Licona gospel examples IV: More over-reading

Licona gospel examples IV: More over-reading

by Lydia McGrew
November, 2017

In this post I’ll discuss more examples from Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? in which Licona’s approach creates unnecessary tensions between the gospel accounts by over-reading. Here, as elsewhere, Licona opts for the interpretation of the text that creates an alleged contradiction and then (in all cases but one) “explains” it by fictionalization on the part of one or the other author. In the remaining case I will discuss, Licona explains the discrepancy created by over-reading by an interesting reference to use of contradictory sources which, in turn, is tacitly at odds with the traditional authorship of two of the gospels in question. Moreover, he adds fictionalization theories on top of the contradictory source theories.

–Do the Pharisees watching Jesus heal the man with the withered hand stay silent the whole time?

Licona postulates a discrepancy between Matthew’s account (chapter 12) of Jesus’ healing the man with the withered hand and Mark’s (chapter 3) and Luke’s (chapter 6). The alleged contradiction concerns the question of whether the Pharisees spoke to Jesus or not.

Matthew 12:9-13 records that they asked Jesus a question:

Departing from there, He went into their synagogue. And a man was there whose hand was withered. And they questioned Jesus, asking, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse Him. And He said to them, “What man is there among you who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep! So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand!” He stretched it out, and it was restored to normal, like the other.

Mark 3:1-5 does not record any question from the Pharisees to Jesus.

He entered again into a synagogue; and a man was there whose hand was withered. They were watching Him to see if He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. He said to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and come forward!” And He said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” But they kept silent. After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored.

Luke 6:6-10, which may be dependent upon Mark at this point, gives the strongest impression (taken in isolation) that the leaders were silent throughout, since it emphasizes that Jesus knew their thoughts.

On another Sabbath He entered the synagogue and was teaching; and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees were watching Him closely to see if He healed on the Sabbath, so that they might find reason to accuse Him. But He knew what they were thinking, and He said to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and come forward!” And he got up and came forward. And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to destroy it?” After looking around at them all, He said to him, “Stretch out your hand!” And he did so; and his hand was restored.

But it’s important to remember that Licona is certainly not saying that Matthew is dependent upon Luke for this story but on Mark. Licona combines Luke’s and Mark’s accounts and states a contradiction.

Most interesting is that in Mark 3: 2– 5 and Luke 6: 7– the Pharisees are portrayed as being silent throughout the entire event while observing Jesus to see if he would heal the man, thereby breaking the Sabbath and providing them with grounds to accuse him. But Jesus knew their thoughts and asked them whether it was lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to save a life. In Matt. 12: 10– 13, the Pharisees were not silent. Instead, Matthew takes the thoughts of the Pharisees and converts them into a dialogue with Jesus[.] (p. 128)

But neither Mark nor Luke states that the Pharisees were “silent throughout the entire event,” and Mark, in particular, emphasizes that they remained silent when Jesus questioned them. In point of fact, we have other incidents in the gospels where the Pharisees ask Jesus a question, he asks them a tough question in reply, and they do not answer the latter. In Mark 11:27-33 there is such a dialogue in which Jesus puts them to silence by asking if the baptism of John the Baptist was from heaven or of men. In Matthew 22:34-46 the Pharisees ask Jesus a question about the greatest commandment. He answers it but then goes on to ask the famous questions about whose son the Christ is and why David calls the Messiah “Lord.” After that, no one asks him any further questions. So Mark’s noting that the Pharisees are silent after Jesus asks them a “gotcha” question does not, contra Licona, amount to an assertion that they are silent throughout the incident.

It would fit with this pattern if the Pharisees did ask Jesus whether it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath and if Jesus, in reply, asked whether it is lawful to do good or evil on the Sabbath, to save or destroy life. This does not mean that Mark knew of the further exchange. Peter, as Mark’s source, may have only remembered a portion of the exchange.

Moreover, if one takes Matthean authorship with any seriousness (as Licona implies that he does take it in this lecture, at about minute 38), one should acknowledge that Matthew might have his own memories of this incident. But, as usual, the hypothesis that Matthew remembered additional details of the incident is treated as utterly off the table in Licona’s analysis. He doesn’t even mention it and instead assumes that Matthew redacts Mark in a way that had no factual justification. He jumps to the conclusion that Matthew, trying to follow “compositional devices,” has “tak[en] the thoughts of the Pharisees and convert[ed] them into a dialogue.”

This follows the “fictions only need apply” pattern that we have previously seen. It also follows the pattern of acting as if Matthew could not have had independent access to the truth of the events. And it is an incident of over-reading by insisting that the Pharisees are definitely said to be silent the entire time in Mark. This is poor historical practice, but it is all too typical of New Testament scholarship.

–Does John say that the Last Supper was “eaten before the Passover”?

Licona takes the all-too-common view that John has changed the relationship of Jesus’ death to the Passover and the sacrifice of the lambs in order to make a theological point. As I pointed out here, there is every reason to think that John would not have believed that a theological point could actually be supported by fake “facts.” Moreover, excellent work on this whole alleged discrepancy has been done by numerous commentators over the years, including Craig Blomberg in recent times. Blomberg, for example, makes the point that the Jews’ alleged ritual uncleanness in John 18:28 would have expired with hand-washing at sundown and that therefore the “John changed the crucifixion day” explanation does not even explain the passage! (Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 1987, p. 177) Hence, a better explanation is that the “Passover” that they would have been barred from eating if they had entered Pilate’s hall on Friday was the chagigah, eaten at midday. Blomberg has also pointed out (in his review of Licona’s book) that John does not note how many hours Jesus was on the cross and that therefore the entire argument that John changed the time of Jesus’ crucifixion to “make” him be sacrificed at the time of the death of the Passover lambs requires comparison with the synoptics in order to calculate the time of death in John. This, of course, doesn’t make sense if the idea is that John is departing from the synoptics concerning the time of Jesus’ death! Many of these points about John’s allegedly “moving” the day of the crucifixion have been made for well over a hundred years. I specially mention Blomberg’s because Blomberg and Licona appear to be acquainted (he receives acknowledgements in Licona’s book) and because Licona must be aware of his 1987 book on the reliability of the gospels.

The work that has been done on this issue is to a large degree brushed aside or ignored by Licona. He doesn’t even mention the chagigah resolution to the John 18:28 issue. He implies that John’s statement that the upcoming Sabbath “was great” means that it was also the first day of Passover, without considering that the Sabbath within the feast of Unleavened Bread could also have been referred to as particularly significant (a point Blomberg made in 1987). He argues from silence that there are no explicit indications that the Last Supper is a Passover meal. He even goes so far as to say, “John appears deliberate in his attempts to lead his readers to think the Last Supper was not a Passover meal,” (p. 156), which is quite a strong over-reading.

One of the items Licona brings up in evidence for this strong claim is John 13:1ff.

Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself.

Of verse 1, Licona says, “First, in John 13: 1, the Last Supper is eaten ‘before the Feast of the Passover.'” (p. 155)

This is quite a serious over-reading to the point of qualifying as a misreading. The verse absolutely does not say that the Last Supper is eaten “before the Feast of the Passover.” The verb in the sentence (in Greek as in English) is, “He loved.” The verse states that before the Feast of the Passover Jesus, knowing that his hour had come, loved his disciples. One can actually take “before the Feast of the Passover” to refer to “having loved” and render the verse as saying that Jesus loved them to the end, having loved them before the Feast of the Passover. Then the foot washing, which comes right afterwards, illustrates his loving them during the feast and to the end. Even if one takes “before the Feast of the Passover” to modify the main verb, that is still “he loved them.” The reference to “supper” in verse 2 is quite naturally taken to be a reference to the Feast of the Passover, which was just mentioned in verse 1. J.W. McGarvey pointed out back in the 1800s that, if I said that something happened “before Christmas” or that someone was thinking in a certain way “before Christmas” and followed this up with, “And during supper…” one would naturally take the “supper” to be a supper on or at Christmas, the feast just referred to. In verse 1 John talks about Jesus’ reflective love for his disciples as he thinks, before the Passover, of the upcoming events of his departure. In verse 2 he begins talking about that Passover meal itself. But Licona emphatically declares that, in verse 1, the Last Supper is eaten before the Passover. Buried in a footnote (note 81, p. 248) is a dismissive statement that a contrary interpretation “requires some forcing.”

On the matter of the day of the crucifixion in John, as elsewhere, Licona uses the extremely misguided, anti-harmonistic principle that an account should be read in isolation from other accounts in order to decide if there is a discrepancy (and hence, in order to decide if one author or the other has fictionalized):

And if we were to read John’s Gospel apart from any knowledge of the Synoptics, we would regard John as reporting that Jesus was crucified prior to the celebration of the Passover meal. (p. 156)

In my view, Keener’s suggestion that John changed the day and time that Jesus was crucified in order to make a theological point seems most plausible, because no one reading John’s account independently of the Synoptics would get the impression the Last Supper was a Passover meal. In fact, they would get precisely the opposite impression. However, in the end, I do not think certainty on the matter is possible. (p. 191)

This principle of reading passages alone and not learning from other passages is virtually guaranteed to produce unnecessary apparent discrepancies. Truthful human testimony often appears conflicting unless we engage in reasonable harmonization and allow ourselves to learn from more than one account and put the accounts together.

This is one point on which Craig Blomberg has actually criticized Licona. His review in the Christian Research Journal is, compared to my criticisms, quite mild and implies that Licona has provided some sort of insights from his study of Plutarch. There are a couple of places in the review where Blomberg unfortunately seems to accept a fictionalization idea suggested by Licona. But other than that, the insights Blomberg attributes to Licona basically amount to the non-literary device of “spotlighting,” which every harmonizer for 2,000 years already knew about, and Blomberg’s misunderstanding in thinking that Licona is saying that the Gospel authors aren’t asserting a chronology when actually Licona repeatedly argues that they are asserting and changing chronology. Blomberg also, understandably enough, has not double-checked Licona’s work on Plutarch (see my post here) and hence assumes that Licona has really found a variety of fictionalizing compositional devices of the time in Plutarch.

All that being said, Blomberg deserves credit as, thus far, the only member of the New Testament guild who is not tainted with the “Geislerian” label who is willing to criticize Licona’s recent book in print at all. (As far as I know. If there are others, I’d be very interested to hear who they are.) He notes, concerning the day and time of the crucifixion, that Licona “seems too impervious to a traditional harmonization,” and he gives from his own research several arguments against the view that John changed the day and time. (Christian Research Journal, vol. 40, no. 2, 2017, p. 50).

In discussing John’s allegedly moving the day of Jesus’ crucifixion in relation to the Passover, Licona does attempt a Plutarchan insight (pp. 162-163) Depending on classicist Christopher Pelling’s suggestion that Plutarch “may be up to something,” he alleges that Plutarch has moved an incident in which Caesar wept while thinking of Alexander the Great by about seven years in order to place it in closer proximity to Caesar’s later, more ambitious period. As usual, Licona has no argument that Plutarch did this deliberately, and Pelling’s “Plutarch may be up to something here” does not inspire confidence. The whole thing is no more than the weakest literary speculation. Plutarch merely says that “we are told” that Caesar wept while reading of Alexander “while in Spain.” (Caesar 11.5-6) As usual, the insistence that this event has to be located specifically at the point in time in Spain that Plutarch is discussing just then in the narrative is not all that strongly supported, especially given the phrase “we are told.” Some other details are different between Plutarch’s account of Caesar’s thoughts on Alexander and those of Dio Cassius and Suetonius, with whom Licona alleges a discrepancy as to timing–the only basis of the conjecture. So Plutarch may have had a different source.

In other words, Licona merely adds an extremely weak conjecture about deliberate fictionalization with thematic motivation on the part of Plutarch to the mix. This saddles him with another dubious thesis to defend but does nothing worth mentioning to spruce up the shop-worn proposal that John changed the day of the crucifixion. The burden of Licona’s argument for thatconclusion, here as in the other cases in this post, is borne not by some special insight he provides from Plutarch but by the same arguments that anti-harmonizers have been making all along.

–Did Luke or Mark fictionalize concerning the thieves on the cross?

Licona attempts to create a tension between Luke and Mark concerning the thieves on the cross. He does this by a strangely static, rigid over-reading of the passages in both gospels. At first the alleged tension arises from the well-known point that Matthew 27:44 and Mark 15:32 state that thieves, plural, reviled Jesus, while Luke 23:39-40 records that one of the thieves rebuked the other and asked Jesus to remember him in his kingdom. Licona then momentarily considers a normal harmonization such as has been given by many:

The tension vanishes if we propose that both thieves initially reviled Jesus but one later had a change of heart and repented. Such is plausible given deathbed conversions. (p. 165)

Why is this not the end of the matter? Why does Licona go on to propose any fictionalizations at all?

On the other hand, all three Synoptics place the response of the thieves in the same location of their narrative: The three have just been crucified, lots were cast for Jesus’s clothing, the Jewish leaders are mocking him, and even one or both thieves mock him. This is immediately followed by darkness covering the land beginning at noon. Thus, Luke appears to be reporting the same incident as Mark // Matthew. Luke may have displaced the act of the repentant thief from a later time that day, or Mark— followed by Matthew— left the thief unrepentant in order to highlight Jesus being rejected by all. As a historical question, it is impossible to determine what occurred with the available data. Accordingly, it would appear that either displacement or the altering or omission of narrative details has occurred.

So we’ve moved instantaneously from “the tension vanishes” to “it would appear” that either Luke or Mark has deliberately fictionalized in some way–either by moving the time of one thief’s repentance or by deliberately suppressing it. And, for icing on the cake, “It is impossible to determine what occurred with the available data.” Really? Impossible? This is forcing the redactive fog over a scene without any justification.

Consider Licona’s odd statements that they “place the response of the thieves in the same location of their narrative,” that “Luke appears to be reporting the same incident,” and especially that “the three have just been crucified.” We should immediately ask why one would even speak of the speech of the thieves as “an incident.” Jesus was on the cross for hours. Many people were saying many things to him. He was saying various things. (Thus Licona’s rigidity here is of a piece with his rigid attempts to “match up” Jesus’ words from the cross by last and next-to-last order, discussed here.) It is especially wrong to imply that what Jesus and the thieves say to each other in all three gospels should be taken as happening when “the three have just been crucified.” Neither Luke nor Mark nor Matthew is attempting to give the impression of time-stamping everything that anyone says! Some events, such as the beginning of the time when Jesus was crucified and the darkness, are time-stamped, but not the words of the thieves or all of the words of Jesus. For example, here is Mark’s account of the thieves in its immediate context:

And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. And it was the third hour when they crucified him. And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him. Mark 15:22-32

Licona strangely takes the fact that Mark narrates the offer of wine mixed with myrrh and the dividing of the garments prior to this and that he narrates the mockery of the Jewish leaders together with it to indicate that he is placing it at some fairly specific time in the crucifixion–namely, when the men have just been put on the cross. But surely if anything emerges from the passage it is the casualness of Mark’s placement of the thieves. He merely notes, apropos of “reviling” generally, that they also reviled Jesus! The same is true of Matthew.

Of course, one of the thieves did not repent, and Luke’s account, which is also not highly specific as to time, reflects this:

And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:34-43

All three narratives begin the next verse with a reference to the darkness beginning at the sixth hour.

If we accept Mark’s time for the beginning of Jesus’ crucifixion at about the third hour (9 a.m.) and the beginning of the darkness at about the sixth hour (noon), and if we take Luke’s narrative (which we need not do anyway) to indicate that the dialogue with the repentant thief took place before the darkness began, there are nonetheless three hours of crucifixion in which various people revile Jesus and in which one thief has time to change his tune and rebuke the other thief. Three hours is a long time and would seem endless while hanging on a cross. Plenty of time to say and think many things. And of course different people, placed in different locations on Golgotha, would have had opportunity to hear different parts of what was going on. There is no reason even to conjecture that Mark deliberately suppressed the conversion of one thief.

It is only Licona’s over-reading that requires that “the three have just been crucified” when all dialogue between Jesus and any of the thieves takes place, something never said in any of the texts. In fact, very much to the contrary, Luke begins verse 44, “It was now about the sixth hour,” which indicates quite explicitly that (of course) time has passed while the other events recorded have been taking place. One could readily infer the same from both Matthew and Mark when they go from a record of various revilings and abuses to describing the darkness from the sixth to the ninth hour.

Over-reading is the bane of New Testament studies.

–Was Mary Magdalene with the group of women who met Jesus?

I have already discussed Licona’s rigid interpretation of Matthew 28 on this point in “Fictions Only Need Apply.” I bring it up again here to put it in the category of over-reading and to note Licona’s confident wording that creates the alleged discrepancy. After telling briefly the story of Mary Magdalene’s meeting with Jesus in the tomb garden in John, Licona states that Matthew’s gospel is incompatible on this point:

The story differs in Matt. 28: 8– 10 in which upon hearing the message of the angel at the tomb, the group of women,which included Mary Magdalene, left quickly with fear and trembling and ran to tell Jesus’s disciples. (p. 175, emphasis added)

But this is only Licona’s inference from Matthew 28:1-10. It states explicitly that Mary was one of those who came to the tomb but does not name the women when they left together or when they saw Jesus. That Mary Magdalene was with the group that left the tomb and saw Jesus is not an unreasonable inference to make from Matthew alone, but again, good historical practice requires that we take all the evidence into account. John 20 is also data, and the two items of data concerning Mary Magdalene’s whereabouts are fairly easily harmonized by taking John’s account to be correct in indicating that she impulsively ran back to Peter and John upon seeing the stone rolled away and hence was not a party to the other things the other women saw and heard. Supplementing further from the list of women in Luke 24:10, we can infer that there was a larger group of women than the two Matthew explicitly names, so that Matthew’s plural usages, indicating a group of women who saw angels and saw Jesus, are also explained. Matthew simply may not have known of the separate facts concerning Mary Magdalene, though he does not assert anything to the contrary. In this case as well Licona asserts the wrong methodological principle of considering Matthew only in isolation and rejecting theories that are not the “impression we would get” from reading Matthew alone (note 144, p. 255)

Licona, by over-reading and hence taking Matthew to be positively asserting that the group that saw Jesus included Mary Magdalene, boxes himself into a situation where he then considers only fictionalization scenarios. (He does not, interestingly, consider the possibility of even trivial error here on Matthew’s part, just as he does not consider the possibility of mere lack of information on Matthew’s part.)

The stakes are fairly high for this particular over-reading, since Licona insists that either John or Matthew has “relocated” the first appearance to Mary Magdalene. Licona does not decide between these two “relocations” and even pointedly says that this shows the extent to which one or other evangelist “felt free to craft the story”–i.e., make stuff up.

At minimum, it appears that either Matthew or John has relocated the appearance to Mary Magdalene. This shows the extent to which at least one of the evangelists or the sources from which he drew felt free to craft the story. (p. 176)

Why does Matthew even have to have known about Mary Magdalene’s separate experience in order to “relocate” it? Matthew does not assert that she was with the other women, but if he leaves out her separating from the others, this could easily be because he hadn’t heard that part of the story. No fictionalizing “relocation” is required. And as I’ve pointed out, in the case of John, this would have to amount to wholesale invention of an important scene in the resurrection narratives–the appearance of Jesus to Mary at the tomb. Over-reading combined with a bias towards fictionalization has serious consequences.

–Were angels present at the tomb when the women came?

Of a piece with Licona’s determined rejection of harmonizations concerning Mary Magdalene is his rather surprising doubt cast upon the presence of angels at the tomb when the women first came there.

The narratives differ pertaining to whether an angel was at the tomb during the initial visit of the women. Whereas all three Synoptics report the presence of one or more angels at the empty tomb when the women arrived, John’s account suggests no angels were present until Mary’s second visit. (p. 176)

I admit to being quite puzzled as to where Licona is getting this “suggestion” in John’s account, and Licona gives no helpful explanation on the point. Here are the first three verses of John 20:

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb. So she ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.”

John’s focus is on Mary Magdalene, and John suggests that Mary Magdalene herself sees no angels on her first visit, but this does not amount to a suggestion that no angels were present until Mary’s second visit! Indeed, Mary seems (according to John) to have run back to the disciples immediately upon noticing that the stone has been moved. She implies that others were present with her (“we do not know where they have laid him”), but for all that John says, the others may well not have run back with Mary. That the angels were not visible immediately outside the tomb can also be inferred from Luke and Mark. Luke 24:3ff says that the women entered the tomb after seeing the stone rolled away. They found the body gone, and two men in white appeared as they were expressing perplexity about the absence of the body. Obviously, if Mary left immediately upon seeing that the stone was moved, she would not have met these men in white. Mark 16:4-6 is similar to Luke on this point, saying that the women found that the stone had been moved, entered the tomb, and saw a “young man” sitting at the right. Only Matthew mentions an angel outside the tomb, sitting on the rolled-away stone. One can, of course (as does John Wenham, Easter Enigma, p. 77) guess that the angel didn’t continue sitting there but moved inside before the women arrived. In any event, when it comes to the idea that angels were present only inside the tomb when the women first arrived, John (in implying that Mary Magdalene saw no angels on her first visit, when she apparently did not enter the tomb) is entirely consistent with Mark and Luke!

To say that John “suggests” that no angels were present until Mary Magdalene’s second visit is severe over-reading. Licona can support it only by the rigid assumption, which informs his interpretation throughout, that the women were (metaphorically speaking) chained together and did all their going and coming in an unalterable group. Hence, evidently, Mary Magdalene’s first visit must be identical to everyone else’s first visit, and if she saw no angels on that visit, neither did they. As I have mentioned before, redaction critics tend to see the stories in the Bible as composed of snapshots, or even stone statues. Nobody moves. If a group is together at one time, it must remain together. The solution to Licona’s unnecessary insistence that Matthew and John contradict each other concerning the first appearance to Mary Magdalene is the same as the solution to Licona’s extreme over-reading of John as “suggesting” that no angels were present until Mary Magdalene’s second visit to the tomb, thus contradicting the synoptics.

None of this stops Licona from suggesting major alteration:

Is John’s account closer to what was originally taught, while the resurrection narratives in the Synoptics have conflated and greatly compressed various elements?…However, if the resurrection narratives in the Synoptics have not been conflated and greatly compressed, why is the initial appearance of the angels to the women absent in John? If Matthew (and the Synoptics) conflated and compressed elements in the narrative, of necessity they would have needed to redact other elements in order to improve the flow of the narrative. (p. 176)

The initial appearance of the angels to the women is absent in John, fairly obviously, because John is following the perspective of Mary Magdalene alone, and she did not see the angels on that occasion. The synoptic gospels are recording what happened from the perspective of one or more of the other women who did not run away immediately, and those evangelists may not even have known about Mary’s unique experience. This is not even all that difficult to think of, nor is it a remotely implausible harmonization. Similarly, just before this, Licona creates an unnecessary conflict of details between what Jesus says to Mary Magdalene in John 20 and what he says to the women in Matthew 28. He concludes, confidently, “Again we observe the extent to which one or more of the evangelists or their sources apparently felt free to vary the tradition.” (p. 176) Actually, what we are observing here is Licona’s own redactive-critical determination to treat different events as the same event and then to attribute the differences to factually unfounded variation by the evangelists. Licona brings up multiple “differences” in the resurrection narratives as though they were separate evidence of redaction, “crafting,” and “feeling free to vary the tradition,” when in fact a number of them are explicable by the same harmonization–the simple assumption that John’s narrative of Mary Magdalene’s actions is correct and that this separated her from the other women, who then had different experiences and met Jesus at a different time.

–Does Luke put all of the events after Jesus’ resurrection on one day?

I’ve mentioned this issue before as well. Here I want to highlight Licona’s strong and definite language. Licona’s explicit declarations on this point help us to pinpoint the difference between benign and non-benign concepts of compression.

In Luke 24: 1– 53, Jesus’s resurrection, all of his appearances, and his ascension to heaven are narrated as though having occurred on that Sunday. That Luke compressed the events in this manner is clear, since in the sequel to his Gospel, Luke says Jesus appeared to his disciples over a period of forty days before ascending to heaven (Acts 1: 3– 9). p. 177 (emphasis added)

If that is not sufficiently explicit to show that Licona is saying that Luke alters the timing of the events after Jesus’ resurrection, here is a still more explicit statement:

As we observed above, Luke compresses all of the appearances and the ascension to have occurred on the same day as Jesus’s resurrection. So there is no time to have the disciples go to Galilee. p. 180, emphasis added

This is consistent with what Licona said in his older book, The Resurrection of Jesus.

Luke employs telescoping. In his Gospel, all of the appearances and the ascension occur on EasterThe Resurrection of Jesus, p. 596, note 449, emphasis added.

In other words, Licona is not merely saying that Luke is “telescoping” in the older, common, benign sense in which evangelical scholars use the term–namely, narrating briefly, not including everything that happened, and being inexplicit about how long everything took. On the contrary, Licona is explicitly stating that Luke in his narrative is making all of the events occur on Easter Sunday even though Luke knew that they did not all occur on that day.

Is is absolutely crucial that we keep in mind that words like “compression” and “telescoping” are not being used in the same sense by all scholars on all occasions. The fictionalizing and non-fictionalizing senses must be kept distinct.

It’s especially remarkable that Licona uses Luke’s narrative in Acts 1 to argue that Luke must have knowingly fictionalized in Luke. Since it is quite obvious that Luke and Acts were not published at the same time and, in fact, that Acts is later (the introductions to Theophilus alone make this plain), Licona’s implication that what Luke knew when he wrote Acts 1 must be the same as what he knew when he wrote Luke 24 is completely unjustified. I have already shown how, when discussing Plutarch, Licona gives insufficient credibility to the possibility that Plutarch gained additional information in between writing two accounts. That type of mistake is particularly egregious when it is completely clear that the document containing additional information is the later account! In that case attributing deliberate fictionalizing to the author becomes positively irresponsible historical practice.

Licona’s strong language goes far beyond anything that can be sustained by the narrative in Luke. To say that all of these events “occur on Easter” or “occur on the same day as Jesus’ resurrection” is simply not borne out by the text and exemplifies over-reading. In the scene on the road to Emmaus, the two men expressly urge Jesus to stay with them because it is getting on toward evening and the day is far spent (Luke 24:28). They recognize him in the breaking of bread at the evening meal and then, after he disappears, they hurry back to Jerusalem, which is a six or seven mile walk, as Luke notes (vs. 13). They excitedly tell the other disciples what has happened and receive from them the news that Jesus has appeared to Cephas. While they are conversing, Jesus appears among them. He shows his hands and feet and eats with them, illustrating that he is not a ghost. (vss. 36-43)

Interestingly, various translations begin vs. 44, about further things Jesus said to the disciples, with different English words. The ESV begins with “then,” but in fact there is no such temporal indicator. The NASB begins the verse with “now,” which is also unfortunate. The connective, in fact, is “de,” which as we saw in a previous post is quite indefinite as to time. It is sometimes translated “and,” sometimes “moreover,” as well as in other words. In the NASB, verses 44-45 say,

Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures…

But the Greek gives no reason to insist that this conversation occurred on the same occasion as the appearance recorded just before that. In fact, verses 44 to the end of the book are quite rushed:

Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising God.

The connective at vs. 50, “And he led them out” is also the non-committal “de.” Wenham’s comment on the language of the passage is apt:

These ‘thens‘ [in the RSV at verses 44 and 50] give a much sharper suggestion of chronological continuity than the Greek justifies. The paragraphs are linked by a weak connective non-temporal particle (de) which would be better left untranslated. Easter Enigma, p. 107

Luke’s narrative in these verses is notably brief, and in that minimal sense compressed. Far more than indicating that everything occurred on Easter day, this reads like a summary of events beginning on Easter and for some unspecified time thereafter. Indeed, if the day was already far spent when the disciples sat down to eat with Jesus at Emmaus, followed by a walk back to Jerusalem, followed by the first appearance of Jesus there, one has to think it would have been getting rather dark for a walk back out to Bethany or for the disciples even to see Jesus received up into heaven! This is not even a case where Luke, taken by himself, sounds quite naturally like he is “placing” all of the events on the same day, though many skeptics and liberal scholars (and unfortunately Mike Licona) take him in that way. Rather, an attentive reader might well wonder what the cause was of Luke’s rush and his unclarity about the time frame.

Luke himself may have felt the same way. Whether he was running out of scroll or trying to catch a ship to take his completed work to Theophilus in Luke 24, his careful narrative in Acts 1 about Jesus’ appearance over forty days and his making himself known by “many infallible proofs” does not indicate that Luke was faking the time scheme in Luke 24! On the contrary, if it means anything concerning the time scheme in Luke 24, it means that Luke is now carefully including the additional information which, for some reason, was left out of that previous hurried ending. Far from trying to give a misimpression in Luke 24, he can plausibly be seen as scrupulously trying to make matters as clear as possible in Acts 1. This is not the action of a person who fictionalizes.

I note here, too, that Licona’s insistence that Luke places all of the events on one day puts Luke at odds with the Doubting Thomas sequence in John in a new way. Licona already places them at odds by alleging a contradiction between Luke’s reference to “the eleven” as present at Jesus’ first appearance and John’s statement that Thomas was not there. But in addition, if Luke were making everything happen on one day, then the Doubting Thomas sequence would not be possible on Luke’s chronology, for John 20:26 is explicit that Jesus appeared the second time to the disciples eight days later and that it was on that occasion that Thomas said, “My Lord and my God.” Licona explicitly states that there is a conflict on his view between Luke and John as far as how many days Jesus spends on earth after his resurrection (p. 177). Since Licona is alleging that it is Luke who is fictionalizing here by “telescoping,” one might think that this is unimportant as far as John’s account is concerned. But the creation of unnecessary conflicts between accounts always epistemically places some stress on both of them, if they each have any credibility at all. In that sense Licona’s insistence that Luke’s gospel has Jesus on earth for only one day when he rises from the dead casts at least some doubt upon the account in John of Jesus’ several appearances thereafter.

–Do Matthew/Mark and John/Luke contradict each other concerning where Jesus first met his male disciples?

It’s a pretty well-known trope in harmonies of and arguments about the gospel accounts of Easter that Matthew emphasizes a meeting of Jesus with his (male) disciples in Galilee and never mentions any meetings in Jerusalem, while John and Luke record a meeting in Jerusalem on Easter and do not appear to record the same meeting in Galilee that Matthew records. (John does say that the disciples returned to Galilee and saw Jesus there in John 21, but this doesn’t appear to be the same as the meeting recorded in Matthew 28.) Since the long ending of Mark is probably not original, it is hardly meaningful to speak of Mark as contradicting anyone on this question, though Licona’s analysis manages to wring a tension between Mark and John/Luke out of the text.

Licona argues that

a) Matthew records Jesus’ first meeting with his male disciples as occurring in Galilee,

b) John and Luke record the first meeting as occurring in Jerusalem,

and

c) Luke’s and Matthew’s accounts can be seen to be intended as records of the same meeting, even though they occur in different locations.

d) Mark “implies” by the wording of the angel’s message that the first meeting with the male disciples will be in Galilee.

Licona’s statement of a discrepancy is quite definite:

A major difference in the resurrection narratives pertains to where Jesus first appeared to a group of his male disciples. Matthew and Mark locate this appearance in Galilee, whereas Luke and John place it in Jerusalem[.] (pp. 177-178)

This is a particularly surprising assertion concerning Mark, with no authentic appearance narratives to draw on. Licona says that Mark “implies” that the first appearance was in Galilee (p. 180) despite the fact that, without the long ending of Mark, no appearances of Jesus are included in what we have of Mark at all. Licona’s only argument on this point appears to be the emphasis of the angel on meeting Jesus in Galilee–a weak reed on which to count Mark as “implying” something contradictory to John and Luke.

Licona’s arguments concerning Matthew, Luke, and John are a combination of arguments from silence (“In fact, in Luke and John the words of neither the angels nor Jesus at the tomb provide any hint of any appearance in Galilee,” “There is no hint [in Matthew] that the disciples delayed [in going to Galilee]” p. 178) and over-readings of Mark and Matthew.

In Matthew, the angel instructed the women to “go quickly” to the disciples with the message that Jesus had been raised and was going before them to Galilee, where they would see him (28: 7). There was a sense of urgency since Jesus had already left for Galilee. (p. 178)

Where does Matthew say that the angel said that Jesus had already left for Galilee? Nowhere. Here is Matthew.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying. Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you.” (Matthew 28:5-7)

As a matter of fact, Jesus couldn’t possibly have already left for Galilee in Matthew, since he meets the women just a couple of verses later! Licona notes the meeting of Jesus with the women, but only in order to emphasize that Jesus gives them again a message about going to Galilee. He doesn’t seem to notice that this contradicts his own interpretation of the verses immediately preceding!

In both the message of Jesus and of the angel in Matthew, Licona emphasizes that the word “there” (e.g., “There they will see me”) is placed in an emphatic position in the Greek. But regardless of the emphasis on the word, there is no necessity to take this to be an assertion, “They will see me there first, and none of them will see me first anywhere else.” Indeed, plenty of commentators who know at least as much Greek as Licona have not read the emphatic placement of the word “there” as having any such elaborate meaning.

It is entirely possible that the meeting in Galilee in Matthew 28 was the one that Paul says involved more than 500 people at once (I Corinthians 15). We have no other candidate for this appearance in any of the other Gospel narrations, and a meeting with a large group could fairly readily have taken place outdoors in the hills of Galilee without danger of being interrupted by the Jerusalem authorities. This would not preclude Jesus’ meeting before that with smaller groups, such as with the eleven (minus Thomas and then with Thomas), the two on the road to Emmaus, and Peter prior to the meeting in Galilee. Indeed, it might take some time and effort to get together a large group of Jesus’ followers to meet him in Galilee, which could explain his desire to begin to get the word out immediately even though the meeting would not take place until more than a week later. And any hint in the emphatic position of “there” in the message of the angel would apply to those who did not first see Jesus in Jerusalem. There would have been many of these among the 500.

An individual meeting with Peter is mentioned both in Luke 24:34 and in I Corinthians 15. Interestingly, the “creed” at the beginning of I Corinthians 15 is a big favorite with “minimal facts” apologists, including Licona, so presumably he doesn’t want to call it into question. But if Matthew and Mark are really asserting that the first appearance to Jesus’ male disciples occurred in Galilee, and if, according to Matthew, Jesus left immediately for Galilee after the resurrection and didn’t see any of the male disciples first, that would mean that Matthew and Mark prima facie contradict I Corinthians 15:5 (put together with Luke 24:34), which seems to be asserting that Jesus met individually with Simon Peter before appearing to the eleven.

There is even one interesting detail in Matthew that might (though I do not insist upon it) hint at earlier meetings between Jesus and the eleven. Matthew 28:16 says, “But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated.” When had Jesus designated a particular mountain? It’s possible that the message from either Jesus or the angel contained this information and that Matthew does not record it. It’s also possible that he had mentioned this detail earlier, perhaps at the point described in Matthew 26:32 when Jesus says, “After I have been raised, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” But if so, it is not recorded there either. Another interesting possibility is that Jesus designated this mountain when he met with the eleven on earlier occasions and that they were able to direct the gathering of the believers with this additional information. (This suggestion is made by John Wenham, Easter Enigma, p. 113.) Specific directions might have been easier for the disciples to take in during two longer meetings (and some individual meetings) with Jesus than for the shocked women to take in from either Jesus or the angels when first processing the fact of the resurrection.

The relatively low status of women at the time also raises the question of whether the disciples would have undertaken a journey to Galilee to meet Jesus on the word of the women alone. In fact, Luke’s account implies that the women’s stories were notoriginally believed. Jesus wanted the women to act as messengers to spread the word of the meeting in Galilee, but their message may have needed to be reinforced. Once the eleven were “on board” with the journey to Galilee, they and the women both could spread the word that Jesus wanted his followers to proceed there and see him and that this command was ratified both by angelic message and by Jesus himself.

Another point to bear in mind is that Matthew does not move immediately in chapter 28 from Jesus’ appearance to the women to the disciples’ leaving for Galilee. Verses 11-15 interject the ending of the story of the guard at the tomb, finishing with the statement that the Jews to this day promulgate the story that the disciples stole the body. Verse 16 then goes back to the disciples, beginning, “But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee…” Obviously, Matthew is not delivering a strictly chronological story here in any event.

Certainly Matthew emphasizes the meeting in Galilee and does not record one in Jerusalem. One might gather from Matthew taken alone that there was no earlier meeting in Jerusalem. And one may be curious about the question of why Matthew does not clearly mention, if the meeting in Galilee was a larger meeting, that it included those other than the eleven. But we’ve already seen that good historical practice requires putting together evidence, and this is what Licona’s insistence upon a discrepancy rejects.

Here, John Wenham has a fascinating point based on the Greek of Matthew’s account. Matthew 28:17 reads, “When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful.” Wenham states that this “they did ____, but some did _____” construction in Greek “normally signifies a change of subject, and the standard grammar translates it…’but others’.” Wenham scrupulously admits that the language does not “demand that those mentioned in the first part of the sentence and the ‘others’ mentioned in the second part should be regarded as completely mutually exclusive, but it is natural to take them as referring to different groups.” (Easter Enigma, p. 114) Wenham continues,

It is evidently no part of Matthew’s plan to write either about the experiences of the men in Jerusalem or about the experiences of the wider company of believers in Galilee. But he chooses a form of words which neatly describes the faith of the eleven and hints at the presence of others with doubts.

Licona vastly over-reads the fact that both Matthew and Luke mention some doubt or “disbelief for joy” on the part of the disciples. He takes this to be a strong argument that they were “recounting the same incident,” even though in nearly every other respect the circumstances differ. Not only do the events take place in different locations, as Licona himself is emphasizing. The meeting in Luke is unexpected; the meeting in Matthew is by appointment. The meeting in Luke (also described in John) occurs on the evening of Easter, whereas the meeting in Matthew would have to have been at least several days later or more to allow for travel. But Licona spends a couple of pages (179-180) talking about the Greek words for the unbelief or doubt, which (he admits) are different words, after stating strongly,

The appearance in Galilee in Matt. 28: 16– 17 is almost certainly a parallel to the appearance in Jerusalem in Luke 24: 36– 49, which is narrated as the first appearance to the male disciples as a group. (p. 179)

Almost certainly? This is over-reading with a vengeance. There is nothing “almost certain” about the matter. Prima facie, the two are completely different meetings! This is typical redaction-critical practice: Assert that two stories that are obviously quite different are “parallels” to each other–i.e., have no separate bases in reality. Then use the obvious differences (which should have blocked the inference that they are the same event in the first place) to claim a contradiction. Then make up some theory (that doesn’t involve the normal reliability of the documents) to explain the contradiction thus created.

This is an extremely poor methodology.

Licona’s argument from the Greek words (one of the few places in the book where he argues for a contradiction from the Greek) is peculiar in this respect: One has difficulty figuring out how it is even supposed to support his argument that the two incidents are “almost certainly parallel.” One can already tell from any good translation that both Matthew 28:17 and Luke 24:41 (as well as the statement that some thought they were seeing a ghost in Luke 24:37) indicate some manner of doubt or a feeling that the truth is too good to believe. Nothing is gained for Licona’s argument by telling us that the Greek word for “doubt” in Matthew 28, used also for Peter’s doubt when walking on the water in Matthew 14, means to “have two thoughts.” So? Luke’s word for their unbelieving joy is, as Licona acknowledges, a different term. Licona argues, plausibly enough, that Luke’s word doesn’t refer to standing grimly with arms crossed but rather finding something too good to be true, being filled with amazement, being confused by the difficulty in understanding how something is possible, etc. But what does this yield, argumentatively? Merely the conclusion that the words have sufficient range of meaning that they could refer to similar emotions! This hardly tells us that Matthew’s account of the appearance in Galilee is “almost certainly a parallel to the appearance in Jerusalem” in Luke.

The mention of “doubt” in Matthew is best explained by the presence of some who had never seen Jesus before, and it is true that Matthew 28:16ff mentions only the eleven explicitly. But this is not a linguistic point. As noted above, a linguistic point from John Wenham in these verses actually can be taken to hint at more people present than just the eleven. The best explanation of all of the evidence put together is that the group in Galilee was larger.

What is Licona’s explanation for the alleged discrepancy concerning the meetings in Galilee and in Jerusalem?

But why do Mark and Matthew do so while Luke and John locate it in Jerusalem? It is difficult to determine. Perhaps Mark and Matthew either preferred or knew only sources that located the appearance in Galilee, whereas the source(s) preferred by Luke and John put the appearance in Jerusalem. (p. 180)

This, of course, casts doubt upon both accounts. For once Licona actually considers (unusual for him) the possibility that Matthew and John both had reasons for what they report rather than merely fictionalizing. But the question then arises: Why, if Licona is taking Matthean and Johannine authorship with any seriousness at all, would they have been dependent upon a “source” for not only the place but the entire setting and circumstances of so crucial an event as Jesus’ first meeting with his disciples, which would have included themselves? Licona’s use of redaction-critical assumptions is so unconscious that he does not even confront this question. Throughout the book he makes the notion of eyewitness testimony theoretically powerless again and again, with virtually no exceptions. If Matthew and Mark have differing details of a story, this is assumed to be due to factually unsupported redaction by Matthew. And the same for John and the synoptics. Here this pattern comes to a head when Licona suggests that, for entire scenes of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to his own disciples, Matthew and John are dependent on “sources” that may get crucial facts wrong!

That this is a serious blow to the reliability of the resurrection accounts is evident from the fact that Licona’s creation of a discrepancy here once again calls into question the Doubting Thomas sequence from a different angle. I’ve pointed out in other posts (herehere, and here) that Licona casts doubt upon the Doubting Thomas sequence due to an alleged discrepancy with Luke. In that case Licona narrowly concludes that Luke rather than John is the fictionalizer. But here he doesn’t say whether he thinks Matthew’s account or John’s is the true one, though he places them in conflict. Licona doesn’t explain the implications for the Doubting Thomas sequence and perhaps didn’t even think of them, just as he may not have thought through the negative implications for the scene in the garden between Jesus and Mary Magdalene when he says that John or Matthew has “relocated” the first meeting between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

It is typical of Licona’s practice, unfortunately, to toss out suggestions of factual unreliability and/or fictionalization without seeming overly concerned about their fairly radical implications. Because Licona expressly eschews attempts to harmonize the Easter accounts, being “more persuaded that one or more of the evangelists have creatively reconstructed the events of that watershed Sunday morning and the weeks that followed” (p. 256), he does not even always seem to notice or grapple with the ramifying effects of his widespread doubts about factuality. He does not seem to consider that his rigid insistence that Matthew/Mark are “placing” the first meeting with any male disciples in Galilee would put them at odds not only with John’s geographical location of the first meeting but also with the whole set-up of the Doubting Thomas sequence and not only with John and Luke but also with the record of an earlier private meeting with Peter as recorded in I Corinthians 15.

If Matthew’s “source” said that Jesus first appeared to the disciples in Galilee, and if this “source” happens to be correct and John’s “source” is incorrect, what becomes of the sequence of appearances eight days apart in John, the first of them firmly located in Jerusalem and the second plausibly located there? Matthew explicitly says that it was “the eleven” who met Jesus in Galilee, and Licona has already (in discussing the minor apparent discrepancy between Luke and John about the first meeting) rejected attempts to say that “the eleven” could describe the group without Thomas. So if Matthew (as Licona insists) describes the firstmeeting of Jesus with his disciples, as Licona argues, Licona is forced also to say that there is a discrepancy between Matthew and John concerning Thomas’s presence and hence the doubting Thomas sequence, for exactly the same reason that Licona postulated a discrepancy with Luke! Moreover, since Matthew’s “source” is being conjectured as different from Luke’s, this would be an independent attestation (on Licona’s interpretation) to there being eleven rather than ten disciples present at the first appearance.

Locating the appearances recounted in John, including the Doubting Thomas sequence, in Galilee is extremely difficult in any event. It is not merely a matter of “changing the location.” Galilee isn’t exactly a stone’s throw away from Jerusalem. Thomas in his highly dubious state would have been unlikely to travel to Galilee with the others to try to meet Jesus on the word of the women alone. (After all, according to John, Thomas didn’t even believe the other disciples after they had seen Jesus.) But if Thomas didn’t travel to Galilee with the others, why would he have traveled there himself, still unbelieving, later on? In short, John’s entire, detailed description of the first two post-resurrection appearances is cast into doubt by the claim that Matthew must be describing the first appearance.

If Licona had taken more seriously in this instance the idea that John and Matthew were eyewitnesses or even (more minimally) that the gospel authors’ sources are factually reliable, especially on such important matters as these concerning the nature, context, and content of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, he would have had to take more seriously the possibilities for harmonization between Matthew and Luke/John. Instead, he pointlessly presents a discussion of Greek words for doubt and amazement to argue that Matthew and Luke/John are describing the same appearance.

Despite the fact that he’s attributing the difference here in the first instance to the use of different “sources” rather than to fictionalization, Licona can’t miss the opportunity to attribute some fictionalization to Luke and Matthew. He simply shifts the fictionalization move to their being (apparently) aware of the other “source” and suppressing or changing details to favor their preferred location. He combines this with his insistence on Luke’s fictionalizing compression of all of the events onto a single day.

It is noteworthy that while in Mark // Matthew the disciples are instructed to go to Galilee where they will see Jesus, in Luke, Galilee is mentioned only as the location where Jesus had predicted his betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection. This is not as insignificant as it may appear at first look but is only one element of a larger picture involving redaction in the Synoptics. As we observed above, Luke compresses all of the appearances and the ascension to have occurred on the same day as Jesus’s resurrection. So there is no time to have the disciples go to Galilee. Thus, Luke may have redacted the message of the angel in Mark // Matthew by eliminating a trip to Galilee. However, if the first appearance to the male disciples was in Jerusalem (per Luke and John), Mark // Matthew may have redacted the message to direct our focus on Galilee. (p. 180 emphasis added)

Redaction fictionalization over all! I note here that all of this “redaction” took place only if the “redactor” was actually working with the other “source” as well as with his preferred “source.” By Licona’s own hypothesis, the gospels that allegedly contradict one another concerning Galilee vs. Jerusalem are working with different sources. Why then assume that they are fictionally “redacting” a contradictory version of the story at all? If, for example, Luke’s source located the first meeting in Jerusalem and not in Galilee, why assume that Luke knew of a meeting in Galilee and deliberately redacted it out? If Matthew was dependent on a “source” (a dubious assumption if one gives any credence at all to Matthean authorship, but it’s Licona’s conjecture) that didn’t include the appearances in Jerusalem but did emphasize an appearance in Galilee, why assume that he “redacted the message to focus our attention on Galilee”? It is as though Licona literally cannot resist hypothesizing that the authors have all the information and are suppressing and/or deliberately changing some of it, not even when he himself has conjectured that they might have been making use of differing sources in the first place.

To say that all of this is a mere matter of “peripheral details” (Why Are There Differences in the Gospels, p. 184) at this point is quite inaccurate. This is especially true of the resurrection narratives. You cannot cast doubt on the “location” of Jesus’ first appearance to Mary Magdalene without casting doubt on far more than a peripheral detail in the events. You cannot cast doubt upon the setting of the first appearance to the male disciples without casting doubt upon whole scenes and the entire context of the appearances. And so forth. By the time Licona is finished, the time, place, and manner of most of the resurrection appearances in the gospels have been called into question.

None of this is necessary if one does not create discrepancies by a combination of over-reading and refusing to engage in intelligent, reasonable harmonization.

There is very little here that is new. Licona’s approach to all of these passages parallels the older debate between redactive scholars who see tensions or contradictions frequently, being extremely resistant to harmonization, and harmonizers of various stripes (inerrantists and others). He does not bring to the debate on, e.g., harmonizing the Passion and Easter accounts any useful enlightenment based upon the extra work he has done on Greco-Roman literature. It is neither helpful nor convincing merely to assert generally that the authors of the gospels felt free to “vary the tradition” or “craft the story.” Licona adds his own voice to the anti-harmonizers on these passages and on many more and spends many pages calling the factual accuracy of the accounts into question (whether he realizes that he is doing so or not) from angles that were already familiar to scholars interested in the subject. Those who give harmonization a fair trial will see that this is evidentially unnecessary. Those who realize that sometimes one author may simply have lacked information that another author possessed will also see it as unnecessary. Those who are already inclined to think that harmonizations are “strained” are likely to agree with Licona that there are contradictory accounts in the gospels, though they still should not conclude that alterations are deliberate and literary, since this adds an unsupported layer of complex conjecture to the explanation. No one should accept Licona’s arguments because of a mistaken idea that he has brought new and convincing evidence by cataloging and applying Greco-Roman compositional devices.

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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