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Licona wrap-up

This post will wrap up my current series on Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? by Michael Licona. Note: Please scroll down to the second half of this post for a complete, hyperlinked list of the articles in this 2017 series with a short synopsis of each.

There will doubtless be other posts in which I discuss Licona's work, and there are also posts from 2016 in which I discussed his on-line lectures. For those interested in these topics, both the New Testament tag and the Licona tag are relevant and contain posts from 2016 and 2017. The New Testament and Licona tags at my personal blog have some non-overlapping material, and sometimes stub posts from W4 refer to longer posts at Extra Thoughts (the personal blog) and vice versa.

I'll begin this wrap-up by discussing a portion of an e-interview from this past summer that Bible Gateway did with Dr. Licona.

In the e-interview, Licona has this to say about harmonization and the Gospels:

By harmonization efforts, I mean the common practice of laying the parallel Gospel accounts on top of one another, similar to transparencies on an overhead projector. The objective of such efforts is to demonstrate that all of the details—even those appearing to be in conflict—actually fit together without much, if any, tension. Unfortunately, these efforts sometimes lead to subjecting the Gospels to a sort of hermeneutical waterboarding until they tell the exegete what he or she wants to hear.


Most evangelicals are willing to acknowledge that the Gospel authors used some compositional devices. For example, most agree that Matthew has compressed the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree and narrates it as though the fig tree withered and died the moment Jesus cursed it, whereas Mark narrates the story as though the withering probably took a little more time. But they usually only acknowledge the use of a compositional device when harmonization appears almost impossible.

Where I differ is, I place a priority on genre over harmonization. So, before seeking to harmonize Gospel texts, one should read the Gospels in view of their biographical genre, which includes their authors’ use of the various compositional devices commonly used when writing history and biography. Both of us see harmonization and compositional devices as solutions. Where we differ is which of these should be given priority. (emphasis added)

Notice that by "giving priority" to the use of "compositional devices" in these paragraphs, Licona must mean what I have called fictionalizing compositional devices, because otherwise harmonization wouldn't even be in the picture; it would not be seen as the alternative to such "devices." Harmonization involves, as Licona himself states, arguing that the accounts, including their details, actually do fit together. In other words, it involves trying to show that the accounts are not in conflict and therefore can both/all be literally true. Licona is contrasting the use of "genre" and "compositional devices" with harmonization, so he must be talking about those "compositional devices" that are not merely part of the ordinary arsenal of harmonization in which one concludes that both accounts are literally true in a perfectly ordinary sense. This means that the so-called "compositional device" of "spotlighting" is irrelevant to this idea of "prioritizing genre over harmonization," because it is, and always has been, an instance of harmonization, not a competitor to harmonization. All older harmonizers, who didn't get the idea from Plutarch, would say that if there were two blind men then ipso facto there was one blind man, and so forth.

What Licona is saying here is that he thinks that one should be convinced that the Gospels belong to a "genre" such that they are often using fictionalizing compositional devices and that one should approach passages with so strong an assumption to this effect that one first seeks to apply some fictionalizing compositional device category before one attempts to harmonize the passage! Hence, even passages that can be harmonized can legitimately be designated as instances of fictionalizing literary devices because one made that designation a "priority."

This is a disastrous methodology. In this methodological approach, Licona takes such an incredibly rigid notion of unreliable (I unapologetically use the term "unreliable") genre that he is making it a virtue to jump to the conclusion that the evangelists were fictionalizing, without first attempting to harmonize the passages. This is a recipe for getting it wrong over and over again and engaging in blatant confirmation bias. Having assumed at the outset that the evangelists are frequent fictionalizers, one then "confirms" this pre-existing assumption by "finding" more and more instances of their fictionalizing even when harmonization would be quite possible.

This methodology completely ignores the fact that variation and even apparent, but ultimately resolvable, discrepancies are normal in truthful testimony. It ignores the fact that (I cannot say this too often) harmonization is not a desperate, specially religious activity used for preserving an a priori notion of inerrancy but rather is just good historical practice, applicable to any putatively historical accounts, not just to Scripture. By adopting this approach to the Gospels, Licona makes it almost impossible for himself to recognize when the Gospels are exhibiting these normal qualities of non-literary, plain, historical reportage, because he has determined to make a priority of giving variations an elaborate, literary explanation instead.

Notice, too, that such an approach to Plutarch (for example) would make it impossible to get a reliable "baseline" frequency of fictionalizing devices even for a paradigmatic document in the genre into which Licona wants to put the Gospels. As I have shown, Licona jumps to conclusions, overreads, interprets rigidly, and ignores plausible harmonizations in Plutarch himself. Did he do so because he thought he already knew approximately what frequency of deliberate changes of fact he should expect to find in Plutarch, since Plutarch was writing "Greco-Roman bioi"? But in that case, where did that frequency come from in the first place?

Neither Licona nor anyone else has ever given good reason to believe that the Gospels belong to a "genre" such that their variations should be expected to be frequently (or ever, for that matter) the result of deliberate changes of fact. He has not even succeeded in showing that about Plutarch, and a fortiori has not shown it concerning the Gospels. But Licona writes here as if he has been handed, by some unimpeachable source, the proposition that the Gospels' genre means that they contain at least m/n literary fictionalizations, and therefore one is entirely justified in going out and attempting to find that percentage of fact changes simply by looking for differences, before attempting to harmonize.

Licona doesn't seem to understand that individual claims of fictionalizing compositional devices must be evaluated on their own merits, on a case-by-case basis. This is how one discovers whether this is what an author does or not. One can't just go around designating things as fictionalizing literary devices with a pre-determined frequency because one has already stamped the documents with a genre designation. There must be argumentative force to the conclusion that a particular difference between two facially historical documents is an instance of deliberate fictionalization. And making that argument in the individual case, in a document that prima facie presents itself as historical in nature (which both Plutarch and the Gospels undeniably do), takes hard work, because there are so many other, and simpler, possible explanations for variations. This is where the flowchart comes into play and is so important. To "prioritize" the conclusion that a given difference is a result of a fictionalizing device before attempting harmonization is to flip the flowchart on its head, to throw all simplicity considerations to the wind, to fail to recognize the burden of proof, and to prefer, as a matter of principle, more complex to simpler hypotheses.

Indeed, it's difficult to see why one would ever feel driven to harmonize, given this order of priorities. The imagination can go pretty far in thinking about how a given author might be using a "literary device" in a "genre" in order to make up facts or change facts. Why bother harmonizing at all if your initial go-to theory is literary fictionalization?

Nor can we say, unfortunately, that the use of "compositional devices" will be checked and that Licona will robustly prefer harmonization if a suggested redactive fictionalization is far-fetched. For we have seen that, when it comes to something like the difference between two blind men and one blind men or two demoniacs and one demoniac, Licona apparently places extremely far-fetched theories about Matthew's "doubling up" on blind men and demoniacs on a par with a harmonizing theory that Mark mentioned only one of the individuals who was actually healed.

This interview certainly helps to explain why, again and again, we have found Licona jumping to conclusions and even making utterly unforced errors about differences in the Gospels. I'm sorry to have to say it, but apparently he considers those to be features, not bugs, in his preferred approach.

Here, for those who would find it useful, is a list of my posts in the present series. (I'm construing "series" here somewhat loosely to include all posts I've written directly on Licona or on very closely related topics during the latter part of 2017.) If you don't like summaries like this, feel free to skip this part. Posts are listed in chronological order.

New Testament Interpretation in the Real World: This post does not directly mention Dr. Licona but is about the over-reading carried out by Richard Burridge, a classicist whose low view of John's accuracy has influenced and is cited by Licona when he discusses John. I show how Burridge (in common, I must say, with many New Testament scholars) needs to get out more and how this would help him to interpret the Gospels more plausibly instead of inventing tensions where none exist.

Hoaxer or Historical Witness: The Johannine Dilemma: Here I directly contest the low view of John's literal, ground-level, historical accuracy promoted by Licona and Burridge.

Flowchart: On Alleged Literary Devices: Here I introduce a graphic to show the many other, simpler possible explanations for differences between accounts and the consequent difficulty of supporting the highly complicated thesis that an author deliberately changed the facts in a way that he thought of as a culturally accepted literary device. The flowchart applies to secular accounts as well as biblical accounts.

Response to Dr. Licona: This post, which I am linking in its fuller version on Extra Thoughts (I put only a stub here on W4), was in a sense an interruption of my planned series. The interruption was occasioned by the resurfacing of some very strange 2016 comments about the Gospel of John by NT scholar Craig A. Evans. Licona apparently defended Evans, I publicized what Licona said, and we were off to the races. See the posts for more.

On Some Examples in Plutarch
: Here I get down to brass tacks and discuss a wide variety of examples in Plutarch where Licona claims to have discovered "compositional devices" that involve deliberately changing facts for literary reasons. I show (using the flowchart) that they are all quite easily, and better, explained in simpler ways. This is a pretty important undercutting of Licona's argument. Of course, even if Plutarch did make fictionalizing changes, it wouldn't follow that the Gospels do so. Not because it would be "impious" to think so, but because different authors often have different priorities and hold themselves to different standards. One would still have to see on an individual basis whether the Gospel authors appeared to be deliberately changing the facts, and there would still be a heavy burden of proof to be met. But if Licona hasn't even shown his thesis for Plutarch, the argument that there were these standard fictionalizing devices that were accepted at the time doesn't even begin to get off the ground.

Licona Gospel Examples Part I: Utterly Unforced Errors: Here I discuss multiple cases in his book where Licona hypothesizes a fictionalizing change when there is not even an apparent discrepancy. Is that what he means by "prioritizing genre over harmonization"? Looks like it.

Licona Gospel Examples Part II: Fictions Only Need Apply: Here I discuss instances where Licona doesn't even consider non-fictionalizing or harmonizing options, leaving the reader in several cases with a false dilemma--either this evangelist deliberately changed the facts or this one did.

Licona Gospel Examples III: Over-reading
: Here I discuss the way in which over-reading, particularly overly rigid interpretation concerning chronology, is involved in Licona's jumping to the conclusion that an author is deliberately altering a report of the literal facts.

Fake Points Don't Make Points: Here I argue that NT scholars including Licona are gravely mistaken when they suggest that a Gospel author deliberately made up some historical detail in order to make a theological point, since a fake historical detail cannot objectively lend epistemic support to a theological conclusion, and the Gospel authors seem to have realized this.

Licona Gospel Examples IV: More Over-reading: Here I discuss more examples in which Licona creates unnecessary tensions between Gospel accounts by over-reading and then "solves" the "problems" thus created by postulating a fictionalizing redaction.

Licona Gospel Examples V: Making Things Complicated: Here I describe several instances where Licona considers highly convoluted theories and gives them far higher credence than they should receive. Of course, many of the examples in the earlier posts also meet this description. I note here that this penchant for preferring complicated theories can even cause one to overlook or misunderstand undesigned coincidences that confirm the purely factual reliability of the accounts.

Below I list fifteen places where Licona throws the Gospel narratives into factual doubt. This list is meant to give a sense of the extent to which Licona is calling the normal, ground-level, factual reliability of the documents into question, though he insists (and apparently has convinced himself) that he isn't doing so. Functionally, what this amounts to is a high-level redefinition of "reliability."

What follows is not a comprehensive list. There are numerous other unnecessary "tensions" or claims of fictionalization, many concerning chronology, in Licona's book, and I have detailed many of these in the posts. I have not even included in this list two places where Licona very seriously considers, even treating as one of only two "finalist" hypotheses, the idea that an evangelist made something up out of whole cloth, when in the end he narrowly comes down in favor of a different "literary device." One of these cases concerns the theory that John made up the entire Doubting Thomas sequence. Licona narrowly concludes that instead Luke fictionalized by combining two appearances of Jesus. The other concerns the theory that Matthew made up out of whole cloth the involvement of James and John's mother in the request that they might sit on Jesus' right and left hands, in order to cast the disciples in a better light. Licona attributes this theory to other scholars and treats it as one of his two finalists for explaining a difference between Matthew and Mark. In an endnote he states that he prefers the theory that Mark "transferred" the request to the sons.

This list gives a fairly impressive sample that shows how Licona's work casts a redactive fog over the Gospels' picture of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. See the posts for more details.

--Did John the Baptist call himself the voice of one crying in the wilderness, or did John fictionally attribute that saying to him by redaction from the synoptic Gospels?

--Did John the Baptist say that he himself bore record that Jesus was the Son of God?

--Did Jesus actually say, "I thirst," or was that made up by John as a theological "redaction of the tradition" that Jesus said, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

--Did Jesus actually say, "It is finished," or was that made up by John as a "redaction of the tradition" that Jesus said, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit"?

--Did Jesus show his disciples his side, or did John "substitute" his side for his feet?

--Did Jesus breathe on his disciples and say, "Receive the Holy Ghost," or was that incident invented by John to "allude" to the day of Pentecost?

--Did John invent the scene between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the garden in order to "relocate" the first meeting between Jesus and Mary Magdalene?

--Did Mark deliberately suppress the conversion of the thief on the cross in order to make Jesus appear to have been rejected by all?

--Did John deliberately change the day of the crucifixion to make a theological point?

--Did John make up a Temple cleansing early in Jesus' ministry (this is really what it amounts to for John to "move" the Temple cleansing) in order to make a theological point?

--Does Luke "put" all of the events of Jesus' resurrection on Easter Sunday?

--Did the appearances of Jesus to his disciples in Jerusalem (recorded in John and Luke) occur, or did the first appearance occur in Galilee? (I note that this allegation of a discrepancy concerning Jesus' first appearance casts doubt upon the Doubting Thomas sequence from a different angle, though Licona does not mention this point and may not realize it.)

--Did Matthew make up an extra demoniac and/or an extra blind man in an incident where they were not present in order to compensate for not telling different healing stories?

--Did Matthew invent a "doublet" incident in which Jesus heals two blind men early in his ministry in order to create a (fictional) healing of blindness to which Jesus could be made to allude in laying to rest the doubts of John the Baptist about his Messiahship?

--Did the disciples dispute about who would be the greatest on the night of the Last Supper, or did Luke invent the connection between this incident (which he took from a different time recorded in Mark) and the Last Supper and redact Jesus' words of rebuke accordingly to make it seem to fit with the context of the Last Supper?

It's important to emphasize that the redactive fog surrounding these questions is entirely unnecessary. It is created by the bad habits of New Testament scholarship, including overly rigid reading (this produces unjustified claims of tension), hypothesizing invention out of whole cloth even when there is no apparent discrepancy, and rejection of entirely reasonable harmonization. These are also old habits of "critical" New Testament scholars. They are not something that Dr. Licona has suddenly discovered by studying Greco-Roman literature. Indeed, in several cases Licona does not even allude to any specific "compositional device" that he claims to have found in Plutarch, yet he nonetheless rejects harmonization in favor of conflicting "traditions" or fictionalizing redaction. These include the alleged "discrepancy" concerning where the first post-resurrection meeting occurred between Jesus and his disciples, the supposed "relocation" of the first meeting between Jesus and Mary Magdalene by either Matthew or John, the suggested invention of a "doublet" incident of healing two blind men, John's alleged invention of the incident in which Jesus breathes on the disciples, and the alleged "dynamic equivalent" redaction of "My God, why have you forsaken me?" into "I thirst."

That Licona rejects harmonization and follows redaction-critical methods to suggest fictionalization even when he does not suggest any particular "compositional device" helps to show that what is epistemologically driving his method is not a genuine recognition of specific, known literary tropes of the time. Rather, Licona is adopting a general assumption that the Gospels are not literally historically reliable in many areas--both in details and even at times in the reporting of whole incidents. Then, after having decided to make frequent claims of fictionalization, he puts labels on them when possible from the devices he thinks he has found in Plutarch; when he doesn't think that's possible or has no particular label in mind, he repeatedly hypothesizes fictionalization anyway. This same pattern of straining to find a label to support a fictionalization conclusion was evident when Licona, admitting that he had no insight into the supposed "problem" of the infancy narratives (hint: there is no problem) from "Greco-Roman bioi" immediately turned around and conjectured that the non-overlapping material therein is invented and "questionable," calling this (incorrectly) "midrash."

As happens repeatedly with New Testament scholars, a broad claim or question concerning the "genre" of the Gospels is not anything highly technical, nor is it justified by highly technical information. It is, rather, a generic (pun intended) claim that literal historicity wasn't important to the authors and isn't the prima facie case in the accounts, thus opening the door for redaction-critical and other fictionalizing theories that are just waiting in the wings. The theories end up looking similar again and again, whether the alleged justification for them is that the documents are "midrash," "Greco-Roman bioi," or (to quote Craig A. Evans concerning John) "wisdom literature" or "parable." This should make it clear that we are not really gaining new, important, esoteric knowledge from research into the genre of the documents. Rather, the New Testament studies guild is going on doing the same kinds of things that quite liberal NT scholars have been doing for many years, while various evangelical scholars (and those influencing them) justify such interpretations by using different labels. There is some variation among scholars in the frequency with which they conjecture specifically theological motives as opposed to more a-theological literary motives (Licona does the latter more frequently), but both arise from the same invidious approach--the preference for complex hypotheses, the hyper-sensitivity about differences that exaggerates them into difficult discrepancies, the bias against harmonization, the failure to construe differences in accounts as casual, unstudied variation as opposed to highly deliberate redaction, and the refusal or inability to see the marks of normal reportage in the Gospels.

I have argued in this series that Licona's argument fails at every point. He does not justify his claims concerning Plutarch in the first place, and he does not justify his claims concerning the Gospels, either. He gives us no good reason to accept the conclusion that the Gospel authors ever changed the facts deliberately, either for theological or for literary reasons.

Since his theories severely undermine the literal historical reliability of the Gospels, it is extremely important for us to find out whether his conclusions are justified. Fortunately, they are not, and anyone interested in the reliability of the Gospels, the evidence for Christianity, and the resurrection of Jesus should know this.

Licona's theories should not be accepted by default merely because he is held in high esteem by evangelicals in the apologetics world. His ideas must be able to stand up to critical scrutiny and must stand or fall on their merits. I encourage readers to follow the argument I have given and to publicize it widely.

Comments (24)

Dr. McGrew,

Thank you for the post.

I saw where you mentioned the perspicuity of Scripture in one of your posts (or in a reply). What is your view on the perspicuity of Scripture?

Thank You,

Jonathan Hanna

I tend to treat the perspicuity of Scripture on an "as I find it" basis, but with a presumption (as I would have for any document) not to make things any more difficult than they have to be. Some portions of Scripture are difficult *on their face*. The book of Revelation is an obvious example. Others end up having difficulties created by independent evidence. An example there concerns the description of the new Temple in Zechariah. Normally one would just take that as (relatively) straightforward prophecy, but no subsequent rebuilding of the Temple has actually been like that, which one might say "makes" the text difficult to understand. Prophecy in general is less perspicuous than historical narrative. And so forth.

Where I absolutely balk is at the creation of difficulties by the interpreter's own cleverness. I have encountered this in literary criticism, too, and in biblical studies it lives and grows as if on steroids.

Examples in this series abound, of course. There is nothing remotely *obscure* about John's record that Jesus said, "I thirst." It is just an historical record of a man dying by crucifixion, a method of torture known to produce terrible thirst, who says he is thirsty! But Dr. Licona, borrowing the idea from Daniel Wallace, argues that this isn't what it appears to be. Instead it has the obscure, secret, theological meaning that is "the same as" "My God, why have you forsaken me?" In fact, they argue, Jesus *never literally said* "I thirst" on the cross but *instead* said, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" and John's apparently perfectly straightforward historical record, which has *no apparent difficulty with it at all*, is a theological reworking of the other saying!

Now that sort of thing violates any sane notion of the perspicuity of Scripture for the same reason that it would violate any sane notion of the perspicuity of any historical document. Which is because it violates all epistemological simplicity considerations and simply introduces obscurity pointlessly, because the interpreter has a bias towards literary/theological alterations in the Gospels.

Lydia, thank you for this incredible effort and journey sorting through the minefield of modern biblical "scholarship". If nobody has yet suggested it, this might be the foundation of your next book; certainly you have a lot of material here (and more, I am sure, that you did not bother to put down.) It is very important work, because your main point is a very important point. These scholars are undermining belief in the Bible through their idiotic inventions and needless nay-saying. I for one greatly appreciate that I can remain a Christian who believes in the Gospels and that I don't have to leave my mind at home when I go to church, and when I read the Bible.

Thanks, Lydia.

I confess to not having read this whole stream; nor Licona's book. What I find striking is the contrast between Licona and the old form-critics. They held that the Gospels underwent alteration when the writers (who were credited with being quite creative) wrote long after the time of Jesus. They then shaped accounts and put words on the lips of Jesus to better address issues in their own "sitz im leben." The whole enterprise collapsed with the realization that the key issues that faced the church in the ensuing decades (like circumcision or speaking in tongues) somehow never got written back into the Gospels. The whole thesis toppled under its own weight. And now, arguments for earlier writing (at least of source material, and probably for the finished Gospels) seem persuasive.

But it looks like even the form-critics offered a more reasonable rationale for falsifying the Gospel texts. It sounds like Licona offers nothing more plausible than that falsification through fictionalizing just goes with writing ancient biography. And, with you, I agree that locating the canonical Gospels in that genre is suspect in the first place. I maintain trust in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

It's interesting you should say that. The ghost of all of that sitz im leben stuff is definitely still haunting the halls of NT studies. For example, Craig Keener argues that Matthew was probably written at least after 70 AD because of the alleged greater "engagement" between Jesus and "Pharisaism" in Matthew's gospel than in Mark and Luke (see below on the falsity of this thesis, though). Supposedly this would have been more likely to be portrayed in the gospel because of the greater conflict between Syrian Christians (assumed to be the audience) and synagogue Judaism after 70. This is a sitz im leben argument. It assumes that the amount of engagement with Pharisaism in Matthew's Gospel wasn't simply a result of the fact that Jesus really *did* have at least that many conflicts with Pharisees, really *did* address those issues in what he said, etc. So what is the implication? That Matthew invented some of the clashes between Jesus and the Pharisees because this would be popular, or what? Keener doesn't say anything that extreme. He merely says (rather glibly) that this greater engagement with Pharisaism argues for a later date for Matthew.

The sitz im leben assumptions there are not even brought out, made explicit, and defended.

As it turns out, it isn't even true. I spent several days going through the gospels and looking at Jesus' conflicts with the Pharisees and issues like ritual purity, healing on the Sabbath, etc. There is no such progression whereby Matthew has more of such things than Mark and Luke but less than JOhn (that was Keener's claim--a sort of developmental thesis). I won't go into the details here, but suffice it to say that it's just flatly false.

Licona himself does a lot less with sitz im leben stuff and not a whole lot with theological motivations, though several times he accepts from other critics some theories concerning theological motivations for changes. For the most part, the changes he asserts are purely for literary reasons, just to "follow the conventions of the time," or even (as he puts it in one place) to "change things up"!

But I would say that all of the older criticism, including the heavy sitz im leben stuff (my gosh, you should see Robert Gundry with theological and sitz im leben theories in the 1980s!) tended to soften up the field. Especially when evangelicals like Gundry started saying that the authors put words in Jesus' mouth for theological reasons, and then Dan Wallace came along and said the same in a couple of papers around the turn of the 21st century (I'll be writing a later post about Wallace's 1999 paper), it shifted the center of evangelical scholarship. No longer was that a radical or liberal thesis. It became acceptable.

So now, in 2016, we have Craig A. Evans doing something *very* much in that older spirit: Referring in a debate with Bart Ehrman to the "I am" statements as "confessions of the Johannine community." And Licona quite reflexively defended Evans, though he then claimed not *really* to be defeding Evans, because he "wouldn't go as far as Evans," but merely to be explaining why "many scholars" agree with Evans.

So in a sense it's all in the same basket. All of these scholars who view themselves as what we might call "centrist evangelicals" (though to the public they call themselves and each other "conservative evangelicals," because they are "conservative" as compared with people like Bart Ehrman) are sort of getting together at the SBL and affirming one another in saying that the gospel authors put words in Jesus' mouth for a *variety* of reasons, which makes anyone who denies the basic premise look (to them) like a wild-eyed right-winger or something.

And, with you, I agree that locating the canonical Gospels in that genre is suspect in the first place.

What other genre would they be in?

Off-topic, but I wish to recommend Hart's translation of the New Testament which I intend to purchase as my Christmas gift for myself. Maybe it will clarify some things, maybe it won't, but it looks like a more interesting and vibrant rendition.

My comment was moderated even though it only had two links.

Step2, the subject of genre and the Gospels is a big one, and I'll try to write something very brief in response to your question: It is not clear that the Gospels need to be placed "in" a genre in some strong sense that would imply *literary influence* from other works in that same genre. Certainly they present themselves as *generally biographical* concerning Jesus. I think we can undeniably call them (as Justin Martyr does) the "memoirs" of the apostles and their associates, and in a slightly different sense "memoirs" of Jesus of Nazareth. All of that is completely uncontroversial (or should be).

A cottage industry has arisen for placing them in a strong, almost metaphysical, sense "in" the *highly specific* genre of Greco-Roman bioi, with the implication that the authors were (literally) influenced by such works and even taught to write according to specific literary conventions of this reified genre. Mike Licona has gone so far as to say that Matthew "would have been taught" from "compositional textbooks" such as the Progymnasmata of Theon! It is difficult to know whether Licona means by this that the "Matthew" who wrote the Gospel was not Matthew the tax-collector, the Jewish disciple of Jesus, or whether he means by this that the Jewish tax collector would have been taught in his childhood from Greek compositional textbooks.

Certainly to the extent that there is independent evidence for the traditionally ascribed authorship of the Gospels, that pulls against any theory that any of them (with the possible exception of Luke) would have been influenced by acquaintance with Greco-Roman literature.

I have no problem with saying that the Gospels bear some *very broad* similarities to other biographical works of the time, but these are so broad as to be fairly unhelpful. Certainly these highly non-specific resemblances (e.g., the length, the fact that many verbs have one person--Jesus--as the subject, etc.) give us no reason to think that the Gospel authors were so influenced by conventions of Greco-Roman literature that they would have automatically adopted whatever the *other* authors' priorities were as far as literal accuracy. Though I actually believe that Licona et. al. underestimate Plutarch's accuracy as well, in general, the Gospel authors had their own goals and priorities, and we have no reason to believe that they were simply borrowing some "degree" of accuracy, inaccuracy, or license to invent from a clear literary genre model, much less that they were considering themselves licensed by such a model to invent in the rigid sense that Licona asserts.

What other genre would they be in?

The genre Christian Gospels.

It's a very specific, very limited genre. It is not a subset of Greco-Roman bioi, or any other genre other than "memoirs" except accidentally. It is a unique genre in virtue of its subject and its inspiration.

If Christ was God and the Resurrection happened, it is not at all unlikely that the Gospels are unique in the world. Expecting that they must fall into some existing genre other than their unique one as Gospels is a mere assumption.

The enormous, jaw-dropping irony is that in the history of ideas, taking the Gospels to be sui generis was sometimes associated with dehistoricizing them!

Originally the suggestion that they "are" Greco-Roman bioi was thought by many evangelicals to rehabilitate their historical character. I have read a debate in the 1980s between Douglas Moo and Robert Gundry on Matthew. Gundry said that Matthew was "midrash," by which he meant that it was chock-full of fictional invention. He and Moo had a vigorous debate, in which I think Moo did quite well. Moo stated that an increasing number of scholars at the time were suggesting that Matthew and the other gospels were Greco-Roman bioi, meaning by that to *counter* the dehistoricizing tendencies of Gundry's approach.

Here we are more than thirty years later, and "Greco-Roman bioi" is *now* being used in *precisely* the same way that Gundry used "midrash"--to argue that the Gospel authors considered themselves licensed to invent what they presented as historical fact.

I still occasionally see more conservative NT scholars stating that the Gospels "are Greco-Roman bioi" and meaning by that that they are *not* fictional. They sound a little bit like conservatives in the political realm who are still wondering whether civil unions could be made to work as a compromise with the homosexual lobby. I hope that analogy won't tick off too many people, or perhaps that it will tick off only the right people. Anyway, if you're still out there using the designation "Greco-Roman bioi" to argue that the Gospel authors were historically scrupulous and *didn't* make stuff up, you're behind the times.


Would you agree with this orthopraxy from Anglican philosopher Douglas Groothuis?

He writes:

we may err by either understating or overstating the force of our conclusions. If we understate, we are not being humble but timid. If we overstate, we may be too proud to admit the limits and weakness of the argument. The ideal is neither timidity nor grandiosity. Honest and rational truth seeking should set the agenda….Certainty is no vice, as long as it is grounded in clear and cogent arguments, is held with grace, and is willing to entertain counterarguments sincerely

If you disagree with this, how would you nuance it?

Thank you


Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith 148-149.

Sounds good to me. I'm not entirely sure what the point of it is in relation to my Licona series, though.

Just gauging your orthopraxy. I don't want to take you out of context. I agree with Groothuis as well.

Merry Christmas!

Regarding Keener on Matthew and dating it to after 70 because of an emphasis on conflict with the Pharisees: he may be mistaken to think that the emphasis is really there, but either way, I would be extremely surprised if Keener thinks that Matthew invented material in order to speak to the sitz-im-leben of his community. Having worked through much of Keener’s (excellent) Acts commentary, and so having got a sense of his general historical sensibilities, I think that what he probably means is that the needs of the Christian communities in the later part of the first century sometimes guided the evangelists in their choice of which *factual* material to include, out of the much larger body of factual material they all had available to them. In general, I can’t see any problem with appealing to sitz-im-leben or indeed theological motifs as a *selection principle* which guide the choice of which authentic material to include. Not that I think you’d disagree, Lydia, but I felt that needed clarifying regarding Keener, who, it seems to me, takes a generally very sensible approach to historicity in the gospels.

Max, that may be what it means, though it's just said in a way that is ambiguous and that, as written by many NT scholars, would mean some degree of invention.

I don't know what to assume, because Keener can be very sensible (as you say) but also in other places not so much. For example, in his commentary on John, the phrase "story world" occurs again and again and again, in such a fashion that makes it clear that he *does* think John fictionalized to some degree and that there is a difference between the way things were in the real world and the way that they were in the story world of John. For example, this comes up in the context of John's allegedly moving the cleansing of the Temple.

As far as a sitz im leben guiding the inclusion of factual material, that sounds good on paper (or in this case pixels), but I think it can be somewhat epistemically problematic. This gets into an issue in epistemology known as "explaining away." To try not to write about it at too much length, let me just put it this way: Suppose that something occurred that were very important or that were a very *notable* feature of Jesus' ministry. Then the mere importance of it or the salience of it in Jesus' ministry is a sufficient explanation for its inclusion. The sitz im leben of the audience is then something of a fifth wheel, explanatorily. Now, if Jesus really had as many sharp conflicts with the Pharisees as *all* the gospels portray him as having (if we're counting, I think the largest number is probably in Luke, depending on how you count, but they all are strongly agreed, so the differences among the synoptics on this issue don't arise to anything like a difference of emphasis), and if he taught against their teachings as emphatically as all the gospels portray him as doing, then that is a completely sufficient explanation for the inclusion of such conflicts. This was a big deal in Jesus' ministry, so it's included. The minute one introduces a sitz im leben "explanation" for some alleged (but subtle) difference in emphasis on that issue in one of the gospels, one is getting involved in the fault of hyper-complexity that dogs NT studies so incredibly severely. If you really think the material was factual, it's bringing in a quite unnecessary epicycle. And it does create potential confusion in one's audience, because if the sitz im leben is a good explanation for the inclusion of the material, then is factuality really *necessary* as an explanation anymore? Explaining away works in both directions.

Contrast that with something like Mark's saying that Simon of Cyrene was the father of Alexander and Rufus. That *may* have been directed at the immediate audience, who may have known Alexander and Rufus. But that has no tendency either to hyper-complicate or to call factuality into question. For one thing, one holds the conjecture quite lightly. But also, it is a possible explanation not of an alleged "tendenz" (and tendenzkritik *is* in conflict with factuality) but rather of a *highly specific* piece of information for which one can give a *highly specific* possible reason for its inclusion, and because that reason does not *explain away* factuality but rather confirms it. Obviously if Simon of Cyrene wasn't the father of Alexander and Rufus it would have done Mark no good to refer to them as possibly known to the members of his audience.

Keener does use the words "story world" a total of 83 times (according to a Logos search) throughout his commentary either in the body of the text or a footnote.

It makes no sense to use Pharisee conflicts as rationale for late-dating the Gospels. Paul (aka Saul the Pharisee of Pharisees) was no fiction, and his Pharisaic activity dates immediately after the Crucifixion, which makes the run-ins with Jesus altogether plausible for the previous three years. Granted, the Pharisees were not the official police force of the Temple. Still, they had historic issues going back to the push of Hellenization on Israel that would have provoked hyper-vigilance against anything that seemed unorthodox.

On the process of selectivity of earlier source material for inclusion in Gospel writing, as influenced by a later Sitz im Leben of the writer (and his community), that seems valid. Were I a Gospel writer today and found myself combing the earlier source material to fashion a compelling narrative, I would be keen (or Keener, lol) to include material about gender. That is a much more hot-button topic in my Sitz im Leben than in Jesus' day (thanks for that, SCOTUS). What does not make sense is that any ethical writer, ancient or modern, would be driven by such concerns to falsify the Jesus story.

But actually, most inferences I've seen about selective inclusion of material (assuming factuality) leading to some kind of visible tendency, as influenced by a sitz im leben of the audiences of the gospels, appear to me to be very weak. I think where we see a little bit of audience-directed material is in the *commentary* the gospel authors make, but this is overt. For example, Mark will include some little aside about washing customs of the Jews or will quote something in Aramaic and then translate it for the reader. Or John will use the phrase "a feast of the Jews" when the narrator mentions Passover. That sort of thing. But the actual inclusion of events, dialogue, words of Christ, etc., just don't evince (to my mind) patterns, especially not if we are trying to *infer* the nature of the audience and have no *independent* knowledge of its makeup. But even when we do, the patterns just aren't there. For example, suppose we infer from the name "Theophilus" that Luke's first audience was a Gentile convert. Then we notice that Luke is the only Gospel to include the parable of the Prodigal Son. Aha! We might think. Luke was careful to include that to encourage his Gentile convert audience, because it appears to refer to the conversion of the Gentiles. But then we find that the passage in Matthew 8 where Jesus, after commending the faith of the centurion, says that many will come from the east and west and sit down at Abraham's table while the "sons of the kingdom" are cast out--an explicit reference to the conversion of the Gentiles and unbelief of the Jews--is included in *Matthew*, which is often thought to have a Jewish audience, but is *not* included in that location in Luke. Luke tells about Jesus' saying something similar in Luke 13:28, where it does not have nearly as clear a Gentile-replacing-Jews meaning. (Jesus may, certainly, have said something similar twice.)

Oh, and the story of the Syro-Phonecian woman isn't in Luke at all, but it is in Matthew and Mark.

Again and again we find such inferences failing once we realize that such "patterns" of tendencies are largely cherry-picked, like the fake trails one seems to see in the woods.

I think we need to revive a robust notion of the unstudied nature of the gospel authors' methods of composition. What they were doing was much less literary, even (yes I'll go this far) at the level of selection, than critics have previously thought. They seem to have included things as they struck them, as they came to know about them, as they remembered them, as their sources remembered them, etc.

Free book on Greco-Roman Literature and the New Testament edited by New Testament scholar David Aune (Notre Dame).

David Aune concludes about the genre of "biography" (whom both Licona in his big book on the Resurrection and Keener in his commentary on John both cite) concludes:

The material for biography was often
gotten from historical works (this, for example, was the usual procedure
of Plutarch), but the accent was placed upon the subjects as paradigms of
virtue and (less frequently) vice. Thus while biography tended to emphasize
ecomium, or the one-sided praise of the subject, it was still firmly
rooted in historical fact rather than literary fiction. Thus while the
Evangelists clearly had an important theological agenda, the very fact
that they chose to adapt Greco-Roman biographical conventions to tell
the story of Jesus indicates that they were centrally concerned to communicate
what they thought really happened. (page 125)



So there in Aune you see the more conservative attempted use of the genre designation. See my comment above.

In general, however, I do not believe that it has been argued with anything like justificatory force that the gospel authors *were* adapting something so *specific* as "Greco-Roman bios." See above. The characteristics that are often used to argue for this thesis are so general as not to make a strong case for serious literary *influence* by such a genre, not even in Luke. And, to the extent that there is evidence for traditional authorship ascriptions, Luke is the only author who might actually have read Greco-Roman bioi such as Plutarch. Burridge clearly does *not* accept traditional authorship in any event. And his argument in his book is based on very broad "family resemblances," not on anything so specific as actually to require a self-conscious membership in such a highly specific genre. The thesis that the Gospels "are Greco-Roman bioi" in any strong sense that tells us much about what to expect from them is, to put it bluntly, oversold.

As discussed in the main post, Licona's emphasis in his use of the "bios" genre in this 2017 book is chiefly dehistoricizing more than historicizing. His comments in the Bible Gateway interview about "prioritizing genre over harmonization" are extremely interesting and indicative here. He chiefly considers the genre to show us how often and to what an extent the authors considered themselves licensed to invent, and my series gives an idea of the range (both details and incidents) of inventions that he is seeking to find in the gospels based upon his genre designation. Moreover, because he believes (following Burridge here) that bios could be combined with *even less historical* genres, it's unclear just how low the "floor" of historicity goes in Licona's mind, even given the bios designation. But I think we can say based on his practice that it is a very low floor. In the case of the infancy narratives, he suggests possibly mingling them with what he calls "midrash" to such an extent that all the non-overlapping material (which would include the star, the Wise Men, the shepherds, and the manger) might have been invented to "make a more interesting narrative." Occasionally Licona will use the "bios" designation to support historicity (he does this a bit in his recent lecture on the deity of Christ) but far more often in his recent work, and most of all in the book I am reviewing in this series, he does it to defend dehistoricizing. He's arguing for what I call a "ceiling" on historical accuracy--the gospels are bioi, so they cannot be expected to be any *more* literally historically accurate than _______.

It seems to me that the methodology is somewhat back to front. It sounds like Licona is using the genre of the gospels to provide a parameter that sets the bar for how historical it can be (no more than) and also sets a minimum for how historical it can be (no less than). An analogy might be something like a clear and defined outline of a black and white drawing where just the colour is left out.

A contrasting method may be one where the genre is but a guide and the details are where the real business happens. To contrast the earlier analogy, more like a fuzzy outline of a picture that has to be fully fleshed out.

In Licona's case, the genre does much of the work. It's then a case of "filling in the colours" as it were to determine how historically reliable the document is as opposed to other examples of the same genre. In the latter, the genre isnt much more than a starting point. Its the historical details themselves which do the heavy lifting in determining the historical reliability, much like the work of an artist who creates a picture ultimately through detail, only using a fuzzy outline as a starting guide.

Callum, that's a good point. In Burridge's book on the genre of the gospels, when he says that the genre itself is flexible as far as how scrupulous the author is about historicity, this doesn't mean that he's shown that *every document in the genre* evinces a "flexible" attitude toward the truth, as though being open to fictionalizing were a sine qua non for an author's writing in the genre or were of the essence of the genre or something. He means that there are varying degrees of historical accuracy/precision in various exemplars of the genre.

This means that technically being "in" that genre would be compatible with inerrancy in the old-fashioned sense. (Not "inerrancy" in the sense that permits deliberate fictionalization.)

Licona has repeatedly committed here what we call a error of scope shift in a modifier like "flexible," shifting it from the genre as a whole to every individual work in the genre.

Of course, Burridge isn't going to correct him in this, because Burridge himself is just a plain liberal NT critic and uses old-fashioned redaction-critical methods to conclude that there are all of these tensions in the gospels and that they represent fictionalization. So he has no reason to point out the scope shift to Licona when (e.g.) they go together to agree with each other for an hour or more on Justin Brierley's radio show.

But the scope shift is there. The idea that the genre of "Greco-Roman bioi" gives us this dropped-from-heaven mathematical function that tells us precisely how unreliable to expect the gospels to be is, frankly, ridiculous, nor is it something that anyone has argued for with any force. Licona himself has made the most systematic *attempt* by his section on Plutarch and then by using a rigid as-Plutarch-so-the-Gospels form of analogy. But I've argued that his Plutarchan arguments fail, and of course the automatic connection to the Gospels is unjustified anyway, and the magic word "genre" won't do it. In a sense, Burridge's own comments on the flexibility of the genre are *against* Licona on that shift. But Burridge's liberal NT critical methodology agrees with Licona's in "finding" fictional changes, so neither of them notices the point.

Was just informed of your critique of Licona, and enjoyed reading your analysis. I have yet to follow all your links, but I intend to. Since the last post here is from nearly two months ago, I may be a day late and a dollar short (which is fitting, because I seem to qualify for being "behind the times" [your Dec. 20 comments) because in my book "In Defense of the Gospels--the Case for Reliability" (that came out last month on Amazon) I used Burridge's conclusion about the Gospels being bioi to confirm they are historical accounts as opposed to being religious fiction. My approach is that of a trial lawyer (which I am) who is making a case to a lay jury that the Gospels are historically reliable accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. I appreciate the "in house" discussion as to what the evidence is regarding the nature (or "genre") of the Gospels and the implications of our conclusions. My question (which might have been answered on some other blog spot) is whether Licona has responded, and, if so, have you found any common ground on the "harmonization vs. literary convention" differences?

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