Licona gospel examples V: Making things complicated

Licona gospel examples V: Making things complicated

by Lydia McGrew
November, 2017

A common theme among the examples I’ve examined from Michael Licona’s Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? is that New Testament scholars tend to go for more complicated theories over simpler theories. This problem is endemic to the discipline and seems almost impossible to eradicate. Licona is not the worst example of over-complicating theories that I have seen lately, but his examples are fairly typical. What makes the habit of overcomplicating so hard to root out is the fact that authors are often unaware that they are doing it. The few examples I discuss in this post, in addition to many in past posts, illustrate the tendency.

–Did Matthew merge the words of Jesus in two different healings?

In a previous post I discussed Licona’s failure to consider that Matthew may have added dialogue to the healing of the man with the withered hand based upon his own (or even someone else’s) memory of the incident. In that example, Licona’s habitual opposition to additive harmonization and his rigid adherence to a version of the two-source hypothesis that excludes Matthew’s independent knowledge of incidents found in Mark caused him to hypothesize fictionalized dialogue written by Matthew when the Jewish leaders ask Jesus if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath.

That is not the only fictionalization that Licona hypothesizes in the passage. Entirely gratuitously, he brings up the fact that Luke has a unique incident that bears similarities to the healing of the man with the withered hand, and he uses this fact to hypothesize deliberate conflation on Matthew’s part. This is particularly striking since a) Licona doesn’t seem to think that Matthew had access to Luke, so he must hypothesize a shadowy source like the story in Luke that Matthew conflated with the story of the man with the withered hand, b) Licona himself admits that Jesus could have said similar things on similar occasions, so this whole idea is being brought in out of whole cloth.

Luke reports this story [about the man with the withered hand] as well as a different one in Luke 14: 1– 6, although there are similarities between both. In the second story Jesus was dining at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees on a Sabbath. Because there was a man with dropsy in attendance, they watched Jesus closely to see if he would break the Sabbath and heal the man. Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees who were present, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” When they were silent, Jesus healed the man, sent him away, and said to them, “Which of you having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath will not immediately pull him up?” (Luke 14: 5). Matthew provides a similar logion of Jesus in our earlier pericope: “What man among you who having only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath will not take hold of it and lift it out?” (Matt. 12: 11). It could be that Matthew knew of both stories and, given his tendency to abbreviate, redacted portions of Luke’s second story and then conflated those portions with the first story. Consider this logion from the first component in Luke (the healing) when compared with the pericope in Matthew: [Here Licona quotes the similar sayings of Jesus about pulling out an animal.]… However, teachers in antiquity as well as today often vary an illustration, anecdote, parable, or fable. Accordingly, as is often the case, it is difficult if not impossible to discern whether an author is reporting a separate event or has heavily redacted an existing one. (pp 128-129 emphasis added)

As usual, the use of the term “logion” adds a scholarly air to the whole proceeding and gives the impression that something technical is going on. I’m beginning to think we should put a moratorium on the term; it often does nothing more than to darken counsel by insinuating that there is reason to believe Jesus uttered something only once. Here Licona conjectures that Matthew deliberately mixed up part of the story of the man with dropsy with the story of the man with the withered hand. It is hard to tell whether, in the last sentence, Licona is suggesting (as an alternative) that Luke himself may have made up the entire incident of the man with dropsy, but in charity I’ll assume that in this context he is only conjecturing what he says in the previous sentences–that Matthew may have fictionalized by redacting the “existing” story of the man with dropsy (which he apparently knew earlier from somewhere other than Luke) and importing Jesus’ words from that story into the story of the man with the withered hand.

But notice how we move from two facially completely different incidents to the claim that it is impossible to tell whether Matthew engaged in this elaborate process. If, on the other hand, we give Matthew and Luke both some degree of credibility as reporters, the simplest thing to do is to take the texts at their face value and accept that these were two separate incidents on which Jesus had such a conflict and made somewhat similar, but non-identical comments to those who were grumbling about his healing on the Sabbath. Matthew reports one event and Luke the other. The idea that Matthew knew of the other story found in Luke (even if Luke hadn’t been written yet) and that he fictionalized a part of the dialogue by transporting Jesus’ words as told in Luke into the story he is telling is an entirely pointless complexification.

Notice (I may write a post on this some time) the similar, yet also different, comments that Jesus makes in Luke 13:10ff about a woman who had a disease that made her unable to stand up–yet another Sabbath healing incident. There Jesus said that Satan had bound her and that he had loosed her. He contrasts this with the attitude of the hypocritical leaders, who would untie an animal on the Sabbath day while not allowing this “daughter of Abraham” to be unbound. Similarly in John 7:21ff Jesus makes a play on words concerning a man whom he made whole on the Sabbath (the crippled man at the Pool of Bethesda in John 5). The Jewish leaders, who will allow a man-child to be circumcised (made, in part, not-whole) on the Sabbath, will not allow a man to be made whole on the Sabbath. It was clearly Jesus’ repeated habit to skewer the hypocrisy of the prohibition against healing on the Sabbath by pointing out, in a variety of ways, the things allowed and the things disallowed. Sometimes (in Luke 13 and John 7) he did this with witty plays on words. In other cases he merely pointed out (as in the case of the man with the withered hand and the man with dropsy) the greater care for animals than for humans. But what all this shows us is a portrait of the same man with the same mind talking about the same subject in Matthew, Luke, and John.

Licona realizes that this is a possibility but, having raised a completely gratuitous doubt about a portion of Jesus’ words in Matthew’s account of the healing of the man with the withered hand, Licona leaves the reader with “it is difficult if not impossible to discern” whether Matthew has fictionalized.

I want to emphasize something here that I have mentioned on past occasions: It has never been Licona’s claim that readers of the time would have had a special ability to tell which portions of the gospels were fictionalized and which were factual. Back in 2011-2012 when there was quite a bit of furor over Licona’s idea that the rising of the saints in Matthew 27 (at Jesus’ crucifixion) might have been fictional, many of his defenders (I believe) got the mistaken impression that Licona was saying that there are tags or indicators right in the text at the specific points where non-factual material was inserted. This confusion was caused in part by the atypical nature of the rising of the saints passage within the theory that Licona was developing. In that passage, one might vaguely think (because Licona used the term “apocalyptic”) that the insertion of the saints’ rising into a cluster of events at Jesus’ death that all seem rather “over-the-top” (darkness, an earthquake, etc.) acted as a kind of “once upon a time” signal to the canny original audience that this was just hyperbole and not intended historically. I think that’s completely false and unsupported (just to be clear), but it would have been, if true, an actual tag in the text. I think some followers of that controversy extrapolated from that to the conclusion that Licona, in talking about “compositional devices” was always hypothesizing a tag in the text that original readers would have recognized, that we might not spontaneously recognize, but that we perhaps could learn to recognize by gaining the specialized knowledge he was going to give us. I even had one commentator here (when I criticized Licona’s views over a year and a half ago) tell me precisely that–that the original readers would have known what was fact and what was fiction.

That has never been the theory. Never. Licona’s thesis about the original audience is, rather, that they would have accepted without qualms the general practice of adding fictional material, not that they would have (as it were) seen the text as color-coded for fictional and factual portions. The analogy, which Licona himself makes (p. 6) is to our watching a movie today that is “based on true events” and that we therefore expect to be partially fictionalized. But as anyone knows who has watched such a movie, if it is realistically portrayed, one can only guess which parts are added unless one has the opportunity to compare the movie to some more literally accurate historical information. There are not usually little eye-winks or specialized signals in the movie itself that tag any added or fictional material as such. While there might be such a thing in some given case, that isn’t the general rule. One doesn’t expect to be able to figure out just from watching that one movie (or reading an historical novel) what parts were added. Indeed, it may be part of the interest of the thing to say, “That part was cool. I wonder if that’s how it really happened” and then to go away and try to find out by research. Of course, such research requires more historically accurate sources, and the gospels (as it happens) are our historical sources for the events of Jesus’ life.

Here in the case of the man with the withered hand, Licona’s entire point is that Matthew’s dialogue appears realistic, taken in itself, and that there are no tags showing whether Matthew has invented part of it (the Pharisees’ question) and imported another part of it (Jesus’ words about the animal in a pit) from a completely different incident. This isn’t a problem just for us but would have been the same, as far as we can tell, for the original audience. Licona certainly does not argue anything to the contrary.

So a “compositional device” such as conflation or “turning into dialogue” does not mean a “device” that carried a “this is not factual” tag with it into the text, which the original audience would have recognized and which we might recover if given a secret decoder ring or special glasses developed by a knowledgeable scholar. At the most, if one chooses to think as Licona does, one might draw a fictionalization conclusion from a comparison of one text with another (though I have argued repeatedly that this is entirely unjustified, and hence there is no reason to think that it is what the original audience would have thought). But even by his comparisons, Licona sometimes concludes merely that one author or another has fictionalized, or he sometimes concludes that “it is impossible to know” whether fictionalization is present. In either case, the individual document itself would appear realistic, taken alone. Licona’s fictionalizing “compositional devices” as he defines them involve the author’s “writing as if” a certain thing was true when, in fact, it wasn’t. Sometimes the alleged fictionalization involves only portions of dialogue; sometimes (as where Licona hypothesizes that Jesus may have never breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost” after his resurrection, pp. 180-181) it involves entire incidents. But in either case, it is not generally tagged in the text. Anyone examining Licona’s views must bear this in mind.

–Duplicating demoniacs and blind men?

In two cases Licona brings up completely unnecessary and highly complicated theories to explain a two vs. one putative discrepancy, even though he also considers the much simpler and probably correct theory. (There were two men in the incident and some author or authors discuss only one of them.) Having raised extremely strange theories of duplication, he simply leaves the matter up in the air.

One of these is the case of the two vs. one demoniac(s) healed in Mark and Matthew. In the Gadarene swine incident in Mark 5 and Matthew 8, Mark mentions one man possessed by demons whereas Matthew mentions two. Among all the other theories he considers to explain this, Licona does mention the one that is simplest and almost certainly right–namely, that there were two but that Mark has focused on just one. (It’s also possible that Mark only heard about one, I would add.) Licona calls this “spotlighting,” and it is one of his non-literary “devices,” which he calls a “literary device,” which allows him to inflate the number of literary devices in the Gospels. Ordinary harmonizers of the sort whose theories Licona often dismisses have always talked about “spotlighting,” even if they did not give it that name.

But having correctly brought up “spotlighting,” Licona isn’t content to let it rest at that (pp. 131-132). He also considers

–Matthew may have used a different source.
–Matthew may have “illustrated multiple demons by adding a second demoniac.”
–Matthew might have gotten confused by the phrase “for we are many” in Mark 5:9, taking it to mean that there were two demoniacs.
–Matthew may have “doubled up” on the number of demoniacs here in order to “compensate” for not having told a completely different story, in a completely different setting, about the healing of a demoniac, found in Mark 1:21ff.

Of all of these, only the first is better than ridiculous. As nearly always, the notion that Matthew may have been present and may have seen two demoniacs is simply left out of account altogether. New Testament scholars, even those who acknowledge or seem to acknowledge Matthean authorship, often seem literally incapable of speaking of Matthew’s own experiences. With great effort they bring themselves to say that perhaps Matthew was using a “different tradition” or a “different source,” and that is the closest they get to saying that Matthew may have actually witnessed what really happened, on his own, apart from Mark.

Every other theory on this list is so wildly complicated that there is no point in even bringing it into consideration. No historian literally considers all theories. Historians try to canvas plausible theories and decide among them. Licona himself certainly doesn’t consider all theories, as witness the fact that here he doesn’t talk about the entirely plausible theory that Matthew may have been present at this healing. But he finds the space to suggest in all seriousness that Matthew may have fictionally duplicated demoniacs in this scene for a variety of absurd reasons.

No normal person narrating a story with any intention of truthfulness would “illustrate multiple demons” by inventing two demoniacs when there was only one present. In any event, two is a great deal fewer than “legion” or even “many.” As for the third theory, it would make no sense whatsoever for Matthew to be confused by Mark’s record of the statement, “My name is Legion, for we are many” into thinking that there were a mere two human demoniacs. Why even bring up such an idea?

And as for duplicating demoniacs in this scene to “compensate” for not telling about a completely different exorcism in a completely different scene found in Mark, what can one say about such a theory other than, “What?” In what possible world does anyone writing a minimally truthful narrative do such a thing? If I neglect to tell an audience a story about one of my children playing chess, I do not later tell a completely different story, firmly located in a completely different scenario and context, and add a child who was not present on the second occasion in order to “compensate” for not telling the first story! And since we have no other way of designating these demoniacs except by their being healed by Jesus, it would be more like literally inventing a child I never had and inserting him into a chess tournament he never attended in order to “make up for” not having told about a real child who attended a different tournament!

This is all complexity beyond complexity, and completely pointless. But Licona treats such theories with so much seriousness (while, again, omitting to mention the possibility that Matthew remembered two demoniacs) that he uses one of his favorite phrases about the attempt to decide what happened: “It is difficult to know” (p. 131)

This is not the only time Licona does such a thing. He brings forward similarly Byzantine theories about blind men as well.

Most readers who study putative Bible contradictions know that Mark 10:46ff mentions only one blind man, named Bartimaeus (the son of Timaeus), whom Jesus healed near Jericho. Matthew 20:29ff mentions two blind beggars healed at that same place and time with the same interactions with Jesus and the crowd–almost certainly the same incident.

Over a couple of pages (pp. 135-136), Licona considers two pointlessly complex theories to explain this difference. One, similar to the “compensating” theory concerning the demoniacs, is that Matthew “may have doubled up on the number of blind men in order to include another story from Mark 8:22-26 of Jesus healing the blind that Matthew will not otherwise mention.” (p. 135) This is, once more, an almost incredibly strange theory, and the phrase “include another story” only makes it more bizarre. In Mark 8, Jesus is far, far away from Jericho, in Bethsaida, up on the coast of the Sea of Galilee, much earlier in his ministry. He is not processing through a city but rather leads the blind man outside of the town, heals him quietly, and then tells him not even to enter the village but to go directly home. This is a completely different blind man! Merely doubling the number of blind men healed outside Jericho just before Jesus’ passion does not “include” this story in any meaningful sense whatsoever.

Licona’s treatment here (a type of approach that, for all I know, he may have borrowed from other NT scholars) gives the impression that people whom Jesus healed need not be treated as unique individuals with real healing stories and real histories but rather as something more like “healing tokens” that can be swapped around at will by a fictionalizing author, to the point that one can literally say that the quiet healing of a blind man outside of Bethsaida is “included” if one “doubles up” on the number of blind men healed in an entirely different context near Jericho. This is a sloppy and ahistorical way of thinking. It undermines the notion of these as real events happening in the real world to real people, and it is, in an important sense, demeaning to those who were the recipients of Jesus’ healing touch, lowering them to the level of counters. “I’ll trade you one blind man in Bethsaida for two blind men in Jericho. Anybody got an extra lame man he wants to shift over to a different story?”

Licona’s second highly complex theory about the two blind men that Matthew mentions near Jericho is that it may “have a doublet” in Matthew itself (p. 135). What Licona means here by a “doublet” is that Matthew may have made up an entire separate healing incident in a different context, an incident that never happened at all, in order to make a theological point.

But Matt. 20: 29– 34 may have a doublet* in 9: 27– 31. In that context, Jesus healed a leper (8: 1– 4), healed a paralyzed man (8: 5– 13), healed others and cast out demons (8: 14– 17), healed two demoniacs (8: 28– 34), healed another paralytic (9: 1– 8), raised a dead girl (9: 18– 26), healed two blind men (9: 27– 31), and healed a demoniac who was mute (9: 32– 34). John the Baptist was imprisoned and appeared to be in doubt about Jesus. So he sent a few of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?” (11: 3). Jesus told them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame are walking, lepers are cleaned and the deaf hear, even the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them” (11: 4– 5). John the Baptist could thus be assured Jesus was the Messiah, since he was doing the very things expected of the Messiah (Isa. 61: 1…). Accordingly, Matthew may have included the doublet (although with variations) he would repeat later in 20: 29– 34 to provide an example of Jesus healing the blind as evidence for Jesus being the Messiah. (p. 135)

Licona here utterly fails to understand that fake points don’t make points. If Jesus hadn’t really healed the blind prior to the time when John the Baptist’s disciples came to relay their master’s concerns, then Jesus could not have pointed to his having healed the blind as evidence (!!) of his being the Messiah. There would not yet have been healings of blindness to mention.

Licona says that the “doublet” theory is in tension with the “Matthew duplicated blind men” theory. Presumably one has to pick one but not both.

If the healing of two blind men in Matt. 9 is a doublet, it could weaken the proposal that Matthew added another blind man to Bartimaeus in order to account for another story of Jesus healing the blind man mentioned in Mark but not covered in Matthew. But there was no need to do so if Matthew twice narrated this story of Jesus healing two blind men. (p. 135)

Here again we have the confused idea that this was the “same story,” yet obviously, if Matthew narrated it realistically in two different places, each set in its own context, with differences between them, no one would know that it was the “same story,” as it would prima facie represent two different sets of blind men. Licona doesn’t even indicate clearly which one he thinks is factual and which one he thinks is the “doublet,” though given the general preference of scholars for the truthfulness of Mark over Matthew, I would guess that Licona’s theory here is that the incident in Matthew 9 is the ghostly duplicate. Yet Matthew portrays Jesus’ healing the blind as providing evidence to a questioning John the Baptist of Jesus’ Messiahship!

Does this sort of thing have apologetic implications? It certainly does. Jesus refers repeatedly in the Gospels to his works as evidence of who he is and of his being sent by the Father. If the Gospel authors are making up some of these incidents, then Jesus provided fewer signs even to those immediately around him, and indeed in this case Matthew would apparently be inventing Jesus’ words to John the Baptist that “the blind receive their sight,” since the blind in question had not, at that point, received their sight.

Of course, Licona did not invent this concept of a doublet. It is common in New Testament scholarly circles. But generally evangelical scholars are somewhat wary of such theories since they do, after all, mean that one is attributing to an evangelist the wholesale invention of the duplicate incident. This concept of a doublet is a creature of more liberal New Testament scholarship, with its aversion to admitting that remotely similar things ever happened more than once and its desire to reduce as much as possible the number of separate miracles asserted in the “earliest traditions.”

Licona includes this highly complex theory with no good argument in its favor, despite the fact that a far simpler theory is available and despite the fact that it is quite incompatible with a decently high view of Matthew’s reliability as a reporter.

The simpler theory, which Licona eventually reaches, is that there were really two blind men at Jericho but that Mark “spotlights” one of them. Licona even brings up the idea that Mark may have named Bartimaeus because he was a source, though Licona realizes that this is just a possibility.

But having finally gotten around to mentioning this, Licona leaves the matter up in the air. In his summary of the pericope, he says,

Matthew may be doubling up and conflating two healings in order to abbreviate, or Mark is either shining a spotlight on a person known to his readers or identifying his source. (p. 136)

The “doublet” theory isn’t mentioned explicitly in the summary, but earlier Licona did not reject it, even weakly, and he spoke of it as if it were epistemically on a par with the “doubling up the number of blind men” theory.

–Did John move the Temple cleansing?

The idea that John moved the Temple cleansing chronologically is fairly common in New Testament circles, even among evangelical scholars, despite the fact that this would mean that John fictionalized by deliberately placing the Temple cleansing three years earlier than the time when it actually occurred. (As usual when scholars believe there is a conflict, the synoptics’ chronology is factually preferred.)

Licona’s wording of his conclusion about the Temple cleansing is rather tentative, though he seems to lean toward the idea that John moved the cleansing. He repeatedly injects “if” into his discussions, but he brings up the theory of John’s moving the cleansing repeatedly (pp. 144ff, pp. 195ff) and offers (see below) his own quite weak argument to bolster the idea that this is plausible as an instance of “literary artistry.” Licona also sets the seal of consensus on the view and does not fail to tie it in with his own idea that literary considerations were more important than historical accuracy in chronological matters:

Most exegetes think there was only one temple cleansing and that the chronology in the Gospels was often determined by literary considerations other than actual timing. (p. 195)

Licona (p. 195) cites Craig Keener as giving one (apparently, to Licona, plausible) theory for John’s motivation. Here is Keener:

More than likely, John alludes to common knowledge about the place of the temple cleansing in the tradition, and opens Jesus’ ministry with it for theological reasons. Now Jesus’ entire ministry is the Passion Week, overshadowed by his impending ‘hour’…pp. 518-19 Commentary on John

Notice how complicated this theory is. Keener’s idea, as best as I can understand it, amounts to this: John’s audience, already possessing the synoptic Gospels and perhaps other oral traditions about Jesus’ life, believed that there was only one Temple cleansing and that it took place in Passion Week. John leaves out the cleansing in Passion Week and writes as if Jesus cleansed the Temple very early in his ministry. John counted on the fact that his readers would know that it really happened instead during Passion Week. Therefore, the readers would see the placement of a Temple cleansing early in Jesus’ ministry in John as a fictional but theologically significant change, causing them to meditate on some symbolic sense in which Jesus’ entire ministry “was” Passion Week, overshadowed by his impending death.

Keener does not say (I have read the context) how he knows that this is what John expected his audience to think. How do we know that they would have not assumed (as many readers since have done) that John is relating an entirely different incident? If they did (for some reason) insist on thinking that there was only one Temple cleansing, why would they have derived the heady theological meaning from John’s account that Keener suggests rather than merely being confused as to when Jesus cleansed the Temple, being confronted by two (allegedly) incompatible accounts?

It is interesting to see how often modern New Testament scholars inform us that ancient people thought chronology was unimportant, only to insert their own idiosyncratic theological or literary exegesis into the space left open by removing the presumption of an intention to relate historical fact. Why, to put it bluntly, is it anachronistic to think that John would not have written as if the Temple cleansing occurred at a time when he knew it did not, while it is not anachronistic to think that John and his audience thought of precisely the esoteric theological significance for John’s moving the Temple cleansing that happens to occur to the mind of a 21st-century New Testament critic?

Yet this is the type of theory (Licona also gives one slightly different literary theory from Raymond E. Brown about John’s moving the Temple cleansing) that Licona treats as at least on a par with, if not more probable than, Jesus’ having cleansed the Temple twice.

As I have pointed out numerous times, the Temple cleansing was in the nature of a protest. Of course the merchants went back to the status quo ante after the cleansing. And, just as a person who opposes abortion may well protest the same abortion clinic twice, Jesus lodged the same protest again, in the same flamboyant fashion, shortly before his death. As for the idea that he wouldn’t have been allowed to get away with this twice (which Keener unfortunately seems to endorse), this is a very weak argument. There was no such thing as a security checkpoint at the Temple. It would have been quite easy for Jesus to approach the Temple again three years after his initial cleansing. Indeed, the synoptic gospels themselves (which are being taken as historically true in this case) tell us that he came back and taught in the Temple the very next day after his dramatic disruption! So much for his being unable to return and overturn the tables after three years. The synoptic accounts repeatedly mention the leaders’ fear of the people and Jesus’ popularity (e.g., Mark 14:2). This is quite sufficient to explain how he could have cleansed the Temple during Passion Week even if he had done so once three years before.

Licona gives a rather surprising argument that is apparently meant to bolster the plausibility of John’s moving the Temple cleansing. (I assume it is meant to be an argument. Otherwise it is unclear what the purpose of the passage is.)

If literary artistry on John’s part is responsible here for differing chronologies, such work is by no means unique to John’s Gospel. The New Testament begins with a genealogy in Matthew. Careful readers will notice that Matthew divided the genealogy into three sets of fourteen generations (Matt. 1: 17). However, not only does Matthew omit some generations mentioned in the Old Testament, there are only thirteen new names in the third set. For some reason, the number fourteen is important to Matthew. A number of scholars have suggested that Matthew is employing a device known as gematria in which Hebrew letters are assigned numerical values. For example, dalet…is the fourth letter of the Hebrew alphabet while vav… is the sixth. Since there are no separate letters for vowels in Hebrew, the name “David” … has a numerical value of fourteen (D = 4, V = 6, D = 4). Thus, in arranging his genealogy in three sets of fourteen, Matthew was probably emphasizing Jesus’s Davidic ancestry: Jesus is the son of David, the Messiah. This is literary artistry, Matthew shaping his genealogy of Jesus to make a theological point, precisely what some scholars suggest John has done here and elsewhere in his Gospel in order to emphasize Jesus’s role as the sacrificial Passover Lamb who takes away our sins. (pp. 195-196)

If by “precisely” what John would be doing if he realistically narrated the Temple cleansing at a time when it didn’t happen one means not even remotely alike, then I suppose that sentence might stand.

The comparison here is exceedingly poor, yet Licona seriously seems to believe that it is a good comparison merely because he can use the vague, wide-ranging phrase “literary artistry” to describe both activities.

Matthew’s genealogical arrangement, whatever one might think of it, is manifest, even shouted from the rooftops. Matthew openly states (1:17) that the genealogy has been divided into three groups of fourteen. It doesn’t take a New Testament scholar with a heavy theory to point that out, whether or not one accepts the further theory of a motivation in gematria. Nor does it take a terribly “careful reader,” since Matthew says it explicitly. And even if one does like the theory that Matthew’s interest in the number fourteen was motivated by a desire to create a mnemonic or pattern using gematria, that does not make him any more of a fictionalizer than the obvious intention to create groups of fourteen by itself, whatever its explanation. Moreover, the word translated “begat” in Matthew’s genealogy does not by any means convey exclusively the idea “was the immediate father of.” For example, see Hebrews 11:12, where the passive voice of the same verb is used for the many generations that “were born” from Abraham. Gaps in genealogies are not particularly unlikely, and all of Matthew’s “begat” statements are literally true, given the word’s quite normal range of meaning. Matthew begins the very first verse of his genealogy with calling Jesus the “son of David, the son of Abraham,” though of course Jesus was not the immediate son of David, nor was David the immediate son of Abraham. You may not like Matthew’s rather rabbinic genealogical arrangement into groups of fourteen or his contriving it by skipping some generations here and there. You may even think he miscounted (which may be true) in putting only thirteen generations into one section. (It’s unclear how Licona thinks mentioning this difficult-to-explain curiosity strengthens his case concerning Matthew’s “literary artistry.”) You may think all kinds of things. But it would be misguided to think that Matthew is doing anything remotely similar to deliberately fictional but realistic narration, at a particular time in Jesus’ ministry, of an event that didn’t happen even close to that point in time.

The phrase “literary artistry” in this context is the merest argumentative hand-waving, meant to communicate that, somehow, John would have probably thought it was okay to write that confusingly about when Jesus cleansed the Temple because Matthew did this thing where he presented Jesus’ genealogy in three groups of fourteen. This is highly unconvincing.

–Did the disciples argue about who would be the greatest on the night of the Last Supper?

I have noted in an earlier post that Licona misses an undesigned coincidence by creating an unnecessary tension concerning John the Baptist. His redactive critical method similarly separates and dismisses the evidence of two undesigned coincidences (one in which John explains Luke and one where Luke explains John) concerning the foot washing on the night of the Last Supper.

As I explain in Hidden in Plain View, one might ask why Jesus washed his disciples’ feet on the night in which he was betrayed. Of course, there could be a variety of answers, and sometimes we just don’t know why Jesus did something on a particular occasion. There didn’t have to be a highly specific reason. Maybe he just chose that night on which to illustrate his love and humility in this way. But, as I say in the book, it is mentally satisfying if we do find a potential explanation in another Gospel, and as a matter of fact, we do: Luke 22 states that the disciples were bickering over who would be the greatest in the kingdom–a topic they were apparently fond of. Although Luke does not mention the foot washing at all, and John does not mention the argument, the two fit together very well. Jesus’ act of foot washing, much like his placing a little child in their midst on a similar occasion (Mark 9:36), was a memorable rebuke to the disciples’ ambition and pride.

In the other direction, John explains Luke, for Jesus rebukes the disciples verbally in Luke 22:24-27, and he ends his comments at that point by saying,

For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

These words, of course, make the most sense in the context of a meal where people are reclining at the table. But what does Jesus mean by aligning himself with the one who serves rather than the one who reclines at the table? In all of the Gospels Jesus eats the meal with his disciples and does recline at the table. We are so used to thinking of Jesus as the suffering servant that we may pass these words by as a reference to his death, but in the context in Luke they seem to refer to something else. But what? The words are cryptic in Luke. In what sense is Jesus specifically among the disciples in that scene as one who serves rather than one who reclines at the table? Luke does not say; John provides the explanation. In John 13, Jesus arose from supper, laid aside his outer garments, tied a towel around his waist, and proceeded to play the role of a slave and wash the disciples’ feet.

Now the scene becomes very vivid. The disciples are bickering, perhaps returning to their annoyance with James and John, whose mother had come with them to request a special place in Jesus’ kingdom just over a week earlier (Mark 10:35ff). On that occasion, Jesus made comments to them contrasting the way they should behave with the way that the Gentiles behave:

And when the ten heard it [about the request of James and John], they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:41-45

At the time of the Last Supper, one can imagine, the ten have still not forgotten their grievance, and the sniping breaks out yet again. Jesus does not speak at first. Instead, he arises from the table and washes their feet, and they all fall silent with awe at what he is doing, except (of course) Peter, who protests that this is not fitting. When Jesus sits down, he says, in effect, “Okay, let’s take this from the top. one. more. time.”

“The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-27)

Jesus’ words on this occasion in Luke begin very similarly to those in Mark, but they then become different, especially when Jesus alludes to the one who reclines at the table and the one who serves.

The undesigned coincidences in both directions confirm this reconstruction of events, and they do so because we take seriously the theory that we are dealing with reports of reality rather than fictionalizing redaction.

At a minimum, if one absolutely insists that Jesus could not have said something that similar twice, the account in Mark of Jesus’ words in connection with James and John’s earlier request would be more in doubt (potentially an erroneous memory on Peter’s part, if one permits errors) than the account in Luke, since Luke’s connection with the Last Supper is multiply confirmed by undesigned coincidences, whereas Mark’s setting of Jesus’ words is not independently confirmed in this way. Setting aside the confirmations of Luke and conjecturing that Luke was engaging in a “flexible” redaction of Mark (see below) merely shows the usual bias in favor of Mark’s factuality over anyone else’s. But in any event, it is not necessary to be so averse to Jesus’ repetition of a part of his words on the subject of ambition.

Licona does not rightly evaluate the undesigned coincidences in these passages because he is tied to the methodology of redaction criticism and fixates too strongly upon the similarities between Jesus’ words in the two instances. He misses one coincidence altogether, and he tries to “explain” the data of the other in a confusing and unconvincing fashion. Here is Licona on Luke’s allegedly moving the dispute and Jesus’ reply:

Luke omits the request of James and John. However, he appears to have taken Jesus’s statement pertaining to Gentile rulers lording it over others, that the disciples are rather to exercise humble servant leadership, and that he has set the example by coming to serve and give his life as a ransom for many, and has situated it in the first occasion described above, although that occasion occurs in a different context (Last Supper), perhaps a week later than we find in Mark // Matthew. Of course, it is possible that Jesus addressed a similar dispute pertaining to which of the disciples was the greatest on multiple occasions. However, there are enough verbal similarities between Jesus’s answer in Mark and Luke to suggest Jesus’s reply could derive from the same tradition. If Mark is Luke’s source for this tradition, Luke’s redaction of and displacement of the tradition to a different context gives us an idea of the extent of Luke’s flexibility with the tradition. (p. 141)

Licona realizes that the words of Jesus in Luke are different from those in Mark after a certain point. Of this he says that Luke “either paraphrases or makes use of a different source” (p. 141). But this would scarcely be a “paraphrase” in any normal meaning of the word. Jesus as recorded in Mark and Matthew says nothing about reclining at a table at all. Licona is aware that there is some sort of potential connection to the foot washing in Jesus’ statement that he is not as the one who reclines at the table but rather is among them as the one who serves, but he errs in describing that connection:

The final portion of Jesus’s logion preserved by Luke may also suggest familiarity with Jesus’s act of foot washing, which John also narrates during the Last Supper (John 13: 3– 16). (p. 142)

There is no reason at all to say that the final portion of Jesus’ words “suggest[s] familiarity with Jesus’ act of foot washing,” as they are actually quite cryptic, taken by themselves. Of course, Luke may in fact have heard about the foot washing, since the tradition of foot washing was evidently carried out by the early church (see I Tim. 5:10) before the Gospel of John was written. But this is a general consideration. Luke’s text does not mention the foot washing, and there is no reason to think that his familiarity with that event would have caused him to invent cryptic words of Jesus, uttered as if on an occasion that didn’t happen at that time (the disciples’ fighting about who was the greatest during the Last Supper), words that don’t clearly speak of the foot washing at all. If Luke were moving the incident of the infighting and Jesus’ response to a time when it didn’t occur, and if he wanted to tie it into his own narrative by connecting it with the foot washing, which he’d heard about, the most logical thing for him to have done would have been to tell about the foot washing!

The actual connection between Jesus’ words, “I am among you as the one who serves” in Luke and the foot washing is a connection of reality. The record in Luke of these words is well explained if Jesus really said them at that time and if they really did allude to his having just washed the disciples’ feet. Licona opts instead for a fictional, redactive non-explanation. This non-explanation leaves the foot-washing itself unexplained and its connection with the bickering recorded in Luke a sheer coincidence (since his theory would have Luke inventing the bickering on that night) and tries to “explain” the appropriateness of Jesus’ words in Luke to the foot washing by vaguely saying that Luke (or perhaps his source) may have been familiar in some other way with the foot washing–a possibility that wouldn’t actually give us a good reason to expect the cryptic words attributed to Jesus in Luke, in the absence of any explicit record of the foot washing.

Licona admits that something similar could have happened twice but moves on immediately to focus on the verbal similarities in the first part of what Jesus says in Mark and Luke. To top it off, he goes so far as to draw a moral for his reader. Luke’s having invented (as he implies) the argument and Jesus’ response on the night of the Last Supper, “moving” it from a completely different occasion, should be taken to “give us an idea of his flexibility with the tradition”–aka, his willingness to depart deliberately from reality. Licona’s use of “if” at the beginning of that sentence is typical of his tentative writing style. But he has already raised the possibility that Jesus had a similar conversation with his disciples on a similar occasion and has responded to it by focusing narrowly on the similarities between Jesus’ words as recorded in Mark and Luke. When he admits the differences, he suggests not that these differences mean that Luke is accurately telling about a different occasion on which the disciples were fighting and were rebuked by Jesus, and not that Jesus’ words reflected in reality the fact that he had just washed the disciples’ feet, but rather that Luke or someone in the tradition was familiar with the act of foot washing–a characterization that not-so-subtly implies that someone, presumably Luke, was putting words into Jesus’ mouth.

This sort of writing is typical of New Testament scholarship of a certain stripe. I have recently been reading portions of Robert Gundry’s truly bizarre commentary on Matthew from the early 1980s. Gundry repeatedly characterizes Jesus’ words as recorded in Matthew as reflecting the sitz im leben (life situation) of the church at Matthew’s own time. He does this compulsively, without feeling any need to justify the assumption that Matthew is putting words into Jesus’ mouth in order to reflect the situation at his own time rather than recording anything recognizably like what Jesus actually said in Jesus’ lifetime.

Licona is far less compulsive in this regard than Gundry, but he has clearly picked up from the discipline the tendency, at least at times, to write that some bit of the text, attributed to Jesus, reflects the author’s own familiarity with some other event or situation (in this case, the foot washing) rather than the reality of what Jesus actually uttered. The unconsciousness of Licona’s use of such an hypothesis here is particularly noteworthy.

It was almost inevitable that Licona’s interpretations of Gospel passages would run contrary to the perception of an undesigned coincidence at some point. This is partly because of the scope of Licona’s project and partly because of his methodology. He examines a great many Gospel differences, including those (as in this case) where there is no apparent contradiction at all. Undesigned coincidences also involve noting differences, but if we are taking note of undesigned coincidences, we are taking seriously the realistic hypothesis–that the gospels are reporting different parts of the same real picture, or reporting them with such variance as we expect from truthful, non-fictionalizing witnesses. Licona, in contrast, usually jumps to the conclusion that differences are the result of fictionalizing redaction, and hence it is unsurprising that he sometimes misses an undesigned coincidence before his very eyes.

–Did John use “literary artistry” to construct Jesus’ dialogue with Pilate?

Another example that intersects with undesigned coincidences concerns the dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate as given in John and Luke. Here Licona is suggesting that John may have received accurate information from a reliable human source–an unusual suggestion in Licona’s work, and one that I wish he would make more often. He even makes the important and sensible point that “some differences may carry the appearance of being in greater tension with one another than is actually the case because the Gospel narratives are not exhaustive.” (p. 116) Again, this is a point that he would do well to consider more frequently.

Licona alludes in this context to the data concerning one undesigned coincidence between Luke and John. Pilate says that he finds no guilt in Jesus, which is surprising given Luke alone, since in Luke, Jesus appears to affirm that he is a king, thus (one might think) confirming the charge of sedition made against him. But Pilate’s decision that Jesus is not guilty of any crime within his writ is well explained by Jesus’ statement to Pilate, as recorded in John, that his kingdom is not of this world. Jesus says that if his kingdom were of this world, his servants would fight to prevent him from being delivered to the Jews. Licona mentions the connection between Luke and John concerning Jesus’ otherworldly kingdom to support the idea that John may have had some accurate data and that Luke’s account may be incomplete, but he doesn’t get it quite right and conjectures a kind of ur-source hypothesis for these portions of Luke and John: “[B]oth evangelists must have known a tradition such as we read in John.” (pp. 116-117) This is not correct. It is not very likely that Luke knew of the dialogue as it appears in John; in fact, Luke’s giving only one part of the puzzle is better explained if he had access to a witness who was truly independent of the account in John (not deriving from a common source other than reality) and who mentioned only part of what happened. There are a couple of other coincidences between Luke and John concerning the dialogue with Pilate that Licona doesn’t mention and may not know of; these are discussed in Hidden in Plain View.

Even though Licona is in this instance trying to affirm something relatively positive about John’s access to the event, he cannot quite bring himself to say that John knew what happened in a strong sense. Rather, he falls back on one of his favorite phrases and says that it “is impossible to know” whether John had accurate, detailed information or whether he knew only a “very basic gist” and constructed the dialogue with “literary artistry.” (pp. 116-117)

There is no need to conjecture some “tradition,” standing between Luke and John, on the one hand, and reality, on the other, and containing the information found in both. Nor does “very basic gist” seem to describe all that John knew about what went on between Jesus and Pilate. Though we don’t know for sure where they got their information (it’s possible that John may have been personally present), it appears that Luke’s and John’s knowledge of the subject was real and detailed though non-exhaustive.

In all of these examples, a common thread is that Licona is working with the tools of redactive criticism with a strong bent towards fictional changes and additions, rather than accepting simpler, realistic scenarios. “Doublets,” compensatory doublings of blind men in a single incident, constructing dialogue from a mere “very basic gist,” moving whole incidents, theologically motivated fictionalization, and moving Jesus’ words into a different story are the stock in trade of skeptical higher criticism; these kinds of theories have been around for quite a while. Licona repackages them and presents them to his mostly conservative evangelical readership as “what we can learn from ancient biography” (the subtitle of the book), but his arguments give the reader already familiar with New Testament criticism no significant new grounds for accepting the redactive machinery. It must stand or fall on its own, and, since it involves making things needlessly complicated again and again, I propose that it should not stand.

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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