s main disciples (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:5), there is no indication that “the eleven” was ever used in a similar sense. Thus, it seems more probable in this instance that Luke has conflated the first and second appearances of Jesus to his male disciples.
The most striking point here is not the fact that Licona somewhat weakly comes down on the side of fictionalization by Luke rather than by John (“it seems more probable in this instance that Luke has conflated…”) but rather the high antecedent probability he implicitly grants to the hypothesis that John invented the entire Doubting Thomas sequence. He treats it as one of only two theories that are real contenders, both of them fictionalization theories, and he gives it a higher status than the more reasonable and simple idea that, by the time Luke was written, the phrase “the eleven” was a name for a group rather than a counting noun. The latter gets very short shrift. It isn’t included as a live possibility at all when Licona states positively that either John or Luke has fictionalized. The idea about the meaning of “the eleven” is held hostage to fairly strict standards, much stricter than those applied to the theory that John invented Doubting Thomas. Apparently Licona is looking for some place where the term “the eleven” is used when we know independently that fewer disciples were present. But it’s hard to know how he’d recognize such a case when he dismisses the case in question, which appears to be just such an instance!
My problem here is the obvious overestimate of the probability of John’s making up an entire incident, together with the comparative underestimate of simpler theories. Perhaps this arises from Licona’s conviction that John often sacrifices accuracy–in this case it would be sacrificing it to the point of making up an entire incident altogether. If Licona thinks in any meaningful sense at all that we have independent reason to think that John is historically reliable (!), as opposed to merely writing a heavily fictionalized story “based on” the events of Jesus’ life, why would he give such apparently high probability to John’s making up the entire Doubting Thomas sequence? Once again, this casts doubt on the assertion that nobody among respected evangelical NT scholars is questioning the gospels’ historical reliability. Moreover, the idea that John would have made up such an incident out of whole cloth is quite improbable given John’s own evident sense of the importance of the events related and his repeated assertions of his own truthfulness as an eyewitness. These are historical, not per se theological, considerations.
If Licona replies that he is trying to be a scrupulous historian and thus consider “all possibilities,” we should first point out that one can’t literally consider all possibilities. One considers those that are plausible, and Licona rhetorically boosts the plausibility of the idea that John might have made up an entire important episode. We should also notice the complete absence of another highly plausible, simple hypothesis–namely, that Luke simply hadn’t been told by his human sources that Thomas wasn’t present on this first occasion! Why run after a highly dubious theory that John made up the entire Doubting Thomas episode and make that one of your only two live optionswhen this other, far more probable, option exists? Nor can this be said to be what Licona means by Luke’s “conflating” the two episodes, for no such thing is required in the theory I’m bringing up. Luke need not have been writing of two different episodes as though they were one. He could be writing about the very same episode that John recounts as Jesus’ first appearance but simply not have known that there were ten rather than eleven main disciples there at the time. Perhaps he was told that “the apostles” were there but not the exact number, and reasonably concluded that all eleven were there. Look ma, no fictionalization needed. Either this hypothesis or the idea about the generic meaning of “the eleven” would be more probable than either of the complex fictionalization theories that Licona treats as his either/or options. Licona opts in the end for the idea that Luke deliberately writes of two different episodes (the second being the instance where Thomas is invited to put his hand in Jesus’ side) as if they were one. (“Conflation,” as explained in Licona’s book, involves deliberately writing of two or more episodes as if they were only one.)
This sort of weak reasoning is rampant in Licona’s book and in his lectures and writings. He repeatedly treats fictionalization theories as either plausible candidates or as conclusions for virtually no reason at all, dragging them in utterly unnecessarily when far more common explanations for the stories, explanations we see operating all the time in daily life, exist and would fully account for the evidence. I object to this because it is poor historical argumentation.
Strangely enough, Licona states that “some of Lydia’s criticisms might have been avoided” by attending to this passage from his book, which he quotes from p.119:
My proposed solutions are tentative. Others have offered different solutions. Some New Testament scholars may prefer to view some of the differences as resulting from an evangelist redacting the tradition in order to make a theological point rather than seeing the use of a compositional device. Such an approach may sometimes be preferable. In these pericopes, I am primarily attempting to view the differences in light of compositional devices to see if a greater understanding of what lays behind the differences may be obtained in some instances.
This is not particularly enlightening. I had certainly read those sentences and noted them. I have spent many hours reading and indeed studying Licona’s book in detail. But they do not address any of my criticisms. In fact, I note that in this very passage Licona’s two suggested possibilities are that the evangelists “redacted the tradition” to make a theological point and that they engaged in (often fictionalizing, as he discusses in the examples) “compositional devices.” So either they are fictionalizing for theological reasons or are doing so for literary reasons. How is any “tentativeness” in that context supposed to answer objections to the hypothesis that they engaged in such deliberate alterations of fact?
Perhaps merely the statement “my proposed solutions are tentative” is supposed to allay all concerns. But Licona obviously did not write an entire book arguing that these compositional devices which he thinks he’s found in Plutarch (several of which he defines in explicit terms that entail fictionalization) are enlightening about the gospels if he were merely tentatively concluding that the gospels do use such devices! On the contrary, he is wont to lecture readers patronizingly, as in his conclusion to the book, that they need to lump it and like it that the gospel authors did do so. They need to treat their resulting “discomfort” as their own problem:
Fortunately, historical nearsightedness can be corrected with the proper glasses. We craft the proper lenses by reading a significant amount of literature from the period, which improves our understanding of the genre to which the Gospels belong. Like anyone who begins to wear glasses, some initial discomfort and adjusting will occur. But a truly high view of the Gospels as holy writ requires us to accept and respect them as God has given them to us rather than to force them into a frame shaped by how we think he should have. (p. 201)On that same page he states that a “large majority of the differences [between the gospels] can quite easily and rightly be appreciated and/or resolved in light of the literary conventions of ancient biography and history writing.”
Licona is not always tentative even about his individual conclusions. For example, in the case of the Doubting Thomas scenario, he is quite sure that either John fictionalized (by making up the entire sequence) or that Luke did (by deliberately mashing together two different appearances of Jesus). Similarly, he expressly states that “we have previously observed how either Mark or John changed the day when the woman anointed Jesus” (pp. 163-164), which again does not amount to being tentative about whether chronological fictionalization has taken place. Nor are these the only instances where he does not restrict himself to saying that something “may” be the case, and in other cases where he does use a word like “may,” the rhetorical emphasis is quite strongly in favor of the suggested “device,” with no non-fictionalizing theory considered equally seriously. In general, Licona is quite confident, not tentative, about the wide applicability of fictionalizing literary devices in the gospels. So by no means does a general statement that “my solutions are tentative” have any real relevance to the debate between us.
Onward to the motive Licona ascribes to me for objecting to his treatment of the Doubting Thomas incident. Licona, rather to my surprise, appears to have me confused with someone else. He thinks that I object because of theological commitments.
For her, John could not have done this. Why not? Apparently, because God would not have allowed it in the process of divine inspiration.As already pointed out, my objections to Licona’s treatment of these passages are evidential. See above for more. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the “process of divine inspiration.” Elsewhere in his response, Licona spends a fair bit of time talking about how he is an historian and therefore “cannot bring a theological conviction that the Bible is God’s infallible Word to that investigation.” By its inclusion in his response to me, I infer that this, also, is supposed to have something to do with my position, and it fits with Licona’s attribution to me of a motive related to a theory of the “process of divine inspiration.”
Licona’s attempts to categorize me conveniently as a die-hard fundamentalist inerrantist are as blatant as they are misguided. The label will not fit at all. Had he carefully read my previous critiques of his work (see update 2 here for a set of links), he would know that I repeatedly have disavowed holding to inerrancy. In fact, quite to the contrary, I have said that it would be better (in two senses) for Licona himself to be more willing than he appears to be to consider quite common things such as minor memory error, lack of information, misunderstanding, or remembering things differently on the part of the evangelists. Better both in the sense of being less historically corrosive and in the sense of being more probable.
As the old saying goes, when you see hoof prints, think horses, not zebras. If a garden-variety human event like “Luke was not informed of Thomas’s absence and wrote on the understandable assumption that eleven disciples were present on a given occasion” will account quite easily for a difference in the accounts, there is no need to bring up either the theory that John made up the entire Doubting Thomas sequence or the theory that Luke engaged in an elaborate “literary device” of deliberately writing as though two appearances of Jesus were only one appearance.
On p. 150 (and again on pp. 164 and 191) when discussing when Jesus was anointed in Passion Week, Licona is quite definite that either John or Mark deliberately fictionalized the chronology for some special reason or other–either symbolic, or to tie the event more closely to the raising of Lazarus. He literally does not even bring up for a moment the possibility that either evangelist made a minor good-faith error about what day the anointing occurred on. Yet I consider that to be entirely plausible, especially since Jesus apparently went out to sleep and presumably eat at Bethany on several different evenings just before and during Passion Week. Which of us gives the greater appearance of going to extreme lengths to avoid attributing garden-variety error to the evangelists, or even contemplating the possibility? (Though I should add that Licona also often jumps to the conclusion that Plutarch has deliberately fictionalized when Plutarch’s making an error or relying on at least one source that was in error would be a simpler explanation. Still, Licona occasionally attributes genuine, good faith error to Plutarch but virtually never does so for the evangelists.)
As I pointed out above, Licona frequently drags in “literary artistry” and “compositional devices” entirely unnecessarily. A particularly egregious example, which I will probably write at more length about in a later post, is Licona’s out-of-nowhere idea that Jesus never said “I thirst” on the cross but instead said, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me.” (p. 166) “I thirst,” Licona says, is a “dynamic equivalent transformation” for the completely different phrase in Mark. A perfectly sensible question is, “Why in the world couldn’t Jesus have said both?” There is not even any needhere for what one would normally call harmonization, since there is not even an apparent discrepancy between Jesus’ two utterances! They just appear to be entirely different utterances, and there is not the slightest reason to think that “I thirst” was anything but a human expression of his sufferings on the cross, including dehydration–a major feature of crucifixion after brutal flogging. Why would one think otherwise? Licona seems to think that the use of thirst as a metaphor for spiritual lack elsewhere in John, together with the occurrences of the statements at approximately the same point in the crucifixion, is sufficient! The common sense point that Jesus’ using water and thirst as spiritual metaphors elsewhere hardly precludes his suffering and expressing real thirst while dying on the cross does not seem to have weighed much in Licona’s calculations. From the fact that Jesus sometimes used water as a spiritual metaphor are we to conclude that he was never really thirsty or never mentioned it?
I note in passing how foggy, un-knowable, and inhuman a figure Jesus becomes when we apply fictionalization theories so readily, in contrast to the highly concrete and vivid character the gospels actually give us.
This is what I mean by poor reasoning and dragging in extraneous literary “explanations” of things that are far more simply explained.
As I said in the Q and A of a recent talk, I use my imagination and take harmonization very seriously because I consider it good historical practice, based on what we actually find in testimony and in human experience, not because of theological assumptions. I would do the same for Plutarch, by the way. But sometimes it’s hard to see why one should even call the obvious rejoinders to New Testament scholars’ strange theories “harmonizations,” as there is not even a discrepancy to harmonize.
For another example of creating a problem where none exists from Richard Burridge, concerning the nickname “Peter” for Simon, see my post here. Similarly, Evans’s idea that the “Johannine community” wrote Jesus’ clear statements to deity as theological elaborations upon and reworkings of the doctrine found less clearly in the synoptics (or perhaps in otherwise unrecorded teachings) is an utterly unforced error. There isn’t even any discrepancy to harmonize! There is no discrepancy between Jesus’ claiming to have the power to forgive sins at the healing of the lame man in Mark and his claiming “Before Abraham was, I am” to the Jews in John. Very much to the contrary, the claiming of divine prerogative in Mark makes an overt “I am” statement in John that much more plausible. The idea that one of these is a redactive elaboration of the other is dragged in on the flimsiest of argumentative pretexts.
These objections, again, are not a priori theological hangups but rational, epistemological objections to hyper-sophisticated literary criticism run amok.
Certainly I have emphasized again and again the historically corrosive nature of Licona’s theories. This is relevant in multiple ways: First, the fact that a theory would eliminate the possibility of telling when an historian, speaker, or memoirist is telling the truth or making things up puts it at odds with the common human desire to be believed, especially in speech or writing that purports to tell about real events (as opposed to, say, fairy tale). The burden of proof lies firmly on someone who is hypothesizing so complicated a “social contract” between reader and author that the reader doesn’t care, for any of the putatively historical writings of his time, whether the author is making stuff up invisibly at multiple points. Second, some writers of the gospels themselves, or their sources (in the case of Peter) are quite explicit that they are testifying truthfully at the empirical level–to what they have heard and seen, making empirical truthfulness the apologetic basis of their witness. This makes it improbable that they would fictionalize in the way Licona so casually and frequently hypothesizes, or that their audiences would take fictionalization on such important matters as Jesus’ life and teaching as lightly as he implies they would have. They also include many details, so they seem to think details are important, and many of these details are verified–again, counteracting the idea that details were not intended to be taken as literal. Third, it would be evidentially a great loss to Christianity if Licona’s theories were true, contrary to his repeated avowals that this is all no big deal and his confusing uses of terms like “accurate,” “reliable,” and “paraphrase.” Therefore, it behooves us not to accept such conclusions passively, as from an authority figure, but to search the documents in question for ourselves to see whether these things are so. Much of the time I am simply trying to motivate people to do this, finding passivity, timidity, and a positive determination to believe (sometimes without even reading what he has written!) that Licona’s position wouldn’t be a big deal if it were true, to be distressingly more common than such attitudes ought to be.
As for theological motivations and driving biases, I have more than once had those sympathetic to Licona’s ideas tell me in so many words that they feel that they must accept his fictionalizing literary device theories in order to avoid attributing ordinary error to the evangelists! I have argued that this is an extremely Pyrrhic victory for “inerrancy” (both by major redefinition and by rendering the gospels functionally unreliable). But also, not having the theological hangup of needing to avoid attributing even the most minor and rare factual error to the authors of the Gospels, I do not feel driven to accept the unjustified theory of a vast, complex superstructure of societally understood, frequent, invisible fictionalization so that I can say that, in some odd sense or other, the gospel authors never “affirmed” anything that was even trivially incorrect. Licona would do better to look among his own followers for driving theological motivations and agendas than to look at me.
I am free to find reasonable harmonizations when they exist (and they exist far more often than Licona recognizes), which do not attribute any error at all, and to conclude (which I rarely do) that there are occasional errors in these documents, if that seems to be the best explanation in some given case.
It’s striking, as it turns out, how very well they stand up to those strange, allegedly modern (but not really) standards of literal truthfulness, just like truthful, knowledgeable witnesses and reporters in any age. This allows us to conclude that they are very reliable, not “reliable” only in some attenuated sense, not reliable only in some theological sense, not merely on some “core” events while throwing the details to the winds of agnosticism, not accurate only on “nuggets” (per Evans on John), not in a sense that involves the evangelists’ making up entirely different sayings that were never said and attributing them to Jesus and our then twisting the meaning of the term “paraphrase” to cover their invention, but highly reliable in the factual sense, throughout their documents, on the “ground level” of reportage, and even concerning details. In Hemer’s terminology, they turn out to be good sources. And for that, we Christians, who have extraordinary claims to support, should all be humbly grateful to the Providence of Almighty God. I urge readers to acknowledge the importance of the gospels’ reliability in this sense and to question vigorously for themselves those theories that undermine it.
Originally posted on Extra Thoughts.
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.