Friday, March 09, 2018

Transcript and commentary: The "I am" statements, again

Regular readers will remember the dust-up last fall in which I discussed the fact that ostensibly evangelical scholar Craig A. Evans had agreed with skeptic Bart Ehrman, strongly implying that Jesus never uttered the "I am" statements or "I and the Father are one" in an historically recognizable fashion. Instead, he said, these were "he is" declarations of the "Johannine community."

At that time, NT scholar Michael Licona rather surprisingly jumped to Evans's defense, going on at some length to bolster and stand up for his views. When I (quite understandably) concluded that Licona shared those views, Licona accused me of misrepresentation, claiming that he, personally, is agnostic on the historicity of these sayings in John and merely was explaining what "many scholars" think on the subject. However, it was apparently sufficiently important to explain and defend what these "many scholars" think that he did so repeatedly and at some length, adding a great deal to what Evans had said. Exchanges on the topic from that time can be followed here and here.

On February 21, 2018, Dr. Licona debated Bart Ehrman on the question of the reliability of the Gospels. There is much that I could say about this debate, the most notable point of which is that, frankly, Dr. Licona didn't really defend the reliability of the Gospels. One of the more painful portions is the place beginning around 1:46 and in the minutes following where Licona insists that Luke knowingly, and contrary to fact, places the first meeting between Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem, even though it really took place in Galilee (minute 1:47), but that this is nonetheless "accurate" because Licona dubs Luke's deliberate fictionalization on this factual point a "compositional device." Ehrman is (predictably) merciless. Ehrman: "The appearance was in Galilee but Luke says it was in Jerusalem, and you think that that's accurate?"

If that's the case, one wonders what becomes of Doubting Thomas? (Recall that Licona casts some doubt on the historicity of the Doubting Thomas sequence in the book Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, p. 178, but doesn't quite conclude there that it is ahistorical.) Given Licona's relative confidence now (according to his statements in this debate) that the first meeting between Jesus and his disciples really took place in Galilee, where does that leave the Thomas sequence? Did the other disciples send a message from Galilee down to Thomas, who was still hanging around dubiously in Jerusalem, that they had seen Jesus? What happened next? Moreover, since the meeting that Licona is now saying is the true first meeting, as recorded in Matthew 28:16ff, uses the phrase "the eleven" for the number of central male disciples present, and since Licona has already insisted in his book that this must be a counting noun rather than a generic term for the group, this would also (on Licona's interpretation that this was the first meeting) seem once again to contradict the Doubting Thomas sequence. One wonders if Licona has thought of this, or if it is a matter of any concern to him.

In this post I chiefly want to transcribe and discuss Licona's answer to Ehrman's argument from silence concerning Jesus' comparatively more explicit claims to deity (such as "Before Abraham was, I am" and "I and the Father are one") in the Gospel of John. In his usual bullying fashion, Ehrman goes on about this at some length around from 1:14 and following, trying to make it sound like John is in opposition to the synoptics concerning the deity of Christ and as though it is just too incredible that Jesus could have made these statements historically without their being mentioned in the synoptic Gospels. It is sheer sleight of hand and should be called out as such, but it is difficult for most people just to stand up to Ehrman when he does this kind of thing.

A questioner in the Q & A reminds Licona of that portion of Ehrman's discussion. Licona thanks the questioner for reminding him, since he had not responded to it in his first rebuttal. He then goes on a tour of alleged places in the Gospel of Mark that imply Jesus' deity by Jesus' actions. Some of them are solid, such as the claim to the divine prerogative to forgive sins in Mark 2. Others are highly dubious as claims to deity. These include Jesus' claim in Mark 3:27 to be able to bind Satan, which isn't a claim to deity at all. It is of course a claim to represent the one true God, who is stronger than Satan. But the archangel Michael can bind and cast down Satan, per the Book of Revelation, though he is a created being.

Anyway, there is nothing at all wrong with challenging Bart's implication that the synoptics don't give the faintest hint that Jesus is God. That is Bart's typical exaggeration, and it's fine to call it out.

But Licona, who is getting set up to call the historicity of Jesus' unique claims in John "irrelevant" (!), exaggerates the strength of the case for Jesus' deity from the Gospel of Mark alone. He continues by calling into question the historicity of the unique statements in John:

So what Mark does is he gives us a literary portrait of Jesus, of Jesus claiming to be God through his deeds. Whereas what I think in John’s gospel, and virtually every single Johannine scholar will say, that John is giving us a paraphrase. He’s taking Jesus’ stuff and he’s restating it in Johannine idiom. And many will say that John takes what Jesus would have said and done implicitly and he restates it in an explicit manner. So did Jesus actually make some of these divine claims explicitly, word-for-word, like he does in John? Who knows? But whether he did or not is irrelevant. He still made claims through his actions and the things that he did that came to the same thing.
The first point I want to note here is the increasing difficulty Licona should have in plausibly denying that he is expressing his own view that the statements in John are not recognizably historical. Here he actually says, "Whereas what I think in John's gospel..." then shifts mid-sentence to "virtually every single Johannine scholar," then to "many will say" and finally to "Who knows?" But he started out with "Whereas what I think in John's gospel..." in contrast to the apparently historical events just recounted from Mark.

If this is what he thinks, then this is what he thinks, and he should be willing to admit it rather than being unclear.

Next, the apparent implication that "virtually every single Johannine scholar" denies the literal, recognizable historicity of the unique deity sayings in John is fairly hyperbolic and dubious. It is certainly false if we include the "democracy of the dead." It is questionable even if applied to evangelical scholars living today.

But perhaps Mike meant to do what he does elsewhere, which is to make some extremely strong statement such as "virtually every Johannine scholar says" that John "adapted Jesus' sayings"--a statement so vague as to be nearly contentless--and then to use that broad claim as a jumping-off point for some more specific claim concerning ahistoricity in the Gospel of John. Thus "virtually every Johannine scholar" ends up being an unwitting endorser of some specific claim concerning John's allegedly altering facts. He does this, in fact, with the very point at issue (the historicity of the unique deity claims in John) in this post. There, he moves from a statement by Craig Keener that all "Johannine scholars acknowledge Johannine adaptation of the Jesus tradition" to John's alleged "adaptation" in the form of completely making up the more explicit claims to deity in John in contrast to this, a conclusion (wrongly) inferred from the synoptics: "Jesus spoke of His identity implicitly, even in terms that were somewhat cryptic" rather than anything "nearly as overt as we find in John."

We don't actually know that virtually every Johannine scholar, much less "all" such scholars, believe that John did that. Even if they did, of course, this is a fairly blatant argument from authority in the worst of senses and a poor argument. Popularity, especially popularity among the living alone, has always been a terrible test of truth. And the same applies to "many scholars," with which Licona continues.

The next point I want to note is the abuse of the term "paraphrase." If, as discussed by Licona elsewhere, all that Jesus said and did concerning his deity is the kind of implication that we find in the synoptic Gospels, if the scenes surrounding John 8:58 and John 10:31 and the shocking statements by Jesus in those verses never took place in any recognizable form, and if John wrote the scenes as they occur in his Gospel anyway, knowing that they never took place historically in a recognizable fashion, this is not paraphrase. It is not remotely like paraphrase. It is fiction, pure and simple. It might or might not be fiction based on theological truth as taught by Jesus in some other fashion. But that does not make it a paraphrase. To use "paraphrase" in this way is the sheerest word kidnapping, and it needs to be called out sharply and unequivocally.

The next point to which I want to draw attention is the straw man technique of suddenly talking about whether or not Jesus uttered these sayings "word-for-word." That is not the question, and Licona must know that it is not the question. If Jesus said, "I and the Father are a unity" rather than "I and the Father are one," or if he spoke in Aramaic and we have a good translation into Greek, or if he said, "Before Abraham was living in Canaan, I am," etc., and if the dialogue and the attempted stoning took place recognizably as recounted in John, that would still be a direct denial of what Ehrman is saying--that the events did not take place historically. Those who disagree with Ehrman on this point and who are willing to take him on head-to-head, rather than conceding his denial of historicity, do not have to hold that Jesus' words and the dialogue leading up to them is precisely, exactly, word-for-word as we have it. That is a blatant straw man representation of anyone on the "conservative" side who would not concede what Licona is conceding. It is meant to make it sound as though Licona (and/or the "many scholars" whose view he is putting forward) are not actually denying historicity in any important sense that deserves scrutiny, when in fact they are.

Finally, there is the blatantly false statement that the historicity of these fairly explicit statements in John is "irrelevant" and that the claims Licona has laid out from Mark "come to the same thing." This is completely incorrect from an epistemic point of view. You simply cannot make implicit claims equivalent to explicit claims, or even nearly explicit claims. The latter are always going to have epistemic vectors that the former don't have. It can never be epistemically irrelevant whether or not Jesus claimed, so clearly that he was nearly stoned, to be the "I am" of the Old Testament and whether he said (again, so clearly that the Jews tried to stone him) that he was one with Yahweh. To try to get away with brushing off the importance of the question, as Licona does, is just breathtaking. I have no doubt that Dr. Licona has convinced himself of what he says about the "irrelevance" of the historicity of these statements in John, but it is certainly untrue, and Christians need to reject it decisively. I fear that the reason some are not doing so is, quite simply, that they are afraid that they cannot defend the historicity of John.

Making false epistemic claims merely gives us false comfort. Let us, as knowledgeable and informed Christians, instead admit the importance of John's Gospel and then defend it vigorously, with reasons and evidence. But it appears that we will have to do so without the help of Dr. Evans and Dr. Licona and perhaps others. If so, be it so. Greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world, Bart Ehrman included. (I John 4:4)


Dale said...

Also, it is very important to read John 10:31-33 in light of what immediately follows. So many apologists, I suppose, to maximize the "deity of Christ" punch, prefer to stop with v. 33.

But Jesus's actual argument in v. 34ff in response is most illuminating.

We're to take his perspective on his claims, in preference to the charges of the Jesus-rejecting Jews here - as so often in this book.

Dale said...

"imply Jesus' deity by Jesus' actions. Some of them are solid, such as the claim to the divine prerogative to forgive sins in Mark 2."

Jesus, of course, doesn't say that he can forgive sins because he is God. Rather, "the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins".

We're to understand that *God* has given this other one, "the Son of Man" (i.e. the human Messiah) authority to forgive. But Mark is less than wholly clear here.

Which is why Matthew adds two clarifications for us in his re-telling. First he makes the allegation just the more generic "blasphemy" - omitting the assertion that "God alone" can forgive. It seems that he doesn't want anyone to draw the inference so many mistakenly draw from Mark 2. To make the interpretation of this event yet clearer, he expands the crowd reaction: "When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man." The crowd gets it. The accusing Jewish opponents don't.

It's the same in Mark - they "glorified God" for doing these wonders *through* the man Jesus. Matthew just heads off what is still a popular misreading. For whatever reason, Luke is not worried about it, as he just reproduces Mark's version.

About the wider NT context of forgiving sins, this video is helpful:

Lydia McGrew said...

Ah, Dale. Is this Dale Tuggy I'm in touch with here? If so, you have been on my mind in this very context.

But not because I was itching to debate the deity of Christ from the Gospel of either John or Mark with you. (I've just got other things that are a higher priority for me.)

Rather, because I was thinking that someone like you would have a real field day with a person who tried to make out a case for the deity of Jesus from the mere fact that Jesus claimed to be able to bind Satan! Or even from the alleged resemblance between Jesus' walking on water and calming the storm and a (pretty clearly anthropomorphic) reference to Yahweh "treading on the waves" in Job. I tend to think that an attempt to make a case for Jesus' deity from those kinds of things *alone* is an absolute *gift* to those who take your position.

I realize, of course, based even upon your comments here (and I would have assumed as much) that you interpret even the various relatively-more-explicit statements in John in such a way that they are compatible with Arianism. What else would one expect?

But at the same time, it would be useful if you would at least acknowledge that an orthodox Trinitarian makes it *easier* for you by simply tossing out or "trying to do without" the historicity of the relevant unique sayings in the Gospel of John?

Dale said...

Yes, this is Dale Tuggy.

"I tend to think that an attempt to make a case for Jesus' deity from those kinds of things *alone* is an absolute *gift* to those who take your position."

Agreed. But even the now-popular gambit of arguing just from Mark - utterly doomed. You just can't get any strong "deity of Christ" claim out of Mark. Yes, I have read Gathercole's attempt to get blood from a stone there. It just doesn't work. Got to read the whole.

I'm disappointed that you don't want to engage on Mark 2 or John 10 - when in other contexts you reason so carefully from the details of the gospels. It both cases I merely point out internal and contextual grounds for thinking that the author is not there asserting "the deity of Christ."

Also disappointed that you so casually dismiss my readings of those as stemming from a prior commitment I have to "Arianism." Oy - what a silly term, on historical grounds. I'm just a life-long evangelical who was pushed to examine the NT writings in their 1st c. context at great length - and found that many catholic readings of such are wrongheaded. Best description of my views is "biblical unitarian." No important connection, really, to those non-Nicene catholics Athanasius managed to successfully brand "Arians."

I assumed that carefully discerning the points being made there by Mark and by John would be more interesting to you than spanking Licona for being too close to the boundaries of evangelicalism... my bad! Good luck with that. :-)

Lydia McGrew said...

"spanking Licona for being too close to the boundaries of evangelicalism"

To me, this is not about some kind of arbitrary social boundaries but about issues that are a great deal more important than that. Indeed, issues (such as the deity of Jesus and his resurrection, and the strength of the evidence for it) for which I would be willing to die.

I really don't particularly care about your snark on that, but I'm not at all ashamed to say that I am spending an enormous amount of energy right now trying to convince other people that what Licona is doing *matters* to important issues and that they should take it seriously and give it the careful examination it deserves (by which it will be found wanting) rather than just accepting whatever he says and defending him to the death. Or saying that it's unimportant. Pausing to argue with someone who denies the deity of Jesus would take time away from other projects that I have in hand--that one among others--that I consider more important.

Clarke Morledge said...


I have not read your book or Mike Licona's book, so I can only be limited in my comments.

I listened to the Feb 2018 Licona/Ehrman debate portion regarding the post-resurrection appearance in Galilee in Matthew vs. in Jerusalem in Luke discrepancy. When I first listened to it, I came to the same conclusion that you did, that Mike stumbled.

However, I listened to it again a few more times, and then I saw exactly where Mike was going with it, and it makes complete sense. Unfortunately, Bart is very skillful in his rhetoric, and I could see how he was trying to trap Mike. It almost worked, but when you listen carefully and slowly, Mike does eventually recover with his argument intact.

As to Jesus not explicitly making "I am" statements in John, as Craig Evans puts it, I can see the same type of trap making that Bart tries to set for him. He forces the listener to conclude that unless Jesus actually uttered these statements verbatim, that this demonstrates John to be historically unreliable. I would not fall for that rhetorical trap that Bart is trying to lay out there, if I were you.

I would much rather have someone accurately represent something I believe, without using exact quotations, than I would have someone quote me accurately, but then completely misrepresent what I said by framing it in a poor context. We see this all of the time in contemporary media, and Christians should not fall for it.

Perhaps you can do better, but I find it interesting that Mike's greatest critics are philosophers, like yourself, and not New Testament historians. Mike is not infallible, but at least he is willing to meet Bart Ehrman on his own turf.

Lydia McGrew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lydia McGrew said...

As for Galilee vs. Jerusalem, I *have* read Mike's book, and he is completely explicit that Luke "put" all of the events onto Easter. He repeats it over and over, both in that book and in his earlier book.

In the debate with Bart, the main difference was that he expressly states that he actually believes that Luke also fictionalizes when he "puts" the first meeting in Galilee, because he's "compressing" the events. The only difference between this and the book is that in the book, Mike theorizes that perhaps Luke had a different *source* that put the first meeting in Galilee. But there, too, he places Luke and Matthew in *conflict* (indeed, he's quite explicit and lengthy) as far as where the first meeting took place. This is just a further expansion of that same idea, only without conjecturing that Luke had a source.

And that *is* "where he's going with it." This is one of his fictionalizing "compositional devices." Indeed, he's quite clear about it in the debate with Bart--Luke knew that the first meeting was in Galilee and that Jesus was on earth for forty days, but Luke chose to make it look like instead he was only on earth for one day after his resurrection and therefore met his disciples in Jerusalem instead. In the book he explains that this was because there wouldn't have been time to travel to Galilee.

This is all clear and consistent.

Sorry, but you need to study more about this before you start defending Mike without even knowing what his positions are. It isn't like he hasn't written about them in detail and at length.

Lydia McGrew said...

The problem with the Jerusalem vs. Galilee thing is just the silliness of saying that such fictionalizations are consistent with Luke's being *accurate*. That's not sensible. But it is *part and parcel* of Mike's "intact" (if you like that word) argument to the effect that it's just no problem if the gospel authors changed facts repeatedly. This is an example of that supposedly in Luke. That's what he's saying to Bart. He's being quite consistent with his own theories about "compositional devices." Those *are* his theories. It's just applying the word "accurate" to it that looks ridiculous, and Bart skewered that, as of course he would do.

Lydia McGrew said...

On the I am statements and other statements, this is not, I repeat, is not, about "verbatim" versus "not verbatim."

The theory in question on the I am statements has nothing to do with merely "not uttering them verbatim." Indeed, Mike has been quite clear on what that theory is. You can read more about it in his response in defense of Craig Evans last fall.

The theory is that Jesus uttered *only* the *implicit* indications of deity, claims of divine prerogative, etc., such as we find in Mark. That was all. That was all he said. Jesus did not, historically, have a conversation with the Jews that ended with his recognizably saying something like "Before Abraham was, I am." He did not have a dialogue with the Jews that involved his saying something recognizably like, "I and the Father are one," followed by his nearly being stoned.

I addressed all of this in the post, but you can see it more for yourself if you read the link I gave in which Mike expounds this theory more at length. Indeed, in that post he quite clearly says that an argument *against* the historicity of such sayings is that Jesus *would not* have said something that (relatively) explicit! If there were any question as to what the theory is, that should make it clear.

As I explained, the "verbatim" issue is a mere red herring, a straw man.

You think *I* am falling for such a trap laid by Bart? Far from it.

I went on at *length* in the post to point out that someone who takes it that these things were uttered historically *is not* claiming that there could not have been minor variations of wording or something of that kind. If Jesus said, "Before Abraham lived in Canaan, I am," that would be historically recognizable.

It's almost as if you didn't really read what I wrote.

As for Craig Evans, Evans was *absolutely explicit* that these were "he is confessions" of the "Johannine community." He repeatedly said to Bart that they did not disagree about this matter.

I am not the one falling into a trap offered by Ehrman. Rather, Evans and Licona are conceding to Ehrman that these were not uttered in a historically recognizable fashion. Rather, they are presenting the theory that these were theological extrapolations on the part of the author of John (or the "Johannine community") of much less clear statements and implications given by Jesus in his lifetime, as recounted in Mark.

That is the theory. Like it or not, you should understand what the theory is.

And you should not fall into the trap of being confused by *their* false dilemma between "verbatim" and non-historical.

Lydia McGrew said...

Credentialism is pointless. Please stick to the arguments.

Clarke Morledge said...

Thank you, Lydia, for your extended engagement with my comments. I am mostly distressed that such bright Christians, such as yourself and Mike Licona, are unable to effectively work together to counter the skepticism of the Bart Ehrmans of the world.

I still think that you and Licona are like "two ships passing in the night," on this one, but I will more carefully review your arguments, as perhaps I have misunderstood your position.

I will take you up on your admonishment to become more familiar with Licona's position. It does motivate me to want to bump up his book on my reading list.

Can you recommend the work of a New Testament historian, who shares your views, who could debate Ehrman on this (or even a non-contemporary author)?

Thank you again, for taking your time to engage. I do find your contributions helpful. Blessings to you in your work!

Lydia McGrew said...

Well, my husband Tim debated Ehrman on Justin Brierley's Unbelievable show. He's one of the only people actually to stand up to Ehrman.

I posted follow-ups to that here:

and here:

There are also various places where Tim has discussed Ehrman's work on other subjects. As far as I recall, this talk on alleged contradictions does so:

And in this discussion for Apologetics Academy he debunks Ehrman's criticisms of the Book of Acts:

One doesn't need to have a particular credential in order to debate Bart Ehrman and in order to refute him "on his own turf." I strongly, strongly recommend that you set aside that idea.

Dale said...

Hey Lydia, some thoughts on our interaction above.

These are huge issues, yes. But I hope you keep them on the back shelf, for a proper examination at the right item.

Best to you and Tim!

Lydia McGrew said...

Clarke, as you work through Mike's book (which I certainly encourage you to read at least large portions of, esp. if you think you will want to defend his conclusions), I think that my series on his ideas can be a useful focusing tool. The early parts of his book sometimes contain an unnecessary amount of detail. In fact, his lectures from a couple of years previously are (IMO) *in some respects* a better representation of his ideas than his book, because he gets right down to discussing his idea of fact-changing compositional devices in his lectures and does not spend as much time on very small verbal variations between the gospels' telling of the same events.

In another respect, his lectures are not representative, and that is that in his lectures (that I've seen anyway) he does not give the more radical examples of his suggestions concerning fictionalization by the Gospel authors. Those are found in the book.

In any event, I give tons of references to page numbers in the book and many quotations. I used the Kindle edition, but there is a nice feature there that the Kindle edition of his book seems to have pagination that is the same as the physical edition. I think it could be useful to use my series at least as a guide to find portions of his book to focus on that are going to be of particular interest. Reading his book from page one to the end can be a bit of a daunting task. If you're up for it, great, though you'd have to be sure not to let your attention wander before getting to the latter parts. I'd say especially the discussion of the resurrection narratives is a place where things get very notable.

Here is a link to the wrap-up post of my blog series on his book. In that wrap-up post I give links to and synopses of my earlier posts in the 2017 series. This will give you the opportunity to browse where things look most interesting. Again, I *strongly* encourage you to find out what Mike's positions actually are, in some detail, before defending them. That seems to make the most sense as a procedure.