Mike Licona Answers Regarding Lydia McGrew

Mike Licona has asked me to post this in response to my article last week urging him to answer Lydia McGrew’s objections to his work on Why Are There Differences in the Gospels. I’ll add a short, final response of my own. There is a link to Lydia’s response at the end of Mike’s message.

This is the one and final time I expect to pass along a message on this topic, but I did think it was fair to allow Mike a space to answer the question I’d posed him. My own response below, and my role in this, are strictly about making observations from a strategic perspective.

Mike’s Message

I want to thank Tom Gilson for his blog post in which he encourages me to engage with Lydia McGrew. It was well written and his desire is understandable. Allow me to explain why I have declined to engage her.

My schedule is filled to the brim. So far this year, I’ve had three debates for which to prepare and do. As soon as the third was over, I had one week to prepare for lecturing in Indonesia, creating about a dozen PowerPoint presentations. And then I was there for two weeks. I’ve had several other responsibilities this spring and I am presently in the midst of completing a 10-day road trip. While doing all of this, I’ve been teaching two graduate level courses online at HBU. Thus, my schedule is extremely unforgiving. (This is not to imply anything about Lydia’s schedule. I’m simply noting that I have to guard my time by being selective in those things I choose to do.) So, I hope you can appreciate that I have very little bandwidth to spare.

I have received many comments on my more recent books. Some people agree. Some people do not. Of course, no one expects me to respond to everyone who offers criticisms or has a question (on social media, blogs, or in academic literature). If I did, that would consume my entire day, every day. Since I want to redeem my time, I must exercise restraint and carefully choose with whom I will engage and how long I will engage with them. That is why I keep my interactions on Facebook at a minimum. And when I do interact there, I usually severely limit the extent of my dialogues. The issue then for me is whether Lydia’s criticisms of my recent book justify my engagement. I do not think that they do. And here is why.

Engaging with Lydia would require a significant amount of time. Since her blogs on my book are very long, I would begin by reading them, which would take a few hours. Replying to them cannot be completed in a mere 45 minutes but would require much more time. I’d probably be looking at a solid week of work. Then, if Lydia’s past actions are indicative of what would happen next, she would write very long replies to my responses. And those now desiring me to reply would also want for me to reply to her reply. To do that would require another week’s work. So far, I would be looking at a solid two weeks that could be spent otherwise in research or writing.

I’m virtually certain things would not end there, since Lydia would feel compelled to reply to my second reply. And the process goes on, requiring even more hours. (Even a back and forth for Philosophia Christi would require a chunk of time.) Seven years ago when another person was writing a dozen or so open letters to me on the Internet that criticized my book on Jesus’s resurrection, several highly respected evangelical scholars counseled me to ignore him, since engaging would end up sucking up an inordinate amount of my time and would not result in good fruit for the kingdom. I’m very glad I followed their advice, since my refusing to be sidetracked has allowed my ministry to expand nationally and internationally.

Understandably, Tom and some others may answer that, while a significant amount of time would be required of me, I should spend the required time considering Lydia’s criticisms carefully and either revising my position or clarifying and defending it. I do not share their sense of necessity. When I observe several theologians and New Testament scholars, such as J. I. Packer, Robert Stein, Darrell Bock, Mark Strauss, Craig Evans, Craig Keener, Craig Blomberg, and Scot McKnight (all of whom are evangelical and have expertise in the Gospels, having spent decades studying them with passion and reverence) and Christopher Pelling, the foremost scholar on Plutarch, all having read my book and expressed varying degrees of approval while none have expressed anywhere close to the degree of alarm we are seeing from Lydia, I do not feel a necessity to spend the sort of time and emotional capital required to engage Lydia, especially when her critiques are seasoned with a tone that I consider less than charitable, to put it mildly. Therefore, I will leave to others the task of engaging with her.

And there is one who is both qualified and willing to do just that. My friend Kurt Jaros has already engaged with Lydia in the CAA Facebook group. He is presently working toward a PhD in Theology at the University of Aberdeen. Accordingly, this discussion falls within his discipline. Kurt has invited Lydia to engage with him on my book in the sort of public discussion she desires. However, this time it is Lydia who has declined. Nevertheless, those interested will be able to read Kurt’s thoughts this summer, since he has told me that he intends to write several blog posts engaging Lydia’s critiques.

Finally, I’ll venture to guess that most of those who desire for me to engage with Lydia have read her multiple blog posts criticizing my book. And I’ll also guess that either they have not read my book at all or have read only a small portion of it. Some may have read a blog post I have written and/or viewed one of my lectures on the topic. But that’s not enough to get a thorough understanding of what I’ve presented. So, rather than expecting me to spend weeks engaged with Lydia, they can benefit from doing some work: Read my book. Read all of it. Read it with an open mind and assess for themselves whether it’s a plausible, even probable, approach.

Lydia McGrew Responds


My Response

I appreciate Mike’s taking the time to answer, and I certainly appreciate some of the problems he’s identified in making a response. I have read his book, of course. Yet speaking as a mission and ministry strategist — which is a large part of my training and background, along with apologetics — I still feel a need to respond. (I am limiting my comments in all of this to strategic issues.)

I cannot know all that he is dealing with in his schedule, and it would be wrong to speak as if I did. So  I’ll start with “I wonder if…” and then explain what I’m wondering and why:

I wonder if Mike is making a strategic mistake here, even missing an important and God-given ministry opportunity: a blessing in disguise, actually. (Even if it seems very well disguised.)

Biblical research shouldn’t be just about the findings; it’s has to be about the ministry that flows from it, too. Mike knows that. He knows, too, that if his is a better, more accurate way to understand and interpret the gospels, then the Church really ought to know and adopt it.

But conservative Christianity is strongly biased toward taking the Scriptures at face value, and for certain passages, Mike’s findings do not support a face-value hermeneutic. That means someone will have to invest considerable time in persuading the Church it’s both accurate and trustworthy. I trust Mike has recognized that challenge realistically for what it is.

Kurt Jaros could conceivably do that work, and Mike could stay completely uninvolved with Lydia’s critique. But strategically he needs to take these factors into account:

  1. Local pastors and teachers need very different information and explanations than scholars.
  2. Lydia’s critique allows a golden opportunity to do that work, for it gives a well-defined locus upon which to focus his explanations.
  3. Let’s suppose Kurt can do that work for some audiences, possibly even better than Mike. Different people have different skills, after all, and Kurt might be better at persuasively translating Mike’s findings to a church-based audience. I still have to believe that some conservative leaders — seminary professors, theologically more-sophisticated pastors, etc. — would want to hear Mike’s own response to Lydia.
  4. Some local pastors and teachers realistically won’t read Mike’s book, but will accept or resist his findings based on whether he himself (not Kurt) answers Lydia. Their numbers are unknowable at this time, but may be quite significant.

In sum, if this is ministry and not just scholarship, then Mike will have a hard time staying completely out of the work of explaining it to Christians, overcoming their face-value Scripture bias, and showing them the true value of his hermeneutic. It will take time, yes; but that’s ministry, as he knows without needing me to explain it to him!

And yet I can’t see how he can do that effectively for all major audience groups without engaging with Lydia in the process. It could be that Kurt could do a lot of that work, but I strongly suspect Mike will need to do some, too.

Otherwise, no matter how great his scholarship is, it could very likely remain just scholarship.

With that I’ve said my peace, and I expect this will be all I have to say on this matter. It is for Mike and Lydia to decide where to go from here. And it is up to them to carry the communication forward, if any. I’ve done my part in that, so I will bow out of it from this point forward, unless events demand my participation, which I do not expect.

Tom Gilson

Vice President for Strategic Services, Ratio Christi Lead Blogger at Thinking Christian Editor, True Reason BreakPoint Columnist

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7 Responses

  1. Clark Coleman says:

    I think it is best to forego further commenting until we see Kurt Jaros’ comments this summer. Perhaps at that time, it will be appropriate to ask Lydia McGrew for a response, and continue the dialogue in that manner. If that dialogue is enlightening, I don’t agree that it is inadequate because of the absense of Mike Licona.

  2. Bob Perry says:

    When you published the original post regarding this matter, I agreed that I thought Mike Licona should engage Lydia McGrew. But reading his response here makes me realize that my desire to see an exchange between them is probably a reflection of my own laziness. I would like to have them hash it out for my benefit. I have not read Mike’s book but I did read Lydia’s posts and have to agree that they are not completely charitable in tone.

    The simple fact is that there will always be views on both sides of any issue and good people who reside on each. Mike Licona has neither the time, nor the obligation, to respond to everyone who disagrees with him, and no one has the right or “status” to demand that he do so.

    My inconsequential two cents …

  3. Kevin Quinones says:

    Mike Licona said it all right here: “ I should spend the required time considering Lydia’s criticisms carefully and either revising my position or clarifying and defending it. I do not share their sense of necessity.”

    Let it go! In due season, Licona will come out with his findings due to the critiques. He doesn’t owe us anything…

  4. Jonathan says:

    “Face value hermeneutic”

    What does that mean? Sounds like what James Sire called the “Obvious Fallacy”.

  5. Tom Gilson says:

    No, not that.

    I’ll explain navy example. Mike proposes that where Jesus was reported to have said, “I thirst,” that was the Evangelist’s gloss on, “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me.” He finds room for that interpretation in what he sees in Plutarch, where the same event may be recorded in two different ways. That’s how he resolves some discrepancies between the gospel accounts of Jesus’ time on the cross. What I mean by face value is that we prefer to take it as it appears at face value: that he spoke both sayings, and seek to resolve the apparent contradictions without denying that the Gospels’ reports are true at face value. It doesn’t mean we don’t study cultural connections, idioms, and so on, and it doesn’t mean we don’t cross reference to other internal and external data. It does mean conservative Christians don’t prefer to go the route of, “Well, this doesn’t actually report what happened there.”

  6. Jonathan says:

    Yes and I disagree with him and Wallace on “I thirst” proposal. But Wallace did not rate the certainty of his conclusions very high in that paper under contention.

  7. Tony says:

    Dr. Licona does not owe Dr. McGrew a debate in any formal sense. No individual is “owed” that sort of response.

    But if Dr. Licona wishes to have his work count as a valid scholarly contribution to the “state of the question”, he has to generally engage alternative and disputing scholarly opinions on the same question. In that sense he “owes” it to the scholarly community as a whole to consider and deal with worthy critique. That’s the burden of belonging to the scholarly community with currently viable contributions that the community takes seriously. If Dr. Licona wishes to bow out of that community, then he can do so and avoid the burden. But that bears the unavoidable cost that scholars may no longer take his work seriously.

    Dr. Licona finds the prospect of repeated rounds of response and critique too onerous and unappealing to be willing to undertake it. But I submit that this is precisely what a debate is intended to replace. By being “in the moment”, it allows the debaters immediate access to the other party. And by being in a public forum, it cannot last weeks and weeks: it is over and done with when the microphones go dead.

    In any case, the repeated rounds of response just is the normal scholarly interaction on matters of historical and probable reasoning. There is no easy way out, we just have to slog through the problems and work them out. Sometimes it takes years. There are problems that have taken centuries. This is, of course, problematic when you have criticism from someone who is a crank and who will never admit to a mistake. But we don’t have that here: Dr. McGrew is a scholar and a respected, published writer. She is capable of acknowledging mistakes, she admits them and accepts the correction on when you discover them and point them out fairly.

    The remaining point of difficulty is Dr. Licona’s perception of Dr. McGrew’s tone. It is true that Dr. McGrew does sometimes express herself in sharp comments. But I know from experience that this almost always arises only after there has been a series of interactions and the opposing debater is being unfairly dismissive of her position and arguments – such as offering ad hominem attacks rather than addressing the issue, or deflecting from the core issue into peripherals without ever coming to grips with the central questions. A scholarly gentleman of Dr. Licona’s abilities will have no problem addressing himself to productive arguments and will certainly receive the same in kind from Dr. McGrew.