This has been a tough one for me from the beginning. I write this blog post soberly and with much prayer behind it.
Mike Licona and Lydia McGrew are both friends of mine, but they’ve been engaged in a strangely one-sided scholarly dispute over reasons for differences in the Gospels. Mike has presented his view in his book Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography. Lydia has answered him, strictly online to date. But here on this blog, Mike has publicly stated that it’s his intention to ignore what she has to say. He’s cited her “less than charitable” tone and (elsewhere) her lack of credentials in the field as reasons. I’m not sure Mike would even have considered it a one-sided “scholarly” dispute, because he doesn’t recognize her as a scholar in the relevant field.
It will be hard for my friend Mike to continue seeing her that way, once her new book The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices becomes available. It’s on sale for pre-order now, carrying endorsements from at least one of the scholars Mike named in his aforementioned answer on this blog, Craig Blomberg. The highly notable scholars J.P. Moreland, Peter J. Williams, and John Warwick Montgomery have also given endorsements.
I’ve read an advance copy myself, and I find it reinforces a recommendation I’ve given Mike previously: It would not be sound wisdom for him to ignore what she’s saying. Why? I had one set of reasons before; this time, though, it’s because she’s persuaded me she’s right, and Mike’s explanations for the Gospels’ differences do not hold up to scrutiny. Her book creates a strong and believable impression that she’s left no stone unturned. She’s covered all the issues and dealt with them quite knowledgeably.
I’m no scholar in the field. I recognize that. So what does it mean that she’s persuaded me? Couldn’t I be wrong myself? Of course. But here’s why it matters even if I am wrong: I represent other readers I’ll return to describing in a moment
First, though, I must be clear at what’s at stake here. Both Mike and Lydia take the Gospels to be true accounts of Jesus’ life. Both are fully persuaded of his deity, his perfect wisdom, his death for our sins, and his resurrection. They have no disagreement over the basic outlines of Christ’s life, or the need to trust in him for eternal salvation. But there’s plenty of dispute over the finer details — including details that thousands of preachers are probably relying on in their sermons this very Sunday.
Are these pastors getting their sermons wrong? That’s the question at stake; or at least one part of it.
At the risk of over-simplifying, Mike puts Gospel differences down to ancient writers’ and readers’ expectations. They all knew, he says, that writers in the first-century and thereabouts might craft biographies so as to communicate a true message, without necessarily stating events the way you’d have seen or heard them happening if you were there to observe. And since readers knew that to be the way things were done, there was no problem with authors doing it that way. It’s essentially a new hermeneutic, a new way of determining what conclusions we can authentically draw from the Gospel texts.
Lydia’s answer, in short, is that there is little to no evidence supporting these expectations among the ancients; that there are far better ways to explain differences in the Gospels; and that Mike’s approach amounts to a loose hermeneutic leaving us knowing very little for sure about what Jesus did or said on multiple occasions.
(I’m sure I’ve over-simplified both views. I’ve done so in good faith, at any rate, doing my best to condense their entire books into one short paragraph each.)
Mike has said quite clearly it’s his intention to ignore Lydia’s criticisms. I’ve already spoken what I take to be his main two reasons: He sees her tone as combative and her NT scholarly credentials as inadequate. Both of those are his opinion; both are open to disagreement. I’ll admit, though, I’ve seen Lydia get a “bone in her teeth,” as they say. She can be quite dogged with her convictions. Maybe that seems combative, maybe it’s even crossed the line to becoming actually combative at times.
If so, I can assure Mike and everyone else that The Mirror or the Mask is anything but that. Nothing comes across as overstated, nothing is overly pointed, nothing the least bit unkind. It’s straightforwardly factual instead, as it moves from evidences to conclusions from beginning to end. They are firm conclusions, yes, and necessarily she names names at times, but never out of proportion to the evidence and reasoning.
As for her credentials, if they were in doubt before, she settles that question for good in this book through the overwhelming thoroughness of her research. In fact the book is surprisingly readable, considering the massive detail she puts forward. If I told you how much detail, you might respond, “Whoa. I’ve never read such a detailed book with that wasn’t perfectly boring.” I hadn’t either. But what can I say? Now I have. In fact, she keeps it amazingly interesting throughout.
But did I mention she includes a lot of detail? A lot of highly specific information? Yes, it’s there. In massive quantity. She scours the field like a search-and-rescue team trying to find a lost puppy, looking under every leaf and rock. Sometimes twice.
And she puts that detail to work, forming a case that’s both reasoned and persuasive.
But now I must return to the great question: Persuasive to whom?
Well, to me. That is, she’s persuasive to at least one very well-read, highly capable non-expert — precisely the kind of person Mike Licona cannot afford to ignore. Not because it’s me, but because of the many like me, whom I represent.
I’m not qualified as a scholar in New Testament studies. I’ll grant that. But neither are most of the pastors who will study this. Or the seminary students. Or most of their profs, in other fields like church history, practical ministry, leadership, philosophy, or preaching. If Lydia McGrew doesn’t have the necessary qualifications, then almost no one does. No one, that is, except the small circle who have the New Testament credentials Mike has insisted on. And since Lydia makes such a solid case, there’s real risk that people supporting Mike’s position inside that NT scholarship guild will end up talking to each other, and no one else, on this pastorally crucial topic.
Not only that, but Lydia’s view is bound to be especially persuasive to every evangelical who wants to think it’s safe to believe that Jesus said what the Gospels say he said, and that he did what the Gospels say he did. That’s not in itself an indicator of who’s right, but it does point up the bias Mike must work against to make his case in the wider body of Christ.
Again, too, it’s not that Mike thinks the Gospels are wrong, but rather that we’re reading them wrong, if we think they mean what they say on the surface. That’s “surface” as in (for example), “I thirst” means “I am thirsty;” as opposed to its meaning (as Mike proposes), “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But I did mention detail, didn’t I? Lydia dives into seemingly every detail in Mike’s work — and other scholars’ besides — and digs out even more information from elsewhere to go with it all. There’s no lack of data here; no hiding; no bluffing. Does Mike tell us there’s support for his theory in ancient writing workbooks? Lydia dives in there all the way, and argues from the data that they don’t do for his argument what he says they do. Does he say Plutarch sets a standard for certain literary devices? She examines those instances in Plutarch, and presents a convincing argument that Mike’s conclusions lack support. Does Mike say there exists some apparent discrepancy between Gospel accounts? She takes those discrepant cases seriously, one by one, and explains her different conclusions there, too.
Thus she proceeds, from beginning to end. Everything in the book simply shouts, “This is well researched! It covers the ground with complete thoroughness! It’s well documented! It’s solidly reasoned!”
But who am I? Not a scholar in the field. I could be wrong. I’m not credentialed; I’m just a well-read Christian thinker. That’s exactly who Lydia has demonstrated she can persuade with a work like this. Mike can no longer afford to ignore Lydia, because he can’t afford to ignore well-read Christian thinkers like me who I am quite sure will find Lydia’s view more believable, once they’ve read it.
That’s not to say that he couldn’t present counter-arguments. He might persuade me back again. I certainly hope he’ll answer, as he has not chosen to do so far. (It is largely because of that choice, I’m told, that Lydia is releasing this book without obtaining his comments in advance.)
I write this, as always, as a friend of his. As I said last time, I’d like to see him publish his answer for his own good (and for the good of the Church).
Whatever he says, I’m sure his own response will be in brotherly love. I know him well enough to be sure of that — even though Lydia has put forth a challenge, and in my own way I have, too, at this point. My prayer is that he and his colleagues will open up the conversation.
For there’s a lot at stake here. This is no mere scholarly sideshow. The outcome of this research, this scholarly dialogue (as it should be, if it hasn’t been already) will determine how reliably we can know what Jesus actually said, and what he actually did.
Mike and his colleagues need to engage with Lydia in this. He’s put a set of questions on the table. Lydia has answered, and persuasively. Who’s right? The Church needs them to work toward an answer, one that all conservative, believing Christians can be confident of. It’s crucial to everything we know, or think we know, about the Gospels
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