Thursday, February 22, 2018

Why do I write in response to Dr. Licona's ideas?

There is a strange talking point that I'm seeing amongst Dr. Licona's supporters, and I have a little trouble getting a handle on it. But it amounts more or less to saying that they cannot understand why I am writing so much in response to his book, because "his ideas" were already advocated by other evangelical scholars previously, so why am I focusing on his work in particular? See also here.

It seems like there may be some hint in all of this, though usually unstated, that I must have some personal vendetta against Dr. Licona or else I wouldn't write so much about his work.

This meme comes up so often that I gather that somewhere folks sit around and say it to one another over and over again, until they think it is some kind of deep point, and then it comes out in public forums.

This really puzzles me. To begin with, if someone is a fan of Licona's work, presumably he thinks that work is doing something. If someone values his work, then he must think it is serving some function. Licona wrote a fairly recent book and, rumor has it, he is working on new projects. (One would expect a scholar to be doing so.) Meanwhile he gives speeches and debates in which he heavily promotes the ideas from his book. His ideas are popular; they are getting a lot of buzz in the evangelical community. If you agree with his ideas, presumably you think this is having some effect. His supporters presumably don't want to say, "Nah, never mind reading Licona's work. There's nothing new there at all. Evangelicals and their leading scholars knew all of this before. It's completely redundant." I'm sure that isn't what they think.

But in that case, if one disagrees with the ideas (as I do), and if one thinks they are seriously harmful to our view of the Gospels, then presumably one thinks it is not a good thing that they are being popularized and promoted so heavily in the wake of Licona's book and that they are becoming so widely accepted. Right? So then presumably one thinks it is worthwhile to write and argue against them.

Even if various scholars have said some of the same things Licona is saying now (I'll return to that below), it is sociologically unusual to have a book by an evangelical scholar that so consistently and systematically promotes fictionalization in the Gospels and that attempts to popularize the concept within relatively conservative Christian circles. So someone who takes my perspective on the ideas thinks that this relatively recent sociological movement within conservative Christian circles, going out to an increasingly wide audience in the apologetics community, seminaries, etc., needs to be spoken out against.

Moreover, given that I'm almost the only person doing so, it takes quite a bit of work to try to cover the bases and get the word out that there is a contrary view of the matter.

Another point: Licona’s book is also unusual in that it makes a claim to be based on specialized, original research into the culture of the time when the Gospels were written. He claims to have brought new, objective, historical research to the table. Because most people (including scholars) are not going to go and check up on this claim, it will tend to nail in place the legitimacy of fictionalization devices in the Gospels in people's minds. The idea will be that this has just been discovered, that we just know this now about the cultural background of the Gospels. Again, presumably that is the effect Licona himself is aiming for. Why wouldn't it be? That's what he sincerely believes. In his book (p. 201) he tells people that they need to take on his view like "new glasses" and get used to it despite "initial discomfort."

That, too, needs to be answered, and once again, I'm pretty much the only person doing that. I don't know of a single other person who has gone back and looked up as many of Licona's putative Plutarch examples and other examples from Roman history, nor who has written about such examples at length, showing that they do not stand up to scrutiny. (By the way, it takes so long to write up Plutarch examples that I could fit only a few into that post. If you have a specific example that you are interested in, feel free to write me personally at lydiamcgrew [at] and ask about it.) Once again, you can't have it both ways: You can't claim that Licona is doing special, new, helpful scholarship on the Gospels based on Greco-Roman literature but then tell someone who disagrees with him that they shouldn't be writing about him in particular, because Licona is just repeating things that others have previously said anyway.

Now, about this idea that "other people" have agreed with Licona's ideas. This takes a variety of different forms, and they need to be distinguished.

1) There is confusion about different uses of terms like "compression" and "telescoping." See my first bad habit of New Testament scholars in my talk, here. Not every scholar who says that a Gospel author "telescoped" is talking about a fictionalizing device. Licona is unusual in that he is fairly consistently promoting an unequivocally fictionalizing set of concepts that go by such names ("telescoping" or "compression" or "not narrating chronologically"), though he occasionally speaks unclearly as well. So some scholars who might be said to be "saying the same thing" are not actually saying the same thing.

2) There is promotion of Licona's work, with or without careful examination of all its details. But if another scholar (such as William Lane Craig, for example) has been influenced by Licona's work and has made endorsing remarks in the past several years, then that makes it all the more relevant to go back to the influencing source and to show that it doesn't stand up to examination.

3) There are a handful of fairly popular fictionalizations that have worked their way into the evangelical community and have become standardized. I probably don't have a complete list, but they at least include the allegation that John moved the Temple cleansing and that Luke tried to make it look like Jesus ascended on Easter Day. These are badly wrong, and their popularity is highly unfortunate. I am by no means unaware of their popularity, including their endorsement by authors such as Dr. Keener (Temple cleansing movement) and Dr. Craig (both of these examples) whom I respect, and if anyone thinks I was unaware, please take this for a clear, public acknowledgement. I would love to have a chance to convince them otherwise. (I'm glad to be able to add that someone like Dr. Craig has so much other incredibly valuable work that his endorsement of these views of these passages is not central to his work, as of course it is to Licona's.)

Licona's work places these unfortunate lapses by evangelical scholars into an alleged historical context that will (to repeat) make it even harder for people (both the other scholars and those who learn these ideas from them) to realize that they are incorrect. His work also promotes and systematizes a mindset according to which fictionalizations on the part of Gospel authors were frequent and expected. Nobody else who falls into his perceived ideological niche is doing that right now. He also goes much farther than these few popular and accepted fictionalizations, and I strongly suspect that some who have promoted his work do not know about all of his ideas and would not endorse all of them by any means if they knew of all of them that are out there. My post series shows how he does so. His work will therefore take these few popular examples and use them as a wedge that will cause many to think that they should accept a much, much longer list, including even more radical examples, of frequent, broad fictionalizations by the Gospel authors.

The evangelical community needs to go back and reconsider those popular examples. Licona's work attempts to move them in exactly the wrong direction into even more acceptance of fictionalization than is already popular, and this is yet another reason why it is highly relevant to respond to it.

It is simply sloppy thinking to use a phrase like "Other people have said these same things" without specifying which same things and how many of the same things. That is an illicit attempt to use well-known and respected names to bolster Licona's views. We need to make distinctions.

4) Behind closed doors at various scholarly meetings, particularly the SBL and also to some degree the ETS, the "guild" of evangelical scholars, especially those who view themselves in a congratulatory fashion as less "rigid" than the old-style inerrantists, do tend to affirm one another in views that include Licona's among them as not (yet) the most radical. This is why Licona could rhetorically position himself as somewhat of a moderate when Craig A. Evans agreed with Bart Ehrman that Jesus probably never uttered the "I am" statements (or "I and the Father are one") in an historically recognizable form. Licona said that he "wouldn't go as far as" Evans did, though he declared himself agnostic on the matter and spent quite a number of pixels in various places giving arguments for Evans's views! ("This is why scholars think..." "By no means would this mean that the Gospels are unreliable..." Etc.)

This interaction of the guild is also borne out in the fact that a couple of Licona's more...interesting theories in Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? were not original with him but rather came from Dan B. Wallace. It was, according to Licona (which I have verified) Wallace who originally suggested that Jesus never literally said either "I thirst" or "It is finished" but that these were John's "redactions" of prima facie completely different historical sayings.

So it is true that Licona is being influenced here by other people as well as influencing them. Obviously, groups of scholars influence each other. But here, too, Licona's recent work is unusual in that it is more open, more publicly promoted, more systematic, and more popular than the work of these other people. Indeed, it is quite difficult to get hold of a copy of Dan Wallace's paper in which he promoted those views about the words from the cross. I have a copy, sent to me upon request by Wallace himself, but only with the caveat that I must not publish the paper on "social media." I can state that he does take the positions Licona attributes to him, but this is just because Licona had already published that fact in his own book (pp. 165-166), so I'm not telling anybody anything that wasn't already out there. As can be imagined, there is more in Wallace's paper. It isn't just about those two sayings. But Wallace is refusing to publish it.

Similarly, a lot of people had not even seen the video clip of Craig Evans agreeing with Bart Ehrman about the "I am" statements. So Licona is promoting a certain view of and attitude toward the Gospels to an extent that these other scholars are not and to an audience that they are not reaching.

Moreover, as a round table like this one shows, Licona is a part of the whole mix and is promoting his ideas to other scholars as well as to pastors and laymen. So he is a kind of bridge between the two worlds--the "inner circles" of evangelical scholarship and the popular apologists and laymen. Within the evangelical scholarly world, he continues to press on those like Craig Blomberg and Darrell Bock and others, who have (in some ways) better instincts than he does about interpreting Scripture, to try to get them to agree with his views.

All that being said, I absolutely do not shy away for a moment from criticizing a wide swathe of evangelical New Testament scholars for their views when I think they are wrong. I am puzzled and to some extent frustrated by the "meme" to which I'm responding in this post, because of all the people writing in these areas right now, I'm one of the few who is saying most emphatically that the entire discipline, including its evangelical wing, has (in my view) major problems and needs to make a course correction.

There was a pretty large kerfuffle about what Craig A. Evans said about the "I am" statements last fall, both on Facebook (on the wall of Jonathan McLatchie) and on my blog. Originally attention was focused on Evans. He was the one sitting on a stage agreeing with Bart Ehrman about the "I am" statements. I was rather surprised when Licona decided to defend Evans. What more am I (or is anyone else) supposed to do? Pronounce unpleasant ritualistic curses on other scholars in order to prove to Licona's supporters that we realize that he is not alone in his misguided ideas? Would that do? Believe me, I know it well. He does quite deliberately put so many misguided things all in one place, though, that responding to him is, ipso facto, often responding to others as well.

I don't know whether this weird complaint should even be replied to or not. Scholarship is scholarship. When you write a book, you should expect to receive disagreement as well as agreement. Nobody who supports your book should be out there asking, "Why are you criticizing him?" Because he wrote a currently influential book, and because I think it's badly wrong, and because nobody else is writing a systematic critique. It's scholarship, and scholars answer scholars. That's what we do. I certainly hope no one would ever defend Hidden in Plain View, or me, in such a bizarre way. If some other scholar decides to go systematically through Hidden in Plain View and try to say that it's all badly misguided, I would of course disagree with him, but I hope that no one who supports me would be out there telling him that he shouldn't do it because I'm not the only person in the world ever to promote undesigned coincidences. That would just be strange. I bill myself as doing new and exciting scholarship, so of course I should expect that someone who thinks it is all wrong would focus on me. Why wouldn't they?

This all seems so obvious that it should not need to be said. But if you happen to run in apologetics circles and see this meme going around, feel free to link to this post or use its arguments as they seem most relevant. And for those promoting the meme, please consider how silly it looks. Try instead grappling directly with my arguments on the substantive issues.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

J. P. Moreland endorses my critique of Michael Licona

I'm grateful to renowned evangelical scholar J. P. Moreland for his endorsement of my recent work on Mike Licona as well as for his endorsement of Hidden in Plain View. This post went up on his official blog today. See his post for all relevant links.

I have just read Lydia McGrew's stunning, refreshing, rigorous, and powerful 2017 book, Hidden in Plain View. Lydia, a deeply committed Christian and known for her work in analytic philosophy, resurrects and further develops an argument for the historicity of the Gospels and Acts that has long been neglected.  It is must reading.
However, just as or, perhaps, more importantly is her work in providing a first-rate, rigorous, thorough and amiable presentation and critique of an approach to NT historicity--especially in the Gospels and Acts--that sees various literary devices in the text that, whether intentionally or not, tends to undermine the historicity of the Gospels and Acts and eschews sophisticated harmonization attempts based on certain historical and legal forms of reasoning.
McGrew is the only first-rate scholar who has argued these points, quite successfully in my view, and I happily endorse her presentation, "Six Bad Habits of New Testament Scholars (and how to avoid them)," for the Apologetics Academy's YouTube Channel and at her blog where she critiques Mike Licona's arguments. I urge you to read and view her arguments and pass all of this along to as many people as you can, including on social media.

A tweet linking to this blog post by Moreland also appears on his Twitter account as and can be retweeted. Or one could Tweet

J. P. Moreland endorses Lydia McGrew's critique of Mike Licona.

putting the endorsement of the critique front and center.

I think this is quite important. My strong sense is that too many evangelicals endorsed Mike's work without having read it in detail and that this is part of why it is not getting the scrutiny it should. Also, too many people still say, "Oh, that was all about the Matthew 27 raising of the saints passage, right?" Someone said to me recently, "That was the only passage I ever heard about." But we're way, way beyond that now, with many more passages, invisible fictionalizations galore, and even the invention of entire incidents. See here for a portal summarizing all the posts in my 2017 series on Licona's work. So I think it will be good if various people (Licona included) take note of the extensive problems with this approach. I'm hopeful that Moreland's endorsement will open up such a discussion.

Thursday, February 15, 2018