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More on Licona, genre, and reliability

Some months ago I wrote this post on the theories of New Testament scholar and apologist Michael Licona. Since then I've gathered some more material, some of it from his very large, earlier book The Resurrection of Jesus, which I had not then and still have not read cover-to-cover, but of which I have now read a good deal more than I had then.

I have also now read relevant passages from a book that Licona cites on the genre of the Gospels. This is classicist Richard Burridge's What Are The Gospels?

At the time of my original post, several people suggested both in private and in public that it was somehow remiss of me not to have waited for Licona's forthcoming book to come out. I disagree with this perspective quite strongly. Not only was my post based upon watching an hour-long public lecture and making detailed notes, but there is more material available on-line on the same topic, doing the same kinds of things, and subject to the same analysis. There is plenty of publicly available material right now for understanding and discussing Licona's approach.

Another example of misattributing fictionalization to Matthew

I feel even more strongly about this now that I have read more of the older book, for it bears out everything I was saying in my post. And the same sense arises from looking at more lecture material. I want to start here by discussing an example of the problems with Licona's approach from a section of a different talk, available here. A friendly interlocutor in this thread presented this to me and asked me whether it did not provide evidence that, in fact, Matthew is engaging in "transferral" as Licona defines it. From this lecture (quoted in my earlier post), recall that "transferral" as Licona defines it is "When an author knowingly attributes words or actions to a person that he knew belonged to another."

So what's the evidence supposed to be that Matthew did this, or anything like it? The argument involves the parallel passages concerning the healing of the man with the withered hand in Matthew 12:9-14, Mark 3:1-6, and Luke 6:6-11. The crux of the difference is that Matthew says that the Jews asked Jesus if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath and records no question by Jesus, whereas Mark and Luke do not record this question by the Jews but record that Jesus asked the Jewish on-lookers if it is lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath. Mark says that they were watching Jesus to see what he would do. Luke heightens the dramatic tension somewhat by saying that Jesus knew what they were thinking.

Licona's theory is that Matthew "turned into dialogue" the thoughts of the Jewish leaders and made them ask Jesus a question out loud when that isn't what actually happened. (Or at least, that didn't happen as far as Matthew knew.) So let's look at the problems with the argument.

Strike 1: Quoting Luke rather than Mark

Licona is almost certainly not saying that Matthew redacted Luke, but Mark. He does not say explicitly either way, but overwhelmingly such redactionist theories are that Matthew was using Mark rather than Luke. The appearance of tension between the accounts is greater between Luke and Matthew than between Mark and Matthew and may have arisen from Luke's interpretation of Mark (see below). It is therefore prejudicial to quote Luke's account rather than Mark's when one is going to argue that there is an apparent contradiction which can be resolved only by the thesis that Matthew deliberately, knowingly changed Mark's account to "make" the Jews ask Jesus a question rather than vice versa.

Strike 2: Stating that something is a certain way in the passage when that itself is an inference and is not stated in the passage, thus exaggerating differences into contradictions. At 11:54 Licona says that, in Luke's account, the Jewish leaders "don't say anything." He does this again at 12:42, emphatically: "Remember, in Mark and in Luke, they don't say anything." Even in Luke, this is only an inference, and all the more so in Mark, which does not say, "Jesus knew their thoughts." Licona gives the impression without argument that Luke and Mark both definitely state that the Jewish leaders did not say anything in the entire incident. This is not good exegesis, and it is an especially wrong-headed approach when we are dealing with a putative contradiction.

Strike 3: Ignoring plausible alternative hypotheses. The only alternative hypothesis that Licona even touches on (he does so at the beginning of his discussion) is that there might have been two occasions on which Jesus healed a man with a withered hand. This is similar to his treatment of the case of Jairus's daughter, which I discussed in the earlier post. There Licona straw-mans harmonization approaches by considering only the silly hypothesis (which as far as I know no one now living holds or considers for a moment) that Jairus's daughter died twice! Here, similarly, he pauses only to suggest that this could not have been two different occasions because of the similar apparent chronological settings in all the synoptics. (Digression: How interesting. Does this mean that Licona would think there is a prima facie case that Jesus did cleanse the Temple twice given the strikingly different chronological settings of the cleansings in John and the synoptics? Apparently not. See The Resurrection of Jesus, pp. 592 and 594, notes 440 and 443.)

But there are far better hypotheses than that Jesus healed a man with a withered hand twice, hypotheses that don't require any kind of monkeying with dialogue on the part of Matthew. Consider the following, not mutually exclusive:

1) Matthew had his own memory of what happened, having been present, that was slightly different from the memory represented in Mark's and Luke's account. Whether or not he happened to have Mark in front of him at the time (and there are real questions as to the practicality of working with another document in the editorial way that is easy for us with tables, books rather than scrolls, etc.) or had recently read Mark, he just wrote his own account based on the way he happened to remember it, which had this minor difference. This kind of thing happens all the time in human testimony. It is far more probable than the deliberate change hypothesis.

2) Matthew had a slightly different account in mind of how the incident went based on conversation with someone else who was there. Again, a quite simple hypothesis that arises from normal human activities and interactions.

3) Both were said. Licona makes it sound like the accounts are in conflict, but he is exaggerating this beyond what is found in the texts. It is entirely possible that the leaders were "stalking" Jesus to see what he would do and that one of them actually spoke out, baiting him. Stalking in this way is not incompatible with throwing out a question, and questions and answers to a rabbi, especially on a matter of Jewish law and the application of it, were very common in Jewish culture and come up all the time in the gospels. Notice that what Jesus says, about doing good or evil on the Sabbath, would make good sense as an answer to such a question. A question in answer to a loaded question is particularly good, and very much like Jesus. Remember what he did when they asked him from whence his authority came? He responded to a question with a question (Luke 20:2-4). They ask if it's lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus asks whether it's lawful on the Sabbath to do good or evil, etc. Notice that Mark says (vs. 4) that they were silent after Jesus' words, but it does not at all follow that they were silent all along.

Luke's statement that Jesus knew their thoughts does not have to mean that they never said a word. (Though Luke may not have known that they said anything, he does not assert that they did not.) Jesus presumably knew their thoughts before they ever spoke, and knew the thoughts of those in the group who did not speak but merely watched to try to catch him. And Mark gives even less of an impression than Luke that the leaders did not speak.

This hypothesis is compatible with either of the first two and, again, is far more typical of normal witness testimony--different witnesses remember different parts of what happened. #1 and #2 simply do not go into the question of why Matthew had a slightly different version in his own memory bank. This is one way it could have come about.

It is possible (though this is only a conjecture) that Luke was relying chiefly or solely on Mark for this incident, that Luke inferred from Mark that only Jesus spoke, and that this is why Luke glossed the scene by saying that Jesus knew their thoughts. But this would not mean that Matthew "turned" the thoughts of the Jewish leaders into dialogue.

Licona's theory is far more complex and literary than what we need to explain this small variation. His theory brings in completely unnecessary, deliberate, and problematically truthful mental states on the part of Matthew rather than relying on the ordinary sorts of variations in incident accounts that surround us all the time.

Licona simply asserts that Matthew was creating dialogue that didn't occur. He asserts it as though, once you "see" that this was what Matthew was doing, it will be self-evident that this must be the correct explanation of the variation! Maybe that is how it seems to him, but that is the danger of being in the grip of a theory. He doesn't make any attempt at all to engage with plausible alternative harmonizations of the versions of the incident.

This pattern comes up again and again in Licona's supposed examples of "literary devices" (aka deliberately changing things and fictionalizing) in the gospels and can be seen in the examples I discussed in the earlier post. He just says things such as, "We can see Matthew doing this here" and then spins out the literary theory of the origin of the passage with virtually no argument beyond the implication that it's impossible to see the passage any other way once this literary theory has been suggested.

The argumentative flaw of ignoring simpler explanations is also evident in his discussion in the book (pp. 593-4) of the extremely trivial differences between Luke's account of Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin and that in Mark and Matthew. These differences in essence amount to a tiny difference in ordering of dialogue and Luke's having one comment by Jesus not recorded in the other two gospels. Out of this Licona spins a theory that Luke was deliberately redacting the other gospels in order to communicate Jesus' claim to divinity to a Gentile audience. The motto in New Testament studies circles seems to be, "Always prefer the deliberate, literary or theological, complex, redaction theory to something boring and simple like trivial differences in memories." But that's not a wise way to find out the truth of the matter.

Returning to Matthew's account of the man with the withered hand, I especially note this: The minor difference between Matthew and the other two synoptics at this point might be taken to indicate that Matthew had independent access to the events. After all, ancient patristic tradition attributes the book to, y'know, Matthew, who might very well have been present at the time. Perhaps the difference in dialogue is evidence of that very fact. Licona's approach encourages us instead always to assume that Matthew is redacting some other written source, so that what we find in Matthew is not allowed to count as evidence for Matthean independence as a witness or even through other witnesses. If Matthew says exactly what Mark says, why then he's just copying Mark! If Matthew says something a little different from what Mark says, then it's not that his account complements Mark's with that from another eyewitness source. No, no, Matthew must be, for some literary or theological reason, redacting Mark intentionally using some "literary device."

This closes us off to important evidence concerning the eyewitness nature and independence of the gospels.

Ancient compositional textbooks

At the end of the discussion of the man with the withered hand, Licona says that Matthew would have been doing what he had been "instructed" to do in ancient education in compositional textbooks. What's that all about? Earlier in the talk (beginning about minute 3) he talks about these ancient (non-Jewish) "compositional textbooks." He gives no argument whatsoever that Matthew (who may have been a Jewish tax collector) would have "been instructed" from such textbooks, except that the the oldest one we have is from the first century.

Licona makes it very clear that these books were giving the students writing exercises. In the example he gives, the textbook in question gives the students a passage from Thucydides and then encourages the students to try to rewrite the passage or incident, sometimes improving the writing or adding dialogue. After saying that one of these ancient textbooks gave the students exercises to add dialogue, Licona launches immediately into the man with the withered hand incident, saying, "Let me give you an example in the New Testament of this occurring."

It all goes by rather quickly, so one might not notice what a terribly weak argument this is. As a home schooling mother, I often have given students writing exercises. I often use textbooks, and they sometimes also give writing exercises in which students are encouraged to make up dialogue or write a partially fictionalized account of some historical event. Something like, "Pretend that you are a soldier at Valley Forge. Write a play about what it would have been like."

This has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with teaching students that it's okay to change the facts when writing actual history. Nothing. Zilch. Zero. Nada. Any thirteen-year-old who goes away from the "Pretend that you are a soldier at Valley Forge" assignment with the idea, "Hey, one day if I write a history of the American Revolution, it's perfectly fine for me to pretend that George Washington said stuff that I just made up out of my hat" is very, very confused. That isn't what the teacher is teaching him, at all. (The compositional exercise book, a textbook in rhetoric, by Theon, which Licona cites, is partially available in translation here.)

So the idea that the existence of compositional textbooks with the types of exercises that Licona describes tells us about acceptable levels of fictionalization in writing real history is just wrong. The existence of such textbook exercises as he describes is no argument at all for the existence of these so-called "literary devices" in the gospels. That, aside from the dubious and utterly unsupported supposition that the evangelist Matthew "would have been instructed" at any time in his life from such textbooks.

A confusion about genre

Licona repeatedly uses the concept of genre, specifically the genre of "Greco-Roman bioi," or biography, to support the idea that it would be expected and accepted for the gospel authors to change things from the way that they really were. In the talk here this begins at about minute 2:40: "In Greco-Roman biography as well as historiography, you were allowed to take certain compositional moves, some flexibility in the way that you reported events."

He says the same in The Resurrection of Jesus.

I have noted above that there is now somewhat of a consensus among contemporary biblical scholars that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography (bioi) and that this genre offered biographers a great deal of flexibility to rearrange material; invent speeches to communicate the teachings, philosophy and political beliefs of the subject; and often included encomium. p. 593

Licona's many examples make it clear what he means by the "flexibility" supposedly "offered" to the gospel authors by the genre they were using. Again and again he attributes to them the intention to "make" things happen at times or within a time period when they did not happen (or when the authors had no reason to believe that they happened), to make people say things that they did not say (or that the authors had no reason to believe that they said). Just another example shortly after this quotation about the alleged "flexibility offered" by the genre occurs on p. 596, footnote 449, where Licona says, "In [Luke's] Gospel, all of the appearances and the ascension occur on Easter" and calls this the literary trope of "telescoping."

Yet neither Licona nor Richard Burridge, the classicist whom he repeatedly cites on the alleged genre of the gospels, actually supports this conclusion. At some point I may write a separate post about Burridge and what his arguments support. I believe that the conclusion he supports is much, much weaker than what is attributed to him and in particular that he does not have a strong argument (and doesn't seem to mind this very much himself) that the gospel authors were actually influenced by Greco-Roman literature, much less were self-consciously writing in a Greco-Roman genre. Burridge's entire approach is based on the concept of a family resemblance, and the family resemblances he finds between the gospels and Greco-Roman "lives" are such as would naturally arise from the intention to write a medium-length work about a single, real person, to whose life the author had access (through his own experiences or from witnesses), and whom the author regarded as very important. Burridge even acknowledges that Mark and possibly John may have fallen into or reinvented the "genre" in question because it was suitable to his purposes (What Are the Gospels, p. 241), and his arguments that Matthew and Luke were self-consciously working in such a genre and that John must have been aware of it are, in my opinion, extremely weak. Indeed, he doesn't spend much time on the question. This calls into question the entire idea that it is meaningful to speak of the gospels as "being Greco-Roman bioi."

But even waiving that for the moment, Burridge never argues, as far as I have been able to find, that if a work was "in" the genre this would have caused the author to consider himself inherently licensed to invent or change material. Nor that it would have meant that his audience would have expected him to do so. On the contrary, the whole notion of a "flexible" genre in this respect is that many different attitudes towards these issues would have been taken by individual authors. Burridge's idea seems to be that there would be a sort of "floor" to the amount of ahistoricity an audience would expect from a document that they recognized as being a "life" of a particular, historical personage. It does not follow that there would have been an automatic "ceiling" to the amount of accuracy that the author would have held himself to or that his audience would have expected. A particular document could "be" in the genre of bioi even though its author would never, ever deliberately change things such as Licona suggests, would consider it wrong to do so, and even though his audience would have expected him never to do so. Licona's repeated citations of the genre of "Greco-Roman bioi" to bolster his arguments that the gospel authors were knowingly changing history seem to show that he does not understand this.

And merely finding some Greco-Roman authors who appear to have taken some liberties with history does virtually nothing to support the idea that the gospel authors as individuals would have considered themselves "offered" license to take liberties if they wrote, for that matter even self-consciously, in a Greco-Roman genre. (I note, too, that even if a particular ancient author took deliberate, knowing liberties with facts, this liberty-taking does not become a "literary device" in virtue of the fact that we choose to give a name to what he did. It may just be a prosaic situation in which the author decided for some reason of his own not to hew to truth in his report. In which case, it is completely wrong to extrapolate such an instance to some sort of general ancient licence for taking liberty with the facts.)

It is important to remember, as well, that when Burridge implies differences between biography and history as genres of ancient works, he is not thereby treating history as more accurate and biography as less accurate. On the contrary, in common with the ancient authors he discusses, Burridge is most often speaking of "history" as being, very roughly, more concerned with famous actions, great deeds, important battles, etc., and biography more focused on a single person and the small things that reveal his character (pp. 61-62), though he emphasizes that any sharp distinction here is impossible and that bioi often do contain the very events which Plutarch, for example, identifies more with history.

Licona seems to be making an error of scope shift. From "flexible genre (when it comes to liberties with facts)" we cannot and should not infer "genre made up of individually flexible works (when it comes to liberties with facts)." Nor should we infer that the audiences of all such works would have expected some degree of invention. On the contrary, the whole point of a broad genre that contains both more and less careful and accurate authors is that, for all we know from the genre alone, specific items within the genre could well be written by extremely careful and accurate authors!

Oddly, at some points Licona seems to recognize this, or something like it. For example, he mentions (p. 204) that Lucian reports that Alexander the Great was annoyed at a work by Aristobulus because it exaggerated his great deeds. From variations within the genre, Licona concludes,

Because the commitment to accuracy and the liberties taken could vary greatly between biographers, identifying the canonical Gospels as bioi will take us only so far. Each Evangelist will need to be judged by his performance. (p. 204)

Exactly. Well said. But oddly enough, Licona proceeds at other points in the book and even more so in his recent lectures to imply that part of the "so far" that this genre designation takes us is to the conclusion that the evangelists would have definitely considered themselves licensed by the genre to take at least some liberties with the facts--making up speeches, adding dialogue, "making" incidents happen when they did not happen, and so forth. But he has not established this at all by his argument.

Similarly, on some pages Licona seems to acknowledge that ancient statements about fidelity vs. invention in accounts of speeches can be read in a variety of ways and indeed are conflicting, with Polybius taking a strict view of reporting only known speeches and hewing close to what was actually said (Licona, p. 218) and Lucian stating that historians have license to invent speeches they consider appropriate to the occasion and to the character of the speaker (p. 218). Here Licona quotes from M.L. Soards endorsingly as concluding that, based on ancient writers' injunctions, "we do not know" what degree of license the author of Acts would have considered himself to have in this regard. In other places, however, Licona makes it sound like Lucian's permissive view of speech-invention is controlling as far as what the gospel authors and Luke would have regarded themselves as permitted to do. He even goes so far as to say (which is not strictly correct) that "Lucian stated this [inventing speeches] was standard practice." (See paragraph numbers 58-59 in Lucian here for the reference Licona uses. Lucian makes no statement whatsoever about what is "standard practice" in his time but rather gives his own opinion about what history writers ought to do.)

In general, Licona's conclusions about genre and what it licenses far outstrip the evidence he has brought forward. Even if it were true that the gospels in some sense "are" in a "Greco-Roman bioi" genre, this is fully compatible with their holding themselves to an extremely high standard of fidelity to the truth. It is also compatible with that expectation on the part of their audience. No one has, as far as I can tell, established that ancient people in general didn't care about high reliability and accuracy, that such ideas are anachronistic, or that the genre of the gospels "offered a great deal of flexibility" to invent or change facts, even on such details as when an event occurred. It is not that Licona has not done research. But for some reason he has drawn conclusions from it that are not well-supported.

More on implications for apologetics

In my earlier post I emphasized the deleterious effects for apologetics of Licona's approach. Let me say again here: It isn't good news for apologetics if we have a tool so all-explaining that it magically explains away all apparent discrepancies in the gospels. That isn't what real history looks like, and it isn't what real eyewitness testimony looks like. Real eyewitness testimony often contains apparent discrepancies. We shouldn't be trying to make these disappear with redaction criticism and elaborate theories about literary devices. That just closes us off to the texture of real, living history.

In another post on what is known as the "minimal facts approach" to the argument for the resurrection, I emphasized the difficulties in arguing for the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ if one is timid about treating the gospel accounts as, at least, what the disciples claimed. Licona takes precisely such a hesitant approach, and he does so precisely because of his inclination to think that the gospel authors may have been taking literary liberties in their reports.

We have resisted the temptation to employ sources of uncertain value as well as potential facts that would certainly bolster the resurrection hypothesis (RH). In our assessment of the relevant sources in terms of their ability to yield valuable data for our investigation, we noted that the resurrection narratives in the canonical Gospels may be useful. However, because of unknowns, such as the amount of liberty the Evangelists may have taken in their reports as well as the sharp disagreement among scholars pertaining to their reliability, we have chosen to use them only when necessary and to rely more heavily on earlier sources about which more is known and a greater agreement exists within a heterogenous majority of scholars. (emphasis added) (p. 542)

So using the gospel narratives as sources is a scholarly "temptation." They are adjudged as of "uncertain value" in historical investigation of the resurrection. And Licona defends this approach not only because he defers to the majority of scholarly opinion (a problem which I discussed in the post on the minimal facts approach) but also because he considers the amount of liberty the evangelists would have taken in their reports of the resurrection to be unknown.

Licona's entire emphasis in this passage is deprecatory. In no way is he saying that he can tell that there is some kind of clear "floor" to how many liberties the gospel authors would take--except, perhaps, that they wouldn't have invented the extremely general fact of the resurrection itself! But his deprecatory words in this passage are consistent with his approach to genre, which places details up for grabs, possibly altered by "literary devices."

Now, if all of this were true, we would just have to lump it. But let's not make any mistake: If Licona's conclusions about the potential liberties of the gospel authors were true, this would be bad news rather than good news for the defense of the faith. Therefore, his conclusions should not be embraced without due critical attention. We certainly should not be moved by the hope that they will make that pesky problem of putative contradictions disappear, allowing us to wave the magic wand of "genre" and "literary device" and not have to worry about it anymore.

It's actually quite fortunate that his arguments for the gospels' "flexibility" in truthfulness on matters of detail are exceedingly weak. The argument for the resurrection is much, much stronger if we do not have to regard it as some sort of scholarly virtue to avoid relying on the accounts in the gospels as authentic, apostolic reports of their experiences. If we think that their amount of "flexibility" was "unknown," then what does this mean for physical details such as Jesus' eating with his disciples? Could those have been "literary devices"? (Licona explicitly says that the angels at the tomb may have been added as a literary device, pp. 596-97.) The account of the great catch of fish in John 21 bears some resemblance to the account of the great catch of fish near the beginning of Jesus' ministry in Luke 5. If it is unknown how much liberty the gospel authors took, could the entire incident in John 21 be a "displacement" of the catch in Luke 5? ("Displacement" is another one of the literary devices Licona thinks we find in the gospels. It involves making something happen at a time when it didn't really happen.) But in that case, the evidential value of the John 21 account, which, with its length, detail, and physicality, would be extremely difficult to account for on a hallucination theory if it were really something the disciples claimed, would be lost. Or what about Licona's talk of flexibility offered to invent dialogue? What implications does that have for the resurrection accounts? As it currently stands, if the accounts are accurate records of what the disciples claimed, Jesus said a lot of things, to all of them, all together. In some of these statements Jesus emphasized his physicality and invited them to verify it. Their experiences of him were polymodal and intersubjective. But if the authors could, for all we can tell, be inventing dialogue because of literary flexibility "offered" to them by genre, what then? Could the place in John where Jesus invites Thomas to thrust his hand into his side merely be a bit of invented dialogue? What about his explicit assurance in Luke that they can touch and handle him and that a spirit does not have flesh and bones as they can see that he has? It should be obvious that Licona's approach to the gospels' resurrection accounts has major implications for apologetics.

Similarly, Licona rates as merely "possible" the conclusion that the sermons in Acts (e.g., Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2) are "reflecting the teaching of the Jerusalem apostles" (p. 220). He makes this deprecating rating merely on the basis of a) the inconclusiveness of genre considerations and the possibility of invention and b) the lack of scholarly consensus.

If this were an accurate way to rate these speeches, the case for the resurrection would be accordingly weakened. The early speeches in Acts are first-century sources for what the apostles claimed and what they were willing to die for. They strongly support, in particular, their testimony to a bodily resurrection of Jesus rather than some sort of vision or spiritual resurrection.

But Licona's argument for downplaying the historical value of the speeches in Acts is very weak. A mere lack of scholarly consensus should not move us. Maybe many scholars in this area are biased, wrong, or excessively tentative. And genre considerations are by no means the only way to decide whether the author of Acts took an approach to recording speeches more like that recommended by Polybius than like that recommended by Lucian. The historical accuracy of Acts and the care of its author are overwhelmingly confirmed by intersections with external evidence. (See, for example, Tim's recent lecture about that here.) With respect to the speeches in Acts, it is particularly noteworthy that the three different accounts of Paul's conversion given in Acts, two of which are included in speeches, vary rhetorically in precisely the way that one would expect them to vary if Paul himself had given the two speeches to those particular audiences. A careful analysis of the three accounts yields fascinating results in this respect, which goes to confirm both that the author of Acts was a companion of Paul and that he tried to give speeches quite accurately to the extent that he could. (Birks discusses this in his edition of Paley's Horae Paulinae, pp. 324-330, here. Howson discusses this on pp. 94-104 of The Evidential Value of the Acts of the Apostles, here.) While this does not mean that all the speeches, especially those in the earliest part of Acts at which the author may not have been personally present, are absolutely verbatim, it does support the conclusion that, at a minimum, they are given according to what one might call a "Polybian" rather than a "Lucianian" approach. Then, too, there is the strong evidence of undesigned coincidences for the authorship of Acts by a careful, meticulous author who was a companion of Paul.

In general, Licona's approach involves not accessing this sort of evidence and even making a scholarly virtue out of not doing so. In sticking to what Licona in his book calls "historical bedrock," he insists on confining himself to what the majority of NT scholars will concede. But to call that "historical bedrock" in contrast to premises the majority of NT scholars won't concede is extremely dubious. Worse, his statements about genre give the distinct impression that we should expect some degree of fictionalization on the part of the authors and that the only remaining question is how much there is. The negative impact this has upon apologetics is difficult to overstress and is an extremely high price to pay for being able to dismiss alleged contradictions as "literary devices."

If, instead, we access all evidence and make use of plausible (rather than implausible) harmonization hypotheses, we will find no reason to think that the authors ever engaged in deliberate fictionalization of the sort Licona argues for. This could even be true if they occasionally made some trivial error.

On that matter, let me make an analogy to ordinary experience. Suppose that you had a friend named Bob who was giving testimony in a criminal trial. Bob stated on the stand that the event in question occurred on a Saturday. Now suppose that, under cross-examination, Bob were forced to admit that the event must instead have occurred on a Wednesday. Now our scenario takes two different future tracks. In track 1, Bob says to the jury, "I knew it occurred on a Wednesday, but I changed it to a Saturday in my original testimony because that made the story flow better. It was a literary device." In track 2, Bob says to the jury, "I'm sorry, I must have misremembered which day this occurred on, since I now see that it apparently happened on a Wednesday."

I contend that both the jury and you, as Bob's friend, should rationally trust a lot more of what he says in track 2 than in track 1. For track 1 involves deception about the day of the event. It isn't really anything else. Bob gave no signal in his language in his original testimony that he was changing the day of the event. Calling it a literary device doesn't change the fact that now you have to wonder all the time what other things Bob might be deliberately changing as "literary devices." Deliberate misinformation, made to look like straightforwardly factual speech, is extremely hard to detect. If it is done smoothly enough, and if you don't happen to have independent evidence to act as a corrective, it will be impossible to detect. It could easily be cropping up all the time unbeknownst to the hearer or reader. But in track 2, what we're talking about is the accuracy of Bob's memory. We now have concrete reason to think that Bob's memory isn't perfect. Whose is? But forgetting what day something occurred on could easily fall within the realm of normal human memory variation and is compatible with, overall, a very high degree of accuracy on Bob's part, even on matters of detail.

That may not be how the jury sees it, and it's likely not how the opposing counsel will try to portray it. Opposing counsel would make a big deal about the minor error. But it's how one should look at it. And opposing counsel would consider track 1 an even more shiny gift than track 2, for good reason.

We ought to be approaching the gospels with these kinds of ideas in mind. How do different theories, and the evidence for and against those theories, affect our justified confidence in these accounts as testimony to actual events? It isn't enough to say that we could still "get the gist," because our confidence in the "gist" (such as the proposition that Jesus rose from the dead) should be affected by the accuracy or inaccuracy of details and by the overall trustworthiness and authenticity (as records of testimony) of the documents that we have.

It therefore matters a good deal whether or not Licona has made a good case for the sort of deliberate changing of details that he repeatedly attributes to the gospel authors. Since the case for the gospels' use of these "literary devices" is highly speculative, weak, and depends upon confusions concerning genre and on ignoring more plausible alternative hypotheses, we should not adopt Licona's approach to the gospels.

Comments (10)

Of course, there could be a simpler explanation: Matthew was standing near a Pharisee who happened to voice the objection to healing on the Sabbath, but few outside of the immediate area heard him, so it seems as if Jesus were reading their thoughts. Thus, both perspectives of hearing and knowing thoughts could be true, if the research done by Luke and Mark (who, apparently, were not present) were from a source that did not hear the question.

The Chicken

Of course, there could be a simpler explanation: Matthew was standing near a Pharisee who happened to voice the objection to healing on the Sabbath, but few outside of the immediate area heard him, so it seems as if Jesus were reading their thoughts. Thus, both perspectives of hearing and knowing thoughts could be true, if the research done by Luke and Mark (who, apparently, were not present) were from a source that did not hear the question.

The Chicken

Sorry for the double post.

Good thinking, MC. That would be a version of my hypotheses #1 and #3. In general one finds that all sorts of plausible explanations spring to mind when one sets aside the cumbersome apparatus of redaction criticism and instead considers seriously the hypothesis of eyewitness testimony. The latter is, so to speak, lighter on its feet. It is much more natural. We all see these kinds of things happen all the time in real life.

And, in another variant of the same concept: Matthew was standing next to a Pharisee who said something negative about healing on the Sabbath, half under his breath and half to his friend, just within hearing of a few of the apostles.

Luke's source wasn't near Matthew when the pharisee asked this, but earlier heard the pharisees in town talk about a "plan to box him into a corner". Jesus heard the spoken question by Matt's pharisee, and re-states the question the way it he wants to formulate it - which reformulation Luke's source hears directly from Jesus, because he is speaking out loud for the benefit of all.

Lydia, this is a powerful lot of excellent work. Thank you. I hope people pay attention and realize that the arguments put forward by the fictionalizers are just not that good.

Thank you, Tony.

Quite helpful, thanks for this.

This is a very interesting article, Lydia. Thank you for taking the time and effort to write it.

I am personally wary of having too easy of an "out" in discussing the various problems in reconciling the gospels. Not that we want to make problems where there are none, and certainly not that we want to overstate the nature of some of the difficulties (many of which have good and plausible working solutions), but just as we criticize skeptics and other village atheists for their eager desire to find problems where there are none, or to label things that don't immediately fit together as "contradictions", we on our side of the fence have to be careful about too-good-to-be-true solutions.

If you've represented Licona correctly, and if I'm understanding that representation correctly, I for the moment as a student of scripture have that uneasy feeling that there is an element of "too good to be true".

Thanks again for writing things like this.

Thanks, JL. Like most such things (an incredible steal on a used car, for example) it looks too good to be true until one finds out what's really under the hood. Which is not to say there is any deception going on. I truly think Dr. Licona is convinced of his own theory. And the way that it's supposed to be okay is just by saying, "It's okay." In other words, if we _say_ that they would have just been expected to engage in these "literary devices," then we can retain, for example, some (very strange) version of the inerrancy label, we can say that we're absolving them of all moral blame (it's not deception if you're expected to change stuff), and so forth. The consequences for *actual* reliability of the document are brushed off, because we can supposedly get the big picture, and that's all okay. But that's not true, epistemically. If the documents are making all this stuff up, *even if* this were supposedly "okay" because genre, then how strong of a case do we have anymore for the "big picture"? Bart Ehrman is going to have a picnic with that sort of thing.

So why accept it? Well, only if the arguments are good. But they aren't.

I see an interesting, different instance of this in the phrase "we can still get." Recently on Facebook I was going into some of the surprising things I found out from reading more of Licona's older book. One of the oddities that I didn't go into in this post is that Licona includes the "objective vision theory" in his RH--Resurrection Hypothesis. It's not that he personally believes the objective vision theory. I assume he believes in Jesus' bodily resurrection. But the hypothesis he's defending in the book is the _disjunction_ of real, bodily resurrection and objective vision sent by God. I mentioned this strange fact to a friend on FB, and the friend responded something like, "Well, that doesn't bother me, because with objective vision we still get the existence of God and a supernatural event." Words to that effect.

I wanted to tear my hair out. Not only is the _bodily_ resurrection of Jesus _extremely_ central to apostolic teaching of Christianity, but epistemically one is giving away the store. The objective vision theory is _extremely_ unstable epistemically. It's always on the verge of collapsing into real, bodily resurrection on the one hand or hallucination on the other hand. Depends on what the theorist "allows" in the way of evidence.

People don't see this kind of thing, because they are always looking to _strip down_ what we are defending and even the evidence we're availing ourselves of and asking what we can "still get." It's not the way to pursue truth accurately.

Thank you for the reply Lydia.

I wanted to tear my hair out. Not only is the _bodily_ resurrection of Jesus _extremely_ central to apostolic teaching of Christianity, but epistemically one is giving away the store. The objective vision theory is _extremely_ unstable epistemically. It's always on the verge of collapsing into real, bodily resurrection on the one hand or hallucination on the other hand. Depends on what the theorist "allows" in the way of evidence.

Most agreed. I also appreciate your commments about how stripping down what we are defending is not the way to accurately pursue truth.

I don't mean to be a cheering section here, but it is hard to add to your good words in the main article, so I simply write to say thanks for expressing so much better the thoughts I am thinking.

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