NOTE: Some readers have asked me for a transcript of Dr. Lydia McGrew’s webinar. Unfortunately, I don’t have one, but the points she raised in her talk can be found at this link here. In her talk, Dr. McGrew was responding to an e-interview given by 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 PhD 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 PhD 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 transcribed the first part of Dr. McGrew’s talk, which can be viewed below. This is going to take a few days to finish. I invite readers to have a look at Dr. McGrew’s remarks on Bad Habit #1: Failure to make crucial distinctions. 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 judgements 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,” 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, [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 and Jesus’ actions does not mean that the epistemically most reasonable theory is that the person made it up, that the evangelist made it up.
[To be continued]