NOTE: Some readers have asked me for a transcript of Dr. Lydia McGrew’s webinar. Good news: I have now completed the transcript (see below). Additionally, the points Dr. McGrew raised in her talk can be found here. In her talk, Dr. McGrew was responding to an e-interview given by Dr. Michael Licona, a leading Christian apologist for the Resurrection, who is an Associate Professor of theology at Houston Baptist University, and who is also the author of Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (Oxford University Press, 2017). In his book, Dr. Licona defended the historicity of the Gospels but endorsed the view, common among New Testament scholars, that the authors of the Gospels would have considered it perfectly legitimate to deliberately alter historical details of events, relating non-factual claims as if they were factual, because back in those days, writers of biographies were more concerned with Truth than with mere facts. Dr. McGrew is a conservative Christian writer, but not a Biblical inerrantist. Nevertheless, she felt that by acknowledging the existence of what she terms “fictionalizing compositional devices” in the Gospels, Dr. Licona had conceded too much to skeptics such as Bart Ehrman (whom Licona debated on the reliability of the New Testament back in 2016), and that such a concession undermined his whole case for the historicity of the Resurrection. For this reason, Dr. Grew decided to respond to Dr. Licona by presenting the webinar shown below.
Dr. Lydia McGrew’s webinar is titled, “Six Bad Habits of New Testament Scholars and How to Avoid Them.” Her host for the webinar was Jonathan McLatchie, an Intelligent Design proponent who is currently a Ph.D. student in cell biology and a contributor to various apologetics websites, as well as being the founder of the Apologetics Academy. I’m happy to report that Dr. Lydia McGrew’s Webinar is now available on Youtube. I commend it to viewers, and I can promise you it’s a very thought-provoking presentation, whatever your theological perspective may be. Comments are welcome from people of all faiths and none.
For the benefit of those readers who don’t know her, Dr. Lydia McGrew has a Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt University (1995), but nearly all of her published work has been in analytic philosophy, with specialties in epistemology and probability theory. Her curriculum vitae is here. Dr. McGrew is also a home schooling mother living in the Midwest, who is married to the philosopher, Dr. Timothy McGrew, Chair and Professor of the Department of Philosophy at Western Michigan University (C.V. here).
UPDATE: I’ve now transcribed the whole of Dr. McGrew’s talk, which can be viewed below. I invite readers to peruse it at their leisure. Comments are welcome.
Thanks so much for having me, Jonathan. I’m going to be going to share-screen here in a minute, to a Power Point presentation. This is the first time I have ever done this talk with Power Point, so we’ll see how that goes. When I do that, I don’t think I’ll be able to see the chat window anymore, so I won’t be able to reply during that time to chat until I cancel the share-screen. But please do hang around and ask questions after I’m done. I’m going to try not to make this too uncomfortable. I have a lot of material to get through, so it’s going to be fun. So let’s go to Power Point right now, go to share-screen, and … OK! There we go. [The first slide now appears on the screen.]
My talk today is called, “Six Bad Habits of New Testament Scholars And how to avoid them.” That title is pretty self-explanatory – with the one caveat that it is entirely about the Gospels. My talk is entirely about the Gospels. In fact, I had thought of changing to “Six Bad Habits of Gospel Scholars And how to avoid them,” but my advisors said that didn’t sound as good, so I’m sticking with this title.
You’ll notice that most of my examples are taken from scholars that are considered broadly evangelical, even conservative evangelical, [and] not chiefly from Bart Ehrman, or Raymond Brown, or people out there, who are not considered evangelical. There are a few exceptions that you’ll see as we go along, but [it’s] mostly from evangelical scholars and pastors and so forth. This is deliberate. My goal is to show these examples and these habits in a scholarly context, where apologetics enthusiasts are more likely to trust the judgments of the authors involved. My goal is to suggest that we should question the bad habits of New Testament scholarship, no matter where we find them. Being labeled an evangelical, or even being labeled a conservative, is not a guarantee of infallibility, and doesn’t place one beyond criticism. It doesn’t mean that we have to assume that whatever that person is doing has been carefully vetted or rightly judged, or whatever. And there is a lot of cross-pollination that goes on from mainstream New Testament scholarship, which is quite liberal New Testament scholarship, into evangelical scholarship. You’ll see some of that in the examples I give today. So I want to show how this has happened, so that we can question these things on their own merits.
None of this is intended as a personal attack against anyone. The ideas are the thing. They’re important ideas. We need to be able to discuss them vigorously and find out the truth, so my goal here is just a better understanding of the truth.
I also wanted to mention that when I say these are bad habits, I mean: philosophically and historically bad habits. This would be true even if the books were not Scripture. Even if they were not religious books, these are bad habits when applied to Plutarch, for example. Yes, I do expect that people might be somewhat surprised to hear some of the theories that are out forward by evangelical scholars, but my goal is not just to make my audience be shocked, or think [they’re] some kind of bad habits in the sense of being impious, or theologically bad in some kind of a priori way. I want to show that these are important matters, but then I want to move on to show that these are logically and historically poor positions, not to suggest that we should just oppose them because we feel shocked by them, or something like that. So bad habits here means: intellectually bad habits. All right: that being said, let’s go!
Bad Habit #1: Failure to make crucial distinctions
Bad Habit Number One: Failure to make crucial distinctions. It’s amazing how often you see this – and this is something where I think that I, as an analytic philosopher, can help, because that’s something that analytic philosophers do all the time. We come in there and we say, “You’re using this word univocally,” or something. [Note: I presume that Dr. McGrew meant to say “equivocally,” rather than “univocally,” here. – VJT.]
So I’m going to start with this one: Two senses of “compression” or “telescoping.” These are phrases that you’ll hear, terms that you’ll hear. Now sometimes, what you’ll hear is that an author like a Gospel author, will tell things in a briefer way: he’ll leave things out. He’ll just not mention everything, not mention every detail. An illustration I’ve heard used is that it’s like the “guy version” and the “girl version” of a story, wherein women like to hear all the details whereas men just like to hit the bullet points, and so on. That’s fine for one sense of compression, that describes one sense of compression or telescoping.
But there is another sense, a different sense, in which it is said that some author is telescoping. For example, if you read any New Testament scholar saying that Luke puts all of the events of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples on Easter Sunday, on that one day, he put them on that one day. Or you even read concerning some secular work, that some Roman author put all of these events on December 3rd, when really they took three days – from December 3rd to December 5th – and the author allegedly knew that. All right. Now that’s a very different sense of “compression” or “telescoping” from just leaving stuff out. If you just leave stuff out, you’re just being indefinite. You’re not specifically trying to give the impression that these things happened all in one day or all in a much shorter time, or that certain people didn’t say certain things, or anything like that. You’re not trying to make your reader read your document in such a fashion that it gives the impression that this took a shorter time.
Now these two senses get melded all the time in New Testament scholars’ writing. They’ll say “So-and-so compressed this,” and you’ll hear that, and the reader may hear that, as the first sense: he just leaves it out. And that author may even say, “Well, it’s like the guy version and the girl version” – and you know, frankly, whether it were a guy or a girl, if I heard someone say that a series of events, that he knew took forty days, took one day, I would consider that misleading. I would not write that off as “the guy version.” If he were really putting all of the events that took forty days onto one day, that’s not something that we would normally call “the guy version versus the girl version.”
So we need to keep those two senses distinct, and when somebody says, “This Gospel author – in this case it’s Luke I’m giving an example from – is telescoping,” we need to be explicit about what sense if meant by that and try to draw that person out and say, “Now, what do you mean by that?”, and not assume that the – I would call it “fictionalizing sense” is just as unobjectionable as the merely “leaving stuff out” sense. Those are just completely different, and one might say, “You know, I don’t think Luke would actually put all of the events on one day, if he knew they took forty days. That’s not compatible with what I see elsewhere of Luke as an accurate author.” OK? And you shouldn’t ever feel browbeaten by someone who just says, “Well, haven’t you ever heard of telescoping? It’s a technical term, and we know about it in New Testament scholarship.” Well, that type of telescoping we aren’t automatically bound to agree with or acknowledge. There needs to be a stronger argument for that stronger sense of telescoping or compression.
Next: Two senses of “non-chronological order.” This is very similar to the two senses of “telescoping” or “compression.” Now what you often will found – and I’d say that ancient authors have somewhat more of a tendency to do this than we do, but we do it sometimes too – is just what I call “and-and chronology” or “and-but chronology”: “He did this and this, but he did this, but this happened.” OK. This is not implying a chronology. All right. This is not giving a specific chronology at all! This is just saying, “These things happened.” They might not have happened in that precise way.
In his 1984 book, Craig Blomberg talks about this sense of narrating in non-chronological order. An example of this would be the temptations [of Jesus] in the wilderness, where you get a slightly different order between Matthew and Luke, but it’s just where the word [would] just be “and.” “And this happened” – words like kai or te in the Greek, so that Luke is not saying, “This happened after that happened. This happened first, and that happened.” He’s not necessarily implying a chronological order. You can’t necessarily tell.
Now, that’s a very common trope of traditional harmonizers. Now I want to emphasize this. That fact, that ancient people – and we sometimes, too – are inexplicit about our chronology, is not something that was discovered as a special compositional device used by the Greeks and Romans, or something, just last year. That’s actually something that traditional harmonizers have been saying for many, many decades, and actually [for] hundreds of years. OK? Sometimes you get a non-chronological narration, but it’s not actually giving a chronological order.
But let’s go to the other sense of “non-chronological order,” or narrating it in a non-chronological order. When Jesus and his entourage are coming towards Jericho, we have in one Gospel – we have in Mark, for example, that they saw these people who were blind when they were leaving Jericho. Mark only mentions one blind man, and Jesus healed that blind man when they were leaving Jericho. In Luke, you have a mention of the healing of a blind man as they are approaching Jericho, and [it’s] very explicit: “as they were approaching Jericho,” or “as they were leaving Jericho.” OK? Now, that’s a real issue for harmonization, and I think that there are harmonizations that can be given there: they might [be] leav[ing] the old Jericho [and] approaching the new Jericho, whatever. But if we say that Luke changed Mark’s chronological order, because he wanted to narrate the healing of the blind man – he only mentions one man, before they leave Jericho, and Jesus meets Zacchaeus up in the sycamore tree – then that’s not just narrating in a non-chronological order, in the first sense. That’s a difference of [Mark’s] having a chronological order, and [Luke’s] having a different chronological order from Mark’s. In fact, these two senses are so different that they’re incompatible. They’re completely incompatible. Narrating in an order where you do not imply a chronology is incompatible with narrating in an order where you do imply a chronology, and you change the chronology from someone else’s – maybe even changed it from what you had reason to believe was true. OK?
So one might [not] – and shouldn’t – have any objection to narrating in an inexplicit fashion about chronology, narrating things in a topic-oriented order or something like that, without even mentioning a chronology – versus laying out a chronology – “This happened, then this happened, then this happened” – when you know it’s the wrong chronology! You know it’s not how it happened! You might say, “Oh. What’s your argument that he [Luke] did that – as opposed to, for example, having a source that told it a different way, or in a different order. Why do you think he knew the true order and then said, ‘No. I would prefer to tell my readers in a different order’?” That requires a much stronger argument.
Next: Two senses of “ipsissima vox.” And that’s a Latin phrase – it sounds quite impressive – that means: the very voice. Now there’s actually a whole continuum of senses: this isn’t just a very, very short, non-continuous distinction. But broadly speaking, we could say, “We don’t necessarily have the very words, so ipsissima vox is often contrasted with ipsissima verba – the exact words. We don’t have the exact words of Jesus, because maybe he spoke in Aramaic, and the [Gospel] authors give it in Greek. Or maybe they paraphrased it somewhat.” Moderate paraphrase, recognizable paraphrase. If you had been there, you would have said, “Oh!” You would go like, you know, back in time, you could watch the scene and say, “This is the time when Jesus was saying, ‘I and the Father are one.’” OK? But it might have other words as well, or it might be worded somewhat differently, but it would be a recognizable paraphrase. [There] would be an incident where it would actually correspond to what was actually said by Jesus or by someone else at times – the phrases he even used for other people. Most often [there’s a] quote (?) of the speech of Jesus.
So there’s a sense of, “We don’t have the exact words, but we have the very voice.” There’s a recognizable paraphrase of what was said, a translation into a different language, or something like that. And naturally, that’s going to have fuzzy edges: at what point the paraphrase becomes so free that we don’t call it the very voice, or we don’t call it a paraphrase any more.
Well, now we’ll go to the second sense, all right? I’ll give an example. Jesus on the cross in the Synoptic Gospels is said to have said, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” In a paper in the year 2000 about the use of ipsissima vox in the Gospel of John from the Cross, Dan B. Wallace hypothesized that actually in John, when Jesus said, “I thirst,” this was the so-called ipsissima vox. [There was] modification, redaction of the tradition on the part of the Gospel author of John, of the real phrase, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” So in other words, if you had been there, you would not have recognizably heard Jesus say anything like, “I am thirsty,” that could have expressed physical thirst. You would have heard him say something like, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”, and that John modified this to “I thirst,” meaning thirst in a metaphoric, theological way. This theory is repeated in Mike Licona’s recent 2017 book, Why are there differences in the Gospels?, and Licona appears to agree with Dr. Wallace, and credits him with the theory. Now that is said to be also ipsissima vox, but it’s very understandable that someone might hear that and say, “I wouldn’t call that the very voice of Jesus! I wouldn’t say that if Jesus never said, ‘I am thirsty,’ in John or anything like it, like, ‘Please give me a drink’ – and John recorded it in the same way, and even records people running and offering him something to drink at that very time – that this is the very voice of Jesus, because I can make up some kind of theological theory, connecting Jesus’ sense of forsakenness by God with thirst, OK?” That’s not the ipsissima vox. – well, we might say, “That’s not the very voice of Jesus.” That’s a very broad use of that phrase. You want to insist that the very voice – you know, you can define words however you want, but you need to make it clear to people what you’re talking about.
And unfortunately, what happens a lot in New Testament scholarship, and particularly with this one, with ipsissima vox – it happens with all of them, but particularly with ipsissima vox – is that you’ll have, oh, there’ll be some kind of controversy. Like, there was the controversy about the “I Am” statements, and whether Jesus recognizably uttered anything like the “I Am” statements – I’ll be coming back to that later – and you know someone will be writing, and will try to set people’s minds at rest and say, “Hey, everybody agrees that we don’t have the very words of Jesus. All evangelical scholars agree that we have this thing called ipsissima vox,” – this very technical-sounding term, you know – but when they’re saying that to defend the historic broad changes, and calling them ipsissima vox, unfortunately, it’s not always made clear to people that there is a narrower sense of it, and that this is an extremely broad sense, and this is not uncontroversial among New Testament scholars and evangelical New Testament scholars. Not everybody accepts this very broad use of ipsissima vox. So there will be a kind of equivocation of the term. And I don’t think that’s quite fair to the layman. I think the layman has a right to know that … you’re not forced to a false dilemma here: either you think we have memorized the exact words of Jesus, everything, he didn’t speak in a different language, no paraphrase, no nothing – in which case you sound like a fundamentalist, very rigid person – or you have to be totally open to the idea that John changed “My God, why have you forsaken me?” to “I thirst.” We should not foist that kind of false dilemma on the layman, the pastor, the theological student, the apologist, whatever. We need to recognize different senses of this term.
One person I want to give a shout-out to here – and I have not been in communication with this person at all, so he doesn’t know I’m going to do this – but who did make this distinction, and so I want to give credit, is Rob Bowman, a New Testament scholar who did a post on the “I Am” statements. He explicitly said, “There are different senses of ipsissima vox.” And I think that Jesus uttered the “I Am” statements in a historical sense, that if you had been there, you would have recognized Jesus as doing them. And he [Bowman] said, “It’s possible to use this term in a sense that is too loose.” I really appreciate that kind of clarity and that’s all here.
Bad Habit No. 2: Preference for Complex over Simple Theories
All right. Bad Habit Number Two here. Here we are. OK. Moving through here. If I talk way too fast, Jonathan, can you come on and say, “You’re talking way too fast. People can’t even hear you”?
Preference for complex over simpler theories. Now this is a big umbrella and covers a lot of ground, so I put several things [here]. The reason I have six bad habits – I had seven in an earlier version – is that I combined two or three categories under this heading. So I’m going to go on.
Failure to recognize when a variation is just a variation. The first type of preference for complex over simpler theories; a failure to recognize when a variation is just a variation, because sometimes a variation is just a variation, like sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. OK? And you would be amazed at how New Testament scholars don’t know how to do this.
Example: in his commentary on Matthew, Robert Gundry is discussing the feeding of the five thousand, and Matthew uses the phrase, “when evening came.” In Mark, this is: “It grew late.” Mark says, “when it grew late.” And Gundry literally hypothesizes that “when evening came” was redacted from Mark’s “when it grew late” because Matthew was attempting to allude to the Last Supper, and trying to make the feeding of the five thousand Eucharistic. Douglas Moo objected to this at the debate that they had, in the pages of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and what Gundry had to say was, “Well, I have a lot of other places in the feeding of the five thousand where I do the same thing.” Yeah. He had a lot of other equally really, really bad arguments… This is one – perhaps the only – example I give from Gundry, because his work on Matthew was so extreme that I’m afraid people might say that he is not sufficiently typical. But this is just such a perfect example of this tendency not to be able to see that a variation is just a variation. Matthew is just telling the story in his own words. “When evening came” is a perfectly natural way of describing. It has nothing to do with the Last Supper.
OK. Similarly, in Mark, Jesus says, “I have not called the righteous but sinners.” Full stop at [Mark] 2:17. In Luke 5:32, Jesus says, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance,” and he adds this phrase, “to repentance.” In a 1999 paper, called “An Apologia for a Broad View of Ipsissima Vox” (interesting title, in the light of what I was discussing a few minutes ago), Dan B. Wallace argues that Luke deliberately included the words “to repentance” because of Luke’s emphasis on the theme of repentance, and his desire to make this the emphasis of Jesus’ words. Mark’s version, because he [Jesus] had been eating with the sinners, might have been seen as an invitation to a meal, so that Luke added “to repentance” by redaction to Jesus’ words. Notice that there is no idea that Luke just talked to somebody who might have heard it that way, that, you know, it’s just a variation of witness testimony in a natural variation? No; it has to be a redactive change. Sometimes a variation is just a variation.
Another illustration from that same book – excuse me, that same paper, by Dan B. Wallace, is when Matthew [chapter 12] discusses “in the days of Abiathar the high priest,” which is in Mark 2:26, Jesus is talking about David eating the showbread, the sacred bread. This has caused people to question whether Jesus made an error, because at that time, Abiathar wasn’t yet high priest, and so forth. Frankly, it’s just like we might refer to President Reagan, when he was still an actor, or something like that. It’s really not a problem. But Wallace conjectures that Matthew has this high Christology, and that Matthew might have been concerned that people reading Mark would think that Jesus made a mistake. And so Matthew deliberately suppressed the words, “in the days of Abiathar the high priest,” in order to avoid such a potential problem. But sometimes a variation is just a variation. Maybe Matthew … just didn’t happen to remember that phrase, “in the days of Abiathar the high priest.” We’re leaving out naturalness in variation. Everything is heavy redaction.
Another example from that same paper by Dan Wallace – which I have, by the way, and I did not get it from Dan Wallace, I got it from someone who had a copy – he’s talking about Mark 1:34. It talks about people bringing a lot of people to Jesus, “and he healed many who were sick with various diseases and cast out many demons.” Matthew 8:16 says: “He drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick.” Oh my goodness! Matthew has, “he healed all the sick,” and Mark has, “he healed many who were sick.” Well… you could probably [guess] what I’m going to say for yourselves, right? What is Dr. Wallace going to conjecture? That Matthew, with his high Christology, is concerned that it might look like Jesus wasn’t able to heal everybody, so that he – you know, he’s like, looking at Mark, and he’s going, “Maybe people might read ‘he healed many,’ so he’s changed ‘he healed many’ to ‘he healed all.'” Matthew can’t just tell the story in his own words. A variation is never just a variation.
Utterly unforced errors
Another example of the preference – remember, our overarching bad habit here is Number Two, preference for complex over simple theories – are what I call utterly unforced errors. An example here is the “I thirst” change that I gave as an example earlier. That’s what I call an utterly unforced error. There is no even prima facie discrepancy between John and the Synoptics. There is no discrepancy between Jesus saying, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” and Jesus saying, “I thirst.” He could have said both. These utterly unforced errors are really an egregious example of the preference for complex over simple theories. So that’s an example. It just comes out of the clear blue sky. You bring up this theory that somebody changed something. Why do that? Why not just go with the simpler theory that Jesus said, “I thirst”?
Another example of an utterly unforced error is the suggestion [made in relation to John 20:22, where the risen Jesus is said to have breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit”]. This is in [Mike Licona’s] Why are there differences in the Gospels?, page 180 – “Perhaps John desired to allude to the events at Pentecost,” and … the motive given here is that John wasn’t going to write about Pentecost, because he wasn’t going to write a sequel, like Luke did. [Quote:] “So he wove mention of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost into his communications with his male disciples” – in other words, that John added that incident, just to somehow allude to the day of Pentecost. Utterly unforced error. Unnecessary complexity. Rather than just taking it to be that Jesus did this thing, [and just] saying, “Maybe we don’t know what it meant – especially if we’re not Catholics.” Catholics have a theory about what it was. When he breathes on them and says, “Whoever’s sins you retain, they are retained,” and so forth. But the fact that we don’t understand Jesus’ words or Jesus’ actions does not mean that the epistemically most reasonable theory is that the person made it up, that the evangelist made it up.
I’m not going to take the time to discuss this next one. I can come back. It’s in one of my posts on this: how many blind men and how many demoniacs were healed? [There are] some very, very strange complex theories about doublets and also about doubling up on demoniacs – make up a demoniac, you’re not talking about someone else, et cetera: preference for complex over simple theories.
Bad Habit No. 3: Arguments from Silence
Bad Habit No. 3: Arguments from Silence. Here, I am going to give a very quick example from Bart Ehrman: when he’s talking about the Infancy Narratives, he implies that there is a conflict between Matthew and Luke, because he says that in Matthew, Joseph and Mary were originally from Bethlehem. And where does he get this? The only place he can get it from is that in Matthew, it doesn’t mention the journey to Bethlehem that is mentioned in Luke. So out of this, Ehrman then weaves this idea that Matthew is actively implying that they were there in Bethlehem all along. But Matthew doesn’t say that; that is an Argument from Silence on stilts, to make an assertion in Matthew out of mere silence.
Here’s another example, which is also a failure to see that sometimes, a variation is just a variation. The incident (it’s recounted in Mark 10 and it’s also recounted in Matthew 20) where Jesus’ disciples come to him and ask him, “Can we sit on your right hand and on your left hand?” And in Matthew, their mother is there with them, and she kneels down and asks this. But they’re there; they’re also there in Matthew. Mark does not mention their mother at all; he only mentions their coming and asking this. Now, one theory – and this is one of the two theories that Licona discusses in Why are there differences in the Gospels?, and it’s the one he says he prefers – is that Mark airbrushed her out: airbrushed out the mother of the sons of Zebedee and transfers her words to her sons. But in a sense that is an argument from silence, because we aren’t allowing the idea that Mark just didn’t know about the mother: that this could be a more natural variation, instead of Mark knowing the story as it’s given in Matthew – and it wasn’t even written yet, so he would have had to know about it in some other way – and saying, “Hmm. I think I shall airbrush out the mother.” [Why does this theory have to be correct,] instead of just, maybe Peter didn’t know the mother? [Note: tradition tells us that Mark got his Gospel from the recollections of St. Peter – VJT.] Sometimes, a variation is just a variation – but again, that’s an argument from silence, because Mark’s non-mention of the mother is treated as if he has deliberately taken the mother out. We’re looking for this heavy reason for silence.
This one’s interesting: an unnecessary tension between John and the Synoptics on whether the voice [at Jesus’ baptism] spoke from Heaven. Here’s a discussion from Licona’s book of that passage in John concerning John the Baptist, and Jesus at the baptism. Quote: “In all three Synoptics, God’s voice testifies that Jesus is His Son. However, in John 1:32-34, there is no mention of a voice from Heaven. Nor is there a mention of Heaven being opened.” There’s your argument from silence, when you take the silence of John. [Continuing the quote from Licona]: “Instead – (interesting word, instead) – John the Baptist says God told him He would provide him with a sign: the Spirit would descend and remain upon the head of the One He had chosen to baptize others with the Holy Spirit. And it is John the Baptist rather than God – (this is my emphasis, I’m drawing attention [to it]) – who directly testified that he saw the sign, and testified that Jesus is God’s Son. Therefore in the Synoptics, the voice from Heaven directly testifies that Jesus is God’s Son, whereas in John, it is John the Baptist.” This is the creation of an unnecessary tension between John and the Synoptics by an argument from silence. Because John doesn’t mention the voice from Heaven and the heavens being opened, there’s this notion that it’s John the Baptist testifying, instead of God the Father. The really interesting thing here is that this actually causes Licona not to be able to see – or not to be able to recognize – an undesigned coincidence, which I discuss in my book, because there is an undesigned coincidence- because that raises the question, “How did John the Baptist know that Jesus was the Son of God?” He says, “I saw that Jesus was the Son of God,” but there had been no mention that Jesus was the Son of God. And the voice from Heaven from the Synoptics answers that question. So far from it being “Instead” or “Whereas” or “Rather than” or whatever, they [the accounts in John and the Synoptics] actually fit together, as question and answer. And that’s very common. By not allowing natural variations in testimonial form, we get tensions, rather than being capable of recognizing undesigned coincidences, which are actually a feature of the natural variation of testimony.
One more, real quick. I’m going back to the 1999 paper, “Ipsissima Vox” by Dan B. Wallace. He talks about Matthew 24:36, where Jesus says, “No-one knows the day or the hour that the Son of Man will come.” And you probably are all familiar with the fact that in some manuscripts of Matthew and of Mark, he says the Son doesn’t even know – “nor the Son.” And this has created questions about the Deity of Christ, et cetera. Now Wallace argues on textual grounds that the phrase should not be included in Matthew 24. Now, textual criticism is Dr. Wallace’s specialty. That doesn’t mean we have to accept all his judgments about the interpretation of the Scriptures. So it’s not a problem for him to say that the best manuscripts don’t have “nor the Son,” so “nor the Son” isn’t in Matthew 24:36. Fine. But he goes on to suggest – you guessed it – that Matthew deliberately omitted “nor the Son,” because of his high Christology. [Matthew was thinking to himself,] “We wouldn’t want people to get the idea [that Jesus is a lesser being]. Maybe Jesus really said, ‘nor the Son.’ But I don’t want to confuse people, so I’m going to leave that out. I’m going to deliberately omit it, in order to support my high Christology. I’m going to suppress that, on the part of Jesus.” This again is an argument from silence. First, we argue that it’s not in Matthew – and maybe it wasn’t in the original manuscript of Matthew – and then we have to have a heavy theory for why it’s not in Matthew, and it’s this theological, Christological theory. But sometimes, a variation is just a variation. [We find that sort of thing] often in the Gospels, usually in the Gospels. A variation is just a variation.
Bad Habit No. 4 – Ignoring the Possibility of Real, Independent Access to Events
Bad Habit No. 4: Ignoring the possibility of independent access to events. Now I want to mention that there is this speech that Licona gave, that he put up on the Internet just this past summer, the summer of 2017, on the deity of Christ. And at a certain point in that [speech], he’s explaining to his audience the Two-Source hypothesis, because he’s going to want to mention Q. So he gives them a brief rundown of the Two-Source hypothesis. And in summarizing that he says that if a story is in both Mark and Matthew, that what scholars say is that Matthew got it from Mark. Now, I find this kind of interesting, because not only could you have a much looser version of the Two-Source hypothesis, but it’s also a weird way of implying that you accept Matthean authorship because just a few minutes earlier, he’s envisaged someone asking, “Well, if Matthew was a disciple, why did he need to use Mark as a source?” And he talks about the high prestige of Peter, and so forth. And so for the people, for his audience, and maybe for himself – I don’t know – he seems to be accepting Matthean authorship of Matthew, at least as a working hypothesis. Now when he gets to explaining the Two-Source hypothesis, he says: if the story is in both Matthew and Mark, Matthew got it from Mark. Well, good grief! That doesn’t have to be. I mean, if Matthew was genuinely Matthew, if he was one of the Twelve, he may have had independent access to the events. So the minute we lock ourselves into this incredibly rigid version, this very narrow version of the Two-Source hypothesis, so that any time we say that if it’s the same incident, Matthew had to get it from Mark, we’re cutting out the possibility of Matthew’s having independent access to the same event.
So, here are a couple more examples of Matthew’s variations from Mark. We’ve actually had a couple of these already, so you can think for yourself back to my earlier examples and see how this fits in.
Cursing the fig tree
Here are two more: cursing the fig tree – that very famous crux, where Matthew’s chronology of the cursing of the fig tree seems to be different from Mark’s. Let me summarize that, because I’m trying to move quickly. And it does seem to be different from Mark’s. I totally grant that this is difficult chronologically to harmonize. OK. But if we think that maybe Matthew might have really been there, maybe Matthew remembered it this way. I mean: this is how Matthew remembered it. If we grant, if we put on the table as a hypothesis that Matthew may have had independent access, maybe he remembered it [the fig tree] as withering more quickly than what Mark describes. Now you can do what you want to do with that for your theory of inerrancy or whatever. I would submit to you that it is not any help to inerrancy, and certainly not any help to the reliability of the Gospels, to have Matthew deliberately – we’re going to go back now to our first point about two different senses of compression – to have Matthew deliberately falsifying events and saying, “I’m going to make it all happen at once, even though I know it didn’t happen all at once, because I want to shorten it up for whatever” – because if that’s your idea of inerrancy, it certainly isn’t mine. And from a historical point of view – again, I said these are historically bad habits – it’s a very bad habit not to allow the possibility of independent access to the events, and therefore, independent memory.
What Jairus said about his daughter
Another example: what did Jairus say about his daughter? All right. In Mark, Jairus comes running up and he says, “My daughter is at the point of death.” And then they start traveling to see the child. Jesus is going to go [and] heal her. The servants come and say, “She has died.” [But] in Matthew, he runs up and he says, “My daughter has just now died.” And then there is no mention of the servants, as in Mark, and they find the people wailing for her death. What did he say? Well, this is a kind of incredibly natural variant that you get when you have eyewitnesses: very, very very natural. If you were to ask J. Warner Wallace, who is a detective, about how different eyewitnesses tell stories, that kind of thing is just what you would find – that one person just doesn’t remember some small variation saying, “My daughter is about to die,” and then he sends the word later that she really has died – versus running up and saying, “My daughter is dead.” If Matthew has written even ten years after – which is an extremely early date for Matthew, and all the more so, the further out you get – this would be a very natural memory variation. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t say, “My daughter has died.” Maybe he said both, or whatever. But when we don’t treat Mark as the only reliable guide, [and insist that] Matthew’s always redacting Mark – when we allow Matthew independent access to the events as well, then for one thing, we have a motive to harmonize, which we’ll see in a second, and for another thing, we can take seriously these natural sources of variation, rather than having it be a redaction, that Matthew read it in Mark. He wasn’t there, or we’re just not going to talk about whether he was there or not, because we’re acting like Matthew wasn’t Matthew, because – I don’t know – the New Testament scholarship guild wouldn’t like it if Matthew was really Matthew, and we gave that any power as an explanatory hypothesis! We’re going to just assume that he got it from Mark, if it’s in both then he got it from Mark, so then he must have deliberately cut this out, instead of remembering it differently. These and many others could be differences of independent memory access between Matthew and the other Gospels, rather than redactions.
John and Matthew on the place of Jesus first meeting with his disciples after his resurrection
The next one is pretty important. I almost cut out for time’s sake, but I’m leaving it in. Dr. Licona and others – he’s certainly not the only one, by a long shot – alleges a contradiction concerning the place of Jesus’ first meeting with the disciples after his resurrection. If you’re familiar with harmonization in the Easter accounts, then you’ll be familiar with this: that Matthew only mentions a meeting in Galilee. The long ending in Mark I’m taking as not authentic, so we don’t have any appearance in Mark’s [Gospel]: you can leave Mark out. But John and Luke both discuss meetings right in Jerusalem, even right on the very same day of Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew moves very quickly to a meeting in Galilee. Now I think these are completely harmonizable: I don’t think they were the same meeting. I don’t think there’s really a problem here. But it is common, among skeptics, and even some Christian New Testament scholars, who allege that these [accounts] are contradictory. Dr. Licona is insistent that these are the same meeting. He spends several pages discussing this, and why there are differences between the Gospels. [He insists] that John’s first meeting with Jesus’ disciples and Matthew’s recounted meeting are the same meeting, but then now we have a contradiction, because one is in Galilee and the other is in Jerusalem. This contradiction could of course be avoided if we didn’t insist that they were the same meeting. And interestingly he conjectures, he says, “I don’t know why they contradict each other on this, but perhaps they followed different traditions.”
Now let’s just think about that for a minute. If John had access – let’s just entertain for a moment the wild hypothesis – after all, we’re historians, we’re supposed to be considering all theories, right? Then let’s just give this one a test drive: John was John, Matthew was Matthew. They were there. They are not following traditions. They remember these meetings. Failure to consider independent access to events: that’s the bad habit number 4 that we’re talking about here. Why are we talking about John and Matthew following traditions, as if their memories were erased, and they had to go find somebody else to tell them where Jesus first met his disciples? If we’re going to say, “John wasn’t John and Matthew wasn’t Matthew,” let’s come right out and say it. Their only access to the events – they didn’t have their own independent access – their only access was tradition, OK? But that then needs to be defended on its own grounds.
Interestingly, if you take seriously the idea that John and Matthew had reliable, independent access to the events, this could make you rethink the possibilities of harmonization concerning Jesus’ meetings in Galilee versus his meetings in Jerusalem. It would be more open to harmonization, because you have reason to believe these things came from eyewitness sources who actually remembered them, so maybe they’re both true.
John and the Temple cleansing
Similarly, Craig Keener raises and dismisses this possibility concerning the Temple cleansing. You’re familiar, I’m sure, with the fact that Jesus cleanses the Temple in John early in his ministry, and there’s no mention of a cleansing in Passion Week, and in the Synoptic Gospels, it talks about his cleansing the Temple in Passion Week, and there is no mention of a Temple cleansing early on. Again, I just think he cleansed the Temple twice. I don’t think there’s really a problem here. But when Dr. Keener talks about this in his commentary on John, he simply says, “Maybe John depends on a separate tradition, but probably not. I think John moved it for theological reasons.” And he has this very elaborate theory. This falls, again, back under the preference for complex over simple theories. And someone wants to ask me in the Q & A what Dr. Keener’s theories about the theological motive for the moving of the Temple cleansing. I can tell you that. But here I’m just pointing out that he says, briefly, “Perhaps John depends on a different tradition.” Again, if John himself had access to the events, he might have remembered that Jesus cleansed the Temple early in his ministry – in which case, perhaps we should reconsider the possibility that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice, instead of doing a priori history and saying, “Oh, it’s very unlikely that they would have allowed him to cleanse the Temple again, or whatever your theory is, or that they would have allowed his ministry to continue. Don’t do a priori history. Do history from your documents, do history from your sources, when you have reason to believe that those sources have access to the events. But here, what we get is this tacit assumption that we’re not going to really give that much weight [to the idea] that John was really there and that really saw that event – in fact, we’re going to treat it like it isn’t really true. The most we will consider is [the idea that] maybe John depended on a separate tradition, but we’re going to treat it as very removed from the events, and then we find that easier to dismiss, for a different theory, that John moved the Temple cleansing.
Did Matthew add the mother of James and John?
All right. Last one under this bad habit. In his Commentary on Matthew, Craig A. Evans talks about Matthew 20 – we already talked about this passage, a few minutes ago – with the sons of Zebedee, the brothers James and John, and their mother. Evans has a slightly different theory, that’ cited in Licona’s book but not endorsed as strongly: Licona says he prefers the theory that Mark airbrushed out the mother. But he puts these almost on a par, and that’s kind of interesting. He lists them both, and then you have to go to a footnote to find out that he prefers the one about Mark airbrushing out the mother. Dr. Evans’s argument is that Matthew added the mother, because he “seeks to put the disciples in a better light” – that would presumably be James and John – that it was Mom’s idea, it wasn’t their idea. Now this is very interesting and striking, because if you’re going to put the disciples in a better light by making up a character and her involvement out of whole cloth, presumably the readers are supposed to believe it. We can come back to that in Q & A if we want to talk about this bit. Sometimes there is a statement that’s made that the people at that time didn’t take these things to be really asserted at all, so they wouldn’t have been misled, but how do you cast the disciples in a better light by making up the involvement of Mom, if the readers do not believe it? If the readers don’t believe Mom was actually involved, then they’re not going to think of James and John in a better light. In any event, this is ignoring the possibility that Matthew remembered Mom – Matthew was actually there – or even, for that matter, if you prefer, that Matthew talked to somebody who was there. You’re ignoring the possibility of reliable, independent access to the real event. Everything is a redaction, a redaction, a redaction. Matthew read Mark, and then he decided to juice up the story, beef up the story, and add Mom. And it’s interesting, because Dr. Evans even notices that Matthew hasn’t changed the number anyway. So how much better does it make them look if they’re present and they’re putting their order in, their dialogue in with Jesus – “Yeah, we want to be on your right hand and your left hand” – it doesn’t really make them much less proud (or whatever) if they were involved, and all he’ll say is that Matthew knows Mark’s version. This doesn’t cause Dr. Evans to say, “Oh. Maybe Matthew is just remembering something that wasn’t known to Mark” – he just takes it as more evidence for redaction, that Matthew knows Mark’s version. Again, it’s a pathology of New Testament scholarship not to allow the natural variation of those who have access to the events. Matthew is erased as a potential witness.
Bad Habit #5: Over-reading
If you’ve ever watched Chariots of Fire, if you’ve ever looked at the coach, Sam Mussabini, [you’ll remember the scene where] he says to the sprinter, Harold Abrams, “Overstriding. It’s death to the sprinter.” Well, I’m going to say: “Over-reading. It’s death to the New Testament scholar – and all too common.” Now, many other examples we have given already fit into this as well, for sure. Many times, these examples I give could have multiple labels. It’s not like I just have to give them one label. In fact, I had my slide here, I had the Bart Ehrman example of Mary and Joseph originally living in Bethlehem as an example of over-reading, and I moved it over to Arguments from Silence. All right, so here’s another example. This is related again to an alleged contradiction between Matthew and John, concerning the first appearance to Mary Magdalene. I’m going to quote here from Dr. Licona’s book, page 175. “The story differs” – he’s just described John, then he says: “The story differs in Matthew 28:8-10, in which, upon hearing the message of the angel at the tomb, the group of women, which included Mary Magdalene, left quickly with fear and trembling and ran to tell Jesus’ disciples.” And then, in Matthew, the group that leaves together meets Jesus. He appears to them. All right. Notice that the group of women which included Mary Magdalene – this is over-reading. If you open up the Bible, what you see [in] verse 1 of Matthew 28: “Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave. And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred,” and it goes on, and it describes the angel, et cetera, and then you get to the message of the angel, [in] verse 8, “And they departed very quickly from the tomb, with fear and great joy, and ran to report it to His disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and greeted them” – verses 8 and 9.
Notice (a) verse 1 does not say Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were the only women who were present, just that they did come. Mary Magdalene is not named as it goes on. She’s not named in the rest of it. It names her at the beginning, and I didn’t read all eight verses – you can read them for yourself. When you get to verses 8 and 9, it says, “They left,” but it doesn’t say, “which included Mary Magdalene,” all right? That’s an over-reading, which reduces our capacity for harmonization. When you read Matthew naturally with John and treat them as you would treat independent witness testimony – again for historical reasons – you can see that Mary Magdalene left immediately when she saw the tomb open, the stone was rolled away, and ran back to Peter and John and told them that they had taken away the body: “Somebody’s taken away the body.” And so it’s the rest of the women, then, who get the opportunity to hear the angel at that time, and who leave, and meet Jesus. That is a very natural harmonization. That’s not a weird harmonization.
But by saying, “Among which included Mary Magdalene” [as Dr. Licona does], then you cut off the possibility for harmonization. Licona concludes that either Matthew or John has “relocated” the first appearance to Mary. In other words, either Matthew knew that she first met Jesus at the garden as described by John, and just for some strange reason decided to make her first meet Jesus with the other women (because he thinks that’s what Matthew is implying here), or John knew that she first met Jesus with the other women, and made her first encounter Jesus in the garden of the tomb, by herself, in that incredibly beautiful, poignant scene. And I just want to point out that if John in that way relocated the first appearance to Mary Magdalene, that is an entire incident that John has made up. Dr. Licona leaves it undecided which of these so-called relocations has occurred. I want to note here, under this example, the curiously static nature of redaction criticism in the Bible. If Mary Magdalene is with this group of women, then by golly, she has to stay with this group of women. People don’t move around. Things don’t take place over periods of time. Different passages, if possible, must always be interpreted to refer to the same moment in time. Redaction treats everything as a snapshot, or even as a stone carving. Real life is a moving picture.
When I was giving an earlier version of this talk, I was [later] told that a gentleman in the audience who was not a scholar – he was an interested layman who had come to my talk – leaned over and said to his wife, in the middle of my talk, “These guys need to get out more!” And that’s part of what I’m trying to give here. These guys need to get out more. And if they did, then they wouldn’t do so much over-reading.
Just one more for this example. I want to read John 13:1 for you here. I’ve got it written down. “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. During supper, the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray Him. Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, rose from supper.”
All right. Now I want to draw your attention to an over-reading of this passage. This is another example from Dr. Licona’s book. This is on page 155. “However, there are several elements in John’s Gospel that suggest he has located the Last Supper a day earlier than what it is portrayed in the Synoptics. First, in John 13:1, the Last Supper is eaten” – now he puts the last words in quotation marks – “‘before the Passover.'” Whoa! All right. Suppose you didn’t open your Bible. Suppose you were just reading that in the book, and this point that he makes is: in John 13:1, he [John] states that the Last Supper is eaten “before the Feast of the Passover,” and he puts part of it in quotation marks. But John does not say that the Last Supper is eaten before the Feast of the Passover. You have to go look it up for yourself, and you can see that this is an over-reading. In fact, the Greek verb of the sentence that includes the phrase, “before the Feast of the Passover,” is “He loved,” not “they ate.” It’s not that they ate the feast. It says, “before the Feast of the Passover, having loved His own, He loved them,” and in fact, if you’re going to go on and say, during supper, the very next verse, which I just read to you, that kind of naturally refers to the feast. I mean, if I were saying, “Before Christmas, it was really, really incredibly cold around here, and during dinner, I looked out the window, and I said, ‘Man, I hope we get a bus soon,'” that dinner would very naturally refer to Christmas, that I had just mentioned. So actually, a very natural reading is that the Supper is actually the Feast of the Passover that John has just mentioned. But by an over-reading, Dr. Licona takes it for granted that it says the Last Supper is eaten before Passover, thereby creating a tension with the Synoptics and supporting a claim that John has changed a day, has changed the relationship of Jesus’s death to the Passover.
Last one, under this bad habit. When does Peter go to the tomb, when the women announce the empty tomb? All right. So I want to read just a little bit of Luke 24:8-10: “And returning from the tomb, they told all these things” – this is after the women, or at least some group of women, have seen an angel – “they told all these things to the Eleven and to the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them, who told these things to the apostles. But these words seemed to them as an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter arose, and went and ran to the tomb.” And then it goes on, and describes Peter going to the tomb. Now this is inexplicit chronology. It takes us back to two senses of narrating non-chronologically, that I talked about at the very beginning. The “but” here – “But Peter rose and ran to the tomb” – is da in Greek, actually a classic example of a word that does not indicate a chronology. This has been discussed by many people – in general, that da, like kai, does not indicate a chronology. Luke is doing this hi-falutin’ thing that I would call chunking things in. He’s just chunking things in. And they like to do that. If you ever hear a kid – and I’m not saying Luke is like a kid, but this is where we run into it more in our own time – “And we went to the zoo, and we saw a squirrel, and we went to the park, and we had ice-cream cones” – he is not necessarily saying that they did it in that order. OK? Similarly, Luke does not say that Peter rose and ran to the tomb only after (by golly) all the women had come and told these things to him. All right?
But Dr. Licona states, “Peter ran to the tomb when the women, including Mary Magdalene, made the announcement to the disciples.” Now, he uses this to argue that you can’t harmonize the account in the different [Gospel] accounts by saying that Mary Magdalene came first alone, and that only later would the larger group of women have talked to Peter. A very natural harmonization, such as I was just laying out, is that Mary came back, and that John or Peter went to the tomb, and that they didn’t talk to the other women until later on. But because Luke says, it was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and the other women who told these things to the Apostles at some point, “But Peter arose” means that Peter arose only after he’d been talking to all the women. That’s over-reading. That’s insisting that Luke is making a chronology when he isn’t. All right? Our last bad habit. How are we doing for time? All right.
Bad Habit #6 – Downgrading factual reliability
Now, I’m going to just tell you: I called this, on my other talk, “Throwing reliability Under the Bus.” I decided that maybe that was a little bit harsh-sounding, so I’ve changed it to “Downgrading factual reliability.” All right. Now what this involves, in many cases, is redefining “reliability.” So we’re going to say, “We don’t want to say, ‘These [accounts] are unreliable.'” We just want to say, “These [accounts] aren’t really all that concerned with literal factual truth.” But God forbid anybody should call that unreliable! well, that’s a redefinition of “unreliable” and a redefinition of “reliable,” and that’s downgrading the importance of factual reliability.
So to talk first about Craig A. Evans on John. You can watch this video for yourself. It’s included. I have it embedded in one of my New Testament posts. And I’m going to be giving you URLs at the end to a lot of what I’ve written on this. If your browse, you can Google it for yourself. In a debate with Bart Ehrman, Bart Ehrman asked, rather snobbily, as Ehrman has a way of doing, “Do you really believe that Jesus said all this stuff about ‘I and the Father are One’ and ‘I Am,’ ‘Before Abraham was, I Am,’ and all that?” He was very dismissive: “Do you really believe this?” And they’re sitting there, facing each other on the stage. And Dr. Evans states that he has a lot of agreement with Ehrman on this very subject. So here’s a quote. I’m going to read it from here, because I can see it better. And he uses genre to try to deflect what Ehrman is saying. “Well, essentially I agree with Ehrman that John [(sic) – should be Jesus] did not make recognizably the ‘I Am’ statements.” Now this gets us back to “Two senses of Ipsissima Vox,” because this is later defended by the phrase, “Ipsissima Vox,” that what Jesus really said was things like what we find in things like the Synoptics – calling himself the Son of Man, for example, which does have implications of deity, or claiming to be able to forgive sins, which certainly has implications of deity, which were these somewhat more inexplicit claims to deity and that John wrote up later, in far different form: “Before Abraham was, I Am,” “I and the Father are one,” and these incidents where Jesus made these claims, and that this is just ipsissima vox. Well, that’s a very broad use of “Ipsissima Vox,” and this is what Evans is promoting here:
My view is that the Gospel of John is a horse of another color altogether. It’s a different genre [in other words, a different genre from historical reportage.] John is often compared to the Wisdom literature. It’s like Wisdom is personified. [Oh, come on!] Lady Wisdom, or in Greek, Sophia. She wanders the streets. She calls out to people. She does things. Well, nobody would read that and think, “Oh, did you see Wisdom going down the street the other day?” Nobody would think that is a literal person. [Now, OK, so he’s making John out to be like some kind of parable or personifying allegory. Now he has to admit there’s a little problem with that.] What is mysterious to me about John is that once you say that – [and that’s what he’s saying ] – and that perhaps we should interpret the “I Am” statements as “He is” confessions – “He is the Light of the World,” “He is the Way, the Truth and the Life,” “He is the Bread of Life” – a confession of a Johannine community that likely generated that version of the Gospel … About the time that you think John is a gigantic parable, then along comes a scholar who says, “Y’know, it’s loaded with historical details also” … So I don’t disagree with you [this is Bart Ehrman, he’s talking to] too much on that point. [This is the point that Jesus never made the “I Am” statements. He doesn’t disagree with Bart Ehrman too much on this.] I think John is studded with historical details. [I’m going to put a little plug for some historical details in John.] Maybe you called them nuggets. [Apparently Ehrman had used the phrases, “nuggets.”] That’s not a bad way of describing John. But I think the synoptics are more than just some nuggets.
So in other words, we are dehistoricizing John here, to a very large extent, while admitting that there are just some nuggets of historical details. Now Ehrman, as you can well imagine, jumped right on that, and said – which frankly, I think was a legitimate question – “OK, if John isn’t historically reliable, which Gospel is?” Hey! You leave a door like that wide open, Bart Ehrman’s going walk right through. Well, you may hear Dr. Evans protested against Bart Ehrman’s calling the Gospel of John unreliable. Yup! He did! This is how he protested:
And by the way, Bart, I object to saying it’s not historically accurate. Well, something that isn’t exactly historical – how is it “not historically accurate”? It’s be like saying, “You mean the parable? The parable was a fiction Jesus told? It’s not historically accurate?
So, how does he protest? By downgrading the historical accuracy of John very explicitly, as a source of literal historical information. He’s saying that it’s not a legitimate criticism to criticize John as ahistorical, because that’s the genre it is, anyway. Not a ringing endorsement of the historical reliability of John! And I might add, a completely unnecessary and gigantic concession. We have every reason to believe that John is intending to be historically accurate.
Richard Burridge on John
Richard Burridge on John. Now Richard Burridge, I don’t think, would call himself an Evangelical. I don’t know; I haven’t heard anyone ask him. I’m including him in here because he’s been very influential upon Evangelicals – particularly his work on the supposed genre of the Gospels, and very influential on Dr. Licona: he and Licona appeared together on the British radio show, Unbelievable to discuss this. And this is what Richard Burridge says about John, in his book, Four Gospels, One Jesus: A Symbolic Reading:
We must not transfer these modern concepts to ancient texts without considering their understandings of truth and myth, lies and fiction. To modern minds, ‘myth’ means something untrue, a ‘fairy story’; in the ancient world, myth was the medium whereby profound truth, more truly true than mere facts could ever be, was communicated. The opposite of truth is not fiction, but lies and deception; yet even history can be used to deceive, while stories can bring truth …[Maybe he should have capitalized Truth.] This issue of truth and myth in the ancient world is too complex to cover in detail here. However, the most important point to remember is that the ancients were more interested in the moral worth and philosophical value of statements than their logical status, in truth more than facts. Unfortunately, debate between so-called “conservatives” and liberals about authenticity is often conducted in 21st-century terms. As one student asked me, ‘Why does John keep fabricating material about Jesus despite his professed concern for the “truth”?’ However, the negative connotation of ‘fabrication’ is modern (Four Gospels, One Jesus: A Symbolic Reading, pp. 169-170).
I want it to sink into you that Dr. Burridge is out there, teaching his students that John keeps fabricating material about Jesus, but that this doesn’t matter, that we shouldn’t care, because they didn’t care, because all those ancient people didn’t care about mere facts, because they were teaching “higher truth.” And you’re just being anachronistic by caring about “mere facts.” That’s wrong, by the way. John is very explicit that he cares about literal facts.
Michael Licona on John
OK. Downgrading historical reliability. Dr. Licona on John. Also, John is such a whipping boy. My emphasis here is on the word “often.” That’s not in the original, but I’m drawing your attention to it:
John often chose to sacrifice accuracy on the ground level of precise reporting, preferring to provide his readers with an accurate, higher-level view of the person and mission of Jesus. (emphasis added) Why Are There Differences in the Gospels, p. 115
All right. This is a pretty clear admission. Not just “John did it occasionally,” but John did it often. [Oh! I’m getting behind at my time.] And yet, on numerous occasions, Dr. Licona has objected to it being said that these views are making the Gospels unreliable. But you cannot just redefine “reliability.” If you’re going to say that John often chose to sacrifice accuracy in this area, then that’s going to mean that he’s not accurate in that literal area. And I’m willing to add phrases like “literal reliability” and “factual reliability,” “reliability on the ground level of precise reporting,” but that is what we’re talking about not doing. And that’s not just John.
I’m not going to read this entire quote, but in an e-interview with Bible Gateway that just came out this summer, Dr. Licona stated that he prioritizes what he calls “genre” over harmonization to that point that – again, this is my emphasis – “before seeking to harmonize Gospel texts, one should read the Gospels in view of their biographical genre, which includes their authors’ use of various compositional devices commonly used when writing history and biography.” (emphasis added) [E-interview with Bible Gateway, summer 2017.] This is before harmonization! Now this might explain what I call the utterly unforced errors, because if you’re not even going to try to harmonize first, if you’re just going to try to think of some way that something might have been changed or whatever, that’s what you’re going to get: you’re going to get unforced errors. This is really a violation of Ockham’s razor: we’re not trying to go for the simpler hypothesis that they [the Gospel writers] believed what they said, first.
And speaking here as an epistemologist – I work professionally on the issue of reliability – I’m going to say this is not the way you would treat any testimony, if you thought it was reliable, because if you think that testimonies are reliable, and they can be harmonized, then you will harmonize them, because they both have some claim to reliability. You’re going to assume that they may not be absolutely, perfectly infallible, but that if you try to put them together, great! Both of them were reliable to begin with, and so I can see that they’re both telling the truth. In these varied details, they fit together: both things happened, or whatever, and so forth. So if you prioritize something elseover harmonization, you are not treating the texts as reliable.
Again, I’m not going to read this entire quote: this concerns the Infancy Narratives.… This was in his [Dr. Licona’s] online debate with Bart Ehrman in 2016. Bart Ehrman scorns the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke as unreliable, and Dr. Licona apparently thinks there is some major problem:
In my opinion, those narratives some of the most difficult and profound differences in the Gospels… [Strong statement. So then he conjectures and says: “I don’t know what’s happening, but maybe this is it.”] Let’s just speculate for a moment, and consider the following scenario. Matthew and Luke both agree that a Jewish virgin named Mary who was engaged to a Jewish man named Joseph gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem. The early Christians all knew this much. However, little else was remembered about this event. [Bear that in mind.] So Matthew and Luke added details to their account to create a more interesting narrative of Jesus’ birth. (online debate with Bart Ehrman on “The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” 2016)
And then he inaccurately calls this midrash. [In fact,] that would definitely not be a midrash. And he considers this a plausible suggestion, and he says: “This would relegate the shepherds, the Wise Men, the Star, the manger and the Flight into Egypt to the level of details which are, on this theory, questionable.” The term “questionable” is used.
Those are entire incidents, so this is not treating the accounts as reliable at all – especially since there is no contradiction between Matthew and Luke on many of these things, even though they’re not part of this “overlapping core” that he talks about. There’s also a mistake here in probability, concerning “multiply attested” – the core itself – could C end [??] and he talks about how it would be multiply attested. I can get into that in Q & A. So this again is downgrading historical accuracy. We don’t have any reason to do that for the Gospels. We have reason to believe that they were historically accurate, and intended to be so, even in these literal senses – not just some higher truths, such as Burridge discusses, but in the area of facts.
How to Avoid the Bad Habits
All right. I’ll move on. How to avoid these bad habits.
Tip #1: Recognize them.
Sounds simple. You’d be surprised! When you get involved in a discipline, you go to seminary, or you start reading a lot of things, you find that something is “accepted.” All right? There’s this sociological tendency to say, “Oh, that argument might have sounded a little odd to me, but all these guys whom I call Evangelicals, or whatever, they seem to think it’s OK, so I guess I should just adopt their methodology, their way of proceeding.”
So I’m going to encourage you to recognize these as bad habits, which will free you to question them, no matter who’s putting them forward, [and] not to feel like, “Well, if this is something they do in the discipline, I guess it must be OK.” That doesn’t follow.
Tip #2: Look at the Text
We did that, in several places. This would especially concern avoiding over-readings, looking at possibilities for harmonization, seeing that a variation is just a variation, avoiding the use of an unnecessarily complicated theory – all kinds of things.
If somebody says, “The text says this,” [or] “According to John, the Last Supper is eaten before the Feast of the Passover,” open up the text and look at it – not because it’s “the Bible,” and it’s a sacred holy text, and we have to go [and] look at the Bible, but because this is what you should do for any historical text: go [and] investigate it for yourself. I did this for Plutarch, when I wrote the Plutarch section to Dr. Licona’s book. And again, and again, and again, and again, I found that he was alleging that Plutarch had changed the chronology, for example, and I would go [and] read it, and I’d say, “But Plutarch’s just being really inexplicit about the chronology there. Plutarch isn’t changing the chronology. There’s really no contradiction between these two versions of the story in Plutarch.” So look at the text for yourself.
Tip #3: Check Things Out for Yourself
Tip #3: Check out things for yourself. That sounds like I’m repeating Tip #2, but I mean: in a broader sense of reading arguments. You know, go read what I’ve written on this topic, read the books for yourself, and so forth.
Do not be overawed by bandwagons or credentialism. The arguments and the evidence are what it’s all about. Don’t say: “Oh, I can’t read Greek, or I can’t do this, or I don’t have this credential, so I can’t decide for myself.” Well, in that case, you’re going to have to say, “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo,” because there are critics on both sides of this, including dead ones – and dead scholars deserve their voice to be heard as well. The late John Wenham just died in 1996. I would put his Greek credentials up against anybody’s, and he thinks the Resurrection narratives are harmonizable. So it’s not like you’re just a fool, and if you read the Greek, you would just be struck over the head with the truth of these redactive theories, or that the Gospel authors changed certain facts. By no means! So, if you’re not going to decide arbitrarily on an expert to follow, you’re going to need to check things out for yourself – and you can! OK, you can. You can read arguments, and you can see what arguments hold up, and catch yourself. If you feel tempted to say to someone else, “Well, everybody thinks this,” or “You don’t have these credentials, so you shouldn’t put an argument forward on this,” don’t do that. Don’t do that. Just go for the arguments, in and of themselves.
Tip #4: Recognize that harmonization is not religious
Tip #4: Recognize that harmonization is not religious. It’s a normal historical process. This is so important. New Testament scholars are like the princess and the pea, when it comes to harmonization. Just like the princess had no tolerance for even a tiny little pea, down under six mattresses, New Testament scholars have no tolerance for harmonization. And I believe that this arises from the fact that they have learned to characterize it to themselves and among themselves as a religious process. “Well, if you’re an inerrantist, you know, then you feel like you have to. So you’re going to be waterboarding the text to make it tell you what you wanted it to say, et cetera. And we can be free, free, free to say that John made this up or changed this, or whatever.” Actually, harmonization is good historical practice. It’s good historical practice. It’s not something we do because of piety; it’s something we should do because of history.
The case of the Swiss messenger
This is the last long thing I want to talk about, but I’ll only read part of it. This is the case of the Swiss messenger, and this is from someone named Johannes Ebrard, writing in 1863. These old guys! They had a lot of things to say. He talks about different reports that appeared not to be harmonizable, all right? And I’m not going to go into the historical background here:
The report that troops had been sent for to Berne to overawe the people, and that they might arrive at any moment, produced the greatest excitement. The people armed on every hand, and were ready at the shortest notice to march to Zurich or meet the Bernese forces. On the evening of the 5th September, information was received by the leaders of the popular movement that there was no foundation for the report. They immediately caused several hundred letters to be written and despatched in all directions, for the purpose of quieting the people. Now, one person informed me that late in the evening, N. [just a name] was sent with a letter to [the town of] Pfiffikon; another told me that N. was sent in the evening to Pfiffikon, but, after going a short distance, returned with the report that the alarm-bell had already been rung in Pfiffikon; a third related, that two messengers had been sent on horseback to Pfiffikon; and a fourth, that N. had sent two men on horseback to Pfiffikon. If any four accounts ever seemed irreconcilable, these did. And if a harmonist had attempted to reconcile the whole on the supposition that N. was sent, but met two messengers from Pfiffikon, who reported the outbreak of the riot; that he turned back with them to Zurich, where he immediately procured horses, and sent them back in all speed to quiet the people,- it would be rejected as a most improbable and artificial conjecture. Yet this was the simple explanation which I received from N. himself, when I asked him what the facts of the case really were. [Now, inscribe this next sentence on your mind!] We see from this example that there is much greater fear of being too timid than too bold, in resorting to hypotheses for the solution of apparent discrepancies. (Johannes Eberard, 1863)
Very important; notice the resemblance of this to the situation of Mary Magdalene and the other women, in turning back and moving, and everything. This kind of calibration by real history helps us to get over that “static nature” of New Testament scholarship.
OK. For harmonization, activate your real-world imagination. Jesus might have uttered some words on the Cross, that some people could hear and others didn’t. Mary may have left the group before they went in and saw the angels, and so forth. It’s good to use imagination:the intelligent use of the imagination, again, is a good historical tool.
Tip #5: Reinstate casual variation
Tip #5: Reinstate the notion of casual variation. And I’m not going to read the Ebrard quotation; I can send you my Power Point [slide], if anybody wants my Power Point. But he talks specifically about how natural it is for two cool and intelligent bystanders to give prominence to certain details rather than others. This is how truthful witnesses do things and talk. It is imperative that we reinstate casual variation, and we saw many examples where people didn’t.
Many variations – most in fact – are not going to have heavy [??] explanations, and indeed, the ponderous machinery of redactive criticism is overkill, and is unjustified to explain the kinds of variations for which it is usually employed. If you find yourself thinking that you have to explain “He healed all” in Matthew, versus “He healed many” in Mark, by some conjecture about Matthew’s thinking, please stop and ask yourself: “What is wrong with me?”
Tip #6: Read old books
Tip #6: Read old books. I was just reading Johannes Ebrard to you, of whom you may not have heard before. I hear most of these from my esteemed husband, Tim, because he’s the old books guy. Authors like William Paley, T. R. Birks, Johannes Ebrard or J. J. Blunt did not have many of these problems. Stanley Reeves is another. T. R. Birks invented a great phrase – reconcilable variation – concerning different accounts where we can reconcile the variations with a good harmonization. That’s actually evidence of their truth. This is exactly the opposite of prioritizing genre over harmonization. They were frankly willing to treat seriously the idea that documents are engaging in factual reportage, even on matters of detail, and not to feel embarrassed by that. And I would put these men’s knowledge of the original languages, of the nitty-gritty, and their learnedness, up against anybody’s. If you read these kinds of older books, you’ll have the opportunity to develop a different community, by using the democracy of the dead. And this will help you to recognize the bad habits, going back to Tip #1, rather than feeling, “Now this is my scholarly community: it’s the contemporary New Testament community, so I have to do things like them.” Instead, get a wider community. This will help you not to feel that the habits of contemporary New Testament scholars are the only real ways to do things.
So those are my six bad habits, and my six tips on how to avoid them. So at this point, I’m going to end my shared screen, and I’m going to stop here. Here we go.
[End of Dr. Lydia McGrew’s talk]