Licona gospel examples, Part II: Fictions Only Need Apply

Licona gospel examples, Part II: Fictions Only Need Apply

by Lydia McGrew
November, 2017

In this post I’m going to continue discussing specific examples from Michael Licona’s book Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? My goal is to continue showing that Licona fails to provide examples from the gospels where the best explanation is a fictionalizing literary device. Another goal is to show how Licona’s method unnecessarily (and, in the aggregate, quite seriously) undermines confidence in the reliability of the documents and makes it extremely difficult to know what actually happened. See here for other posts at this site on Licona’s work and here for posts at my personal blog.

In the previous post I discussed places where there is not even an apparent discrepancy between accounts but where Licona gratuitously suggests either a conflict between accounts or fictionalization on the part of the author. I called these utterly unforced errors.

In this post I will be focusing on examples where there are at least supposed discrepancies but where Licona’s bias towards fictional explanations causes him either to overlook entirely or to underestimate the worth of simpler, non-fictionalizing explanations. Licona’s moves in these cases are errors of explanatory and logical judgement, sometimes taking the form of literally not even considering simpler explanations than the ones he presents us with. There is nothing about his method that flows from special expertise on his part or highly specialized knowledge. He is just engaging in poor literary redactive criticism, applied to the Gospels. Meet the new higher criticism, same as the old higher criticism.

Licona does not invariably take the stance that fictions only need apply. His bias is strong but not quite that strong. In some places his overestimating the probability of fictional examples takes the form, instead, of placing them epistemically on a par with perfectly robust and adequate harmonizations and then saying or implying that we can’t know which is the correct explanation (and hence what really happened). In other places he occasionally seems to lean toward an actual harmonization or non-fictionalizing explanation. Since he considers “spot-lighting” (which is just focusing on one thing rather than another) to be a “compositional device,” even though it is not a fictionalizing literary device, he is also sometimes able to claim to have found an enlightening “compositional device” while just talking about normal harmonization.

Some of the oddest places where Licona does not opt for fictionalization are those where he ponderously explains some trivial verbal difference in the narratives. So, for example (p. 157), if one account says that Peter was standing by the fire while another says that he was sitting by the fire, Licona pauses to tell us, with an unnecessary flurry of Greek, that “this may not be a discrepancy” since the Greek word for “stand” can mean “to remain in one place.” This harmonization is so unnecessary as to be humorous. The learned New Testament scholar is apparently not supposed to mention that a man who is sitting by a fire may also stand up.

In any event, the title of this post is not meant to say that Licona always interprets the Gospels by a principle of “Fictions only need apply.” But he is strongly biased towards fictionalization explanations, and this bias very often affects his judgement and even his ability to generate possible explanations.

By way of introduction, I also want to acquaint the reader with an important point. In his one and only response to me, Licona strongly emphasized that he is not permitted in his work as an historical scholar studying the Gospels to limit himself to hypotheses that are consistent with inerrancy. Licona brought this up apparently because he was under the misimpression that I am a strict inerrantist and that this explains my objections to his work. Earlier in the post he conjectured that my objections to his extremely serious consideration of the possibility that John made up the entire Doubting Thomas episode, which I’ll discuss below, result from my view of the “process of divine inspiration.” This is completely incorrect, and I can only guess that Licona’s confusion on this point arose from his not having read my critiques of his work going back well over a year. Apparently in an effort to set himself up against my supposedly purely theological objections, Licona launches into a short disquisition about how an historian mustn’t limit himself by assumptions of the infallibility of a document.

It is important to know that I am a historian. When the practice of history is conducted with integrity, the historian does not permit himself or herself to allow their theological presuppositions to weigh in to their investigation. After all, the results of one’s inquiry may reveal that certain presuppositions are mistaken. For example, an atheist historian should not bring his or her presupposition “God does not exist” to an investigation of Jesus’ resurrection. For it would force the conclusion that Jesus did not rise from the dead, in spite of the abundant and forceful evidence to the contrary. Conversely, if I as a Christian historian want to conduct an investigation in the Gospels with integrity, I cannot bring a theological conviction that the Bible is God’s infallible Word to that investigation. Historians who practice with integrity must come to an investigation being as open as possible to what it may yield, even if what it yields suggests something that I presently believe should be modified or abandoned. Otherwise, one ends up being guided more by his or her presuppositions rather than the historical data. That’s practicing theology or philosophy, not history.

Very well and good. I agree. But in that case it becomes a curious and pressing question: Why, again and again and again, does Licona not consider additional hypotheses in his book that are perfectly simple explanations of the data but that might be regarded as incompatible with inerrancy? If he does not like any of the harmonizations concerning the day when a certain event took place in the Gospels, or how many people were present on an occasion, or some other small detail, why does he not so much as raise the possibility that one author or other made a minor mistake on the point? If Licona does not like additive harmonization concerning what was said in a dialogue that differs slightly between two accounts, why not consider that the two authors, or their human sources, simply remembered the dialogue slightly differently? This might be regarded by some as incompatible with inerrancy, but to Licona in his “I am an historian” mode, this should not matter, should it? An historian, as he defines it, should surely be at least as free to consider that Luke was mistaken about how many disciples were present on some occasion as he is to think that John might have invented an entire incident!

Regular readers know that I, though not considering myself an inerrantist, strongly agree with those inerrantists who believe that Licona’s approach would be a bizarre redefinition of “inerrancy” and that avoiding attributing errors by attributing fictionalization to the authors would be a tragic, Pyrrhic victory for inerrantists.

I will not go on here at length about the sociological history that has led Licona to the strange point where he repeatedly raises major fictionalization on the part of a Gospel author as a perfectly respectable explanatory option but scarcely ever raises even trivial good-faith error as an explanatory option. For many years Licona has insisted, often indignantly against those who question it, that he is an inerrantist and that his theories are compatible with inerrancy. Yet quite suddenly, in response to me, he makes much of his need to be open to considering options without assuming that the Bible is infallible. Does the paragraph above amount to a tacit admission that at least some of the fictionalization theories he considers so plausible are incompatible with inerrancy after all? Which ones? What about the theory that John invented an entire scene?

Since Licona himself has now made quite a big deal about how he is an historian and must consider a wide array of options, regardless of how they relate to inerrancy, he can quite fairly be asked to stand up to that self-characterization and consider extremely simple options that he has left out again and again. I will, then, feel free repeatedly to point out when he leaves them out.

–What did Jairus say about his daughter?

I’ve discussed this incident before, in one of my earliest posts on Licona, based on an on-line lecture. The apparent discrepancy arises from the fact that Matthew 9 states that Jairus said, when he came asking for Jesus’ help, that his daughter had just died. Mark 5:23 records Jairus as saying, when he first comes to ask for help, that his daughter is on the point of death. Here (p. 133) Licona is insistent that Matthew fictionalized by compressing the account that he found in Mark, making Jairus say that his daughter had just died rather than that she was dying, and hence deliberately eliminating the coming of the servants while Jesus and Jairus are en route to inform Jairus that his daughter has died.

Here it’s important to distinguish benign from non-benign compression. Benign compression is just leaving stuff out to shorten an account. We all do it all the time. We aren’t trying to “write as if” or “speak as if” the left-out stuff didn’t happen. Not only does Licona define “compression” in deliberately fictionalizing terms (p. 20), in this case the theory of compression Licona puts forth has to be the fictionalizing kind (not merely leaving things out), since it would involve deliberately changing what Jairus said from, “My daughter is dying” to “My daughter has just died” and suppressing the coming of the servants not for mere purposes of conciseness but in order to “write as if” Jairus knew all along that she was dead, even though Matthew apparently (on Licona’s view) only had the account in Mark to go by. A minor set of changes, but a fictionalization to that extent, and an unnecessary one.

As I’ve pointed out before, if Matthew merely wanted to engage in benign compression, and if he believed that Jairus said, “My daughter is at the point of death,” as in Mark 5, he could have simply recorded Jairus speaking as he does in Mark, left out the servants, and then added one tiny explanatory sentence when Jesus and Jairus arrive at the house to find loud mourning–“For the girl was dead.” That would have made it clear to the readers that she had died in the interval. So to those who insist that Matthew had no choice but to fictionalize if he wanted to shorten the story, I say: You’re wrong.

Licona offers no non-fictionalization options here at all. He notes the minor difference and simply says that Matthew compressed the account and altered the dialogue accordingly. In his lecture on the subject the only “harmonization” he offers is mere mockery of harmonization. He suggests to the audience (and gets them laughing about it) that maybe Jairus’s daughter died twice. Maybe Jesus’ healing power was a bit off that day. Ha ha.

Here are some options entirely ignored:

Additive harmonization. Perhaps what Jairus said, in his agitation of mind, was something like this, “My daughter is dying. She’s on the point of death. While I am coming to you, she has probably just now died. But [implicitly, either way] if you come and lay your hand on her, she will live.” Then, perhaps from variation of memory between persons, Matthew reports one part of what he said, not recalling the servants, and Mark (relying on Peter or someone else) reports the other. When we discussed this passage before, my colleague Tony offered a couple of other additive harmonizations here.

Differences of memory with trivial error: Perhaps Matthew or someone he spoke to was present at the incident and remembered the dialogue and subsequent events differently from Mark, remembering that Jairus said, “My daughter has just died” when he actually said, “My daughter is dying” and not remembering the later coming of the servants. This might be regarded as incompatible with inerrancy, but it is far more elegant than the idea that Matthew had every reason to believe that Mark’s account was correct but deliberately changed it, contrary to fact. And Licona is an historian, so he’s supposed to be open to this, right?

I note here that the absence of difference of memory (which comes up again and again in the book) is a result of Licona’s desire to walk in lock-step with his concept of the two-source hypothesis. He describes that in this lecture by saying that, if a story is in both Matthew and Mark, then Matthew got it from Mark as a source. (About minute 38.) This makes Matthean authorship quite theoretically powerless, since, even if Matthew really wrote Matthew, we never take seriously the possibility that he actually had his own memories of any events that Mark also records. In this way, concessions to higher criticism substantively influence the conclusions we draw by blocking certain possibilities from the outset.

Remembering Mark slightly imprecisely: Licona assumes (at one point explicitly saying that Matthew and Luke “probably have Mark’s gospel in front of them” p. 147) that when Matthew and Luke use or follow Mark, they have him open in front of them. This is very likely false, though it seems to be an axiom to the devoted redaction critic. The physical circumstances of writing in the first century (see here) make it quite implausible that a writer would have his own scroll open in front of him for writing as well as a second or even a third scroll from which he was copying, all the time making careful and deliberate redactive decisions about every minute departure from the “source” scroll(s). Licona instances the verbal similarities at various points between Matthew and Luke, on the one hand, and Mark, on the other, as evidence that they had Mark open in front of them and were always either copying or redacting deliberately. But interestingly, he fills his own pages with small verbal differences among the synoptic Gospels that are evidence against this assumption! Somewhat less trivial differences, such as the present one concerning the dialogue with Jairus and others like it, are also evidence against it. A different hypothesis, more compatible both with the physical conditions of composition at the time and with what we actually find, is that those who did use sources took notes and wrote from their notes and/or partially memorized passages that they wanted to use as source material. This is the picture Wenham gives in Redating Matthew, Mark, and Luke of an author’s process of composing his Gospel when partially following another written source.

Even if one wishes (probably wrongly) to portray Matthew as entirely dependent upon Mark for his knowledge of the event, one should consider the possibility that Matthew didn’t have Mark open in front of him at this point and simply remembered the incident as recorded in Mark somewhat imprecisely. Again, this is an elegant hypothesis that Licona leaves out of consideration entirely.

–Did Jesus heal the blind man (or men) when approaching or leaving Jericho?

This is a well-known Bible difficulty, since Luke 18:35 says explicitly that they were approaching Jericho when a blind man cried out to Jesus, while Mark 10:46 and Matthew 20:29-30 place the healing as Jesus was leaving Jericho. There are well-known solutions to it, of course; probably the best is the “old Jericho vs. new Jericho” solution, which you can Google. (I may deal with Licona’s…interesting approach to the one-blind-man-vs.-two issue in a different post.)

Licona, however, literally does not bother even to give any possible harmonization concerning Jericho. He refers only passingly in a footnote to the existence of such things as harmonizations in this case. Instead (pp. 134-135), he considers only the idea that Luke deliberately moved the event from the time when they were leaving Jericho to the time when they were approaching it, making an airy comment about Luke’s disregard for chronological accuracy. This passage will then itself become another supposed example of Luke’s fictionalizing disregard for chronological accuracy for the reader to bear in mind when Licona next wants to refer to this supposedly established Lukan characteristic. That this has to be a fictionalization on Luke’s part is evident from the fact that Luke explicitly states that the event occurred as they were approaching Jericho. It is not merely a matter of Luke’s choosing to narrate the events in a different order. This matter of narrative and chronological order is a point to which I will return in a later post. In this case, however, Luke is giving an explicit ordering, and Licona is therefore attributing fictionalization to him if he changed the order without any factual warrant. The reason given is typically flimsy, merely that Luke “preferred to narrate the event prior to Jesus entering Jericho and then include a story unique to Luke about a tax collector in that city named Zachaeus.” Why Luke would have preferred deliberately to write as if Jesus healed the blind man before calling Zachaeus, if he knew this was false, Licona doesn’t trouble to explain.

Besides the harmonization mentioned above (which as far as I know has no major problems with it), here are a couple of other ideas that Licona does not even bother to discuss:

Perhaps Luke had a human source who was present who told him that it occurred as they were approaching Jericho. This solution might be considered incompatible with inerrancy, since in that case (if one rejects all harmonizations) either Matthew-Mark or Luke is incorrect on the point in question. But as an historian, why doesn’t Licona even consider this simple possibility?

Perhaps Luke was using Mark as a source and made an error in his notes or slightly misremembered Mark. See above on the possibility of slightly misremembering a written source.

–Did both the sons of Zebedee and their mother come to ask Jesus if they could sit on his right and left hand?

In Mark 10, James and John ask Jesus if they may have the privilege of sitting on his right and left hand in his kingdom. In Matthew 20, their mother comes to Jesus and makes this request. Both Matthew and Mark contain what appears to be direct address. Mark quotes the sons as saying, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” and, when Jesus asks what their request is, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Matthew says that the mother came and knelt before Jesus and asked him to do something for her and, when he asked what her request was, said, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” So there are words quoted as from the mouths of the sons in one gospel and the mother in the other gospel. Here Licona gives two fictionalizing explanations as the only possibilities:

Mark may have brushed the mother out of the story and transferred the request to her two sons since they were present and perhaps motivated their mother to ask Jesus on their behalf. However, it could instead be that Matthew added the mother in order to cast James and John in a better light. (p. 141)

In a footnote he says,

I prefer the former option, since Mark elsewhere does not hesitate to report Jesus’s disciples in a less than attractive light. (Note 57, p. 245)

For those interested, Licona says that Craig A. Evans and Joel Marcus both hold that Matthew invented the mother! He gives references for each of these scholars. I haven’t chased the references down, but assuming that Licona is representing them accurately, I have to ask why anyone pretends that none of this affects the reliability of the gospels. So Matthew may have just invented the involvement of the mother of James and John out of whole cloth, willy-nilly, just to cast the disciples in a better light, but none of this has any negative effect on whether the Gospels are factually reliable?

Licona’s own casual approach to these fictionalization theories, and the fact that he includes no non-fictionalization theory even as a possibility to be considered, are telling. Here are some additional theories Licona hasn’t considered at all in these pages. The pattern should be familiar by now.

Additive harmonization: It takes only a modicum of real-world imagination to picture James, John, and their mother all coming to Jesus together and how the dialogue may have gone. (I note that Mark portrays them as present in the dialogue even though the mother initiates it. As the dialogue continues, they and Jesus speak to one another in both accounts.) The mother kneels before Jesus. Jesus sees her kneeling and asks her, “What do you want?” (The Greek is second person singular in Matthew.) James and John meanwhile (we can, if we like, imagine them as slightly embarrassed by their mother’s histrionics) cough and shuffle their feet and tell the Master that they have a request. Jesus raises his eyebrows and asks them, “What do you want?” (The Greek verb for “you desire” in Mark is second person plural.) At that point, everybody starts talking more or less at once, asking that they may sit on the right hand and the left.

Licona, as becomes amply clear in the book, strongly dislikes additive harmonization, and a lot of New Testament critics seem to have an allergy to it. I myself think that this is a failure of imagination and of real-world experience, for very often in the real world, some kind of additive harmonization turns out to be the correct explanation of variations in testimony. But here are a couple of other theories:

The mother was involved, as in Matthew, but Mark’s source (likely Peter) forgot about her altogether and really thought that James and John came alone and that theirs was the only request made. You can decide for yourself if this is compatible with the doctrine of inerrancy, but Licona, as an historian, shouldn’t block it out of consideration. It is certainly a much simpler theory than that Mark knowingly and deliberately “brushed out” the mother. Again and again we find Licona attributing to one Gospel author or other the deliberate suppression of facts rather than simply not knowing them–an odd and wrong-headed application of a literary bias in favor of deliberate fictionalization, not to mention an egregiously bad use of the argument from silence. Of course, in the case of additive harmonization, it is also possible that Mark’s source didn’t remember the mother.

Matthew wrote first, Mark was following Matthew, and Mark slightly misremembered Matthew and didn’t remember that the mother was in the story, because he didn’t have Matthew open in front of him. Yes, yes, I know, Markan priority is taken as an axiomatic given, and Licona is using it and the two-source hypothesis as templates in his book. But if he is an historian, trying to find out the truth, then should he not be open to, or at least consider, a wider array of theories? Again, this is a simpler explanation of the data in these passages than either Mark’s deliberately suppressing the mother or (especially) Matthew’s falsifying the event by inventing the mother out of the back of his head.

Let me just point something out in passing: We are constantly told that these are “literary devices” and that people of the time “understood” that these might crop up anywhere without warning and simply accepted this, so therefore it somehow isn’t lying for the Gospel authors to make these fictionalizations. But what, then, are we to make of the motive ascribed to Matthew by (according to Licona) Marcus and Evans? If the intent was to cast James and John in a better light, does that not require that the readers actually believe that the mother came to Jesus and made the request? But is that not, precisely, deceiving the audience? Yet Licona and his defenders are repeatedly indignant at any suggestion that these “devices” would make the authors of the Gospels to be deceivers. Yet this particular “device” would not succeed if the audience’s beliefs about the incident were not manipulated so that they believed something to be true that was not the case! (That is, on the supposition that the mother was not involved and that Matthew invented her.) Licona treats the theory that Matthew invented the mother as one of only two options, in preference to several other possible options (including standard harmonization), seeming to treat it therefore as at least highly plausible, even if it is not the explanation he “prefers.” And the conclusion he prefers is still a fictionalization (the deliberate suppression of the mother and “transferring” her words to James and John), though a milder and less deceptive one. I would say that here we find particularly clearly that the bias in favor of fictionalizations undermines our confidence in the authors’ truthfulness, especially when Licona takes so casually the possibility that Matthew was attempting to manipulate the perceptions of his audience by inventing a character in the story out of thin air.

–On what day was Jesus anointed in Passion Week?

Here there is indeed an apparent discrepancy. John 12 describes Jesus’ anointing in Passion Week and locates it pretty firmly six days before Passover. John 12:12ff says that it was “the next day” that the triumphal entry took place. As I discuss in my book, the statement that Jesus came to Bethany six days before Passover (on Saturday, that is) is independently confirmed from Mark, since Mark counts off the days from that point out. However, John seems to be locating the anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary, the sister of Lazarus, at dinner on that evening (Saturday). In contrast, the synoptic Gospels (see Mark 14:3) seem to locate the same anointing at Bethany on a different day–specifically, on Wednesday, which was (by Jewish count) two days before Passover. (With Passover beginning after sundown on the Thursday.)

I myself am dissatisfied with the suggestion that Mark and John describe two different anointings only five days apart. Since Luke 7 is fairly clearly describing a different anointing of Jesus, this would have him being anointed three times total, though the one in Luke occurs at a different time in his ministry. Licona does at least consider the possibility that Mark and John describe different anointings, so that’s an improvement on not even trying to discuss possible harmonizations. Here I’m inclined to agree with him that that harmonization does not work. The similarities of the dialogue (Judas’s objection, Jesus’ answer, etc.) are so strong that it seems to me unlikely that Judas would have brought up the very same objection to Jesus just a few days later. And this is aside from the slight implausibility of the presence of two women in the same fairly small town with so expensive a type of ointment, ready to pour it out on Jesus. We already know that Mary the sister of Lazarus had a special bond with Jesus, so it makes sense that (as John says) she was the one who did this. Others may, of course, disagree and opt for a total of three anointings–one in Galilee as described in Luke 7 (the sinful woman), one on Saturday before Passion Week by Mary of Bethany (as described in John), and one on Wednesday in Passion Week by an unknown woman (as described in Mark and Matthew).

But even if this harmonization does not work, Licona shows his usual tendency to jump to conclusions and insist on fictions as the only possible options. Licona states confidently,

Either Mark (followed by Matthew) or John have displaced the event. Mark may have done so in order to bring the symbolic anointing of Jesus for his burial closer to the event itself. However, it may be that John displaced the event. p. 150

The motive he ascribes for John’s “displacement” is to “link” the story with the raising of Lazarus, told in chapter 11. He does a little riff on Lucian, who told authors to try to link narratives together to make them flow smoothly, speaking as if Lucian is telling authors to fictionalize in order to do so. In point of fact, the passage Licona cites from Lucian never refers to deliberately changing the time when an event occurred in order to narrate smoothly, and fictionalization is not required for narrating events topically. As I have pointed out on other occasions, John could easily have narrated the anointing right after narrating the raising of Lazarus (if that was important to him) without pretending that it took place on Saturday before Passion Week! Authors “flash forward” all the time, and all that would have been required would have been a little bit of indefiniteness in John’s time indicators regarding the incident. Instead of which, we find definiteness in his time indicators. As in the case of Matthew’s alleged “compression,” Licona assumes that the only way for an author to narrate things in a particular order or at a particular length is to fictionalize the events, which is completely false.

Licona’s attribution of a motive for Mark is also quite lame: “To bring the symbolic anointing of Jesus for his burial closer to the event itself.” Really, one begins to think that any flimsy motive will do to induce a Gospel author to fictionalize. Indeed, at one point Licona suggests that Luke altered the chronological order of two events merely to “change things up slightly” (p. 167).

Yes, to say that either Mark or John made a minor error here is inconsistent with a strong view of inerrancy, but supposedly Licona isn’t letting that limit his options. So here one must ask: Why does Licona, as an historian, not even consider the possibility that either Mark or John made a minor error concerning the day of the anointing? Why compass land and sea for elaborate, inadequate motives for fictionalization? Why assume that one or the other of them must have known the day of the anointing and must have deliberately falsified it? This is a fairly blatant violation of the criterion of simplicity in hypothesis formation, especially since Licona doesn’t even bother to discuss such an option. The hypothesis of minor error is all the more plausible since Jesus did spend several evenings in that week at Bethany and since Mary, the sister of Lazarus, was the woman who poured the ointment and Martha who served (even if it took place at a different house). Jesus probably ate meals with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus on several occasions during that week. If one (like John) were remembering several decades later, it is quite natural that he might have thought it happened at the dinner on the Saturday night rather than the Wednesday night. I am inclined to think that, if these were two human speakers in an everyday context, Licona would unhesitatingly think that one of them made a small error about the day. Though I suppose I should add that Licona often doesn’t consider that Plutarch made a minor error where he should consider this, preferring an elaborate literary fictionalization theory. But that’s why I said “everyday context”–i.e., when he doesn’t have his “literary criticism” hat on. Once again, it seems that fictions only need apply.

–When and how did Jesus first appear to Mary Magdalene?

On this subject, Licona is uncharacteristically adamant (pp. 175-176, note 144 pp. 255-256). Generally his modus operandi is to hedge his statements round with “perhaps” and “maybe” and “may” at every turn. Here, however, he is fairly insistent that Matthew places the first appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalane with the other women who first went to the tomb. I will be discussing this interpretation of the first verses of Matthew 28 more in a later post on over-reading. Here I bring it up to show how Licona’s explicit and even lengthy rejection of all harmonizations causes him to insist that either Matthew or John fictionalized concerning the first appearance to Mary Magdalene.

In Matthew 28, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb with at least one other woman who is named. (Luke 24:10 implies that a larger group of women than two went to the tomb.) Mary Magdalene is not named after verse 1 of Matthew 28. Verse 8 says that, after hearing the message of an angel that Jesus was risen, “they” left the tomb and were going to tell the disciples, and verse 9 says that Jesus met them on the way. No names are given to tell us who was in the group at the moment when they met Jesus. Licona insists that, according to Matthew, Mary Magdalene must have been among those who met Jesus at this time. There is, on this supposition, a contradiction with John 20. For in John 20, Mary Magdalene rushes back to Peter and John after seeing the stone rolled away from the tomb. She then returns to the tomb, still thinking that Jesus is dead, and is weeping in the garden when Jesus comes to her. At first she does not recognize him, until he speaks her name. The account in John 20 of Jesus’ meeting with Mary Magdalene is one of the most poignant and wonderful scenes in all of Scripture.

Because he insists that Matthew 28 places the first meeting with Mary Magdalene at a time when she was with the other women leaving the tomb, Licona concludes that either Matthew or John has fictionalized her first meeting with Jesus.

Thus, in Matthew, Mary Magdalene first encountered Jesus when she was running away from the tomb to deliver the angel’s message to the disciples, whereas in John it was at the tomb. Moreover, in Matthew, Jesus told the women to deliver the message to his male disciples that he is going ahead of them to Galilee, whereas in John the message is that he is going to his Father and God. 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.

Of course, there would be no need to contrast the content of the messages if the meetings were completely different incidents. From Licona’s insistence that the stories in John 20 and in Matthew 28 recount (in some sense or other) the same meeting of Jesus with a female follower or followers–an extremely implausible theory on its face, when one reads the accounts–flows the conclusion that one author or other has changed both the entire setting and Jesus’ message to his disciples.

But let’s pause for a minute and contemplate what Licona is hypothesizing concerning John. If John is “relocating” the first meeting with Mary Magdalene, and if Mary really first met Jesus when running away from the tomb with the other women, then John must have invented (“crafted”) the entire scene in the garden of the tomb. Why? Because the entire garden tomb scene presupposes that Mary Magdalene is mourning for Jesus in the garden. She still thinks he is dead, and she asks “the gardener” for permission to take the body away and bury it. This scene could not possibly make sense between Jesus and Mary Magdalene if she had already met Jesus with the other women, touched him, recognized him, and received his message for his disciples. I don’t know if Licona himself fully realizes or has thought through what it means to conjecture that John “relocated the first appearance to Mary Magdalene,” but the logic of the story dictates that it would amount to wholesale invention of one of the central appearance scenes in the entire resurrection narrative! Licona conjectures it without making this implication explicit, and he leaves entirely up in the air which fictionalization theory in his opinion is more probable. Perhaps he doesn’t have an opinion on that subject.

On the side of Matthew, the idea that he “relocates” the first appearance to Mary Magdalene apparently means that he knew that Jesus first appeared to her individually but that he chose for some unknown reason deliberately to imply instead that she first saw Jesus when she was with the other women. This is similar to cases where Licona conjectures that Mark deliberately left out the mother of the sons of Zebedee or that Matthew deliberately left out Jairus’s servants and then put words in Jairus’s mouth to make it look like Jairus already knew that his daughter was dead when he came to Jesus.

In this case, Licona has seriously undervalued the possibilities for harmonization. I will have more to say about this when I discuss the Matthew passage under the category of “over-reading,” but for now let me just point out that all that is required for harmonization on this point is that Mary Magdalene was separated from the other women prior to their seeing Jesus or the angels. One needn’t accept globally all of the conjectures of John Wenham or Gleason Archer (I think Wenham’s are better, though I don’t agree with him at every point) on all aspects of the resurrection narratives in order to avoid attributing fictionalization to anyone here. Licona lumps together a litany of resurrection harmonizations in a long footnote (note 144 on pp. 255-56) and rejects them globally as strained. But all that is required is that Mary ran back from the tomb to Peter and John, as recorded in the Gospel of John, immediately upon seeing that the stone was rolled away from the tomb. Note that this is exactly what John says happened! That would mean that she simply was not there when the rest of the events at the tomb occurred and when the women met Jesus in a group. One may then wish to add that Matthew did not know that Mary Magdalene acted so impulsively. But even an inerrantist harmonizer need not see Matthew as omniscient when he is writing Scripture. I don’t even think it would be inconsistent with inerrancy to hold that Matthew knew something like this: Mary Magdalene came to the tomb with at least one other woman (“the other Mary”) and possibly more. There was an angel there who spoke to all or some of these women (see Gospel of Matthew for details). All or some of these women ran from the tomb to tell the disciples and met Jesus. Etc. Matthew may have thought that, for all he knew, Mary Magdalene was with the others when they met Jesus. But his Gospel does not saythat she was. This harmonization on this point is far simpler and far preferable to either of the fictionalization theories that Licona treats as the only two live options. It is telling that Licona so far underestimates the plausibility of this harmonization and so far overestimates the probability of John’s inventing the entire Mary Magdalene scene that he dismisses any harmonizations on this point in a footnote and declares in the text, as a conclusion, that either John or Matthew has “relocated” the first appearance to Mary Magdalene.

This is another place where Licona pauses to draw a moral for the reader: This shows “the extent to which” the evangelists or their sources “felt free to craft the story.”

There is, of course, another historical option, related to the harmonization option but not necessarily co-extensive with it, which Licona entirely ignores: Matthew may have not known about Mary Magdalene’s meeting with Jesus at the tomb (which happened as in John) and may have written as he did with the deliberate intention of implying that she was with the others, thus making a minor error due simply to lack of information. This construal, which is stronger than the one given above, is incompatible with inerrancy but is by far more elegant as an historical picture than the theory that Matthew relocated the appearance to Mary Magdalene. Yet Licona doesn’t even seem to consider it. (If “Matthew really thought Mary Magdalene was with the other women” is what he means by “relocated,” I cannot imagine why he would use that word to express it.) As in the case of Mark and the mother of the sons of Zebedee, for some reason here as well Licona seems to construct his hypotheses by assuming that a Gospel author who doesn’t mention something knew about it and deliberately changed or suppressed it rather than simply not knowing it! This shows how strong his bias is in favor of fictions rather than an attempt in good faith to relate what one believes is true.

Notice, here as elsewhere, the curiously static picture assumed by redaction criticism. The redaction critic thinks always in terms of snapshots, while real life takes place as a moving picture. To the redaction critic, if Mary Magdalene is said to be with the group of women who come to the tomb, then by golly she must stay with that group of women. If (to take an example from the previous post) Jesus says one thing while he is hanging on the cross, then an entirely different saying recorded in a different Gospel at even approximately the same point in the action must be taken to be somehow a version of the same saying, recording the same, snapshot moment in time on the cross. If Peter is sitting by the fire, Peter stays seated. Another account that says he is standing can be harmonized only if “standing” in Greek can be taken as another word for “sitting.” Nobody moves. Nobody says one thing and then shortly thereafter says another thing. People never speak simultaneously. Everything is static, like a painting or a sculpture, and interpretations are hobbled by this mindset.

In his dismissal of harmonizations about Mary Magdalene Licona makes use of an epistemically deeply wrong-headed principle.

Yet these scenarios are not at all the impression readers receive when reading Matt. 28: 1– 10. (note 144, p. 255)

I cannot stress too strongly that it is completely wrong to think that we cannot supplement one account of an event with a different account. And the argument that the picture we get from both put together “isn’t the impression we would receive” from one of them taken alone is a terrible argument for refusing to supplement and harmonize. Anyone who works frequently with normal, truthful human testimony should be able to see this. Very often we learn something new by listening to a different witness of an event. To be sure, the first witness we spoke to may not have known about this new fact and therefore may not have “given the impression” that this fact was true. But so what? We learned something new from the second witness! We must be open-minded enough to recognize when that happens. Harmonization is a normal human process, not an esoteric religious process. It’s the way we put together different accounts to get a picture of the whole, or at least the way we should do so. Nobody suggesting a harmonization concerning Mary Magdalene is saying that this is “the impression” we would get from Matthew alone! Why should it be? Why assume that Matthew knew everything about what happened that morning?

It is a destructive assumption of liberal biblical criticism that the Gospels, in contrast to other normal human testimonial documents, should be interpreted in isolation, incorporating all the implications that one might spin out both from what they say and what they do not say, kept in hermetically sealed rooms, and declared to be insurmountably contradictory because these “first impression” characterizations appear to be in conflict and because we are not allowed to use even a modicum of imagination to think of a scenario in which the information in both accounts is accurate, though incomplete. Such a procedure is not good reasoning. It is not good history. It is not good biblical criticism.

–How many of the eleven were present at Jesus’ first appearance to his male disciples?

I have talked about this portion of Licona’s book before here and here. There is a minor apparent discrepancy between Luke and John about what both appear to be relating as Jesus’ first appearance to his male disciples. Luke 24:33 says that “the eleven” were present, while John 20:24 says that Thomas (apparently Thomas only) was absent on this occasion. (Judas had betrayed Jesus and hanged himself.) Thus, if one takes “the eleven” in Luke to be a literal reference to the number involved, Luke is saying that there were eleven of them present (plus some others such as Clopas), while John is saying that there were ten of the eleven disciples present.

Here is Licona on this question:

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. pp. 177-178

Licona was apparently rather indignant in his one and only response to me about the fact that I characterized this as hypothesizing that John might have made up the entire Doubting Thomas sequence, but of course that is exactly what he is doing. To be sure, as I implied here, he narrowly comes down on the side of Luke’s “conflating” two appearances instead. But as I have said elsewhere, the problem is with 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 out of whole cloth. Again, fictions only need apply.

It was in this context that Licona apparently believed that my frustration with his radical theory that John made up Doubting Thomas was a result of my view of divine inspiration. But on the contrary. I have good reason to believe that John was a sufficiently reliable author that he didn’t go around making up entire scenes, and as an epistemologist I’m left shaking my head at Licona’s blasé invocation of this theory and his treating it as much more probable than better alternatives. Even though he doesn’t absolutely conclude that it’s true in the end, he elevates it to a far higher place than it deserves, on the evidence. It is a highly complex theory, and he brushes aside a simpler theory in its favor. The idea that “the eleven” was not a counting word doesn’t even make it into finalist position, but “John crafted” all of Doubting Thomas is one of the two finalist theories. (I note, too, that when it comes to John’s making up the entirety of the Mary Magdalene scene, Licona doesn’t even narrowly conclude that the other fictionalization theory he considers is “more probable.” And when it comes to John’s making up the scene where Jesus breathes on his disciples, Licona brings that up out of nowhere, when there is not even a discrepancy.)

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 if he found one, since he dismisses the case in question, which appears to be just such an instance! It’s difficult to think what could account for the relative weights Licona puts on these hypotheses except an extremely low view of John’s value as a source in himself of historical information. Why demand independent evidence for the non-counting use of “the eleven” but not demand any independent evidence for the theory that John made up an entire, central sequence concerning the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection? If John were treated as a source having any credibility of his own, this would put some pressure on Licona’s low probability concerning the use of the term “the eleven.”

As I have also pointed out before, Licona does not even consider the simple possibility (from an historical point of view) that Luke may have made a trivial error concerning how many disciples were present on this occasion. That is a far more elegant solution than “John crafted Doubting Thomas,” but it doesn’t even make it onto Licona’s radar. Perhaps Luke was told that “the disciples” were present, assumed that all eleven were there, and worded his account accordingly. Licona defends his unwarrantedly high probability for massive fictionalization here on the part of John because he is an historian and must be open-minded to such theories. I disagree that this is the case when one has ample reason (as we do in the case of John) for thinking that an author did not make up whole scenes. But be that as it may, if open-mindedness is a hallmark of an objective historian, where is the incredibly simple hypothesis that Luke wrote on the basis of a trivial good-faith error about the number of disciples present? It is nowhere to be found; its place is occupied by Luke’s “conflating” the first two appearances. As I have pointed out before, “conflation” is a technical term as Licona uses it. See pp. 19-20. It refers to deliberately combining elements from two events and narrating them as one. Licona expressly says that some “displacement and transferal” are always present in conflation, and he defines “displacement” and “transferal” explicitly in deliberate terms. So, as with Mark and Matthew, Luke couldn’t have justlacked information and/or made a normal mistake about the first appearance of Jesus to his group of male disciples. The theory instead is that Luke knew that Jesus appeared once to his male disciples when Thomas was absent and another time when Thomas was present and that Luke for some reason or other deliberately mashed up these two appearances together and narrated them as one. Fictions only need apply.

These are not the only cases where Licona ignores alternative hypotheses, underestimates the value of or does not consider possible harmonizations, and/or brings in unnecessary fictionalization theories. But they serve to illustrate that these are his frequent habits.

It should be clear by this time that the cumulative effect of the incessant drumbeat of fictionalizing redactive criticism, whether Licona wishes it to be so or not, is to break down confidence in the factual reliability of the Gospels. It should also be clear that this methodology flows not from the inexorable demands of evidence, nor from information available to specialists, but rather from a failure to weigh the evidence correctly and to consider all of the relevant options.

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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