Posted on Feb 4, 2014 by Tom Gilson
It's the evening of the great Ham and Nye debate. Here's my vote: Licona on the gospels instead.
Michael Licona is online now, teaching in Houston at the same time as the heavily hyped debate. He's sharing his groundbreaking research on the manner in which biography was written in the ancient world. Based on Plutarch's Lives, and the multiple views Plutarch took on similar events in multiple “Lives,” Licona is demonstrating most helpfully that the genre of biograpy was handled differently then than now. This has important implications for the way we read the gospels, especially their apparent contradictions.
Plutarch's “Lives” overlapped, so he had occasion frequently to descrive the same event more than once, from different angles and perspectives. We see in these multiple angles of exposure that he felt free to compress, transfer, and displace details of events. In one version of an event he said that political leaders brought forth a proposed new law, in another place the tribune spoke the proposal. That was the tribune's role: to be the spokesperson for the officials. This was a literary device, not a contradiction.
In one “Life” Plutarch identified two similar laws being proposed, separating by several years, in another “Life” he compressed the two into one. Again, it has every appearance of a literary device, not of careless contradiction.
He was just one author, telling the same story but with different details. Was Plutarch confused? Or was he just telling biography the way biography was told at the time? The latter conclusion is likely.
There are instances of the same literary devices in the gospels: compression, transference, and displacement. Were the gospel writers confused, or were they telling biography was told at the time? The latter conclusion is certainly reasonable. Apparent contradictions are explainable as misreading first-century biographies anachronistically, as if they had been written in the past few decades.
So if we understand the gospels the way a first-century reader/hearer understood them, we wouldn't be as concerned about apparent discrepancies or contradictions.
I suppose I might have learned some good things from Ham and Nye, but this was fresh information to me. I'm posting this just as Licona's session is moving into Q&A. I'm pretty sure this was been a better use of my time.