What are the New Testament Gospels? How should we read them in relation to each other? And are they really "full of contradictions", as some would say?
This week we welcome Dr. Mike Licona, associate professor of theology at Houston Baptist University, who joins us for an extended in-depth discussion on the New Testament Gospels and the differences between them. Drawing upon his many years of research into the subject, Dr. Licona leads us through the maze of questions often asked about the NT Gospels, and explains how familiarity with the literary conventions of Graeco-Roman biography and historiography can help to provide compelling answers.
Julian Charles: Hello everybody! Julian Charles here of themindrenewed.com podcasting to you as usual from the depths of the Lancashire countryside here in the UK. Today is the 13th of May 2015 and I’m very pleased to welcome to the programme Dr. Mike Licona, who is associate professor of theology at Houston Baptist University and President of RisenJesus.com. Dr. Licona earned his PhD in New Testament studies with distinction from the University of Pretoria and he is the author and editor of numerous books, including: The Resurrection of Jesus, and another book on the Resurrection co-authored with Gary Habermas, who we were delighted to have had on this programme about a year ago or so, and Evidence for God co-edited with William Dembski. He is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, the Institute for Biblical Research and the Evangelical Philosophical Society, he is also debater and frequent speaker on university campuses, radio and TV. Dr. Licona, thanks very much indeed for joining us.
Mike Licona: Well, thank you Julian. It’s wonderful to be on your programme.
JC: Well, it’s actually amazing how this worked out, because I had actually hoped one day to speak with you having heard you on various radio shows and things in the past, and it just so happened that when Nick Peters was on the show a few weeks ago, he mentioned that you were in fact his father-in-law, and said that you might be up for coming on the programme, so it’s amazing how that worked out, so thanks very much for coming on.
ML: Very welcome. Nick’s a really sharp guy, and I’m proud to have him as a son-in-law.
JC: And I guess you must be proud also of what he’s doing there at Deeper Water Ministries.
ML: Yes, it’s a really good Ministry that’s growing. I’m amazed because he has Asperger’s, which helps and hinders him in certain ways, but he is just a brilliant guy; he knows a lot of stuff.
JC: Yes, he said on the show that one of the things about having that condition was that it focuses his mind so that he can really concentrate on something in a way that most people can’t, so in some ways he says it’s a gift.
ML: Yeah, I would agree.
JC: Now, as I said in the intro, you’ve done a fair number of debates over the years with quite prominent opponents of Christianity such as Bart Ehrman, Richard Carrier and Shabi[r]a Ali, and I’ve always thought the idea of actually doing a debate is pretty scary. I’ve hosted some, but that’s a different matter, but actually doing it always seems to me to be a pretty nerve-wracking kind of thing. How do you find doing debates?
ML: Well, I was nervous before the first several debates I did, at least up until the point where the debate started when I became quite relaxed. I remember the first time I debated Shabira Ali – it was my second debate – and he had debated who knows how many times, maybe a hundred times at that point, or dozens at least, and he was a very experienced and skilled debater. I have to admit that afternoon right before the debate my chest hurt. I still get nervous before debates, though not nearly as much as I used to.
JC: What was it like with Bart Ehrman? How did you find that one?
ML: Well, I prepared really diligently for that first debate with him. I probably put in fifty hours a week for five months, or even a little longer than that. He was an experienced debater, had taken debate classes in high school or college, and so was skilled at it. He’d been in scholarship a whole lot longer than me. I found his arguments quite weak, but when you get into the debate arena in front of people you have to know your stuff, it’s no time to wing it, you have to know it on the spot. You either know it or you don’t, so I really studied hard. I read everything that he’d written and watched debates he’d done on the subject. Fortunately, the Resurrection was something I’d studied a lot, and the philosophy of history since he claimed to be an historian, not a theologian or a philosopher, this was my area studying Jesus and what had happened there as an historian rather than as a theologian or a philosopher. Listening to his arguments against William Lane Craig a little before that in a debate, I thought now this guy really hasn’t studied the philosophy of history, the historical method, so I have a little bit over him in this area. Anyway, I prepared really diligently for it and felt prepared when I went into those debates with him.
JC: That’s very, very brave of you to do that actually, and I presume you found the debate with Richard Carrier a bit easier than that.
ML: Actually, I found Carrier to be more of a challenge than the one with Ehrman.
JC: That’s interesting.
ML: Yeah, now I don’t think Carrier’s arguments are better than Ehrman’s by any means.
JC: He’s a good performer is he?
ML: Well, Ehrman’s a good performer. In fact I think it’s harder to have a better orator than Bart Ehrman, at least on that side. But Richard Carrier is a knowledgeable guy, he’s very smart, and he’s got this persona about him whereby he comes across as very authoritative, but a lot of his views are extreme, some even bizarre, and many of them are not held by the academic community, even by sceptics like Ehrman, even by atheist New Testament scholars. So, for folks like him and Bob Price, both very well read, very smart, but their ideas are so bizarre, on the fringe, that they’re just not discussed within scholarship, so as a result some of the things that they say may come as a surprise. Yet, you really have to look into it. It’s just different, so I would say Richard Carrier is probably the toughest debate opponent I’ve had.
JC: Yeah, I can imagine that would be a very difficult debate to prepare for, presumably because you don’t quite know where he’s coming from in particular. What kind of background do you come from? Obviously, you’re currently teaching theology at this Baptist University, but how did you get in to do that? Were you brought up as a Christian in the first place?
ML: I was. I come from a Christian background. I did become a Christian, I think, at the age of ten, and grew in my faith especially during my college years. I went to a Christian university and then I went to graduate school, Liberty University, where I specialised in learning New Testament Greek. So, yeah, I came from a conservative Christian background, but it was during my graduate studies back in the Fall of 1985 when I was wrapping up my course work that I just began to have some reservations about my faith, and it wasn’t any kind of objections I’d heard, it was a matter of how do I know that this is really true, this has been the only view I’ve been exposed to. If Christianity is not true, I’m devoting my life to a fairy-tale, and I didn’t want to do that, something as important as eternity.
JC: This didn’t come because people were actually throwing objections at you, this came from within yourself you say?
ML: Yeah, it was just something that came up from within.
JC: And since those days of course you’ve been bombarded and bombarded with all sorts of objections, which you’ve had to think through and find answers to, so presumably, of course, you found that your faith has stood up to all of that.
ML: Yeah, and I would say, Julian, that at first when I heard objections, I would try to answer them, just because I assumed Christianity was true and so there must be valid answers to this. Later on, when I was doing my doctoral work, heavily engaged in the philosophy of history and historical method, one thing that philosophers of history say is that you have to do your best, if you want to be a good historian, to detach yourself from your desired outcome while your investigation proceeds. But every historian is biased in one way or another. There’s no such thing as an entirely objective or neutral historian – that’s a myth – so I had to admit that I was biased, that I was not neutral, and that it really could compromise the integrity of my historical investigation on the Resurrection of Jesus, and so while that investigation was initiated, because I wanted to find another way to argue for the truth of the Resurrection of Jesus, it didn’t take me long into the programme, because I know I’m a second-guesser, because I have struggled with doubts, even strong doubts where I almost jettisoned the Christian faith, and numerous times throughout my life starting in my mid-twenties, and even to this very day, I suppose you could say, I’m plagued with doubts. They’re not as strong now as they used to be, but precisely because I’m a second-guesser and am wired to doubt, I wanted my investigation of the Resurrection of Jesus to be as thorough and as neutral and objectively fair-minded as was within my power to do, and it became an investigation for me to get to the truth and to follow that truth no matter where it led. So, whereas it initially started off as an objective to argue for the truth of the Resurrection through another means, it didn’t take long and that objective changed to say I need to know the truth about this for me.
JC: I’m glad you’ve shared with us this fact of doubt, which of course we all struggle with, because if you’re a public figure, as indeed you are, it can come over to people that of course you’re totally certain about everything all the time, you’re never looking over your shoulder because that’s not what we’re like as human beings, and we do tend to wonder, don’t we, “Am I always in the right here?” So, I’m glad you shared that with us. Now of course what we’re going to be talking about today are the differences between the New Testament Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and in particular what quite a lot of people see as “contradictions” – I’m putting that in inverted commas because I don’t want to say there are contradictions, and I don’t want to say there are not at the moment – between those gospels. Now I’ve got quite a number of passages that I want to ask you about as we go through. But I’d like to first ask you for your general position on this whole question because you’ve done all this research. You emailed to me to say that you’d been working specifically on this kind of area for about seven years or so. So, this is a huge question, but forgive me for it, but could you give us a kind of taster of some of the main insights that you’ve gained over these years into these kinds of questions, differences and contradictions between the gospels, just some of the main insights that you have into that kind of issue.
ML: Sure, yeah, since this is my primary area of research for the last seven years, it’s a topic that’s near and dear to me at this point. I think the most important thing I could say, and Gary Habermas was really instrumental in helping me with this, because I really struggled with seeing these differences at first, and he said:
“Mike, did Jesus rise from the dead?” and I said,
“You believe that?”
“Why do you believe that?”
“Well, because the historical evidence suggests it.”
“What kind of historical evidence are you talking about?”
“Well, I think the primary historical evidence would be let’s say Paul. He’s writing before any of the gospels most likely. We can certify that he was a non-believer, even very, very hostile to the early Christian Church, persecuting, arresting, imprisoning, and consenting to the executions of Christians, when all of a sudden he had an experience that he was convinced was the risen Jesus, who had appeared to him and it radically transformed his life from being a persecutor of the Church to one of its most able defenders. Then he’s willing to suffer and even die as a Christian martyr for his gospel proclamation. We can certify that Paul presented his gospel for the Jerusalem apostles, that he was preaching the same gospel message that they were preaching. We get this on Paul’s own testimony. That he was preaching what they were preaching can certainly be inferred through the writings of Clement of Rome and Polycarp, who were probably disciples of the apostles Peter and John respectively. We can show through his letters that Paul was very careful not to co-mingle his teachings, even authoritative apostolic teachings that were binding in the church, with the Jesus tradition. So, given his respect for the Jesus tradition, given his testimony that he preached the same gospel that the Jerusalem apostles were preaching, that they had certified that he was, and so forth, I think we can say that when we read Paul on the gospel essentials, which of course included the resurrection of Jesus, we are likewise hearing the voice of the Jerusalem apostles. So, through Paul’s writings, aside from the gospels, we can establish what the Jerusalem apostles were preaching, and I think that we can use that as a case historically to establish the high probability that Jesus was actually raised.”
ML: Did you want to say something?
JC: Well, I was just very interested by the fact that everything you’ve said there is as an historian. You’ve never once said, “The Bible says such and such, and because I believe the Bible, therefore I believe what it says in there.” You’ve come at it from completely the other way ‘round by saying you can establish this and you can establish this. I mean all those things can be argued about. Of course, that’s what academics do, but nevertheless you’ve come at it from an historian’s point of view, which I found very interesting.
ML: Well, again when I came to the work on the Resurrection of Jesus you can’t assume that the word of the Bible is God’s word, you can’t assume that it’s inspired, inerrant, infallible or anything like that, or even authoritative. That’s not to say you can’t believe those things. As an historian you could never establish that the Bible is inerrant or that it’s divinely inspired. You can only look at it and say what are the things that I can prove with a relative degree of certainty. So, when I said those kinds of things to Gary, he said:
“Alright, Mike, so if Jesus rose from the dead, and we think that he did in either April of the year 30 or April of 33, when he rose from the dead was Christianity true?”
“Ok, when was the first piece of New Testament literature written?”
“Well, it’s either first [indistinct] or Galatians and it would have been in the late 40s or close to the year 50.”
“Alright, so let’s say we’re talking fifteen to twenty years between when Jesus rose and the first piece of New Testament literature was written. So, if Christianity was true at the Resurrection, was it true during this fifteen to twenty years before the first piece of New Testament literature was written?”
“Alright, when was the first gospel written?”
“Well, Mark’s. We don’t really know exactly, but the standard date is between 65 and 70.”
“Alright, Mike, so we’re talking about thirty-five to forty years after the resurrection, so that’s the first gospel. When was the next gospel written?”
“Scholars say that that might have been Matthew or Luke. Maybe that’s around the year 70 to 80; we just don’t know.”
“Let’s call it 70. It’s written a few years after Mark, so year 70. Now we’re talking about forty years after the resurrection, but that’s when your first contradictions would occur, so was the Resurrection true before Matthew was written?”
“Well, of course.”
“Was Christianity true then?”
“Well then, how could contradictions in Matthew negate the truth of Christianity, which was true before Matthew was even written?”
So that was kind of like the general line of the argument he gave, and I thought well, yes, that makes a whole lot of sense, so he said,
“Just let’s say there are some errors and contradictions in the gospels, what does that mean for Christianity?”
“Well, does it mean that it falsifies it for sure?”
“Right, well what does it mean?”
“Well it means we might not be certain about certain details in the gospels, it means that maybe one or more of them got it wrong. It doesn’t mean that all of them got it wrong, but even if all of them got it wrong, even if there’s some legend, even if there were some embellishments and things like that in the gospels, as many believe, even if those things are true, it doesn’t negate the truth of Christianity, it just negates the actual historical truth of some of those stories, and it would really challenge some of the views and doctrines of Biblical inerrancy. It doesn’t mean that this is a small matter.”
“Well, Mike, what it does mean, though, it’s not as big a matter as you may imagine. In other words, the amount of anxiety that you might have over it is not justified.”
“Well,” I said, “You’re right.”
So, I think that’s a major insight that I might say I started off with this, and then at that point the differences in the gospels just didn’t seem to bother me nearly as much. But, I realised that they still bother a lot of conservatives, evangelical Christians, and that is what motivated me to launch into the study about seven years ago.
JC: Right, well that really is a fascinating way of approaching it. When you read these things on the Internet a lot of people point to things and say, “Oh, this seems to contradict this and so, therefore . . .” and then reach for some conclusion such as Christianity’s false and that what you’ve just said there undercuts that completely. Nevertheless, as you indicated, it might have some implication for whether one considers the New Testament specifically to be inspired as part of the ‘Word of God’ as people sometimes put it. So, what is your position there? Do you believe the Bible to be inerrant in some form?
ML: I do. I think it depends on how one wants to define ‘inerrancy’. A lot of those over here in the States have a very wooden or rigid view of inerrancy, and I don’t think that that view is sustainable when we come to the Bible. For example, you look at the historical books of the Old Testament – King’s Chronicles and Samuel – and what has been pointed out for many years by many people is that there are significant numerical differences, discrepancies, so when the same accounts are being mentioned . . .I can think of one where I think it said there were twenty thousand foot soldiers and seventeen hundred horsemen, and when you look at the parallel account it talks about twenty thousand foot soldiers and seven thousand horsemen, so were there seventeen hundred or seven thousand horsemen? So, when you look at how some like to describe what’s going on here, they say well this is obviously a copyist error. Well, I don’t think that’s obvious. It may be obvious to those if it’s true, their inflexible view of inerrancy, if we knew ahead of time that that view is correct, then it would be obvious that we’re looking at a copyist error. But we don’t know ahead of time a priori that that view is correct, and I think what we have to do is rather than presuppose a certain view, we have to look at the scriptures and develop our view from what we observe in scriptures rather than develop a view of what inerrancy means, and then try to squeeze the scriptures to fit into that view. Folks like that would say, well, inerrancy is limited to the originals anyway.
JC: Sure, but can I ask you what a view of inerrancy might be if it is more flexible? How would you nuance that?
ML: Well, I would say you have to look at the genre, the literary category this falls into. When you look at ancient literature, embellishment was something that almost every author, historical writer was prone to do. Josephus did it. In fact, there are numerical discrepancies between the way Josephus reports similar events in his autobiography, his life and in the Jewish Wars. In one account he might say hundreds and in another account he might say thousands, and he does this on numerous occasions. We can see that Plutarch embellishes his numbers. So, what if the chronicler embellished the numbers, he’s doing nothing different than other ancient historians would have done, and it was acceptable within that genre, so I’d say you have to judge ancient writings according to literary conventions of that particular genre. We do not say that the psalmist erred when the psalmist says that God is sleeping, because we recognise that’s poetic literature. We do not think that the author of Proverbs was in error when he talks about a woman named Wisdom standing on top of a rooftop calling down to the simple-minded to gain wisdom. We say, ok, well that’s called wisdom literature. The same could be said about apocalyptic literature like Revelation, or Jesus with his parables if we say well, hey, the Prodigal Son never lived, or of the parable of the Good Samaritan that that particular guy never lived. We don’t say well that denies inerrancy. We just say hey no, you’ve got to look at the genre. So, when we look at the historical books of the Old Testament, we have to apply that to them.
JC: It was particularly interesting there you were talking about gospels with parables within. Of course, the gospel would be a genre, but within that you have these little ‘genres’ you say such as parables and even apocalyptic elements, and if those are not recognised then that’s reading it quite possibly incorrectly. I mean I have actually heard people talk about what happens next to the characters in the Good Samaritan story, and I think, well, nothing, they’re part of the story that Jesus was actually telling and that’s reading it the wrong way. So, what would you say, taking gospels as a whole, what kind of genre would you say essentially they’re falling into?
ML: If I may, if you would allow me, I want to just finish a point on the inerrancy thing. So, let’s just say for a moment that the rigid “inerrantists”, those who hold inflexible views, let’s say they’re correct for a moment, and you don’t want to take a flexible view that says OK the genre allows for some embellishments. Let’s say the inflexible view of inerrancy is correct, and we’ll say we have a copyist error here and that inerrancy only applies to the originals, then we have to say you take your current Bible and you go up to one of these rigid inerrantists, and you say, “Well, let me ask you a question then. Is the Bible that I’m currently holding in my hand the inerrant word of God?” And, if they’re being honest with you, they’d have to say “No”, because by their own words they’re saying this is a scribal error, so there would be numerous errors in the Bible due to scribal errors at least within those historical books of the Old Testament. And that being the case, Julian, we can come to one or two conclusions I’m thinking of:
1) God was incapable of preserving an inerrant text. I don’t think an original inerrantist would be willing to say that, and I think God would certainly be capable of preserving an inerrant text if that’s what He wanted.
2) Then since God did not take steps to preserve an inerrant text that an inerrant text that we would hold in our hands was not important to Him. If we’re talking about inerrancy in a very rigid and inflexible view, you either have to come to the conclusion that God is incapable of preserving an inerrant text, or that inerrancy is not important to God. And so, if inerrancy, an inflexible view of inerrancy that is, was not important to God, why should it be so important to us? The flexible view of inerrancy would say either God allows the biblical authors to write according to the genre in which that literature fits, which would allow embellishments, or a flexible view of inerrancy would say something like the Bible’s without error in all that it teaches. In other words, it preserves the truth of the message without being necessarily concerned to preserve all the little precise details that are part of that message.
the strength of this argument about flexible inerrancy but let me just push you a little on it. Would it also allow room for errors to have been made, and I’m not talking about peculiarities of genre, but actual factual errors, let’s say even in the matter of doctrine in the original autographs.
ML: Well, I mean we can’t prove inerrancy, right? So, this is a faith doctrine and it leads to other questions like:
“How do we know the Bible is divinely inspired?”
“Well, it claims to be.”
“Ok, well what does that look like? How did God do it? “
“Ok, well you’ve got 2 Timothy 3:16 - All scriptures are God breathed.”
“Ok, well what does that process look like?”
“Well, then you go to a 2 Peter ‘where it says no prophecy is made according to an act of human will but men moved by the holy spirit spoke from God.’”
“Well, what does that look like?”
“The thing is the Bible never gives us the method, it doesn’t tell us the process of divine inspiration. Could it be, is it just as possible that God would have inspired the biblical authors, led them and gave them the concepts that he wanted them to communicate, the teachings of Jesus he wanted to communicate, the doctrines, and if they included some factual errors, He allowed that, He was fine with that, He just wanted to make sure of the other thing.
“Well why would God do that?”
“Well, you’d have to say, “given your inflexible view on inerrancy, why would He allow any scribal errors to corrupt the text so that we wouldn’t have an error in the text?”
See, this gets complicated and we just don’t know the answers to these. So, could He allow some of the doctrines to become corrupted? I would say, if you hold to a doctrine of inerrancy, you have to at least hold that when it came to the most important doctrines that have to do with Salvation and living the Christian life and the fundamentals of the Christian faith—the essentials—well, He would not have allowed those to have been corrupted. And I don’t know if we could get more specific than that.
JC: It becomes increasingly complicated the more you think about it. I agree with that. One thing that I’ve been quite attracted to, although I’m not fully convinced by the argument, but nevertheless I’ve been attracted to, is Nicholas Wolterstorff’s idea in his book Divine Discourse where he talks about the idea of God appropriating texts. So, a certain religious community, in this case of course the Christian community, are producing texts, and then from Wolterstorff’s point of view he’s saying God is saying ‘Yes’ to that text. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s no error in that text, but the very fact that God has by His Spirit, by His divine choice, said Yes with a big ‘Y’ to that text means that it is what God wants to say in general. Now, I think that’s quite an attractive kind of idea, but of course it leaves the question of inerrancy out of the picture, but it’s something I found interesting to think about.
ML: It’s a tough thing. It really is a tough subject. It would be really nice if we could just wrap it up very neatly and package it and say, “OK, this is really clear”, but it’s not. When we come to it with our presuppositions, or the way we’ve been taught to believe it, it can seem kind of clear, but when you really look at the texts that talk about divine inspiration and things like that, they don’t necessarily say what we think they say at first look. That’s not to say that they’re saying something different from that, it’s to say that they aren’t as specific as we think they might be. The bottom line for me, Julian, is any view of the biblical text that we have, high views of scripture that we have, needs to be in concert with what we observe in those texts. If it’s not in concert with what we observe in those texts, then it’s an implausible view.
JC: Ok, well I think perhaps we need to move on to more specific things, and I wanted to ask you a few questions about your view of these actual gospels that we’ve got here in front of us. I mean first of all when we read the gospels we find things like The Gospel According to Mark, The Gospel According to Luke, and of course many people point out that these texts themselves don’t actually indicate authorship; this is a matter of church tradition. So, what’s your view on this authorship thing? Should we trust the tradition? Does it even matter who wrote these gospels?
ML: Well, I would say I hold to the traditional authorship of all four of them, especially Mark, Luke and John. I’m not so sure or confident with Matthew. It is the universal testimony of the early church of those who wrote about it that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote these gospels. There are no other competing traditions from the early church, OK, at least that is clear. Some would disagree with that and say well it’s not so clear with John, but I don’t happen to agree with those. I think most people do agree that in the early church it is claimed that John, son of Zebedee, wrote John’s Gospel. It is the universal testimony of the early church, at least in my opinion, that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote the gospels. Most New Testament scholars today agree on the traditional authorship of Mark and Luke, or I should say Mark. They agree that Luke was a travelling companion of Paul and got information and traditions from eyewitnesses. They don’t necessarily agree that it was Luke, but Luke is the most plausible candidate. Matthew and John are the two most in question. A lot of scholars believe that if John, the son of Zebedee, was not the actual author of the gospel attributed to him that he provided tradition upon which the gospel of John is largely based. Matthew’s more difficult because you have Papias in the early part of the 2nd century saying that – and he’s our first witness to the authorship of the gospels – Matthew wrote his gospel originally in Hebrew or Aramaic, but most scholars today, even evangelicals such as D.A. Carson and Doug Moo in their New Testament intro will say that the kind of Greek that we see in the gospel of Matthew is not translation Greek. Dan Wallace at Dallas Theological Seminary says the same thing, and he’s an expert in the Greek language if you’ve ever seen one. These will say that it really looks like the Matthew that we have today was originally written in Greek, so the question is if our early source says that Matthew was written originally in Hebrew or Aramaic, and even most conservative, evangelical New Testament scholars say the one we have is originally written in Greek, not in Hebrew or Aramaic, what are we to do with that, and if Papias can’t be trusted on that, then perhaps he shouldn’t be trusted on who wrote Matthew. A number of issues or possibilities do raise themselves such as could Matthew have originally written a smaller gospel in Hebrew or Aramaic, and later on that small gospel, maybe a “sayings” gospel that just reported the teachings of Jesus, maybe that was translated later into Greek. Then someone, maybe it was a disciple or friend of Matthew, or maybe someone in a church that Matthew had started, took Matthew’s small gospel and combined that with a significant portion of the Gospel of Matthew and maybe some other sources and had that in Greek, and that’s The Gospel of Matthew that we have today. You know it’s not a clear-cut issue.
JC: Sure, so that would then be the idea of a Matthew School, perhaps, being responsible for Matthew’s gospel and that’s why the name Matthew was attached to it.
ML: Yeah, in fact I think that was the view of Earl Ellis, who was quite a conservative New Testament scholar.
JC: Yes, well we need to be perhaps more flexible in the way we consider such matters as authorship and perhaps other things as well. Another question that comes up of course is people say, “Wow, there’s a long period of time between the events of Jesus’s life and the writing down of these gospels. Back in the 19th century it was thought that gospels were perhaps even written as late as in the 2nd century, but now virtually everyone accepts that they were written in the 1st century, but we’re still talking about decades between those events and the writing down, so how can we trust that?
ML: Well, I think that’s fair, but I do think we’re looking at it through how we look at modern things. We can write a history of the American Civil War today and we don’t have any problems with that. That ended, I guess, about a hundred a fifty years ago. There are no problems with that. Of course, we’re not going to have eyewitnesses today, but the gospels weren’t written a hundred and fifty years afterward. At the latest we’re look at seventy years and most would even put it before that, even less than half that period of time that we’re looking at today and the American Civil War. I think a better analogy would be World War II. The time between the end of WWII and today – I think we’ve just had the 70th anniversary of that – so at the latest that’s the time between Jesus’s death and the Gospel of John being written. Most people don’t even think the Gospel of John was written even that long afterward, so even today we interview WWII vets that are still alive, and we have no problem believing their eyewitness testimony, and the Gospel of Mark written forty years later, so that’s like the end of the Vietnam War. I know several Vietnam War vets, and they can tell very vividly the things that they experienced. In fact, interestingly, a couple of years ago I was coming out of a doctor’s office and as I was leaving the office I saw this senior citizen in there wearing a baseball cap with a B29 Super Fortress engraved on it. My wife and I just love anything that’s WWII, so just out of curiosity I walked back into the office and went up to the guy and said, “Excuse me, sir, but may I ask you did you fly on a B29 during WWII?” He replied, “Yes, I did son.” And I said, “Wow, what was that like? Do you still remember a lot of it?” and he says, “Oh yeah, I remember a lot of it quite well, I remember where we were stationed on an island near Japan, the native women on that island had a horrible odour to them that I can still remember to this day.”
JC: [Laughter] Peculiar, but I suppose those things being burned into your memory… I mean I can’t really remember what I had for dinner any day of last week, but there are certain things that happen in your life that are so significant that you just do not forget them, so I suppose in the case of being around Jesus, and certainly if indeed the resurrection took place, actually being around that amazing event, you’d remember that forever.
ML: You make a good point about it being ‘burned into your memory’, and it depends when you’re talking about a significant event, even many, though not all the peripheral details are going to be burned into your memory, so I will commonly ask folks that I’m lecturing before here in the US, how many of you remember exactly where you were on 9/11, and almost everyone, except those who are very young, raise their hands, and I say do you remember what the weather was like on that day, and almost everyone will say, “Absolutely, it was sunny, there was hardly a cloud in the sky, it was a beautiful day.” I say, “OK, you remember that, and that was more than ten years ago. Now, let me ask you a question. Do you remember what the weather was like on 9/11 last year?” Nobody remembers, and so why do you remember what the weather was like on that particular day? Well, because it is included ‘being burned into the memory’ of a significant event. So, if you saw a guy walk on water, or if you saw, like you said, a guy crucified and resurrected and had appeared to you, would you remember that? Of course you would. You may not get every single detail correct, but you’re going to remember the strong gist of what happened.
JC: Yeah, and this is why the analogy that people bring up about the game – I think you call it Telephone in the US, we call it Chinese Whispers over here – that just fails, doesn’t it, because it’s not the case that you have a message going from one person to another with it never being checked en route until it gets to being written down at the other end, because obviously within the time frame that you’re talking about there, you have eyewitnesses floating around who are going to be consulted, at least at some point, and they’re going to say that did happen or that didn’t happen; it’s a completely false analogy it’s always seemed to me.
ML: Yeah, it is different because in the game of Chinese Whispers, you’ve got children who hear an unimportant sentence once, and then they quickly and playfully pass it along to one another in an uncontrolled manner. That is entirely different than what we’re talking about with the process of oral tradition, of which we’ve learned quite a bit during the last fifty to sixty years. I’d add one other thing and that is: I had a kindergarten teacher come up to me after a lecture in Indiana a year ago, and she said, “You know I play the game of Telephone/Chinese Whispers with my kids every year in kindergarten, but once they mess it up then I say, hey, we’re going to do this again, I’m going to give you another sentence and this time if you do not get it perfect, then there’s no recess today.” And she says, “They get it perfect every time.” So that’s because even children can do it when it was important to them. How much more when you’re talking about illiterate folks that oral tradition was the primary way in which they preserved history, and something as important as they thought with Jesus was, of course they’re going to take great pains and efforts to see that it’s preserved accurately.
JC: And I seem to remember reading something, I can’t remember what it was, but somebody had done some research into the original Aramaic, which probably lay behind some of the sayings of Jesus, that they had a kind of rhythmic quality to them as if they were designed to be remembered in that oral culture.
ML: Yes, we can see some of that going on in 1st Corinthians, Chapter 15, verses 3 through 7, where Paul employs parallelism. So first he says I want to remind you of the gospel message that I preached, and then he says I delivered to you what I also received, which is suggestive of the imparting of oral tradition, and then this parallelism long/ short, long/short you see: Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures – and then he was buried – and then he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures – and that he appeared – so long/short, long/short, and then right after that he says this is what we preached and this is what you believe and the term ‘preach’ there is a different Greek term than he uses in verse 1. In verses 11,12 and 14, the term ‘preach’ is keyrugma or karigma – we get the word from that. In other words it’s the official form of proclamation, public proclamation, so everything here suggests that this is oral tradition that Paul is imparting to us, and it’s really interesting to see when Luke gives us the same thing when Paul says what I receive from the Lord, I deliver to you, and he’s talking about the imparting of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist in 1st Corinthians 11, when he gives the words of Jesus there. When Luke gives us the same words in his gospel, which was written between five and thirty-five years later after the 1st Corinthians, it’s almost word for word from what Paul gives, so we can see there that Luke, whether it’s five years or up to thirty-five years, he’s preserving this oral tradition intact. It’s really remarkable when you see this.
JC: Yeah. Well, it is remarkable. However, somebody could say, “Well, ok, maybe I accept that these traditions are passed on reasonably faithfully. Even if I accept that, nevertheless when I go to the gospels I’m looking at material that’s biased. These are religious documents, these people want to get across a particular message, so how can I even begin to take that seriously as an object of historical study if it’s biased literature?”
ML: Say, except for a mathematics text book, show me something that is not biased. In fact, many historians and philosophers of history will say there are no canons of history. In other words, there are no principles in the study of history that are agreed upon by all historians, or virtually all historians. But one thing that is agreed upon by virtually all historians is that all historians are biased; there’s no such thing as a neutral or unbiased historian. So, it’s not only the gospels, the subjection based on bias wouldn’t just apply to the gospels, it would apply to all ancient literature, even most modern literature, so that’s one thing. The second thing, you might say, is why should bias disqualify a piece of literature from being true? If we’re going to say that, Julian, then we have to say an African-American historian could never write a history of slavery in the United States, a Jewish historian could never write a history of the holocaust, and of course as I say that, you’re probably thinking, “Well, wait a minute, those might be the people who are best qualified to write on these things.” If Jesus was who he claimed to be, if he actually rose from the dead, well then, the gospel authors, the earliest Christians, who were either disciples or knew those who were disciples, or had connections with them, would be the most qualified to write about all those things. Now, does that mean that bias has no shortcomings? No, it doesn’t mean that at all, but it does mean that bias does not disqualify you. In a debate with Bart Ehrman, who likes to cast doubt on the gospels because they’re biased, and one of your friends over there, Justin Briarley, I challenged Bart when he accused me of being biased, so I said, “Bart, we’re all biased, you’re biased”, and Justin said, “Well, how about it Bart? Are you biased?” And he said, “Well, of course I am.” Well, you know, I know it’s frustrating, but you can’t saw off the branch on which you’re sitting.
JC: Yeah, I take the point. It’s no objection at all really, it’s just something that needs to be recognised and worked with, not just to say well that discredits everything, that’s just ridiculous. Yes, we all have bias. It’s interesting that you bring up that some historians say that there are no criteria of history and of course famously Paul Feyerabend said the same about science as well, which brings me to the next question which is to do with the miraculous, because some people of course would say, “Well, you know there are clear miracles happening there in the gospels and that’s certainly got nothing to do with the great scientific age in which we live today; I can’t possibly take seriously any account that includes anything to do with the miraculous. How would you respond to that?
ML: I’d say they need to stop listening to Richard Dawkins, go out in the real world and when you do that you do see supernatural events. The majority of people recognise this today. The age of modernity, of anti-supernatural is over, it is coming to an end, the epistemological ice age of anti-supernaturalism is over. Spring is in the air, the trees and flowers are blooming, you can walk out in the warmer weather of a worldview that includes supernatural events and be completely comfortable and dealing in reality. I think today, Julian, you’re looking at things such as well-evidenced near-death experiences where a person has a certifiably flat EKG, that means no heart life, flat EEG, no brain life, and while they are clinically dead, they claim to have experienced coming out of the body, having an out-of-body experience, they float to the top of the room, they’re able to watch the physicians working on their body to resuscitate them. There are some accounts of blind people, who regained sight when in an out-of-body state, but who, once resuscitated were blind once more, but were nevertheless able to report on the colour of the shirt the physician was wearing and the colours and pattern of the physician’s tie, stuff they could not have known, or they died and floated to another location and heard people, like family members, having conversations back at their home, things they couldn’t have known, they knew what was eaten at dinner that evening while they were dead, the moment they were dead, and were able to come back and tell about it. Anyway, there are numerous accounts like this, hundreds of them, which seem to suggest a supernatural element to reality. There are things such as veridical apparitions. I have a friend who saw an apparition of a dead person she hadn’t seen for years. She was awakened in the middle of the night at 2.30 and had the very frightening experience of seeing an apparition of this girl in front of her. Within 48 hours she saw an article in the newspaper that said this girl had died at the very moment that apparition had appeared to her and wakened her in the middle of the night. You’ve got radical answers to prayer, of which I could name many, like a friend of mine, Lloyd Reid, who was involved in a terrible car accident in June 1987 and was in a coma. On the twenty-first day of that coma, the 4th of July that year, a number of the members of his church were outside during a church picnic and at 4 o’clock that afternoon they got together and prayed for Lloyd, who, miles away back at the hospital, came out of his coma at exactly 4 o’clock. Before midnight everyone else in that room, who had also been in a coma from one to six months, came out of their coma, so you have radical answers to prayer like that. You put all of that together, and I think that the evidence for a supernatural component to reality is so strong that it’s no longer rational to be an atheist. You just can’t deny it and still call yourself a realist.
JC: Well, thank you for that answer. Obviously, I agree with you as I do think that materialism is a bankrupt philosophy. So, obviously, you would disagree with all those historical attempts that are being made to try and explain away miraculous events in the gospels by saying “well there’s a naturalistic explanation for them”, or that kind of thing, that says well you know people dressed up the stories in miracles because that’s just the way people communicated back in those days. Presumably, you would reject all of that kind of thing?
ML: Yeah. Now that would not be to say that people did not do that, it would not be to say that that shows that the gospels never did it. Ok, it would be to say that metaphysical naturalism that rejects the reality of the supernatural within our world is false, and that should not be an objection against the miracles in the gospels.
JC: Right, so it wouldn’t prove of course the miracles in the gospels, but it would make room in terms of concept for the possibility that they did take place; that would not be an objection, I take that. Ok, so can I ask you some really specific things then about difficulties between the gospels?
JC: Great. There are so many things obviously that I could ask you here, so I’ve just grouped things together according to what I think, and so I thought I’d ask you some things about the birth narratives to start with. Now, Mathew and Luke give us accounts of Jesus’ birth, but Mark and John don’t say anything about it. So, don’t you think that the silence of Mark and John about this calls into question the historicity of these events?
ML: No, I don’t. Certainly, there are tensions or problems between the differences in Matthew and Luke’s account of the infancy narratives, but the fact that Mark and John don’t mention it, I don’t think that’s problematic at all. The objective of ancient biography – and I do believe the gospels are ancient Graeco-Roman biographies – the objective behind that of ancient biographies according to Plutarch was to illuminate the character of the main subject, or the main character. You want to know what kind of a person this was, and what all four gospels do is talk about the divine lineage you could say, or the divine ancestry of Jesus. He is the divine Son of God. They say it differently. You have Matthew and Luke do this through the genealogies and tie it to divine revelation from an angel saying it’s the Holy Spirit, God is going to be the actual Father of this child, who is going to be the Messiah. Let’s go to John. John is pretty clear that Jesus is of a divine nature. Within the first fourteen verses of John’s Gospel it’s very clear that Jesus came from heaven, that he’s God’s divine Son. When you look at the Gospel of Mark as a whole, contrary to what many sceptical scholars are saying that Mark has the lowest Christology, Mark has the same Christology as the others. Once you recognise the biographical character of Mark’s Gospel, it becomes rather easy to see. So, it starts off by saying, as Isaiah the prophet said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God...” Who is that applying to? Well, it’s not Jesus who is the voice of one crying in the wilderness, it’s John the Baptist that’s speaking and John the Baptist is preparing the way of the Lord, he’s making straight the paths of God. Well, who is the Lord and God in this case? It’s Jesus. So from the very get-go, in Chapter 1, it’s pointing to the divinity of Jesus. You go to Chapter 2, you’ve got Jesus who forgives the sins of a paralytic and gives him the ability to walk, and they say hey that’s blasphemy, only God can forgive sins. Yep, and you get the same kind of progression through many of the chapters – Chapter 3, chapter 4, chapter 9, chapter 14, and so forth – where Jesus is seen and he does these things, walks on water, coming in on the clouds of heaven, these are things that the Old Testament scripture say only God can do. And so with this Mark is clearly presenting Jesus as divine. So within the biographical character of Mark, he’s presenting the divine nature of Jesus, so Mark and John just go at it differently and make their points from a different angle to Matthew and Luke.
JC: Yes, I guess that’s the question in a way. When I do accept that a lot of more recent scholarship really has pointed to the fact that the gospels as a whole have very high Christology, and so they’re all doing that kind of thing, but the question then really is why is it that Mark and John don’t talk about the birth narratives, and so the question is does that call into question the actual historicity of those birth narratives? Even though they’re all going to talk about the divine Christ, but maybe those particular stories about Jesus’s birth were made up?
ML: No, I don’t think so at all. Most Graeco-Roman biographies just talk about the lineage, the family ancestry, of the main character and give very little on their childhood and then all of a sudden jump right into the launching, the inauguration, of their adult life and what made them famous, and this is what we have in the gospels, so a lot of times people may ask well why don’t any of the gospels talk about Jesus’s childhood, or why is it just barely mentioned? Because that’s part and parcel of Graeco-Roman biography.
JC: Right, so that would be quite normal for them to do it that way. Ok, this is Richard Burridge’s concept, is it, of the Graeco-Roman biography?
ML: It is. It was first proposed by Charles Talbot and David Arnie, and Burridge over there on your side of the pond had set out to disprove those who were claiming the gospels were Graeco-Roman biography, and his book that resulted, What Are The Gospels? came to be a watershed book that was most responsible, more than anything else, in turning the tide of the opinion of New Testament scholars to now. A significant majority grant that the gospels belong to the genre of Graeco-Roman biography.
JC: Right, that is fascinating. Now you actually brought up the question about the genealogies and that’s something I wanted to ask you. Now Matthew and Luke have very different genealogies for Jesus. When we look at Matthew Chapter 1, verses 2 to 17, and Luke Chapter 3, verses 22 to 38, the genealogies are really quite similar from Abraham up to David, but then when we go from David to Jesus, it starts to go awry, it seems to be really different, so why is that?
ML: We don’t know exactly why, but we can see something that what Matthew is doing is major, so whatever reasons we’re going to give for the differences in the genealogies would certainly be largely the result of a literary device scholars called gematria, in which Hebrew letters were assigned numerical values, so when you read Matthew’s genealogy, you find that in verse 17 of Chapter 1, Matthew sums it up saying the number of generations from Abraham to David, I think it is, are 17, and the number of generations from David to the deportation of Babylon 17, and the number of generations from the deportation to Jesus 17, and in all we have 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus. When you look at that you notice that Matthew just packages it all very neatly for some reason in three sets of 17, or a total of 42 generations, and if you . . .
JC: Can I just check you? Is it 17 or is it 14? I’m just looking here . . .
ML: Oh yeah, 14. I’m sorry, yeah, three sets of 14, so what does that come to? Forty-two generations? So yeah, thanks for the correction. It’s verse 17, and that’s what’s getting me confused.
JC: Sure, sure.
ML: So you’ve got three sets of 14 or 42 generations, and he says in all we have 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus, so when you go back to Chronicles you find that there were some more generations that Matthew omitted, so why is it that he wanted to package this in three sets of 14? Most scholars think that Matthew is really focusing on Jesus as the Messiah, the son of David, but you see if we apply gematria you are assigning numerical values to letters. Well, when you look at the word David you’ve got the ‘D’ given the value of 4, so you’ve got two Ds, and then the middle consonant or letter is given 6, so you add that together and you get 14, thus David has a numerical value of 14, so could it be here that Matthew is saying that Jesus is the son of David and he’s saying this three times for emphasis.
JC: That’s certainly very interesting. That’s certainly a possibility isn’t it? But as you say even if that’s not true, he’s clearly doing something there by not having everybody mentioned, but having these three sets of 14, something’s going on there. Yes indeed, that may be leading us in the right direction there, even if we don’t have the final answer.
ML: Yes, this would be an instance where Matthew is redacting; he’s editing in order to make a theological point. Well, that doesn’t change things that Jesus came from a lineage, it doesn’t mean that he’s making up some of these generations, but it does mean that he is packaging them in such a way as to make his theological point that Jesus is the son of David, the Messiah.
JC: Great. I want to ask you one that’s a real thorn, and this is about of course Quirinius, so you know what’s coming. Let me spell it out. This is a very, very famous problem. In trying to match up really Matthew’s timing for Jesus’s birth with that of Luke, and according to Matthew Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, so this is Matthew Chapter 2, verse 1, and according to Luke, during the first census in Israel while Quirinius was Governor of Syria, so this is Luke Chapter 2, verse 2. But, we know that Herod the Great died around 4 BC and this census, it seems, took place in 6 or 7 AD, so we’ve got over a ten-year gap here, so how can we reconcile these two?
ML: Well, let me say first of all that when I talk about differences in the gospels, my research over the last seven years has not been to try and reconcile and match up every detail, ok?
ML: What I’ve been studying are compositional devices that we find in antiquity and that we’re taught. The gospel authors used these, if that accounts for the differences. This is beyond my research, but I would say this: Josephus would disagree with Luke on this, but who is to say that Josephus was correct? So, Josephus could have been inaccurate. Another option is that Luke was inaccurate on that, although we can show Luke to be a very good historian on points that we can check out, so I don’t think we should assume that he’s mistaken here.
JC: Do we know that Josephus was a good historian?
ML: He was a pretty good historian, but he was not perfect, and we know that he took the same kind of flexibilities that Plutarch and other ancient historians took. He adapted, omitted, added, elaborated and embellished. He did all the kinds of things that other ancient historians did and were allowed to do as historians. So, we have to judge ancient authors by the literary conventions of their day rather than imparting our idea of modern precision upon them. So, Josephus, by ancient standards, was a pretty decent historian, although not one of the best. But, Josephus could have got it wrong, Luke could have got it wrong. There are things that we don’t know. Quirinus was Luke’s Proconsul at that time. He could have been; we don’t know whether he was or not. The Roman records that we have are not complete. The most complete account that we have written down in modern scholarship is abbreviated MRR – Magistrates of the Roman Republic. You can get pdfs of Vol. II and it gives, I forget, a couple of hundred years BC all the way down to the end of the Roman Republic and gives all the Dictators, the Consuls, Proconsuls, Tribunes, and the Magistrates of those particular years, and it’s not complete or completely accurate, so we don’t know if Quirinus was Proconsul in that time. He may or may not have been. You know one of the objections is why isn’t the census mentioned anywhere else? Well, historians are select. You’ve got Luke who mentions in Acts, Chapter 18, I think it’s verse 2, how Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome. Well, Suetonius mentions that in Chapter 6 of his Life of Claudius, and he only mentions it in two sentences. If it hadn’t been for those two sentences in Suetonius and the one or two sentences in Acts, Chapter 18, we wouldn’t even know about such an event as Claudius expelling the Jews from Rome. Nobody else mentions it. Josephus doesn’t mention it, and yet he was alive at the time and he’s writing a History of the Jewish People. So we don’t know why they were select.
JC: So the assumption with a lot of these objections is that we know a lot more than we do in fact know from what you’re saying.
JC: I’ve got a couple of things that I wanted to ask you pretty much at random. I just came across these and this is one where in Mark’s gospel Jesus walks along with the disciples and he curses a fig tree one day, and then it’s the next day that he and his disciples go past that fig tree again and find it withered. In Matthew’s gospel he curses it and it withers immediately, so what can you do about this? There’s a gap in one gospel, another gospel says it was straight away. That surely is a contradiction, yeah?
ML: That’s easy. That is a literary device that Matthew is using that we would call ‘compression’. Plutarch used it often, other ancient authors used it, and it’s just simply Matthew abbreviating the account and compressing it, narrating it as though it happened on the same day, but it did not. Matthew compresses his accounts elsewhere like the raising from the dead of Jairus’ daughter. Luke compresses his account of Jesus’s resurrection and his post resurrection appearances. He puts everything: Easter, all the appearances, and the ascension in Jerusalem occurring on Easter. He compresses it. We know that he compresses it because in his sequel, the Book of Acts, Chapter 1, he says that it occurred over a period of forty days so he’s obviously compressing it and that’s what Matthew’s doing here with the fig tree.
JC: Ok, and you say there are plenty of examples from antiquity of people doing the same kind of thing outside of the biblical writings.
ML: Oh yeah.
JC: Alright, OK, I’m going to throw another one at you then. So, this is Peter walking on water in Matthew’s account. So in the case of the parallels in Mark and John they don’t have this extra element. Jesus walks on the water but it’s only in Matthew that the invitation is there for Peter to walk and then of course he starts to sink, etc. I’ve heard it explained that Matthew is creating something here for his community to benefit from – some sort of message about faith or something – so he’s adding this to the story. Do you buy that kind of explanation?
ML: Well, if I look at it purely historically, I have to say that is a possibility that Matthew invents the story, ok? I can’t prove that he did or did not. To be honest with you, I would expect this to appear in Mark’s gospel rather than Matthew’s because if the early church tradition is correct, and there’s no reason to doubt it, Mark got his information from Peter. Perhaps Mark omitted the story because he thought it cast a negative light on Peter and he was already having Jesus call Peter Satan, and having Peter deny Jesus and he didn’t want to put this further in there. I don’t know. We don’t know why they omitted things, but the same thing could be said of Plutarch and other ancient authors, why is it that they don’t mention certain things. It’s interesting to note, and this is even more of a surprise, Josephus did not mention his capture by the Romans in his autobiography. That’s huge.
JC: Yeah, on the assumption everybody knows anyway.
ML: Yeah, you would think he would have mentioned that in his autobiography. Do you know that neither Thucydides nor Herodotus, nor any of their contemporaries whose writings have survived, mentioned Rome or the Romans who were around at that time? Why didn’t they do that? We don’t know. So, why didn’t Mark and Luke mention Peter walking on water? Don’t know. They were selective in the things that they wrote. You know even in the resurrection appearances Luke mentions the appearance to the Emmaus disciples that no one else mentions. Matthew mentions the appearance in Galilee to the group as a whole, the others don’t necessarily do that; it’s implied in Mark. You know John narrates some appearance the others don’t. It could be that they each narrated appearances that the others weren’t, and they wanted to include those. I don’t know why the others don’t mention the walking on water. Does that mean Matthew made it up or invented it? No. Does it mean he didn’t? No.
JC: Right, but it does mean that we have to be very careful with the argument from silence. It’s not nearly as strong as it often is portrayed to be.
JC: Ok, a few more then. The Passion narratives. I’ve got a few things here. So, Jesus carried his own cross to the execution – that’s John’s gospel that says he carried his own cross, but the synoptic says that this guy Simon of Sirene was forced to carry the cross for Jesus, so we’ve got a contradiction here.
ML: I think what John is doing, and what the other gospel authors do at different times is that they are simplifying the account. The way I like to explain this is to say that those of us who are married clearly understand that there’s the ‘guy’ version of the story and there’s the ‘girl’ version of the story. Girls like details, lot of details. They want to know what happened, when, why and how it happened, who was there, what they were wearing, what they were saying or thinking and how they were feeling, and then they want to know how you feel about it after you now know the story. The guy version of the story: bullet points, keep it short, get to the main point. Now, of course I’m stereotyping, but we like bullet points, just get to the bottom line. If you need to abbreviate and alter details some, go for it. So it could be that John looks at this with Simon of Sirene. Mark had reason to mention it because he mentions Alexander and Rufus, Simon’s sons, which seems to suggest that Mark’s audience knew Alexander and Rufus, and so they could verify that account.
JC: Yes, indeed.
ML: When you come to John, maybe they didn’t know Simon, or his sons, and you think this is an insignificant detail, there’s really no theological significance to this, there’s no fulfilment of prophecy, and so John just simplifies the account and has Jesus carrying his cross.
JC: Ok, I think that’s very plausible. What about this one? This is harder, I think, anyway. The gospels are unclear as to which day Jesus was crucified. Can you help us with that?
ML: Yeah, that’s difficult because John narrates the crucifixion and death of Jesus to occur prior to the Passover meal, whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke narrate his crucifixion occurring after the Passover meal. So, Matthew is the clearest, say, and that the Last Supper was the Passover meal, and Mark and Luke are certainly in line with that. In John’s gospel Jesus celebrates the Last Supper; it’s almost certainly the last meal that is narrated in Matthew, Mark and Luke because Judas betrays Jesus. He’s said to betray Jesus here, he gets up from the table, a lot of the same things, Jesus predicts his betrayal and all that, but in Chapter 13 of John it starts off that the day of preparation was approaching and so Jesus told them to get a place. This is not a Passover meal that is being celebrated in John as John portrays it, and then, I think it’s in Chapter 18, the Jewish leaders deliver Jesus to Pilate, they don’t follow him in, so that they might not be defiled and could eat the Passover that evening. Again, John portrays the Passover meal to be celebrated after Jesus’ death, whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke have it before Jesus’ death. Mark says Jesus was crucified at 9 am, John places it around noon, so what’s going on here? I follow Craig Keener on this and I’ve looked at a number of different explanations. I’ve looked at David Brewer and what he says about this. I think he’s got a plausible explanation, but I think Keener has the one that I think is the most correct. Keener suggests that when you look at the Mishna, he recognises it’s probably 2nd century tradition, but the Mishna says that when the Passover fell on the Sabbath, then the burnt offerings which are typically offered on the Sabbath, are pushed back two hours to accommodate the slaughtering of the Passover lambs. The burnt offerings are typically offered around 2.30 in the afternoon. You push that back about two hours, and what do you have? You have the timing at around 12.30, or around noontime. So, what Keener suggests is that John alters the day and the time of Jesus’ crucifixion in order to make theological points to say that Jesus is the burned offering for our sins and he’s our Passover lamb.
ML: Theological doctrines from Paul, decades before John wrote, said the same thing. And Plutarch and others do the same thing. They displace events from their original location or time, and they transplant them elsewhere in order to make certain theological or political or philosophical points, and John does this elsewhere, so it shouldn’t surprise us that he does that here.
JC: Ok, so we’re back to this question of genre again, so if this was an acceptable thing to do within that genre, it really is out of place for us to come along and say hey, that’s just a contradiction because we’re being unsophisticated in our approach to the text. Now, you say John does it elsewhere. Would you say this also accounts for the fact that he puts the turning of the tables in the temple courts towards the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, whereas the others put it towards the end?
ML: Yes, now that doesn’t prove that Jesus didn’t do it on two occasions, because perhaps he did, but it would certainly be a very plausible explanation for why John has it at the beginning of Jesus’ Ministry. It may be to make a theological point about Jesus’ preaching because there he says destroy this temple in three days and raise it, and he’s referring to his body John says, so it could be to make the theological point that Jesus is there to challenge the Jewish leadership and that he does become the temple; he inaugurates a new covenant. John does it elsewhere: so, for example, the woman anointing Jesus for his burial mentioned in Matthew, Mark and John, possibly mentioned in Luke but the story in Luke, although it has a number of similarities, is so different, and could be referring to another occasion. I think it may be, it probably is, but certainly Matthew, Mark and John. Matthew and Mark say that the woman anointed Jesus two days before Passover, whereas John places it six days prior to Passover. This seems to be the same account because the woman does the same thing, the perfume is worth the same amount, the people who were present give the same objection, and Jesus’ response is the same, so to think that it happened six days and then happened again two days is implausible, it’s a strain. People account for this differently. Darrel Bock, an evangelical scholar over here, told me that Mark adjusted it and changed the day to two days because he says Jesus says this is done in preparation for my burial. Mark changes it, Matthew follows him, because Mark wants to make it closer to the Passion. I think what’s going on here when I read Lucian of Samosata, who wrote in the middle of the 2nd century, and he wrote a book called How To Write History, one of the few books that has survived from antiquity, and in there he talks about narrative, that when you’re writing a history or biography the narrative should not be comprised of disjointed stories, but the stories are to be linked together and with overlapping material when possible, like links of a chain. So think about this for a moment. You go to John’s gospel, and what do you have? I think it’s Chapter 11 where you have Lazarus being raised from the dead, and you’ve got Lazarus, Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters in that narrative, and the very next chapter it transitions to this woman anointing Jesus, who is Mary the sister of Lazarus. So could it be that John’s looking at this saying, “Mmm, you know I just told the story of Lazarus rising from the dead, and you know what I’ve got another story mentioning Mary, I’ve got another story about her so why don’t I just tell it here”, and so he links the two stories together in this narrative. Mary is the overlapping material and then in order to do that he displaces it from its original context of two days before Passover and he transplants it to six days before Passover because this all occurs before Palm Sunday.
JC: Now that certainly sounds very plausible. So, the principal of overlapping is more important than just sticking to the actual chronological order?
ML: Exactly, you’re putting it together in an artistic manner. We probably don’t have time to talk about this, but we can keep going on, right, but I’m saying this gets a little more in depth, but we can see that there are numerous places in the gospels when you compare the chronology, there are different kinds of chronologies. There’s what we would call a ‘specific’ or ‘firm’ chronology, where they actually make statements like two days or six days before Passover, or on the following day, or they went from there and went here, where it’s a ‘firm’ chronology. There are other times when there’s an inferred or implied chronology that seems to be suggestive, intimated that this is the way things happened chronologically, but it’s not required, the language is vague enough that it’s not required. And then you might have ‘floating’ chronology where it just said: “On another occasion this occurred. . .” and so they’re just put together for some reason but, are not necessarily linked or tied together. Well, there are numerous occasions where you have this intimated or even ‘firm’ chronology that goes on that are contradictory within the gospels, and so I think what the gospel authors are doing here when they displace events – which they do, we can show they do on numerous occasions, just like other ancient historians and biographers did – is, in order to link these together in a narrative, insert what we might refer to as ‘synthetic’ or ‘artificial’ chronological links in order to link these narratives together so that they aren’t disjointed. So, the stories actually happened but the actual stated chronology, even if it’s a ‘firm’ or ‘specified’ chronology, may not necessarily be the way that they were done, but they put that in there artificially or synthetically in order to link them together to make a good narrative.
JC: That is a fascinating explanation. That’s very appealing.
ML: And we do see other ancient authors doing this. This is within the genre of Graeco-Roman biography. It’s following the literary rules of the day.
JC: Yes, absolutely. You’re not just picking explanations out of thin air, you’re finding parallels with other writing, which substantiate what you’re saying. I appreciate that absolutely. Ok, well, let me just ask you one more about this kind of thing here, the Passion narrative area. We have criminals crucified with Jesus. Mark says that these criminals heaped insults upon Jesus, but Luke has one of the criminals say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom”, and Jesus responds, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” So it looks like in one picture we have here of abuse and the other picture we have here of one person coming to faith in Christ.
ML: There are a couple of explanations that present themselves to us. One, you could say, that Luke invented the story. I’m not saying I believe, I’m just saying there are various possibilities that we should be open to as historians as we look at these. Remember, I’m not presupposing inerrancy or divine inspiration, or any of that, or any particular view. But, you could say that Luke invented it because Jesus did teach that you could be forgiven no matter what you had done, just like in the parable of the Prodigal Son where you can come back even after you’ve ruined things in your own life. Maybe Luke is illustrating that in a way to say that even if you are a criminal, you could at the end of your life repent and receive forgiveness, and he illustrates this teaching that Jesus actually gave during his lifetime, so he’s not inventing a teaching, he’s just illustrating it through this, right? I don’t believe that that’s what happened. I don’t see this kind of liberty, I don’t see Luke doing this throughout his gospel, so I don’t think that’s what’s going on.
JC: It’s a live option.
ML: It’s a live option. Another option would be that the repentance of the robber wasn’t important for Mark to illustrate, so he just simplifies his account and doesn’t mention it. Another option is that they both occurred. When they were all put up on the cross, both robbers rejected Jesus, and heaped insults on him, and then later on the one thief repented. Maybe he was impressed by the way he saw Jesus responding to those who were executing him. “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing”, or things like that.
JC: Yeah. I find that very plausible. The whole idea of trying to harmonise gospel accounts has come into disrepute, really, hasn’t it? It’s very unfashionable to do that, but I don’t see why one shouldn’t try to do that. Do you think that part of the reason for that is because it has been done so badly in the past? I think of one example that I do think is quite bad with Harold Lindsell and The Battle for the Bible trying to deal with the differences between the accounts of Peter’s denial of Jesus and ending up with six denials of Jesus instead of three, which is clearly indicated. Do you think it’s that kind of thing that’s led to this dismissive attitude towards trying to harmonise them?
ML: I do. I do think that these harmonisation efforts are legitimate. In some cases you can do it, and in some cases you shouldn’t do it. In a case like Lindsell, he, I think, was guilty of, as many are, in order to preserve their inflexible, wooden view of the text and how it must read because that’s the way they think God should have inspired it and had it written. They end up subjecting the biblical text to a sort of hermeneutic waterboarding until they tell them what they want to hear. I think that does violence to the text. In many of these cases the texts aren’t meant to be harmonised if these compositional devices that ancient historians and biographers would employ like compression, displacement, transferral, spotlighting, all these kinds of things, if these are what’s going on, you shouldn’t try to harmonise the accounts.
JC: So you need to take it on a case by case basis, and there’s nothing wrong with harmonisation if it is indeed a legitimate thing to do at that particular point.
JC: Can I ask about some of the thorny ones about the resurrection narratives because these are the things that people often point to and say, well, there are so many difficulties with the resurrection that it’s difficult to take it seriously at all? Now obviously I don’t agree with that. Here are some of the things that they bring up: Why is it that Mark doesn’t even include an account of the resurrection sightings at the end of his gospel? That’s generally accepted to be the earliest gospel. Does that not cast doubt on the resurrection accounts in the other gospels?
ML: No, because before Mark was ever written we’ve got Paul, and he mentions the resurrection of Jesus. As I mentioned at the beginning of the broadcast, we can trace the apostolic teaching of the resurrection back to the apostles just by using Paul, and we can do it with a very high degree of certainty. So, that’s one thing. Another thing is that Mark does mention the empty tomb, he just doesn’t mention the appearances, and most scholars, including myself, agree that Mark ends Chapter 16, verse 8, and that Chapter 16 verses 9 through 20 were later added. These are those verses that talk about picking up poisonous snakes and drinking poison, and things like that. Most scholars do agree that these were later added. So, why would Mark not narrate the appearances? Did Mark know about the appearances? Well, I think Mark would certainly have known about the appearances, because on multiple occasions he has Jesus predicting his death and resurrection, and even in Chapter 14, verse 28, he has Jesus saying, “Look, after I’ve been raised from the dead, I’m going to go ahead of you into Galilee and there you will see me.” And then in Chapter 16, verse 7, the angel tells the women, “Go and tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus has gone ahead of you into Galilee. Go up there and see him. You’ll see him there just as he told you.” So, Mark seems to know about the appearance, and then again the appearances were mentioned prior to Mark even being written, and were talked about by the apostles. So, the question is: “Why doesn’t Mark narrate an appearance?” If we believe, as most scholars, that verses 9 through 20, which talk about the appearances, were actually a later Christian interpolation from the 2nd or 3rd century, well there are about as many opinions on why Mark did this as there are New Testament scholars who comment on it.
JC: Yes, ok. What’s your opinion then?
ML: Well, either Mark intended to end his gospel here for any number of reasons that are unknown to us, and we can only speculate, or, as what I would hold with a number of significant, though a minority, New Testament scholars, is that Mark’s ending has either been lost or he was unable to complete it, he died, for example, or for whatever reason; I don’t know which to choose between those.
JC: But do you think it’s plausible that Mark ended it that way as a kind of question mark, although he affirmed the resurrection nevertheless, on a kind of dramatic note to say “Ah! what comes next?” Do you think that’s plausible?
ML: As numerous scholars have suggested, he left it out because this is the written text of what was to be an oral performance, and in that case you end like that and people say, “Ah! well what now?” And that silence is to get them reflecting because they already know about the appearances and so the “Ah!” I guess we’re the witnesses, we’re the ones to go out and tell about the resurrection. You know, I don’t know. I think some of these are so speculative. We just don’t know. I don’t really find any of the reasons I’ve heard to be compelling, so that’s why I’m inclined to believe that Mark’s ending has been lost. Maybe it’s preserved by Matthew, or maybe it’s preserved by Luke, or Mark was unable to complete it. There are just no reports in the early church. They struggled with why Mark ended the gospel so abruptly, but nobody says anything about it.
JC: Ok, Matthew and Mark give us one angel in the empty tomb; Luke and John give us two angels. Right, so how many angels were there?
ML: My guess would be that there were two and that Matthew or Mark is using a literary device. It’s the most common literary device I found in Plutarch and I call it ‘literary spotlighting’. It’s kind of like this: you’re at a theatrical performance and there are multiple characters on stage, and all of a sudden the lights go off and the spotlight shines on a single person, you know others are present, but the spotlight is on that particular person because he/she is the most important one. There’s emphasis on that person for one reason or another. Again Plutarch does this on tons of occasions. Again, it’s the most common literary device I find in Plutarch. So, it could very well be the case that the reason we have one angel in Mark is because Mark is shining his literary spotlight on the angel who is doing the talking, the announcing, that Jesus has been raised, and Matthew’s following Mark on that. Luke and John have two. We find literary spotlighting on two more occasions throughout the resurrection narratives.
JC: I was just thinking actually of asking you. Do you think the same thing is going on with Mary Magdalene, who gets the sole mention at the empty tomb, in John’s Gospel? But we’ve got other characters, haven’t we, in the synoptic gospels, but is John just highlighting that?
ML: Yes. I’m certain that John is shining his literary spotlight on Mary because she’s the major woman. That’s John, Chapter 20, verse 1, where it’s Mary Magdalene that goes to the tomb and finds it empty. But notice what happens: she runs back in verse 2 and she tells Peter and the beloved disciple that they have taken the Lord and ‘we’ don’t know where they have laid him. Who is ‘we’? – kind of interesting. And then you look at John’s gospel and what does it say? “Peter and the beloved disciple ran to the empty tomb and they found it just as Mary had said and they went home.” whereas in Luke’s gospel when the women came back and reported the tomb empty, it says, “Peter got up and ran to the tomb and found it empty as the women had said, and then he went home.” So, which is it? Is it just Peter or is it Peter and the beloved disciple?” as John says. We read twelve verses later in the gospel of Luke, in Chapter 24, where the Emmaus disciples are talking with Jesus. It says, “…their eyes were kept from recognising him” and Jesus said, “Why the long faces, guys?” and they respond, “Are you the only one in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what’s going on over the last couple of days?” And Jesus says, “Tell me”. “Well, there’s this Jesus, he’s a prophet, we thought he was a Messiah, but they crucified him on Friday and then some of the women went to the tomb this morning where they saw some angels who said he’d been raised from the dead, the tomb was empty. And then some of our own went to the tomb and found it as the women had said.” “Wait a minute, Luke, you said just twelve verses later just Peter.” I think Luke would say, “I didn’t say just Peter, I only mentioned Peter because he’s the lead disciple, he’s the most important one here, but I obviously know of others because twelve verses later I say ‘some of our own’” – plurality there. So, again I could show this in Plutarch, I could show this in Josephus, it’s common throughout ancient literature, ancient historiography and biography. I’m certain this is what’s going on in the gospels, even though we can’t get into a time machine, go back and verify it, I think it’s the most plausible explanation for why we find one versus two angels, Mary versus multiple women, and Peter versus Peter and the beloved disciple running to the empty tomb.
JC: Well, thank you very much indeed for those insights; I think that’s fantastic. Have you a little bit of time just to answer a couple of questions about John’s Gospel?
JC: I know this doesn’t centre in your research, but John’s gospel is one of the things that causes a headache for people when often it’s looked upon as being just a theological book and not concerned with history, but I do understand that although that’s been fashionable to look at it that way for many years, recent scholarship is challenging that. It is said now that there’s much more history in John than perhaps a lot of people thought. Anyway, nevertheless, why is it that Jesus himself does sound so different in John’s gospel from the synoptic gospels?
ML: Wow! What a great question. Well, here’s my thought on it. I have to admit I’m not a Johannine scholar, so these are just my thoughts after reading a lot of Plutarch, after reading John’s gospel eight times in Greek, and after reading First John a dozen times in Greek. What’s really interesting is I read First John a dozen times and then I turned to John’s gospel, so I was just amazed at how similar Jesus in John’s gospel sounds to John in First John. The grammar and the vocabulary style are so similar that in my mind, even though scholars dispute this, when I read these in Greek multiple times, it seems like a slam dunk that whoever wrote John also wrote First John. So, I look at that and wonder if Jesus spoke in such a way, similar to how married couples tend to morph in the way they say things and become as one in their mannerisms the longer they’re married, could it be that John, who was a beloved disciple very close to Jesus, and so he tried to sound like Jesus, and developed a style that was like Jesus. The other option is that John paraphrased Jesus in his own words. That’s what I’m inclined to think. I think that if we want to know more about what Jesus might have sounded like, and the actual words that Jesus spoke, you have to go to the synoptics – Mathew, Mark and Luke. If you want to get the voice of Jesus, the message, John still preserves that just like the synoptics do. Sometimes he preserves it more clearly than the synoptics do, but he certainly preserves the voice of Jesus, the same message, so he’s giving us the gist of what Jesus said.
JC: Is this what theologians talk about – I think I’ve got the Latin right here – is that the ipsissima verba is the actual words, but the ipsissima vox is the voice, the message. Is that right?
ML: Precisely. So I think that explains a lot of the difference there.
JC: So, if I take something like where Jesus says: “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Do you think it’s plausible? One time the Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, over here said that, and I think he puts it in quite an extreme way, but it’s an interesting thought, where he says something like: I don’t think Jesus ever said that “I am the way, the truth and the life.” But I think that John was absolutely right to say that of him. Now that could be taken as a dreadful, compromising thing to say, but what he’s saying is “could it be John is in fact compressing the teaching of Jesus into these highly symbolic sayings, and the voice of Jesus is preserved in that?”
ML: I think that’s entirely plausible. We can’t prove anything one way or another, and according to the rules of ancient biography you could have done that. Now you’re not allowed in ancient biography to invent speeches whole cloth; you’re not supposed to, ok? According to people like Thucydides and Polybius and Lucian, when you reproduce speeches, you are to do your best in reproducing them as accurately as possible according to what you may have heard and recall, and what other eyewitnesses may have heard and recall. You put that together and reconstruct that speech, and you are allowed to reconstruct it in such a way as to show off your skill as an orator. There’s no way you’re going to be able to do it word for word, you’re going to get concepts in there, you’re going to get the gist of things. You may combine what that person said on different occasions, like most New Testament scholars, evangelical scholars, believe Matthew did in the Sermon on the Mount. But, you are not allowed to invent something that that person would not have said.
JC: No, I’m just speculating here, so it’s possible that Jesus might have said on one occasion things like “I am the way, follow me.” and on other occasions, “If you want to know the truth, you follow me because I am the truth, and if you want to know the resurrection and the life, follow me because I am the life”, and it all gets compressed into one statement. That is plausible?
ML: Yes, and he just paraphrases what Jesus said. You know Jesus made similar statements in the synoptics. I think of Matthew, 11:27, where Jesus says “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son, and to whomever the Son chooses to reveal Him.” So, it’s obvious there from what Jesus says He is the only way that you’re going to know God.
JC: That’s very much like John’s Gospel actually.
ML: Well, it very much is, especially when you look at the verses that come immediately after that. They are so Johannine in their flavour that you have scholars refer to it as the “Johannine Thunderbolt”, or as Ben Witherington calls it, giving it more emphasis, the “Johannine Meteorite”. It’s so strong, it sounds like John, but of course it’s written before John, so it could very well be the case that John is taking the actual teaching of Jesus here - that is the only way – and paraphrasing it in his own words to get the gist, the voice, the ipsissima vox, as you said.
JC: Ok, why is it that we don’t get any mention of the raising of Lazarus. This is an amazing miracle that takes place in John’s gospel. This man has been dead for days and is brought back to life by Jesus, yet Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t say anything about it.
ML: Yeah, well why is it that Ulysses S. Grant doesn’t mention the emancipation proclamation, why is it that Josephus doesn’t mention his capture by the Romans in his autobiography, one of the biggest events of his entire life. We just don’t know those things, but you could say the same thing: Why doesn’t John mention the parables and exorcisms of Jesus? These were huge. Like every historian of Jesus will say one thing we can know from the evidence is that Jesus taught in parables, Jesus exorcised demons, so why aren’t these mentioned in John’s gospel? He’s got different emphases that he wants to make. Why is it that Luke is the only one who mentions the raising of the widow’s son, why doesn’t John mention the raising of Jairus’ daughter? Well, John knowing that the synoptics were around, you know he said at the end of his gospel in Chapters 20 and 21, that there are many other things that Jesus did, right, and so if he knew the story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the widow’s son as has already been said, maybe he wants to include some stories like the raising of Lazarus that the synoptics chose not to include, because they were limited. Let’s face it, ancient biographies, according to what scholars are saying, - Richard Burridge had done the most authoritative and specific work on this – the typical biography was somewhere between ten and twenty-five thousand words, the maximum would be about twenty-five thousand words because that’s about what you could get on a scroll, and so they’re going to be select. So, John, if he’s writing after the synoptics, would want to include some events that the synoptics left out. That would make perfect sense why he includes certain things the synoptics don’t.
JC: Would you say this is the same kind of thing then where you have the farewell discourse, the massive teaching that Jesus gives to his disciples just before his death, and yet the synoptics don’t say anything about that, so would you say well they’re just omitting that because that’s not part of what they want to include in their gospel?
ML: Exactly, exactly. They’re just being select just like every other historian was select.
JC: But do you think that perhaps we’re stretching that explanation considering just how different John is from the other gospels. I’ve just noted down a few of the things, which are in John’s gospel, not in the synoptics. So, we have the conversation with Nicodemus, we have Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman, we have Jesus teaching about the bread of life, we’ve got the healing of the man born blind, we could go on and on and on. Do you think we’re going so far as to stretch this explanation a little bit too far?
ML: I don’t. Listen, I’m open to that kind of stuff. It’s like I said, I can’t prove some things, I can’t prove that some of this isn’t invented by the gospel. As an historian I’ve got to be open to various explanations, and in my view you’ve got to come to the scriptures and develop your view of the scriptures based on what we observe in scriptures, rather than squeeze in the gospels to fit your preconceived view of it, so I’m trying to be open to various things, but I really just don’t see any real problem with that. Yes, Jesus talks about a man born blind in John’s gospel who wasn’t mentioned in the rest, but the synoptics talk about people who were born blind, where he heals them, that were not mentioned in the gospel of John. Similar kind of miracle, similar kind of raising of the dead, similar kind of healing blind people, but he uses different instances, he never narrates post resurrection appearances and things like that. That said, I do think that John exercises greater flexibility in his Life of Jesus, in his gospel, in the way he reports what happens than Matthew, Mark and Luke do. He paraphrases things much more loosely, he probably conflates certain events and teachings, something that Plutarch did, something that Josephus did, something that other ancient historians and biographers did, but he does it more than Matthew, Mark and Luke do. Do I understand all that he does? No. I probably side with another scholar on your side of the pond, N.T. Wright, who once said the gospel of John for him is much like his wife. He loves her but doesn’t always understand her.
JC: [Laughter] That’s a very good way of putting it indeed, and I do have to say that I do find John’s gospel absolutely compelling, and I learned an awful lot from it. But, yes, it is perplexing at times, but maybe that’s part of the way faith should be actually, that we shouldn’t have all the answers immediately in front of us, but have to struggle with things a little bit, and I do think you’ve given us loads of ways in which to help through that struggle actually. It’s been a fascinating conversation. Before we close, is there anything major in what you’ve learned over these years in looking at this kind of thing that you think we’ve not talked about in this conversation that you think we ought to include?
ML: No, I think I tried to express my main point at the beginning that would say we’ve got to put these gospel differences into perspective. It’s the resurrection that confirms the truth of Christianity; it’s not biblical inerrancy or anything like that. Another point that I wanted to make is we should develop our view of the scriptures based on what we observe in the scriptures. This is something that the late and great New Testament scholar, F.F. Bruce, counselled students of the bible to do, and then I think harmonisation efforts are legitimate at times, but I think in a lot of cases the gospels aren’t meant to be harmonised, that the reason we see the overwhelming, more than 90% of the differences we see in the gospels – well over 90% – is because they were using the compositional devices that are taught in the compositional text books like from Thion, Hermogenes, Quintilian, John of Sardis, Athonius and others, and that can be inferred through looking at what Plutarch did in telling the same story on multiple occasions in his different biographies, what Josephus did when he is reporting the same story in his autobiography, as well as The Jewish Wars, when we see how Jospehus employed the kind of flexibility he did in looking at the scripture. When we look at the New Testament authors to see how they actually reproduce the Old Testament scriptures and the kind of paraphrasing and alterations that they could do to it. If they’re willing to do that to the Old Testament scripture, of course they’re going to be willing to do that with the words of Jesus and what happened, but they’re just doing the same stuff that other ancient biographers and historians did. We should not pause at that; it’s just a matter of understanding ancient biography. We may not be able to come exactly and derive what we would have seen precisely had we been there and videotaped or taken photographs of the events. We look at the gospels as they are producing an accurate gist of what Jesus said and did on various occasions, and I think once we recalibrate our thinking on that, then the gospels become clearer, and these discrepancies just melt away.
JC: Yeah, I think you’ve given us some excellent tools to do that, so we really do need to factor into our reading these questions of genre and convention of the day and we need to be sensitive to that, and not immediately react and say, “Well, I don’t understand that, there’s something really wrong here.” But we need to take those things that you’ve said and really have those at least in the back of our minds when we’re thinking about these things, and put the questions on the shelf and say well, maybe their future light will come to get rid of that problem with a little bit of extra research, so I’m very grateful to you for joining us to lead us down this particular pathway, because I think it’s a very valuable one for us to follow.
Now you have a website called RisenJesus. Do you have lots of resources on there that could help people to continue researching this?
ML: I do. I have a number of lectures on the gospels, and just on various things. I have short videos I call musings. You know when you just see some things in ancient literature, you have some thoughts. They’re like 3 to 4-minute videos that try to provide some insights. A number of my debates with Bart Ehrman and others, atheists, agnostics, liberal Christians, Muslims, with whom I’ve had public debates, the videos and audio recordings of those are on my website.
JC: Do you have articles up there and book lists and that kind of thing?
ML: I don’t have book lists, but I do have a number of articles. Some are very popular, some more academic. In fact one of the questions you brought up, Julian, had to do with historians investigating miracle claims, and in the December issue of last year for The Journal for the Study of The Historical Jesus, I actually had an article there that critiqued the view or proposition of one of my colleagues, who said that we should go by a methodological naturalism that keeps miracles out of it. Then I criticised that view in that journal article, so it’s an academic article that interacts with this kind of argument and that is posted on my website for free viewing.
JC: That sounds fascinating as well. That is a very interesting question actually, isn’t it? Yes, should methodological naturalism always be followed, or is it in fact a bit of a red herring? I think that’s something I need to look at here on the podcast. What resources would you generally recommend? I read many years ago actually Craig Blomberg’s book, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels and, I think, half of The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel, would you recommend those, or other resources?
ML: Oh, I would definitely recommend those two books by Blomberg. If I had to only read one book on the historical reliability of the gospels, it would be that book The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Craig Blomberg. In 2007 he came out with a second edition; he expanded it quite significantly, and it is just a phenomenal book. So I think that’s a great book. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham I think is a fantastic book. I mean there is just a number of great ones out there. The Jesus Legend, I think, by Eddy N. Boyd, I think, is a very good one. I remember Craig Evans saying that was the kind of book he wishes he had written.
JC: Yeah, that’s a recommendation, certainly.
ML: The one book, I think, that is the best is The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Blomberg. It’s a really good book.
JC: Got to get that definitely. Well, as I said before, thank you ever so much Dr. Licona for coming on. It’s been wonderful to speak to you and it really has been – and I know I often say fascinating conversation – but this has truly been fascinating, because there are so many useful things that you’ve said to us here, and I think it’s going to help people. Certainly, it’s going to help me, but I think it’s going to help a lot of other people as well, so thank you ever so much indeed for joining us on The Mind Renewed.
ML: Well, thank you Julian. I’ve really enjoyed it. You’ve been a great host and this has been fun. Let’s do it again sometime.