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

I just completed reading evangelical NT scholar Michael Licona’s very interesting book, “Why are There Differences in the Gospels?” which examines the majority position of New Testament Scholarship that the Gospels were written in the genre of Greco-Roman biography, and that it is this genre of literature which accounts for the many differences or “discrepancies” which we find in the four Gospels.

Licona examines biographical stories written by the Roman author, Plutarch, in which he tells the same story in two or more books.   These books, collectively entitled, Lives, are recognized by classics scholars as Greco-Roman biographies.  Licona points out the literary devices employed by Plutarch, demonstrating that ancient biographers were willing to add and delete fictional details to a story, attribute a saying in a story to one character in one book to a different character in another book, rearrange the order of events in the same story in different retellings of the story in different books, and so on.  Licona then goes on to show that the same literary devices are used by the authors of the Gospels.

What Licona is trying to show is that although these ancient biographical literary techniques might not be tolerated in today’s biographies, they were perfectly acceptable in the first century, and they did not indicate that the author was fabricating an outright lie.  In other words, Licona is trying to establish that we can trust the historical accuracy of the core of the Jesus Story, even if some of the details may be literary fabrications.

My question for Licona would be:  Where do you know where to draw the line between the historical “core” and the literary fabrications?

I accept that Jesus existed; that he was believed to have performed miracles and exorcisms; that he got in trouble with the Jewish authorities; that he was arrested; that he was tried; that he was convicted of treason against Rome; that he was crucified; and that shortly after his death some of his believers believed that he appeared to them in some fashion.

If Licona is willing to agree that this is the historical “core”, I am happy to concur.  I would even be willing to add that the Early Creed in First Corinthians 15 soon came to be accepted as part of the historical core:  there was a list of persons to whom the Church believed Jesus had appeared in some fashion.

I believe that…the rest of the story…as appears in the four Gospels and the first chapter of Acts, regarding the alleged detailed appearances, are literary fictions, written to “fill out” the bare-bones historical core story…for literary purposes, as was perfectly acceptable in first century Greco-Roman biographies.  And this is why NO ONE complained about these fictional, detailed appearances stories being inaccurate because first century readers knew not to read them literally!  First century Christians knew that the true appearance stories were described in the Early Creed  (which contains no physical descriptions whatsoever!)

Here is a quote from Licona on page 199:

“When a photographer takes a photograph of a couple holding hands while walking through a meadow of flowers, she may edit the photo…No one objects to these alterations.  The photo is a “true representation” in its message, even if not in every detail.  …And so it is with the finest historical and biographical writers when the Gospels were written.”

Gary:  So the details don’t matter, folks!  The discrepancies in the four Gospels don’t matter, skeptics!  Its the message of the Resurrection that matters!  My, my, my.  Evangelicals are starting to sound a lot like…liberals???

Dear Readers, if that was the attitude of the authors of the Gospels, (And I agree with Licona, it most probably was) it is very possible that every last one of the detailed appearance stories in the Gospels is literary FICTION!  The real appearance claims may have been no different than today’s sightings of the Virgin Mary:  strange cloud formations, shadows on a hillside, or as silly as a stain on a wall!


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