On the Disagreement Between Lydia McGrew and Michael Licona Regarding Differences in the Gospels

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

The two friends are Drs. Lydia McGrew and Michael Licona. The subject of their disagreement is Mike’s 2016 book Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? Through a study of ancient writers, especially Plutarch, Mike concludes that certain apparent points of difference in the gospels reflect common first-century narrative devices by which some events, sayings, and so on may be reported differently at different times for different purposes. Because these were common devices, Mike suggests to us that first century readers would not have regarded much of anything in the gospels as even needing reconciling.

Lydia’s position (again, in short) is that Mike is misreading Plutarch; that it’s therefore inaccurate to draw the conclusions he’s drawn from from there; and that differences in the gospels can quite easily be reconciled through means we today would consider more normal (for lack of a better word). In essence he’s using wrong means to solve problems that don’t need solving.

Both Mike and Lydia commented on early drafts of this article prior to publication — all of it except my closing three reasons, which I rewrote completely after hearing from both of them. In one way or another I’ve incorporated all their requested changes. The resulting text, including any possible errors in fact, tone, or care, is my own responsibility.

I am especially grateful to Mike for the gracious and godly spirit in which he has received this from me. God is honored in that, and I respect Mike highly for it.

For more on their respective positions you will need to read them. For Mike you’d look primarily at his book, although he’s posted videos of his lectures and other related material you can find. For Lydia, most of her critique can be found on her blog pages.

Their disagreement is scholarly but hardly “academic.” It goes straight to the heart of what we can know about the events recorded in the gospels, and how we can be confident of what we know. Be assured that both of them strongly defend the truth of the life, message, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They differ in details — but these details are crucially important, in my considered opinion.

Note that I’m being careful to call this a “disagreement” rather than a “dispute” or a “debate.” It isn’t proceeding the way disputes or debates go. Mike has resolutely declined to engage with Lydia’s criticisms, as she noted in a blog post not long ago. In it she revealed that she had offered to do a scholarly exchange with him in Philosophia Christi, that the journal was open to it, and that he had said no to that.

My behind-the-scenes role, already brought to light via Facebook, was to read that one blog post of hers before she published it, and to offer friendly editorial advice.

I knew that Mike would likely rather she wouldn’t write that post. I gave very careful thought and prayer before encouraging her to go forward with it. I had to weigh whether it would appear as a kind of illegitimate power play. But silence — the stance Mike has chosen so far — can be a very significant exercise of power as well. It’s certainly no help in moving a disagreement toward resolution.

So although I do not have the ancient literature chops to claim a position on who’s right and who’s wrong here, what I’ve read from Lydia convinces me she has mounted a criticism that needs a response. J. P. Moreland has declared strong support for her position, so I’m in good company. I absolutely have no reason to doubt that she is academically competent to critique Mike’s position, and plenty of reason to think that she is.

Now, for those who know of another very aggressive and critical campaign Mike was subjected to from another scholar, I need to note carefully that Lydia’s critique bears little in common with that one. Readers who know what I’m talking about don’t need me to name names, and readers who don’t know, don’t need me to name names, either. The point is, Lydia’s critique is different. The other person I’m referring to mounted considerable political pressure against Mike, both publicly and privately. He was wrong to do so. His critique, such as it was, should have remained out in the open and on a scholarly level.

I’m aware there are differences of opinion on whether Lydia’s approach, venue, and tone have been appropriately scholarly. I get that. She is passionate; she is critical; she uses very strong language. I also get that Mike has his own reasons for not engaging with her in debate. He can state his reasons better than I can, and it’s his place to do so, not mine.

Regardless of all that, it remains my opinion that it would be well for him to respond to her critiques — in some appropriate venue, that is, where academic cordiality is the norm. Phil. Christi would have been one option; an EPS/ETS conference session might be another. As a friend and a fellow member of the thinking Christian community, I’m making it known that I am urging him to do that.

For let us suppose her critique is seriously lacking. Mike has the academic wherewithal to show how and why that’s the case, if it is. He names a long list of highly reputable scholars who back his position, including J. I. Packer, Craig Keener, Darrell Bock, Craig Blomberg (mostly), Richard Bauckham, Scot McKnight, Robert Stein. Christopher Pelling, whom Mike informs me is the foremost authority on Plutarch, tells Mike he is reading him correctly.

Nevertheless I’m convinced it would behoove him to respond to Lydia’s critique, in the right public venue, for three reasons.

First, the position Lydia is defending is much closer than his to the traditional and natural reading of Scripture. Where the text says Jesus says, “It is finished,” can we we be confident he actually said that? Lydia’s position is to say yes; Mike’s position takes that as a possibly a redaction or summary of some other saying, for example “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.”

Now, I’ve heard plenty of sermons on “It is finished.” If Jesus didn’t actually say that, then a whole lot of conservative pastors and churches need to know that their sermons on this — in which they confidently claim Jesus spoke these very words — are  uninformed, incorrect, and misleading. They are wrong, that is, to the extent that they attribute those very words to Jesus. But this is really quite important, isn’t it? It’s too important to pass by.

My second reason follows from the first, and is related to it. If Mike’s position is right, he has a duty to explain it in such a way that the rest of conservative Christianity can get on board with it, and begin teaching the Bible correctly in that light. This will certainly require him answering objections they are certain to raise, many of which will be very much like Lydia’s.

Third, the usual way hermeneutical disagreements work their way toward agreement — agreement the Church can own as its own — is through vigorous debate; and not just debate carried on between individuals but across a broader community of scholars. That debate doesn’t seem likely to happen unless Mike takes the next step.

Again, I’m speaking as a non-specialist. But I think that puts me in a good position to speak for the 99.9% of pastors, teachers, and others who have (or should have) a definite interest in this topic — and who aren’t specialists either.

There are questions on the table. Silence on them won’t help us. So I earnestly hope Mike will come to the table in some appropriate venue, to open up a real scholarly-level debate with Lydia on this extremely crucial matter.