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.”