“LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

A controversy has been brewing over the past several years over interpreting the Gospels and how to defend their basic historic reliability. This match of the century is sure to interest those concerned with biblical accuracy, scriptural interpretation, and New Testament studies.

In this corner is:

And in this corner is:

  • Lydia McGrew
  • Ph.D. in English Literature at Vanderbilt University
  • Published analytic philosopher
  • Weighing in with “undesigned coincidences” and “harmonization”
  • Author of The Mirror and the Mask (DeWard, 2019)

Background of Match:

Michael R. Licona, after publishing his voluminous dissertation on the topic of the resurrection with The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, began to explore the possibility of explaining differences in the Gospel accounts by turning to Plutarch, the first century Greek historian who wrote on the lives of Greek and Roman individuals. The issue here concerns how the Gospels report on the same events in different ways.

There is no doubt that the reporting of the same event between two Gospels are different. For example, it is well known that the narrative of the empty tomb of Jesus being discovered by the women have divergent accounts. In Matthew 28:5-7 the narrative only mentions one angel at the empty tomb, while the same narrative event in John 20:10-13 mentions two angels being at the empty tomb. Another example is the servant of the Roman centurion that Jesus healed in Capernaum (which is recorded in both Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10). Matthew makes it seem that the centurion met Jesus face to face, while Luke explains that the centurion used the Jewish elders to speak to Jesus as emissaries. Traditionally, biblical scholars have attempted different harmonizations between the accounts.

Round One: Compositional Devices

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Entering the arena is Licona with his Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (2016) in which he presents compositional devices (or literary devices) as commonly employed by ancient authors (such as Plutarch). This powerhouse of a punch was published by Oxford University Press, no less (hey, I haven’t published with OUP, but I have published with wordpress.com, yeah, that’s right, you envious). With endorsements from J. I. Packer, Scot McKnight, and Michael Kochenash, it looked like Licona was going to win the match with no one showing up to challenge him (except for Bart Ehrman, who is always good for a sparring match).

Licona applies this approach to various narratives that are in two or more of the Gospels, arguing that the major differences found there are likely a result from the same compositional devices employed by Plutarch. His aim is to “investigate compositional devices that are often inferred by classical scholars in order to see if the existence of these devices may be more firmly established and provide insights into many of the differences in the Gospels.” (3)

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The compositional devices apparently found by Licona in the works of Plutarch include: Transferal, Displacement, Conflation, Compression, Spotlighting, Simplification, Expansion of Narrative Details, and Paraphrasing.

Some of these devices are defined by Liconas –Compression: When an author knowingly portrays events over a shorter period of time than they had actually occurred. Transferral: When an author knowingly attributes words or actions to a person that he knew belonged to another. Displacement: When an author knowingly removes an event from its original context and places it in another.

So, returning to the example of the centurion in the narrative of Matthew and Luke, instead of harmonizing the accounts, Licona employs the compositional device called transference in which “Matthew simplified the story by transferring what one character said to the lips of another.”

In short, Licona says that some of the differences in the gospels (such as the baptism of Jesus by John the baptist, the man with the withered hand, the two blind men, the resurrection accounts, etc.) are explained by these literary devices.

Licona concludes that certain apparent points of difference in the gospels reflect common first-century narrative devices by which some events, sayings, and so on may be reported differently at different times for different purposes. Because these were common devices, Licona suggests that first century readers would not see that the gospels as needing reconciling, because ancient biographies employed this standard practice of compositional devices.

This approach to the Gospels “will require a paradigm shift,” according to Licona. “Especially for those outside academia who may tend to read the Gospels anachronistically as though ancient biographers and historians wrote with the same objectives and conventions as their modern cousins.” Traditional, straightforward readings of the text will have to be replaced with this new approach. “Fortunately, historical nearsightedness can be corrected with the proper glasses. We craft the proper lenses by reading a significant amount of literature from the period, which improves our understanding of the genre to which the Gospels belong. Like anyone who begins to wear glasses, some initial discomfort and adjusting will occur.” (201)

Round Two: The Challenger

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But, a challenger has arisen. Entering into the arena is Lydia McGrew. McGrew, the wife of esteemed husband Timothy McGrew, has turned her attention to the usage of compositional or literary devices by Licona, after publishing Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts (an aside: interestingly, the titles of Lydia’s books sound more like a British mystery novels than rigorous analysis of New Testament texts) which is a revival of an argument for the historical reliability of the New Testament that has been largely neglected for more than a hundred years. Undesigned coincidences are casual, yet puzzle-like “fits” between two or more texts, which the best explanation is that the authors knew the truth about the events they describe.

After writing her highly praised book on undesigned coincidences, she has donned the gloves once again and is challenging the current champion of literary devices. Lydia claims that Licona has has failed “to establish the existence and acceptance, even in non-biblical literature [i.e., Plutarch], of the fictionalizing devices he defines, and he fails a fortiori to establish that the authors of the Gospels ever employed such devices.” The term fictionalizing devices is McGrew’s term not Liconas. But that is McGrew’s point. She is pointing out that most of these compositional devices Licona is utilizing deliberately alters the facts, which Licona readily admits. For example, Licona states in a online published debate with Bart Ehrman over the reliability of the New Testament that “if Plutarch can alter the year in which Caesar wept in order to emphasize Caesar’s ambitious character, John could alter the day and time of Jesus’s crucifixion to symbolize the sacrificial quality of Jesus’s death and be well within the bounds of the literary conventions under which both operated.”

She began by jabbing at Licona’s thesis on her blog with numerous and extensive critiques. Her first blow was “A Gospel Fictionalization Theory Is No Help to the Gospel” landed just before the release of Licona’s Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?

It was shortly there after that Lydia began a volley of punches, one after the other, seeming to stun Licona with no response. From the beginning of 2017 to the end 2018, Lydia published 34 posts on the issue of literary devices (the total number of posts now exceeds 45). Some of the issues she wrote included:

Some of the issues of concern brought up in her posts include:

  • Did Jesus actually say, “I thirst,” or was that made up by John?
  • Did Jesus actually say, “It is finished,” or was that made up by John as a “redaction of the tradition”?
  • Did Jesus breathe on his disciples and say, “Receive the Holy Ghost,” or was that incident invented by John?
  • Did Mark deliberately suppress the conversion of the thief on the cross in order to make Jesus appear to have been rejected by all?
  • Did John deliberately change the day of the crucifixion to make a theological point?
  • Does Luke “put” all of the events of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday when he knew that all didn’t occur on that single day?

Tom Gilson, editor at The Stream (mentioned below for more detail), who is a personal friend of Licona, asks, “Where the text says Jesus says, ‘It is finished,’ can we we be confident he actually said that? Lydia’s position is to say yes; Mike’s position takes that as a possibly a redaction or summary of some other saying, for example ‘Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.’ ” Gilson goes on to point out, “I’ve heard plenty of sermons on ‘It is finished.’ If Jesus didn’t actually say that, then a whole lot of conservative pastors and churches need to know that their sermons on this — in which they confidently claim Jesus spoke these very words — are  uninformed, incorrect, and misleading. They are wrong, that is, to the extent that they attribute those very words to Jesus. But this is really quite important, isn’t it? It’s too important to pass by.”

Some of the concerns caused by Licona’s literary devices deal with the historical accuracy of the Gospels. For example, Licona (as well as Craig Evans) doubts that Jesus uttered the “I am” statements in the Gospel of John; Luke “compressed” the location of Jesus appearance to Jerusalem when he knew they were in Galilee; and other alterations of the facts.

Licona believes this was the norm for ancient biography and that “it would be plausible that we would see the same amount of flexibility in the Gospels as we observe in other ancient biographies. So, I wanted to learn what those flexibilities were. By carefully reading ancient biographies written around the same time as the Gospels and comparing how they tell the same stories differently, I began to recognize that some of the differences resulted from compositional devices. Then when I went to the Gospels, I could see that the authors were probably employing the same compositional devices as other ancient biographers; specifically Plutarch. I began to realize that the differences across the Gospels are not so much contradictions but the result of compositional devices that were the standard practice in historical writing of that day.”

Nevertheless, Lydia has raised some major concerns with this approach to the Gospels. And the concerns are not just from conservatives or evangelicals, but also from skeptics such as Bart Ehrman. In a written exchange on the reliability of the New Testament, Ehrman notes that if literary devices are used in the Gospels to change details, that doesn’t lend itself to confidence in the historical accuracy of the accounts, it actually leds one to lose confidence in the accounts:

So, does Matthew accurately describe what actually happened in Jesus’s life? Mike [Licona] has already told us that he thinks in some cases the answer is no. Matthew has employed literary license in order to change details in his accounts so they didn’t happen as he described, and he tells some stories that are “non-historical” — that is, they didn’t happen at all. But Mike then wants to say that Matthew is, despite all that, historically reliable. I don’t think most people would think that this is what we today mean by “historically reliable.” And I think a lot of people — including many people reading this back and forth — would very much like to know how often Mike thinks this sort of thing happens in Matthew. Does Matthew frequently change his stories and make up other ones that he doesn’t think happened? How would we know? If an author is willing to change the details of one story, why not other stories? Why not lots of stories? Why not most of his stories? And how would we know? Moreover, if he is willing to make up a story and present it as something that happened when he knew full well that it didn’t happen (as Mike concedes Matthew did), then how often did he do that? A few other times? Lots of other times? If he did it lots, how is he accurate?

Returning the match between Lydia and Licona, we find Licona dancing around the ring as Lydia takes swing after swing after swing in her blog posts. Licona finally answers with a uppercut on his website Risen Jesus: “Are We Reading An Adapted Form of Jesus’ Teachings in John’s Gospel?” Blocking the barrage of punches from Lydia, Licona responds by stating:

One of my recent online critics, Lydia McGrew (Ph.D. in English Literature, Vanderbilt University), asserted that Professor Evans’s view of the “I am” statements in John is dangerous and that, in my explanation of why most scholars have arrived at a similar conclusion, I had thrown “all of the ‘I am’ statements under the bus.” For by saying John was paraphrasing Jesus with the “I am” statements, it was just another phrase for “making stuff up.” She then adds, “Licona is expressly arguing that Jesus would not and hence did not publicly, clearly, and overtly claim to be God in the real world. But in John he does do so. No use of the term ‘paraphrase’ nor the phrase ‘ipsissima vox’ (which I believe Evans originated) can get around this.” The error with Lydia’s statement is that I did not say this. Here is what I wrote: “Those are just some of the reasons why scholars see John adapting Jesus’ teachings.”

He goes on to counter punch by replying:

Throughout the book [Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?], I provide various options of what I think could be going on that resulted in one Gospel reporting an event differently than another. On most occasions, I state which option I think best explains the difference and why, while on others I reserve making a choice and merely note the difference. Lydia then writes, “Saddened as I am by what Dr. Licona is apparently endorsing, I’m afraid that I think this is a crucial enough matter that it needs to be known. Jesus’ claims to deity are, to put it mildly, important, and so people should know when scholars think he didn’t make them. I pray that the Lord will use any such publicizing and/or criticisms that come as a result to motivate Dr. Licona to reconsider.” To this concern I want to be clear: I have not denied that Jesus made claims of deity. I have argued in public debate that he did (http://bit.ly/2ydv1dA). And last week I submitted a chapter arguing the same in even more depth to be included in a book published by T&T Clark. So, it is not a matter of whether Evans, I, or another scholar think Jesus made claims of deity. I think that He did. It’s a matter of whether Jesus made those claims implicitly and John recast them in an explicit manner. In John, are we reading Jesus’ words or the message behind them? That’s the question. Asserting that I or Evans or another are denying that Jesus made claims of deity is simplifying the matter to a point that it borders on deceit.

After throwing this punch, and McGrew responding with a quick jab, Licona returned to his corner of the ring and something surprising occured (or should I say something didn’t occur):

-Licona never returned to the match.-

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The Match That Never Took Place

Here is where it gets interesting (if you haven’t found compositional devices, harmonization, and the reliability of the Gospels interesting enough). As the match was getting ready to enter the third round, Licona refused to continue.

Lydia posted about this on her website “Licona Declines Exchange in Philosophia Christi.” I will let her words fill in the details:

About a month ago, after J.P. Moreland had endorsed my work concerning alleged literary devices in the gospels, I made the suggestion to several people that Mike Licona and I might have a scholarly exchange in the pages of Philosophia Christi about his work. Phil. Christi is an excellent journal and has hosted symposia of this kind before. Over a decade ago, Tim McGrew and I had an exchange on the historical argument for the resurrection with Alvin Plantinga in the pages of Philosophia Christi. Phil. Christi was open to the idea. If Dr. Licona had been agreeable, the discussion would have come to pass. A third party made contact with him to suggest it. I have just recently been told that he has declined, without citing a reason.

At this point of the match, a referee enters the ring to officiate between Licona and Lydia. Enter: Tom Gilson.

Tom Gilson (mentioned above), is an author and speaker and senior editor and ministry coordinator at The Stream. He blogs at Thinking Christian. Gilson begins to narrate the issue between Licona and Lydia on his blog site with a series of posts about the disagreement. He begins with “On the Disagreement Between Lydia McGrew and Michael Licona Regarding Differences in the Gospels.” His candor and openness is evident in the first lines of his blog:

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Two friends of mine are in deep disagreement. Because it involves friends, it’s become one of the more painful things I’ve ever had to watch unfold. I’ve spoken at length with both of them about it. I’m in no position to judge their disagreement on the merits of their positions, and I won’t begin to try to comment on that part of it here. But I’ve been named publicly on Facebook as having been involved behind the scenes, so I think I need to say something more about it in public.

Gilson explains the situation by stating that Lydia is claiming that Licona is misreading Plutarch, and he is inaccurate in drawing the conclusions he’s drawn from Plutarch; and that differences in the gospels can easily explained through harmonization. “In essence he’s [Licona] using wrong means to solve problems that don’t need solving.”

Gilson explains that both Licona and Lydia had read earlier drafts of his post, except for the closing three points. The three points are a call by Gilson for Licona to respond to Lydia’s critiques: “I’m convinced it would behoove him to respond to Lydia’s critique, in the right public venue, for three reasons.”

The three points Gilson concludes with are:

  • Lydia’s position is much closer than Liconas to the traditional and natural reading of Scripture.
  • If Licona’s position is right, he has a duty to explain it in such a way that the rest of conservative Christianity can get on board with it, and begin teaching the Bible correctly.
  • The usual way hermeneutical disagreements work their way toward agreement — agreement the Church can own as its own — is through vigorous debate; and not just debate carried on between individuals but across a broader community of scholars. That debate doesn’t seem likely to happen unless Licona takes the next step.

Eight days after this post by Gilson, Licona returns to the ring with a response on Gilson’s blog page. His response was that he would not respond: “Allow me to explain why I have declined to engage her. My schedule is filled to the brim.” He goes on to explain:

Engaging with Lydia would require a significant amount of time. . . . I’d probably be looking at a solid week of work. Then, if Lydia’s past actions are indicative of what would happen next, she would write very long replies to my responses. And those now desiring me to reply would also want for me to reply to her reply. To do that would require another week’s work. . . . I’m virtually certain things would not end there, since Lydia would feel compelled to reply to my second reply. And the process goes on, requiring even more hours. (Even a back and forth for Philosophia Christi would require a chunk of time.)

Interestingly, Licona offers a pinch hitter (sorry for mixing my metaphors, but there wasn’t as good a term from boxing):

Therefore, I will leave to others the task of engaging with her. And there is one who is both qualified and willing to do just that. My friend Kurt Jaros has already engaged with Lydia in the CAA Facebook group.

As if on a tag team for wrestling, Licona taps in Kurt Jaros to enter the ring. Jaros runs a website and podcast called Veracity Hill and has gone on to host Licona’s podcast for Risen Jesus. (the entry music for this blog is the best entry music of any blog I have ever heard). Over at Veracity Hill Jaros begins to respond to some of Lydia’s critiques.

Lydia’s response to Licona is linked in Gilson’s post of April 21. She makes three points: 1) Dr. Licona appears to have not even read her critique of his work, 2) Dr. Licona’s repeated references to “what would happen”–to endless debates and so forth–are not addressed to the exchange in Phil. Christi, which would be limited in scope, and 3) “The reference to Mike’s personal friend Kurt Jaros as offering to debate me, and my alleged decline of that suggestion, is quite pointless.”

On of the more awkward issues to arise in this match was mentioned by Licona in his response to Lydia in Gilson’s post: Lydia’s tone. Licona says, “I do not feel a necessity to spend the sort of time and emotional capital required to engage Lydia, especially when her critiques are seasoned with a tone that I consider less than charitable, to put it mildly.” (emphasis added) Gilson comments that “I’m aware there are differences of opinion on whether Lydia’s approach, venue, and tone have been appropriately scholarly.” Jaros, who Licona tapped in (again mixing sport metaphors), began to blog on Lydia’s “tone.”

It seemed that the match was over before it even began. But, Lydia was not out for the count yet. Lydia went on to publish in Themelios, an International Journal for Students of Theological and Religious Studies a critique titled “Finessing Independent Attestation: A Study in Interdisciplinary Biblical Criticism” which she argues that “multiple attestation is crucial in biblical studies, particularly in historical Jesus studies. While doubts are often conceded about the historicity of a singly-attested incident, when there is reason to believe that an event has been attested in multiple independent sources it is often accepted despite a hesitation to affirm the strong historical reliability of the individual documents.” In this critique she interacted extensively with Licona’s work as well as other New Testament evangelical scholars like Craig Keener, Daniel Wallace, and William Lane Craig.

But that article was just a wind up for her real power punch:

Lydia’s Power Punch:

At the end of 2019, Lydia published The Mirror and the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices. Weighing in at 560 pages the book description states:

In recent years a number of evangelical scholars have claimed that the Gospel authors felt free to present events in one way even though they knew that the reality was different. Analytic philosopher Lydia McGrew brings her training in the evaluation of evidence to bear, investigates these theories about the evangelists’ literary standards in detail, and finds them wanting. At the same time she provides a nuanced, positive view of the Gospels that she dubs the reportage model. Clearing away misconceptions of this model, McGrew amasses objective evidence that the evangelists are honest, careful reporters who tell it like it is. Meticulous, well-informed, and accessible, The Mirror or the Mask is an important addition to the libraries of laymen, pastors, apologists, and scholars who want to know whether the Gospels are reliable.

With endorsements from scholars such as Peter J. Williams, J. P. Moreland, Craig L. Blomberg, and John Warwick Montgomery, The Mirror and the Mask is Lydia’s detailed and officially published critique of Licona’s literary devices. Tom Gilson posted the article: From Friend to Friend: My View on Lydia McGrew’s The Mirror or the Mask, and Why Mike Licona Won’t Want to Ignore It saying “Mike and his colleagues need to engage with Lydia in this. He’s put a set of questions on the table. Lydia has answered, and persuasively. Who’s right? The Church needs them to work toward an answer, one that all conservative, believing Christians can be confident of. It’s crucial to everything we know, or think we know, about the Gospels.”

In a follow up post Gilson asks a serious question: Does Mike Licona’s position require plutarch as the key to the gospels? He expands on the point of his question:

Mike’s position seems to require Christians to know and understand classical Greek and Roman models of authorship. It is the key to understanding the Gospels. Without that knowledge, we are absolutely certain to misunderstand what the Gospels are saying. Mike holds as firmly as ever to the essential facts of Jesus’ life and teaching, but he stands there by running the Gospel content through a Plutarchian lens. Certain facts in the Gospels are not what they seem to be. Jesus never said, “I thirst,” and we know he didn’t because we’ve studied the account with this classical literature filter in place.

But it isn’t just passages like “I thirst” that have this filter placed over them. It’s the entirety of the Gospels, all four of them. The filter has especially powerful effects on how we interpret John, where changes were made in the reportage to emphasize Jesus’ deity. But the reason we know the filter is more prominent there, and has less of an effect in the Synoptics, is because we understand the filter. It isn’t just because John differs in significant ways from the Synoptics; those differences could be explained in other ways. (That’s the subject of Lydia’s next book.)

And if you read the quote above carefully, you heard Gilson correctly, Lydia is coming out of the corner with a one-two combo. She is already writing a second book on the historical reliability of John’s gospel, tentatively titled: The Eye of the Beholder.

While my post is not an exhaustive blow by blow of this match (lots have been mentioned about Lydia’s tone, Licona’s refusal to swing back, and a swing and miss about Lydia’s credentials (here, here, here, and here). These punches aside, what really needs to be examined is the case that Licona and Lydia give for and against literary devices in the New Testament, and the consequences of historical reliability for the Gospels in particular and the New Testament in general. As Gilson ended one of his posts about this match, I also find that this is “an urgent question. I’d be interested to hear what Mike would say in response” [emphasis in original].

Blow by Blow (Resources):

Left Hook (Books):

By Licona:

By McGrew:

Right Hook (Articles):

Uppercut (Videos):

  • “Six Bad Habits of New Testament Scholars (and how to avoid them): Dr. Lydia McGrew” at Apologetics Academy. – McGrew talks about six bad habits frequently committed by New Testament scholars, and gives advice on how to avoid them on Jonathan McLatchie’s Apologetics Academy webinar.
  • “Undesigned Coincidences – Dr. Lydia McGrew” – McGrew presents on undesigned coincidences to the student group called Ratio Christi on Western Michigan University.
  • “Are there Contradictions in the Gospels?” – Dr. Licona presents on the differences in the Gospels at Kennesaw State University on October 11, 2017 for Ratio Christi.
  • “Is the Bible Inerrant?” – Dr. Michael Licona debates Dr. Richard Howe on inerrancy in which many of the issues concerning compositional devices arise in the debate and discussion.
  • “Gospel Differences & Compositional Textbooks” – Licona claims that training in rhetoric was part of the educational process for aspiring authors in antiquity. That process included work using compositional textbooks, also referred to as rhetorical handbooks. Exercises in these trained the student to alter texts in the interest of paraphrasing. Not surprisingly, when reading ancient texts, including the Gospels, we observe their authors altering their source texts as trained. This practice resulted in differences in the way a story was reported. The differences are minor but of interest.

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