Review of “Why are there Differences in the Gospels?” by Michael Licona, Introduction

“Today, a growing majority of scholars regard the Gospels as Greco-Roman biography.”

—Mike Licona, p. 3

Gary:  In the opening of his Introduction, evangelical NT scholar Mike Licona points out that it isn’t just modern day skeptics who are bothered by the many differences among the four Gospel accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus.  The differences bothered the early Christians too!  Licona notes that early Christians such as Julius Africanus, Origen, Chrysostom, and Augustine struggled to reconcile these differences.

How does Dr. Licona suggest that modern readers can resolve this dilemma?

Answer:  “Differences in how authors reported the same event are part and parcel of classical literature studies.  …There are numerous reasons why differences exist.  …[one possibility] is that an author may have altered his sources(s) in order to render the story in a manner he regarded as being more plausible than as it was told in his sources(s).” p.2

Gary:  Wow.  That’s a pretty big admission for an evangelical.  So if “Matthew” didn’t like something in “Mark’s” Empty Tomb story such as the women finding a “young man” inside the tomb, he felt free to alter the story so that an angel descends from heaven, moves the stone and sits on it, in order to make the scene more “plausible”!

“The objective of Greco-Roman biography was to reveal the character of the subject through the person’s sayings and deeds.  …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 prefer.”  pp. 4,5

Gary:  Ok, I got it.  So in a biography, the author’s primary concern is to correctly portray the character of the subject of the story.  How does this compare to an ancient work of history?

“Generally speaking, ancient authors took fewer liberties when writing histories than when writing biographies.  However, there are plenty of exceptions when even the more careful historians of that era engaged in history writings using the same liberties we observe in biographical writing.”  p. 6

Gary:  Stop the presses!  So even if an ancient writer was writing a historical writing, even some of the more careful ancient historians engaged in taking “liberties” with the facts similar to what was seen with biographies, i.e….they made things up!  My, my, my.  No wonder Dr. Licona says this in the “Acknowledgments” section of his book:

“I want to express my thanks to…Craig Evans, Craig Keener, Greg Monette, my Doktorvater Jan van der Watt, and Dan Wallace, all of whom encouraged me to pursue the truth no matter where it led when my observations made me uncomfortable.”

Gary:  That must have been a very tough pill to swallow for an evangelical Christian to realize that it was perfectly acceptable in Antiquity for writers of history to make up some of their “facts”.

“The historical accuracy of ancient literature may be viewed in a manner similar to what we observe in movie theaters today.  Some movies claim at the beginning to be “based on true events” while others claim to be “inspired by true events”.  The latter will involve more dramatic license than the former.  Even in the former, however, we expect reenacted conversations to be redacted to varying degree for clarity, dramatic  impact, and artistic improvement.” p. 6

Gary:  Artistic improvement???  Wow!  How about inventing all the detailed appearances stories in the four Gospels from the historical, bare-boned appearance claims in the Early Creed quoted in First Corinthians 15?  Wouldn’t that qualify under “artistic improvement”?  I would say a story that has Jesus telling Doubting Thomas to stick his finger in his wounds is a big artistic improvement over “and then he appeared to the Twelve”, wouldn’t you, Reader?

To read the summary of my review of Licona’s book, read here.

5 thoughts on “Review of “Why are there Differences in the Gospels?” by Michael Licona, Introduction

  1. Are there any more parts to this review of Licona’s book? I have it on hold at my local university library, but until I pick it up, I’d like to read more about it


  2. Well, I finally got through Licona’s book, but I can’t say I got much out of it. I guess it’s because I’m not already a believer and eager to embrace any argument that confirms my faith. To me, Licona is just riffing on the old apologist saw that if we get too critical of the accuracy of the Gospels, we would have to throw out all the other ancient histories. My answer has always been, yes, if those histories were being used by people to try to influence our laws and morals; if what ancients historians said was claimed to be the word of God; if you had to believe what the ancient historians said and act on it to get to heaven and avoid hell.

    If all that were in effect, then the bar of what we can actually know from ancient writers and Plutarch’s biographies would be ratcheted up significantly. But because it’s not, Licona sneaks in the back door, and bolts our casual acknowledgment of ancient events and bios (because ultimately it doesn’t matter if they are inaccurate) onto a world view that ultimately does require us to actually know what happened and what was said.

    I also found a couple long but I think good reviews by, interestingly enough, biblical inerrantists, who also don’t buy the idea that ancient biographers making up stories about their subjects is a firm foundation to hang your hat on when trying to discover what happened.

    The link below wants an email to read the pdf but just scroll down and you can read it without downloading


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s