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 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.