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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Wayne Coppins’ New Blog (Skinner)

CoppinsPicPlease forgive my tardiness on this one, but last night I discovered Wayne Coppins’ promising new blog, German for Neutestamentler. Prof. Coppins describes his project as follows:

This blog will be primarily devoted to matters pertaining to the translation of German New Testament scholarship. I hope that students, scholars, and fellow translators will find it useful for their own efforts to read and translate German texts. I am still thinking through the kinds of things that I hope to do on this blog, but for the moment I think that it will include at least seven types of posts, namely posts devoted to “words and phrases”, posts devoted to “model sentences”, posts devoted to “key quotations”, posts devoted to “research assistance”, posts devoted to “German scholars”, posts devoted to problems for which I seek “help!”, and occasional “reflections” on translation or others issues pertaining to (German) New Testament scholarship.

I LOVE this idea and I think the project could prove especially useful for undergraduate students (like the ones I teach) who do not yet know German, as well as graduate students in the early stages of their program. Let’s be honest, many of us have let our French and/or German get rusty since those graduate school days. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does on this promising new site. Welcome to the blogsophere, Wayne!

Paraphrasing Chrysostom on 1 Thess: “Suck it up, whiners!” (Gupta)

I am having a blast reading through Chrysostom’s homilies on 1 Thessalonians as I research for my commentary. He is very energetic and…well, “preachy.”

I had to laugh out loud at his homiletic reflections on 1 Thess 4:3-6 where Paul tells the Thessalonians to control their passions. Chrysostom entertains the complaint of his own time, “I couldn’t help myself. I got needs.”

I just love that his basic response is – quit your belly-aching! Ultimately, his advice is: “It all comes down to whether you really want to do what is right or not.” Here are two examples that he offers of excusing laziness (in my paraphrase)

#1: Isn’t it the easiest thing to just drive a mile away to the mall. But what do you do – complain that its too far or too cold. 

#2: What is easier than just to sleep. But because you decided to take a nap, you can’t even manage to sleep at night! How can you fail at sleeping?

Enough paraphrasing – here is how he concludes (formal English translation): “in short nothing is difficult when men are willing; as nothing is easy, when they are unwilling; for we are masters of all these things” (Homily 5)

Thank you, John. The golden-tongue speaks! This makes for great preaching!

Narrative Criticism of the Gospels: Does Anybody Outside of North America Really Care? (Skinner)

I am presently editing a book on Markan character studies, and for that book I have just completed a lengthy survey of scholarship from Wrede (1903) up to the work of the performance critics (2013). The early portions of my survey (up to redaction criticism) included a fair amount of material in French and German as well as publications in English from scholars working in Europe. However, by the time I reached the rise of narrative critical theory in the 1980s, there was a dramatic change. At the end of my essay I note:

In the early portions of our review, references to literature produced by European scholars—both on the continent and in the United Kingdom—were ubiquitous. By contrast, our coverage of literary methods in Markan scholarship has shown the relative scarcity of such works arising from within the European academy. This observation is true not only with respect to character studies, but seemingly with the entire narrative-critical enterprise. It appears that scholars working in North America, particularly in the United States, and those working in Europe are not only asking different questions about the text but also working both from different methodologies and bibliographies.[1] Apart from the work of Susan Miller (Scotland), Ole Davidsen (Denmark), Geert van Oyen (Belgium), Camille Focant (Belgium) and Stephen D. Moore (an Irish scholar who teaches in the United States) one is hard-pressed to identify much significant research in this area undertaken by European scholars or by those teaching in a European context. Taking this observation a step further, with the exception of several fine contributions from a handful of Australian scholars,[2] most recent narratalogical works, including those related to characterization, have been generated almost exclusively by scholars working in North America or by North American students studying abroad. While the growth of narrative-critical studies has largely taken place within an American context, one can hardly doubt whether enough time has passed or enough quality material has been published to demonstrate sufficiently the value of this approach. We are therefore left wondering: Why is there such a chasm between a European academy focused largely on historical concerns and the more methodologically diverse North American scene? What is it about narrative criticism, character studies, and the panoply of methods that has captured the North American scholarly imagination while leaving the European academy virtually untouched? Most importantly, is there a way to bridge this gulf between the North American and European scenes?

I have asked around but I haven’t really gotten a good answer as to why such a gap persists. Since all of my education took place here in the United States, I am not really in a position to offer any substantive insights about this state of affairs. However, I would love to hear what you think about all of this, especially if you have studied in Europe or are currently teaching in a post outside of North America. Why does such a gap persist?


[1] On this observation I have gleaned some helpful insights from Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, both in personal correspondence and in two different essays: the first is her review of van Iersel’s reader-response commentary on Mark (Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, ‘Review of Bas M. F. Van Iersel, Mark: A Reader-Response Commentary [Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998]’ in Bib 81 [2000], pp. 285-90), and the second a review of the 2011 English translation of Camille Focant’s commentary on Mark delivered at the SBL Annual Meeting in Chicago, Illinois (19 November 2012). In these essays she notes how both scholars—one Dutch and the other French—demonstrate a relative lack of awareness of and/or concern for narrative-critical issues and recent publications in the US, even though these two scholars are trying to move in that direction.

[2] See Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of Mark: A Narrative Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), idem, Mark: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004). Other Australian scholars have published significant narratological and/or narrative-oriented research on the Gospel of John, including Dorothy A. Lee (Symbolic Narratives of the Fourth Gospel: The Interplay of Form and Meaning [JSNTSup, 95; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994]; and Flesh and Glory: Symbol, Gender and Theology in the Gospel of John [New York: Crossroad, 2002]), Mary Coloe (God Dwells with Us: Temple Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2001]), and Ruth Sheridan (Retelling Scripture: The Jews and the Scriptural Citations in John 1:19-12:15 [BIS, 110; Leiden: Brill, 2012]).

Continuing to Re-Think the Jesus Criteria (Skinner)

Historical JesusTracy Chapman’s 1988 hit song begins: “Don’t you know, they’re talkin’ about a revolution and it sounds like a whisper.” To be sure, some revolutions come swiftly, much like the “Arab spring” that garnered so much media attention over the past three years. Other revolutions come in, as Chapman’s lyrics suggest, “like a whisper.” Such seems to be the case with our re-thinking of the Jesus criteria. This subject is on my mind quite a bit right now as I’m teaching a class on Jesus and the Gospels.

Last year I had the privilege (and that’s not hyperbole) of reading carefully through Chris Keith’s and Anthony Le Donne’s edited volume, Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (London: T & T Clark, 2012). I was not only blown away by the insightfulness of the book but by my own ignorance. As I have said elsewhere, I had taught the criteria–quite approvingly I might add–for the better part of the previous eight years without ever thinking through the issues raised by the essays in that volume. By way of background, I did my doctoral work in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America. Even though John Meier left CUA for Notre Dame a little over a year before I began my doctoral studies, his work on the historical Jesus had clearly shaped discussions of the historical Jesus that went on inside our department. Anyone who has read Meier’s magisterial works knows that he relies heavily on the criteria. During that time I devoured the first three volumes of A Marginal Jew, and I guess you could say I bought in lock, stock, and barrel to the approach advocated there.

I now believe that approach to be deeply flawed and think that Keith and Le Donne (and their contributors) have demonstrated with relative clarity the emptiness of the criteria approach. At the time of the book’s publication, I noticed a lot of support in the blogosphere for their thesis, and it doesn’t seem to me that that enthusiasm has waned to any significant degree. However, for all of the positivity surrounding this new way of thinking, scholarly use and/or approval of the criteria remains ubiquitous. Over the past few months I have reviewed two different books in which the Jesus criteria factor prominently. The first was the recently revised second edition of Mark Allan Powell’s book, Jesus as  Figure in History, which I reviewed for Biblical Theology Bulletin and the second was The Story of Jesus in History and Faith by Lee Martin McDonald which I am currently reviewing for Interpretation. To be fair, both of these books were being produced around the same time as the Keith/LeDonne volume, so there may not have been time for either author to incorporate their findings and still meet their own publication deadlines. But I have also found in personal conversations with friends who teach and research in the field that the Jesus criteria remain entrenched.  I even learned the hard way that an older generation of scholars–especially those committed to defending the historicity of Jesus’ words and deeds–will not let the criteria go away without a fight. This year at SBL in Baltimore I had a scholar whose opinion I respect–one of my mentors, in fact–essentially denigrate the entire enterprise of dispensing with the criteria. This visceral response was a shock to me, but I’m starting to realize that it shouldn’t be.

For my part, I am now committed to thinking of the historical Jesus enterprise in new ways. I can only hope that this new light on the criteria will prove to be as revolutionary as many think it is. For the time being, however, perhaps all we can expect is a whisper.

Are the Ecumenical Creeds Inspired?

Most Christians who affirm the ecumenical creeds make a clear distinction between the nature of Scripture and the nature of these theological statements. I would feel confident in saying almost no Protestant church or group would argue that the creeds are inspired (please comment if you know of Protestant groups that think differently). But I was taken back by this statement from none other than Martin Luther:

I believe the words of the apostles’ creed to be the work of the Holy Ghost; the Holy Spirit alone could have enunciated things so grand, in terms so precise, so expressive, so powerful. No human creature could have done it, nor all the human creatures of ten thousand words. This creed, then, should be the constant object of our most serious attention. For myself, I cannot too highly admire or venerate it (Table Talk, CCLXIV)

Wow! This goes beyond merely affirming the simple truthfulness of the creeds – Luther moves to word-based inspiration. Any comments or thoughts on this?