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

  1. Yet another distortion of a really good academic work by Gary. After perusing through academia, I found this book amazingly helpful, and it represents a completely new approach to Gospel differences in academia. Michael Licona’s monograph, ‘Why Are There Differences In The Gospels’, was published to Oxford University Press.

    As I noted earlier, Gary totally distorted this book. Licona analyzed and demonstrated various literary compositional devices that were used in Graeco-Roman biographies during the time of the Gospels. Some of these compositional devices include dislocation, compression, transfersal, etc. Gary says that Licona considers these “literary fabrications”, which is a complete lie. Licona is very careful to note that not a single one of these literary compositions distorts the actual truth of the narrative in any way, rather they simply highlight or focus the importance on a specific section of a historical event using literary devices. The full truth of the story is retained with different forms of emphasis on different parts of the story. Licona is careful to highlight this, and every single academic review I’ve read of Licona’s monograph seems to have gotten this memo — except Gary, who, because of his agenda, makes this out to be claiming that these devices entail fabrication. Of course, they do not. People are free to compare professional reviews of Licona’s book by actual academics, and compare them to this very disingenuous review.

    http://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/review/why-are-there-differences-in-the-gospels-ancient-biography
    http://readingreligion.org/books/why-are-there-differences-gospels

    If one compares these two reviews to Gary’s, they will find it simply remarkable.

    “Licona points out the literary devices employed by Plutarch, demonstrating that ancient biographers were willing to add and delete fictional details to a story”

    As highlighted, nothing was ‘fictional’ or became ‘fictional’ through the use of these literary devices. Gary skews an ancient understanding of literary devices to his own interpretation, where these devices stop being devices and start becoming fabrications where the wicked Gospel writer is just playing around and distorting the truth as he pleases. No responsible reviewer could have done something like Gary did.

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    1. 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: Those are Mike Licona’s words, not mine.

      Mike Licona is comparing the “editing” performed by a professional photographer of a photo to the retelling of the biographical story of Jesus by the authors of the Gospels. When the photographer edits the above hypothetical photo, the couple and the meadow will still be in the photo, but the photographer may change the color of the grass in the meadow, the hue of the blue in the color of the sky, he might remove any blemishes from the faces of the couple, etc.

      Does this editing change the “facts” of the original scene? Yes! Does it change the core “story” of the original scene? No.

      I’m curious if “Scientific Christian” has even read Licona’s book! Licona DOES state that Plutarch sometimes invented DETAILS in his historical stories; or he ascribed the performance of an action in a story in one of his books but in another book, he ascribes the same action to another character even though he is describing the very same event. However, the core of the story always remained.

      THAT IS WHAT LICONA IS TRYING TO SAY IN HIS BOOK: As long as the core truths of the story remain intact, changes in the details, even if completely invented, are perfectly acceptable. (That is why Licona believes it was acceptable for the author of Matthew to invent the story of the dead saints being shaken out of their graves when Jesus died.)

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      1. A quote from page 199? Flip just one page earlier dude!

        Licona says that the use of composition devices was “not intended to distort the truth but to communicate it more effectively” man! Page 198! The dude isn’t compromising the truth, he’s just emphasizing different sections of it! He’s focusing on different parts of the photograph but he’s not changing the actual picture man!

        And again, Licona is right when he says that in ancient biographical practice, people would invent things out of thin air, including Plutarch. But Licona is an inerranist. He doesn’t actually think there are errors. Plus, he doesn’t think Matthew’s saint narrative was “invented”, he thinks its apocalyptic imagery of the end of the world. You keep changing what Licona says, dude.

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        1. Where did I say that Licona believes that the authors of the Gospels were distorting the truth???

          “Licona says that the use of composition devices was “not intended to distort the truth but to communicate it more effectively” man! Page 198!”

          I agree 100%!

          I do NOT believe that the authors of the Gospels wrote what they wrote with the intention of deceiving anyone. But I also do not believe that they were writing 21st century, western, biographies. They were writing first century Greco-Roman biographies, and in that genre of writing, authors were free to be “creative” with the DETAILS of a story. There were NOT allowed to change the core facts of a story, but they were free to embellish the details.

          “He’s focusing on different parts of the photograph but he’s not changing the actual picture man!”

          That is not editing. Editing subtracts from or alters the original.

          dictionary definition of “edit”: to prepare (written material) for publication by correcting, condensing, or otherwise modifying it.

          “But Licona is an inerranist. He doesn’t actually think there are errors. Plus, he doesn’t think Matthew’s saint narrative was “invented”, he thinks its apocalyptic imagery of the end of the world. You keep changing what Licona says, dude.”

          Wrong. If Licona were a true inerrantist, he wouldn’t have been fired for his views on Matthew’s Dead Saints Shaken Out of their Graves story. Inerratists believe that dead saints LITERALLY were shaken out of their graves at the moment of Jesus’ death. A non-literalist assumes, without any hard evidence, that Matthew was speaking metaphorically, allegorically, or prophetically.

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          1. “I do NOT believe that the authors of the Gospels wrote what they wrote with the intention of deceiving anyone. But I also do not believe that they were writing 21st century, western, biographies. ”

            Neither do I, nor does Licona. This is Licona’s point — the authors used compositional devices that we don’t use today, devices only used in ancient times, hence, why the Gospels are ancient biography. The details were never ‘distorted’, either, the details remained accurate although the author would be able to play around with them with his devices (so long as they remained true.

            “Wrong. If Licona were a true inerrantist, he wouldn’t have been fired for his views on Matthew’s Dead Saints Shaken Out of their Graves story.”

            This is total fiction — this is a strawman definition of ‘inerranist’ where it is conflated with literalism. An inerranist is someone who thinks there are no errors in the Bible — Licona thinks there are no errors, hence, he’s an inerranist. Licona thinks the saints in Matthew’s Gospel were used by Matthew as apocalyptic imagery, Licona thinks that Matthew intended them as apocalyptic imagery, and hence couldn’t possibly be wrong about it not happening (and if he thought it wasn’t imagery, he would think it happened). You can’t conflate inerrancy with literalism as if they’re coherently the same thing — I’m an inerranist but not a literalist.

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          2. As with many things in Christianity, the term “inerrant” has a different meaning to different Christians.

            Did I use the word “distort”? If so, please point me to the statement so that I can correct it. I don’t think that the authors of the Gospels intentionally “distorted” anything. What they did do was well within the acceptable practice of Greco-Roman biographies.

            I still question whether you have read Licona’s book in its entirety. Have you? I say this because I don’t think that anyone who has read his book would say: “the details remained accurate although the author would be able to play around with them with his devices (so long as they remained true.” Someone who has actually read Licona’s book would instead say the following:

            “The CORE STORY remained accurate in all four Gospels although it was perfectly acceptable for each of the authors to play around with the details. This explains the variations in the four Gospel Resurrection stories which some (uninformed) skeptics view as contradictions.”

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