[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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13 thoughts on “Michael Licona Asks, “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?””
The gospels increase divinity the later they were written.
A fish that got away gets bigger with every retelling.
Since when did Michael Bird write Michael Licona’s books for him?
I was wondering the same thing. lol
My bad. I’m fixing it. Quite embarrassing.
It comes right down to being a Christian is all about not understanding your own motive for being a Christian. No one who is being scammed wants to avoid getting scammed until after the scam has run its course.
The simplest way of explaining why there are differences in the gospels is to point out other religious works and their apparent differences. Like the differences in the Jewish Pentateuch and the Samaritan version.
The reason for the difference then becomes obvious: Religious sectarianism. Different religious communities had different needs, and their writings reflected this.
The gospels are altered for the same reason that different manufacturers bring out different versions of the same product—it`s all about market share. And for the same reason–conning the public.
Thank you, Tim. When I read Licona’s book my jaw dropped — and I had thought I had long got over the jaw-dropping phase when reading the worst works of biblical “scholarship”. I had on and off intended to write some posts on his astonishing ignorance (being kind with that choice of word) and tendentiousness (which it is hard to avoid suspecting is bordering on dishonesty), so I’m glad you’ve picked up on it and have decided to do the ugly work of intervening in a complete train wreck of a publication.
As Robert Conner writes in Faking Jesus:
H/T John Loftus.
To play Devil’s (God’s?) Advocate here:
[quote]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…[/quote]
[quote]Consider the following examples. None of the New Testament gospels provides the name of its author.[/quote]
Not a single one of Plutarch’s Lives does, either. And he’s a prime example of elite biographer.
[quote]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.[/quote]
I noticed Licona claims on p. 22 that naming sources wasn’t necessarily all that typical and I’ve seen that repeated elsewhere. Some historians who quite rarely cited sources included Valerius Maximus, Josephus, and Livy. The neglect of source-citation could also mean the Gospels fit the genre of popular biographies (as Matthew Ferguson believes), which identified sources far less often than elite biographies. But citation could be entirely absent even in those.
For example, I’m looking at the life of Camillus in my “Great Books” volume of Plutarch. I can’t find a single source identification whatsoever. I see at one point Plutarch begins an anecdote with “Some say…” At another point (p. 116) he provides two different versions of a conflict, in which he names no sources, begins the second by saying that “the general stream of writers prefer the other account,” and makes no personal judgment on whether he agrees with the majority opinion. Not especially rigorous the handling of sources in this case. And regardless of what we might ultimately conclude the Gospels actually are, IMHO leaving out the scholarly apparatus makes total sense on the hypothesis that they were intended as biographies for mass consumption.
[quote]Notice that both gospels don’t begin with the birth of the subject (Jesus) or even vignettes from his childhood.[/quote]
Well, looking at Plutarch again, I can see that he recalls neither for at least a few of his subjects, from the aforementioned Camillus to the far more significant Julius Caesar. Haven’t surveyed the whole book, but it might be interesting to get the actual percentages on that.
This is a topic I continue to study and learn more about each year and there are recent scholarly publications on ancient biographies I am still trying to catch up with. So I will confine myself in this comment to just one aspect of the Devil’s or God’s Advocate:
There are abundant indicators of fictional embellishment in Plutarch’s life of Camillus, but there is something else with no counterpart in the canonical gospels until we reach Luke 1:1. Plutarch frequently drops in casual hints that he is indeed relying upon sources for his narrative, either oral or written. I realize I am copying English translation here so do correct my references if their originals are not accurately represented or if there are expressions in the gospels lending themselves to equivalent translations. Examples:
Plutarch cites no sources for what are surely well-known events from the world of “historical memory”, Alexander’s defeat of Darius and Timoleon’s defeat of the Carthaginians. But when he introduces a detail from the Trojan war Plutarch changes tack and introduces sources to back up a claim that might otherwise be questioned for its provenance in the world of gods and mythical heroes.
Notice again that Plutarch introduces sympathy with the reader who might question the historical accuracy of something that might seem to be too neat to derive from reality.
Plutarch’s life of Camillus reads to me like an historical or biographical account rich with fictional embellishments. It is possible that the above phrases I have quoted in which Plutarch expresses a reliance upon various written and/or oral sources are themselves inventions, but my point is that we have nothing comparable in the earliest of the canonical gospels.
What we do have in those earliest of gospels is the possibility of a series of strong arguments that each pericope, or most of them at least, have been “midrashically” reconstructed from Jewish Scriptural narratives and passages, with a blend, even, of adaptations from bodies of other literature.
Plutarch’s narrative of Camillus, on the other hand, appears to be built around a series of chronologies and events that are drawn from chronicles of various who’s who in what time of office, etc, and upon a well-known “historical memory”.
And when Plutarch does introduce details that appear to border upon the “historically unlikely” he does express sympathy for the less gullible of readers, and he does make sure he introduces sources to support the historicity of his reference to an event that is drawn from the world of Homeric epic and days of the mythical heroes. (Other historians did consider Homer to be a historian and the Trojan War to have been historical, but at the same time, given the setting of divinities and half-divine heroes involved, the events appear not to have been in exactly the same “historical class” as the invasion of Rome by the Gauls.
As for the conclusion of our Advocate from an Alien Dimension, I think we have strong grounds for disagreement. I suggest that where a story is not well known (and does not Mark’s conclusion point to an apologetic explanation for why it is being made known only “now”?) source verification is of paramount necessity in the telling. Justin certainly thought so and goes to pains to demonstrate that we “know” certain things happened in the life of Jesus because that’s what the Jewish Scriptures foretold. That’s his authority to demonstrate the truth of his claims.
The Gospel of Mark, on the other hand, was not considered an historically authoritative document in our sense of what that means — as is clearly evidenced by the way subsequent evangelists felt themselves at liberty to change its details and characterizations.
Ancient historians, when confronted with various accounts in the sources, seem to have presented the different accounts (as we see in the above lines from Plutarch) and would either comment on their agnosticism or on their preference for one or the other.
For some reason the author of the Gospel of Mark, unlike Plutarch in even his vaguest of examples wrt Camillus, gives us no explicit reason to believe his narrative is derived from oral or written sources. Later the evangelist responsible for Matthew indicates more strongly that biblical prophecy is the source. In Luke we read the indication that previous anonymous gospels are the source. John reports the eyewitness to miracles (enough said!). Justin says Scripture is the source of what we know about Jesus.
And the verification for Scripture as the source of information about the gospel Jesus is the clear literary indebtedness of the various pericopes to OT passages.
One other detail I will address briefly:
The only time I see (at a glance, only, I admit) of Plutarch’s indebtedness to sacred literary source for his writing of the life of Camillus is the following line:
And even here, of course, we see a clear distinction between “the historical Camillus” and his “mythical counterpart”. That’s not how the evangelists present Jesus as a “new Moses” or a “new Elijah”. Jesus was not presented as doing things in a manner “like” the biblical heroes did them. He was not imitating them. The authors drew some literary DNA from those biblical figures and genetically engineered a superior version of that DNA. Jesus didn’t do things in imitation. He was the very emulation and transvaluation of the inferior, even shadowy, forms of Moses, Elijah, Israel.
Very well put, Neil.
Chris S wrote: “Not a single one of Plutarch’s Lives does, either. And he’s a prime example of elite biographer.”
As for his “Parallel Lives,” as far as I know, they always circulated as a collection — in separate volumes, perhaps, because of length — not as separate works, with the heading: “ΠΛΟΥΤΑΡΧΟΥ ΒΙΟΙ ΠΑΡΑΛΛΗΛΟΙ.”
On the other hand, most NT scholars believe the canonical gospels circulated separately at first, and then were gathered together. One reason we think that is that the order of the gospels in various manuscripts is sometimes different. And even after they were collected, they were still understood to be separate works. In addition, the headings have a certain uniformity, viz. “Kata Markon,” “Kata Loukan,” which leads us to think they were named after they were compiled.
But more important than the presence of the author’s name is authorial presence, which is abundant in Plutarch’s work, and mostly absent in the gospels.
For more, see Matthew Ferguson’s excellent treatment, here (especially point 3): https://infidels.org/library/modern/matthew_ferguson/gospel-genre.html