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.


Blake said...

I find it rather duplicitous that Dan Wallace would tell you not to put the work out there. Unless, he told you that because he could get in trouble with whatever journal the article appeared in. I find this a lot with evangelicals though. They rarely say what they mean, nor mean what they say. It’s always behind thick walls of equivocation so they can hedge their bets if the seminary board seeks an account of their confessional commitments. I don’t want to say they are lying (well Enns did) but it is close.

Lydia McGrew said...

Ah, thereby hangs a tale. I'll give the short version. Neither the 1999 nor the 2000 article has appeared in *any* journal. If they had, there would be no block whatsoever to posting quotations, even fairly lengthy quotations, interspersed with commentary. That falls under "fair use."

No, he presented both at conference meetings. I believe the first was at the ETS and the second at the SBL. He has stated publicly (in 2006 on that he wishes to keep the 1999 one from being read publicly for "pastoral reasons." Having read both I can say that he would have all the more reason to say that about the 2000 one. In essence, he thinks "you can't handle the truth" concerning hoi polloi. He apparently fears, perhaps even with some justification, that he would shake the faith of ordinary people if they read the articles.

His friend, Ed Komoszewski, went onto a blog thread at Pyromaniacs in 2006 and tried to contest the short quotes that a commentator there was giving from the 1999 piece, saying they were "taken out of context." However, neither Komoszewski nor Wallace ever gave an argument for this--such as showing the actual context, showing how the commentator was "taking them out of context," etc. The idea was that we were just supposed to take their word for it.

I now have copies of both the 1999 and the 2000 paper. Apparently Wallace did not mind Mike Licona's giving citations (approvingly) to theories from the 2000 paper and attributing them to Wallace.

I received a copy of the 1999 paper from someone other than Wallace. I have made no promises about my use of it and, in fact, intend at some point to write about it and about the comments he made in 2006 and how...confusing they were about the content of the paper.

However, the 2000 one was *very* hard to get hold of. In the end I wrote to Wallace personally and asked for a copy. He asked me "not to share it on social media." I deem that to mean that I shouldn't write a lengthy, public fisking of the article with good-sized quotes (such as I will probably do with the 1999 one, for which I have made no promises and which I received from someone else with no such stipulations). So I won't do that. Specifically. For that article. But I will repeat (repeatedly) what Mike Licona has already cited. (These being the made-up-ness of "I thirst" and "It is finished" as theological glosses on completely different sayings given in the synoptics.) And I will say that the remaining theories in the 2000 article are at least as radical as those.

Lydia McGrew said...

Komoszewski also said on the Pyromaniacs thread in 2006 that Wallace only gives the 1999 article to his *students* at Dallas Seminary after extracting a promise that they will come to him and discuss any questions or concerns they have after reading it. This was supposed to show us all how nobly and solemnly he takes his responsibility for having written it and how concerned he is that it not fall into the wrong hands who cannot handle it. Knowing how much further the 2000 paper goes, I can only surmise that he shuts it up in a box with a pic of a skull and crossbones on the outside and "Here be dragons" written athwart. But what does he say in his classes, one wonders?

Blake said...

Any chance I can read those articles?

Lydia McGrew said...

My e-mail address is


steve said...

Classic Catch-22. When I critique someone's position, I generally quote them verbatim. That way I can't be accused of misrepresenting what they say. If I merely summarize their position, they might accuse me of misrepresenting them or putting words into their mouth. Thus, it's best to provide representative excerpts, in their own words. They might still accuse me of (allegedly) misinterpreting their statements, but they can't accuse me of misrepresenting what they actually said by paraphrasing their claims. If, however, they complain that they were quoted word-for-word, that becomes a no-win situation.

steve said...

Sometimes critics are accused of quoting somebody out of context, and sometimes that accusation is valid. However, that requires readers to have public access to the document in question, so that they are able to compare the excerpts with the full document. It's not kosher to accuse a critic of quoting out of context, but keeping the larger context under wraps. That's another Catch-22.

Lydia McGrew said...

Yes, correct. It's completely unprofessional to allege (as Wallace has done) that one has been taken out of context while refusing to provide the context. It asks people to take this bare assertion on faith.

I will say for Licona that he does *not* do that. He makes his work public. On the other hand, he tends to complain in a rather reflexive fashion that he has been misrepresented or taken out of context when that is just not the case.

steve said...

His evasiveness is odd. Either his position is defensible or indefensible. Presumably he believes his position is defensible–otherwise, he wouldn't hold to that position. Generally, thinkers who are intellectualyl secure aren't that secretive. They're not afraid of public criticism. If their position comes under attack, they defend it. Since he thinks he's justified in taking the position he does, why the cloak-n-dagger stuff?

I realize there can be issues of job security, but if that's his concern, surely the DTS administration would be able to obtain a copy of his 2000 paper. Is he worried that the alumni/donors will complain? But if that's his concern, he shouldn't circulate the incriminating evidence in class, for fear of leaks. Just keep his views to himself. Have no paper trail whatsoever.

Lydia McGrew said...

In 2006 on Wallace said that it was because of "pastoral" considerations that he refuses to publish the 1999 paper. Presumably the same consideration would apply, all the more so, to the 2000 paper. Ed Komoszewski, in defending Wallace on a Team Pyro thread at that same time (2006) also stated that Wallace extracts a promise from any of his students, before giving him the 1999 paper, that they will talk to him about any concerns or questions they have. In other words, his pretty clear implication is that he believes these views could shake the faith of people insufficiently well-educated to be able to handle them, or to be able to handle them without learned guidance. It's really quite strikingly snobbish, and also a strange view of what is appropriate if one's own ideas really are potentially that harmful. If I thought that about my own positions, I wouldn't be presenting them in papers at professional conferences either. The idea that people who go to professional conferences are immune from such harm but that the average pastor or even an intelligent layman is likely to have his faith shaken by the truth is not, in my opinion, defensible at all. Scholars can be among the most naive, easily led, and vulnerable to peer pressure.

In any event, he certainly is in no position whatsoever to allege that quotations have been taken out of context if he refuses to make the context available to those reading his complaint.