Saturday, August 13, 2016

Was Mark confused?

I was asked to comment on this video:

1. Feeding the 5000 thousand

To summarize Licona, there are some apparent discrepancies in the feeding of the 5000 and the aftermath. Luke says the miracle took place in Bethsaida or thereabouts. Yet Mark says Bethsaida was their intended destination after they left the location of the miracle (which Mark doesn't specify). How can your destination be the same place as your starting-point? 

Moreover, Mark says they wound up in Capernaum rather than Bethsaida. Conversely, John says Capernaum was their intended destination (Jn 6:17).

Licona then discounts efforts to harmonize the different descriptions as "hermeneutical gymnastics."

So what are we to make of this?

i) In terms of Muslim apologetics, it's suicidal for Muslims (e.g. Yahya Snow) to attack the credibility of the Bible. That's because Muhammad staked his own claim on the credibility of the Bible. He said his revelations were a confirmation of former revelations. He told doubters to consult Jews and Christians. This assumes the Bible was reliable during Muhammad's lifetime. And some of our MSS for the NT antedate Muhammad. So you can't claim the text was altered after the fact. 

ii) Richard Bauckham has defended the general reliability of Mark's geography:

He says Mark is operating with the idea of a ‘mental map.’ The way we construct our spatial environment in our minds is very different from the maps we see on paper or on screen. A close look at Mark’s geography shows that it makes very good sense if it reflects the mental map of a Galilean fisherman based in Capernaum.

ii) To say attempts to harmonize the accounts amount to "hermeneutical gymnastics" poisons the well. That's a prejudicial characterization.

iii) Assuming for the sake of argument that one of the Gospel writers was confused (which I deny), it's odd that Licona would say Mark was confused rather than Luke. On a conventional solution to the Synoptic Problem, Luke is literarily dependent on Mark at this point, not vice versa. Therefore, if anyone is confused, we'd expect that to be Luke rather than Mark insofar as Luke is getting his information from Mark. 

iv) The location of Bethsaida is uncertain. For one thing, the name simply means Fishing Village (lit. house of fishing or fisherman's house). So that's not necessarily its official name. Rather, that could be a descriptive designation for one of several fishing villages on the shores of the lake–just as we might refer to a "river camp" or "lake camp". 

v) The descriptions may be confusing because the disciples in the boat were genuinely confused. They got off to a late start. It was already dark when they launched. When, hours later, Jesus met them on the lake, it was still in the wee hours of the morning (c. 3:00-4:00 AM).  

This is the 1C. Their rowboat wasn't equipped with searchlights, radar, or GPS chartplotters. Fishing villages ringing the shoreline didn't have city lights. It would be very easy to get hopelessly lost or row in circles. Put yourself in their situation. Imagine navigating a boat at night in pitch black conditions. You can't see where you're going. You can't see ahead. You can't see the shoreline. Only at first light would conditions of visibility begin to improve. For several hours they were sailing blind.

It doesn't even seem to occur to Licona to imagine how disorienting their situation would be. 

vi) Mark's terminology is ambiguous:

If in [Mk] 6:53, "crossed over" refers to a return after a period of time to the western side of the Sea of Galilee, there is no need to accuse Mark of ignorance concerning the geography of Galilee. R. Stein, Mark (Baker, 2008), 322.

vii) The original text is unsettled:

Luke's description would place the miraculous feeding to the east of the general vicinity suggested in the other Gospels, near "a city called Bethsaida" (v10). Luke's geography is thus more precise, but its textual attestation is uncertain. See Metzger, TCGNT, 123. J. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Eerdmans, 2015), 265. 

viii) The verb (erchonto) in Jn 6:17 doesn't imply that Capernaum was their original destination. While it could mean they were trying to go there, it could also mean they were on their way to Capernaum. Cf. C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to John (Westminster Press, 2nd ed., 1978), 280.

Keep in mind that while this is describing an event that was future to the disciples, it was written after the fact, and therefore reflects the narrator's retrospective viewpoint regarding the outcome. The narrator knows something they don't. What's future for them is past for him. So it's only natural that he describes the event with the benefit of hindsight. But when the disciples embarked, they didn't have that perspective. 

ix) As, moreover, one scholar notes:

A contradiction has been alleged between Mk 6:45 ("to Bethsaida") and Jn 6:17 ("to Capernaum"), but if the disciples were setting out from due east of the Sea of Galilee, both cities would be to the northwest, with the former as possibly a stopping point en route to the latter. The storm, as it turns out , blows them far enough south so that they actually land at Gennesaret (Mk 6:53), more directly to the east. C. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (B&H, 2009), 316n64. 
But the two can be harmonized, since a small bay at the north end of the Sea of Galilee would have allowed for  the feeding miracle to occur in the hilly country northeast of Bethsaida and for the disciples to set off for home in the direction of Capernaum, with Bethsaida en route. The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel (IVP, 2001), C. Blomberg, 121n154.
x) Carson takes the view that they first went to Bethsaida, waited for Jesus, then when he didn't meet them, proceeded to Gennesaret Cf. "Matthew," EBC (Zondervan, 2nd ed., 2010), 9:392-93. 

2. Infancy narratives

Here's what Pennington says:

But even in the accounts that do give a birth narrative–Matthew and Luke–there is almost no overlap at all. Matthew traces Jesus's linage through Joseph's Davidic line. Then he gives us a whole raft of little stories concerning Joseph's plans to divorce Mary, the mysterious magi from the East who arrive a couple of years after Jesus's birth. Herod's paranoia and slaughter of children, and the holy family's flight to and return from Egypt. Luke has none of this but traces Jesus's lineage back to Adam. He also includes  a rather lengthy cycle of stories about the miraculous birth of Jesus's kinsman John, the visit of angels to Zechariah and Mary, Joseph and Mary's census-forced journey to Bethlehem, an angelic visit to some nondescript shepherds on the night of Jesus birth…If Jesus did not appear as the named figure in both of these accounts, one would never suspect they were stories about the same person. J. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely (Baker, 2012), 55-56.

That's a misleading comparison:

i) To begin with, there's a dilemma. If two Gospel accounts overlap, critics discount their historicity because one is dependent on the other for his source of information. Conversely, if two Gospel accounts are independent, critics discount their historicity due to lack of overlap. 

ii) It overlooks what they have in common:

a) In both accounts, Jesus has the same parents. 

b) In both accounts, Jesus is a Davidic messiah.

c) Both accounts have angels.

d) Both accounts have the Virgin Birth.

e) In both accounts, his birth its heralded by portents and prodigies.

f) In both accounts, he is born in Bethlehem.

g) In both accounts, he grows up in Nazareth.

h) Moreover, although John the Baptist doesn't figure in Matthew's nativity account, he certainly figures in the public ministry of Christ. So Pennington artificially separates the two in that respect. 

3. Details in Resurrections narratives difficult to harmonize.

I've discussed this on various occasions. The Resurrection accounts are selective. Different people arrive at different times. Moreover, there's no reason to assume each person only went there once. If you were there, wouldn't you be inclined to go back to see the empty tomb more than once? 

Imagine four different people attending the same high school reunion, then making a diary entry after they return home. There might be little if any overlap because they arrive at different times, leave at different times, and chat with different classmates. 


  1. Great post. I'm adding a link to this post onto my own blogpost that addresses the alleged problem after the feeding of the 5,000 here.

  2. A lot of harmonizations of the resurrection accounts are available online, and we've addressed the subject here many times. Those who are interested can consult our archive of Easter posts here. The 2009 post linked there cites a few articles on harmonization. The 2012 post cites some others. And you can find more by searching our archives on Blogger or with Google.

    J. Pennington's claim that the infancy narratives have "almost no overlap at all" is tremendously inaccurate. Here's a post in which I provide thirty examples (more could be included) of agreements between Matthew and Luke regarding Jesus' childhood. I address more than the infancy narratives, but a lot of what I cite is from the infancy narratives. I include agreements between Matthew and Luke that are unlikely to have been made up by early Christian sources, including agreements that meet the criterion of embarrassment. I include agreements that are unlikely if the claims of critics were correct (e.g., Matthew and Luke agreeing in portraying Jesus as different than Moses, even though critics often claim that the Jesus of the infancy narratives was fabricated in imitation of Moses). I explain how significant these agreements are, since Matthew and Luke could so easily have disagreed rather than agreeing on these matters, and the early Christians had so many potential motives to portray Jesus differently if they weren't constrained by history or honesty.

    Pennington's idea that we might think two different people are being described by the two gospels is absurd. Who else was born of a virgin, to parents named Joseph and Mary, shortly before the parents were married, in the city of Bethlehem, followed shortly after by a move to Nazareth, etc.? Nobody else we know of in history aligns with all of the details Matthew and Luke agree about.

    Pennington acknowledges that Matthew 2 is about events "a couple of years after Jesus's birth", which means that Matthew and Luke aren't even addressing the same timeframe in most of their material. Asking why Luke doesn't mention the magi in his account makes about as much sense as asking why Luke doesn't mention Paul in his gospel resurrection narratives.

  3. On Pennington, I updated a post of my own where I mentioned Pennington and the infancy narratives a couple of months ago. The exaggerated comments he makes about the lack of overlap, etc., between the infancy narratives appear to be part of the deliberately exaggerated "set-up" for a later, quite sensible harmonization. It seems to me an (unintentional) disservice to Pennington that Licona keeps quoting the set-up in the way that he does. Here was what I wrote in the update to my own post:

    In fairness to Pennington (though to my mind this reflects rather unfavorably upon Licona's use of Pennington), I should say that I have now been able to get a look at more of Pennington's book in which the above quotation occurs, and he explicitly states that "reasoned harmonization" takes care of the differences between Luke's and Matthew's birth narratives! Pennington's original comment is just setting up an alleged problem that he intends to address later. It is extremely odd that Licona quotes Pennington as he does (with the added emphasis of the phrase "my friend Jonathan Pennington") while apparently rejecting Pennington's unfazed solution to the alleged "problem" and also not making it clear that Pennington, unlike Licona himself, doesn't really think that this is an issue. He's just temporarily setting it up that way on a particular page! I'm glad myself to be able to place Pennington's comment in context and avoid attributing to him the artificial creation of a problem where none exists, but apparently his friend Dr. Licona isn't unduly troubled about any such impression that might be given.

  4. Jonathan McLatchie who hosted Licona's webinar as also recently addressed the apparent contradiction at the Answering Muslims blog here:

  5. FYI, Mike Licona has an article on the topic at his website. I'm not sure when it was posted, but I think it was sometime after the webinar interview.