Licona gospel examples, Part I: Utterly Unforced Errors

Licona gospel examples, Part I: Utterly Unforced Errors

by Lydia McGrew
October, 2017

Having discussed and answered Licona’s claim in Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? to have found ample evidence of the use of fictionalizing literary devices in Plutarch, I’m starting on a series of posts analyzing a sample of his claims concerning the gospels. This is, of course, only going to be a sample, but it’s going to be quite a large sample by the time I’m finished with the series. Some examples may come up more than once, as they illustrate more than one problem.

Page numbers are taken from the Kindle version of the book. I’ve done a spot-check in multiple places, and the page numbers I’m using appear to be very similar to those in the paper version. My pagination references should enable the interested reader to find the relevant parts of Licona’s book.

The short version of what this whole series will inductively illustrate is this: There is not a single Gospel example in Licona’s book that is best explained by the use of a fictionalizing literary device. Moreover, Licona’s entire approach, which is in essence just old-fashioned destructive higher criticism, sometimes glossed using Licona’s categories of fictionalizing devices supposedly drawn from Roman history, casts entirely unnecessary doubt upon what actually happened in Jesus’ life and upon the accuracy (in the literal sense) of what the gospels report. The undermining of the gospels’ literal reliability and the gospel authors’ intention of literal truthfulness is real and cannot be brushed away by re-labeling. It is unnecessary because none of the examples require the redactive or other fictionalizing explanations Licona suggests. One of the most striking features of Licona’s work is his monotonously repeated mistake in not considering all available hypotheses, making unforced errors, or dismissing perfectly good and simple hypotheses in favor of more complex ones. These are historical and epistemic errors which have serious results in biblical studies. That they are all-too-typical of biblical scholarship (as I’m sure Licona would be the first to remind us) does not make them logically justified.

Utterly Unforced Errors

I have so much material to discuss from Licona’s book that I have been at somewhat of a loss as to where to begin. I’ve decided to make my first category utterly unforced errors. These are places where there is not even the appearance of a discrepancy but where Licona is so carried away by (I say this without hesitation) the low view he has developed of the Gospels’ literal truthfulness that he creates a tension or conjectures fictionalization out of thin air. This is the phenomenon we see again and again in the book: Meet the new higher criticism, same as the old higher criticism. This is just redaction criticism for its own sake, similar to what one would find in many a known liberal biblical scholar, carried out just because a theory that an author “may have” made something up or a feeling that there is a tension (where there really isn’t at all) happened to occur to a scholar’s mind.

I want to note something here: This kind of unforced error is not what one would find in the writing of someone who has a high view of the Gospel authors’ reliability, where “reliability” is not being radically redefined. I have been saying ever since I first began writing about Licona’s fictionalization theories, over a year and a half ago, that his methodology would mean that we could pick a passage more or less at random and consider that it might contain fictionalization for all we know, even if there were no apparent discrepancy to explain. This was considered uncharitable in some circles, but it was absolutely correct. If you believe that the Gospel authors considered themselves widely licensed to fictionalize, and if you believe that they were fictionally redacting to a greater or lesser extent all over the place (either redacting some conjectured “tradition” or redacting Mark or some other written source), and if your studied habit is to attribute “differences” (even without discrepancy) in the accounts to this sort of fictionalizing redaction rather than to the natural variations in accurate knowledge derived from truthful witnesses, then you are going to be making this sort of suggestion very often. In this way a redactive fog is cast over what really happened, either in detail or, sometimes, in whole incidents. What really happened? We don’t know. Indeed, Licona uses a phrase such as “it is impossible to know” more than once in the book.

This is an epistemic result of the consistent application of his method. Not only is it not scare-mongering or “slippery slope,” it’s already there in the book! Here are some examples:

–Did John the Baptist call himself the voice of one crying in the wilderness? Here is Licona on that question:

Whereas the Synoptic authors tell their readers that John the Baptist is the messenger of whom Isaiah spoke, John 1: 23 narrates John the Baptist claiming he is the messenger of whom Isaiah spoke. All four Gospels give the same message while John offers it as the words of John the Baptist. Perhaps John transferred the message of Isaiah to the lips of John the Baptist. It is impossible to know. And there is no reason why John the Baptist could not have made such a claim about himself and the Synoptics chose to communicate the role of John the Baptist by citing the Scriptures he allegedly fulfilled. Why Are There Differences in the Gospels, p. 121, emphasis added

This is actually a relatively moderate example, since at least here (unlike in many other places) Licona seems quite open to (perhaps even leaning towards?) the idea that, y’know, nobody made anything up. But if there is no reason why John’s account could not be completely factual, and if we place any weight at all on the possibility that John reported literal facts in a truthful fashion, then why say that it is impossible to know whether John fictionalized by making John the Baptist say something he didn’t literally say? Apparently normal reportage on John’s part doesn’t even have a high enough prior probability in Licona’s mind for him to consider it the most probable explanation in a case where there is no discrepancy to explain! The sheer existence in the synoptics of the verses from Isaiah, applied to John the Baptist, without the statement (in the synoptics) that John applied those verses to himself, is enough to cast Licona into agnosticism about what John the Baptist really said! “It is impossible to know,” even though (he admits) there is no reason why John couldn’t have actually said this. This indicates an almost knee-jerk habit of bringing up completely unnecessary (here Licona even admits that they are unnecessary) theories of fictionalizing redaction and treating them as epistemically on a par with normal reportage. It is an utterly unforced error.

Here as elsewhere in the book it is difficult to avoid the feeling that Licona’s compositional devices are often a solution in search of a problem. There is no problem between John and the synoptics here, but Licona suggests one anyway, which creates an opportunity to introduce the possibility of “transferal” of the words in Isaiah to John the Baptist himself.

This, by the way, is an interesting problem with the entire project of the book, reflected in the title. Mere differences among the Gospels are taken to require heavy explanation, and it’s noteworthy how seldom that explanation is, “Oh, cool, this is what truthful eyewitness testimony looks like–variation in part of what is reported with partial overlap. And both the overlapping and non-overlapping portions can be true.”

–Did John the Baptist bear record that Jesus was the Son of God?

Here is Licona on that question:

In all three Synoptics (Mark 1: 11; Matt. 3: 17; Luke 3: 22b), God’s voice testifies that Jesus is his Son. However, in John 1: 32– 34, there is no mention of a voice from heaven (nor is there a mention of heaven being opened). Instead, John the Baptist says God told him he would provide him with a sign. The Spirit would descend and remain upon the one he had chosen to baptize others with the Holy Spirit. And it is John the Baptist rather than God who directly testified that he saw the sign and testified that Jesus is God’s Son. Therefore, in the Synoptics, the voice from heaven directly testifies that Jesus is God’s Son, whereas in John, it is John the Baptist. p. 124 emphasis added

In this case, Licona suggests a tension amounting or almost amounting to a contradiction, though for some reason (and this is unusual) he doesn’t bother to suggest an explanation of his own.

The strong suggestion of tension is an error. It is an error based upon a frequent bad habit of New Testament scholarship–the wholesale use of the argument from silence.

Notice the words “instead,” “rather than,” and “whereas.” But in the actual passage in the Gospel of John, there is not the slightest suggestion that John the Baptist testified to Jesus’ divine sonship “rather than” or “instead of” God the Father. It is merely that the Gospel of John does not include the voice from heaven.

Licona’s bad habit of seeing tensions where none exist blinds him to the presence of exactly the opposite of a tension in these accounts–a mutual confirmation by an undesigned coincidence. For if one is not looking for “differences” to exaggerate by means of words like “whereas” and “rather than,” one might pause to think about this question: How does John the Baptist know that Jesus is the Son of God? The special revelation he describes in the Gospel of John does not mention that the one to come is the Son of God. Yet apparently when he saw the Spirit descend in the form of a dove, he took this for a sign that Jesus was the son of God. Why? This sort of real-world question, taking with full seriousness the hypothesis that John the evangelist is reporting what John the Baptist really said, allows us to look at the synoptic account and see that God the Father’s voice from heaven explainsand hence confirms John’s account of the testimony of John the Baptist. He saw the Spirit descend like a dove and he heard the voice from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son.” Putting it all together, John the Baptist saw and bore record that this was the Son of God.

Causal connections like those described by undesigned coincidences occur in the real world. In a fictional story world, the author might or might not have in mind a causal explanation for everything that happens. But if the Gospels are not fictionalized, then there was a reason why John the Baptist believed, specifically, that Jesus was the Son of God, and the synoptic Gospels explain why. Isn’t it great that there are differences in the Gospels?

–Did Jesus say, “I thirst?”

I must admit, I found this one pretty astonishing, because it is so utterly pointless. There is no reason whatsoever to doubt that Jesus literally said, “I thirst” on the cross, but Licona thinks there is. Here Licona claims to be following Daniel B. Wallace, known as quite a conservative New Testament scholar. So much for labels. It may come as a surprise, but being considered an evangelical or even a conservative evangelical biblical scholar does not grant infallibility.

Here is Licona on “I thirst.”

In Jesus’s next-to-last statement on the cross, Mark // Matthew have Jesus say, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” But John appears to substitute “I am thirsty.” In Jesus’s final statement on the cross, Mark // Matthew report that Jesus then cried out loudly and died; Luke reports that Jesus cried out loudly, “Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit,” then died; and John reports that Jesus said, “It is finished,” then died. These are quite different renditions. Since Luke does not provide a next-to-last statement from Jesus on the cross and one could quite plausibly suggest Mark // Matthew simply did not provide the words of Jesus’s final statement when he cried out loudly, the differences could be said to appear between Mark // Matthew and John in Jesus’s next-to-last statement and between Luke and John in Jesus’s final statement. Virtually all specialists of John’s Gospel acknowledge that the evangelist often adapted the traditions about Jesus. These two utterances of Jesus may be an instance when we can observe the extent to which John redacted existing tradition. For the next-to-last logion, it appears that John has redacted “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Mark // Matthew) to say, “I am thirsty.” Daniel Wallace proposes that since every occurrence of “thirst” in John carries the meaning of being devoid of God’s Spirit, the evangelist has reworked what Jesus said “into an entirely different form.” It is “a dynamic equivalent transformation” of what we read in Mark // Matthew. Accordingly, in John, Jesus is stating that God has abandoned him. In Mark 15: 34, Jesus quotes Ps. 22: 1: “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” Thus, John can write, “Knowing that everything had now been accomplished, in order that the Scripture may be fulfilled [i.e., Ps. 22: 1], Jesus said, “I am thirsty” (John 19: 28, emphasis added). John has redacted Jesus’s words but has retained their meaning. pp. 165-166

In case this isn’t obvious, “I thirst” can be said to “retain the meaning” of “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” only on the assumption that “I thirst” has no literal meaning! In other words, as is so often the case, Licona is merely playing with words. Millions of readers have taken it that Jesus literally said that he was thirsty, and I would be willing to wager large sums of money that these included those in John’s original audience. Indeed, Licona provides no argument to the contrary. He doesn’t even try to claim that there is any “literary device” here beyond the vague and confusing use of “dynamic equivalence,” nor does he give us any reason to think that a first-century audience would have found a purely spiritual, metaphoric meaning of “I thirst” jumping off the page at them or would have thought that John wasn’t saying that Jesus literally said, “I thirst.” Remember that it is only a few verses later in John 19:35 that the author insists that he personally witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and is reporting it truthfully.

In fact, in John 19:29, those who hear Jesus’ words offer him sour wine after he says, “I thirst,” so there is every reason to take John to be saying that Jesus literally uttered these words. First-century and second-century readers, who might even have witnessed crucifixions, would have known even more vividly than we do the intense dehydration that was a notable feature of the suffering of those who were crucified. Jesus had been brutally flogged and would have been suffering from loss of blood. There is every reason to think that he was really thirsty and really said that he was thirsty.

Licona’s attempted argument for this unforced error is the extremely poor one that in the other places in John where the concept of thirst is used it is used in a spiritual and metaphorical sense. He also notes that this “logion” occurs at approximately the same point in the narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion as “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” in the synoptics, which means nothing, since each utterance takes only a couple of seconds.

One would like to think that plain common sense would lead one to ask, “Does Jesus’ use of thirst as a metaphor in some places mean that he never was really thirsty and never really expressed it?” But those in the grip of a literary critical approach to the gospels, in which everything is an excuse for a literary theory, rarely seem to think of such sensible questions.

And so the redactive fog descends once again, this time obscuring the concrete humanity of Jesus in his sufferings on the cross.

–Did Jesus say, “It is finished”?

Licona’s unforced doubt-casting on this saying from the cross comes immediately after he tosses out, “I thirst.”

Jesus’s final logion in Luke 23: 46, “Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit” (a quote from Ps. 31: 5, LXX), becomes “it is finished” in John 19: 30. What is finished? John says Jesus had come to “take away the sin of the world” by laying down his life for it (John 1: 29; cf. 3: 17; 10: 15, 17; 12: 47). His redemptive work on the cross was now complete (John 19: 28, 30), and he could return to his Father (John 7: 33; 14: 12, 28; 16: 5, 10; 20: 17). John redacts Jesus’s words, and although he maintains their gist, he adds some theological flavoring that is consistent with the portrait of Jesus he has painted from the very beginning: Jesus is the Lamb of God, sacrificed for the sins of others. p. 166

The only faint hint of an argument for this unjustified claim that John made up, “It is finished” is the fact that one of these is the last saying from the cross recorded in Luke and that the other is the last saying from the cross recorded in John. In both Luke and John, Jesus’ death is recorded immediately after the saying in question, but it does not follow that there is any contradiction, even prima facie. Luke says,

Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.

John has,

When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

But he easily could have said both just before dying. Again, each saying takes only a second or two, and one witness could have remembered (or heard) one of these while another remembered the other. Indeed, if he cried out with a loud voice in the one case and spoke more softly in the other, someone standing nearer to the cross may have been in a position to hear a phrase that a different witness did not hear.

Quite frankly, Licona’s use of the word “gist” is egregiously misleading. Jesus’ statement that he commits his spirit to God does not mean the same thing as the phrase, “It is finished.” Either one of these by itself opens up a variety of possible theological concepts that the other does not. To say that this is the same “logion” is almost (though perhaps not quite) as ridiculous as the earlier claim that “I thirst” is the same “logion” as “My God, why hast thou forsaken me.” On the face of it, in both cases these are completely different sayings of Jesus. Licona simply wants, for some reason or other, to treat John as a repeat fictionalizer of Jesus’ words from the cross. He therefore stretches the term “redact” to its breaking point, tortures the word “gist,” and abuses the concept of “dynamic equivalence” in the service of some kind of rigid ordering of the words from the cross, so that the next-to-the-last saying from the cross in the synoptics can be matched up with the next-to-the-last saying given in John and the same with the final saying.

It is in the context of these two unnecessary fictionalization theories that Licona says,

Virtually all specialists of John’s Gospel acknowledge that the evangelist often adapted the traditions about Jesus. These two utterances of Jesus may be an instance when we can observe the extent to which John redacted existing tradition. p. 166

Licona is very fond of this statement about how “all (or virtually all) scholars acknowledge that John redacted existing tradition.” The generalization is usually followed by some sweeping or extremely strong fictionalization claim or conjecture regarding John and some passage. Here the phrase “may be” is somewhat misleading, since for both of these sayings Licona appears quite sure that John has fictionalized. He says that John “has redacted” Jesus’ second-to-last saying into “I thirst” and that he “redacts” the last saying so that it “becomes” “It is finished.”

This is not the only place in the book where Licona brings up some completely unjustified fictionalization theory and then stops to tell the reader that this shows (or “may show”) “the extent to which” the authors felt free to “redact the tradition”–which in clearer terms means “make stuff up.”

–Did Jesus show the disciples his side?

Here there is some ambiguity in Licona’s own words, since he uses the word “substitution” in more than one sense in the book. But certainly his gloss on the scene where Jesus shows his side, coupled with his repeated questioning of John’s literal truthfulness (see, e.g., pp. 115-116 and other examples in this post), appears to cast some doubt on this point.

There is a slight difference in what is reported that Jesus showed his disciples when he first appeared to them. In Luke 24: 40, he showed them his hands and feet, while in John 20: 20, he showed them his hands and side. That John substituted Jesus’s side for his feet is understood, since only John had earlier narrated a guard piercing Jesus’s side at the crucifixion site in order to verify Jesus had already died. (p. 180)

Throughout Licona’s discussion of the resurrection appearances he is constantly, incessantly suggesting that the authors made fictionalizing changes, changing the words of the angels, the words of Jesus, the place of Jesus’ first appearance to Mary Magdalene, and so forth. This makes it plausible that, when Licona says that John “substituted” the side for the feet, he is implying that John invented the detail of Jesus’ showing his side and put it in place of his showing his feet, in order fictionally to tie in the first appearance here with the incident where Jesus’ side is pierced at the crucifixion. The word “substituted” suggests, at a minimum, that John was in some sense working with the synoptic Gospels or some early “tradition” that gave rise to them and putting the word “side” in place of “feet” in a highly deliberate move, rather than simply remembering that Jesus showed his hands and side. As usual, Licona considers a redactive change to some other document or tradition rather than variations of memory.

There is, to be fair, some ambiguity as to whether Licona is suggesting that the side is a fictional detail. There is one place in the book (p. 211) where Licona suggests that Matthew “substitutes” a woman’s name at the foot of the cross because he actually had a human source who knew that “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” was present at the foot of the cross. This is a non-fictionalizing use of “substitutes” and is one of the only places in the entire book where Licona clearly and explicitly considers the possibility that Matthew (who is generally treated rigidly as redacting Mark) had personal access to real knowledge of events.

In other places, however, “substitutes” for differences of actual detail (as opposed to micro-trivial use of different synonyms and the like) is used for fictionalization. For example, in the case of “I thirst,” the statement that John “substitutes” that phrase for something else is a fictionalizing replacement, despite Licona’s confusing use of the phrase “dynamic equivalence,” and all the more so given the bystanders in John who run to offer sour wine. Similarly, on p. 94, Licona suggests that Plutarch “substitutes” one character for another in the story of the assassination of Caesar, which is clearly fictionalization. And in another Gospel passage, Licona suggests that Matthew “substitutes” gall for myrrh in his description of the drink offered to Jesus in order to echo Psalm 68 (pp. 161-162).

So the claim that John “substitutes” Jesus’ side for his feet is, at a minimum, a highly unfortunate word choice if Licona does notintend to cast doubt upon the historicity of an incident in which Jesus literally showed his side.

And of course any actual doubt about the matter based merely upon the difference from the synoptics is, again, an utterly unforced error. Suppose that Alan and Bob go to see Carl’s gun collection. Alan later reports, “He showed us his Glock and his Ruger.” Bob reports, “He showed us his Glock and his Sig.” There is no reason to say that Bob “substitutes” a Sig for a Ruger, nor that Alan “substitutes” a Ruger for a Sig. They just remember slightly different parts of the gun collection that Carl showed them! They report with partial overlap and partial variation, all of which has a claim to be completely true, just as truthful witnesses normally do. This is even the case if we happen to know that Bob has a special interest in Sigs, because that is his favorite gun. That needn’t make him likely to invent a Sig in Carl’s collection, though it may make him more likely to remember and mention a Sig in Carl’s collection. Similarly, John’s vivid remembrance of the spear in Jesus’ side, which he reports so strikingly, may have made him more likely than the synoptic authors or their human sources to remember and mention that Jesus showed his side, but it gives us no reason to think that he invented the event.

–Did Jesus breathe on his disciples and say, “Receive the Holy Ghost”?

Here we find Licona casting doubt upon the historicity of an entire incident for no good reason whatsoever.

Pertaining to Jesus’s breathing on his disciples and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20: 22), perhaps John, knowing he would not be writing a sequel as had Luke, desired to allude to the event at Pentecost. So he wove mention of the ascension into his communications with Mary Magdalene (20: 17) and of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost into his communications with his male disciples (20: 22). (p. 180)

Why in the world should we doubt that this occurred? Is there some argument here? Is there even an apparent discrepancy with the synoptic gospels?

Nope. Not a thing.

Licona casts doubt upon the historicity of the incident on a scholarly whim. It scarcely counts as a reason for such doubt that Licona can come up with a weak and pointless theory about John’s desiring to “allude” to Pentecost in some scene or other. Such a suggestion is particularly bizarre given the repeated and explicit teachings that John attributes to Jesus in chapters 14 and 16 about the coming of the Comforter. Why, even if John were the sort of author given to random acts of fictionalization, would he have felt a need in addition to make up a cryptic scene in which Jesus breathes on his disciples and tells them to receive the Holy Ghost? It’s not even clear how such a scene “alludes” to Pentecost, except in the mind of a literary critic. If anything, it just creates theological confusion about Pentecost. If they received the Holy Ghost now, why was Pentecost necessary? A term like “allude” merely serves as a weak stand-in for a motive.

I note, too, that the incident on which Licona here casts doubt has quite a bit of theological content, for it is here in John, apparently connected somehow to the breathing and the reference to the Holy Ghost, that Jesus tells the disciples that whoever’s sins they forgive are forgiven and whoever’s sins they retain are retained. Whatever interpretation we Protestants give to those words of Jesus, we must at least admit that there is nothing like them in the story of the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost in the book of Acts! It is parochial casually to cast severe doubt upon the historicity of an incident in Scripture that contains unique theological content, put into the mouth of Our Lord, that is somewhat of an embarrassment to one’s own denominational affiliation. Saying blandly that it is merely an “allusion” to an entirely different incident that has no such content betrays an almost amusing degree of theological obliviousness.

This passage is a twofer. Licona also suggests without argument that Jesus never mentioned his ascension to his Father when he met Mary Magdalene and that John made that bit up as well (“wove mention” is a nice euphemism) in order to work in a reference to the ascension, since he knew (darn it!) that he wouldn’t be writing a sequel in which he related the ascension. (If it was that important to him, why not just write about the ascension at the end of his gospel?)

Again I say: This is not the way an author writes who thinks that John is in any normal sense of the word a reliable reporter. If you think that he is, you don’t cast utterly gratuitous doubt upon the historicity of what he relates.

And I say again: These are utterly unforced errors. There is no logical justification for these theories. They are blatant violations of Occam’s Razor, multiplying fictionalizations without necessity. They are based upon poor argument when any argument is given at all. Such conclusions should be rejected by any reasonable investigator who sees theory so far outrun evidence.

Originally posted at 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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