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A gospel fictionalization theory is no help to the gospel

Dr. Michael Licona is an apologist and New Testament scholar who shook up the evangelical world several years ago by simultaneously claiming to be an Biblical inerrantist and stating that Matthew added the short passage about the opening of the graves and the resurrection of various other people at the time of Jesus' crucifixion as a "poetic device." In other words, Matthew did not think that it really happened. "It seems best to regard this difficult text in Matthew as a poetic device added to communicate that the Son of God had died and that impending judgment awaited Israel." (The Resurrection of Jesus, p. 553) He also has said that John deliberately moved the day of Jesus' crucifixion in his gospel. These statements by Licona caused a big and at times unedifying stir among evangelicals, with inerrantist Norm Geisler not only emphatically declaring that Licona's views are incompatible with inerrancy (which seems to me like it should be obvious, but which was emphatically denied by Licona and his supporters) but also going aggressively after Licona's job and speaking engagements (which I don't at all endorse).

Dr. Licona is about to come out with a new book on alleged contradictions in the gospels. There is an interview with Sean McDowell about it here and a much more extensive discussion constituting most of Licona's lecture here. (I thank a commentator at Triablogue for drawing my attention to the latter.)

To be clear, in case anyone reads this post who hasn't read my every word in earlier posts, comment threads, etc., I do not claim the inerrantist label for myself, because I take that label to mean that one is committed a priori to the conclusion that there can be no errors, however trivial, in what is affirmed in Scripture. I have some "candidate passages" even in the Gospels where I think there might be small errors in the narrative, though it's just possible that there is some fact that I don't know that would resolve these. (It happens surprisingly often in witness testimony that two statements seem contradictory until more information is known, so I don't want to rule that out completely.) I am comfortable with harmonization, and I think harmonization often gets a bad rap (more about that below), but I don't think harmonization should be taken to implausible extremes. I also think that apparent discrepancies in historical narratives such as the Gospels are a good thing, because they show the significant independence of the accounts. Too much similarity between witness accounts raises the concern that the witnesses are merely copying from each other.

On the other hand, if one is going to claim the inerrantist label, one shouldn't be trying continually to stretch that label to accommodate...well...things like saying that the authors of manifestly historical-genre texts like the Gospels made up whole incidents or deliberately changed what they say happened for literary reasons. In fact, as I'll be discussing below, I think that that view is actually much worse for one's view of the reliability and clarity of Scripture than if one held that there are some small errors caused by faults of memory, etc.

I've now watched the lecture on the subject of Licona's forthcoming book--"resolving" alleged Gospel contradictions by attributing various literary moves to the evangelists.

Licona gives examples of three of such devices that he believes the gospel authors used. These are his definitions, copied from his powerpoint in the talk:

Compression: When an author knowingly portrays events over a shorter period of time than they had actually occurred.

Transferral: When an author knowingly attributes words or actions to a person that he knew belonged to another.

Displacement: When an author knowingly removes an event from its original context and places it in another.

First, I want to draw attention to the word "knowingly" in each of those definitions. I also want to emphasize phrases like "places it in another" or "attributes words or actions to one person." There is no ambiguity in these definitions. If we say that Matthew used "displacement" concerning some words of Jesus, and use the word in this sense, this is not merely saying that Matthew collected a bunch of Jesus' parables and put them all in one place. All conservative evangelical New Testament scholars that I know of believe that Matthew did that in the "parables of the kingdom" section in Matthew 13, for example. It also appears quite plausible that Luke 21 includes some collected sayings of Jesus concerning the end times without affirming or implying that Jesus spoke these sayings in that precise order on one single occasion. The long middle section of Luke is notoriously difficult to give a clear chronological order to, especially in relation to the chronology of, say, Mark, though Luke never says that his account in those chapters is chronological. But that isn't all that these definitions say.

Licona is not consistent in his use of these terms. At about minute 50:30 and following he uses the word "displacement" apparently for any such collection of sayings or for any grouping of material by topical rather than chronological order. (Matthew, again, is famous for doing this.) But that is a much broader phenomenon than the specific sense of "displacement" that Licona has defined. The definition he has given makes it quite clear that the author knows that an event took place in one context and deliberately moves it in his narrative and writes about it in a way that makes it appear that it took place in a different context. This is also clear from the claims that Licona makes about Plutarch.

One can see what Licona means by his problematic definition of "displacement" from an example he gives in John. John begins the story of the anointing of Jesus' feet in chapter 12 like this:

Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair.

John also ties this event down in time by saying (vs. 12) that the triumphal entry took place on the next day.

The difficulty is that apparently this same anointing, which John appears to place on the Saturday before the triumphal entry, is quite explicitly stated to have happened two days before the Passover in Mark 14, and Mark is extremely chronological in his telling of the events of Passion Week.

Licona talks about the ancient author Lucian, who advised writers of history to try to make their history writing flow well by using "common matter and overlap." Licona implies that Lucian would be "smiling" at John's "displacement" of the event of Jesus' anointing to a different day. Licona's explanation is that this puts the anointing closer to the raising of Lazarus in John 11, and that John, remembering that it was Mary who anointed Jesus' feet, wanted to tell the stories close to each other because they involved the same people.

By itself, that would not be a problem. The problem, of course, is that John could very easily have told the story of the anointing of Jesus closer to the story of the resurrection of Lazarus--indeed, immediately after it, if he wanted-- without affirming that it took place the day before the triumphal entry. That is, he did not need to engage in "displacement" in the stronger sense that Licona has defined. If John knew that it didn't take place on the Saturday before Passion Week but rather on the following Wednesday, and he merely wanted to tell the two stories (resurrection of Lazarus and anointing of Jesus) close together, there was absolutely no need for him to place the anointing so firmly on the Saturday by his wording. Nor does Lucian, in the quotation Licona gives, enjoin authors to affirm that things happened when they didn't really happen merely in order to organize history by topic or similarity of material!

A similar distinction needs to be made with regard to the other terms. For example, telling a compressed account in which one leaves out some things is a different thing from explicitly stating or even giving a very strong impression that something happened in a shorter time period than, as you well know, it actually took. Licona briefly mentions (without discussing it in detail) the withering of the fig tree as an example of "compression." This fairly well-known Bible difficulty, briefly, concerns the fact that Matthew 12:19 says that the fig tree withered immediately when Jesus cursed it, while Mark 11:14 says only that his disciples heard Jesus' curse, and Mark 11:20 says that on the next day they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up.

Although Licona does not spell out the alleged compression here, presumably the idea is supposed to be that Matthew's is the compressed account. And, indeed, if the fig tree actually did not wither at all right away, and Matthew knew this, then Matthew would be engaging in "compression" in the (to my mind, dubiously truthful) sense of "compression" that Licona defines, since Matthew explicitly states that the tree withered immediately.

But that isn't what most of us mean when we speak of a "compressed account." We usually mean a much more harmless and unproblematic situation in which one does not state that things literally took less time than they actually took. It would have been quite easy for Matthew to engage in that kind of compression without stating that the fig tree withered immediately. He could have said something like, "And the fig tree was withered by Jesus' word" without any statement about how fast it withered.

Now, in fact, there are harmonizations of the Mark and Matthew accounts that don't require one to attribute misleading "compression" to Matthew. One idea that seems perfectly legitimate to me is that the tree immediately began to wither and that it was seen the next day to be withered entirely, from the roots up.

This takes us to my second major point, which is Licona's highly problematic and dismissive treatment of harmonization. Here he actually (and most unfortunately) seems to be echoing Bart Ehrman, who often ridicules attempted harmonizations of the gospels and brings forward (for purposes of mockery) highly strained examples such as that Peter denied Jesus six times. Licona has such a moment around minute 27 when he is discussing two accounts of the death of Jairus's daughter and, in particular, Jairus's summoning Jesus to come to her. Matthew 9:18-19 says,

While he was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” And Jesus rose and followed him, with his disciples.

In contrast, Mark 5:22ff says,

Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing him, he fell at his feet and implored him earnestly, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live." And he went with him.

Later in the passage in Mark, Jairus's servants come and tell him that the child is actually dead. This is not included in the Matthew account at all.

The question is just whether Jairus already knew, and said at the outset, that his daughter was dead, or whether he said that she was on the point of dying.

According to Licona, Matthew is deliberately engaging in compression, which is to say that Matthew knows that the whole thing was more complicated but explicitly says that Jairus initially said that she was dead in order to shorten up the account. Again, this is not supposed to be a mere approximation on Matthew's part ("the man said something to the effect that his daughter was dying or was dead") or fuzziness of memory. It's supposed to be a case where Matthew deliberately implies something that didn't happen as a literary device in order to shorten the account. ("Compression: When an author knowingly portrays events over a shorter period of time than they had actually occurred.")

But why suggest that? Why not say instead that Matthew is giving the dialogue approximately, not absolutely verbatim, but isn't knowingly changing anything that was said? Even if he was an eyewitness he need not be claiming to remember verbatim how Jairus worded his request. At that point, Matthew's cutting out the coming of the servants later would be an instance of the kind of entirely benign compression already discussed, which does not meet Licona's more problematic description. It's merely leaving some things out for purposes of economy in one's own telling of the story.

Or, if one wants to harmonize in a more specific way, how about this? (I owe this suggestion to Esteemed Husband.) Jairus is distraught, he knows that even coming to Jesus has taken some time and that the child was dying when he left, and he says something to Jesus like, "My daughter is on the point of death. By this time, I'm sure she is dead! But come and lay your hand on her and she will live." One gospel reports "on the point of death" and the other reports "is dead." This is an economical and not at all implausible harmonization.

But Licona doesn't discuss either of these suggestions. Instead he mocks attempted harmonization of the Mark and Matthew accounts by suggesting that a harmonizer would say that Jairus's daughter died twice and that the woman with the issue of blood (whom Jesus meets on the way to Jairus's house) also developed the same problem again, so that the entire incident took place twice. He gets on a real roll, here, saying that maybe Jesus was having a bad day and that his powers of healing didn't stick the first time. He even gets his audience laughing at this ludicrous suggestion.

I'm not even (by self-designation) an inerrantist, and I find this treatment of harmonization extremely disturbing. A modicum of imaginative thought allows one to come up with a plausible harmonization of these passages, yet Licona suggests only a silly one and gets the audience to laugh at it. That isn't even a responsible way to treat secular reports that purport to be historical. It often happens (J. Warner Wallace discusses this in Cold Case Christianity) that witnesses in real-life cases appear to be saying things that cannot both be true, and then it turns out that they are both true. The gospels purport to be memoirs of Jesus, and all external evidence points to their having been written either by his disciples or by close associates of his disciples. Why in the world would we abandon the attempt at modest harmonization when there are apparent discrepancies between them? Worse, why would we mock it? That is not just poor biblical scholarship. It's poor historical scholarship.

Another case where Licona overlooks a simple harmonization is that of the request from James and John to sit on Jesus' right hand and left in the Kingdom. Matthew 20:20-22 records that their mother came to Jesus with them and made this request, and the account includes dialogue between Jesus and the mother to this effect. Mark 10:35-37 states that the sons made the request and includes explicit dialogue between them and Jesus in which they make the request. Licona counts this as an instance of transferral. "Transferral: When an author knowingly attributes words or actions to a person that he knew belonged to another." So in other words, the mother was really the one who asked it, but Mark didn't want to bother talking about the mother, so he attributed it to James and John, even inventing words for them, since he knew that she was asking on their behalf. Even though, in other words, he knew that they never said those words and that the dialogue between them and Jesus which he records never took place.

But again, why go there? Matthew's account says that they all came to Jesus together. It seems entirely plausible that a dialogue took place that involved both her talking and their talking, and that the two gospels record different portions of the dialogue. Why not? This isn't even a difficult case for harmonization, so Licona's quickness to hypothesize the deliberate transferral of the words to someone who didn't say them looks hasty and motivated by a desire to avoid harmonization even when it is easy.

I suggest that readers watch or listen to the lectures by my husband, Tim McGrew, on alleged contradictions in the gospels for more material on this topic using a different approach.

I want to make what might sound like a radical point: It would be less damaging to what I regard as a correct view of the substantial and significant reliability of the Gospels just to say in some cases that there are minor discrepancies and therefore, plausibly, minor errors in the accounts than to take Licona's approach. And, since I think there is substantial evidence that the Gospels are historically reliable in a normal, commonsense sense of "reliable," I therefore think that would be by far the more reasonable direction to go on the issue of apparent contradictions. Alternatively, if one is committed to inerrancy, it would make more sense to hold out for some other information we don't know about the situations recounted in the gospels than to hang onto your inerrantist label while giving away the store on commonsense reliability, which I think is what Licona's approach is doing. Here are some reasons:

1) Disdaining harmonization inflates the number of places where the gospels are actually saying something (in the ordinary sense of "saying something") that is false. Relabeling these false statements as "literary devices" doesn't change the fact that, by abandoning even modest harmonization, you just blew up to much higher levels than necessary the number of places in the Gospels where what the text is to all appearances saying just isn't what really happened.

2) Adopting the idea that the evangelists were knowingly changing things all over the place does not eliminate the possibility of actual errors of memory or mistakes in understanding (e.g., Luke's understanding of what was being claimed by one of his sources). It merely brings in an additional source of unreliability. So it's not as though one who adopts this method is somehow protecting the Gospels from claims that one or more of the evangelists made some bona fide error. A highly literary John who says that something happened on a day when he knows it didn't happen doesn't become ipso facto a John with a better memory. Hence one's estimate of the unreliability of the statements in the Gospels should (unfortunately) actually be raised by this approach. Of course, one could simply choose to interpret any putative error as a "deliberate literary trope," but this would be entirely arbitrary.

3) Licona does not intend to say that there are usually clues in a given text as to when such a deliberate change is taking place. At one point in the lecture he says that there might be such a clue from "editorial fatigue," because an editor didn't sufficiently "clean up" a passage that he was displacing from a different context, but he does not appear to hold in general that there will be such clues. And that makes sense, given the view he's propounding. One shouldn't expect such clues given his definitions, since the definitions make it clear that the writer is deliberately attempting to write "as if" the event took place at a different time, the words were said by a different person, and so forth. This makes such changes invisible unless we happen to stumble across them by noticing discrepancies with other accounts. Licona claims to have identified quite a few of such tropes; he emphasizes in his talk that the three he discusses in the lecture are only a sample. He also shows great readiness to believe that the evangelists are using them. It would therefore seem that, if his view of the evangelists' modus operandi is correct, the probability is actually "decent" (20%, 30%? more?) in any given passage that the author is deliberately changing something, using one or the other of such techniques, but making it look like he isn't doing so. The rate of the use of such techniques postulated by Licona seems a lot higher than the ordinary rate of minor error on the part of honest witnesses who are in a position to know what happened and who are not trying to fictionalize their accounts. In other words, if we adopt Licona's approach it seems that we have significant reason to distrust the factual statements in the Gospels even where we don't have any other reason to doubt them. Take, for example, Licona's own readiness to believe that Mary the sister of Lazarus actually was the one who anointed Jesus' feet. But why think that? If John had no qualms about changing the date of the event, if the gospel writers had no qualms about putting words in a person's mouth when that person didn't say them, and so forth, why not wonder if John "transferred" the foot anointing from some unknown woman to Mary the sister of Lazarus? And then also transferred the story to Saturday to group all the stuff about Mary close together? The point is that once you start saying that the gospel writers, in essence, made stuff up for literary reasons, this has a tendency to metastasize. And I contend that it spreads far more quickly than the admission that they may, while trying to get it right, have made a few small errors.

4) In general, this approach runs in precisely the wrong direction, because it presents the Gospels to us as highly "massaged," literary documents in their relationship to the truth, not as honest memoirs just trying to tell it like it happened. What research in areas like unexplained allusions and undesigned coincidences reveals is the latter--the marks of truthful witnesses with the normal variation of detail that we would expect from them, not the marks of literary composition of a fictionalizing sort. The highly literary view of the Gospels tells us to look for hidden meanings and agendas rather than taking them at face value. This causes an artificial view of other evidences as well. For example, consider the evidence of unnecessary details. The Gospels are full of otherwise pointless time indications, statements that one place was "near to" another place, details about how many fish were caught or how many men were fed, and so forth. The historical view of the Gospels would lead us to note that these are prima facie evidences of verisimilitude. This is how real people talk. They throw in unnecessary details, they make unexplained allusions, and so forth. It is part of the dysfunctionality of over-sophisticated New Testament criticism to teach readers to overlook this obvious fact and instead to go off into fancies of literary speculation--e.g., symbolic meanings for specific numbers and names, etc. Licona's approach, while less fanciful than some others, is definitely on the ahistorical, over-literary side of this divide. It thus undermines readers' ability to see the force of other evidences of reliability, since it teaches them to think of the Gospel writers as people who are trying to do lots of invisible altering of the facts for literary or theological purposes.

I anticipate that an objection will be made to the effect that it isn't always cut and dried as to when an author "would be misleading" if he "seemed to be saying" one thing when he knew it was not the case. I fully agree that reasonable people can differ about the implications of a text. You may come along and look at some passage where I have no problem with the fact that the author appears (based, perhaps, on comparison with another Gospel) not to be narrating chronologically, and you may say that it "looks like" he's "giving the impression" that he is narrating chronologically. It may be difficult for us to adjudicate such disputes, though I think there are things that one can point to in the text that can help. (Of many examples I could give, here is one: Luke repeatedly uses the phrase "while he was journeying to Jerusalem" in his middle section, yet if one knows the map of the region, one can see that this would have Jesus journeying to Jerusalem from multiple, incompatible directions if it were all one journey. This is a clue right in the text of Luke that the author is not implying to the reader that he is narrating a single journey.) But reasonable people can differ, and there will be grey areas.

This is relevant to Licona's attribution of the use of "transferral" to Matthew in the story of the centurion's servant (Matt. 8:5ff). Licona says that Matthew "transfers" the words of the servants (as Luke tells the story) to the centurion himself, and he uses the example of a statement in the news that Putin and Obama discussed the situation in the Ukraine when in fact it was ambassadors of the U.S. and Russia who discussed the situation.

But Licona's wording is confusing here. He says that Matthew "has brushed out" the Jewish elders and friends and that "in Matthew's account, the centurion goes directly to Jesus." But of course the whole point of saying that one is using a figure of speech, stating that "so-and-so did this" when in fact so-and-so has commissioned the act, is that one is not "having so-and-so do this directly." That is exactly what one is not doing when using such a figure of speech. Compare earlier in the passage in Luke where the Jews say that the centurion has built them a synagogue, though of course no one thinks that the centurion built it personally. When the Jews say that the centurion built a synagogue, they are not "brushing out" the builders nor "having the centurion build the synagogue directly"! On the contrary, the point is that a phrase like "he did this" may be ambiguous precisely on the question of whether he did it personally or commissioned it, and that the facts are determined by context.

Similarly, if a news story said that Putin and Obama discussed the situation in the Ukraine, we would decide whether the story was being misleading or not based on context. If the ambassadors discussed the situation, if the news story "brushed out" the ambassadors and "had Putin talk directly to Obama," when in fact Obama and Putin did not communicate with each other in any personal sense at all, then the news story is misleading!

Licona's presentation elides this distinction. One can argue that, if Matthew knew that the centurion did not come to Jesus personally, he is using a figure of speech in this passage. Perhaps Matthew knew that the messengers were saying only and specifically what the centurion told them to say, that the very words were his, that a "dialogue" took place between Jesus and the centurion by way of specific words delivered by messengers. This would especially make sense concerning the "I am not worthy for you to come under my roof" portion of the exchange. One has to decide whether that is a legitimate interpretation on the basis of one's judgement as to whether Matthew would be seeming to say to his intended audience that the centurion personally went to Jesus. Reasonable people can differ on that question, and the point is made even more difficult by the fact that there were no quotation marks in ancient Greek texts. I am not saying that all such questions are simple to decide. I am saying, however, that you cannot have it both ways. You cannot simultaneously say that it is perfectly harmless for Matthew to use a figure of speech in which he says that the centurion "said" such-and-such to Jesus, meaning thereby only that Jesus and the centurion communicated in some manner, and also say that Matthew deliberately transferred the centurion's words to his messengers, "brushed out" the messengers, and "had" the centurion come and talk directly to Jesus. The two are not the same thing; in fact, they are incompatible. The latter involves the intention to give the impression that the centurion actually spoke to Jesus personally. The former involves no such intention but a mere use of figurative or imprecise language.

It's worth noting that Licona gives examples in this lecture of "transferral" only in cases where one person is doing something on behalf of another, but his definition makes no such limitation on the Gospels' alleged use of the trope. Once again, this leads to an ambiguity between harmless and problematic "transferrals."

Similarly, there is nothing harmless or unproblematic about saying that John deliberately changed the date of an event, knowingly stating (with no warning or indication that he is being ahistorical) the wrong day in his text because he has some theological or literary purpose in doing so.

Consider instead the extreme care that John takes not to be misunderstood in John 4:

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee.

I submit that this is not the way that a man talks if he is the kind of author who just moves events around in his narrative, stating that they happened when they didn't really happen. On the contrary, this is a meticulous author trying to narrate accurately.

The current situation in evangelical circles bears watching. A desire to hang onto the inerrantist label while using approaches more congenial to "mainstream" New Testament scholarship is causing people to do rather dubious things. Not just dubious from an inerrantist point of view but dubious from an historical point of view and dubious from the point of view of recognizing that the New Testament documents are historically reliable.

I think as time goes on it will turn out that some who may not claim the label of inerrancy actually have a higher view of Scripture and a greater resistance to treating this or that as "literary embellishment" than some who claim the label. In that sense, the label is losing its effectiveness as a stand-in for orthodoxy and for a high view of the authority and perspicuity of Scripture.

Comments (86)

Great article- Licona is certainly unnecessarily rude about harmonisation. I've heard a number of his lectures on this, and he has described harmonisation as "hermeneutical waterboarding" in a number, which does seem to be harsh. Very impressed by Tim's lectures on the topic too- you two would make great inerrantists if you could see the light ;)

I'm of the importance that inerrancy is important- and would look to the harmonisations given as a response. Warfield's book on the subject seems to be extraordinarily good in demonstrating the biblical character of inerrancy, if you've read it. Nonetheless, I get the point about how some people do really silly things so that they can hold on to inerrancy- I don't approve of that. I do approve of either waiting for a plausible answer (as I did for Mark 2:26, for example, and found one), and looking for plausible responses.

I suspect you're preempting a larger reaction to Licona's work here, once his new book comes out, which will be interesting...

I've heard a number of his lectures on this, and he has described harmonisation as "hermeneutical waterboarding" in a number, which does seem to be harsh.

In my book, that's double-plus ungood. At its best, harmonization is common sense, supplied with knowledge of relevant facts. Thus to abandon harmonization is to abandon common sense. An irony here is that very often those who oppose harmonization do so on the basis of something like Ockham's razor--they don't want to conjecture that some event-type took place more than once, for example. But when you go in the direction Licona is going it is by no means clear that the explanation is more _economical_. Quite the contrary. There is nothing _simple_ about the hypothesis that John deliberately changed the day in his gospel on which Jesus' feet were anointed shortly before his crucifixion.

Thank you Lydia for a very interesting and stimulating post.

I too think harmonization (done soberly and responsibly) gets a too-bad rap.

Also, I can't help escape the thought that life is messy, complicated, and non-linear. I can completely see this in even simple interactions in my life. This gives me very strong a priori confidence that in those problematic discrepancies of the gospels there is simply a set of facts that, upon their revelation, would allow us to say "Oh! That's how the two discrepant passages harmonize!". This confidence exists regardless of whether I call myself an "inerrantist" or not.

As I age and my walk ages with it, I find these gospel discrepancies interesting, but no longer do they cause any doubt about the overall truth and general reliability of the events portrayed. Am I really going to deny who Jesus was because of a few incidental historical details not being plausibly harmonizable given our state of understanding? Does a purported discrepancy about taking a staff or not taking a staff (a discrepancy which has very plausible solutions) on the commencement of the disciples' evanglization mean that all of the other "big picture" stuff is called into question? As we wouldn't make that conclusion in any other area of life, so too we should not make it in this case. This is simply common sense and how we proceed with everything else.

I think I've seen and studied all of the purported gospel contradictions. Most of the charges of errors are inane upon a few moments of thought, and betray the monomaniacal and nigh-indefatigable ignorance of the skeptic. A very small subset of purported errors take some study, but even for these there are very plausible non-credulity-straining harmonizations and possible solutions. An even smaller subset are the genuine stumpers, for which (as far as I know) there are possible solutions, but none of them are so compelling to make one think "that is probably it!".

Why we should have this a priori expectation that (if the gospels are generally true/reliable) there won't be any problems for us, given that we are two millenia removed from the situation, given that we were not directly the intended audience, given that we don't share some of the culture idioms, etc, is a mystery to me. If everything lined up obviously and perfectly, we would lose the independence or semi-independence of the gospel accounts and the charge of collusion or copying seems far more damaging than having a discrepancy or two hang over our heads. That we have multiple literary witnesses seems far more important than worrying about a minor difference of details, a minor difference that can probably be resolved.

In the end, as I study the gospels, whether or not inerrancy is true, or held by myself/others, does not affect how I study and appropriate things one whit. I should be proceeding in the way I'm proceeding, whether I call myself "conservative" or "liberal" or "moderate". It seems to me that after studying these things, then my alignment comes into play. I view problems as having yet-to-be-found resolutions, which probably makes me "conservative". To a "liberal", the problem is a string to pull for higher-critical deconstruction of the text.

Lydia,

Thanks for your thoughtful engagement with Mike Licona’s views on the Gospels and harmonization. These issues need to be discussed and debated so that we may all learn from one another.

Mike and I have been friends for almost ten years, but that friendship doesn’t prevent me from disagreeing with him on some things. I have some reservations about some of the things he says on this subject. That having been said, I’d like to comment on one of the apparent discrepancies you discussed. In both Mark and Luke, Jairus asks Jesus to go with him to his home because his daughter was dying (all quotations from the ESV):

“Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing him, he fell at his feet and implored him earnestly, saying, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live’” (Mark 5:22-23).
“And there came a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue. And falling at Jesus' feet, he implored him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying” (Luke 8:41-42).

In Matthew, however, it appears that Jairus believes that his daughter is already dead:

“While he was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live’” (Matt. 9:18).

Now, you mentioned Tim’s proposal that Jairus actually said both things, along the following lines:

“My daughter is on the point of death. By this time, I'm sure she is dead! But come and lay your hand on her and she will live.”

According to this proposed harmonization, Mark included the first sentence but not the second, Luke’s summary reflects the first sentence but not the second, and Matthew included the second sentence but not the first. This hypothesis would seem to allow the texts to be harmonized simply by adding their elements together. Yet things may not be so simple.

First, Matthew does not report that Jairus said “By this time I’m sure she’s dead” but rather “My daughter has just died.” (The Greek arti means “now” or “just now,” i.e., this has something that had happened extremely recently; it does not mean “by now.”) As it stands, Matthew appears to present Jairus as stating as fact that his daughter had died. He appears to be asking Jesus to raise her from the dead. In Mark and Luke, on the other hand, Jairus is clearly asking Jesus to prevent her death by healing her. An additive harmonization that tries to combine these statements in effect implies that Matthew gives a misleading impression as to what Jairus was asking Jesus to do. In other words, it doesn’t appear to solve the problem.

Second, both Mark and Luke report that Jairus was informed of his daughter’s death while he and Jesus were on their way to Jairus’s home:

“While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler's house some who said, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?’ But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe’” (Mark 5:35-36).
“While he was still speaking, someone from the ruler’s house came and said, ‘Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher any more.’ But Jesus on hearing this answered him, ‘Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well’” (Luke 8:49-50).

Matthew omits this part of the story. Thus, in Mark and Luke, Jairus asks Jesus to come heal his daughter and then finds out on the way home that his daughter has died, whereas in Matthew, Jairus tells Jesus that his daughter has died and asks him to come bring her back to life. The apparent discrepancy cannot be satisfactorily addressed simply by looking at Jairus’s initial contact with Jesus; one must also take into account this related difference in which Matthew omits the part about Jairus being given the news about his daughter’s death while he is en route with Jesus to see her. It is the way the elements fit together in the version told by Mark and Luke that makes their version difficult to harmonize in an additive way with the version told by Matthew.

The hypothesis that Matthew has used “compression” in his telling of the story simply means that he has simplified his account by compressing these two stages of the story (Jairus’s initial request for Jesus to heal his daughter and the conversation following the news of his daughter’s death) into one stage (Jairus asking Jesus to come because his daughter had died). This explanation looks plausible because without doubt Matthew does not include the information about the messenger bringing Jairus the bad news of his daughter’s death. This doesn’t appear to be accidental, because it is required by the way the story is set up at the beginning with Jairus telling Jesus that his daughter had just died.

Now, given the fact that Matthew’s account parallels that of Mark and Luke in some rather specific ways, most notably the sandwiching of the healing of the woman with the flow of blood within the account of Jairus’s daughter, it doesn’t seem likely that Matthew didn’t know about the two stages of the story about Jairus and Jesus. I don’t think this is likely regardless of any theory of the literary relationships among the Synoptics, though I happen to subscribe to the view that Matthew made use of Mark’s Gospel. Supposing for the sake of discussion that not to be the case, it seems unlikely that Matthew was unaware of the fact that Jairus received a message about his daughter’s death while he and Jesus were on their way. The messenger and Jesus’ assurance to Jairus, which are absent from Matthew, were evidently part of the eyewitness testimony that had been picked up by both Mark and Luke (whether independently or not). It therefore seems more likely that Matthew has simplified his account than that he just didn’t know about these details. The likelihood of him knowing about these details is greatly increased, of course, if one thinks the apostle Matthew was the actual author of the Gospel.

Nor do I think that Matthew simplifying his account entails him making knowingly false statements. I don’t think he was claiming to give an exhaustive or precise account of the events in question. I don’t think we need to assume that Matthew was giving us Jairus’s exact words or even giving us Jairus’s words as best Matthew knew or remembered them. You make a good point when you distinguish between an author reporting an event differently than another and an author knowingly reporting an event in a way he knew was false. But we must also distinguish, I would suggest, between an author knowingly reporting an event in a simplified or compressed fashion and an author knowingly intending for his compressed version to be treated as a correction to the non-compressed version. That is, Matthew is not asserting that Mark and Luke are wrong in reporting that Jairus thought his daughter was dying but not yet actually dead. He is not giving an alternative version to contradict or correct their account. He is, on the “compression” hypothesis, giving a simpler, briefer account that agrees in substance with those other accounts but differs in the way the event is narrated.

Finally, I must make clear that I am quite open to a more literal harmonization of the texts. I am not at all closing the door on an additive harmonization. What I’m attempting to do here is to explain why a different, “literary” approach seems to have some merit to at least some evangelical scholars and why the differences between Matthew and the other Synoptics do not seem to be easily explained in the way that you and Tim have proposed.

Joe --- I agree completely!

Rob, I certainly understand that the words do not mean "by now" but rather "just now." To me, this actually fits well with the proposal I make in the post. For, if Jairus was saying everything in his mind, he would of course have been thinking that she had just now died. That is to say, in the welter of his thoughts and feelings would be included both the knowledge that she was on the point of death when he left and the thought that she has just died while he is on his way to Jesus.

To be sure, it fits together quite well for Matthew to include that portion of what he said and also not to include the coming of the servants, but to my mind both would be well explained by his a) remembering Jairus as saying that his daughter has just died and b) either simply not recalling the further details of the servants' coming or, if he remembered them or saw them in Mark, deciding on what I called a "benign" compression--that is, a mere simplification by leaving something out.

I find it interesting that your approach seems simultaneously to _increase_ tension between the accounts by questioning the sufficiency of the proposed harmonization and, at the same time, to downplay the importance of the tension you've just highlighted. This seems a bit odd to me. If the whole point is that Matthew is really deliberately changing Jairus's words from what he knew them to be, for purposes of compression (perhaps because he also intends to cut out the later coming of the servants), then it's difficult to see why this should not be a concern.

Here perhaps something turns on the difference between paraphrasing or summarizing what someone has said and "putting words in his mouth." Luke appears to do the former. Even without quotation marks, it appears that there is a difference that one can see in translation between quoting and indirectly expressing the substance of what someone says. Luke purports to do the latter. It _appears_ that both Matthew and Mark purport to do the former. This is, to my mind, a reason for preferring the suggested harmonization.

I would also add that, if one remembered Jairus as saying right away that she was dead and also remembered or learned about the coming of the servants, one could easily reconcile one's own memories in precisely the way I have suggested: Namely, that his statement that she was dead was not based on observation but based on surmise, given her state when he left the house, and that the servants came later and brought him definite word.

Another point that seems to me to support a harmonization rather than compression-by-changing: If Matthew definitely knew that Jairus said, "My daughter is dying" and did _not_ say that she was dead, and if he merely wanted to shorten the account by leaving out the servants, it would have been extremely easy to report Jairus's statement that she was dying, to leave out the servants, and then to add when they arrived at Jairus's house something like, "And when they arrived, the maid was dead" or "When they came to the home, there were people crying and wailing, for the maid was dead." This would have been just as short.

Another point to consider: Where it's simply a matter of somewhat different wording, one can readily understand that Matthew thought his audience wouldn't take him to be giving a verbatim account. (I bring this up in the main post.) But what about the fig tree withering *immediately*? That is a specific _statement_ that Matthew makes. It is true that he didn't _have_ to be trying to correct the earlier gospels, but why would this _not_ have appeared to his audience to be at least an emendation, addition to, or clarification of Mark's account, in which they hear Jesus' words and find the tree withered the next day? This is not merely a matter of saying that the audience doesn't take the author to be giving a verbatim account.

Vern Poythress recently wrote a book on this topic--Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization (Westchester: Crossway, 2012).

I summarized one of his discussions here:http://whiterosereview.blogspot.com/2014/05/matthew-85-13-and-luke-71-10-possible.html

Actually, Vern's entire book is available online for free:

http://frame-poythress.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/PoythressVernInerrancyAndTheGospels.pdf

Here's another good online discussion of Gospel harmonization:

http://frame-poythress.org/inerrancy-harmonization-and-the-synoptic-gospels-a-response-to-darrell-bock/

Finally, there's Craig Blomberg's The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (IVP, 2nd, ed., 2007).

Attempting to synchronize the Synoptic timeline of Holy Week with the Joannine timeline of Holy Week is a familiar crux. Roger Beckwith has some interesting suggestions in that regard:

http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2014/06/johns-passion-week-chronology.html

I don't know if Esteemed Husband mentions this in the portion of his lecture on the day of the crucifixion, and I'll just mention it here instead of trying to find that portion of the lecture: The proposed "solution" to the supposed problem of John 18:28 (that the Jewish leaders didn't enter Pilate's judgement hall that morning so that they could "eat the Passover") according to which John changed the day of Jesus' crucifixion is actually no solution at all and creates its own problem. Entering the judgement hall would not have produced ceremonial uncleanness preventing them from eating an evening meal! They could have cleansed themselves at sundown. So the "solution" of having John change the date not only calls John's reliability into question but does to for no gain, since it makes no sense as an explanation of the text!

Hence the Hagigah explanation, which I see that Steve mentions in his blog post and which Tim gives in the lecture, makes more sense _overall_. Not only does it not involve the convoluted explanation that John "changed the day for theological reasons," it also makes more sense of the text itself in the ceremonial context, since the Hagigah would have been at midday.

I should also mention (I owe this to Blunt) that there is an undesigned coincidence between John's gospel and Mark's _precisely_ at the point where John says that Jesus came to Bethany six days before the Passover. It is possible with some plausibility to count these six days in Mark's gospel, though Mark does not say that Jesus arrived in the vicinity of Jerusalem six days before the Passover. Again, the entire picture makes sense if we regard John as "telling it as he remembers," not as making a literary composition. The apparent incongruities show that John is giving an independent account, and this only strengthens the force of the interlocking coincidences that we find concerning passion week and the crucifixion (and there are several).

Regarding variant accounts of what Jairus said, we need to distinguish between direct and indirect discourse. Between what the narrator says and what he quotes a character saying.

Inerrancy doesn't not entail that whatever a character says is true. Inerrancy primarily refers to the narrator.

Inerrancy doesn't mean Jairus is inerrant in how he expressed himself. Jairus was not speaking under divine inspiration.

This, in turn, raises the question of how a narrator should quote a speaker. There's a paradoxical sense in which, if someone makes an inaccurate statement, an accurate quote may preserve the inaccuracy. If you're quoting someone, you're not necessarily endorsing what they say. Rather, you're simply reporting what they said. If they made an inaccurate statement, that's what you report.

On the other hand, there might be occasions when, out of charity, a narrator will correct an incorrect statement when quoting a person based on what the person intended to say. Sometimes it's clear what a speaker meant to say, even if he misspoke or expressed himself poorly.

So, when quoting a character, there are occasions when it would be appropriate for the narrator to improve on the original statement. It's not a verbatim quote. Rather, it's what the speaker meant to say, but failed to say. A narrator might clarify what he meant by restating it. That's an editorial judgment call.

I am not clear on my position on this debate. I do think it is important that the solution provides for a Bible that is readable and understandable by the common man or woman. Not to say that commentaries and the writings of experts can not be valuable.

I think that the answer needs to start with the non-technical position that the Bible is the Word of God as written, transmitted and translated. Then the issue of discrepancies and/or anomalies need to be explained in a way that does not undo the "Inerrancy" that is expected by the common reader. If the solution describes a Bible that is not "Correct" we then describe a Christianity that needs a "pope," pastor or other leader to tell us what to believe. I prefer to get that information directly from God's Word and not from unbiblical leaders with messages from God that are untestable because we have only an unstable Bible with which to test.

I believe that God's intention is that the common reader can understand and benefit from reading the Bible. If we only have a Bible that is a tool for experts, we have eliminated the value of the Bible to the common reader. Circular reasoning aside, this proves itself to be the wrong answer by not being useful to the average reader.

By the way, for the record, it should not be assumed that all of my favored harmonizations are the same ones preferred by my husband. In some cases I've just looked into some difficulty and have my preference for a harmonization without asking his opinion. And in general, it should not be assumed that what I have said about inerrancy is what he would say to the same question.

A fascinating discussion. I, too, found the treatment of harmonization strange and disappointing. Harmonization is a legitimate tool, and should not, in my opinion, be written off as casually as was done in this lecture. I am a follower and admirer of Mike's work over all, but do not agree with him on everything. I find some of his conclusions baffling, but I sometimes find those of other scholars equally so in one place or another. For that reason, it is important to discuss and sort these matters out, as has been done here. As for inerrancy, I consider myself an inerrantist, but inerrancy seems dogged by one major weakness: There appears to be no inerrant way to define it.

The issue of Gospel harmonization is sometimes cast in terms of photographic realism. In that regard, videos of police shootings are a useful way to illustrate the strengths and limitations of that paradigm.

Sometimes a police video shows you all you need to know about the shooting. It shows you enough to judge whether the policeman was in the right or in the wrong. Whether the suspect was offending party or the offended party.

But police videos can be misleading. They may not show enough. Take an off-duty cop shooting an armed civilian. All the camera depicts is two armed men in plain clothes. You can't tell from that who's the good guy and who's the bad guy. The civilian might be a schoolyard sniper.

Sometimes this is a spatial limitation. They may show the action of the policeman rather than the suspect, or the action of the suspect rather than the policeman, rather than showing their interaction. They may show the incident from the policeman's angle, or from the suspect's angle, but not both.

Was the suspect charging the policeman when he was shot, or did the policeman shoot him in the back? And what was the alleged crime?

Sometimes this is a temporal limitation. The video begins too late to give context. It fails to show what led up to the shooting. What did the suspect do or what did the policeman do before the cameras started rolling? A traffic violation? A mugging?

Take a car chase. The police are in hot pursuit. Is this a joy ride? A child abduction? A fleeing bank robber?

Moreover, even if you have complete footage, there are things a camera can't show that may be crucial to the interpretation of the actions.

Did the suspect have a rap sheet? If so, what were his priors? Was he a violent career criminal? What did the dispatcher tell the police? Did they know what they were walking into? Sometimes police walk into an ambush.

Conversely, does the policeman have history of complaints? Formal reprimands in his file? Out of court settlements? Did the police dept. cover up for past wrongdoing? Was a policeman a juvenile offender whose court records were sealed? Some police are crooks with badges (a la Serpico).

Suppose the suspect brandishes a gun. What's his mental state? Is he psychotic? Is he high on drugs? Even if he's in a state of diminished responsibility, he's just as dangerous to the general public or the police.

Suppose the suspect brandishes a toy gun. But the police can't tell the difference from that distance. So they must make a snap judgment.

Did the suspect reach into his pocket? You can't tell if he has a gun in his pocket. And he can shoot straight through the pocket.

Situations like that are like pulling the ring of a grenade. Once you do that, the remaining options are limited.

The point of this extended illustration is that a verbal eyewitness be ambiguous or misleading without sufficient context. An account that simply describes what an observer could see or hear may be unintentionally deceptive, for the correct interpretation of the event requires additional information.

An interpretive account can be more accurate than a barebones description, because the reader may need supplementary information to understand what happened.

Historians of ancient times did not take the same approach to accuracy and precision that we do. Hence, you will find in Herodotus and Thucydites accounts of speeches given by men in various assemblies – in council, before an army, at the court of a king or with city elders – that to our ears seem to be word-for-word repetition of what was actually said by whom. Yet at the time nobody was taking minutes, and no reporter wrote an exact account immediately after the speeches were done for the newspaper to print the next day. And in addition, the historian was removed from the event by hundreds of miles and (usually) years or decades or centuries. It is understood that the historians had a habit of taking a bare kernel of an account, maybe even just a sentence or two though sometimes more, and developing from that the play-by-play that they have given us. Hence what we have is something between a “best guess” at what a person of that character in that situation would have said if they were going to convince the city council to ally themselves with Sparta, as they did in fact convince the council to do, and a direct eye witness “report” of what he said.

While this reminder of what “history” meant to the ancients is valuable in thinking of the Bible, it is insufficient to what Christians have always (from the time of the Apostles) meant by the eyewitness accounts of Christ’s actions and sayings. There, very often, Christ is bent on revealing either for the first time, or in an absolutely unique way, truths that we have no other source for, neither for corroboration nor for clarification. Hence in the Gospels, “accuracy” has always meant something very much akin to what we would mean by “word-for-word” recounting. You can’t really rely on “the gist” of what Christ said to correctly grasp the Trinity or the Incarnation.

For the Jairus account, there are 2 possible offers that would (at least potentially) harmonize the 3 accounts from Matt, Mark, and Luke. First, Matthew’s is so much shorter, it is apparent that he is intentionally leaving out details, and thus he is NOT INTENDING to give a word-for-word complete account of everything spoken. Starting with that, then, consider adding one of two additional events into the story to understand it more fully: (1) Jairus, when he approached the core of the crowd around Jesus, first dealt with the disciples who were running interference. To get past them, he had to tell them what the problem was. To them, he said one of “my daughter is dead” or “my daughter is dying”, we don’t have to decide which one. But let’s assume he said “my daughter is dead” to impress on them the gravity. Then, when they let him before Jesus, he amends his declaration to be more careful: “my daughter is dying”. You could easily see Matthew reporting this as Jairus saying “to Jesus” i.e. to the group of people WITH Jesus, “my daughter is dead”. This sort of reporting would be slightly muddled to our ears but is hardly WRONG per se. And that would be certainly not less accurate than we often get in newspaper stories these days, with nobody arguing “you reported the facts wrong”.

The second possible additional event is that Jairus’s household sent not ONE servant, but two, to tell their master of the girl’s death. For example, Jairus tells the Apostles (before he has gotten access to Jesus) “my daughter is dying”. Then a no-name servant runs up and breathlessly (and relatively without confirmation) says “no, I believe she died just now”. All of a sudden the Apostles clear his way to Jesus, and he declares either “my daughter is dying” or “my daughter is dead”, depending on how you want to play it.

Now, as they approach the house, the chief of the servants sees the crowd approach and sends a more formal announcement of the girl’s death and “no need to trouble ‘the Teacher’ “. (You may, if you wish, think of the chief servant somewhat full of himself and his position in the household, and maybe just a bit miffed that the other, lowly servant went off to tell Jairus before he, the head of the servants, was ready to send definite word. Or, that he was a little miffed at Jairus for bringing home some filthy, grubby hedge-rabbi to the house, in desperation to get ANYONE who might be able to heal the girl who is the apple of his eye. And, just possibly, a little over-concerned about maintaining the dignity (and pomp and deference) of a grief-stricken household in which a favored daughter has died, rather than letting go a little dignity for a possible miracle.) So for a second time word comes from the house that the girl is dead – this time with confirmation. Now, if Jairus had not yet fully believed the first servant’s account, he might well have fell to the ground in grief, and from the ground again implored Jesus, saying “my daughter has died”.

So, with either of these hypothetical additions, (or both!) there is no necessity to posit that any of the evangelists put words into Jairus’ mouth that he didn’t actually say. All we need to allow for is that there might be more to the story than is actually given. And we KNOW that very often there is more to the story than is given, and in this case Matthew’s account is so sparse that we actually expect that he intentionally left some details out.

I am an inerrantist. That is, as I understand it, the formal Catholic position on the Bible: God’s inspiration was sufficient to so imbue the writers with truth that they did not err with respect to the primary meaning they had in mind in writing what they put down. I recognize that this makes certain passages difficult, but with Joe Lightfoot above, I am not worried by these difficulties. While they are present, they are not of sufficient weight to disturb trust in the whole. A refusal to allow for a harmonizing account with Jairus (which is not even the most troublesome of difficult passages) seems to me to be a refusal to grant the Bible (i.e. to God and to His human agents) sufficient authority to teach us anything we could not otherwise obtain elsewhere. Which makes it not revelation, but an interesting cultural period-piece human artifact.

Regarding the withering of the fig tree, we need to distinguish between what Matthew actually says and what a reader imagines. It's natural for readers to form mental images of what they read. And I think that's a good practice.

So a reader might visualize the fig tree shriveling up right before the disciples' eyes in a matter of moments. That, however, is not what Matthew says. We need to differentiate how we picture the event from how Matthew depicts the event. Matthew's description is much vaguer.

Tony --- that's an interesting attempt at harmonization. Like me, you realize that events in life are in 3d and not some flat, compressed 2d fully-linear sense.

(More generally now to anybody else:)

The good thing about being a card-carrying evidentalist with his own reserved parking spot at the Evidentalist Club hq is that, even were I not some sort of "inerrantist", I could not discard this account (Jairus) in good intellectual conscience. There are multiple testimonies to at least the big points: a man named Jesus performs the sort of healing that would be attributed to a higher power, perhaps even God. But then we look at all these other accounts of this Jesus raising the lame, healing the sick, casting out demons, and look to his claims that he will rise again on the third day, and lo and behold, he does. This tells me that this Jesus is worth taking with utmost seriousness. Even though I don't have his exact words, I see that he speaks for God. He speaks as if he is God. He appropriates attributes and abilities (such as the ability to forgive sin) to which God claims exclusive ownership. He does not demur when people view him as claiming to be God. (He doesn't correct the Jews nor does he correct St Thomas, for example.) Then I realize that Jesus is (in some meaningful way) God, and He clearly then tells me to believe in Him, and I shall be saved. Since I have this grinding sense of my own doom and worthlessness before God, this gets my attention. These are (as I see them) very clear teachings of this Jesus fellow that can't be relativized or obscured away. I thus (regardless of historical discrepancies (which may or may not exist although I've never found apodictic proof that there are errors)) realize that I need to take Jesus' claims very seriously. Then I find out that those people who were in an actual position to know if Jesus was truly the real deal or some head case or charlatan willingly led hard, difficult, painful lives, many ending up dying gruesome deaths. Saul's conversion and subsequent life and ministry is more evidence for me. Then I consider that the early church grew from a small room of men scared witless and survived the eternal Roman Empire. This is a pretty good case that yes, Jesus is who He claimed Himself to be. None of this depends on my views on inerrancy. None of this is affected by the existence of some minor chronological discrepancies (if in fact they are truly contradictions) or minor differences in detail (if in fact these details can't be harmonized).

The passage in question in this post, namely the resurrection of the saints and their appearance, does vex me, and I'm a rootin'-tootin'-shootin' supernaturalist with a well-thumped Bible. I can see how this purported account scandalizes others and engenders derision among skeptics. The passage makes little sense to me beyond its literal meaning. Psychologically, I would love to have a plausible solution to what this passage means. It could simply just mean that, in reality, people did really rise from the dead and make appearances, and that's that. For whatever reason, that tugs on my own credulity slightly. It's rather special pleading for me to say this given that I have no such similar feeling with regards to Jesus' other miracles, especially His resurrection. For me and my sense of wanting neat dotted-i-crossed-t answers, I would love for Dr Licona's solution to in fact be true. But it strikes me as simply "too good to be true" and too expedient. (I do not offer this as a scholarly rebuttal to Dr Licona.) The bottom line for me is this: I don't see anything in the text by which I can treat this passage any differently than the ones immediately preceding and following it. I just don't. I am open to Dr Licona's being right and my being wrong --- I would view that a satisfactory denouement. Right now, with all due respect to Dr Licona, this solution doesn't seem plausible. It seems that St Matthew is reporting that, in reality, people rose from their graves and went into Jerusalem --- this really happened in spacetime on our little ball of mud orbiting an insignificant star on the outer arm of our insignificant little galaxy. Right now, this is a difficulty I just have to accept. If Dr Licona is correct, there is one less difficulty for my quest of total understanding.

Time will tell if Dr Licona's claim stands up to study and review. So far it looks like Lydia has raised a substantial objection to it. Hopefully, this debate will continue (I say this completely selfishly as a student of these sorts of problems).

I think what is striking you, Joe L., about the raising of the saints (or part of it) is the absence of detail. There is a striking contrast there with the account of, say, the feeding of the five thousand, which is told in all four gospels with meticulous, interlocking detail.

Or contrast with the account in John of the raising of Lazarus.

I'm quite sure that Matthew means to say that this really happened--that other people were raised at the time Jesus' death. (Or possibly, though I haven't investigated the Greek, that the graves were opened at the time of the crucifixion and that they actually arose from the dead at the time of the resurrection.) However, I don't think Matthew has much information about it. I think he's reporting it at secondhand or third hand. This (in my opinion) is what gives the passage its brevity and its "flat" sound. From a sheerly historical perspective, aside from any considerations of inerrancy or of commitment to the truth of what is affirmed, this of course makes the incident less well-attested. But it seems to me that there is no good reason to say that Matthew isn't affirming that it happened.

I note that the rending of the veil of the Temple is reported in much the same way and would have had to come to Matthew from some other source (obviously he wouldn't have been in the Temple at the time looking at the veil).

"I think as time goes on it will turn out that some who may not claim the label of inerrancy actually have a higher view of Scripture and a greater resistance to treating this or that as "literary embellishment" than some who claim the label. In that sense, the label is losing its effectiveness as a stand-in for orthodoxy and for a high view of the authority and perspicuity of Scripture."

It's the same sort of language game we see people playing with social issues, like Democrats who claim to be "pro-life personally" and yet support every abortion policy the left can conjure up. People want the benefits of being labeled 'x' while also having the benefits of '~x'.

Now that you mention the lack or absence of detail, Lydia, I believe you've diagnosed correctly why I (and likely others) have issues with this passage even if we do not have issues with supernatural events and miracles elsewhere in the gospels. This is one of those "obvious" things I should've seen but in the end required somebody else pointing out to me. For such a seemingly-spectacular miracle, it is relayed with no details. (If St Matthew were a Seinfeld fan, I could see him putting "yada yada yada" at the end of 27:53.) Then immediately afterwards, the details resume.

I agree that St Matthew presents this stuff as having really happened. The head-scratching over the centuries by Christians great and not-so-great shows that they too view Matthew as saying this stuff happened as well.

Finally, good point about the rending of the curtain. That's actually something to which I haven't given much thought, but it appears to be in the same class as the passage in question for your post. Thanks for your responses. These issues fascinate me, even if my orthodoxy no longer hinges solely on getting these discrepancies correct. (But in the end I think that, if we could witness the events in totality, we'd be able to say the evangelists got them down correctly in their own idiom.)

Nick, I'm not going to respond to everything you say (such as your odd contention that I shouldn't have used the phrase "shook up the evangelical world" in my lead-in and your attempt to tell people whether there should be a controversy or not over something a scholar writes).

I'll get right to this:

I think a key issue here is did the audience also know that this was happening? Mike's contention is that the audience would have recognized these literary devices.

No. I disagree. If Mike _does_ contend this (and I saw nowhere in the hour-long lecture where he did so), he has given us _no possible way_ that the original audience could have looked at *John's* Gospel (as opposed to Mark's) and said, "Ah, I see, there is a literary device in John's gospel of displacement, so if we really want to know on what day Jesus' feet were anointed before his passion, we should read Mark instead." *Very much to the contrary*. Mike says again and again and again that the authors are moving things and putting things on different days and in different people's mouths. He gives no way by which the original audience would have known which of Plutarch's versions was a displacement or compression or not, either. In some cases he himself decides which was which based on what some other ancient historian wrote! He does _not_ assert any mark in the text, some sort of secret hint or clue, by which the original audience would have "recognized these literary devices" that he is discussing in this lecture. He does _not_ assert that the authors were careful to insert such marks. The entire emphasis is to the contrary. Indeed, the very use he makes of the concept of "editorial fatigue" is to the contrary. The idea is that Luke deliberately placed some words of Jesus in a different context and intended to "clean up" the text to _erase_ any signs of the original context (the phrase "these little ones") but forgot, got tired, or didn't get around to it.

This gets to what I see online with skeptics who want to argue against what the text "clearly" says." When we speak this way, we speak of how it looks to us. We can easily forget how it looks to an ancient person in their society. Would they see the "plain meaning" of the text?

Now I have no problem with undesigned coincidences and see no reason why both cannot be employed, but I do hesitate when we speak of the way ordinary people talk and about taking a text at face value. Are we not still too much reading this as if it was a book written to a 21st century Western audience?

Sure, skeptics do that kind of thing a lot in order to create contradictions where none exist, etc. But that _doesn't mean_ and it _cannot mean_ that there is no such thing as the apparent meaning of the text. Otherwise we can't get anything out of the text. If the text is just infinitely malleable so that we can deny that it even *appears* to mean anything that would create a difficulty, then we're being massively ad hoc and undermining our own ability to learn anything from the Bible.

Now as for compression, I have no real problem here with compression. In fact, this could get us to fall into the trap of skeptics. After all, how many times have you heard the thing about Luke not knowing when the ascension took place. In Luke, it seems to happen immediately. In Acts, it's after 40 days. This is compression. This should show us that this took place and if we are going to judge an ancient work, we should judge it by the standards of the time and not by our standards.

Nick, if you read my post, I addressed that _explicitly_, so it's a little frustrating to have to repeat myself. There is a huge difference, an important difference, between _leaving stuff out_ on the one hand and _saying_ that something happened right away on the other hand.

Now, it's entirely possible that Luke didn't know about the 40 days when he wrote the gospel and found out before he wrote Acts. That could explain all that he leaves out in Luke and could explain his strong emphasis on the 40 days during which Jesus revealed himself to his disciples in Acts 1. Reasonable people can differ on this sort of thing.

But the fact remains that what Mike is talking about is a person who _knew_ that the event took longer and _deliberately changed_ the account, having people say things they didn't really say (which he knew they didn't really say) and so forth in order to shorten the account. That is _not_ benign compression.

Suppose, for example, that the Greek word for "immediately" used for the fig tree would have had the same implication of "right that minute" that the English word would. That may not be the case. Maybe one harmonization there is that the Greek word had a wider range of meanings that could have included the next day, that it merely meant "quickly" or "soon." But just suppose that it would really have meant to the audience "that very minute." In that case, if Matthew _knew_ it didn't wither right that very minute, he is _not_ being a reliable writer if he puts that word in there, and that is _not_ benign compression. Moreover, his audience would _not_ have clues in the text by which to recognize such a so-called "literary device."

As for the coming of James and John, what's wrong with Mike's approach? We have seen this elsewhere before. Who came and spoke to Jesus? Was it the centurion or his servants? One account says one thing. Another says another. Why not think the servants came on behalf of the centurion?

I have answered that point at length in the post. Nick, I almost get the feeling that you didn't read the post. You don't seem to be engaging with the detailed arguments I give there. In fact, you don't seem to be understanding the distinctions I am making.

And these are good questions worthy of discussion, so how about this? Mike's written a book on this that's due out in the fall. How about we read it and see his case and then critique the case then when we have a much fuller case. A presentation unfortunately cannot give the whole picture as you can't put all the footnotes in you want and everything.

If Mike wants to say that everything I've said is fully and satisfactorily answered in the book, he's welcome to say that. And if I find it so, I will say so. But I have serious doubts that it will be so, and I certainly do _not_ concur with any implication that one is ethically bound not to criticize an *hour-long lecture* that is publicly available just because, months later, the scholar who gives the lecture is planning to come out with a book on the same topic!

I have to say, though, Nick, that if your response to my careful discussion here is any indication, I could read Mike's book word for word, explain at great length why it doesn't answer my concerns, and it seems not implausible that you would show no signs of even getting why I don't think so. That has happened so far. You can perhaps therefore understand why I'm not terribly inclined to put hours and hours of time into giving such an explanation when the book comes out.

First, I hope I can get you to admit that it's just a little bit misleading to describe what Licona is doing as "fictionalizing". He is claiming that the Gospels are no less historical than the bioi of Plutarch. And what is his opinion of the bioi of Plutarch? Does he hold some kind of radical skeptical view of them, that they are more like works of fiction, pretty much historically unreliable? Well, no. He views Plutarch the same way most classicists do, as a reliable historical source, at least for the period of the late republic. The greatest deviation from historicity that he mentions is the displacement of Caesar's baring his neck, and when he describes it he emphasizes that it's an actual historical event, something Caesar actually did, although not in the context in which Plutarch puts it in the Life of Anthony.

If we take Plutarch to be claiming that the event happened in just that very context, we will think he is unreliable, but that would be our fault, not his.

Before watching the lecture, I expected I would give qualified agreement to your complaint about his mocking harmonization. But once I watched the lecture, I felt your complaint was baseless, because he simply does not mock _all_ harmonization. All he does is mention a few silly harmonizations and mocks _them_. You can't accuse him of attacking a straw-man, because there are lots and lots of folks engaged in very silly harmonizations and their stuff deserves to be mocked. You might think he should have mentioned the possibility of more reasonable harmonizations, but he's not obliged to give a survey of other people's ways of handling apparent contradictions. He's giving his way. He contrasts it with one common alternative (silly harmonizing). He has committed no foul.

Disdaining harmonization inflates the number of places where the gospels are actually saying something (in the ordinary sense of "saying something") that is false. Relabeling these false statements as "literary devices" doesn't change the fact that, by abandoning even modest harmonization, you just blew up to much higher levels than necessary the number of places in the Gospels where what the text is to all appearances saying just isn't what really happened.
"saying something (in the ordinary sense of "saying something") that is false" is tendentious. Imagine someone who thought the accounts of discourse in the Gospels were always verbatim. Upon seeing verbally different versions of a discourse in different Gospels, such a person would insist on a harmonization that preserved the exact wording as something the speaker actually said. Now I know you will agree that this kind of harmonizing, even if it can be done in a way that is not silly, is unnecessary. We understand that "quotations" in the gospels are not necessarily presenting themselves as verbatim accurate (though they may be so in some cases). But suppose someone were to look at the beatitudes in Luke 6:20-23 as compared with Matthew 5, and insist on preserving Luke's "claim" that Jesus spoke them in the second person and Matthew's "claim" that Jesus spoke them in the third person. It's certainly possible that Jesus spoke them at different occasions in both ways. That's not an absurd suggestion. But for someone to insist that that (or some other harmonization that preserved both "claims") is necessary would be overreading Matthew and Luke.

Perhaps he'll respond, "But Luke _says_ that Jesus said 'Blessed are you', and if Jesus _really_ said 'Blessed are they' then Luke is saying something (in the ordinary sense of "saying something") false."

Well, no. It's only in a pedantic sense, not the ordinary sense, that he is "saying something false." To read Luke as claiming to record Jesus' words verbatim is to overread him. If Luke had said "Jesus said something to the effect of 'Blessed are you ...'," our imagined interlocutor would have no complaint, "but," he will say, "Luke doesn't say that. Luke says Jesus said 'Blessed are you'."

What can we say to this except that there is a standing convention that when you report someone's speech it is understood that you aren't necessarily reporting their exact words, even if you say "he said, ...". The convention does the work of the "something to the effect of" so that that those words don't need to be there explicitly.

But conventions aren't the same in all cultures. If Licona is right, there was a convention in the ancient world that events related in a bios aren't necessarily being claimed to occur in the precise manner in which they are related. They are real events, but may be subject to displacement, compression, etc.

(I think you misunderstood Nick Peters's point when he said, "Mike's contention is that the audience would have recognized these literary devices." I don't think he means that Licona is claiming that the audience could always tell exactly which places these devices were being employed. Rather, I think the claim is that the audience expected these devices to be employed here and there, so they wouldn't usually assume that events are claimed to occur in just they way they are told. Just as we can't always tell when someone is being quoted verbatim and when their words are being paraphrased, yet because of the convention, we understand that a paraphrase _may_ be present even if it isn't announced as such, ancient audiences understood that displacement and compression etc. _may_ be present even if they aren't announced.)

To your point (2)

Adopting the idea that the evangelists were knowingly changing things all over the place does not eliminate the possibility of actual errors of memory or mistakes in understanding (e.g., Luke's understanding of what was being claimed by one of his sources). It merely brings in an additional source of unreliability.
I think the word "unreliable" is misleading. But you are right that, on Licona's view, the number of places where we cannot rely on the notion that the way the text tells it corresponds to the way the events occurred is increased. Since we can't tell which details are subject to alteration by one of these literary devices, _any_ detail could be subject to such alteration. So we can't rely on any.

But the same sort of argument could be made by the fellow who thinks every discourse is verbatim: since we can't generally tell which individual words are changed in any discourse, we can't rely on any of them.

And he's right: absent special considerations, there is no individual word x such that we can be sure that the speaker used exactly that word. But we can nevertheless be confident that the gist of the discourse is a faithful description of what was said, and a great many of the individual words are likely to be ones actually used by the speaker (allowing for translation); although we can't necessarily tell which ones.

In the same way the fact that any event-detail, absent special considerations, could be subject to change does not undermine our confidence that the over-all picture of events is historically accurate. That's certainly true of Plutarch and it's also true of the Gospels on Licona's view. Moreover, very many (it could easily be most) of the details did occur just as described; although we can't necessarily always tell which ones.

And in some places where there seem to be discrepancies between Gospels, it may well be that the details in both gospels are accurate, and the discrepancy is merely apparent and would be resolved by a harmonization. But on Licona's view, this is not _necessary_, just as it's not necessary to say Matthew 5 and Luke 6 both describe verbatim sayings of Jesus, even though it's entirely possible that they both do: Jesus might have said the same thing in two different ways. Probably somewhere in the Gospels something like that has happened: there's what seems to be a difference in two reports of Jesus' words, when both accounts happen to be word-for-word accurate memorized-and-very-literally-translated sayings of Jesus. But we don't and shouldn't feel the _need_ to harmonize this difference; we don't feel it to be a problem in the first place, because we know the convention that neither account is claiming to be verbatim (even if it happens to be so). The absence of that claim means that a "discrepancy" between the wordings won't be felt as a problem needing harmonization.

this approach runs in precisely the wrong direction, because it presents the Gospels to us as highly "massaged," literary documents in their relationship to the truth, not as honest memoirs just trying to tell it like it happened
The Gospels are not modern-day memoirs. They are Greco-Roman bioi. We have evidence on the table that Greco-Roman bioi _did_ allow latitude in matters of detail. But Licona is not presenting the Gospels as reporting events in a _radically_ different way from how they occurred. Just in a slightly different way, just as Plutarch does; i.e., still quite close to the events, and in many places just as close as you yourself could wish (which is why we find undesigned coincidences) but not necessarily in all places.
The two are not the same thing; in fact, they are incompatible. The latter involves the intention to give the impression that the centurion actually spoke to Jesus personally. The former involves no such intention but a mere use of figurative or imprecise language.
Giving the impression that such-and-such happened is not the same as definitely asserting that such-and-such happened. In the case of Matthew's account of Jairus statement that his daughter was dead, it seem very clear that the account does give the impression that he knew her to be dead. An ancient reader who, for some reason, was inclined to get pedantically analytical about such things, could say: "It's a definite fact that Matthew's account gives that impression; Matthew definitely knew it would give that impression and readers are definitely correct to take that impression from the text, but it would be wrong to treat this impression as more than an impression. It would be wrong to say that Matthew asserts that the event happened in just that way.

This is because the nature of story-telling is such that a narrative paints a kind of picture in the mind of the reader, and this pictorial aspect of the discourse is essential to the way human understanding of narratives works. So an author who wants to genuinely communicate in narrative form must intend not only a minimal set of assertions, but a larger picture to be formed in the mind of the reader. But humans are not usually in a position to paint such a picture with photographic accuracy, and we all understand that about each other. So, when we hear someone tell a story that paints the events in a certain way, we don't assume that the speaker is claiming each brush-stroke corresponds exactly to the events as they happened. The speaker isn't in a position to claim such things, and we know that, and he knows that we know that, and so if we're reasonable we won't take him to be claiming such things.

So the devices that Licona describes could be used "knowingly" to paint a picture that is not accurate at certain points, where the author's intention is _only_ to "give an impression," and _not_ to make a historical claim.

And there is nothing "dishonest" about this if the author is writing in a context where he can be confident his audience expects such things to be done and will not take him to be saying more about historical events than he intends.

So I don't think you can rule out Licona's approach a priori. You also argue a posteriori from the way John says things like that Jesus himself didn't baptize, only his disciples did. I accept that, methodologically, as a legitimate way to argue that the gospels actually do claim more historicity than Licona's approach allows. I'm not ultimately convinced because (1) it's not terribly improbable that John had a reason in that particular case to clarify that it wasn't Jesus himself that was baptizing, a special reason other than a general attitude of wanting to avoid giving an impression that didn't correspond to how things actually happened; and (2) all of the evidence from the way the Gospels differ with each other, together with the arguments from how other ancient writers behaved, add up to a strong argument (it seems to me) that the gospel writers did view themselves as at liberty to depart from exact historicity in the details. But I do recognize your way of arguing in this case as providing real evidence for your position. (In fact, I think it's correct to note that the Gospels are more "artless" than Plutarch, and we should thus expect _less frequent_ use of these literary devices in them.)

But let this a posteriori case be as strong as you please, it does not provide a reason to treat Licona's position as a retreat from orthodoxy.

First, I hope I can get you to admit that it's just a little bit misleading to describe what Licona is doing as "fictionalizing".

I do not retreat in the slightest from saying that what he is saying is that the gospel writers fictionalized. Adding the entirety of the saints coming out of their graves (when one knows it didn't happen), explicitly _stating_ that Jesus' foot anointing occurred on a _different day_ from the day on which it occurred. This sort of thing is what I mean by "fictionalizing."


He is claiming that the Gospels are no less historical than the bioi of Plutarch. And what is his opinion of the bioi of Plutarch? Does he hold some kind of radical skeptical view of them, that they are more like works of fiction, pretty much historically unreliable? Well, no. He views Plutarch the same way most classicists do, as a reliable historical source, at least for the period of the late republic.

Not reliable (according to Licona's view--I have not researched it to see if his presentation of Plutarch is correct) concerning details such as when a certain law was passed or when Caesar bared his neck. One must conjecture which of these is correct. In fact, in one case the only way that Licona decides which of Plutarch's allegedly contradictory accounts of an incident is right is by comparing it to Dio Cassio and one or two other historians. If they weren't around, we might have to flip a coin, I gather.

I consider that if Plutarch is taking the kind of liberties that Licona attributes to him, this is far too unreliable for what we need in the case of the gospels.

For example, if John knowingly shifted Jesus' cleansing of the Temple by three years to the beginning of his ministry (which would seem to be precisely the sort of thing Licona means by "displacement") and no such cleansing took place then, that is a _serious_ failure of historical reliability, and frankly, if you or Licona or anybody else defines "reliability" differently, you can just have your concept, and I'll stick with mine.


If we take Plutarch to be claiming that the event happened in just that very context, we will think he is unreliable, but that would be our fault, not his.

Nonsense and balderdash. It's not as though Plutarch puts glow-in-the-dark ink footnotes and a note telling us to expose is to UV light or something to figure out that this wasn't really what happened. There is, as Licona portrays it, no clue in the text whatsoever to say that this account has been massaged at that point.

All he does is mention a few silly harmonizations and mocks _them_. You can't accuse him of attacking a straw-man, because there are lots and lots of folks engaged in very silly harmonizations and their stuff deserves to be mocked. You might think he should have mentioned the possibility of more reasonable harmonizations, but he's not obliged to give a survey of other people's ways of handling apparent contradictions. He's giving his way. He contrasts it with one common alternative (silly harmonizing).

I tell you what, Christopher. You come up with incidents in which enough people give the "harmonization" Licona gives on that passage to show me that it is "common," and I'll put an update to the post to that effect.

You won't find that to be the case.

There are far more reasonable harmonizations readily available and far more commonly given. Go ahead and Google "Jairus contradiction," and you will see that the hits you get either give more reasonable harmonizations or take something similar to Licona's own position. I finally, after clicking through several hits, found one that _claimed_ that Jesus is said by some inerrantists or other to have raised Jairus's daughter twice, with a footnote, but the author was not taking this seriously himself. Nor could I get hold of the page of the book footnoted to see whether _that_ author was actually taking it seriously or whether that author himself was merely reporting it as something he disagreed with. In other words, this does _not_ appear to be a currently common response _at all_.

You know as well as I do that it does count as a kind of straw-manning to pick the most ludicrous type of example of something, to give that as your _only_ example, and to make fun of it when far more reasonable examples are available.

I myself do not find "silly harmonizing" to be common even among extremely conservative contemporary scholars. (Do you find the arch-inerrantist Norman Geisler saying that Jesus raised Jairus's daughter twice and healed the woman with the issue of blood twice? Nope.) Merely to say that some silly harmonizations exist somewhere does not change the fact that Licona's presentation to his audience gave them, the people in the pew, the strong implication that silly harmonization was the only alternative to his own approach.

Moreover, I don't know of anywhere that Licona has anything good to say about harmonizing, anywhere that he says that he's in favor of it or that he uses it in a moderate form. Look at the above commentator's comment about "hermeneutical waterboarding."

In the same way the fact that any event-detail, absent special considerations, could be subject to change does not undermine our confidence that the over-all picture of events is historically accurate.

Only if you have a very different notion of "overall picture" than mine. I do _not_ grant that the overall picture of events is historically accurate if the gospel writers were swapping events around as Licona says. (Remember, it is also his position that John changed the day of Jesus' crucifixion, which is a pretty darned important part of the picture of events.)

The speaker isn't in a position to claim such things, and we know that, and he knows that we know that, and so if we're reasonable we won't take him to be claiming such things.

If Matthew goes out of his way to say that the fig tree withered immediately (and if the Greek word for "immediately" would have meant "that very moment"), if John goes out of his way to say that Jesus' foot anointing took place on the day before the triumphal entry, then we most certainly will take them to be claiming such things if we are reasonable. Indeed, no one would think anything different if we didn't _happen_ to have a different account of the same event that, by the *very same standards of interpretation* appears to be saying something different about those very points!

And there is nothing "dishonest" about this if the author is writing in a context where he can be confident his audience expects such things to be done and will not take him to be saying more about historical events than he intends.

Again, the original audience would have had no way of knowing that a time indication wasn't there for a reason, that it was added as a fictionalizing detail when the author knew to the contrary (or that a name was put in when it was really a different person, etc.). And if they did think that the gospel authors took such liberties, then I would say that they had reason to believe the gospels to be unreliable! And I do not have any reason to think that is the case.

The gospels are _filled_ with unnecessary details. See my point 4. Here is just one example among innumerable ones I could give: This is John 1:35-39

The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour.

Here John gives several details in the space of just a few verses. First, he says that John pointed Jesus out on the "next day" after the statements made by John in the preceding verse. Next, he says that John was standing with two of his disciples when he said that Jesus was the Lamb of God. Next, he says that the two disciples of John the Baptist followed Jesus. Next, he says that they came with him to where he was staying, and that they stayed with him for the rest of the day, because it was about the tenth hour (the interpretation of which would require us to decide what time-indication system John is using) when they arrived.

Now, if we take the approach Licona is suggesting, *every single one of these* could be simply *made up* out of whole cloth.

Simply waving around a comparison to Plutarch, waving around the phrase "Roman bioi," and making certain statements about the degree to which Plutarch and other such authors *made stuff up* is, in my opinion, a ludicrously insufficient argument for concluding that John's readers would have believed that, for all they knew, John might have been making up all these details, and that they didn't care.

But if one does conclude that, then one is concluding that

a) John is quite unreliable, as I think many reasonable people would use the word,
b) such details are (somehow) unimportant to the historicity of the gospels,
c) John's use of such details is not an indication of verisimilitudinous reportage on his part,
d) John's readers didn't care about any of this.

I submit that those are radical and problematic conclusions from both an historical and a religious perspective. They are also just foolish as a response to the way that John (and the other evangelists) actually write, including in this passage.

As far as whether Licona's approach is or isn't a retreat from orthodoxy, I'm much more concerned about its impact upon apologetics and upon our _accurate_ understanding of the historical reliability of the gospels. Let others decide whether he's unorthodox or not. My opinion on that is much less important than my opinion that he's undermining the way we _ought_ to view the gospels as an important matter of *getting it right*. That getting it right on the nature and extent of the gospels' historical reliability has some relevance to the strength of the case for the Christian faith should hardly come as a surprise.

By the way, the example of John's "moving" the temple cleansing is a real one from Licona's earlier book, The Resurrection of Jesus, p. 594, footnote 440. Licona also states in another footnote that in Luke's gospel all of the events including the ascension take place _on Easter_, which he calls "telescoping" and takes to be a deliberate alteration of what Luke knew to be the real events (though different from Luke's treatment in Acts). P. 596, footnote 449.

Let me say *for the record* that if *this* is one's idea of "keeping the gist of what happened," then that is such an incredibly broad meaning of "the gist" as to have *serious* apologetic implications. As Luke himself shows an understanding of in Acts 1, saying that Jesus was with his disciples for forty days and showed himself to them by "many infallible proofs" gives a lot more evidence that it was really he and that he was really risen then putting all of these events into one day. In fact, Luke does not (in Luke) say that the events all happened on Easter, so Licona is (in a style disturbingly reminiscent of Bart Ehrman, but perhaps only borrowed from the cavalier manner of speaking of "mainstream" NT critics) attributing something to Luke that is not stated in the text. However, I'm quite open to believing that Luke _learned_ about the forty days in between writing the gospel and writing the Acts, and that this is why he is so careful to emphasize the forty days in Acts. Luke as we know him as an historian would _never_ have deliberately tried to "put" all of the events on Easter if he knew the matter to be otherwise, and I think it's extremely important not to assert that he did any such thing.

Doing so undermines our confidence in Luke as an historian on whom we can rely, and I really couldn't care less if somebody tells me that Plutarch would have done it (whether that is true or not). Moreover, it undermines our confidence in Luke's carefulness _precisely_ at a point relevant to the _evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ_. If you're happy with that because you think it's the "same gist," then your sense of "the gist" is far too thin to underwrite a robust historical apologetics.

On the other hand, if one is going to claim the inerrantist label, one shouldn't be trying continually to stretch that label to accommodate...well...things like saying that the authors of manifestly historical-genre texts like the Gospels made up whole incidents or deliberately changed what they say happened for literary reasons. In fact, as I'll be discussing below, I think that that view is actually much worse for one's view of the reliability and clarity of Scripture than if one held that there are some small errors caused by faults of memory, etc.

But doesn't Licona presuppose that we should only consider the Gospels (or some other biblical text) to be in error relative to the historiographic expectations of the original context in which those works were produced? If that's right, and if Licona's argument to the effect that usage of the relevant literary devices was considered an acceptable historiographic practice by the original producers and consumers of this literature is, indeed, sound, then it follows that any alleged contradictions that can be explained in terms of one (or more) of these literary devices is not necessarily an error in the sense relevant to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy -- even if it is an error in the ordinary sense of how we use that word!

For example, most people would not consider the OT's usage of large round numbers in recording the number of people killed in some battle, say, even though such numbers are frequently used in an unqualified sense without the caveat that they are only approximations, since most people naturally understand that it was an acceptable historiographic practice to report such numbers with the implicit understanding that these are only approximations. On its face, the reporting of such numbers without the appropriate qualification that they are only approximations is, strictly speaking, false, but not in a way that's relevant to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

Hence, Licona's real point, I think, is that many of these alleged contradictions are only a problem for us because we have much more stringent historiographic expectations than the original producers/consumers of the Gospels. Once we adjust these expectations in the appropriate manner, then many (if not all) of these alleged contradictions are not necessarily problems in the first place.

Having said all this, I don't think it's a good idea for defenders of biblical inerrancy to deviate too much from the usual sense of what is meant by the term error. If this approach is taken too far, then one might as well reject this doctrine and find some other way to talk about how the Bible functions as an instrument of divine revelation, in my opinion.

But doesn't Licona presuppose that we should only consider the Gospels (or some other biblical text) to be in error relative to the historiographic expectations of the original context in which those works were produced?

That is obviously his idea. But if what that ends up meaning is that John changed the date of the crucifixion, Matthew added the incident of the saints' rising, John put the temple cleansing at the beginning of Jesus' ministry (though he knew it didn't happen then), and so forth, then I would contend that nobody who uses the term "inerrancy" means _that_ by it and that claiming the label for oneself if that's what one means is misleading in all the relevant contexts.

Yeah, I realize that Licona and friends are going to say that this means that all the inerrantists who don't include that under their umbrella of "inerrancy" are just overly uptight and should loosen up as, *they claim*, the evangelists' original audience would have been cool with it.

But

a) I do not think Licona has presented *anything like* a strong argument that the original audience would have been fine with that level of changing things around and making things up, and

b) whether they were or not, such a degree of fictionalization on the part of the evangelists would seriously undermine their reliability in an *important sense* relevant to matters such as apologetics and reliability, even though Licona claims that it wasn't a sense the original audience cared about. (See my last two comments.)

Point a means that inerrantists needn't concede Licona's argument. Point b means that both inerrantists *and* non-inerrantists who care about the gospels' historical reliability have reason to find his views cause for concern.

In other words, you can't get away from the problem just by *redefining* "error" or "reliability." That just pushes the question back to whether and why we should or shouldn't care about the sense of "error" and "reliability" that we were using before!

But humans are not usually in a position to paint such a picture with photographic accuracy, and we all understand that about each other. So, when we hear someone tell a story that paints the events in a certain way, we don't assume that the speaker is claiming each brush-stroke corresponds exactly to the events as they happened. The speaker isn't in a position to claim such things, and we know that, and he knows that we know that, and so if we're reasonable we won't take him to be claiming such things.
(2) all of the evidence from the way the Gospels differ with each other, together with the arguments from how other ancient writers behaved, add up to a strong argument (it seems to me) that the gospel writers did view themselves as at liberty to depart from exact historicity in the details.

Christopher, I am really puzzling over your thesis here. On the one hand, having told many a story in my time, I admit freely that when the event gets weeks and months and years away, I can't reliably call up details as "photographically accurate", and in order to make the story flow I will sometimes deposit details that are merely consistent with what I actually remember, and are not themselves ACTUALLY remembered. (This is not to be confused with merely not telling every detail that I remember, whether that is done artfully or by sheer accident). I happen to care a lot about being truthful, more so than some of my compatriots, so I am also relatively likely to preface the story, or to interject, with comments like "I may not have every detail right, but it was something like this". (Unless I am telling a tall tale, and then of course I don't do that, instead I preface the story with the "tall tale" markers, like "back when I was a boy, there weren't none of them fancy...") I think we can grant that in many times and cultures, it may have been unnecessary to give over those qualifiers like "I may not have every detail right..." and just tell the story, people readily credit that you might not recall every detail, and they don't expect your words to match up with photographic accuracy, so some of your details might be off.

Other than telling tall tales, (and other than outright trying to deceive my hearers with intentional lies), though, what I DON'T do is deposit into the story details that I am quite positive depart from photographic accuracy, because I remember the details differently. I don't feel that I am free to take a basic story-line and make up new details out of whole cloth, or to add elements, or to knowingly re-arrange the sequence, in order to achieve an effect I am aiming for, some effect that won't be successful if I stick to the details and tell the story exactly the way I know it happened. (And, again, this has nothing to do with artfully not telling parts of the story I know are there.)

However, you are positing, I think, that in ancient times historians DID NOT feel that way, they felt free to modify the internal events and details, to get rid of facts that they knew were facts and to add "facts" that they knew were UNLIKE facts that were true in the "photographically accurate" sense, in order to convey something else that they wanted to convey. And that this applied broadly, even to respected writers like Plutarch and Thucydides. And, more, that this is to be considered not a defect, i.e. not damaging to their reliability or to our trust in them as historians.

Whether this is correct or not about historians in general, I am just not convinced that either one of these kinds of behaviors is what we want to ascribe to the Gospel writers - either the "fill in the blanks with details having similitude to details I can't quite remember", or the "flush out the story with stuff that suits my objective even when it departs from (contradicts) what I remember happening".

The standard (inerrant) Catholic notion of inspiration includes within it that God so inspired the writers with protection of truth that when they thought they remembered an event as X happened before Y, their remembrance was protected from error so far as writing what they experienced, that they remembered X happened before Y because that's how they experienced it. So that there would never be a mis-match between their memory of what they saw and heard, and what they actually saw and heard happen at the time: their memories did not play them false compared to their actual experience. So, (on this account) if they wrote down a detail to a story because that's the way THEY remember it, then that's the way THEY experienced it at the time, too. And if they needed to remember a detail because they thought it significant to include in the story, then they would actually remember it, there would be no need to "generate" filler. Consequently, there would be no "fill in the blank" falling off from photographic accuracy due to memory deficiency.

The other sort of variance from photographic accuracy perhaps is a more subtle issue, but please bear with me. From the Old Testament, with many of the patriarchs and prophets being a "type" of Christ (or Mary), we must say that God, in his transcendent omnipotence, writes a "story" by calling forth actions and events in the lives of individuals and whole nations. God "predicts" the Messiah by "writing" a story with the very lives of Joseph (went down to Egypt, etc), Moses, Jeremiah, etc. God does not have to employ fiction to bear and pronounce his esoteric messages, He can employ REAL true stories to do so.

But this has implications for writers of the Bible, especially of the Gospels. If Mark, for example, decided he wanted to convey some feeling or some underlying truth by the story of Jairus, which feeling or truth he could not force into the story the way it happened as he remembered it, (but he could force into a very similar story with just a few twists or modifications), he could NEVER BE SURE that by telling his own story the way he wanted to tell it, he wasn't defeating the EXACT message that GOD was trying to convey with the story the way it ACTUALLY happened. For, God writes His story by actual events the way they actually pan out. Or, just as likely, even if Mark were confident that by telling his own version of the "story" he is not defeating the PRIMARY point God had in creating the event to begin with, he could never be sure that he wasn't defeating the 2nd, 3rd, 20th, and 500th "meanings" or layers of meaning behind the story that was inherent in the way God wrote it. Or, the 200 ways that (unvarnished) story might in the long run tie in with a passage from Matthew, a passage from Isaiah, a passage from Second Kings, a truth from Genesis, a Proverb, etc, in some amazing round-about way. Or some unintended coincidence that corroborates or explains something elsewhere in the Bible in that way that TRUTH has of its own nature but FICTION cannot possibly have.

But for a man to start down the path of varnishing a story to make a point is nothing other than for him to say “the facts as I understand them are insufficient for conveying the truth that ought to be conveyed”, which is to deny that God is capable of writing His-story to convey the truth that ought to be conveyed. It would be an enormous act of pride, really, for a writer to supplant God’s version of “truth” with his own, and assume that his own version “tells it better”. This kind of pride cannot be found in an evangelist inspired by the very same Holy Spirit who caused the events which are to be described.

I do not claim that it would be impossible for a Gospel writer to write fiction, that it would be impossible for God to inspire fiction. I suggest, rather, that this is impossible for a Gospel writer who purports to be presenting prosaic factual accounts. That is, if part of his account consists in the unvarnished facts as he remembers them, and this is what he intends for us to receive and understand from him in those passages, then it is impossible for him to then have a varnished passage 5 verses later that is not clearly set off as somehow different, as somehow a departure from “just the facts as I remember them” (as, for example, the way Christ sets off the parables as different). For such a writer could not possibly think that he could successfully convey more of the truth, or a more important truth, by using a modified version of "what happened" instead of the way he remembers what happened. So, if a Gospel writer is going to write a “story” (i.e. fiction) nearby to the unvarnished truth, he necessarily is going to set it apart from “the facts” by a way of telling it that says “this is not the sort of passage you credit with historical validity”, just like we do with fairy tales or parables.

And we can be confident that WE, 2000 years after the Gospel writing, haven't just plain muddled which parts are which because of "cultural differences", by the fact that the disciples of the Apostles, men who lived and worked and taught literally side by side with the Apostles, handed on to us their understanding of those passages too.

But doesn't Licona presuppose that we should only consider the Gospels (or some other biblical text) to be in error relative to the historiographic expectations of the original context in which those works were produced?

That is obviously his idea. But if what that ends up meaning is that John changed the date of the crucifixion, Matthew added the incident of the saints' rising, John put the temple cleansing at the beginning of Jesus' ministry (though he knew it didn't happen then), and so forth, then I would contend that nobody who uses the term "inerrancy" means _that_ by it and that claiming the label for oneself if that's what one means is misleading in all the relevant contexts.

Okay, but wouldn't Licona agree with you in saying that very few people understand the doctrine of biblical inerrancy in this way? And this is precisely the reason for his forthcoming book -- that is, to change the way this doctrine is typically understood among regular folk.

a) I do not think Licona has presented *anything like* a strong argument that the original audience would have been fine with that level of changing things around and making things up, and

Perhaps his best arguments will appear in his forthcoming book, though. An hour-long lecture might not be enough time for such arguments.

b) whether they were or not, such a degree of fictionalization on the part of the evangelists would seriously undermine their reliability in an *important sense* relevant to matters such as apologetics and reliability, even though Licona claims that it wasn't a sense the original audience cared about. (See my last two comments.)

Even if everything Licona is saying is true, I don't think it would undermine the argument from undesigned coincidences, or the minimal facts approach to arguing for the historicity of the resurrection. Nor would it undermine the notion that the underlying events narrated in the Gospels are, in the main, historically accurate, even if the precise context in which the Gospel writers placed them isn't always historically accurate. For many people, whether the centurion or his servants spoke to Jesus in the relevant Gospel story is the sort of difference that doesn't make a difference. Sure, people like Geisler will recoil at Licona's new twist on inerrancy, but people like that are always unhappy when a scholar like Licona deviates from the old tyme religion and its sensibilities. It seems to me that you might be making a bigger deal out of this then it really deserves.

All that said, I prefer your approach in saying that, although the Gospels may admit relatively minor errors, they are (for the most part) historically reliable. That seems more straightforward to me then saying that the Gospels are inerrant in only a very qualified/technical sense that most people can't/won't fully appreciate. I don't see the point in claiming the strongly worded label of inerrancy, if that word does not mean what most people take it to mean.

Even if everything Licona is saying is true, I don't think it would undermine the argument from undesigned coincidences,

Yes, if _everything_ he is saying is true, it does. See the argument in the main post. Also the argument from unexplained allusions and verisimilitude through unnecessary detail. See my comments just a little above in the thread.

A major part of the problem here is that Licona puts no principled limits on how far the fictionalizations attributed to the disciples can go or how much of that they can be doing or how we could tell. If you don't think that undermines arguments that are attempting to show that they are the sorts of stories that are told by truthful eyewitnesses, then there's something or other that you aren't understanding about such arguments.

For many people, whether the centurion or his servants spoke to Jesus in the relevant Gospel story is the sort of difference that doesn't make a difference. Sure, people like Geisler will recoil at Licona's new twist on inerrancy, but people like that are always unhappy when a scholar like Licona deviates from the old tyme religion and its sensibilities.

Funny you pick that one. Please note that I myself said (in the main post, at length) that if it was merely a matter of a figure of speech, it wouldn't be a problem and that the problem arises rather from Matthew's supposedly _deliberately trying to give the impression_ that _something happened differently from the way it did happen_. (See words like "brushed out" and "has the centurion go to Jesus directly" and so forth.) Again, see the careful distinctions in the main post.

Why not pick instead the (deliberate) moving of the date of the crucifixion or the allegedly deliberate _three-year_ shift of the cleansing of the temple or the _radical_ telescoping he attributes to Luke (knowingly) of the events after the resurrection or the _totally fabricated_ raising of the saints or the (deliberate) moving of the date of the foot anointing?

Because I can tell you right now that there are those of us out here who cannot be brushed off with a phrase like "old tyme religion," who for crying out loud *don't even call ourselves inerrantists*, who are going to do more than merely recoil at that "new twist on inerrancy"! Because it doesn't just undermine inerrancy. It undermines reliability. Seriously so. That is what I am trying to point out here.

By the way, I think the minimal facts approach itself needs to be beefed up. I think it has been weakened by an unfortunate desire not to have to defend the gospels' historical reliability. I do not argue from a minimal facts approach. See this post and the (I think rather interesting) comments thread:

http://whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2015/02/minimal_facts_are_not_enough.html

Perhaps his best arguments will appear in his forthcoming book, though. An hour-long lecture might not be enough time for such arguments.

I'll make you a deal. You can read his book when it comes out. If you see what you think is a killer argument in there that isn't more of the same kind of thing we see in the lecture (examples from Plutarch and other Roman historians, claims that the gospels are like that and are doing the same thing, conjectures about alleged contradictions in the gospels based on that theory, etc.), and if you think it _answers_ the concerns I have raised here, feel free to find my e-mail address on my author page at this site and send me relevant quotes from the page(s) in his book that you think contain that argument that just didn't come out in the lecture, and I'll look at it and write back and say whether I agree.

Lydia, I love your passion for this subject!

A major part of the problem here is that Licona puts no principled limits on how far the fictionalizations attributed to the disciples can go or how much of that they can be doing or how we could tell.

I think this might be your best point against Licona. If there are no principled limits to the sort of literary moves that he wants to make, then that does pose a problem for the reliability of the Gospels. It's not that these sorts of moves are necessarily a problem per se, but if there's no natural limit to what extent the original authors could have legitimately used them then it's hard to see how readers can control for such things insofar as they attempt to draw historical conclusions from these texts.

Why not pick instead the (deliberate) moving of the date of the crucifixion or the allegedly deliberate _three-year_ shift of the cleansing of the temple or the _radical_ telescoping he attributes to Luke (knowingly) of the events after the resurrection or the _totally fabricated_ raising of the saints or the (deliberate) moving of the date of the foot anointing?

For what it's worth, I don't find Licona's take on the above to be very satisfying. For my part, it seems easier to say that the authors of the Gospels simply disagreed with each other about certain dates/times; I think the attribution of such radical telescoping to Luke of the events after the resurrection is unnecessary; and that Matthew's raising of the saints is a secondary accretion (so not original to this Gospel) or possibly an eschatological event taking place in the heavens -- Licona's notion that this is just so much rhetorical fireworks, as if Matthew (or whoever) was writing an ancient version of a modern graphic novel, seems rather glib to me.

I think that the cleansing of the temple happened twice. Like the aversion to harmonization, I think that an aversion to saying that a similar type of event happened more than once is exaggerated in mainstream NT scholarship, and Licona seems to share this aversion. The aversion tends to make one more willing to say that the NT authors deliberately shifted things, made things up, etc.

Note in the lecture (I don't have the minute number at hand) that Licona casually says that Luke probably doesn't include the same foot anointing that John and the other synoptics discuss but that if Luke is talking about that foot anointing he "changed some details." He doesn't say any more, so it isn't clear what he thinks about the foot (and head) anointing in Luke. But he's completely unfazed at the possibility that Luke made some fairly radical shifts in the details of the anointing--more radical even than those he attributes to John.

The more conservative approach is to say that the anointing in Luke is a different, similar incident and that John and the other synoptics are talking about the same anointing. In other words, that Jesus was anointed twice but not thrice.

But there is this huge aversion to saying that anything happened more than once. Tim addresses in one of his lectures linked in the main post the fact that in history we tend to *underestimate* the extent to which type-similar events do happen more than once.

To my mind there is really no reason at all not to take John and the synoptics both at face value concerning the Temple cleansing and hold that a similar incident happened twice. This should _not_ be put on a par with silly, strained harmonizations such as that Jairus's daughter died twice (!!). After all, if Jesus was ticked off about the merchants in the Temple early in his ministry, why might he not have been similarly ticked off three years later and decided to do something similar as a protest to it? How many times have people from Operation Rescue blocked access to abortion clinics? A lot more than twice, I can tell you that!

So I think what we are seeing here is the "standards," which are misguided *from an historical point of view* of "mainstream" NT scholarship coming into conservative NT scholarship. These are not objective. In many ways they are just styles and preferences. Among other things, a preference for saying that an author deliberately changed something over ever saying that something happened more than once.

By the way, I also see no reason not to think that Matthew just really believed that other people were raised at the time of Jesus' death (or resurrection). Again, why not? The fact that we think that this sounds weird or zombie-like doesn't mean Matthew would have thought that.

Whether it actually happened is a different question yet again. As I said above, I think Matthew is reporting this at possibly something like third-hand, which would explain the lack of detail. From a purely historical point of view, this may mean that it was an unconfirmed rumor that didn't happen. But to my mind it is _more_ strained, less simple, to say that Matthew didn't think it literally happened and to hypothesize _any_ other interpretation of the text than just to hold that Matthew says it because he thinks it literally happened.

I also wanted to address the question of why even someone like myself who does not take the inerrantist label thinks that we should _not_ redefine "inerrancy" as Licona is suggesting:

I think that such a redefinition will have two unfortunate effects (at least). First, it will make people who adopt it feel that they are "safe" from ever having to consider that the evangelists might have made an ordinary mistake. This sense of safety, and the high value placed upon it, will in turn make them far more open to strained and implausible literary conjectures about the text about all the things that the authors were supposedly "doing on purpose," which is simply bad hermeneutical practice and will mean that they are often *getting it wrong*. The approach is so over-powerful and ad hoc that it is not a good way to train interpreters of Scripture. It's like a guy who can never admit that he made a mistake and always says, "I meant to do that" and then makes up some ad hoc story about how he meant to do it whenever it appears that he stumbled (literally or figuratively). Second, as already stated at length, it undermines confidence in the real and valuable historical reliability of the gospels. And for the record, I think that several of the things Licona says undermine this confidence _per se_--e.g., saying that the evangelists _ever_ deliberately changed a date without indication in the text.

The two of these are a _really_ bad combo. What we will have are people who are thinking that they are "safe" from attributing a redefined concept of "error" to the gospel writers while meanwhile accepting highly implausible and ad hoc literary conjectures and moving far away from important notions of historical reliability and of any sort of perspicuity of the text which (among other things) the concept of inerrancy was supposed to secure in the first place!

Another point that occurs to me:

Neo-inerrantists (for want of a better word) are fond of saying that old-style inerrantists hold an anachronistic view of error and accuracy in reportage.

It never seems to occur to them that they may be attributing to the gospel authors and their audiences an anachronistic concept of "weirdness."

To what extent do views like Licona's gain traction because people don't want to think that the evangelists were asserting thing that they find "weird"? I would say that this is a _huge_ driver of the aversion to the Matthew 27 passage and the raising of the saints.

But ironically, *that* is anachronistic!

I myself think it far *more* anachronistic to look for a way to get rid of the historicity of a particular passage in an historical-genre document because you find it weird than to think that the original audience would have cared (!!) if John deliberately moved the date of the crucifixion.

To my mind there is really no reason at all not to take John and the synoptics both at face value concerning the Temple cleansing and hold that a similar incident happened twice. This should _not_ be put on a par with silly, strained harmonizations such as that Jairus's daughter died twice (!!). After all, if Jesus was ticked off about the merchants in the Temple early in his ministry, why might he not have been similarly ticked off three years later and decided to do something similar as a protest to it? How many times have people from Operation Rescue blocked access to abortion clinics? A lot more than twice, I can tell you that!

I think that, besides having a flat and overly compressed view of history, part of the objection to a second temple cleansing may well come from a refusal to really appreciate the depths of Man's sinful nature, even among those who are truly Christian. We see that the Israelites go from experiencing the divine manifestation of Yahweh at the mountain and being terrified to (not long after) being "at play" before a graven image. We see Judas Iscariot, who witnessed Jesus as an intimate, betray Him. We see David's machinations to acquire Bathsheba. We see St Paul discussing in Romans the evil that he knows is evil and does not want to do, yet he does it. We see John (as I understand him) saying that we deceive ourselves if we think we are sinless. We see the disciples at times being knuckleheads. We see the decline of Solomon. I see it in myself. How many times have we confessed that we have done sinful activity X, resolve to better attack our propensity to X, only to once again go out and do X?

Thus, as a Christian, an objection to a second temple cleansing cannot be primarily rooted in a hypothesized impossibility that, if Jesus cleans out the temple once, He didn't need to do it again. The objection must be based strictly (it seems) on a literary basis. I do not see enough of a similarity to where my literary intuition --- for what it is worth --- gives any conviction that this cleansing in St John is the same cleansing as that of the synoptists.

Wow, I never thought that anyone would object on that basis. I don't imagine the merchants were ever convinced that what they were doing was sinful anyway! They just thought of Jesus as some weirdo who came in and made a disturbance. I would _assume_ that they went back to what they were doing as soon afterwards as they were convinced that he wasn't around to give them a hard time anymore. That's human nature. Presumably the merchant and money-changing activities Jesus was condemning were deeply engraved in the Temple culture at that time. I've always thought of his action as purely symbolic. I don't imagine Jesus had any idea that he would be stopping them permanently or even long-term. They would have thought of him as some sort of rabble-rouser or terrorist, and just as stores re-open after a riot, they would have been back to business as soon as they could be.

But doesn't Licona presuppose that we should only consider the Gospels (or some other biblical text) to be in error relative to the historiographic expectations of the original context in which those works were produced?

OK, let's take those "historiographic expectations of the original context". It's not like the Hebrew / Aramaic / infused Greco-Roman culture of the time is so totally opaque to us that their sense of story-telling and reportage are completely foreign to us. One of the fascinating facets of a good well-rounded liberal education is that even we Americans can appreciate to a very great extent the depth and artistry of the plays of Aeschylus, the Dialogues of Plato, the poetry of Homer, the Code of Hammurabi, the Epic of Gilgamesh. We "get" them. Humans, sharing human nature all around, find the same things of deep wonder, muse on many of the same problems of life, and create works that hope to tell of these things to each other. They are intended to communicate, and the best of them survive the centuries in part because they SPEAK to men of many centuries successfully. That's part of what makes them great.

Sure, we would expect that we would frequently miss technical, local "color" in a text like a Gospel, (things comparable to a sly and round-about reference to something like Trump's temper, or Al Gore's woodenness), and we often will stumble over idiomatic usages, comparable to our calling a frankfurter a "dog" (or calling an ugly woman a "dog", for that matter). These are standard society-to-society differences and we are quite well aware that they happen.

These technical variations are somewhat different from "reporting what I saw" versus "telling something made up" differences. All cultures have ways they tell "stories", whether they are the fairy stories that start with "once upon a time" or Aesop's fables that seem to always have "there once was an X" and a moral at the end, or our Old Mother West Wind stories from Grandfather Frog that have "When the Earth was young..." Or even just our own made-up stories. All cultures, consisting of us fallen humans, also have examples of people telling lies, including lies to get something they want, or lies to get out of punishments they don't want, or lies to obtain admiration by fraud. These two (telling stories and telling lies) are not simply the SAME parts of a culture, as if telling the a story and telling a lie are treated exactly the same in a culture.

We don't see as a normal part of a complete culture a practice of telling made-up things as if you were merely reporting the facts as you saw them occur, and _without_ an eventual denouement that shows "hey, I made it up, had you going there for a minute didn't I" as something that is considered OK, even fine, not damaging or diminishing of your status. People don't cotton to being fed a tale as if it were true - this is part of human nature, they want to know the difference. And for that very reason, by custom we find that telling stories is accompanied by markers, by tell-tales that INDICATE when you should be withholding credence, or suspending judgment. A wink, a catch in the voice, a hesitation in timing, a lilt of intonations, a smile, these are all ways we show our hearers to expect something coming. The same happens in the written story, though it can be a little more subtle. In Plato's Dialogues, nobody ever interrupts anyone else - but when have you had a serious philosophical discussion where everyone waits for everyone else to finish their sentences? But there are other signs in the works that they are not mere reports of actual dialogues. And, most tellingly, there is nothing particularly that ever hinges on whether the actions of any dialogue ever actually happened, so you wouldn't expect Plato to much worry the reader about whether they "happened" or not.

It is quite the other way with Jesus and the Gospels. Part of the point of the accounts is to convince the reader that Christ really is God, by the miracles that happened, and this requires that the reader accept the account as mere reporting what the eyewitnesses saw / heard. It fundamentally undermines the point of the Gospels if a reader can dismiss a feature of a passage (any feature) as "a literary addition for effect", because THEN IT DOESN'T HAVE THAT EFFECT, nor can the reader then give complete credence to the nearly incredible passages like the raising of Lazarus or the Resurrection. There is something very wrong with a person saying "Faith comes by hearing, I believe Christ who is God rose from the tomb because I have heard it reliably from the Apostles, but I don't credit the Apostles' account when they told me in the very same manner that the dead saints rose from their graves."

The Gospel writers DO know how to tell us to withhold our credence from a story: when they tell a parable, we know not to think the story ACTUALLY happened. Part of the technique is to be vague instead of specific: "a man owned vineyard", not "John son of Solomon, of Jericho, in the reign of Tiberius, owned a vineyard..." So we cannot pretend that in that historiographic context their ways of conveying "hey, this is not literal truth" doesn't come through to us at all. It does come through.

Likewise, (as I said above), the Apostles own disciples came from their own historigraphic context, and handed on to us their own understanding of the Gospel accounts, which is that of eye-witness reports, not fictionalized half-true, half-made-up accounts. So, no, I don't think Licona is going to get very far with arguing that in the 1st century AD, the first readers of the Gospels knew perfectly well which parts of the accounts were literally sheer reporting, and which parts were modified, adjusted, fictionalized artful craftings - and that these latter "just happened" to fall around the difficulties of matching one Gospel to another.

Tony, you said I was

positing, I think, that in ancient times historians DID NOT feel that way

Yes, exactly, although actually we're talking about biographers, not historians. In the Hellenistic culture, the two aren't quite the same. I haven't made any claims one way or the other about historians as distinct from biographers.

I am just not convinced that either one of these kinds of behaviors is what we want to ascribe to the Gospel writers.
As a Protestant, I think the right procedure is to determine on the basis of the texts themselves and a study of other contemporary works of the same genre how they actually did behave, and only then, if it turns out that this gives rise to problems in theology or apologetics, well, we'd have some figuring to do, but I don't think it does give rise to such problems.
The standard (inerrant) Catholic notion of inspiration includes within it that God so inspired the writers with protection of truth that when they thought they remembered an event as X happened before Y, their remembrance was protected from error so far as writing what they experienced, that they remembered X happened before Y because that's how they experienced it. So that there would never be a mis-match between their memory of what they saw and heard, and what they actually saw and heard happen at the time: their memories did not play them false compared to their actual experience. So, (on this account) if they wrote down a detail to a story because that's the way THEY remember it, then that's the way THEY experienced it at the time, too. And if they needed to remember a detail because they thought it significant to include in the story, then they would actually remember it, there would be no need to "generate" filler.

In was not aware of the fact that this is the official Roman Catholic understanding of inerrancy. I have trouble seeing how the Roman Catholic scholars who wrote the notes in my New American Bible (which sports the nihil obstat & imprimatur) could hold that sort of view together with the things they say about certain passages without some severe cognitive dissonance. As for me, I don't see any reason to think that's how inspiration works.

he could NEVER BE SURE that by telling his own story the way he wanted to tell it, he wasn't defeating the EXACT message that GOD was trying to convey with the story the way it ACTUALLY happened.
I say that he could be sure precisely because of his being inspired by the Holy Ghost. The events "as they actually happened" include innumerable details all of which couldn't possibly be mentioned in any narrative. In addition, the context, which is a factor in the true meaning of the events, expands to include basically everything that has ever happened. Leaving out stuff is potentially just as dangerous as telescoping, displacing, etc. But because they are inspired, we can be confident that the meaning conveyed in the text is what God intended the text to say, and is true because God doesn't lie and is never mistaken; and because God who inspired the text is the same God who foreordained the events the text narrates, we can be sure that whatever the text says is in harmony with the meaning of those events.
Or some unintended coincidence that corroborates or explains something elsewhere in the Bible in that way that TRUTH has of its own nature but FICTION cannot possibly have.
I've already explained why I don't think these devices deserve the lavel "fiction". I further believe that they do deserve the label "truth". This particular sentence of yours seems to assume that truth = what actually happened. But as I pointed out, what actually happened is infinitely detailed, and cannot be expressed as such.
I suggest, rather, that this is impossible for a Gospel writer who purports to be presenting prosaic factual accounts. That is, if part of his account consists in the unvarnished facts as he remembers them, and this is what he intends for us to receive and understand from him in those passages, then it is impossible for him to then have a varnished passage 5 verses later that is not clearly set off as somehow different, as somehow a departure from “just the facts as I remember them”
To be clear, if I'm right, then within the bios genre, even the parts that _happen to be_ unvarnish are not typically claimed to be such by the author.
For such a writer could not possibly think that he could successfully convey more of the truth, or a more important truth, by using a modified version of "what happened" instead of the way he remembers what happened.
Since his memory is already necessarily vastly different from the full reality of what actually happened (because it leaves out so much), it's entirely possible that an account that tried not to include any details that were't just how the author remembered them would suggest something less true to the meaning of the events than an altered version. While it would in principle be possible to fix this by adding details, those details could themselves suggest something that would require more details to be remedied etc., etc. And if this ever halts, you might end up with something unreadably tedious, which would not suit God's intention of inspiring something useful for building up the man of God. But it's unnecessary because God himself is there anyway behind and within the human author ensuring that his decisions about which details to include, and which to exclude, result in a text that is just how God wants it to be. So if He's there doing that, he can just as well make sure that the human author's decision to deviate from what he remembers produces just the text God wants.

Thank you, Tony. Bravo.

I sometimes wonder: If somebody came along and said (notice I'm _not_ attributing this to anybody, it's just a made-up scenario) that according to the "historiographical standards of the time" it "wouldn't have mattered to the original audience" if the feeding of the five thousand didn't happen at all, would a lot of earnest young evangelical scholars just listen and nod and say, "Oh, well, that's okay, then"? Would they just redefine "reliable" and "history" to continue saying that the gospels are "reliable history" even if they made up the entire incident of the feeding of the five thousand? Because, after all, these words are allegedly supposed to be defined "relative to the historiographical standards of the time."

There needs to be a two-step complete rejection of anything like that: Step 1 should go, "I'll believe that those were the historiographical standards of the time when pigs fly." Step 2 should go, "If, per impossible, the original audience really didn't care about something like that, the original audience would have been *wrong* not to care."

So the question, then, is when have we reached that point? I say that when John and the other evangelists are allegedly deliberately changing dates, we have already reached that point. When Matthew is inserting as a "poetic device" the raising of the saints and supposedly didn't even think it happened, we have already reached that point.

Lydia, If Licona's interpretation of Plutarch is correct, is Plutarch's Life of Anthony a work of fiction? You seem reluctant to put it so baldly, and well you should be, since that would be unreasonable. What you do say is,

I consider that if Plutarch is taking the kind of liberties that Licona attributes to him, this is far too unreliable for what we need in the case of the gospels.
But why? What is this great need we have to know exactly when and where things happened.
I do _not_ grant that the overall picture of events is historically accurate if the gospel writers were swapping events around as Licona says. (Remember, it is also his position that John changed the day of Jesus' crucifixion, which is a pretty darned important part of the picture of events.
Is it? I don't see why.

It's enormously important that Jesus was crucified. What day that occured on doesn't seem me to matter very much. Is the idea that "if they aren't reliable about these things then we can't be confident that they are reliable about big things, like the fact the Jesus was crucified, raised from the dead, that he really did miracles, etc."? I don't want to put words in your mouth. That argument I at least understand (it doesn't work, as can be seen if we run it on Plutarch), but I don't understand the notion that these details are important in themselves, and if neither of those is what you are saying, then what _is_ the reason you think reliability at this level of detail is so important?

if John knowingly shifted Jesus' cleansing of the Temple by three years to the beginning of his ministry (which would seem to be precisely the sort of thing Licona means by "displacement") and no such cleansing took place then, that is a _serious_ failure of historical reliability, and frankly, if you or Licona or anybody else defines "reliability" differently, you can just have your concept, and I'll stick with mine.

The concept of "reliability" we ought to work with is one that is appropriate to the genre the Gospels actually are, and Licona is seeking to discover that. If the reliability appropriate to the genre turns out to be insufficient to ground Christian doctrine, then there would really be a problem: if for instance, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, or Christ's resurrection, or the resurrection of the dead on the last day, the final judgment, the doctrine of original sin, or the virgin birth, justification by faith, or imputed righteousness, the teaching that Jesus really is the promised Messiah, that in Christ believing Gentiles become children of Abraham, or any other doctrine of the Christian faith ... "Plutarchian reliability" doesn't put any of that in jeopardy.

It's not as though Plutarch puts glow-in-the-dark ink footnotes and a note telling us to expose is to UV light or something to figure out that this wasn't really what happened. There is, as Licona portrays it, no clue in the text whatsoever to say that this account has been massaged at that point.

I think I already answered that: we don't need to know at which points the details have been changed, just as we don't need to know which sayings attributed to Jesus are memorized logoi, and which paraphrased. If we did, we would have more historical information than we do, and if we knew the Gospel writers would never use displacement etc., then we would have more information than, according to Licona and me, we do. But the presence of a convention that says we should not assume the authors are conveying that information does not make the text unreliable, unless you want to say that the convention that reported discourse can be paraphrased (without glow-in-the-dark notes telling us when) makes a text unreliable.

What you actually want to say, I take it, is that the convention doesn't exist. But to make that case you'd have to either argue that Plutarch wasn't doing what Licona says he was, or that Plutarch is atypical for the genre, or that the Gospels aren't actually bioi, or that they belong to a subgenre where those devices aren't allowed. And you haven't attempted any of this.

if John goes out of his way to say that Jesus' foot anointing took place on the day before the triumphal entry, then we most certainly will take them to be claiming such things if we are reasonable.

No. If we are modern readers we might do so. If we are ancient readers aware of the conventions of the genre, we will think, "Probably the reason he said it happend on that day is because it happened on that day, but possibly John has some reason I'm not aware of for displacing it to that day. So even if there's nothing in the text to clue me in to the fact that this is a displacement, I won't assume that John is definitively asserting that it took place on that day."

it undermines our confidence in Luke's carefulness _precisely_ at a point relevant to the _evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ_

It _almost_ looks like you ARE saying that what I called "Plutarchian reliability" _would_ jeopardize the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ (in the sense of sweeping away the possibility of giving reasonable grounds for believing it). But you don't quite say that. In fact, you seem to veer away from saying that by using the weaker language of "at a point relevant to," and since I've never known you to use weak language when you could use strong language, I suspect you are deliberately veering away from saying that.

I can see that _some strategies_ for defending the truth of Christ's resurrection would not work on Licona's model. One can't, for instance, argue, "Since Luke was so meticulously careful about being accurate about these details, how much more can we be confident he was accurate about the claim the Christ rose from the dead." But I have some hope that you will agree that a Christian deprived of that argument, a Christian who came to believe Luke was only as reliable as Plutarch, could still, _justifiably_ (even on the high standards of your epistemology) be confident that Jesus rose from the dead.

After all, we could be pretty confident on the basis of Plutarch and Suetonius that Caesar was assassinated, more so if Plutarch were a bit closer in time and himself an eyewitness of most of the events he narrates, and if Suetonius were much closer to the time, and was a close associate of an eyewitness and had interviewed other eyewitnesses.

Licona's presentation to his audience gave them, the people in the pew, the strong implication that silly harmonization was the only alternative to his own approach.
Well, I didn't get that impression. But I don't reckon it's worth arguing about.
Moreover, I don't know of anywhere that Licona has anything good to say about harmonizing, anywhere that he says that he's in favor of it or that he uses it in a moderate form.
I'm only judging from the lecture you linked. If he elsewhere rejects all harmonization I will agree with you in rejecting that rejection. I certainly know of scholars who are like that and it wouldn't surprise me if Licona is one of them.
I myself think it far *more* anachronistic to look for a way to get rid of the historicity of a particular passage in an historical-genre document because you find it weird than to think that the original audience would have cared (!!) if John deliberately moved the date of the crucifixion.
Certainly that is more clearly anachronistic. And this is an important truth you've indicated. For instance, I think we need to take seriously the possibility that Genesis 6:4 is saying that angelic beings had sexual congress with human women, i.e., claiming that that actually happened. (I'm not saying that's the right interpretation, I'm just making a comment about method.) I think most of us find this suggestion very weird. I certainly do. But we should resist the temptation to think that this is a good reason to reject that interpretation.

By the way, I don't see how the rejection of the historicity of Matthew 27:52-53 fits within the scheme of the argument he presents in the lecture. The claim that the Gospels are the same genre as Plutarch's lives seems to me to cut _against_ an ahistorical reading of that passage.

I was not aware of the fact that this is the official Roman Catholic understanding of inerrancy. I have trouble seeing how the Roman Catholic scholars who wrote the notes in my New American Bible (which sports the nihil obstat & imprimatur) could hold that sort of view together with the things they say about certain passages without some severe cognitive dissonance. As for me, I don't see any reason to think that's how inspiration works.

Christopher, the reason I used "standard" in front of the Catholic notion of inerrancy is that the idea has so morphed in the last 100 years that it no longer stands for what it meant 500 and 1000 years ago. Just as an example, the definitions and explanations put forth by the Pontifical Biblical Commission back 100 years ago are pretty solidly just about what I said: "protected from error" includes protected from mis-remembering, for example. But back then, the PBC was an official organ of the Magisterial teaching office of the Church. Nowadays, some of the people on the PBC would probably disagree with the concept that the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as applied to the writers, protected them from mis-remembering...but the status of the PBC was withdrawn as an official organ of the magisterial teaching office in the 1960's so what they now say about it is no longer official teaching. So I go with the older version of Catholic inerrancy that persisted for about 1900 years.

I've already explained why I don't think these devices deserve the label "fiction". I further believe that they do deserve the label "truth". This particular sentence of yours seems to assume that truth = what actually happened. But as I pointed out, what actually happened is infinitely detailed, and cannot be expressed as such.

OK, I see this as a central area of this whole dispute. And I would strongly suggest, Christopher, that you (and Dr. Licona, and others arguing for a looser meaning for inerrancy than either Lydia or myself) come up with an acceptable WORD to describe what you want to call this practice of telling a bio by "rearranging" the narrative to reflect events differently from the way you remember them. For calling them "truth" is PRECISELY at contention, here, and cannot help sort through the issues to help arrive at a clarity of thought (between the different camps) that could achieve a consensus.

I can accept that you don't like the word "fiction" for this practice, but frankly, I am not quite sure why. Yes, I can see you would object to calling it "lying", because in lying the teller is TRYING to deceive the hearer, and (as you contend) the Gospel writers are not trying to deceive their hearers. But why not "fiction"? When a fiction writer tells a story, he is not trying to convince the reader that the story actually happened. He is trying (if he is not just a pulp fiction writer) to convey a truth behind the story, because believing the events depicted actually happened is irrelevant to the truth behind the story he is trying to convey. Isn't that what you are saying Luke is doing?

Forget for a moment, please, whether this attributes to Plutarch the label "fiction" or not. Just consider it from a general standpoint: we need a _name_ for a behavior that DISTINGUISHES between telling an account "as you remember it" from "telling an account differently from the way you remember it."

And DO NOT try to confuse this with the issue of completeness, as if telling an account "as you remember it" cannot ever be really as you remember it because you always leave out details that you remember from the account. That is true but it is a DISTINCT issue. If we must descend into into such a petty (or pettifoggery) aspect of naming, I will just insist, then, that we get even further down into the weeds and demand a name (which we can both live with) that distinguishes between "adding a story event element that is not a story event element that you remember happening" from "NOT adding a story event element that is not a story event element that you remember happening". And a name for the behavior of "changing the order of event elements in the story from the way you remember the event elements" from the behavior of "NOT changing the order of event elements in the story from the way you remember them".

I won't insist on the word "fiction" if you will come up with a better word that fits and distinguishes the above distinct kinds of behaviors. Whatever the word is, we need to be able to communicate about that distinction, so we need a word for it. Lydia and I think "fiction" does it, but if you think "fiction" is a bad word for then give us a better. Calling it "truth" is, absolutely, not adequate for THIS discussion because it doesn't provide room for the above distinction.

Now, let's return to the completeness problem:

The events "as they actually happened" include innumerable details all of which couldn't possibly be mentioned in any narrative. In addition, the context, which is a factor in the true meaning of the events, expands to include basically everything that has ever happened. Leaving out stuff is potentially just as dangerous as telescoping, displacing, etc.

I simply can't agree that completeness is exactly the same issue as that of generating events and orders that _disagree_ with your memory of the events. When I tell the judge from the witness stand "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" I better not be thinking that I needs state EVERY POSSIBLE TRUTH within the time frame of what he is asking. I better not be trying to say "well, first I took a breath, and I saw a brown couch with a piece of green lint on it, the couch was 78 inches long an 34 inches high , three sections, with a pillow-back, made by Broyhill in 2004, bought by me in 2005 at The Furniture Place for $900, and I brought it home in my brother's pickup truck...and I felt a tiny bit hungry because I was 45 minutes late for my lunch, and my chin itched bit so I rubbed it, and my shoes were too tight because I pulled the laces with too much force the way you do sometimes when you are in a hurry, and off to the side I there was a tree in a pot that had 114 leaves on it, ranging in size from 2.45 inches to 3.94 inches (and here is the distribution of sizes of the leaves....) " to eventually get to "and I saw the accident outside my living room window where the defendant was driving the car..." Let me tell you, if you kept to that notion of "telling the truth", you would be thrown in jail for contempt of court in very short order. Nobody thinks that's what it means to "tell the truth" in telling what happened, and nobody would sit still for a person who tried to actually tell EVERY SINGLE DETAIL they remembered as if every detail mattered for conveying "what happened."

This also applies to making moral judgments of actions (your own, included.) If it is impossible to decide whether an action is upright or sinful without knowing, and consciously considering, every possible facet of what can be sensed and what can be known of all of the surrounding reality even into the past, all the way back to Adam, then nobody can judge an action right or wrong. If I cannot judge whether to kill this enemy soldier in front of me without first checking the name on the bullet in my gun to establish the manufacturer, and the name on his jacket tag on the inside of his collar, and his shoe size, and whether he clipped his fingernails recently, and why his parents named him Ivan... then there is no such thing as morality. Knowing right from wrong in the concrete means telling (yourself, if it is your act) the "story" of that act that pinpoints the nature of the act, it's purpose, and its morally significant circumstances, and that story must be finite to make a judgment. Whether the enemy soldier trying to kill you clipped his fingernails recently is irrelevant to deciding whether it is moral to shoot him, and pretending that "completeness" requires considering it is just to descend into incoherence. If EVERYTHING is essential, nothing is coherent.

So, no, telling a story "truthfully" does not and cannot mean telling every single detail in the history of the world in infinite detail. That's a red-herring kind of objection.

This particular sentence of yours seems to assume that truth = what actually happened.

And, again, we have to have adequate language to communicate here. I am contending that telling a story that you remember happening as A then B then C then D by saying "B happened first, and after B, D happened, and after D, C took place, and finally at the end A happened" is IMPORTANTLY different from saying "A then B then C then D happened. And by "importantly" I mean that we OUGHT to have a different word to describe this kind of story telling than "truth", simply, without any qualifier or modifier. Even if we grant that saying it happened by B, then D, then C, then A somehow conveys some significant truth that you want to convey, there is also a truth that it DOES NOT convey that is of fundamental significance to "what happened." If that were not right, if the order of the events as you experienced them (and remembered them) were of no real significance to conveying "what happened", then again there would be no coherence to the world. It HAS to matnter that God's sent prophets to foretell the Messiah - who He would be and of whom born and what His mission would be - before He actually sent in the Messiah. It has to matter that the prophecy take place before the event. It has to matter that Mary received the word of the angel Gabriel before she was pregnant, and not after Jesus was born.

I am not saying that photographic correctness is the only sort of validity, or that it's the only sort of truthfulness. I am saying that it IS a basic, irreducible sort of validity, a sort of truthfulness that is significant. And, for this reason, telling extended, mixed accounts with both kinds of stories, and that don't keep straight the difference between "this is literally the way I remember it happening" and "let me regale you with a tale..." means losing a vital aspect of truth.

Lydia, If Licona's interpretation of Plutarch is correct, is Plutarch's Life of Anthony a work of fiction?

Christopher, if Licona's interpretation of Plutarch's *intentions* is correct, then his work is partially fictional. Generally we would use the phrase "a work of fiction" for something entirely or almost entirely fictional, and as you know there are many different degrees of fictionalization. For example, one might write an historical novel that is almost entirely fiction but has a few historical characters and accurate facts portrayed in it. Or one might write a memoir that doesn't *deliberately* make anything up (that's over on the other end). Or one might write a mostly historical work that makes some stuff up. Roughly speaking, Plutarch's lives would be the last of these if Licona's interp. of his motives is correct. By the way, Licona's approach to Plutarch itself sounds highly conjectural to me, and the only reason I haven't questioned it more strongly is because I haven't done the research into it. But it would be interesting to check how well the hypothesis fits that Plutarch was _correcting_ his information when he wrote later versions of the same story, or that he thought he was doing so. Maybe he thought what he wrote at first wasn't quite correct and changed things later because he gained more information. Or how about the hypothesis that Plutarch didn't bother to read his earlier versions when he wrote later and that he just remembered other historical accounts from his research differently when he wrote his later versions? Licona never considers these types of garden-variety theories even about Plutarch, and his failure to discuss it seems to me of a piece with his approach to the gospels--namely, that these so-called "literary devices" look a _lot like_ more ordinary things like remembering more vaguely, making a small error, one account's representing someone's having more information than another account, and so forth, and Licona doesn't seem to realize that his hypotheses are *more complex* and hence more dubious than those hypotheses. The same may _well_ be true of Plutarch, in which case Licona's interpretation of the gospels is one dubious conjecture based on another dubious conjecture!

Is it? I don't see why. It's enormously important that Jesus was crucified. What day that occured on doesn't seem me to matter very much.

Because Christianity is at bottom an historical religion, based upon historical events and based upon eyewitness testimony to historical events. When the eyewitnesses start changing things _deliberately_, this changes the very _nature_ of "eyewitness testimony" and hence undermines both apologetic considerations (I've said a lot about this but will say more in this comment below, since you still seem not to understand what I'm saying) and also the theological connection of Christianity with history.

For example: One of the profounder points of Christianity is that God makes metaphors *using history*. Where other artists have to make up events and write fiction, God has the *actual events* happen (or foresees that they will happen) and then reveals to mankind that these events are significant of other things. For example, the Passover lamb foreshadows Christ because there *really was a Passover* in which a lamb was killed. And God said, "When I see the blood, I will pass over you." This rather spine-tingling foreshadowing of Jesus Christ wouldn't be there at all if there was not, historically, an angel of death who killed the firstborn unless there was blood on the door. The same with the (near) sacrifice of Isaac and Abraham's statement that God would provide a sacrifice. If there was no literal rock in the wilderness from which water came when it was struck, then it wasn't true that the rock was, as St. Paul says, a type of Jesus Christ. And so forth.

All of this comes to a head in the gospels, which are *first and foremost* historical documents in a strong sense. This means that, if something happens in the gospels that has profound religious significance, the significance is supposed to flow from the fact that it *really happened that way*. So, for example, if the soldiers didn't really divide Jesus' garments among them but the evangelist only "had" the soldiers divide Jesus' garments, then Jesus *didn't really fulfill prophecy at that point*. Rather, the evangelist *made up* a fulfillment of prophecy, which removes all the genuine, Christian, down-on-the-ground-real significance of it. That significance is supposed to flow from the reality of the events.

Now, apply this to John's supposed "reason" for supposedly changing the day of the crucifixion. (Search "Hagigah" on this page for my comment in which I point out just how confused this supposed "problem" and this supposed "resolution" are.) Allegedly John changed it to "make" Jesus be crucified on the day the Passover lamb was sacrificed, to "make a theological point." Presumably, to emphasize that Jesus is the Passover lamb. But one of the *important ideas* of Christianity is that "theological points" flow from _actual history_. If John *made this up*, it would in no wise enhance the point that Jesus is the Passover lamb, because it would be *made up*. And John's thinking that he could do that would mean that "John" didn't understand this incredibly crucial point about the relationship of history and theological significance in the very founding of Christianity. If we became convinced that John and the other disciples thought this way--that they could wring theological significance out of events by exaggerating them, making them up, duplicating theologically significant aspects of the events beyond what really happened, etc.--then we ourselves would have to decide (to put it bluntly) that this whole idea that Christianity is about God's writing theologically significant truths *using real history* is either mistaken or substantially exaggerated, that God doesn't really think that is important.

The concept of "reliability" we ought to work with is one that is appropriate to the genre the Gospels actually are, and Licona is seeking to discover that.

I've already addressed this claim several times in this thread, so I'll just quote myself at a couple of those points instead of typing it all over again. Here's me, in the immediate comment above:

I sometimes wonder: If somebody came along and said (notice I'm _not_ attributing this to anybody, it's just a made-up scenario) that according to the "historiographical standards of the time" it "wouldn't have mattered to the original audience" if the feeding of the five thousand didn't happen at all, would a lot of earnest young evangelical scholars just listen and nod and say, "Oh, well, that's okay, then"? Would they just redefine "reliable" and "history" to continue saying that the gospels are "reliable history" even if they made up the entire incident of the feeding of the five thousand? Because, after all, these words are allegedly supposed to be defined "relative to the historiographical standards of the time."

There needs to be a two-step complete rejection of anything like that: Step 1 should go, "I'll believe that those were the historiographical standards of the time when pigs fly." Step 2 should go, "If, per impossible, the original audience really didn't care about something like that, the original audience would have been *wrong* not to care."

So the question, then, is when have we reached that point? I say that when John and the other evangelists are allegedly deliberately changing dates, we have already reached that point. When Matthew is inserting as a "poetic device" the raising of the saints and supposedly didn't even think it happened, we have already reached that point.

And here's me, further up:

In other words, you can't get away from the problem just by *redefining* "error" or "reliability." That just pushes the question back to whether and why we should or shouldn't care about the sense of "error" and "reliability" that we were using before!

Christopher, you then say,

But to make that case you'd have to either argue that Plutarch wasn't doing what Licona says he was, or that Plutarch is atypical for the genre, or that the Gospels aren't actually bioi, or that they belong to a subgenre where those devices aren't allowed. And you haven't attempted any of this.

The whole idea that this genre of "Roman bioi" had a convention of the author's making stuff up is not, as far as I know, widely accepted. I believe that Richard Burridge's book (which I have not read), _What Are the Gospels_, is a standard work on the subject. I am told that Burridge concentrates on things like length and other indicators without implying at all, as Licona does, that the notion of accuracy that applies to bioi is fairly loose.

Licona is relying on a fairly rigid, reifying approach to the supposed "devices" he identifies. As indicated above in this same comment, I do question that such devices "exist." Generally literary devices that it makes epistemic sense to postulate as _entities_ are the kind of things that are readily recognized. If some "device" requires me to happen to have a copy of Dio Cassio on hand to figure out that the author other than Cassio has changed something historical, then I don't think it should be called a "literary device." And if the author really did it deliberately, I would just call that "taking liberties with historical facts."

In general, literary critics across the board have a highly unfortunate tendency to _reify_ things by giving them names after making conjectures. This is a little bit like doctors who make up a "syndrome" and then talk as if it forms a natural kind when they have no good evidence that it does.

I know of no evidence that there exists a solid convention of making stuff up and taking deliberate liberties with the facts in Greco-Roman bioi _qua_ Greco-Roman bioi. If I did know of such a convention, then I would take this to be evidence against calling the gospels "Greco-Roman bioi" as Burridge calls them, and that _precisely_ because I consider the evidence in the gospels to be very solidly that they were trying to tell the truth as they knew it in a straightforward, non-literary, non-technical sense of "telling the truth as they knew it." (This is a sense that you, Christopher, might call "naive" or something, but that doesn't bother me in the slightest. I think it is you who are redefining "telling the truth" so that it includes *making stuff up*.)

It _almost_ looks like you ARE saying that what I called "Plutarchian reliability" _would_ jeopardize the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ (in the sense of sweeping away the possibility of giving reasonable grounds for believing it). But you don't quite say that. In fact, you seem to veer away from saying that by using the weaker language of "at a point relevant to," and since I've never known you to use weak language when you could use strong language, I suspect you are deliberately veering away from saying that.

Christopher, that is because the historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus is a *cumulative case*. Not everything that weakens it is such as to "sweep away the possibility of giving reasonable grounds for believing it." I believe you are a philosopher, so I assume you understand this distinction. Our cases for believing historical propositions are made up of many strands and can be weakened without being "swept away."

But if the gospels are definitely not telling things as they remember them, if they are *deliberately changing* things and do *not* represent the testimony of truthful witnesses in the ordinary man's sense of truthful, then yes, I think this *significantly weakens* the case for the historical resurrection of Jesus.

Licona's statement about Luke's allegedly _deliberately_ "telescoping" is a good example here. When I argue for the resurrection of Jesus, I _emphasize_ the forty days, because that's _part of the data_ that makes it particularly difficult for skeptics to push the idea that the apostles just had some sort of hallucination or vague experience. Yes, we'd still have a case for the resurrection if they said that Jesus appeared to them only once and then went immediately back to heaven on the same day, but it would not be *as strong* a case. Hence, if Luke was really conveying in his gospel that all this stuff happened only on one day, then Luke was describing a situation in which we would have a _weaker_ case for the resurrection. Moreover, if Luke did this *on purpose* while *knowing* that the disciples claimed to have interacted with Jesus over forty days, then Luke was *erasing* some of the evidence for the resurrection, which is highly problematic.

After all, if these things can just be changed willy-nilly, and if that's part of the "convention" in question, then we have very little way of knowing whether, for example, Luke "telescoped" or Acts "spread out." Was John's story of the meeting with Jesus on the Sea of Tiberius something that John was saying really happened, or was it a "literary convention"?

God and the devil are both in the details, and the _details_ of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances are important epistemically. Did Jesus or didn't he eat fish with the disciples? Did he or didn't he invite Thomas to touch him? Did he or didn't he appear to his disciples repeatedly over a period of several weeks? Was he close up when they saw him? Did they have opportunities to verify who he was? And so forth.

I do _not_ use a "minimal facts" approach to the resurrection. I think it is very important to the strength of the case that the disciples were making *these claims* about what it meant to say that Jesus appeared to them.

And it definitely weakens that robust case when we say that the gospel writers _changed_ what they _knew_ to be the facts. Let's be blunt: If we think it was okay for John to *make up* Jesus' being crucified on the day when the Passover lamb was killed, because that would be so neat and theologically significant, why do we *not* have grounds for thinking that maybe John *made up* the meeting by the Sea of Galilee in order to "make a point"? It would be highly arbitrary to say that these deliberate changes to history _couldn't_ take the form of _adding_ details to the resurrection accounts--adding, perhaps, the eating of the fish, adding the multiple appearances, and so forth.

In fact, a vast number of New Testament critics think that is _exactly_ what happened, that the physical, nitty-gritty details were not part of what the disciples actually claimed to have seen, and that they _didn't_ see and hear those nitty-gritty, physical details. Or that we have no idea what they claimed to have seen or heard.

Your notion, Christopher, of this incredibly broad "gist of the story," your redefined sense of "historical reliability," has, I would contend, no good answer to this claim about the _details_ of the post-resurrection appearances. Based on your view, as long as the disciples "claimed to have seen Jesus" or "claimed that Jesus was risen," as far as I can see all the *details* of what they claimed that was like are *up for grabs*. We shouldn't even _think_ that the evangelists are telling us that this is *what it was like* when Jesus was risen. Just the super-big picture: "Jesus was risen."

I want to draw attention to the fact that the epistemic problem this creates arises partly from the fact that what is being claimed is a miracle. You say,


After all, we could be pretty confident on the basis of Plutarch and Suetonius that Caesar was assassinated,

Again, I do not grant that Plutarch took the sort of deliberate liberties with history that Licona claims that he did. If I were convinced of that, it would _weaken_ the strand that Plutarch offers to the cumulative case argument for Caesar's being stabbed in the forum by a group of his erstwhile associates. (Obviously, we all know that Caesar died, so "Caesar's assassination" is supposed to mean _something_ more specific than that.)

But if it were being claimed that Caesar rose from the dead instead of that Caesar was stabbed, then calling details into question is a _much_ more serious matter. In order to even estimate a Bayes factor for the evidence for a claim such as a resurrection (or for that matter, a miraculous healing), we need to know how well the witnesses' claims can be explained by the *negation* of the hypothesis. And if we have testimony that can't be pinned down to details, it becomes incredibly difficult to make such an estimate. Could the disciples have been deceived? Could they have been hallucinating? Dale Allison has pressed the idea that the appearances were instances of "grief hallucinations." Then there is the so-called "objective vision" theory. Making a responsible estimate of the answers to these questions requires that we have a pretty good idea *what they claimed to have seen and heard* when Jesus allegedly appeared to them. Nowadays even some paranormal hypotheses are being revived--that Jesus' appearances were caused by what older ages would have called a ghost. I had a doctoral student from Oxford send me his dissertation on this. Reading it, I became convinced that one of his doctoral thesis directors was pressing him hard to take chapter after chapter to discuss the possibility that Jesus was a ghost after his "resurrection." If we're going to evaluate _that_ hypothesis we need more details than just, "The gospels say that the disciples had some kind of sensory experiences that led them to believe that Jesus was risen."

See my post on the "minimal facts" approach that I linked earlier in the thread.

http://whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2015/02/minimal_facts_are_not_enough.html

I do not grant that Plutarch took the sort of deliberate liberties with history that Licona claims that he did.

I agree with Lydia. And even more, I do not accept without demur the notion that if he did so, this does not damage what we consider the reliability of his works. Nor that the people of his day would have considered such liberties not to have damaged their respect for his work.

Forget literature as a special class of writing for a moment. All people, all cultures and societies, have situations where they insist on truthfulness, (and by "truthfulness" here I mean only the straight-up, standard, unvarnished, non-airbrushed stuff of DELIBERATE alteration), where they put a premium on telling the truth and where they put a demerit or positive punishment on telling lies. Whether it is in court, or in solemn oaths and vows, or business dealings, there are always places where you're expected to tell the truth, or at least not to fabricate stuff even if you don't come forward with what you know. And generally society has a way to punish those who don't follow said expectation about telling the truth.

On the other hand, every culture I have ever heard of also has places and times where they make things up. They applaud bards for stories, and sometimes maybe applaud the louder the more outrageous the story is. People admire the ability to craft a story, where the emphasis is on "craft": since YOU put it together, you are not bound by a given plot that actually happened, and thus your craft has to show your ability to generate a sensible plot.

There is even the kind of situation where people are lauded for telling lies and getting others to believe them...within a context. But not OUTSIDE that context. For example, within a gang of thieves, the ability to "pull one over" on some mark will be praised by the thieves. But not so much if you "pull one over" on your fellow thief, and try to gyp him out of his share. Or, in another context: we admire the ability to tell a story that "leads you on" into believing it...all the way up until the curtain is pulled wide and you find out you've been had. The Virginian has an absolutely classic case of this, where the eponymous character draws out the antagonist Trampas with a wild story about frog-farming, until the last bit where he let's the cat out of the bag with a silly "they [the farmers] were growing webs between their toes." Trampas' goose is cooked, for believing to begin with. And it is just that denouement of "you've been had" that allows the others to admire the Virginian for the leg-pulling story - sheepishly, because they had been had too.

What you will not find, I think, is a society that normatively permits, even encourages, its bards and crafters to tell fabrications as if straight up true without qualification, and also without any letting on that it's fabricated.
If the hearers think they are getting the sort of story that is simply true, and they go about their business thinking and assuming and treating it like it's true, and then 2 or 5 years later find out it was a fabrication, I don't think they pass that off as "well, good story." I don't think they treat the story-maker as having done them a good turn by making the story "better" than the truth. Any more than you will find a society that encourages people to put falsehoods into contracts. That is to say, I don't think there are societies and cultures in which people just don't care about which stories are true simply and which stories are fabrications.

Nor do I think it remotely plausible that there is a society for which we have as much historical material as we do with Jews, Greek, and Romans, where their story-tellers had devices by which they cued their readers that "this part of the story is not to be accepted at face value as simply true" when the rest of the story "is certainly to be accepted at face value as simply true"...and we have somehow LOST those cues and signals. Certainly not a society whose products have been handed down continuously from generation to generation without interruption, as we have received the Gospels. That just isn't the way humans work. If Mark's hearers and readers knew the devices, then THEIR students were given those tools also. And so on, and on, and on.

And finally, there is simply no clear reason to think that the Gospel narratives really are instances of a larger general genre of "biographical accounts in which fabrications are allowed", even if such a genre even existed. The Apostles were Aramaic fishermen, not literary giants. And the accounts they gave were not "hey, let me tell you a cool story about a famous guy I met once" in order to impress their buddies. They were told specifically to convince others to convert religiously, and HOLD TO those beliefs in the face of torture and death. That's not a genre that makes room for "we fabricated this event for effect".

So, in addition to Licona having the burden of establishing that Plutarch fabricated parts of his stories - did so knowingly and intentionally, that is - , and that he felt free to do so because it was a literarily accepted facet of writing bio's, he also has show that Matthew felt free to do the same despite clear cultural differences and different goals, and somehow account for OUR HAVING LOST the cues for "this part is made up" in spite of the Gospels being handed down in unbroken chain. Not only has he not done so yet, it seems incredibly unlikely he will even remotely sort of manage it.

One of the profounder points of Christianity is that God makes metaphors *using history*. Where other artists have to make up events and write fiction, God has the *actual events* happen ... If there was no literal rock in the wilderness from which water came when it was struck, then it wasn't true that the rock was, as St. Paul says, a type of Jesus Christ.
It is certainly true that God makes metaphors using history, but he also makes metaphors in the ordinary way. The rock cut out of the mountain that knocked over the statue in Daniel was also Christ, but it was not a historically real rock. It was a rock that existed only in a dream vision.
So, for example, if the soldiers didn't really divide Jesus' garments among them but the evangelist only "had" the soldiers divide Jesus' garments, then Jesus *didn't really fulfill prophecy at that point*.
That seems reasonable to me. This particular event had to have really happened, otherwise prophecy wasn't fulfilled. Likewise, Jesus bones were really unbroken, because a merely imagined fulfillment of prophecy isn't a fulfillment of prophecy.

If someone were to claim to have a different interpretation that didn't give that result, I wouldn't necessarily think it was a big deal, as long as that person accepts the historicity of the things that are important parts of the Christian faith. This particular interpretation of prophecy isn't one of them: if God had left out of the Bible the information that the soldiers divided the garments, I don't think our religion would be different in any significant way. However, any theory that has an event narrated in the Gospels that is completely fabricated is going beyond anything I would wish to defend.

But one of the *important ideas* of Christianity is that "theological points" flow from _actual history_.
Theological points can (and in some cases must) flow from real history, but they _can also_ be illustrated by that which is non-historical, such as Jesus' parables.

A disagreement among believers about whether a particular theological point is being made by God in the former way or the latter is not, generally speaking, a disagreement over and *important idea* of Christianity. In some cases it is, but you have not given reason to think it is in the case of the day of the crucifixion.

it would in no wise enhance the point that Jesus is the Passover lamb, because it would be *made up*.
If John's point were to provide _evidence_ that Jesus was the Passover lamb, then it truly wouldn't do that: you can't just make up evidence. But perhaps John isn't trying to provide evidence. Perhaps his intent is simply to draw attention to the fact (eminently obvious on other grounds) that Jesus' death was the fulfillment of the typology of paschal lamb.
Generally literary devices that it makes epistemic sense to postulate as _entities_ are the kind of things that are readily recognized. If some "device" requires me to happen to have a copy of Dio Cassio on hand to figure out that the author other than Cassio has changed something historical, then I don't think it should be called a "literary device."
Yes, I agree that "literary device" is not a really good term to use. I've used it just because Licona does, and I didn't want to argue over names, when what's important is what the conventions of the genre are: How much (if any) liberty do ancient biographers have to alter details consistent with the degree of historicity that is understood as being claimed by a work in this genre?
Let's be blunt: If we think it was okay for John to *make up* Jesus' being crucified on the day when the Passover lamb was killed, because that would be so neat and theologically significant, why do we *not* have grounds for thinking that maybe John *made up* the meeting by the Sea of Galilee in order to "make a point"? It would be highly arbitrary to say that these deliberate changes to history _couldn't_ take the form of _adding_ details to the resurrection accounts--adding, perhaps, the eating of the fish, adding the multiple appearances, and so forth.
The _manner_ and _extent_ of alteration of detail that is acceptable within the genre is an empirical question, to be determined by careful study of ancient texts and ancient history. IN THEORY, we might discover that the genre is essentially a kind of historical fiction: that would be a serious problem for the Christian faith. Or rather it would if we hold onto the claim that the Gospels belong to that genre. But the Gospels themselves are of course examples of whatever genre they are, and studying them shows us they aren't that way. I also think studying them shows us they aren't what you say they are. I think Rob Bowman's comment above makes a strong case that Matthew is deliberately changing details in the story of Jairus, and he is unlikely to have taken that liberty if he thought his audience (some of whom would have likely had access to Mark) would regard that as falsification. So I would take that as evidence that whatever genre the Gospels are allows such alterations. But that minor alteration to the story of Jairus isn't evidence that a Gospel writer could just make up the story as a whole, as if Jairus's daughter might not have been raised by Jesus.
the only reason I haven't questioned it more strongly is because I haven't done the research into it. But it would be interesting to check how well the hypothesis fits that Plutarch was _correcting_ his information when he wrote later versions of the same story, or that he thought he was doing so.
I'm fine with that, methodologically. I'm open to being shown that such liberties were not allowed to ancient biographers, in which case Matthew's handling of the Jairus story would be a bit of a puzzle for me, but not the end of the world.
trying to tell the truth as they knew it in a straightforward, non-literary, non-technical sense of "telling the truth as they knew it." (This is a sense that you, Christopher, might call "naive" or something, but that doesn't bother me in the slightest. I think it is you who are redefining "telling the truth"
No, I don't think words like "naive" (or "redefining") are at all helpful. What I would say is that you should be more awake to the possibility that ancient people thought in ways that run contrary to what we modern folk take to be obvious common sense, and I should be awake to the possibility that I've overestimated the strength of the evidence that they did so in this case.
the historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus is a *cumulative case*. Not everything that weakens it is such as to "sweep away the possibility of giving reasonable grounds for believing it. ... if the gospels are definitely not telling things as they remember them, if they are *deliberately changing* things and do *not* represent the testimony of truthful witnesses in the ordinary man's sense of truthful, then yes, I think this *significantly weakens* the case for the historical resurrection of Jesus.

OK, apart from a quibble about "ordinary man's sense of truthful" I think I can agree. It's a question of _how_ significantly it weakens the case.

It is of course possible to overstate the case for the resurrection. We don't want to do that. And two apologists could have a friendly disagreement on exactly how strong the evidence is while both agreeing that it is plenty strong enough.

It seems to me you do overstate the case, but not primarily because you take the Gospels to be devoid of errors due to non-deceptive deliberate alteration of detail. Even if I agreed that an ancient biographer could not make "Plutarchian" alterations without being deceptive, I would still think you overstate your cumulative case. If we're arguing with an unbeliever we have to take into account the possibility that the NT authors _were_ deceptive, or were not in a position to know as much about the details as they claim, or were mistaken. Since you seem to allow for the possibility that the Gospel writers were mistaken in most of the cases where Licona claims to see Plutarchian "devices", I don't think the possibility of Plutarchian alterations has an exceedingly great effect on the strength of the argument. But I grant that the effect is not insignificant.

if it were being claimed that Caesar rose from the dead instead of that Caesar was stabbed, then calling details into question is a _much_ more serious matter.
What is a reasonable prior probability that God raised Jesus from the dead? Suppose we're debating with someone who recognizes God's existence, knows what can be known of his character by natural light, understands the evident glorious and yet tragic condition of man to be strikingly consistent with the Judeo-Christian notion of the fall, is convinced that God was active in the history of Israel in pretty much the way the prophets claim. Add to this the undisputed public facts that the Romans destroyed the Jewish temple in 70 a.d. and that the Christian religion with its teachings that Jesus was the Messiah and the Lamb of God, whose death and resurrection inaugurated the beginning of the fulfillment of eschatological promises of the OT, this Christianity spread from that century swiftly throughout the Roman world, and has continued to spread to this day. With this background, it's a given that God is up to something in the vicinity of Judeo-Christian history. The destruction of the temple (again) was something God sent for a reason, and it seems likely, given how God has dealt with Israel in the past, that he would not send that particular calamity without a prophetic word explaining its significance, given the OT prophecies, the Messiah should have come some time in the Greco-Roman era, and I know of no other plausible candidates for the office. With all this in hand, I don't think the probability of the Christian religion's core claim that God raised Jesus from the dead is really very low at all, even before looking at the details of our historical documents.

We don't need nearly so much documentary evidence as we have. If what we have is four "Plutarchs" who were close associates of Jesus writing very close indeed to the time of the events described, plus the evidence contained in the epistles, we still have a huge surplus.

...such a surplus that we can make a strong case even to those who have much less knowledge of God and his earlier mighty deeds than is available prior to making the cumulative case from the first century documents.

But if we're debating someone who is a convinced atheist, who thinks science has "shown" that the probability of the existence of any sort of supernatural being is ridiculously low, how strong is the case then? Well, I think the case you want to make is strong enough that it should at least _bother_ the atheist. It should make him wonder, "has science really shown what I think it has?" Maybe it won't be enough to overcome his unreasonably low prior. But then we can just show him that his prior is unreasonably low.

Given how much of a surplus of rational grounds we have for our faith, I don't think we should be too upset if our preferred method of argument turns out to be somewhat less effective than we thought.

The _manner_ and _extent_ of alteration of detail that is acceptable within the genre is an empirical question, to be determined by careful study of ancient texts and ancient history. IN THEORY, we might discover that the genre is essentially a kind of historical fiction: that would be a serious problem for the Christian faith. Or rather it would if we hold onto the claim that the Gospels belong to that genre. But the Gospels themselves are of course examples of whatever genre they are, and studying them shows us they aren't that way. I also think studying them shows us they aren't what you say they are. I think Rob Bowman's comment above makes a strong case that Matthew is deliberately changing details in the story of Jairus, and he is unlikely to have taken that liberty if he thought his audience (some of whom would have likely had access to Mark) would regard that as falsification. So I would take that as evidence that whatever genre the Gospels are allows such alterations. But that minor alteration to the story of Jairus isn't evidence that a Gospel writer could just make up the story as a whole, as if Jairus's daughter might not have been raised by Jesus.

Christopher, aren't you in danger of circularity here? The genre of these is not "strictly factual eyewitness reports" because Matthew inserted 'stuff', and we know Matthew inserted stuff because he (facially) disagrees with Luke, and we know that an apparent disagreement with the others means they (at least one) were free to insert stuff, so these are not strictly factual eyewitness reports.

What is the possibility that even if there was a genre of partly fictionalized bio's, these aren't that because they have a unique purpose in all of history, that of directly attesting to the one Messiah of all mankind? If they are unique in that sense, can they be unique in the sense of being a genre apart: a Gospel?

Theological points can (and in some cases must) flow from real history, but they _can also_ be illustrated by that which is non-historical, such as Jesus' parables.

Theological points, yes (sort of. See below.) Historical points, no: you can't resort to "illustrating" by non-historical events to establish that God finally redeemed His promise to send a savior specifically in the person of Jesus Christ. If the support for the proposition that Jesus is the concrete person in time who answers to "the Messiah" is made-up stuff, it doesn't work.

A disagreement among believers about whether a particular theological point is being made by God in the former way or the latter is not, generally speaking, a disagreement over and *important idea* of Christianity. In some cases it is, but you have not given reason to think it is in the case of the day of the crucifixion.

It is my sense that this is exactly the top of the slippery slope that has led many to "Jesus is a myth" and "Jesus was just a rabbi" and "the part about Jesus rising from the dead was inserted into the stories by later Christian 'communities' to 'show' how Jesus is still living in their hearts - it's a 'theological point' All Christians agree, though, on the important point that Jesus loves us and that love sustains us." It is because there is no theoretical limit to the discovery of new "devices" that you can't cut that slippery slope and say "so far and no farther" on principle.

Theological points can (and in some cases must) flow from real history, but they _can also_ be illustrated by that which is non-historical, such as Jesus' parables.

A disagreement among believers about whether a particular theological point is being made by God in the former way or the latter is not, generally speaking, a disagreement over and *important idea* of Christianity. In some cases it is, but you have not given reason to think it is in the case of the day of the crucifixion.

One of the points St. Augustine makes about the Bible is that while there are passages whose point is somewhat obscure, that same point is made elsewhere more forthrightly. And proofs for things (like the reality of a prophet's authority) that are made in one place indirectly, rely also on it being made elsewhere more directly.

Theological points that hinge on historical facts that are attested to by infomercials (i.e. parables) are also attested to by plain and simple historical reports. But conflicting reports of the historical facts would then undermine that process. You can have John attest to Christ eating food after the Resurrection by a parable, but you can't have John attest to Christ's risen body being physical by an REPEATING someone else's account of Christ eating, but by rearranging the facts to suit some other thesis. That's not having one passage CLEAR UP the obscurity or uncertainty of another passage, it's the opposite.

Since you seem to allow for the possibility that the Gospel writers were mistaken in most of the cases where Licona claims to see Plutarchian "devices", I don't think the possibility of Plutarchian alterations has an exceedingly great effect on the strength of the argument.

Christopher, I want to zero in on this and clear up any misimpression quite explicitly. I have a sample at this point of about 8-10 instances where Licona is hypothesizing deliberate changes. Of that sample, I would say that *at most* about 25% are such that I consider the hypothesis of mistake to be a contender. His approach to harmonization is pretty consistent throughout. I have a _very_ different approach to harmonization than Licona does, not because the gospels are sacred to me, but because of what I deem to be responsible practice when dealing with putatively historical documents that come (directly or indirectly) from putatively eyewitness sources. "Allow for the possibility that the Gospel writers are mistaken" is a vague phrase, and the effect on the strength of the argument depends on something more than bare possibility! So, no, I _strongly_ contest this characterization of the effect of my general approach.

Licona has clearly been influenced heavily by mainstream (and not particularly conservative mainstream) versions of redaction criticism. Such an approach is generally disdainful of harmonization. Again and again now (I just started watching another video) I have seen Licona literally not even bring up quite plausible harmonizations and go straight to an hypothesis that one gospel writer redacted an account, just flat changing it. He does not even contemplate the possibility of independent access to the same event. My approach, in contrast, is forensic. I'm approaching these like a detective. Licona, like all too many New Testament critics, is approaching them like a literary theorist, and treating exceedingly weak conjecture about redaction as near certainty at point after point.

This approach has a _large_ effect upon the strength of the case for pretty much any aspect of Jesus' life and ministry, including his resurrection. Allowing for the possibility of error while at the same time taking what I deem to be a responsible and sober approach to harmonization of putative testimony (which other evidence gives us reason to believe really did come from sources near the events) is likely to end up in a very different place.

If we're arguing with an unbeliever we have to take into account the possibility that the NT authors _were_ deceptive, or were not in a position to know as much about the details as they claim, or were mistaken.

That's why we look at the documents and see whether they seem to be written by trustworthy authors who are not deceptive and who were in a position to know.

Aside from my technical philosophical work (which, in fact, intersects with this argument at a number of points), _arguing_ for that is a major part of my intellectual life's work right now!

I don't think I overstate the cumulative case, in part because I have _arguments_ that the NT authors were not deceptive, etc. I fully recognize the importance of those points, and that's what all this stuff about incidental confirmations, undesigned coincidences, etc., is about. One doesn't merely treat the gospels as random members of a generic sample of writings. One seeks to find out (to the extent that one can) if _these_ writings in particular show marks of historicity and reliability. I argue that they do.

Let me note here another highly specific intersection point between Licona's method and apologetics. In John 2:20 the Jews say that it has taken forty-six years to build the Temple. This can be used together with secular history (and I believe also with Luke's statement that John the Baptist began ministering in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberias) to show an incidental historical confirmation of the historicity of the gospels.

If John _deliberately moved_ the time of Jesus' temple cleansing (with which the Jews' comment is entangled), then it seems that he invented this bit of dialogue, since it is part of what places this temple cleansing firmly at the beginning rather than the end of Jesus' ministry. So at that point what we're doing is removing historical apologetic confirmations of the accuracy of the gospel accounts by unnecessary conjectural theories that end up requiring the gospel writers to be making them up! And all, apparently, because of an unreasonable aversion to thinking that Jesus cleansed the temple twice!

We don't need nearly so much documentary evidence as we have. If what we have is four "Plutarchs" who were close associates of Jesus writing very close indeed to the time of the events described, plus the evidence contained in the epistles, we still have a huge surplus.

I appreciate your scare quotes around "Plutarchs." I'll use L-Plutarch (Plutarch as represented by Licona) for the same purpose, without granting that the real Plutarch felt as free to make alterations to history as Licona says he did.

So let's think about this. Suppose that we had four L-Plutarchs writing close to the time of the events described, and the evidence in the epistles.

First, in that case, as I argued in the main post (and see my comment to you just above this one on the treatment of harmonization) the probability of a falsification of detail in any given passage, even where there is no discrepancy with another account, is a good deal higher than it would be on my view. So if one of our four L-Plutarchs is the only source for some detail (such as Jesus' statement that he isn't a ghost or his eating fish), the prima facie probability for the historicity of that specific detail, or even for the proposition that the original disciples _reported_ that detail, from that one L-Plutarch is significantly lower than it would be if instead we treated the account as coming from a putative eyewitness not designated as an L-Plutarch. And the difference in the force of that evidence is greater still if we contrast the L-Plutarch view with a situation where we take into account other evidence *for* the literal truthfulness of the gospel writers.

So, consider questions like this:

--Did the disciples say that Jesus ate with them after his resurrection?
--How many disciples were together when the putative appearances took place? (Exaggerations or changes of numbers seem particularly plausible for L-Plutarchs.)
--Did the disciples testify that Jesus met with them over only one day or over several weeks after his resurrection?
--Did the disciples testify that Jesus invited Thomas to touch him? Did he explicitly affirm that he was not a ghost but was flesh and blood?

If one cannot give a clear and positive answer to this question, there is no getting around the very great weakening of the case for the resurrection.

Second, the four L-Plutarchs are not independent! This is an _extremely_ important point. Even I do not claim that the four gospels are entirely independent accounts. I do, however, claim that there is extremely cool evidence for a significant degree of independence in their access to the information and for the reliability of their information where one has material that the others do not include. But when you take Licona's approach, the dependence among the accounts is greatly increased. See my comments just above about redaction criticism and Licona's disregarding the possibility of independent access to the events. Four L-Plutarchs who are heavily dependent on each other, some of whom may have no independent access to the events at all but may merely be monkeying with an earlier L-Plutarch's account, make for a _severely_ weakened case.

Third, Licona's approach would presumably affect one's interpretation of Acts as well. (Why not? If anything, the Gentile author of Acts would be _more_ likely than Galilean fishermen to be affected by these supposed "Greco-Roman literary tropes.") That calls into question the accuracy of the reports in Acts of the apostles' words at Pentecost and when questioned by the Jewish leaders. In these reports they expressly affirm the physical resurrection of Jesus. If Luke might for all we know have deliberately exaggerated their words, how confident can we be that they were really clear in affirming that they were risking themselves for a *physical* resurrection?

In short, I would say that if I thought that all we have are five L-Plutarchs (including Acts) in our gospels and Acts, I would have to take much more seriously hypotheses like hallucination and vague, vision-like experience on the part of the disciples. If I were to think (which I don't) that there is any independent evidence for paranormal phenomena like ghosts, I would probably have to put that in there as a candidate explanation as well. The way we respond to all of these hypotheses is from the _details_ of the gospel accounts, based on their being a good record of *what the disciples claimed* concerning points relevant to the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The applause that you hear coming from the direction of Durham is my appreciation of Lydia's and Tony's words. This discussion is extremely important not only for our understanding of what the evangelists say happened, but for our understanding of what actually did happen. If Dr Licona is correct, it is unlikely that, in certain cases, what actually happened is what the evangelists reported and expected the reader to think happened. This may not sound fair to Licona, but it is the impression that I get after thinking over this for a few days now. I hope this isn't perceived as some sort of reactionary obscurantism on my part, but if it is, I shall have to live with that label.

From a pastoral perspective, things are made much more difficult in "talking about Jesus" with others when we have to say that no, even though the text seems at face value to be saying that something miraculous happened --- something that testifies to the person and work of Jesus --- the author didn't really mean it and was employing a literary device. Some people won't be bothered by this, but I would certainly have been bothered by it in my study of whether all this Christianity stuff was worthy of belief. I'd rather be bothered by a few hard passages that I must accept in the name of consistency and humility than to make (wide?) swaths of the gospels open to this de-historicization. Perhaps Dr Licona can successfully argue in his book why, say, while the resurrection of the saints is a candidate for de-historicization, the raising of Lazarus from the dead (say) is not.

I'm fascinated by this discussion and surely there are many others out there, who are silent (usually as I am) but greatly vested in the resolution of this debate in the years to come.

By the way, Christopher expressed some curiosity as to why we should not take Licona's treatment of the resurrection of the saints to be inconsistent with his presentation of Plutarch otherwise, since it seems to Christopher that Licona would not think that Plutarch would make up an entire incident. You would have to read Licona's specific argument (see pp. 549ff in his resurrection book), but as a rough summary, it is supposed to be a literary trope of "apocalyptic happenings at a death." Hence, it has dehistoricizing implications as well for the darkness and earthquake at Jesus' death and the rending of the veil of the temple. Licona believed that he had come upon places where non-Christian authors, including Josephus, recounted apocalyptic happenings at the death of someone important and didn't mean them historically. (I have never really understood _why_ we should take it as so obvious that most of them didn't mean to affirm that they really happened, beyond one instance in which Lucian expressly stated with contempt that he elaborated his account, but...) He then took this, very much of a piece with this most recent work, to mean that recounting apocalyptic events at a death was a "literary device" and that these big events at Jesus' death were an instance of that "literary device" and not intended historically.

In that case, the one and only good thing about Licona's theory was that it was related to highly specific subject matter (apocalyptic events at a death) which comes up only this one time in the gospels. Hence, its effects might be regarded *in one sense* as more limited than the effects of Licona's expanded method more recently. On the other hand, it did show his willingness to say that *entire incidents* in the gospels, though not marked as parables or in any other special way in the text, were not intended historically.

I'll take as given that you are accurately representing what Licona says elsewhere, and I would respond by agreeing with you that he gives far to much weight to the mainstream higher-critical arguments. Maybe there were subtle hints in the lecture you linked to of these more radical views, but if so I missed them. The only thing I want to defend is the claim that real events that actually happened can be described, deliberately, in ways that don't line up exactly with how they happened, within the conventions of ancient biography: details can be changed, chronology can be altered; and for them to do this was not deceptive. I don't believe events would be simply made up.

From where I stand now, I believe Matthew 27:52-53 recounts a real historical event, and if I'm to be convinced otherwise, I'd want to see the "marks" that would be recognized by the original audience as designating this specific bit of narrative as non-historical, analogous to the literary cues that mark a parable as such.

As it happens, I also think that Luke was not "telescoping" at the end of the Gospel. I can understand how someone could read it that way, but I don't believe Luke intended describe the ascension as if it happened on the same day as the resurrection.

But when you take Licona's approach, the dependence among the accounts is greatly increased. See my comments just above about redaction criticism and Licona's disregarding the possibility of independent access to the events.
I'm not defending Licona's approach as a whole, only what I took him to be saying in the linked lecture.
If Luke might for all we know have deliberately exaggerated their words, how confident can we be that they were really clear in affirming that they were risking themselves for a *physical* resurrection?
I think you are perhaps misusing the word 'exaggerating'? I'm not quite sure exactly what your proposal is about what Luke "might have been doing"; but in any case, it's abundantly clear that the initial group of Jews who later came to be known as Christians believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and that this belief first began to be held by the women at the tomb on Easter morning. N.T. Wright has given a detailed demonstration of this that in no way depends upon the assumption of "plusque Plutarchian" reliability in the Gospel writers.
in part because I have _arguments_ that the NT authors were not deceptive, etc. I fully recognize the importance of those points, and that's what all this stuff about incidental confirmations, undesigned coincidences, etc., is about.
But those undesigned coincidences, etc., are just as much to be expected on my view as on yours. On my view, for any given detail, absent reason to think otherwise, the most likely reason the writer had for putting it in is because that's how he remembered it happening, or that's how the person he interviewed recounted it. The discovery of lots of undesigned coincidences doesn't distinguish between "Plutarchian" and "plusque Plutarchian" reliability. Even if you were to convince _me_ that the Gospel writers would never deliberate change any details (on the basis of my conviction that they wouldn't be deliberately deceptive) I don't see how you convince an unbeliever (one who thinks the prior probability of Jesus rising from the dead is no greater than any one else doing so) that the Gospels are plusque Plutarchian reliable.

As for whether ancient writers like Plutarch would have done the sort of thing Licona claims, my impression is that few historians would balk at such a claim. Here is David Hacket Fisher in _Historians' Fallacies_. Note that he agrees with your position that this sort of thing is "fictionalizing" and a betrayal of the historian's commitment to truth. But while his discussion makes clear that his fellow historians don't all agree with him on that, his assertion that ancient historical writers actually behaved this way doesn't seem to be one that he expects to be controverted.

To the truth of art, external reality is irrelevant. Art creates its own reality, within which truth and the perfection of beauty is the infinite refinement of itself. History is very different. It is an empirical search for external truths, and for the best, most complete, and most profound external truths, in a maximal corresponding relationship with the absolute reality of the past events. Any attempt to conduct that search according to aesthetic standards of significance (most commonly in an attempt to tell a beautiful story) is either to abandon empiricism or to contradict it. The aesthetic fallacy is an ancient form of error which appeared full blown in Aristotle's notorious opinion that history was an inferior form of particularized poetry, roughly on an intellectual plane with lyre plucking. That Aristotle should have come to this conclusion is understandable, for the aesthetic fallacy appears in the writing of every ancient historian whose works have survived into the modern age, particularly in historians of the fourth century B.C. But the logical extension of the aesthetic fallacy appears later in the Roman historian who is reputed to have said that he would have made Pompey win the battle of Pharsalia if the turn of the sentence had required it. This extraordinary statement is attributed to Livy by Lytton Strachey, who thought it a perfectly sensible idea.The attribution is probably incorrect. Indeed, one wonders if Livy was made to say it for the turn of Lytton Strachey's sentence. But, there was, in truth, more than a little of this madness in Livy's method. A learned student of his works has compared him to Sir Walter Scott. "Like a novelist," writes R. M. Ogilvie, "he subordinated historical precision to the demands of character and plot. He indulged freely in invention and imagination in order to present a living picture. He would have disclaimed the title of a 'Historian' in a modern sense." Strachey's alleged quotation would be even more accurately descriptive of the Roman poet-historian Lucan than Livy. Lucan actually wrote a long epic poem, commonly called the Pharsalia. Though he did not reverse the outcome of the battle for poetic effect, he revised nearly everything else, in the interest of aesthetic perfection. For the sake of his meter he rearranged the geography of the Mediterranean, substituting Emathios for Thessalios in the first line, because Thessalios would not scan after the opening Bella per. He removed the capital of Parthia from crude, clumsy-sounding Ctesiphon, to beautiful, euphonious Babylon. Like many another Roman poet after Virgil, he made the battles of Pharsalia and Philippi take place on the same spot, though more than 150 miles lay in between. He changed the sequence of consuls when it suited his poetic purpose, promiscuously mixed real and fictitious persons, improved the inconvenient topography of Greece, reversed the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, revised the career of Pompey, and brought Cicero to the battlefield for dramatic effect. Lucan is long gone and little mourned. But the aesthetic fallacy appears to be immortal. There are mamy examples in the modern world of both historians and novelists who have ignored Virginia Woolf's sound maxim that "truth of fact and truth of fiction are incompatible." (Harper Perennial, 1970, 87-88.)

He goes on to mention a few modern historians who he thinks are guilty of this. I think the vast majority of modern historians would agree with him that it's not appropriate for _us_ to do this (though there are, apparently, a few, such as Lytton Strachey, who think otherwise), but I think there are many among them who would say it's inappropriate to apply our modern standards to ancient writers. In any case, on the empirical question of whether ancient writers of history felt themselves at liberty to do such things (some being more restrained than others) my sense is that that's a commonplace assertion most modern historians wouldn't bat an eye at.

The discovery of lots of undesigned coincidences doesn't distinguish between "Plutarchian" and "plusque Plutarchian" reliability. Even if you were to convince _me_ that the Gospel writers would never deliberate change any details (on the basis of my conviction that they wouldn't be deliberately deceptive) I don't see how you convince an unbeliever (one who thinks the prior probability of Jesus rising from the dead is no greater than any one else doing so) that the Gospels are plusque Plutarchian reliable.

Christopher, if I understand correctly what you mean by your terms "Plutarchian" and "plusque Plutarchian," then you are just wrong about this. It's a matter of what we would expect to find. Here's an example, but they can be multiplied: In the *very narrative* where Licona suggests a deliberate displacement by John (that of Jesus' trial before Pilate)--namely, John's "changing the date of the crucifixion"--we find multiple undesigned coincidences between John's account and Luke's account of the trial. The best explanation of the undesigned coincidences is that both John and Luke are writing about these events from people in the know (or as someone in the know), trying to be as honest as they can be (in a literal, unadorned, and non-literary sense of "honest"). That is the best explanation of our having these specific details of what the leaders said, what Pilate said, what Jesus said, etc., that differ between the accounts yet fit together so well. Now, if that explanation is the right one as far as *what the authors were like* and *how they were doing their work*, then that is evidence *against* John's being the type of author who deliberately changed the day on which something occurred. The two are conflicting characterizations of the author of the fourth gospel. It creates a kind of whiplash. In one verse of the same passage, he's (allegedly) carefully changing the date on which the event occurred, because he wants to illustrate some theological point. Just a couple of verses later he's artlessly narrating what he remembers (or what someone else told him they remembered) about the very same part of the story, just as it happened, and doing it *so* artlessly and at the same time *so* accurately that it ends up dovetailing with, explaining and being explained by, Luke's also not-comprehensive account of the same event!

Now, as I've said repeatedly on this thread, the alleged "difficulty" that causes Licona and others to say that John "changed the day of the crucifixion" arises from a bad confusion, as does their supposed "resolution." For if this were Thursday and the Jewish leaders wanted to eat the evening Passover meal, their entering Pilate's hall early in the morning would not have prevented it, as they could have purified themselves at the evening. So the entire "John changed the date" conjecture is based on a mistake.

But the point I'm making here is that it also gives us a very different kind of "John" from the John whose distinctly unliterary account gives rise to the undesigned coincidences in the same passage.

I may not, for psychological and sociological reasons, be able to convince an unbeliever of this conclusion, but I'd like to have a jolly good try. And I certainly do not ask you to accept the conclusion I wish to argue for about what the gospel writers were like because you are a believer! I ask you to believe it because you are a reasonable man, and that's the way the evidence points.

If I may side with Christopher on this issue, and put the discussion concerning Licona's forthcoming book to the side for a moment.

It seems to me as well that all that can be shown via the argument from undesigned coincidences, and the sort of arguments given by others (e.g. Peter J. Williams), is that the Gospels are, indeed, works of ancient historiography written by authors who had access to detailed eyewitness testimony of the circumstances in which the events they recorded ostensibly took place and were written within living memory of the events themselves. However, even given all that, there are a still a great many things that remain unclear concerning the production of these texts. How well did the authors of the Gospels vet their sources? What sort of artistic licenses were acceptable to them in the case where the information they had was incomplete? Was there any criteria for what counted as eyewitness testimony and if so what was it? And to what extent did the authors of the Gospels disagree with each other on how such issues were handled? Etc.

We may conclude that critical scholars in the past were mistaken in thinking that the Gospels are legendary works of fiction written long after the fact by ancient minds pickled in piety, but it doesn't follow that these ancient works of historiography are reliable according to modern standards of historiography. It may be that all the difficulties we have in reading the Gospels in comparison to each other can be resolved by harmonization, but I doubt that very much.

Boreas, I'm going to address your comments in opposite order. First, to this:


but it doesn't follow that these ancient works of historiography are reliable according to modern standards of historiography.

It would be a great mistake, in my opinion, to make sweeping generalizations about ancient "historiography" and its standards. For example, in the quotation provided by Christopher in his previous comment, a poet, Lucan, is treated as an example of "ancient historiography." It's not clear to me that Lucan would have been regarded by his readers as an historian in anything like the same sense that the readers of the gospels would have regarded them as writing historical memoirs. And the same for Livy.

Ancient documents show, as far as I know, a range of notions of freedom in altering fact, and there is no reason to think that there was some *general* "ancient" notion that it's okay deliberately to change facts in what purports to be a highly sober, historical document.

Moving back in your comment, you say,

It seems to me as well that all that can be shown via the argument from undesigned coincidences, and the sort of arguments given by others (e.g. Peter J. Williams), is that the Gospels are, indeed, works of ancient historiography written by authors who had access to detailed eyewitness testimony of the circumstances in which the events they recorded ostensibly took place and were written within living memory of the events themselves.

Given what else you say, my understanding of your comment is that you mean this "all that can be shown" to mean that such arguments *cannot* give us reason to believe that the gospel authors were unlikely deliberately and knowingly to alter facts--such as the date on which an event took place. Here I *emphatically* disagree.

Look, I understand. I understand the desire to say, "Hey, let's not overstate," etc. I also understand that we are pushing back against a world of New Testament scholarship that _does_ imply that "the Gospels are legendary works of fiction written long after the fact by ancient minds pickled in piety." And not only "scholars of the past," but Bart Ehrman alive and kicking and doing the book and lecture circuit telling everybody that we really have very little idea in any detail at all what Jesus' life was like, because the gospels are the result of pious story-telling together with the equivalent of a long game of telephone.

So I understand the impulse to say that Ehrman is wrong but also that it's somehow "too much" to claim that our evidence shows something so (so-called) "extreme" as that the gospel writers didn't deliberately make stuff up and alter facts. This latter claim sounds more suave when treated as part of "are reliable according to modern standards of historiography," but that's what that part of it comes to, and that's what I'm writing against. There is nothing remotely extreme or anachronistic about saying that we have evidence that the gospel writers didn't do that. I gave an example in my comment above to Christopher, and I will continue to say, that these arguments give us reason to think that they were truthful in their intent, which means things like not deliberately monkeying with the day on which Jesus died, the year in which he cleansed the Temple, and so forth. That would be in severe tension with the picture of the gospel writers that emerges from the evidence we have.

No offense, Boreas, but I cannot help thinking that your comments here (and perhaps Christopher's as well) indicate that you don't really have a good sense of the extent, scope, number, and force of the argument from undesigned coincidences. In your earlier comment, you just listed arguments that you think we can still have, and you listed undesigned coincidences alongside of minimal facts. Well, I think we have maximal data, not minimal facts. And I think that's a very good thing, as the earlier post I linked to shows. It is a big part of my intellectual work right now to show people more and more of the force of the maximal data, and you seem to be making fairly definite statements on the basis of what is (for all I can tell) an incomplete appreciation of the evidence at hand.

Moreover, as I have argued both in the main post and throughout this thread, again and again, thinking that they did that has a much bigger effect, as a sheerly historical matter, on our understanding of their reliability, in the ordinary sense of "reliability," than thinking that they may have very occasionally made a trivial error. So the contrast is not between "every single one of the difficulties we have in reading the Gospels in comparison to each other can be resolved by harmonization" and "the gospel writers might, for all we know, have deliberately changed the facts from what they knew or had reason to think was true." That is a false dilemma.

That this would have a bigger effect on reliability should be obvious. It would be true in any day-to-day human interaction, and it's important to remember that the gospels were written down by the evangelists after they and others had been saying the same things in ordinary, day-to-day human interactions, for the purpose of convincing people that what the witnesses (including some of the evangelists themselves) claimed had really happened! Peter didn't preach in Rome, from which it seems Mark got his information, for purposes of creating an historical novel, a semi-fictionalized history, or a poem! He preached for the purpose of telling people what he knew as an eyewitness. And the same for John and the other apostles. This point comes out again and again and again in statements both in the epistles and in Acts. And if John the apostle were your acquaintance and told you that an event happened on a Saturday, and then later when you compared his account with someone else's and questioned him about it, told you the equivalent of, "Psych! I knew it was a Wednesday all along but changed it to a Saturday when I told you the story before 'cause it made my story flow better," that would _rightly_ have a bigger effect on your sense of the trustworthiness of your friend and putative witness John than if he said, "Huh, really? Interesting. Well, it's been forty years, and I might be misremembering the day. I remembered it as happening on a Saturday, but maybe my old friend Peter is right and it was a Wednesday."

This is a matter of human nature and the force of evidence, and you cannot just sweep that difference aside with phrases like "standards of ancient historiography" or "literary devices" and imply (on the basis of radically insufficient evidence) that someone who invokes ideas like reliability in human testimony and interaction is being hung-up and anachronistic.

Lydia, I would like to put aside for the moment the dubious notion that the evangelists relayed history contrary to their own understanding of what actually happened. For what it's worth, I also don't find that idea to be either plausible or appealing.

The point I was trying to make in my last contribution to this discussion is that we are not in a good position to assess the level of historical precision that we can expect from these texts on the grounds that there is too much we still don't know about the manner in which they were produced. We are in a position to say that these are, as I said, "works of ancient historiography written by authors who had access to detailed eyewitness testimony of the circumstances in which the events they recorded ostensibly took place and were written within living memory of the events themselves." And that certainly goes a long way in responding to the tradition of critical scholars who are wont to see these texts as so much piously motivated fiction, but it doesn't follow that the Gospels are reliable in the same sort of way that a modern almanac of baseball statistics is reliable, say. We might use various arguments to corroborate that the Gospels are most likely accurate with regards to certain specific details, but such arguments are not to be had for all the details found in the Gospels, I am afraid. All this is to say, the Gospels may give us something like your "maximal data," but we may not be in a position to show that it does, in fact, give us "maximal data." This is the sort of concern that I would like to see you interact with a bit more, if you don't mind.

And that certainly goes a long way in responding to the tradition of critical scholars who are wont to see these texts as so much piously motivated fiction, but it doesn't follow that the Gospels are reliable in the same sort of way that a modern almanac of baseball statistics is reliable, say.

I'm not sure exactly what it would mean for a memoir of a known person to be "reliable in the same sort of way that a modern almanac of baseball statistics is reliable." After all, in your earlier comment you were asking questions like this:

How well did the authors of the Gospels vet their sources? What sort of artistic licenses were acceptable to them in the case where the information they had was incomplete? Was there any criteria for what counted as eyewitness testimony and if so what was it?

These questions obviously apply to narratives in a way that they don't even apply to an almanac of baseball statistics. I'm not even sure what the comparison means.

But let's try a few possible things you could be asking about. Consider geography. That's a pretty dry, factual sort of thing. Suppose that a gospel author says that some place is "near to" some other place or that an event took place in the vicinity of somewhere else. Guess what? We have multiple places where this all fits together pretty well. (E.g. An undesigned coincidences confirming that the feeding of the five thousand took place in the vicinity of Bethsaida, on the upper east of the Sea of Galilee.) Acts is _fantastically_ detailed about geography--chock full of amazing stuff that can be corroborated.

What about years? Well, there's a great external confirmation related to both Luke's _and_ John's references to the time of the beginning of Jesus' ministry.

How about nitty-gritty things like fishing practices and sailing? Well, we have the disciples fishing at night, which I gather is confirmed by the practice of fishermen in that part of the world. And in Acts there is the most amazing stuff concerning the ship voyage of Paul--details that are accurate but told as they would have been by a landsman who did not know their significance. (See James Smith, _The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul_.)

Or consider places where even details fit together, such as the many fascinating undesigned coincidences surrounding the feeding of the five thousand concerning such matters as the time of year, the fact that the men (but not the women and children) sat down when Jesus called upon the crowds to sit down, the _way_ they sat down (in companies of approximate numbers), the fact that they were counted as approximately 5,000 men. In the Greek, there are details that distinguish the feeding of the four thousand from the feeding of the five thousand concerning the _kinds_ of baskets used to take up the leftovers and the _numbers_ of those baskets. There is the explicit reference to _barley_ loaves, which again fits with the time of year. Seldom can a miracle have been confirmed by so many detailed, statistics-like dovetailings as the story of the feeding of the five thousand found in all four gospels.

Then, let's consider the types of things that are often mentioned but that we can't directly corroborate--such as statements about what time certain things happened, or the casual detail that one of Peter's denials happened "about an hour later" and so forth, that don't happen to be corroborated directly or indirectly from other accounts or from external history. E.g., the number of fish caught on the day Jesus met the disciples after his resurrection at the Sea of Tiberias. To be sure, we don't know for a fact that these are accurate, or approximately accurate (some are stated in explicitly approximate terms). But they are what we can call unnecessary details, and as such are the mark of real eyewitness testimony. This is how people talk about things that have actually happened to them. Fishermen remember how many fish they caught. A man in the middle of a story he wants to relate truthfully will say, "And it was about an hour later when..." Could some of such details be accidentally incorrect--a somewhat erroneous memory? Sure, they could be. Maybe some are. But their very casualness and verisimilitude gives us reason both to think that they come from actual memories of someone and also that they can be considered accurate until shown otherwise.

And of course the rather astonishing amount of corroboration for dry, boring, inessential details (which perhaps you would think of as akin to baseball statistics??) that we _do_ have gives us reason to trust the details that are not directly corroborated, since they come from the same documents.

This does not mean that I think every single difficulty in the gospels must have some truth lying behind it that would resolve the difficulty without attributing even trivial error to one of the evangelists. But you can get pretty darned accurate and free of "creative license when information is incomplete" (!) without being absolutely free of minor error.

Heck, I bet even some baseball almanacs have had an error or two from time to time. You think maybe?

We might use various arguments to corroborate that the Gospels are most likely accurate with regards to certain specific details, but such arguments are not to be had for all the details found in the Gospels, I am afraid.

Let me just hit this one _again_. Just as you don't have to have every word your acquaintance says corroborated by someone else (as if his every word has to be duplicated elsewhere) in order to get a _sample_ of confirmations of his reliability and take that to give you reason to trust the other things he says, so here. We don't _have_ to have every detail in the gospels corroborated to come to have reason to trust them even on matters of detail. This is a matter of common sense sampling. It would be just as absurd to think that a gospel is accurate here, here, and here but, for all we know, might be riddled with creative license and error over there as to think that the store that has sold you good bread for a number of weeks in a row might suddenly, for no particular reason, start selling you bread riddled with mold tomorrow. The corroborations are scattered throughout the texts, not confined to any particular type of material, etc. In fact, it's one of the most notable points in the gospels that undesigned coincidences are _not_ confined to, say, non-miraculous material. They are scattered at random through both non-miraculous and miraculous accounts. There is no reason to think these types of confirmations to be unrepresentative and to distrust any particular detail that has not been verified in some other way.

I think a big part of the problem here is that New Testament studies as it is often taught has a classic problem of being unable to see the forest for the trees. It focuses on supposed "Difficulties." Two problems with this are a) that the supposed difficulties are often exaggerated or even, properly speaking, not difficulties at all, and b) that they are not set in the context of the many confirmations of the gospels (and Acts, even more so), even on matters of detail.

The student thus comes away with the notion that Difficulties, which is to say "problems that call into question the ordinary-sense reliability of the gospels" are the rule rather than the exception, that _they_ are typical and that confirmations are atypical. The student thus comes to have the uneasy feeling that he must redefine reliability, come up with some fancy literary theory, or "do" something else, in order to "deal with" these supposed many, many difficulties, because the difficulties allegedly make it just _impossible_ for a Real Scholar to take the gospels to be reliable in an unhyphenated, un-asterisked sense.

I think this is a distortion.

In contrast, I want to recommend the attitude shown in a particular case by the late Colin Hemer concerning Luke, the author of both Luke and Acts. Hemer is discussing a crux in Acts concerning the allusion to Theudas by Gamaliel. He says something to the effect that, even if we cannot with confidence identify what "Theudas" Gamaliel is talking about, given all the other reason we have to trust the author of Acts as a careful historian, we should not be hasty to attribute an error to him at this point just because we don't know who this Theudas was. (I'm paraphrasing, of course.)

Mention the reliability of Luke to nine seminary-educated people out of ten, even conservatives, and like clockwork you'll immediately hear, with great solemnity, about the difficulty placing the census in Luke 2 in relation to secular history and the difficulty placing Paul's journeys, recounted in Galatians, with confidence into the events in the book of Acts!

One gets the distinct impression that such students and scholars have been led to believe that the prima facie case is that Luke is an _unreliable_ author. But this is astonishingly incorrect. On the contrary, there are so many places where we can _minutely_ connect the epistles with Acts and confirm Luke's connection to secular history _in detail_ that it is the "difficulties" that are the outliers. So strongly is this the case that, as with the case of Theudas discussed by Hemer, the difficulty being sure exactly how the census in Luke 2 fits into secular history is a place where we are fully justified in concluding that, while it is possible that Luke made a rare error (especially rare for him), one historical explanation or another, consistent with what Luke says, is very likely correct even if we don't know which one!

Look, ma, no literary theory required.

Thank you for that very helpful response Lydia! If you don't mind, I would now like to drop the various rhetorical poses I've been playing with in our exchange and be a bit more straightforward with where I am really coming from.

To be frank, what I am looking for is a more nuanced take on the reliability of the Gospels than what has been proposed thus far. As you and others have so forcefully argued here and elsewhere, there is a robust sense in which the Gospels are, indeed, historically reliable in the ordinary sense of what that means. However, it is almost certainly the case that the Gospels disagree with each other in such a way that they can't all be right at certain points.

And it is true that the skeptical tradition within biblical criticism routinely overemphasizes the significance of these differences while minimizing the significance of the various ways in which the Gospels can be shown to be reliable (to the extent this tradition recognizes them at all), since it is stuck within a reactionary mode of thinking about these texts and doesn't want to grant even the smallest scholarly bone to traditional readings/understandings if it can be helped. However, on the other hand, people like yourself and Licona continue to hold on to the label of biblical inerrancy in your own idiosyncratic ways that are at variance with what most people mean by that label. The problem I have with this is that biblical inerrancy is obviously misguided and almost certainly false. In my opinion, the best way to defang the skeptical tradition is not to shore up biblical inerrancy in various ways, but to assimilate the best critical insights from the skeptical tradition to our own paradigm of biblical reliability and leave behind all the hand-wringing about inerrancy.

Doubtless you will take exception to my statement that biblical inerrancy is obviously misguided and almost certainly false, but I don't see how such a judgment can be plausibly avoided. To take just one example and develop it at length, Matthew and Mark clearly disagree with John as to whether the Baptist is the coming Elijah or not. Without stating it outright, John implies that Jesus is the Christ, the prophet like Moses, and the coming Elijah (prophesied by Malachi) all rolled into one; and if he is right, and this tracks Jesus's own understanding of the prophetic significance of his ministry, then it means that Mark and Matthew erroneously put words into Jesus's mouth after their respective accounts of the transfiguration. Moreover, the most natural explanation for why Moses and Elijah appear alongside Jesus at the transfiguration is that Jesus is the prophet like Moses as well as the coming Elijah -- Mark and Matthew have arguably misunderstood the significance of their source material! Indeed, when the divine voice says "listen to him" in Matt 17:5 and Mark 9:7, it is quite probable that the warning in Deut 18:19 is being recalled (cf. Acts 3:22-23). For my part, I am not sure whether this disagreement between Matthew, Mark, and John can be attributed to a disagreement among their source material, or whether Matthew and Mark were looking to provide former disciples of the Baptist some consolation in the notion that while their former teacher was not the Christ (i.e., the promised Davidic king), he was the coming Elijah prophesied by Malachi. In any case, it seems to me that coming to terms with this disagreement might help us add some much needed nuance to our view of biblical reliability.

If I may assume the liberty of developing another example, Matthew and Mark disagree with Luke as to whether the sign that will precede the destruction of the temple is the "abomination of desolation" or Jerusalem being surrounded by armies. Admittedly, that there is a real disagreement here is less obvious to the layman than in the former example, but it is probably there nonetheless. The expression "abomination of desolation" is taken from Daniel (so Matthew) and also shows up in 1 Maccabees; more importantly, it either refers to a pagan altar on which illicit offerings are made, or the pagan offerings themselves, or a pagan statue of some kind (there is some disagreement on this point since the expression is a difficult one). In any case, it does not refer to Gentile armies or some such, there was no need to resort to an obscure quasi-technical expression to refer to Gentile armies. This means that Mark and Matthew could not have been written after 70 CE, since, whatever is precisely intended by this expression, nothing like it happened in the run up to the destruction of the temple and they would not knowingly put a false prophesy in the mouth of Jesus. Assuming that one of these Gospels was a source text for the other, it follows that at least one of them was written within a couple decades of Jesus's death. But then it's hard to resist the notion that the usage of this expression in this context has its ultimate origin in the Caligula crisis and not the ministry of Jesus. The relevant eyewitness testimony available to the authors of these Gospels was either mistaken or in disagreement on this point (the eyewitness testimony might have been contaminated by speculation that arose during the Caligula crisis), or there was a gap in the eyewitness testimony on this point and the synoptic authors are taking a stab as to what Jesus probably said vis-a-vis the sign that would foreshadow the temple's destruction.

And, of course, there are a litany of ways in which the Gospels are different from each other. Most of these are quite trivial and can be plausibly resolved through harmonization, but probably not all of them. There is no sense in trying to pretend that the Gospels are reliable in anything like the way a modern almanac of baseball statistics is reliable -- the latter being a modern example of something that is possibly in error in minor ways, but is otherwise a very reliable source of information in the strongest sense of the word. My point in developing the two examples above, is that allowing for a more nuanced view of biblical reliability not only defangs the skeptical tradition but also opens up new vistas of analysis that are not available to harmonization. For one thing, the first example yields a plausible explanation as to why Jewish expectation about the coming Christ were in error -- they did not fully appreciate the fact that the Christ would come first as the prophet Elijah, and would be subsequently removed to heaven just as Elijah had, where he would then reign as the promised Davidic king. The second example yields a nice argument to the effect that much of the material in either Mark or Matthew is very early indeed, which I think is quite helpful to any sincere attempt at arguing for the reliability of the Gospels.

However, on the other hand, people like yourself and Licona continue to hold on to the label of biblical inerrancy in your own idiosyncratic ways that are at variance with what most people mean by that label.

Wait a minute. What????? What?????

I couldn't even read the rest of your comment. I'll read it later. But what????

Did you even read the main blog post???

I _explicitly_ said there that I do _not_ hold onto the label of biblical inerrancy regarding myself. In fact, I contrasted myself with Licona _precisely_ because in my opinion he holds onto the label while losing all that the label was supposed to secure and more, while I do not claim that label for myself, yet I believe that I have a higher view of the trustworthiness of Scripture than he does.

I'm astonished that at this point in our dialogue you should not have understood this about me. In fact, in the main post I said explicitly that I think that there may be some minor errors in the gospels, but that I think accepting that possibility has far fewer repercussions for reliability than Licona's "literary" picture of the gospel authors and the liberties they took. I argued this in detail, and I have also argued it in dialogue with Christopher in the thread.

I'll read the rest of your comment and respond later to that, but this needed to be cleared up immediately.

Lydia, as best I can tell, your position is that although you admit the possibility that there might be some minor errors in these texts, you do not think that there is necessarily an error in these texts (though, you do have some "candidate passages" in mind). Okay, but from my point of view this is inerrancy in all but name, which means that there is a sense in which you are taking on board this label, if only in spirit. I've always thought that inerrancy means that there are no errors in the biblical text, not that it's necessarily true that there are no errors in the biblical text.

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

I do not see how Lydia's position can be called "inerrancy" or "inerrancy in all but name". If Lydia asserts the possibility of errors, she appears to conflict with the Exposition of the Chicago Statement, which as I read it, shuts out this sort of speculation from inerrancy (see last sentence of quotation below):

http://www.bible-researcher.com/chicago1.html

The truthfulness of Scripture is not negated by the appearance in it of irregularities of grammar or spelling, phenomenal descriptions of nature, reports of false statements (e.g., the lies of Satan), or seeming discrepancies between one passage and another. It is not right to set the so-called "phenomena" of Scripture against the teaching of Scripture about itself. Apparent inconsistencies should not be ignored. Solution of them, where this can be convincingly achieved, will encourage our faith, and where for the present no convincing solution is at hand we shall significantly honor God by trusting His assurance that His Word is true, despite these appearances, and by maintaining our confidence that one day they will be seen to have been illusions.

In addition, and this is to be held in much lower esteem than the Chicago Statement, my own personal experience is that I know at least three conservative mainstream church bodies that consider themselves holders of inerrancy and would like to give Lydia a good talking-to due to her up-front candor regarding her openness to the possibility of errors. Not that Lydia claims there are errors, but merely (as I see it) that she cannot a priori rule out their existence. I would not personally endorse this talking-to, given that Lydia is a noteworthy defender of orthodox, sober Biblical positions, but am reporting this merely to say that your position of Lydia's being "[inerrant] in all but name" would be immediately denied by many who do readily accept and embrace the "inerrantist" label.

So I cannot understand the claim that Lydia's view, if I am understanding it correctly, is "inerrancy in all but name". Regardless of what she calls herself, I do not see the standard yardstick of inerrantism (the Chicago Statement) apply to her. Whatever be the label one applies to Lydia, she and Tim are always welcome at Auckland Castle.

Boreas, I am sorry but you're not making any sense.

Until perhaps 150 years ago, a Christian believing in Gospel "inerrancy" normally meant that he believed there were ARE NOT errors in the Gospels, and that there cannot be errors in the Gospel because of God's intervention preventing any. The inerrancy position was not merely that the Gospel just so happened to escape errors though there is nothing incompatible with being "Gospel" and having errors. "Inerrancy" was an assertion that there is something incompatible with being "Gospel" and having errors.

Lydia is saying she is not that. She says that she doesn't claim that there "cannot be" any errors in the Gospel. She has a few candidates for what she think more likely than not are errors. She doesn't have to assert definitively that they ARE errors to hold that they MAY BE, and (probably are) errors, and the latter is sufficient to preclude her being an inerrantist in the classic sense.

This means that Mark and Matthew could not have been written after 70 CE, since, whatever is precisely intended by this expression, nothing like it happened in the run up to the destruction of the temple and they would not knowingly put a false prophesy in the mouth of Jesus.

Is there absolutely NO POSSIBILITY that Jesus was prophecying eventS - plural - such that some of them have happened, and some not yet? None? It isn't possible that he foretold Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, and this has indeed happened. But if the tearing down of the temple is, LITERALLY, tearing it down so that not one stone is left standing on another, plausibly it has NOT happened yet - for the western wall is still (partly) standing. I am ready to grant the (very plausible) option that the phrase "not one stone left on another" was actually an actual idiomatic expression for "very thorough destruction" not meant literally as "not one stone", but I don't actually KNOW if there was such an idiom in use at the time. Maybe Christ meant the words literally? I am open to multiple possibilities. In either case, those who heard the prophecy being made didn't yet know if the events of 70 AD or 132 AD would fulfill the prophecy.

Boreas, whatevs. I have to say, your last comment has really removed my motivation to reply to your earlier comment. When you start psychoanalyzing me, I'm more or less done. I mean, you _could_ have asked me if I'd be willing to put a probability (even a fuzzy one) on any of my candidate passages, and if it came in above .5 you could have taken that into account.

But you seem more interested at this point in...something else. Ignoring my main post? Not apologizing for what definitely appeared to be a misreading of it? Calling me an inerrantist because you think that makes me look like I'm unsophisticated or up to something or "protesting too much"? I really can't tell.

For the record, I think your comment before last is a prime example of What's Wrong With New Testament Studies, because you take highly conjectural interpretations and theories about the origins of passages, including in one case your own preferred theory about the origin of one of the most obscure phrases in all of the New Testament ("the abomination of desolation") and use _that_ to argue that there just _have_ to be errors at those points in one account or other. If you wanted an argument for a place where there is plausibly an small error in one of the gospels, I could have done a lot better than that myself! But if that sort of high-flown theorizing is what's driving you to conclude that the gospels are in error in attributing words to Jesus at various points, then I think your standards of evidence are awry. And I mean that in entirely historical-epistemic terms, not because I'm chiding you for not "having more reverence for the Bible" or anything like that.

When you start psychoanalyzing me, I'm more or less done.

What are you talking about? When I say that your position is "inerrancy in all but name," I am not "psychoanalyzing" your person but characterizing your position.

But you seem more interested at this point in...something else.

Yes, what I am really interested in is not quibbling about the implications of Licona's more recent (and dubious) ideas, but trying to figure out the best way to understand the reliability of the Gospels. My hope was that you would also be more interested in discussing the latter rather than the former, but maybe not.

Calling me an inerrantist because you think that makes me look like I'm unsophisticated or up to something or "protesting too much"?

First of all, this is what real psychoanalyzing looks like. For what it's worth, I don't think you're "unsophisticated" in the least. However, I do think you're arguments reflect a largely inerrantist paradigm of sorts that doesn't acknowledge the existence of there being errors in these texts, but only the possibility of such.

For the record, I think your comment before last is a prime example of What's Wrong With New Testament Studies, because you take highly conjectural interpretations and theories about the origins of passages, including in one case your own preferred theory about the origin of one of the most obscure phrases in all of the New Testament ("the abomination of desolation") and use _that_ to argue that there just _have_ to be errors at those points in one account or other.

This is not right. I think we have a pretty good idea of the sorts of things that difficult expression can refer to, and armies surrounding Jerusalem is not one of them, and this is why harmonization is not a plausible solution here. The idea that the usage of this expression in the New Testament has its proximate origin in the Caligula crisis was presented tentatively as a notion that I find "hard to resist" and does not play a role in the argument for there being a real disagreement among the synoptics here.

Also, I notice that you have nothing to say about my earlier example, or many of the other points that I made, choosing to focus instead on one of the more conjectural things I put out there. Interesting.

When I say that your position is "inerrancy in all but name," I am not "psychoanalyzing" your person but characterizing your position.

Psychoanalyzing or not (I pass no judgement on this), your characterization is (no pun intended) errant by what I understand to be the major official statement of inerrancy, as in my post above.

However, I do think you're arguments reflect a largely inerrantist paradigm of sorts that doesn't acknowledge the existence of there being errors in these texts, but only the possibility of such.

Lydia's position as I understand it deals with the possibility of errors, not a dogmatic assertion of errors because she is not in a position to be dogmatic that there are in fact errors. There are difficulties that perhaps have an appreciable probability of having what would be an error, but one cannot adduce certainty from this. Perhaps this is why there is not an acknowledgement of errors in the text; this would require certainty or a probability very close to one. One can be dogmatic about the existence of apparent difficulties, but not about whether any difficulties truly are errant. One is strictly within the realm of probability here.

In all of my studies on alleged errors and contradictions and difficulties in the NT, my method of dealing with these is the same whether I'm an atheist or a believer: understand context, idioms, language, use common sense, try to be generous to the author, do not import modern assumptions and expectations in to the text, etc. None of this depends on "inerrancy", though it does depend on one's position on supernaturalism and miracles. Also, my experience has been that I've never seen a knock-out argument that an error is all-but-certain given the current state of evidence, at least in the gospels and NT (which is where my knowledge lies, I'm not so learned on the OT). When I arrive at a difficulty, and the difficulty remains when all the information regarding it has been proffered, I leave the matter unresolved. Perhaps there is a genuine error; perhaps there is a set of facts that would show the error is but apparent. The Chicago Statement requires a "confidence" that the error is but apparent (an "illusion"); not having this "confidence" puts one in conflict with the Statement. (The Statement does not here specify, however, the degree of confidence that one has, although it seems reasonable that confidence here means all-but-certain, given that this is linked to trust in God, who is known to be reliable.) I myself may fall afoul of the Chicago Statement, even though I think there's a good chance that all difficulties in the NT would disappear if we had all of the facts. This position of mine would probably keep me from getting a position at any mainline seminary these days, and is viewed as a quaint Victorian anachronism by some.

I say all this not in the spirit that Lydia needs a defender (!), but only in the spirit of an interested student of these things who hopes that he has at least one useful thing to say.

Doubtless you will take exception to my statement that biblical inerrancy is obviously misguided and almost certainly false, but I don't see how such a judgment can be plausibly avoided. To take just one example and develop it at length, Matthew and Mark clearly disagree with John as to whether the Baptist is the coming Elijah or not. Without stating it outright, John implies that Jesus is the Christ, the prophet like Moses, and the coming Elijah (prophesied by Malachi) all rolled into one; and if he is right, and this tracks Jesus's own understanding of the prophetic significance of his ministry, then it means that Mark and Matthew erroneously put words into Jesus's mouth after their respective accounts of the transfiguration. Moreover, the most natural explanation for why Moses and Elijah appear alongside Jesus at the transfiguration is that Jesus is the prophet like Moses as well as the coming Elijah -- Mark and Matthew have arguably misunderstood the significance of their source material! Indeed, when the divine voice says "listen to him" in Matt 17:5 and Mark 9:7, it is quite probable that the warning in Deut 18:19 is being recalled (cf. Acts 3:22-23).

Doubtless this is the sort of thing Lydia has in mind in excoriating biblical interpretations that START from the stance of "well, this looks on the face of it as a mistake or a disagreement, so I am going to treat it probably as a mistake or a disagreement until someone proves otherwise."

There are probably 3 or 4 ways of looking at this in which "mistake" or "disagreement" is just plain foolish as a description of what's going on here. For instance, when John the Baptist says "no, I am not Elijah", he could have meant that "no, Elijah was taken up in a chariot and did not die, whereas I was born 30 years ago and I am not he" Or he could have meant "I am a prophet because God has made me one, having revealed to me that which I preach to you, but God did not reveal to me that I am the prophet to carry out the foretold work of "Elijah returning" as Malachi said, so I cannot tell you I am the prophet to come. If it were true, it is for another to say, not me." And, of course, that would leave open for Christ to be the one to say.

And as for disagreement, to think that Malachi's prophecy could mean exactly and only one event is paramount foolishness. All of the New Testament bears out that the "coming of the Messiah" is a two-stage process, first he came as a baby, and fulfilled the promise of redeeming us out of the debt of sin, and LATER he will come again in glory to "put paid" to the reign of sin for all time. But in the Old Testament, that these were separate and distinct events for the Messiah was not clear. So the prophecies were ambiguous as to the "coming for redemption" and the "coming in final triumph". If you read the Malachi prophecy, you see both elements hinted at, and thus it is not only possible, but probable that St. John the Baptist was the "Elijah to come" to announce the coming of the Messiah in his first appearance, and that when Jesus returns he will come in fulfillment of the promise of possibly striking the earth with "utter destruction". Which is hinted at, again, in the words of Joel chapter.2:

26...And my people shall never again be put to shame....30 “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 32 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.

The repeat of the "before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes" clearly ties these (Malachi and Joel) together, and yet clearly there is some sense in which this day has not yet come, and so if John the Baptist is in any sense the prophet foretold by Malachi, then most likely the prophecy is dual-focused, not simple.

The whole point here is that my analysis is NOT that of an inerrantist trying to twist and turn any way he can to get out of having to say "Matthew was wrong" or "John disagreed with him". It is that STARTING you approach to these passages as "uh, boy have we got a problem here" is just the wrong approach altogether. The right approach is to EXPECT to find richness, to find subtleties and multiple layers. To expect to find that each author, though recounting the events with a different focus, recounted them truly and yet perceived how God was working truth on yet another level. To expect that Matthew got it right and that John got it right, and to work with that (and, like Lydia if you are not an inerrantist, after you have worked with it long and hard and run through all the good plausible interpretations and still no harmonious interpretation looks likely, to then credit "maybe this was a mistake") and not to START with "probably this was a mistake". To start there is to not even try for, (and therefore usually miss) a lot of the interesting richness and depth of the Gospels.

The most natural explanation for why the accounts have Moses and Elijah appear with Christ is that, in plain-Jane prosaic reality, Peter, John, and James actually saw Moses and Elijah alongside of Jesus. The most natural explanation for why they REALLY WERE THERE is that Christ is the fulfillment of both the Law and the Prophets, and that these two were witnesses (to the Apostles, and thus to us) of this fact. The most natural explanation is that Matthew and Mark understood their "source material" for this event just as well as John and Peter understood them, for Matthew almost certainly heard James, John, and Peter repeat their accounts many, many times, and had ample opportunity to discuss the events with them and mutually come to a rich and reflective understanding. And Mark almost certainly understood his source as well as Peter did late in life (and thus as well as Matthew), because he was Peter's disciple and must have heard the words from Peter many, many times, years after Peter had already discussed the event many times with James, John, and Matthew, and the others in Jerusalem and all arrived at the same basic understanding of the event.

Also, I notice that you have nothing to say about my earlier example, or many of the other points that I made, choosing to focus instead on one of the more conjectural things I put out there.

The earlier example? You mean the one about Elijah and John and the synoptics?

Yeah, I was just so overwhelmed by that one that I had nothing to say. "Interesting," isn't it?

Okay, maybe it was more that I was struggling to be polite and also that I was annoyed about the previous exchange in which you appeared to ignore my main post and then, for reasons inexplicable, couldn't seem to admit how odd your attribution of an inerrantist position to me appeared.

My not saying more about that example was even more because it's a really weak example. Despite my reputation for being an Internet meanie, I don't always _like_ bothering to tell people, "Golly, that's an incredibly lame example" and then taking my valuable time to tell them why in detail. So I just gave the general gist.

Tony's done a pretty good job on that one. I wouldn't want to duplicate his effort too much. In general, I have little respect for the epistemological rigor of alleged conflicts in the Bible that are based upon conjectures about "the way the synoptics see Jesus" and contrasting this with "the way John sees Jesus." These tend to be weakly supported at best from the text itself. This sort of "theology of John about Jesus vs. theology of the synoptics about Jesus" is what I meant by high-flown theorizing in my earlier comment, and it is at the heart of your "Elijah" example. I see _no_ justification for the claim that John and the synoptics differ on this point, and still less for the claim that the synoptics themselves "misunderstood their source material" concerning the transfiguration. Your arguments are incredibly poor. Why in the world should we draw some heavy symbolism from the appearance of Elijah and Moses which is placed in _conflict_ with Jesus' statement that John "was" Elijah? Moreover, given that _any_ statement that John "was" Elijah has got to be heavily metaphoric, why should we make the Herculean effort to wring a contradiction out of the synoptics' and John the Baptist's own application of this metaphor? Moreover, the conjecture about what John the evangelist thought about the status of Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jesus, is weak indeed. John the Baptist, of course, was not infallible. If there was some sense in which he "was" Elijah, there's no reason to assume that John the evangelist is _denying_ it by _reporting_ John the Baptist's own words!

Finally, this entire example rests upon an incredibly blinkered inability to understand (really, at all) the rabbinic mindset. Good grief--the rabbis would happily do six paradoxes before breakfast! In a Jewish context, to try to make a _contradiction_ out of implications and/or statements that John the Baptist "was" and "wasn't" the fulfillment of a prophecy of the second coming of Elijah is almost amusing. It's certainly anachronistic.

Indeed, as I've said before in this thread, I often find that those most eager to suggest that someone resisting a claim of contradiction is "anachronistic" in using an allegedly "modern" concept of reliability are _themselves_ anachronistic in other, more obvious ways.

As Boreas doubtless knows, there are other ideas about the meaning of the abomination of desolation than that it *just is* the armies surrounding Jerusalem. I continue to maintain that it is a well-known interpretive crux, pace his assertions that "we know" what kind of thing it had to mean. In short, no, we don't actually know what it meant. We know some things it could mean. We don't know for sure what it *couldn't* mean. It's extremely poor historical practice to create a confident assertion of error on the part of the evangelists in reporting Jesus' words out of a dogmatic opinion about what those words couldn't mean when we *don't know what they meant*. I don't know what the "abomination of desolation" means. I don't even know for sure that Jesus' words in those passages, or some parts of them, refer to only one time of trouble when Jerusalem was destroyed. I keep it as an open possibility that the passage could have had a double fulfillment. It seems clear enough that _one_ fulfillment of _some_ of Jesus' words reported in Matthew, Mark, and Luke was the destruction of Jerusalem. It also seems clear that _some_ of Jesus' words in the same vicinity refer to things that haven't even taken place yet. For example, in Matthew, God's sending the angels to gather the elect from all over the earth.

So the fact that Luke reports one phrase and Mark and Matthew a different phrase at the same point in Jesus' remarks is just part and parcel of the overall difficulty in interpreting these passages. Indeed, to hold that this difference represents a _mistake_ on the part of one of the other author doesn't really explain much--it would be such an odd mistake involving the substitution of phrases that don't even bear any facial similarity. It seems a _simpler_ hypothesis actually to think that Jesus said both. After all, we have both reports. They are part of the data to be explained. That still doesn't tell us what he _meant_ by the "abomination of desolation," but any argument from that phrase to a _contradiction_ requires a number of steps open to question, and the argument can break down at anyone of those points. The more epistemically modest position is that Jesus said both but that we don't know precisely what he meant by all his words--hardly a big deal.

Sometimes it really seems that people have to _work_ to create contradictions in the biblical text.

The whole point here is that my analysis is NOT that of an inerrantist trying to twist and turn any way he can to get out of having to say "Matthew was wrong" or "John disagreed with him". It is that STARTING you approach to these passages as "uh, boy have we got a problem here" is just the wrong approach altogether. The right approach is to EXPECT to find richness, to find subtleties and multiple layers. To expect to find that each author, though recounting the events with a different focus, recounted them truly and yet perceived how God was working truth on yet another level. To expect that Matthew got it right and that John got it right, and to work with that (and, like Lydia if you are not an inerrantist, after you have worked with it long and hard and run through all the good plausible interpretations and still no harmonious interpretation looks likely, to then credit "maybe this was a mistake") and not to START with "probably this was a mistake". To start there is to not even try for, (and therefore usually miss) a lot of the interesting richness and depth of the Gospels.

Amen, amen, and amen to that Tony.

The whole Elijah "problem" has about as much vexation-related force as something I saw long ago (1990s!) from a self-proclaimed internet skeptic who, in addition to boasting of his superior insight, reason, and rationality (especially compared to a benighted Christian such as myself) found a contradiction in the fact that in I Cor 15 Paul talks about Jesus appearing to "the twelve" because Judas was not there, so there could only be "eleven", and anybody knows that eleven and twelve are not equal! Or, if the bombs aren't bouncing off the rubble of your former faith just yet, I was presented the "contradiction" between all four evangelists about which women came to the tomb. (((Yawn.))) You can still find versions of these particular charges up online, e.g. (not to be confused with the aforementioned skeptic)

http://infidels.org/library/modern/paul_carlson/nt_contradictions.html

(But of course, despite our knowledge of the languages, careful study, and sensitivity to the authors, we're the ones who are the inbred troglodytes who, when we're not handling snakes, speaking in tongues, and marrying our barefoot sisters, are taking the good book LITERALLY, cuz, y'know, this Chick tract at the laundromant sez that the Bible (KJV!!) is, like, SOOPER DOOPER INERRANT.)

When one starts with the goal of mining "contradictions" or "problems", one has started off seriously wrong. (In my own study of the Koran, it would be the same sort of mistake for me to start with the Koran the way some internet skeptic starts with his Bible in making his list of "372 Totally Irrefutable Bible Contradictions!!!".) Such an approach isn't fair to any work. There is a happy medium between the poles of credulity and skepticism. The modern view seems at the extreme skeptical pole, as if anything true in the NT is a shocking exception to the rule, rather than the usual order of business. Approach the text fairly, let the problems present themselves in a natural way, rather than manufacturing them by exaggerating differences that are often caused by smuggling modern expectations into ancient texts.


John the Baptist, of course, was not infallible. If there was some sense in which he "was" Elijah, there's no reason to assume that John the evangelist is _denying_ it by _reporting_ John the Baptist's own words!
"There is no reason" ! What? Of course there is reason. Anyone who reads the first chapter of John's gospel will get the impression that the Baptist was not Elijah. John is certainly trying to teach us something about who the Baptist was, in this chapter, most importantly that he was not the Christ, but was the voice calling in the desert. Or will you say that John the Gospel writer was not even teaching that the Baptist was that voice, since after all, all he did was report the Baptist's claim, and the Baptist might be wrong about that? Really?

Lydia sees the Gospel writers as primarily like witnesses in a courtroom, whereas I see them primarily as authoritative teachers. When I read John, I ask what he is trying to teach me about the events he reports, because I take his interpretation to be authoritative for me, and I assume that he is giving an interpretation of events: that's very much part of his role as an apostle.

By contrast, a courtroom witness is simply charged with reporting what he saw. It's not his responsibility to interpret the meaning of the events: that's up to the jury. In the same way, if John is only a courtroom witness, just describing what he saw, the fact that the reader gets the impression that the Baptist is not Elijah is not the witness's fault. It's up to us, the readers, to figure out the right interpretation of the events that the witness witnessed; we don't have an authoritative interpretation of those events.

I expect Lydia would allow the Gospel writers to be giving an authoritative interpretation of events if they explicitly say that they are doing that. E.g., since the apostle John explicitly endorses the Baptist's assertion that he was not the Christ, we take that as an authoritative interpretation, but it's very narrowly limited to that: we can't even infer that the apostle is claiming that the Baptist knew what he was talking about when _in the same breath_ he denies that he is Elijah.

I believe this is a very deeply wrong hermeneutical assumption about the Gospels. We ought to take it as given that the writers are interpreting events for us, that they are teaching us not just what happened but how we ought to understand what happened. They are teaching us its meaning, because that's their job as apostles. They are indeed witnesses, but authoritative, apostolic witness, who have the responsibility to teach us both the facts and the meaning of the facts. So for me there is a real problem here, for it looks like I have one authoritative teacher telling me that John was Elijah and another telling me he wasn't.

I don't have a ready solution. (I'm prepared to live with the fact that there are some difficulties I don't have answers for.) But I would point out to Boreas that this problem arises not just from a commitment to inerrancy, as defined among evangelicals; it arises on the assumption that the apostles are authoritative teachers, with an authority that is not merely human, but is from the Holy Ghost. And this has a fair claim to being an essential part of the Christian religion. A basic attitude of mine is that I don't get to make up my own religion. I can have my own peculiar ways of articulating and clarifying the Christian faith, I can have theological opinions that differ to some extent from other Christians, but to reject something that all Christians semper et ubique have held -- not to slightly modify it but really to reject it -- if it ever comes to that I hardly think a little "hand-wringing" would be out of place.

whereas I see them primarily as authoritative teachers. When I read John, I ask what he is trying to teach me about the events he reports, because I take his interpretation to be authoritative for me, and I assume that he is giving an interpretation of events: that's very much part of his role as an apostle.
I believe this is a very deeply wrong hermeneutical assumption about the Gospels. We ought to take it as given that the writers are interpreting events for us, that they are teaching us not just what happened but how we ought to understand what happened. They are teaching us its meaning, because that's their job as apostles. They are indeed witnesses, but authoritative, apostolic witness, who have the responsibility to teach us both the facts and the meaning of the facts.

Okay, this is a good point to discuss. To my lights, saying the Apostles are to teach us how we ought to understand what happened, this fundamentally relies on conveying "what happened". The authoritative teaching ABOUT the event requires a substratum: the event, itself, conveyed. The layer of truth they provide in the interpreting and the "about" is a layer over which they have authorial control, but the layer of truth on which that secondary layer subsists is NOT a matter over which they have authorial control - only God has that. They can leave facts out - this is included in the authorial judgments of what events to convey - but they cannot manufacture facts or disorder them intentionally and represent them as the substrate layer of "the event".

There is a truly fundamental divide between this view, and Licona's view that they can authoritatively teach what to think about the event even while intentionally muddling the facts of the actual event.

When we read (good) fiction, we read it with a thought for not only how the author crafts peripherals of an event to generate an emotional response in us, or to lead us to consider a thematic idea, but we also give thought for how the author chose to construct a series of events that also plays into his intended message. His choice have Z happen at all, and to put X before Y are subject to his overall objective. The SUBSTRATE of the story, and not just what he wants you to feel or grasp FROM the story, is subject to choice.

Saying that the Gospel writers exercised this level of control over what they wrote just is to say that they wrote fiction. And saying this inevitably detracts from the thesis that the truth of Jesus' real salvific death and resurrection is attested to reliably in the Gospels.

We ought to take it as given that the writers are interpreting events for us, that they are teaching us not just what happened but how we ought to understand what happened.

If that gets into the fuzzy waters of the reportage of what others say, Christopher, it's going to become pretty difficult pretty quickly to tell why reporting that so-and-so said this constitutes authoritative teaching. After all, to take a deliberately extreme example, you obviously don't think that Matthew is endorsing *anything* the devil says in the temptation in the wilderness by reporting it! So why is John the evangelist endorsing *everything* John the Baptist says by reporting it?

As you guess, I don't balk at your idea of authoritative teaching in the gospels about the interpretation or meaning of events if it is explicitly stated. Where the evangelist says in an aside that Jesus was speaking of the Temple of his body when he said, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up," I take that to be what John the evangelist is _teaching_. I don't see, however, why you are so certain that John the evangelist is _teaching_ that John the Baptist was not Elijah.

But in any event, all of this is kind of a side show, because "was Elijah" so _obviously_ calls out for a metaphoric interpretation that it clearly admits of different answers in different senses. So the whole idea of a _conflict_ here between what Jesus says and what John the Baptist says seems to me incredibly contrived. It's not as though one of them said that Jonah existed and the other one said that he didn't or something like that. It's difficult for us at this distance of time even to be sure what either of them _meant_, in any very precise sense. We usually don't take it that anyone was asserting a doctrine of metampsychosis according to which John the Baptist was literally the reincarnation of Elijah!! So beyond affirming or denying that, apparently what was in view was some kind of fulfillment of prophecy by being _like_ Elijah in some way or other, which seems to dissolve the problem altogether *even if* John the Baptist was speaking truly, as he meant it, in saying that he wasn't Elijah. Or perhaps John the Baptist meant to deny that he was the literal reincarnation of Elijah and Jesus meant to affirm that he was Elijah in some broader sense.

This is really easy stuff. It shouldn't be creating a problem at all.

As far as "the voice of one crying in the wilderness," there is independent reason to take that to be correct. Viz., That Jesus was in fact the Messiah (and taught that he was) and that the passage says that the voice is crying, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord." That Jesus himself quoted from Isaiah (though from a different passage) _in response to John the Baptist_ when reassuring him that he was the Messiah.

I don't see, however, why you are so certain that John the evangelist is _teaching_ that John the Baptist was not Elijah.

I'm not _certain_ that John the evangelist is teaching that. I am saying there are strong reasons to think so (contra your "there is no reason ..."). As of now, I see no reason within the text of John to doubt that John is teaching that; the only reason I have for doubting it is the fact that the other inspired evangelists seem to contradict it. This provides me with an occasion to look more deeply into the text of John to see if I've missed something. But so far I don't see it.

If that gets into the fuzzy waters of the reportage of what others say, Christopher, it's going to become pretty difficult pretty quickly to tell why reporting that so-and-so said this constitutes authoritative teaching. After all, to take a deliberately extreme example, you obviously don't think that Matthew is endorsing *anything* the devil says in the temptation in the wilderness by reporting it! So why is John the evangelist endorsing *everything* John the Baptist says by reporting it?

Your argument seems to be based on the assumption of a false dilemma: either we always assume reported speech is endorsed (absent statement to the contrary) or, if we don't follow that rule, we can't ever tell (sans explicit statement) when an author is endorsing speech he reports.

But this is obviously not so. When Plato describes Socrates saying something we don't just shrug our shoulders and say, "Who knows what Plato thought about this stuff". We can be pretty confident that at least in most cases Plato is endorsing what he attributes to Socrates.

So we _can_ sometimes tell (without explicit statement) that an author is endorsing speech he describes someone else as saying: and John 1 sure looks like one of those places, for reasons I described above.

As far as "the voice of one crying in the wilderness," there is independent reason to take that to be correct.

The relevant question is not whether the Baptist's claim is correct but whether the Evangelist is affirming it in this very passage. (read my incredulous "the Baptist might be wrong about that" as "the Baptist might be wrong as far as anything the Evangelist is teaching in this passage")

The following isn't really central to what I was trying to accomplish in my previous comment, but just to clarify why I still see a difficulty in spite of your other "easy" answers:

"was Elijah" so _obviously_ calls out for a metaphoric interpretation that it clearly admits of different answers in different senses.

Both the Jews who asked and the Baptist who answered and John the Evangelist, and his audience, and Jesus and the other Evangelists, and their audience, meant the Elijah prophesied in Malachi 4:5 "Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD". So "was Elijah" is indeed metaphorical, but "was the person Malachi prophesied about, calling him 'Elijah'" is not metaphorical; and what we _seem_ to have is a disagreement about whether John the Baptist was that person.

Or perhaps John the Baptist meant to deny that he was the literal reincarnation of Elijah

Your own earlier statements suggest that you at some level realize that to claim that that's what the Baptist meant would be completely irresponsible exegesis. And yet you seem to think it sufficient to evade the difficulty. I dare say if we allow such irresponsible exegesis no two writers can ever be shown to contradict each other: one can always make up some wild interpretation on which they don't disagree. But the question before us is whether, given a _responsible_ attempt to understand what the Evangelists actually did mean, a real case can be made that they probably contradicted each other. That's the nature of the difficulty.

I am very open to the possibility that there may be some sense in which he both was and was not the Elijah prophesied by Malachi, and would not be terribly surprised to see you give a convincing reason for why that is not a contradiction (though it looks like one on the surface). And I'm not even denying that there might be a relatively easy answer to this difficulty: I really haven't looked into the matter very deeply. It certainly isn't keeping me up at night, worrying about it.

But the main thing I want to urge is that we absolutely reject the hermeneutic that refuses to recognize the Evangelists as teaching us things through their narratives (i.e. not just when they step outside the narrative and comment explicitly upon it) beyond the bare fact that these events occurred.

and what we _seem_ to have is a disagreement about whether John the Baptist was that person.

Or not. As I said above, if the prophecy itself was a double metaphor, (presaging two "comings" of the Messiah), John the Baptist could easily be denying his being the herald of one such coming without denying being the other.

The people were excited about the coming of a Messiah for military / political / worldly reasons, and kept on posing the question "is it now? Is HE the one? Are we finally going to get the Romans off our backs? Are we going to get our final victory now?" If John the Baptist (like Jesus in later passages) was primarily intent on denying that version of the Messiah's coming, (because that was most on their minds), he could well have meant "I am not the herald of those events" without lying or being mistaken or setting up a DISAGREEMENT with the other evangelists who said he was the herald of the first arrival of the Messiah.

Now that we (living after the first coming of the Messiah) know that the prophecies were bifurcated double prophecies, it isn't so much a "relatively easy solution to the problem" to apply this to Malachi and John the Baptist as the natural first take on what the Malachi prophecy would mean in relation to John.

Your own earlier statements suggest that you at some level realize that to claim that that's what the Baptist meant would be completely irresponsible exegesis. And yet you seem to think it sufficient to evade the difficulty.

Well, no, because I don't know whether there were some known people at the time who, in fact, thought that a literal reincarnation of Elijah was coming. Do you know that there weren't? If there were, and if John the Baptist thought his interlocutors among them, he could have been addressing this. Remember that Herod thought Jesus was John the Baptist returned after he had him beheaded. So evidently there were odd, surprisingly superstitious ideas "in the air." And the Malachi prophecy would give some excuse.

It's just one possibility. I don't even know if it is more probable than any other possibility. But I don't think of it as having a ridiculously low probability.

Well, no, because I don't know whether there were some known people at the time who, in fact, thought that a literal reincarnation of Elijah was coming.

Wouldn't need any reincarnation - Elijah was "taken up" in a chariot, all God had to do is send him back down. I find it extremely believable that many people thought Elijah would show up without being born as a baby etc, but literally just returning (with or without clouds and a chariot). Or that people wondered what form it would take, not knowing what to think. If they didn't have photographs or portraits, how would they confirm whether this prophet is Elijah? (For that matter, how did Peter, James and John know who appeared with Christ?)

Good point, Tony. Yet another thing John the B. may have been denying. Really, not-implausible theories are pretty thick on the ground.

If one is going to press for apparent contradictions in the gospels, it would make a lot more sense to press on places where the apparent conflict is factual, bald, and doesn't require any of this conjectural hypothesizing about "what John is trying to teach about whether or not John the Baptist was Elijah."

I find it almost oddly revealing that my interlocutors on this thread (and especially Boreas, more than Christopher M.) should be _more_ interested in pressing for an apparent error concerning some "theological" issue like this, something much more nebulous, than in pressing on something like, "What day of the week did Mary the sister of Lazarus anoint Jesus' feet?"

I don't know why it happens, but I suspect two related things.

1) It's really not all that interesting, if one is going to challenge inerrancy (as Boreas was doing) to challenge it on the basis of something so mundane and limited. If one is going to be "hung" for questioning inerrancy, one wants it to be a bigger deal, I think, than something so trivial.

2) The broad idea that the evangelists have agendas and "see Jesus as x" or "see John the Baptist as y" is so deeply ingrained in New Testament studies that it just _has to come out_ in these kinds of discussions if someone has imbibed even a modicum of it. And saying something to the effect that maybe John the evangelist just _forgot_ what day of the week it was when Jesus' feet were anointed shortly before his Passion doesn't bring in any of that.

These reasons, I think, may be why Boreas didn't _ask_ me what my candidate passages for errors are and what probabilities I would place on them. He could tell already that they wouldn't bring in _this_ kind of stuff, so they would be boring and not "New Testament Studies"-ish.

Lydia,

"I don't know whether there were some known people at the time who, in fact, thought that a literal reincarnation of Elijah was coming" and "I don't think of it as having a ridiculously low probability" is not responsible exegesis.

Though, I must say, reincarnation, as distinct from Tony's suggestion of a literal return from heaven, really is ridiculously low in probability: these are Jews we're talking about here, not Hindus or Pythagoreans.

But let that pass. The more important point is that just because a suggestion is not ridiculously low in probability doesn't make it reasonable exegesis: the question is what "I am not Elijah" in the text of John means, and there's no grounds for thinking it means "I am not a reincarnation of Elijah". It appears to mean "I am not the 'Elijah' prophesied by Malachi" without containing any further information about whether Malachi's prophecy would be fulfilled by a literal return of Elijah himself from heaven, or a different person who would be like Elijah.

Tony,

What you say in your most recent comments seems more reasonable to me than Lydia's answers. As I say, I'm open to something like a double fulfillment. But I'm not fully satisfied quite yet. Consider this:

Did Jesus ever deny that he was the Messiah? He was certainly cagey about it, for good reason. But did he, or _could_ he have, said "I am not the Messiah"? Could this constitute a denial that he was the kind of political Messiah his audience was thinking of?

The problem is that "I am not the Messiah" doesn't normally mean "I am not what _you_ think the Messiah is." It means "I am not the Messiah." In the same way it seems difficult to get "I am not Elijah" to mean "I am not what you think Elijah is".

The more important point is that just because a suggestion is not ridiculously low in probability doesn't make it reasonable exegesis: the question is what "I am not Elijah" in the text of John means,

Okay, I think you need to finesse this, Christopher. It is also not "responsible exegesis" to take other passages, yes, even in other books, to be _utterly irrelevant_ to what the sentence means when John the Baptist utters it in John! What Jesus says in the synoptics is _data_. It's part of the data. "Interpreting Scripture by Scripture" is a good, old principle of conservative Christian exegesis, but it's also part of good exegesis _in general_. These are accounts by people putatively close to the facts, of statements made by cousins (Jesus and John) about "whether John was Elijah."

For Boreas, a theory "on the table," as far as I can tell, is that the synoptic authors _made up_ these words and put them in Jesus' mouth as a compliment to John the Baptist in order to "reassure" the remaining followers of J. the B. in the early church. Reassure them of something or other. That J.the B. was important?

Anyway, if someone is considering _that_ proposition, then he needs to consider the probability of the following _disjunction_:

Either John the B. meant something that is compatible with what Jesus said, or John the B. was mistaken.

Now, we have to _compare_ the probability of that disjunction to the probability that what is stated in one or the other gospel about what was said is _false_--because it was made up, was a "growing" tradition, or whatever. That either Jesus or John the B. didn't really say what is attributed to him. We need to decide whether _that_ is more probable than the above disjunction.

Now, a disjunction of items that are not themselves highly improbable ends up becoming (especially if it is a large disjunction) pretty probable. And one of the disjuncts (that John the B. meant something compatible with what Jesus said) is itself a further disjunction of possible meanings of John the B.'s words. If _any_ of these is true, then we have a harmonization and a suggestion like the one Boreas made is _false_.

In that context, it is not only responsible to consider that one of the disjuncts is "not terribly improbable" (or that many of them are not terribly improbable)--it is the _only_ responsible way to proceed.

What is _not_ responsible is to insist on interpreting the account in John--both its meaning and its teaching--in utter isolation from the synoptics as data, to then treat the highest-probability interpretation we come up with that way as *the* interpretation from which we refuse to budge, and to conclude therefrom that there is a conflict between John and the synoptics. And it's even worse if one then "defaults" to some theory of accretion or made up words in one gospel or the other as the only remaining possible explanation of the "conflict" thus generated. That is not good hermeneutics not because of the dictates of piety but because of the dictates of reason and good historical scholarship.

It is also not "responsible exegesis" to take other passages, yes, even in other books, to be _utterly irrelevant_ to what the sentence means when John the Baptist utters it in John!

Of course. Did you think I was taking them to be utterly irrelevant?

What Jesus says in the synoptics is _data_. It's part of the data. "Interpreting Scripture by Scripture" is a good, old principle of conservative Christian exegesis, but it's also part of good exegesis _in general_. These are accounts by people putatively close to the facts, of statements made by cousins (Jesus and John) about "whether John was Elijah."

Yup. You won't hear a peep of disagreement from me on any of this. As far as I can see, nothing in your most recent comment is incompatible with my statements to the effect that if it sure looks to me like John says ~X (no reasonable (on all the evidence) interpretation is available that has him not saying ~X) and it sure looks to me like the synoptics say X, as it did the other day (again, no reasonable alternative being available) then I have a genuine difficulty, and pointing to unreasonable interpretations built on "not terribly improbable" hypotheses do not dissolve the difficulty for me.

For, of course, to say I have a difficulty is not "to conclude therefrom that there is a conflict" And to refrain from treating the difficulty dismissively on the basis of those unreasonable interpretations is not to "treat the highest-probability interpretation we come up with" (in isolation from the data of other texts) "as *the* interpretation from which we refuse to budge;" I was not dealing with a situation where multiple reasonable interpretations of John were available, one (or several) of which was/were somewhat less reasonable on only the evidence of the text of John, but which might well turn out to be more reasonable on the evidence of other related texts (which I agree would not constitute a difficulty); I was also not denying that those not-terribly-low-probability hypotheses rendered the appearance of conflict less than certain: I was only denying that they dissolved the difficulty.

So if you were trying to convince me that I should not see a difficulty, then you would not have succeeded, for you simply failed to engage my concerns. You seemed more interested in prosecuting your case against Boreas than engaging with my concerns. But, as it turns out, having spent a little time yesterday with the relevant texts, I can recommend a better way to resolve the difficulty.

Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner's fire, and like fullers' soap: And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.(Malachi 3:1-3)
Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.(Malachi 4:4-6)

First note an oddity in the bit from chapter 3. The LORD says "my messenger" will prepare the way. It then says the Lord will come to his temple. Although "Lord" is not capitalized (so the Hebrew is not 'YHWH') nevertheless, the temple in view is surely the temple of the LORD, so it seems to be referring to God. But then it seems to identify the "Lord" who "will suddenly come to his temple" as "the messenger of the covenant". The same word "messenger" makes it seem like it's talking about the same person as the one called "my messenger" who would prepare the way. And there are other places in the OT where a figure who appears somehow different from God is treated as divine, not in the sense of a pagan deity, but in a way that has led many theologians to suspect a pre-incarnate manifestation of the divine logos. Whatever we think of those places, here there is strong reason to identify the "messenger of the covenant," who is like a refiner's fire, as God, but the text seems inherently ambiguous as to whether there are one or two messengers in view.

The Elijah in chapter four seems reasonably identified with the "my messenger" of chapter 3. Certainly, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all identify John the Baptist as "my messenger" (Matthew 11:10, Mark 1:2, Luke 7:27). But if there are two messengers, is Elijah only one of them, or are there two Elijahs? Nota bene: these questions arise naturally out of ambiguities in the text of Malachi itself, they are not ad hoc attempts to dismiss an apparent contradiction in later texts.

Now we come to what the synoptic Gospels actually say in the passages where they identify John as Elijah.

For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 11.10-15)

Note the phrase "if you will receive it". What's that about? It seems like a deliberate attempt to flag the statement that John is Elijah as something that, perhaps, could be taken the wrong way, or is true only with certain qualifications, or ... something. For further enlightenment on what Matthew might mean, let's look at what he says later. After the disciples come down from the mount of transfiguration, having just seen Elijah, they ask

... Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come? And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things. But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them. Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist. (Matthew 17:10-13)

the Greek construction in v.11-12 is "men ... de", which my Greek grammar book says is literally "on the one hand, ... on the other", but as it would be too wordy to say that in English every time, a simpler translation is usually preferred. But, literally, what we have is:

On the one hand, Elias is coming [present tense] first and shall restore [future tense] all things; on the other hand, I say unto you that Elias has come [aorist] already ...

While it is in general possible for a present tense verb to refer to past events, in this case it is deliberately contrasted with the aorist of the same verb, and associated with the claim in the future tense that the Elijah who is coming "shall restore all things", which seems very unlikely to be referring to John the Baptist. It therefore looks to me like Matthew is describing two different Elijahs. It's not just that WE have to (awkwardly) postulate that maybe somehow Matthew's claim that John the Baptist was Elijah was true in some sense, while possibly it could be false in another. No, MATTHEW HIMSELF is saying that someone other than John is Elijah, but in another sense John is Elijah.

Mark describes the conversation after the transfiguration almost exactly the same way Matthew does.

Luke does not describe it at all. In fact, Luke nowhere explicitly mentions the "other Elijah", but he also nowhere explicitly identifies John as Elijah. He does identify John as the "my messenger" of Malachi 3, and he describes John as one who would have "the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." (1:17), so that's clearly a reference to Malachi 4. But he's certainly not saying anything more than what Matthew and Mark say about John the Baptist.

So, who is the most reasonable candidate for the other Elijah, the one who will "restore all things"? Would it not be the Son of Man whose future treatment Jesus says will parallel the treatment of John the Baptist? It seems to me that if you ask Matthew and Mark who is the Elijah prophesied in Malachi, they would say, "It's Jesus, ... although in a certain secondary sense you could also say it's John the Baptist". Neither John nor Luke contradict that.

Back to the general point: we ought to take genuine difficulties seriously; rather than treating them dismissively on the basis of unsupported guesses about what the text might possibly mean, we should take the difficulty as something to spur us to do our best to understand what the texts actually do mean. I may be wrong in my understanding of these texts - I don't claim to be very good at this - but I am at least trying to interpret them correctly, and that is what we need to be doing in situations like this.

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