[Edit: When first published, this post credited Michael Bird instead of Michael Licona for this book. I can’t explain it, other than a total brain-fart, followed by the injudicious use of mass find-and-replace. My apologies to everyone. –Tim]
We have to dig deep to find something nice to say about Michael R. Licona’s new book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? Perhaps the best thing I can come up with is that he didn’t insert the word apparent to soften the blow. Other apologists will tell us why we needn’t worry about “apparent differences” or “seeming contradictions.” Not Licona. He acknowledges the differences and says he wants to find out how they got there.
Poor Ancient Historians
In his foreword, Craig Evans notes the variations among the evangelists and asks:
How is this to be explained? Should these discrepancies be regarded as errors? Were the Gospel writers poor historians? Have they told the truth about Jesus?
Such is the strange and mysterious world of NT scholarship. How can we explain these bizarre questions?
According to some of today’s most prolific writers in biblical scholarship, the evangelists — the authors of the canonical gospels — were historians and writers of Greco-Roman biographies. They reach these conclusions via embarrassingly obvious cherry-picking, which leaves them with a pile of incongruous evidence, which they feel compelled to explain away.
As Evans’ comment above demonstrates, if the Gospel writers were historians (as scholars desperately want them to be), then the evidence would indicate that they were pretty bad at it. And if they were writing Greco-Roman biographies (despite all the clear indications to the contrary), their works are missing nearly all of their defining characteristics. At the same time, all of the canonical gospels share these same peculiarities.
Consider the following examples. None of the New Testament gospels provides the name of its author. At least two of them copy another gospel, practically word for word, with no indication that the author is quoting a source. The typical Greco-Roman biographer will openly evaluate sources and decide which is more likely to be true. That never happens in the gospels. The material they present is not “probably true”; it is the very embodiment of truth.
Poor Historians of Ancient History
Getting back to Evans’ quote above, we note that he asks such questions for two main reasons. First, his audience has a deep, vested interest in the truth of the gospels. Second, conservative American biblical scholars must be subtle in their apologetic methods, and one can scarcely find a more effective and subtle method than misdirection.
Even the time-honored tradition of sucking all the oxygen out of the room by churning out enormous books that say essentially the same thing in various combinations is, at its heart, a form of misdirection. For if we ever caught our breath and thought calmly for a moment, we would realize that the question is not, “Why do the gospels differ?” but “Why are they alike in so many ways?”
Seen from the perspective of believers, the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John are disconcertingly different. On the other hand, if we clear our minds of the anxiety of historicity, we see that Mark and John resemble one another much more than they do any “other” Greco-Roman biography.
Notice that both gospels don’t begin with the birth of the subject (Jesus) or even vignettes from his childhood. Instead, they start with John the Baptist. In fact, both John and Mark have the Baptist utter the very first words of direct speech.
Poor Structures Built on a Poor Foundation
I knew once the “gospel == βίος” idea took root in NT studies, we would see a rash of awful books built on a rotten foundation. What I failed to see was just how willing nearly all NT scholars would be to embrace it. It most certainly has become a consensus view — to the point where scholars will mention it in passing as a fundamental truism, without wasting their valuable time discussing or defending it. (For more on why the gospels are decidedly not Greco-Roman biographies, see my discussion of the panda’s thumb and why it would be a colossal mistake to categorize it as a primate’s thumb.)
Licona’s rotten book builds on the rotten foundation by comparing Plutarch’s writing to the gospels, and suggesting that the differences we find may stem from what he calls “compositional devices.” In this way, he focuses our attention (misdirection, again) on the effect and not the motives of the differences in the gospels.
Licona will note expansions, contractions, and alterations Matthew and Luke effected, but he refrains, for the most part, from telling us why those changes came about. Instead, he offers a way out by noting that Plutarch did the same thing when telling the same story in different places. In fact, the entire book is about shrugging off changes and differences by arguing that, as biographers, the evangelists just doing what was normal for biographers.
Only by the clumsiest cherry-picking can we have arrived at this point. Licona quotes from a number of works that analyze Plutarch’s alterations, but he neglects the vast amount of research that explains why he made them. Calling attention to a difference and writing it off as a compositional device is scholastic malpractice. Insisting that the evangelists were just employing ancient literary techniques when they changed their sources is a lazy cop-out.
But I’m not leaving it there. In the posts to come, I’m will try to do the work that Licona refused to do. We’ll discover what Plutarch really did and why, and what it all means if we take it to the logical conclusion.
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