Michael Licona, the Differences Between the Gospels, and Asking the Right Questions (Skinner)

Mike-LiconaOver at Greg Monette’s blog there’s an interesting interview with Michael Licona in which he attempts to answer the question, “Why do the Gospels contain differences?” I describe the interview as “interesting” because of the inherent tension (one might say borderline “contradiction”) that seems to attend Licona’s discussion of this question. Licona wants an alternative to the “harmonization” approach so common within his evangelical tradition–a sign to me initially that he is interested in an intellectually honest approach to the gospels. He writes:

Harmonizing the Gospels is a common practice and certainly a legitimate means for reconciling differences. However, we should look for another solution when harmonization efforts begin subjecting the Gospel texts to hermeneutical waterboarding until they tell us what we want to hear.

By discussing the relationship of the gospels to Greco-Roman biography, Licona makes a move that shows his interest in situating the gospels in their socio-historical setting. His nod to Burridge’s widely accepted theory also seems to indicate once again that he is interested in an intellectually honest approach to the gospels. This research has apparently led him to an in-depth study of the bioi produced by Plutarch, which has taught him much about the various literary techniques used in Greco-Roman biographies. He writes:

Thus far, I’ve identified around 45 stories that appear two or more times in these nine biographies. Differences abound in them. At present, I’m engaged in identifying the differences and especially looking for recurrences of the same type of differences. It’s from these one gets the impression Plutarch has altered the details intentionally. I then propose explanations (or compositional devices) for the alterations that appear to account well for the differences in many, if not most, of the contexts in which the differences occur. Finally, I’m revisiting the more than 60 pages of differences I’ve noted in the Gospels to see if the compositional devices I’ve posited for Plutarch may have been likewise employed by the Gospel authors.

I have to admit that, to this point, Licona’s research sounds compelling and I wonder about what could potentially be gleaned from this. However, after this point in the interview, Licona appears to abandon the sort of intellectual honesty attending his earlier answers by insisting on the relative historical reliability of these texts. He writes:

 I’m hoping my present research will lead us toward reading the Gospels closer to how their authors intended. If my observations are correct, evangelicals should not be too quick to harmonize the differing Gospel accounts, and critics should not view the differences as a reason to regard the Gospels as historically unreliable accounts of Jesus.

This is where Licona tips his hand as it relates to his agenda (which appears to be demonstrate that the Gospels are reliable and that Christianity is true). As I see it, this approach is guided by a desire to demonstrate that the Gospels are historically reliable, which, to my mind is not necessarily “closer to how their authors intended.” What we know is that the evangelists intended their messages to be heard and embraced. The gospels are not sober history but religious propaganda written to engender belief in the audience (cf. e.g., Luke 1:3-4; John 20:31). The introduction of the concept of historical reliability imposes an external set of modern assumptions on these ancient texts, which is ironic given Licona’s earlier concern to situate the gospels in their literary and historical environment. A further irony is that Licona seems to have been researching Greco-Roman biographies as a way of shedding light on the Gospels, but he has been studying this ancient genre against the backdrop of modern assumptions about historicity and reliability. Licona’s ultimate agenda emerges with greater clarity toward the end of the interview. He comments:

Christianity is true because Jesus rose from the dead. And Jesus’s resurrection can be historically established without even appealing to the Gospels. Moreover, if Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity was true prior to the penning of the New Testament literature. So, even if the Gospels contained historical errors, that would not at all suggest the Christian faith is false. Let me put it simply: If Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is true, even if it were to turn out that some events reported in the Bible are not.

I look forward to reading the fruit of Licona’s research once it is published. Still, I fear that his approach (and those who adopt it) will confuse historical-critical scholarship on the NT and Christian apologetics–two areas that have very very different aims. Let’s let the gospels be Greco-Roman biographies without insisting that they meet any modern criteria for “historicity” or “historical reliability.”

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26 thoughts on “Michael Licona, the Differences Between the Gospels, and Asking the Right Questions (Skinner)

  1. “The gospels are not sober history but religious propaganda written to engender belief in the audience (cf. e.g., Luke 1:3-4; John 20:31).”

    Isn’t contrasting “sober history” against “religious propaganda” itself anachronistic and imposing “modern assumptions on the ancient texts”? It gives the impression that there is an ancient genre of narrative called “sober history” (there isn’t even a modern one). This contrast leaves the false impression that the NT is not “sober history” and so not historically reliable. A flow of logic that can be seen as a sort of modern historical method propaganda.

    “Licona wants an alternative to the “harmonization” approach so common within his evangelical tradition–a sign to me initially that he is interested in an intellectually honest approach to the gospels.”

    Conservative scholars I’ve read do not express a dogmatic or wooden view of harmonization in an effort to avoid being “intellectually honest”. Millard Erickson says, “To insist on reconciling all of the problems by utilizing the currently available data, however, appears to me to lead to forced handling of the material…contrived solutions” are to be rejected.

  2. Christopher: I must agree with iCMAi’s above comments. Moreover, propaganda isn’t necessarily false. The Gospels are both history and theology. When they report that Jesus’s death atones for sin, his death by crucifixion is history and his atonement is theology. The two are not necessarily in conflict. But theological statements cannot be confirmed by historical investigation.

    When I observe that most of the differences in the Gospels do not result from careless reporting but are rather the byproduct of compositional devices, that informs me that when Ehrman and others appeal to differences in the Gospels as a reason for rejecting their historical reliability, they are mistaken. That is not, therefore, to say that the historical reliability of the Gospels is established. It is to say that those who want to argue that the Gospels are not historically reliable will need to find a different argument.

    • Thanks for taking the time to reply, Mike. Let be me clear that nowhere in my post do I say anything about “falsehood.” I don’t suggest that the gospels are “false” nor do I suggest that propaganda is necessarily “false.” My point is that to insist on the “reliability” (or, if you prefer, “truth”) of the gospels is to search for something that is out of keeping with the agenda of Greco-Roman biographies.

      • Rick, I’m not sure if your question is for me or for Mike, so I’ll weigh in. The portion of Luke 1 that I cited reads as follows: “With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” The stated desire to convince someone of the truth so that they may “know” with “certainty” is evidence not of historiography but rather religious propaganda. This is not to speculate on the “truthfulness” of the text (as Michael seemed to misread me), but rather to say that such an approach is not what “historians” do. None of us is completely ideologically disinterested, but there are ways to do historiography without concepts like “certainty” and “truth” (in a religious sense).

  3. I find Chris’ false antithesis between “historiography” and “religious propaganda” a rather naive return to modernist tendencies. For I cannot think of any historical account, whether ancient or modern, which is not “propaganda” (if we take that term in its best positive meaning). If the word “propaganda” refers to the rhetoric of the Gospels, then what historical writing is not rhetorically shaped to achieve certain ends? Why should Luke be faulted for making his rhetorical aims explicit, in sharp contrast to some of his modern “historical” interpreters who do not?

    • Thanks for weighing in Annang. I am not suggesting that there is any such thing as “non-interpretive” history. Neither am I returning to modernist principles. I am simply pointing out that the agenda of demonstrating the “historical reliability” of the gospels is not only passé among a majority of critical NT scholars, but it’s rooted in a 20th and 21st century understanding of “history” rather than a 1st century understanding.

  4. Chris,
    I’m curious if you find it to be a good thing that the agenda of demonstrating the “historical reliability” of the gospels is passé among a majority of critical NT scholars?

    And, as Licona alluded to above, since there are so many who are very interested in demonstrating the gospels’ basic historical unreliability, shouldn’t a project like Licona’s be welcomed (let alone considered passé)? Or are you simply trying to say that the overall vernacular of the debate is wrongheaded?

    I fully understand that writing a “historically reliable” account was not the primary agenda of any of the Evangelists, but don’t we go far too far when we chalk up the concern for historical veracity to “modern understandings” of history? You mentioned the agenda of the Greco-Roman biographer, but what about the agenda of the faithful Jew (leaving Luke to the side for a moment)? I can hear Tom Wright and Rikk Watts screaming somewhere, asking where Israel and her understanding of history, reality, and God is in all this.

    Israel’s preaching comes out of her history, so why do we have to assume that the faithful Jew would be so opposed to definitions of history that are concerned with what really happened?

    • Michael,

      I do think that the vernacular of the debate is wrongheaded. However, I also think that the aims of Licona’s research are primarily apologetic in nature and I’m afraid this will confuse those aims and results as those borne out of historical critical study of the NT. As far as history is concerned, we cannot doubt that the gospels are rooted in history, but they are not histories or biographies in any meaningful sense that we might speak of such works today. I tell my students the gospels are “theologically-stylized narratives with historical roots.” I’m not certain (and definitely not as certain as you seem to be) that they were as concerned as we are with “what really happened.”

      Thanks for taking the time to weigh in.

  5. Jesus’s resurrection can be historically established without even appealing to the Gospels.

    This is all I need to see in order to know that Licona is not interested in an intellectually honest conversation. If you appeal to the consensus of scholars about the “historical bedrock” contained in the Gospels, you are appealing to the Gospels.

    • vinnyjh57,

      I think you are getting my drift. You have seen through what others who have read my post have missed. We cannot do Christian apologetics and pass it off as historical critical research. They are two very different disciplines with different agendas and different aims. Thanks for weighing in.

      • Christopher,

        In his book “The Resurrection of Christ,” Gerd Ludemann wrote, “Its aim was to prove the nonhistoricity of the resurrection of Jesus and simultaneously to encourage Christians to change their faith accordingly.” Ludemann has an aim in his book. It’s the opposite of apologetics. He’s trying to convince people that Jesus did not rise and that they should live their faith accordingly. Ludemann has a bias and an aim. But that in itself says nothing about the legitimacy of his research or his conclusions.

        Something similar could be said of scientists working with data pertaining to global warning then issuing recommendations for dealing with the problem. That’s not necessarily apologetically driven (i.e., “I think there’s global warming. So, let’s find the data and warn the world.”). It could just as well be driven by objectivity and concern (i.e., “I think there’s global warming. So, let’s see what the data says. After researching and trying to look at this objectively, I’ve come to the conclusion that global warming is occurring. I think this is serious and want to warn others.”).

        In a similar manner, even if the motive behind my present research was apologetically driven, that says nothing pertaining to the results of my research. BTW, my initial motive was apologetically driven but afterward became my personal understanding of the Gospels. I can say the same in reference to my work on Jesus’s resurrection. My initial motive was apologetics. However, it became solely to see whether historical investigation could confirm the resurrection event. I happen to be a perpetual doubter. So, I wanted to know for my own sake more than for anything else in the end.

        So, I think you are mistaken on two accounts: (a) You’ve wrongly assumed that I’m apologetically driven in my present research and (b) You’re mistaken that one can do historical critical research while having an apologetic agenda or even it’s opposite like Ludemann. I’ll grant you that one’s methods and conclusions can be called into question when they have an agenda that’s biased. But that doesn’t mean they’re mistaken. You’ll have to criticize either their method or their conclusions with arguments that are facts based. Otherwise, you’re merely guilty of brushing off another’s work with ad hominem arguments.

        I’m sorry to be visiting your blog only every once in a while. Priorities must be maintained and it’s not my desire to get into a sustained dialogue on the matter at this time.

      • It is entirely appropriate for a scholar to write a book that attempts to prove that the conclusion he has reached in his research is correct. It is quite another thing for a scholar to undertake research in order to prove a conclusion he has reached in some other way.

        Obviously a scholar isn’t going to undertake research in the first place without some ideas about what the outcome might be, but the research must still be calculated to test an initial hypothesis rather than to prove a conclusion.

        There is a huge difference between undertaking research to see whether historical investigation would confirm the resurrection event and undertaking research to see whether historical investigation could confirm the resurrection event. The former is critical analysis. The latter is apologetics.

  6. Vinny: Your answer is special pleading. There is certainly a difference in the approaches you just mentioned. However, neither you nor Christopher have shown that the difference is germane. The reason one may have that motivates their research will differ from scholar to scholar. Some motivations will jeopardize one’s conclusions. That’s one of the benefits of critical review where scholars may offer criticisms of one’s method and/or conclusions. As it is, you and Christopher merely yell “Motive!” That’s an ad hominem argument rather than critical review. Even had I stated at the outset of my research that my goal was to demonstrate that the Gospels are historically reliable in every detail, critical review could only assess whether my method was sound and my conclusions are accurate. You could call me a right-wing fundamentalist whose worldview was so antiquated as to being beyond reason. But that would not contribute so much as a premise toward an argument criticizing my method or conclusions. So, my encouragement to you and Christopher is to focus on the method and conclusions I have only began to articulate rather than attempting to ignore them via ad hominem attacks.

    • Michael,

      What I criticized was not your motive, but your claim that “Jesus’s resurrection can be historically established without even appealing to the Gospels.” I’ve read your book and I know that it depends heavily on the portrait of Jesus painted by the Gospels.

      • You obviously have not read my large volume on the topic, “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach” (IVP Academic, 2010). In that volume, I’m very clear that I’m not using the Gospels.

      • I have read your book and it explicitly appeals to the gospels repeatedly. Among other things, you use the gospels to “support the conclusion that the reports of Jesus’ resurrection place it in a significantly charged religious context,” which you claim is one of the criteria by which a historian can judge that a miracle took place. Your discussion of the nature of the appearance experiences necessarily depends almost entirely on the gospels as Paul gives us no details about them.

      • You’re correct about that, Vinny. However, it’s not at all a major portion of my historical argument as I thought you were suggesting. Of course, I also use the Gospels to discuss the empty tomb, the conversion of Jesus’s brother James, and Jesus’s predictions pertaining to his imminent death and resurrection. However, I distinguish all of these as tier two facts. And I state that I would only use tier two facts in my process should two or more hypotheses end up in a draw after only considering tier one facts. My final case for Jesus’s resurrection only appeals to tier one facts. So, I would not put it as you did that my book “depends heavily on the portrait of Jesus painted by the Gospels.”

      • Do you really suppose that there would be any consensus among scholars on your first tier facts were it not for the Gospels? Don’t you cite them yourself as evidence that Jesus was crucified? How would any scholar be certain that the appearances occurred “very shortly” after Jesus’ death without the Gospels? Paul never says so (and in fact Ehrman thinks it might have been weeks or months). Nor does Paul tell us it was the appearances that convinced the apostles that Jesus had been resurrected rather than simply confirming a revelation that was received in some other way. Without the Gospels, you have no basis for claiming that your first tier facts constitute “historical bedrock.”

      • Paul says the resurrection had occurred very shortly after Jesus’s crucifixion. In 1 Cor. 15: 5, Paul says, “He was raised on the third day . . .” That’s a pretty short period of time. I agree that Paul does not suggest when the actual appearances had occurred. All 1 Cor 15:3-7 informs us that they had all occurred by the time Paul had his experience of the risen Jesus.

        On several occasions in Paul’s letters he teaches that we will be raised in the manner Christ was raised. For example, In 1 Cor. 15:20, Paul says “Christ is the first fruits of those who sleep.” Then in 15:23, he says that believers will be raised at the general resurrection. Later on in the same chapter, Paul speaks of that resurrection being a resurrection of the corpse. So, if the corpses of believers will be raised and transformed, Paul believed the corpse of Jesus was raised and transformed. So, we have bodily resurrection in Paul prior to the Gospels. To me, it seems more plausible to conclude that appearances of this nature are what led the disciples to conclude Jesus had been raised rather than a revelation of some sort, especially since Paul was preaching the same gospel they were preaching (Gal 2:1-10; 1 Cor 15:1, 11).

        I’ll leave the last word to you should you wish. For I’m bowing out of this discussion now.

      • My question does not concern what is plausible. My question concerns your claim that certain facts can be established as historical bedrock without appealing to the gospels. Given only what Paul tells us, I cannot see how you can possibly justify “Very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them” as historical bedrock.

        As you seem now to acknowledge, Paul doesn’t tell us how much time passed before the appearances began. Therefore you cannot claim that it was “very shortly” without appealing to the gospels.

        Paul also doesn’t say that he or anyone else came to believe in the resurrection as a result of the appearances. Paul’s account leaves plenty of room for something like we have with the Twelve Witnesses to the Golden Plates and the Angel Moroni. Prior to experiencing whatever they experienced, they were already convinced by Joseph Smith’s claims. One of the reasons Christian apologists frequently assert that the apostles would not be prone to hallucinations of the risen Christ is that no one had any expectation that something like that might happen. Therefore, it must at least be plausible that the apostles had the experiences because they already believed that Jesus had been resurrected as a result of a claimed revelation or one individual’s claimed vision or even some process of cognitive dissonance reduction—at least if we are only appealing to Paul.

        Paul also gives us little information concerning group appearances, which is something you refer to frequently even though it is not explicitly part of your historical bedrock. It is actually only the five hundred that Paul says Jesus appeared to “at the same time.” Moreover, even if we infer that the appearances to the Twelve and to all the apostles did happen in groups, Paul gives us no basis to conclude that every individual experienced the exact same thing. We would certainly be justified in allowing for the possibility that the appearance to the five hundred was akin to the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima. Tens of thousands of people were reported to witness it, but the actual number of first hand accounts is only a tiny fraction of that and they are inconsistent concerning what they saw.

        Paul tells us next to nothing about what the appearances involved, when or where they occurred, or what the disciples did or believed before or after them. Therefore, you cannot legitimately claim that your historical bedrock is historical bedrock without appealing to the gospels.

    • By the way, I have criticized both your methods and your conclusions on my own blog, but since this blog post was about the impact of a researcher’s agenda, that is the issue I addressed here. Moreover, I cannot see anything wrong with discussing that issue in the abstract.

      • I’m not familiar with your blog, Vinny. I don’t mean any disrespect whatsoever, but there are so many scholars with whom to interact that I can’t justify spending time addressing blogs written by laypersons. Your reply here, however, does not change the fact that you are offering an ad hominem argument.

      • There is no reason in the world that you should be familiar with my blog and I wouldn’t expect you to address anything I have written there. I merely offered it to rebut the charge that all I talk about is motive.

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