In this last post of our series on The Mirror or the Mask and compositional device views of the Gospels I want to discuss the big picture about the big picture. Here’s what I mean: Dr. Licona often mentions the big picture, the essence of the story or being true to Jesus’ message. The idea is that it does not matter if the Gospel authors felt free to alter things that do not change what the theorists think of as the big picture or the essence of the story or of Jesus’ message.
Let’s talk about the big picture. What is the biggest “big picture” event in the Gospels? Most of us as Christians, including those who debate Christianity with skeptics, would say that it is the resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Licona has done a great deal of work himself defending the resurrection of Jesus, and that’s a good thing. The resurrection is a centerpiece of his ministry. But it’s interesting to notice to what extent the resurrection accounts in the Gospels are called into question by the alleged compositional devices. In fact, in his 2010 book on the resurrection of Jesus he said this:
We have resisted the temptation to employ sources of uncertain value as well as potential facts that would certainly bolster the resurrection hypothesis (RH). In our assessment of the relevant sources in terms of their ability to yield valuable data for our investigation, we noted that the resurrection narratives in the canonical Gospels may be useful. However, because of unknowns, such as the amount of liberty the Evangelists may have taken in their reports as well as the sharp disagreement among scholars pertaining to their reliability, we have chosen to use them only when necessary and to rely more heavily on earlier sources about which more is known and a greater agreement exists within a heterogeneous majority of scholars. (The Resurrection of Jesus, p. 542, emphasis added)
As we’ve seen, the allegations of compositional devices and historical flexibility surrounding the resurrection accounts in his more specific work on differences in the Gospels are consistent with this assessment of the Gospel narratives. Repeatedly the analyses of differences emphasize this claim--that we do not know the amount of liberty that the evangelists may have taken, and that it is plausible that they may have taken quite a bit.
Some of the changes in question include...
--altering the time, place, and manner of Jesus’ first appearance to a group of his disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem,
--altering the words of the angel at the tomb (in Luke) to eliminate a reference to an appearance in Galilee and change that to a different mention of Galilee,
--changing the entire circumstances of Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene.
Another alteration in the resurrection accounts that I have not previously discussed: In Why Are There Differences in the Gospels, Licona strongly implies that John invented the action of Jesus in breathing on his disciples and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” as an allusion to Pentecost.
With so many alleged changes in the resurrection accounts on the table, we may fairly ask the literary device theorists some questions. Did the original people who claimed to be witnesses to the resurrection even claim that Jesus ate fish with them? Did they claim to have met with him at length and to have had lengthy conversations with him in groups? Did they claim that they could touch him and that he invited them to do so? Did they claim to have seen him over and over again, indoors and outdoors, in groups of different sizes, over a period of weeks? Did they claim that the previously skeptical Thomas saw him? Or is even the claim that they made those claims something that, given these theories, historians cannot know?
My husband Tim and I wrote an article on the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, published in 2009 in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. In that article we used as facts to be explained the disciples’ claims as represented by the accounts in the Gospels. We argued for the great difficulty of explaining these detailed claims about their experiences, under conditions of persecution, by any hypothesis other than the literal, physical resurrection of Jesus. We emphasized then and have emphasized ever since that the details of their claims are important to the strength of the case for the resurrection.
This leads to a very serious issue, and a kind of paradox: If we say that only “the big picture” is defensible, we may not even in the end be able to make a strong case for “the big picture” itself. God, as the saying goes, is in the details.
Here’s another point: Do we need more than the big picture for our Christian life and teaching and for our churches? It’s obvious that we do. How do these alleged compositional devices in the Gospels affect our practical work and lives as Christians?
Suppose that you’re a pastor. When you get up on Sunday morning to preach an expository sermon from the Gospels, do you confine yourself only to the “essence of the story”? Of course not. Of course you also preach on the narrative details and specifics of Jesus’ teaching. Notice here that I’m not talking about grammatical minutiae based upon the unquestioned assumption that we have verbatim records of Jesus’ teaching in that very language. I’m talking, however, about specifics of the historical narrative and specific, recognizable teachings of Jesus in real historical settings.You tell your congregation that Jesus really said, “I thirst” and “It is finished” on the cross, for example, and you draw out the implications of these sayings for theology, for who Jesus was, for his sufferings, and for his victory over death.
We should certainly not tell pastors that they shouldn’t care. A good shepherd pastor preaching on the Gospels wants to feed his congregation on the facts. Did the disciples squabble about who would be the greatest in the kingdom on the night in which Jesus was betrayed? Might you preach on that squabble and on the fact that it took place that night? Sure, you might very well do that. Dr. Licona says in his book that it looks plausible that Luke moved that squabble and Jesus’ rebuke from a different time and located it in the Last Supper context.
When you are comforting the bereaved, do you quote to them, “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believes in me though he were dead, yet shall he live”? Of course. But according to Dr. Craig Evans, these “I am” sayings with predicates are highly questionable as an historical matter. This would cast significant doubt on whether Jesus actually said that.
When you are doing marital counseling, do you assume that Jesus historically said, as in Matthew, that divorce is not allowed “except for fornication”? According to evangelical New Testament scholars Robert Stein and Daniel Wallace, Matthew added that exception clause. Jesus didn’t historically utter it. That could well make a significant difference to pastoral practice.
When we meditate on the Gospels in our personal devotion, we often use precisely the sorts of teachings that, according to the literary devices views, might be changed or added as elaboration.
Like Dr. Licona, who mentions some reader e-mail in his conclusion video, I receive unsolicited e-mail from people who have been helped by my work. One of them, Charles Drennon of Memphis, gave me permission to share some recent correspondence I had with him. He said that he was specifically helped by The Mirror or the Mask because of its defense of the robust historicity of Jesus’ teachings. As an example of the importance of these in his own spiritual life, he said,
When I was in 6th grade, in Bible class, our teacher mentioned the unpardonable sin. I became terrified. “Had I committed it? Could I commit it?” etc. The thought of the unforgivable sin haunted me for a long time. I'm not sure where I would be without the soul-comforting, anxiety-abolishing words of Jesus:
John 6:44, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him…” John 6:37, “…him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.”
I’m sure all of us can recall similarly specific aspects of the Gospels that have been crucial to our own spiritual lives. But if we think that it’s quite plausible that the evangelists invented such specifics, we would have to be honest and question whether these are historical.
It’s good to remember: The essence of Jesus’ message is made up, built up, from the specifics. It doesn’t exist as some separate, abstract thing. We know Jesus’ humanity in many ways other than his human cry of thirst on the cross, and that is true. But all of them are specifics--for example, his weeping at the grave of Lazarus, also reported in John. His manifestation of his suffering humanity is known in part by his crying out, “I thirst,” just as his glorification and accomplishment are known in part by, “It is finished.”
As I have mentioned before, the details of the Gospels are relevant to the defense of the faith. As my husband and I over the years have defended the robust historical reliability of the Gospels we have found numerous small details of the Gospels confirmed. I couldn’t possibly list them all. These include, among many others:
The grass was literally green at the feeding of the five thousand.
Jesus asked Philip specifically where they could buy bread.
The Temple building had been begun 46 years before Jesus cleansed the Temple as told in John.
John the Baptist actually called himself the voice of one crying in the wilderness and actually heard the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism.
Archelaus, whom Joseph was afraid to settle under when he returned from Egypt with the baby Jesus, really had manifested his crazy side just about that time.
The name “Simon” was such a common name in the time of the Gospels that it required a second designation with it to make it clear which “Simon” was in view.
And many, many more. These present a big picture of evangelists who were not fabricating details and for whom something more than just “the big picture” or “the essence of the story” was important.
It would be entirely fair to ask scholars who have endorsed this approach whether they propose to offer help to pastors, other ministers, and Christian laymen in order to teach them to base their preaching, devotional life, and counseling only upon the “big picture” aspects of the Gospels’ content that are really well-authenticated rather than upon the whole welter of mere details that these methods cast into doubt. Tom Gilson, editor of The Stream and a mutual friend of Dr. Licona’s and mine, has publicly asked exactly this question--How are these scholars going to help pastors to know when they are preaching on aspects of the Gospels that are genuinely historical? Thus far, no such help has been forthcoming. From my perspective, this is a good thing. For it gives the church an opportunity to pause and reckon with the true scope of the shift that is being proposed and to investigate carefully whether it is actually justified.
I have argued carefully and systematically that it is not. But I don’t ask you just to take my word for that. And I don’t ask you to reject the literary device views because of theological presuppositions but on the basis of evidence.
A principle that Dr. Licona often articulates is this: We need to make our view of Scripture conform to what we find in Scripture rather than making Scripture conform to our preconceived ideas. Who could disagree with that? But we need to realize that that has absolutely no force to tell us what we actually find Scripture to be. It doesn’t tell us whether the reportage model or the literary device model is true. What if we find that the Gospels look like reliable reportage? Then we want to make our ideas conform to that! It doesn’t even tell us who is more likely to force Scripture to conform to his preconceived ideas. I would say that the literary device scholar is at least as likely to do so as someone who takes a more conservative view. So as far as it goes, that principle is unhelpful to the argument, and if we’re not careful, we could get the impression, just hearing such a solemn declaration, that the literary device theorists are humble and objective, accepting Scripture as it is, while those who reject these theories must be the ones putting Scripture into a box of their own making. That is by no means the case.
From unjustified, highly specific judgements about the Gospels’ literary genre to the radical misunderstandings of Greek exercise books, from wooden readings of passages in Plutarch to at least equally misguided refusals to combine passages in the Gospels, the arguments of the compositional device theorists fail at every point along the line.
Throughout all of the arguments, the Gospels come shining through with the luster of real history upon them in incident after incident.
We’ve heard a lot in Dr. Licona’s recent series about “the majority of scholars.” I would contest some of those generalizations about what “the majority of scholars” think, especially when it’s supposedly “the majority of evangelical scholars.” And I would say that even when we are talking about living scholars. But another point: When we’re talking about the majority of scholars, we too often forget what G. K. Chesterton called the democracy of the dead. We shouldn’t assume that just because some scholars happen to be alive at the same time that we are, they are the ones who are right.
If I were to choose a fantasy baseball team of defenders of the faith, living and dead, one person I would want on my team would be J. B. Lightfoot, the Bishop of Durham in the late 19th century. I would without hesitation put Lightfoot up against a whole flock of modern biblical scholars, put together. Here is what Lightfoot said about the Gospel of John,
The Fourth Gospel...is replete with historical and geographical details; it is interpenetrated with the Judaic spirit of the times; its delineations of character are remarkably subtle; it is perfectly natural in the progress of the events; the allusions to incidents or localities or modes of thought are introduced in an artless and unconscious way, being closely interwoven with the texture of the narrative; while throughout, the author has exercised a silence and a self-restraint about his assumed personality which is without parallel in ancient forgeries... (J. B. Lightfoot)
Yet John’s Gospel is the one that comes in for some of the most intense doubt, based on the claim that he is somehow even less historical than Matthew, Mark, and Luke, though they also made historical changes.
Here we should also consider the words of the late Johannine scholar Leon Morris, who just died in 2006. Concerning John’s Gospel, he writes:
It seems to me that John is a greater figure than has been reckoned with. He is so supremely master of the situation and the tradition that he is able to bring out his essential point without distorting the facts. Many recent critics have found it impossible to believe this. They have reasoned that he must have been ready to distort facts, for his concern was with the interpretation of the facts, not with historical accuracy. This a priori approach should be firmly rejected. John tells us that he is bearing witness and his testimony should be taken with the utmost seriousness. (Leon Morris)
I could do no better than to conclude with these remarks from Morris on the subject of history, Christianity, and the Gospels:
This is of the essence of the matter as the New Testament writers understood the faith. It was a bold, and for most of the ancient world a novel doctrine that God had willed to reveal Himself in history. In fact so bold a conception is this that sometimes men still shrink from its implications. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that some scholars have feared to trust God to history. The world of history is such an uncertain world...It is safer to rescue God from the whole world of history....
However, God has...preferred to reveal Himself in the historical, and it is there that we must find Him. (Leon Morris)
Thanks for reading these posts. I urge you to think carefully about these issues.