We just got the book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? in our office last week. So I’ve only had a chance to give it a fast read. However, I’ve seen enough to be disturbed.
Actually in the Foreword Dr. Craig Evans anticipates my reaction, “Many Christian readers of Dr. Licona’s book will be surprised by his findings. Some will perhaps be troubled” (p. x, emphasis added).
I give Licona credit for bringing his ideas down to the lower shelf at times. For example, in the introduction he indicates that the “the historical accuracy of ancient literature may be viewed in a manner similar to what we observe in movie theaters today” (p. 6). He considers the Gospels to follow the biographical/historical practices of “ancient literature.” Licona believes that the four Gospels are like a movie that is based upon real events, but which obviously takes many liberties with the facts.
That is an outstanding illustration. He views the Gospels kind of like A Beautiful Mind, Catch Me If You Can, Schindler’s List, Into the Wild, Moneyball, Ray, or The Pianist. If you’ve seen any of those movies, you surely did not come away thinking that what you saw was an accurate portrayal of what was said and done. If you want to know what parts of the movie were true, you do a google search. When you do, you find out that quite of lot of what was presented in the movie never was said or done.
While I don’t view the Gospels in that way, and I don’t think it is spiritually healthy to do so, I appreciate him making it so clear that is how he understands them.
Licona continues, “Some movies claim at the beginning to be ‘based on true events’ while others claim to be ‘inspired by true event.’ The latter will involve more dramatic license than the former. Even in the former, however, we expect reenacted conversations to be redacted to varying degrees for clarity, dramatic impact, and artistic improvement” (p. 6). I find it odd that the Gospel writers could make improvements on what Jesus said. Couldn’t the One who created language have spoken in such a way as to be artistic and memorable? Are we to understand that the King of kings needed His disciples to redact what He said?
Licona does suggest, however, that the Gospel writers took less liberties in changing speeches and events than secular authors did: “the extent of editing by the evangelists is minimal by ancient standards” (p. 199).
Licona is trying to correct what he considers two extremes. One wrong extreme is those who “assume those authors [the Gospel writers] must have written with the degree of accuracy and almost forensic precision we desire and expect today” (p. 201). He says such “devout Christians” are sometimes guilty of “subjecting the Gospel texts to a sort of hermeneutical waterboarding until they tell the exegete what he or she wants to hear” (p. 201). What they want to hear is that the words reported accurately represent what Jesus said and did. That is one extreme to avoid.
The other extreme is “critics of a cynical type [who] have often appealed to Gospel differences as a means for not taking seriously what they report” (p. 201). While the Gospels are not historically accurate in all details according to Licona, they do give us “general historical accuracy” (p. 201).
Sadly, if what Licona says is true, then we really do not know what Jesus actually said or did. We have a general picture. We have the gist. But we do not know how much of what the Gospel writers report was dramatic license.
Licona goes through nineteen Gospel accounts and explains how the Gospel writers redacted and improved what Jesus said. Here are some examples:
- “It could be suggested that much of the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus is a Johannine creation [!],” Licona says, “since the Synoptic narratives do not suggest that anyone else was present to overhear the exchanges, much less any of Jesus’s disciples. Of course, this suggestion can neither be confirmed nor disconfirmed” (p. 116, emphasis added).
- Licona suggests, “Matthew may be doubling up and conflating two healings in order to abbreviate…” (p. 136).
- Both Matthew and Luke, according to Licona, “displace a portion of Jesus’s teaching and transplant it in a different context” (p. 142).
- “John may cross-pollinate details from a different event” (p. 151).
- “Mark and Matthew present a question that Luke changes to a command” (p. 145).
Licona says “there are numerous reasons why differences exist” (p. 2). The first reason he cites is “a slip of memory”! Really? The Gospel writers inaccurately reported events because of bad memories? What, then, does John 14:26 mean? The Lord said, “The Holy Spirit…will…bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” That is the promise of perfect memory. But Licona never discusses John 14:26 (though he does mention it in a list of verses in footnote 25 on p. 241).
The bottom line for Licona is that we should not read the Gospels like we would a report with “the degree of accuracy and almost forensic precision we expect and desire today.” We should change our expectations when we read the Gospels. We must read them as stories which are based on fact, but which contain a significant amount of made up dialogue and events.
In other books and messages, Licona strongly asserts that Jesus actually died on the cross for our sins, rose bodily from the dead on the third day, and appeared to many in His glorified body. But in this book we find little in the way of certainties. This book places the Gospel writers on par with Plutarch, an unbelieving author who played loose with his sources and made up much of the “history” he reported (see, for example, pp. 90-91).
Licona is entitled to his opinions, however dangerous they are. However, I do not recommend this book or his ideas.