Contradictions in the Gospels: An Interview with Mike Licona

On April 21 Christianity Today published an interview with Dr. Michael Licona about his new, provocative, and innovative book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (Oxford). In the interview Licona says things such as, [Christians] often engage in “harmonization efforts, which sometimes subject the Gospels to a sort of hermeneutical waterboarding until they tell the harmonizer what he wants to hear”; “If I fail to [let the Bible’s evidence about itself speak], I deceive myself, claiming to have a high view of Scripture when in reality I would have a high view of my view of Scripture.”

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And the heart of the interview–and the recent book: “What my book does is look at how one of the most highly regarded biographers of antiquity—Plutarch—reported the same events differently. By looking at those different accounts, I can identify patterns in those differences, infer compositional devices from those patterns, and then read the Gospels with those devices in mind. It’s truly amazing to see the Gospel authors using many of the same compositional devices employed by Plutarch!”

And what does he say about historical reliability in the Gospels? You’ll just have to read the interview and, more importantly, read the book!

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25 thoughts on “Contradictions in the Gospels: An Interview with Mike Licona

  1. RWL

    Is it ancient biography or ancient historiography? Bauckham (2006) and Byrskog (2000) assert the Gospels are ancient historiographies, not ancient biographies? What do you think?

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    1. Peter Connell

      It seems that the literary devices – regardless of how one would classify the writing – are what is in view here — and there may be something to what is written. I plan on buying the book and giving it a read. Bauckham has written some fascinating things himself, especially in the area of Christology.

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  2. Pingback: Contradictions in the Gospels: An Interview with Mike Licona | A disciple's study

  3. Once again this is a warning to all Christians. Liconia called Matthew a liar by reporting the saints rising from the grave on the night of Christ’s crucifixion never happened. A point excellently defended by Norman Geisler. It is sad a young man who started with so much promise had denigrated to the skeptics such as Blomberg and McGowan.

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    1. Clarke Morledge

      Craig Blomberg a “skeptic?”

      So, when Blomberg wrote “Can We Still Believe the Believe?” as a defense of the Bible, what do you think he was defending?

      Furthermore, Matthew can only be called a “liar” if he, in fact, is making an historical claim, that turns out not to be true. As I understand Licona, if Matthew is using a literary device consistent with all other Greco-Roman biography of the time period, then Matthew is not making a specific historical claim. So, if it turns out that Matthew is not making such an historical claim, then charging Matthew with a falsehood is irrelevant.

      That would be like charging Jesus with making a falsehood, if no historical farmer named “X” could be found who planted that seed along the path, on the stony ground, among the thorns, and in the good soil.

      To your favor, you could be correct that Matthew IS indeed making an historical claim. But it just means that Licona’s interpretation of Matthew is wrong. It does not imply a denial of inerrancy. The inerrancy of Scripture and the inerrancy on someone’s interpretation (yours, mine, Licona’s) must be kept distinct from one another.

      If I had to issue a “warning to all Christians,” it would be that your remarks come across as confusing.

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      1. Inerrancy means ALL the Scriptures is true. Blomberg uses that word but it does not mean what the rest of the conservative evangelicals. As far ass Matthew using a device where he stressed the truth is still lying. Either the saints came out of the graves or they did not. There is a reason why Blomberg has unkind and rude things to say about Geisler, because Geisler knows the truth behind Blomberg’s deception.

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  4. I totally agree with the issue of harmonization, yet it goes far beyond the Gospels. I was browsing a church’s add for a pastor that insisted in its statement of faith on multiple harmonizations across the board! Part of it is the theologians haven’t done a good job cleaning up after the apologist! Adding this book to my reading list now!

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  5. PC1

    I found this link to a round-table discussion between Licona and some well-known evangelical authors. It includes discussion about inerrancy and I found it very informative. Personally, although I appreciate the point Licona makes regarding ‘apocryphal’ language in Matthew, I view the rising of these ‘saints’ to be historical, and that is what Matthew intended. Quarles and Kruger particularly make important points about the text. However, I find it very disappointing that it seems Licona effectively lost his job over this issue in 2011. He is clearly a committed Christian who is convinced of the resurrection of Jesus and what that means for humanity, and is keen to tell others about Him. To be treated like that is pretty awful.

    https://www.risenjesus.com/wp-content/uploads/a-roundtable-discussion-with-michael-licona-on-the-resurrection-of-jesus.pdf

    Peter

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  6. text scholar

    Hey Wallace, this may be a little off topic, but do you believe that Luke 22:19b where Jesus tells us to “do this in remembrance of me” is a later textual addition or original?

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  7. Gary

    I recently read Licona’s book and I just read the referenced article. I applaud Licona’s attempt to be fair and open-minded with the evidence. I believe thAT has hit the proverbial nail squarely on its head: The Gospels were not written as modern history textbooks nor even as modern biographies in which precise historical accuracy is mandatory. They were first century books written in a very different genre from anything we are familiar with today. Yes, they were biographies about Jesus, but they were also a means of evangelization (skeptics would call them, “propaganda”); their very purpose can be summed up by the Gospel writers themselves: “these things are written THAT YOU MIGHT BELIEVE!”

    If you read Licona’s book you will see that one of the literary devices used by Plutarch is the invention of details which the author believes enhances the story; which makes the story better. THIS IS KEY! This would never be allowed in a modern biography but it was perfectly acceptable in first century Greco-Roman biography as long as it did not alter the central core story and character of the central character.

    What was the central, core story of Jesus? Answer: It is told in the Early Creed of First Corinthians 15. Jesus was crucified and died, was buried, and then rose from the dead. He then appeared to many of his followers (no descriptions of these appearances given). It would therefore be perfectly acceptable in first century Greco-Roman biography for an author to “flesh-out” this bare-boned story and give it more detail, such as: an elaborate trial before his crucifixion; an earthquake, three hour eclipse, and dead saints shaken out of the graves at this death; burial in a rich man’s tomb; angelic beings at an empty tomb on the third day; very detailed appearances of the resurrected Jesus in which he eats food, walks, talks, and asks them to touch his wounds; and finally an ascension into heaven before his disciples’ very eyes.

    All this would have been perfectly acceptable in a Greco-Roman biography. It would have been acceptable because it does not change the central story of Jesus nor does it change the core characteristics of Jesus: He was the Son of God who was killed but who defeated sin and death and rose from the dead.

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    1. Peter Connell

      While I think that Licona’s book brings up some valid points worthy for consideration—to throw “the gospels” into a genre that allows the writer to incorporate “the invention of details” and then basically say that the throwing in of such details that never happened does not constitute lying—is ludicrous in my opinion.

      What you are saying is that in the Greco-Roman world, making stuff up was perfectly acceptable, and this fabrication of non-factual “facts” was supposed to enhance the credibility of the writing to the point that the reader “might believe” the general thrust of what was written. I’m not buying that for a moment.

      This proposed view detracts from rather than adds to the the thought that the Scriptures were given by inspiration of God.

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      1. Gary

        Mike Licona is not the only scholar to propose this view. NT Wright comments in his master work, “The Resurrection of the Son of God”, that the author of the Book of Acts used this very technique in describing Paul’s Damascus Road experience. (The author of Acts invented details for his stories.)

        The story of Paul’s conversion is repeated three times in the Book of Acts. Each time the story is slightly different. In one telling of the story, the companions of Paul see something but hear nothing. In another telling of the story, the companions of Paul see nothing but hear something. Is this a contradiction? Not at all, according to Wright. What the author of Acts has done here is a standard literary technique used by first century Greco-Roman biographers. The author deliberated changed the story…”to keep the reader’s interest” (to make his book more interesting).

        To a fundamentalist Christian this is absolute heresy, but to moderate Christian scholars it is simply an obvious fact based on evidence from the literature of that era.

        Even conservative scholar Richard Bauckham believes that the Gospel authors invented some of their stories. In Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”, Bauckham states that it is blatantly obvious that the author of Matthew (who Bauckham does NOT believe was Matthew the Apostle) borrowed the author of Mark’s story about the calling of Levi the tax collector to be a disciple of Jesus for his own story about the calling of Matthew the tax collector: The author of Matthew invented the story of the calling of Matthew the Apostle to make his story (and book) more interesting!

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      2. Peter Connell

        Gary,

        I’m well aware of others believing a bit of this. The examples in the story of Paul’s conversion you cite as evidence of the view of NT writers fabricating “facts” reminds me of a little place on the Puget Sound in Washington State. As you drive up the coast one sees a little “point” jutting out into the water; but as you continue driving, you see that it really wasn’t a “point” after all. The place is called “Point No-Point.” 🙂

        The variations in Paul’s story are not contradictory at all. The story in Acts 9 outlines the fact that he was travelling with others (verses 7 and 8) they “heard a voice” in verse 7 and they led him by the hand in verse 8. This chapter tells us they heard the voice but saw “no man” (KJV) or “no one” (ESV). It does not say that they “saw nothing.”

        In Acts 22, verses 9 and 11 tell us that he was accompanied by others, but while THEY HEARD the voice they “did not understand (ηκουσαν) the voice” (vs. 9, ESV). That is, they did not understand what was said. Verse 9 says that they “saw the light” – which does not contradict Chapter 9’s account in any respect. There is no contradiction between this account and Acts 9 regarding hearing or seeing.

        In Acts 26, verse 13 tell us once again that “others” were travelling with Paul at the time of the event. The Acts 26 account does not mention anyone seeing or not seeing anything (other than Saul, who saw the light)–and this also contradicts neither Acts 9 nor Acts 22). One cannot say that they “saw” or “heard” nothing based on an “argument from silence” – as this would be a fallacious argument. A bit of information that IS added (not the same as “fabricated”) in this account by Paul not mentioned in either Acts 9 or 22, namely, that the voice that spoke with him was in the Hebrew tongue. This would explain why, in Chapter 22 the account mentions none of those accompanying Paul “understood” or comprehended the meaning encompassed in the voice that they heard. Koiné Greek was the lingua franca of the region as well as being the language of the New Testament (Machen, 1923, p.p, 2-5). Some Aramaic was certainly spoken in Judea, but as Saul travelled to Damascus, it is doubtful that other were as tutored in Hebrew as was Saul (who sat at the feet of Gamaliel; Acts 22:3). This reveals that the voice was for Saul to understand. It is also significant that it was delivered in the Hebrew language to the monotheistic Pharisee named Paul. His response was revealing: “Who art thou Lord?” – this using the language of deification that was reserved only for YHWH. The response was also revealing: “I am Jesus whom thou persecutes.”

        In these three examples we see none of the contradictions that you intimated were present, but we DO see additional features within the texts that complement one another without contradiction when we use a solid grammatical-historical approach when examining the Scriptures.

        I would write more to address other things mentioned, but I need to get back to some work that is going undone at the moment.

        Machen, A. W. (1923). New Testament Greek for Beginners. Toronto, CA: Macmillan.

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      3. Gary

        I am not a scholar, Peter, so I cannot debate you on the intricacies of the original Greek. But I am not the one saying that the author of the Book of Acts (who most scholars believe was also the author of the Gospel of Luke) fabricated details in his stories. Renowned New Testament scholar, NT Wright, said that.

        NT scholar Richard Bauckham is the darling of conservative Protestants and evangelicals, yet even he admits that the Gospel authors invented details in their stories. And of course renowned moderate scholars such as Raymond Brown are in full agreement with Licona, Wright, and Bauckham on this issue. Brown agrees with Licona that Matthew’s “Guards at the Tomb” story was an “apologetic invention”.

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  8. Gary

    NT Wright also believes that the four authors of the Gospels invented the stories in which Jesus predicts his death and resurrection.

    Therefore, three New Testament scholars whom conservative Christians hold in high regard for their scholarship—Licona, NT Wright, and Bauckham—believe that the authors of the Gospels invented some of the details in their Gospels. None of these invented details change one single Christian doctrine. They were simply literary devices to flesh out the bare bones story of Jesus as found in the Early Creed. The authors of the Gospels were writing books for evangelization purposes. They were not writing history text books. The core story of Jesus’ death, burial, and claims of post-death sightings is historical fact. The rest is quite possibly literary fiction.

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  9. Gary

    Peter: Here is more evidence that the author of Luke/Acts invented stories in his Gospel:

    “We know a lot about the reign of Caesar Augustus from the writings of historians, philosophers, essayists, poets, and others living about that time. In none of these writings, including an account written by Caesar August himself about his own reign, is there a solitary word of any empire-wide census. And indeed how could there have been one? Think about it for a second: are we to imagine the entire Roman Empire uprooting for a weekend in order to register for a census? Joseph returns to the town of Bethlehem because he’s from the lineage of David. But King David lived a thousand years earlier. Everyone in the empire is returning to the home of their ancestors from a thousand years earlier? How is that possible? How would people know where to go? If you had to go register to vote in the town your ancestors came from a thousand years ago, where would you go?!? And are we to imagine that this massive migration of millions of people, all over the empire, took place without any other author from the period so much as mentioning it?”

    This event did NOT happen. There was no world-wide census. Jesus was most likely born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. Luke’s birth narrative in Bethlehem was a literary/theological invention, and a brilliant one at that. It has captivated the minds of children (and adults) for two millennia!

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  10. Gary

    It seems no one else is interested in continuing the discussion on this topic, so let me say this in conclusion:

    Mike Licona has done evangelical and other conservative Christians a huge favor. No longer do these Christians need to twist themselves into pretzels trying to harmonize the many discrepancies in the four resurrection stories in the Gospels. From now on whenever a skeptic points out one of these discrepancies, all Christians need to say is this: There are no discrepancies. These DIFFERENCES in the retelling of the life of an historical character were standard practice in first century Greco-Roman biographical literature. The core story is the same in all four Gospels: Jesus was crucified. He was buried. Shortly after his death, his followers believed that he appeared to them.

    The question then comes down to this: Do YOU believe the early Christians’ story? Do YOU believe that they really saw a reanimated, three day brain-dead corpse or were they mistaken, caught up in emotional, religious hysteria, “seeing” things that were not there (illusions, false sightings, vivid dreams, trances, and possibly hallucinations)?

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  11. kwells

    My humble opinion is that we need to contend for the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth and His resurrection. And that’s pretty much it. With apologies to all on this thread. I have been continually saddened over the decades by those who, at least seemingly, would gladly see thousands condemned to hell if it means they can keep their microscopically granular infallibility.
    I’m not talking about doctrine like Hell or Soteriological requirements, but simple, even trivial story details.

    The bible is a precious gift from God to His people, but it is not a member of the Godhead. It is not to be worshiped like the Quran. Even Jesus himself promised forgiveness for all who would say anything against His Person, no matter how pejorative and vindictive. It was the Religious Gatekeepers who He implied were committing the unforgivable sin. Where is grace and love, therefore, for those whose lives and careers testify to their love of the truth and of Christ? No one stands toe to toe with the likes of Bart Ehrman in a public forum on multiple occasions for fun, money or fame.

    You may defend your bibliology (which I pray has not descended to bibliolatry) and stake your faith on encyclicals like the CSBI, But men like Wallace, Keener, Licona, and Blomberg defend Christ.

    I understand if this is inflammatory and wont make it past the referee, but this issue really grieves me.

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  12. Joey Henry

    Gary,

    You placed so much faith in scholars. While scholars have their place in weighing the evidence, they are not the final authority. Real evangelicalism places the final authority on Scriptures; and this has been the confession of Christians since day 1: No one believed and confessed that the authors of the Gospels were inventing stories. This is a novel view built by liberal scholars and blindly adopted by conservative scholars with a twist in the 20th century. The Gospel writers did not give a single hint that they were inventing stories. Nor did the Christians that read the Gospels for 2 millenia. The problem with scholars like Licona is that they presuppose that the Gospel is not unique and would follow the conventional method of Plutarch. But did they really have the worldview of Plutarch when writing about Jesus or did the writers have the worldview of the Old Testament where truth and accuracy were rightfully understood and death was the penalty of prophets who speak about God and lied? The background of the Gospels was the worldview of the OT where test is applied to false prophets, who invented prophecies or false events, not the worldview of pagans.

    Sure, there are challenges here and there regarding harmonisation. This is not a surprise for even the early fathers understood the importance of such endeavour. Begin with the right foundation on the nature of Scripture. And here is where Licona should take a pause beacise his proposed solution says that the authors made up stories that didn’t happen and no one since Christianity was founded has confessed that view. Perhaps the Holy Spirit has only spoken now and only the scholars on the 20th centuey unlocked the key to this knowledge. This is not Christianity. This is akin Gnosticism.

    JH

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