Evangelicals Embrace the “Greco-Roman Biography” label for the Gospels

“The historical accuracy of ancient literature may be viewed in a manner similar to what we observe in movie theaters today.”

—Mike Licona, evangelical New Testament scholar

“Why are There Differences in the Gospels?”

A fascinating development is occurring in Evangelical-land.  Evangelicals are embracing the scholarly consensus that the Gospels were not written as precise historical accounts, but as Greco-Roman biographies, in which historical accuracy was not of prime importance.  The above quote by one of evangelical Christianity’s foremost New Testament Scholars, Mike Licona, reveals this shocking change in attitude.  Why has this occurred?  I believe that evangelicals (and many other conservative Christians) such as Mr. Licona are exasperated with defending age old attempts to harmonize the many profound discrepancies found in the four Resurrection stories of the four Gospels.  By accepting these documents as Greco-Roman biographies, in which discrepancies were perfectly acceptable, Christians such as Licona who still wish to believe in the laws-of-nature-defying bodily resurrection of Jesus, can calmly brush aside any accusations by skeptics that the four “eyewitness statements” for this extraordinary event are too discrepant for anyone to take seriously.

Conservative Christians everywhere are breathing a collective sigh of relief.

I suggest the opposite should be the case.  I believe that conservative Christians should be very, very, very concerned.  I believe that the “Greco-Roman biography label” will be conservative Christianity’s Trojan horse.  At the moment, conservative Christians will see this explanation as a victory over skeptics of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  “We are no longer forced to give complicated, contorted harmonizations for why one Gospel has the women at the Empty Tomb finding one young man while another Gospel has them finding two angels.  We are no longer forced to harmonize one Gospel which states that Jesus told the women to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee with another Gospel which has him telling them to stay in Jerusalem.”

Here is what conservative Christians should worry about:  If some of the minor details in the Gospels are literary constructions (fiction), such as whether there was a young man or two angels at the tomb, as was acceptable in Greco-Roman biographies in the first century, then maybe even bigger details are literary constructions (fiction)!  Maybe, just maybe, all the detailed appearance stories in the Gospels are fiction!  Maybe these four fictional appearance stories were invented, for literary and theological purposes, to “flesh-out” the non-descript, historical appearance claims in the Early Creed quoted in First Corinthians 15.  Therefore, the Resurrection stories really are like an historical movie which we would find in a theater today.  The core of the story is historical, but most of the details are fiction.

Here are a few more quotes from the Introduction to Licona’s book:

“A [Greco-Roman] biography was meant to serve as a literary portrait of its main character.  Accordingly, if an adapting or bending of details would serve to make a historical point or illuminate the qualities of the main character in a manner that rendered them clearer, the historian and biographer were free to do so, since their accounts would be “true enough”.

“Differing from modern biography, which is a product of the nineteenth century, ancient biographical conventions provided authors a license to depart from the degree of precision in reporting that many of us moderns would prefer.”

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