Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Gospel Contradictions

This forthcoming book may or may not make a useful contribution to the subject:

I'll comment on a few statements:

I wasn’t so much concerned about resolving them [contradictions], because I understood that if Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is true, regardless of any errors that might be present in the Bible. 

That's a simplistic trope. For instance, if the Jesus of Moonies, Mormons, or the Watch Tower rose from the dead, would Christianity still be true? 

By carefully reading ancient biographies written around the same time as the Gospels and comparing how they tell the same stories differently, I began to recognize that some of the differences resulted from compositional devices. Then when I went to the Gospels, I could see that the authors were probably employing the same compositional devices as other ancient biographers; specifically Plutarch.

i) Certainly it's important to classify the Gospels as historical rather than fictional. But beyond that, I doubt the unquestioned assumption that they belong to a conventional genre, or that they are modeled on literary exemplars.

For instance, when a person writes their autobiography, they simply write down what they remember, and especially what things they want to share with the reader. Their autobiography isn't self-consciously modeled on conventions of the genre, or literary exemplars. Rather, they are simply writing about their own life and interests.

Likewise, when a historian writes a biography, he usually says something about the subject's parents or grandparents, then narrates his childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, then his career, retirement, and death. He may also write about his private life as well as his public life.

This isn't because the genre dictates that coverage, but because human lives have  a stereotypical cycle, and because readers are interested in certain things about the subject. 

ii) Even assuming that the Gospel writers had literary precedent in mind, what about OT biographies about Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, and Solomon? 

This is one of many examples I could cite where the Gospel authors employ various compositional devices that resulted in differences. In some cases we may not be able to know what actually occurred. But we have enough to get a general idea of what happened. And I’m fine with that, although ten years ago it would have made me feel a little uneasy because I assumed the Gospel authors would have been committed to writing with the same precision we moderns have.

Licona speaks as if he's breaking new ground. Filling a neglected niche. Yet scholars like Robert Stein, Craig Blomberg, Darrell Bock, and Very Poythress have already produced excellent material on the historicity and inerrancy of the Gospels. Licona appears to suffer from tunnel vision. Had he never bothered to read these scholars? Even now it sounds as if his research failed to include them.   


  1. Licona gives more detailed examples of what he means in the following video. Clearly his views contradict Geisler's definition of inerrancy and his interpretation of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy sponsored by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy . These days I'm finding myself leaning toward a view similar to Licona's and I worry if I'm unorthodox now. Anyway, here's the link:


    1. Geisler was never the standard of comparison. That's why I mentioned more astute representatives of inerrancy in my post. I think the Chicago Statement is basically fine as far as it goes, but it does not and cannot address the best way to interpret particular passages, either individually or in relation to other passages.

    2. Annoyed, I don't have time to listen to the entire interview, but can you give me the minutes where Licona is giving more examples?

      By the way, I would encourage you to lean away from Licona's position, _not_ because you're afraid not to be an inerrantist, but because

      a) it's too dismissive of harmonization, which often works just fine
      b) it seems to confuse deliberate "transferring" because of a "compositional device" with merely using a figure of speech (e.g., saying that the centurion said something and meaning by that that the centurion said through his servants
      c) it calls the reliability of the gospels into question more than he admits, and we have plenty of independent reason to think the gospels are reliable in the very sense that he is (without admitting it) abandoning
      d) it is lazy
      e) it doesn't really follow in the way that he implies it does from some sort of deep scholarly understanding of the genre of the gospels (just as Matthew's making up the dead coming out of the tombs isn't clearly a "literary trope" just because Licona found some extravagant occurrences in pagan sources surrounding the deaths of leaders)
      f) it is at odds with other indications we have of great precision on the part of the gospels
      g) it would actually be _better_ from an apologetic perspective to be willing to admit that a gospel author may have made some trivial error while _trying_ to give an accurate account than to cast a fog over the entirety of the gospels by holding that they just changed stuff deliberately and made stuff up deliberately in a way that is impossible to distinguish (in that text) from would-be-accurate historical narrative.

      Sorry, some of those are repetitious, but you get the picture. Anyway, I'd like to know what some of his other examples are, but I admit I haven't the patience to listen to something an hour long to find them.

      Frankly, I think this is a case where the desire to hang onto the inerrantist label, combined with a despair of resolving some putative contradictions, is leading to something worse than abandoning the inerrantist label.

    3. Notice that he's even conjecturing that Plutarch himself altered details. So he's basin a conjectural interpretation of the gospels on a conjectural interpretation of Plutarch! We don't even know for sure that the pagan authors did this on purpose. As opposed to,sometimes, getting some detail wrong accidentally. This whole "compositional devices" thing appears highly conjectural from the get-go.

      " He wrote more than 60 biographies of which 50 have survived. Of these, nine feature Roman leaders who had lived at the same time and knew one another. These were written between AD 96-120, right on the heels of the Gospels and in the same language, Greek. This provides historians with a unique opportunity. Because the main characters in these nine biographies often knew one another, a significant overlap of material is present. When material overlaps in two or more of these nine biographies, we can examine that material very carefully for differences. Differences can occur for numerous reasons, such as lapse of memory or sloppiness or Plutarch used better information he had obtained after writing an earlier biography or he employed a compositional device that required him to alter certain details.
      Thus far, I’ve identified around 45 stories that appear two or more times in these nine biographies. Differences abound in them. At present, I’m engaged in identifying the differences and especially looking for recurrences of the same type of differences. It’s from these one gets the impression Plutarch has altered the details intentionally. I then propose explanations (or compositional devices) for the alterations that appear to account well for the differences in many, if not most, of the contexts in which the differences occur."


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  3. The example he gives about the centurion is not that big of a deal. Calvin says as much in his commentaries as a solution to this "contradiction". That was probably circa 1540.

    Is there some other, more interesting, example Licona can give?

    Granted, Licona's view of resurrection account in Matthew 27 is in the back of my mind.

  4. Okay, I've gone through the video. I'll be working on writing on this.

  5. By the way, I was absolutely appalled at the example he gave of so-called "harmonization" of the accounts of Jairus's coming to Jesus. I doubt that anyone has ever suggested the "harmonization" that he got the audience laughing about--that the girl died twice and Jairus came back to Jesus. And there are much more reasonable suggestions available with even a modicum of imagination. That sort of mocking of harmonization is really bad and unworthy of Licona. It's more the kind of thing you'd expect from Ehrman.