The Mirror or the Mask by Lydia McGrew: Liberating Gospel Readers from a Return to a Pre-Reformation Interpretive ‘Priesthood’?


Dr. Lydia McGrew’s The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices was released yesterday. I recommend it highly; in fact I endorsed it as “consistently interesting and remarkably readable. … Her work cannot be ignored.” I join a list of much more esteemed scholars endorsing it, including J. P. Moreland, Rob Bowman, Peter J. Williams, and Craig Blomberg, John Mark N. Reynolds, Donald Williams, and John Warwick Montgomery.

The Mirror or the Mask is Lydia’s book-length response to Dr. Michael Licona’s Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? Both authors are friends of mine. I remember well when Mike first told me over dinner about the project that culminated in this book. He’d been studying Plutarch’s Lives, and had discovered, he told me, that ancient authors had a well-known and established practice of altering information sometimes to make a point. Readers were well aware of this, and they read Plutarch’s biographies accordingly.  It was the conventional way to write and to read. If everyone knew and followed the convention, no one was misled. In fact, if one were to take Plutarch as writing facts exactly as they were, that would be the mistake.

That’s approximately the way he described it. It’s also the finding that he’s detailed in his book, along with further supporting information, such as lessons from classical writing and reading studies.

Lydia contests all this. Plutarch didn’t write that way in the first place, she says; there’s a better way to interpret classical writing and reading lessons; and besides, Mike is solving “differences” in the Gospels that don’t even exist in some cases, and have easier answers than Plutarch in many other cases. We should read the Gospels as accurate reportage, she says, not as having been factually altered to make points not present in the original teaching or the events.

She makes a solid case. I have an additional point. (She may have written this somewhere, but if so, I don’t recall it.) Again, I’m writing about friends here. I close this article with a question, in fact, I’m presenting this entire case as a question. One potential answer to the question would be devastating to Mike’s position. I have a higher opinion of him than this may sound as I proceed — but the question is urgent. I’m convinced it must be asked.

Does Mike Licona’s Position Require Plutarch as the Key to the Gospels?

Mike’s position seems to require Christians to know and understand classical Greek and Roman models of authorship. It is the key to understanding the Gospels. Without that knowledge, we are absolutely certain to misunderstand what the Gospels are saying. Mike holds as firmly as ever to the essential facts of Jesus’ life and teaching, but he stands there by running the Gospel content through a Plutarchian lens. Certain facts in the Gospels are not what they seem to be. Jesus never said, “I thirst,” and we know he didn’t because we’ve studied the account with this classical literature filter in place.

But it isn’t just passages like “I thirst” that have this filter placed over them. It’s the entirety of the Gospels, all four of them. The filter has especially powerful effects on how we interpret John, where changes were made in the reportage to emphasize Jesus’ deity. But the reason we know the filter is more prominent there, and has less of an effect in the Synoptics, is because we understand the filter. It isn’t just because John differs in significant ways from the Synoptics; those differences could be explained in other ways. (That’s the subject of Lydia’s next book.) We know it because we understand how Plutarch wrote his lives, and how young boys in that day learned to write.

Therefore you can’t understand the Gospels without understanding Plutarch. Most of us won’t read Plutarch, but that’s okay; there are scholars who have, and they can interpret the Gospels for us.

If So, It Wouldn’t Be the First Time Lay Persons Were Blocked from Interpreting the Bible

Sound familiar? It does to me, and disturbingly so. It’s far too similar to pre-Reformation days, when common people weren’t even supposed to try to understand the Bible. They needed the priests to do it for them. And the priests needed the doctors to do it for them.

Please don’t misunderstand my objection, now. I’m not saying the average church member should feel free to ignore all teaching and scholarship. I take a stronger view of tradition than a lot of Protestants do, for I know something of the history of our doctrines. We didn’t arrive simply or easily at our doctrines of the Trinity or the Incarnation, to take two examples. The facts are in the Gospels, but it took decades or centuries of hard work — including some hard differences of opinion — before the early church was able to articulate them as clearly as we do now. We need that scholarly tradition to support our teachings. We benefit, too, from what the experts tell us about the original languages, the customs, the geography, and so on.

But Mike’s approach goes well beyond that. It’s too specialized. You have to know Plutarch. Or you at least have to understand the reading/writing conventions of the day, whether you learned that via Plutarch or not.

This seems to throw out centuries of Protestant biblical interpretation that was not so informed. Worse than that, though, it removes the New Testament — or at least the Gospels — from the hands of the laity. You can’t read it right without the Plutarchian filter, so why bother trying to read it at all?

The Question Goes Beyond Just a Pair of Disputing Scholars

But it isn’t just Mike. He’s one of many New Testament scholars tending toward this viewpoint. So this isn’t just a local dispute between two people I happen to know. By way of the seminaries, conferences, books, and papers, it could influence Protestant hermeneutics for decades to come.

Somehow this just doesn’t seem like the way God would have revealed himself to his people. As I’ve said, I consider this an urgent question. I’d be interested to hear what Mike would say in response.

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2 Responses

  1. Ken Klos says:

    I’m with you, Tom! If we have to understand Plutarch and his way of interpreting, then the Gospels are essentially “out of reach” of us commoners who just read and believe what the Bible says! I’m so uneducated about Plutarch’s views that my first question in reading your blog was: What’s Plutarch got to do with it? He didn’t write the Gospels or any other book of the Bible. Also, what would you do with 2 Tim 3:16 “All scripture is breathed out by God…?” Or did God follow Plutarch’s instructions?

  1. December 16, 2019

    […] a follow up post Gilson asks a serious question: Does Mike Licona’s Position Require Plutarch as the Key to the […]

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