No nuance allowed: Forcing a false dilemma on paraphrase
In an earlier post I wrote about the topic of paraphrase and about the serious equivocation that takes place in literary device views. I also discussed this in TMOM. The term "paraphrase" will be used by literary device theorists for two very different things: 1) Perfectly ordinary paraphrase in which someone simply doesn't record someone's words verbatim but gives an accurate rendition of the words and their context. 2) Manufacturing sayings in contexts where they didn't occur and fabricating the spoken word to make a better story or to represent something that the author thinks the speaker "would" have endorsed, based on his other views. We have seen that Licona endorses the claim that John fabricated the words, "I thirst" on the cross, saying (strangely) that this retains the meaning of, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" Craig Evans has said that the "community" that wrote the version of the Gospel of John that we possess invented sayings such as, "I am the light of the world" because that is what Jesus was "to them." Evans implies that this is "paraphrase," since it was supposedly based upon Jesus' other teaching in other contexts.
Along with an equivocation on this notion of paraphrase comes a false dilemma, combined with a straw man. This combination of fallacies occurred in an interview last year in which Evans said,
My critics, and there aren’t too many, but there are a few out there, they say, "If it’s not tape-recorded, word-for-word, what Jesus said, then John is being false. You’re saying John isn’t true. John is misrepresenting Jesus." And that’s the kind of, I don’t know if you want to call it fundamentalism, or rigidity, that’s the part that I find problematic.My name came up just a few minutes later as one of these "critics." I do not know of a single person who has ever criticized Evans based upon the position that Evans sketches. Not one. Moreover, I had said four times in my debate with Evans on Unbelievable that this was not my position. See the transcript, here, and look for the word "verbatim."
The false dilemma is this: Either you agree with the redefinition of "paraphrase" to include making things up and you get on-board with the compositional device views, or else you must think that the Gospels record everyone's words verbatim, like a tape recorder. The straw man that Evans commits is to attribute the following view to his more conservative critics: "If it’s not tape-recorded, word-for-word, what Jesus said, then John is being false."
The Mirror or the Mask came out subsequent to this interview by Evans, and in it I am extremely explicit, yet again, that I am not saying that an evangelist is "being false" if he doesn't record Jesus' words verbatim. In fact, I address this attempted false dilemma explicitly (Chapter X, section 1, pp. 231-232).
But it seems that compositional device theorists are so committed to this false dilemma that they are literally determined to force it upon us. Finding that I think (what many sensible people would think) that the trivial difference in the words of God the Father at Jesus' baptism between "You are my beloved Son" and "This is my beloved Son" is due to the sort of variation that arises from natural paraphrase, Michael Licona in his recent video on Gospel differences attempts to accuse me of some sort of inconsistency. It is unclear exactly what this inconsistency is supposed to consist in. As far as I can gather it's supposed to arise from the fact that I don't think that Matthew deliberately pretended that a person (the centurion) was present in a scene while knowing that the centurion really wasn't there. Apparently it's supposed to be "inconsistent" to reject that theory while also believing that either Matthew or a witness source gave a trivial, fully recognizable paraphrase of the words spoken at Jesus' baptism. (See the discussion of the centurion below.)
Since I have always been quite clear that natural, recognizable paraphrase is a part of the reportage model (built in, as you might say) and that it is a straw man of that model to take it to be excluding all paraphrase, this charge of "inconsistency" looks like an unfortunate attempt to force the false dilemma: Wait! Lydia is by definition un-nuanced and rigid! So if she attempts to allow for something normal like recognizable paraphrase, we'll just say that she is "inconsistent." Somehow.
Well, that's just not legitimate. Since any reasonable person knows that there is such a thing as recognizable, faithful paraphrase and that it is different from the fabrications that Licona and Evans call "paraphrase" and also from making people literally appear in scenes when one knows they weren't present, why should we think there is an inconsistency? I am simply going to appeal to such reasonable people to recognize that this is an attempt to force the reportage model, which has been a default of conservative commentators for a couple thousand years, into a box that it won't fit into. The use of a false dilemma remains a fallacy even when you try to insist that people adopt it after they have pointed it out. Who is really engaging in rigid, black-and-white thinking here?
I cannot help wondering if part of the problem is literally a failure to understand the very concept of legitimate, faithful paraphrase and of various ways in which it might arise, including casual paraphrase. Though I talked about this in an earlier post, perhaps it bears some more explanation.
Suppose that I am talking with some friends about one of my daughters. I have one daughter who is quite a bit more practically minded than the others. Now suppose that I turn to that daughter in front of all of them and say, “You are my most practical child!” And suppose that someone is telling about that later and reports that I turned to her and said, “This is my most practical child!” This is just the normal, casual variation that we get in witness testimony.
Is that person trying to "make it look like" I said "this is" rather than "you are." Does he have some reason for changing what I really said? Of course not! As the late theological blogger Steve Hays once put it, memory is naturally paraphrastic. People are not tape recorders and don't try to be tape recorders. If we cannot bear this in mind, we lose all realistic touch with living history.
The variations in the words of the Father at Jesus' baptism fall well within this sort of variability, with a margin to spare.
Notice too that we have reason to believe that Matthew had his own information about what happened at the baptism, because at Jesus’ baptism only Matthew reports that John the Baptist tried to dissuade Jesus from being baptized. I've discussed in this post and also in TMOM the problem with rigid redactive-critical views that "erase" Matthew and Luke as additional sources of information if they are taken to be "based on" Mark in a given story. Are we going to say that Matthew just made up John the Baptist's attempt to dissuade Jesus from being baptized out of his head? If not, if it really happened and Matthew records it because he knows about it, he must have known it from somewhere, and that cannot be from Mark.
This is an important point: In multiple places where Licona suggests that Matthew changed the story without factual reason, we actually have extra material in Matthew, in addition to anything in the Synoptics, that goes beyond the variation or apparent discrepancy that Licona focuses on. Unless we are going to regard that information as invented wholesale by Matthew, we should acknowledge that it looks like Matthew did have another source of information about the incident.
This is an important point: In multiple places where Licona suggests that Matthew changed the story without factual reason, we actually have extra material in Matthew, in addition to anything in the Synoptics, that goes beyond the variation or apparent discrepancy that Licona focuses on. Unless we are going to regard that information as invented wholesale by Matthew, we should acknowledge that it looks like Matthew did have another source of information about the incident.
Matthew reports that God the Father said, “This is my beloved son” when Jesus came out of the water. Mark reports that God the Father said, “You are my beloved son.” It should be very obvious that there is nothing heavy about this difference. Mark certainly isn’t implying that this was a private revelation only to Jesus. In fact, Mark calls it a voice out of the heavens. So it was certainly intended for others to hear--at least John the Baptist, for one. The reportage model not only allows us but even encourages us to see this sort of small variation in wording, together with the fact that Matthew even has some unique information about Jesus’ conversation with John the Baptist, as a result of the kind of normal variation that we get between witnesses. We shouldn’t lock ourselves into assuming that if the stories are in both Gospels that Matthew must have gotten it from Mark in a way that made it impossible for him to add information. That’s not how the evidence leads.
There's more: Even if Matthew were using Mark as one of his sources, did he have to be copying every word of Mark's Gospel verbatim or changing it in a highly deliberate fashion? Of course not! If Matthew isn’t staring at Mark’s Gospel at that very minute, natural paraphrase could come in by his using Marks’ Gospel from memory. (See this discussion of the late NT scholar John Wenham's interesting points about some of the difficulties in copying from one large scroll to another.)
If we do not use our common sense in these areas, we lose all touch with living history and the way that reportage works. There is no reason to think of Matthew as having some motive to "change" the words of God the Father, and that fact (the difficulty coming up with any sensible motive) in itself should cause us to doubt that that is the proper way of thinking about what happened here. Once we actually understand the concept of normal, casual paraphrase in testimony and historical report, we realize what it is and how it differs from Matthew's sitting around dreaming up some programmatic reason of his own such as "making it more personal for his readers" for making God the Father say one thing rather than another.
At this point I want to head off another straw man. The other straw man would be, "Lydia is saying that any deliberate paraphrase is historically misleading. According to her, only non-deliberate paraphrase based on memory variation is allowed." That isn't true either. While I do think that non-deliberate, natural paraphrase based upon either memories of the historical events or not poring over a written source is often the correct theory and is severely neglected in New Testament studies, there can of course be ways to paraphrase deliberately but faithfully. One of the most obvious of these is shortening. If someone speaks at length or repeats himself, it is often necessary or desirable to shorten what he says and perhaps in part to summarize when one records the spoken word, especially longer sections of teaching. Moreover, while we should probably be careful how we invoke this (since there were ways of indicating indirect speech even in the ancient world), there were not, in fact, quotation marks in ancient Greek, so the distinction between indirect quotation (in English, "he said that") and direct quotation (in English, "he said, '_____'") was less sharp than it is for us, culturally.
It might also happen that a reporter would remember that someone made various remarks on a given occasion in a speech or longer teaching segment but could not remember the order in which he made these remarks. Such a reporter would have to choose some order or other in which to report them and might order them more or less topically but without intending to convey that this was the exact order in which they were said, since he did not have a tape recording available to him.
None of this removes the need for a faithful reporter to try to record recognizably what a person said at a given time. Licona and co. will often be somewhat confusing on that very point. If Jesus taught some conceptual content in context A, it is not an historically accurate paraphrase to make up some content that is conceptually similar but differently worded and then to "locate" it in a completely different historical context where one knows full-well that it did not recognizably occur. That is putting words into the person's mouth and fabricating a contextual connection that is deliberately confusing to the reader. But to summarize a part of a speech or teaching or to leave something out is a kind of deliberate paraphrase that can be quite faithful and legitimate.
Another kind of deliberate paraphrase would be changing words or idioms in order to increase understanding. For example, if someone isn't familiar with the American expression, "For the birds," one might need to replace it in paraphrase for that audience with some other phrase, such as "ridiculous" or "worthless," depending on context and meaning. So deliberate, faithful paraphrase can be used legitimately to avoid misunderstanding.
One way to tell when legitimate paraphrase ends and problematic alteration begins is when someone is changing words in order to serve an agenda of his own. Arguably, if one thought that God the Father didn't speak "personally" enough at Jesus' baptism, altering "you are" to "this is" in order to "make it more personal" would be agenda-driven change, though there are of course far more extreme examples we can imagine. It is, moreover, a more complex theory than the normal variation already discussed. (A recognition and proper use of Occam's Razor in theory choice is, unfortunately, not characteristic of many New Testament scholars.)
Obviously, there are going to be disagreements about many specific instances of paraphrase and how accurate they are or whether they are misleading. For example, someone might say that he was paraphrasing to "avoid misunderstanding" when he was really suppressing and changing something to hide what was really said from the audience. As noted before, we should not fall into a confusion where we think that there is no legitimate distinction just because there are gray areas. That would be getting confused by what philosophers call a sorites or beard problem. Just because it can be hard to tell the difference between five-o-clock shadow and a beard, it doesn't follow that there are no beards! Just because there can be disagreements about what constitutes paraphrase, it doesn't follow that there is no difference between faithful, recognizable paraphrase and making stuff up.
Nuance is not only allowed in the reportage model; it is central to it.
The fig tree and the Temple cleansing
As mentioned briefly in the previous post, the issue of an implied chronology that may be incorrect comes up concerning the order in which Jesus cleansed the Temple and cursed the fig tree during Passion Week.
Again, I note here that at no point in TMOM do I discuss this question in detail. I discuss the chronology of the fig tree (TMOM pp. 117-118) only in the context of discussing a blog post by Craig Keener, where my point is that a failure to distinguish achronological from dyschronological narration creates confusion in analysis. I laid out what it would in fact mean if Matthew or Mark deliberately tried to give a contrary-to-fact impression about when the fig tree withered, and I note that Keener is unclear about this in his language, but I didn't discuss the chronology of the events and the various options. In fact, it would have taken me afield from my discussion in the context to do so. Having realized that this incident of the fig tree, and its connection with the Temple cleansing in Passion Week, are now a favorite of literary device theorists, used as a gateway to the entire compositional device approach, I've decided to give a discussion of the issue here.
I tend to agree with Licona that Matthew does appear to be implying a chronology in Passion Week that contradicts Mark’s concerning the day when the fig tree was cursed and the Temple cleansed. That is, it's not an unreasonable inference that Matthew is implying that Jesus cleansed the Temple right after the Triumphal Entry, cursed the fig tree the next day, that the fig tree withered right away, and that they had a conversation about this right away. So, once again, I observe the same so-called "nuance" that Licona observes--that an author can imply a chronology, and could even be wrong about it! Whereas Mark appears to be implying or even stating that Jesus' Triumphal Entry took place on one day, that he cursed the fig tree the next morning, and that the conversation about the fig tree and faith didn't take place until the next morning after that when they found the tree withered. (These are usually associated with Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday respectively, though Mark doesn't use those weekday designations explicitly.)
So these two chronologies do appear to conflict. We should remember that it doesn't follow that either author was knowingly narrating incorrectly, even if they do conflict and one is incorrect. Again, just bearing all possibilities in mind in an historical fashion, it would be possible that, for example, Mark got a misimpression from Peter or that Matthew misremembered. If Matthew or Mark made a good-faith error, he was not narrating achronologically but was not changing the time deliberately (narrating dyschronologically), either. It's interesting to note that Licona has said,
It is important to know that I am a historian. When the practice of history is conducted with integrity, the historian does not permit himself or herself to allow their theological presuppositions to weigh in to their investigation....Conversely, if I as a Christian historian want to conduct an investigation in the Gospels with integrity, I cannot bring a theological conviction that the Bible is God’s infallible Word to that investigation. Historians who practice with integrity must come to an investigation being as open as possible to what it may yield, even if what it yields suggests something that I presently believe should be modified or abandoned.And yet repeatedly Licona ignores an obvious type of explanation that reasonable people would turn to in an instant if the documents in question were secular--namely, that someone just made a minor, honest error! From an historical point of view, when two chronologies conflict on some minor point, honest error is a common source of such conflicts, far more than one author's deliberately making a change. This is all the more the case when there is not even any obvious motive for either author to change deliberately. Licona says he's just working as an objective historian and not importing special theological assumptions. Well and good. If he is not bringing in a theological assumption that we must not call inaccurate information in the Gospels an "error" but should only call it "a compositional device," or that (strangely) the Gospel authors only changed facts deliberately and never narrated something incorrect non-deliberately, why not more often consider this more common possibility? (As a number of traditional inerrantists have noted and emphasized, calling factually inaccurate information a "compositional device" and saying that the author put it in deliberately is no gain to the traditional inerrantist. I discuss this in Chapter IV of TMOM.)
If one is going to engage in traditional harmonization here, one will probably have to push on the fact that Matthew (more than Mark) isn’t entirely explicit about when things happened. One will then suggest achronological narration in Matthew. One's reasons will be epistemological and/or theological--e.g., that one doesn't think it likely that Matthew or Mark made an error and that Matthew is not so explicit as to force one to take his time ordering to be incompatible with Mark’s. Some harmonizers seem to have done this, pointing, for example, to the fact that there is no time connective at Matt. 21:12 or 14, that Matt. 21:18 does not say which morning, etc. One could also point to the interesting fact that the religious leaders in 21:15 challenge Jesus about the songs of the children in the Temple rather than about the cleansing of the Temple, which is some reason to believe that Matthew may be just "chunking together" events rather than giving them in the order in which they occurred.
D. A. Carson's brief discussion of this issue is interestingly mixed. He says,
Chronologically, Mark is more detailed. If the triumphal entry was on Sunday, then, according to Mark, the cursing of the fig tree was on Monday, and the disciples’ surprise at the tree’s quick withering, along with Jesus’ words about faith, were on Tuesday. Matthew has simply put the two parts together in a typical topical arrangement. He leaves indistinct (v.20) the time when the disciples saw the withered fig tree, though he implies it was the same day. (Matthew Commentary, 15644)
I’m inclined to think that Licona may be right that Matthew is implying a time ordering here rather than narrating achronologically, though I have not entirely made up my mind.
As in the case of Jesus' baptism, here as well we have additional information in Matthew, found in no other Gospel: Matt. 21:14 says that Jesus healed people in the Temple at this time. Matt. 21:15-16 records an important conversation with the religious leaders. They want Jesus to stop the children from singing "Hosanna" to him in the Temple. In cheeky response, he quotes Psalm 8 saying that God has perfected praise out of the mouths of babes. This is one of the strongest instances of high Christology in the Synoptic Gospels, unique to Matthew. If Matthew had no other information about these events that he is adding and is just following Mark factually, he must have made it up! But I don't think he did that.
Matthew's inclusion of the children in the Temple and Jesus' answer is actually some evidence of achronological narration, as far as it goes. For it may well have occurred to Matthew that, if the Temple cleansing had just occurred, something looks somewhat "off" about the leaders' approach to Jesus when they confront him about the children. Why didn't they instead challenge him concerning the Temple cleansing? Perhaps this shows that Matthew is just "chunking things in."
But if Matthew is narrating achronologically, his statement that the fig tree withered immediately (21:19) and the immediate narration of the teaching about faith will have to be separately harmonized. This is most often done by arguing that the fig tree began to wither immediately and was found entirely withered the next day.
The theory of good-faith error may therefore have a benefit of simplicity, as it would account more thoroughly for several of these things all at once. For example, if Matthew believed (let us say, incorrectly) that the Temple cleansing took place on the same day as the Triumphal Entry and remembered (correctly) that the disciples noticed the withered fig tree and that Jesus made his comments about faith on the day after the Temple cleansing, he may have combined these two beliefs to conclude that the fig tree must have withered right away when Jesus cursed it, an understandable enough error years after the events. This is conjectural but psychologically not implausible. It makes a good deal more sense as a mental process than his pointlessly changing both the day of the Temple cleansing and the withering of the fig tree, to the confusion of his readers.
If I were convinced that Matthew is intending to imply a chronology here (and of course that Mark is as well), I would conclude that one or the other has gotten that chronology slightly wrong in a good-faith fashion.
It is even possible that Matthew is partially "correcting" Mark by deliberately loosening up some of the time indicators and narrating in a different order because he remembers things slightly differently than Mark but does not want to be too definite. In that case he would be narrating achronologically because he is not entirely sure of the chronological order himself.
As I've said repeatedly, we lock ourselves into a box and engage in what really should be called (negatively) "black and white thinking" if we insist that Matthew is either wholly independent in some passage or wholly factually dependent on Mark or some other source common to the Synoptics. If we recognize that Matthew knows about a part of these scenes that Mark doesn't record (the children singing), then it seems that Matthew does have additional information about the Triumphal entry and Temple cleansing, in which case he might have remembered the order of events slightly differently from Mark's ordering.
Notice that Licona suggests no good motive for Matthew to make such changes deliberately. The famous and somewhat (in my opinion) too-common suggestion that Matthew is "abbreviating" will not do here for two reasons: 1) Abbreviating doesn't require changing the order or making it look like things happened in less time than they did. You can abbreviate just by leaving things out without trying to make such an implication. 2) Matthew doesn't really abbreviate. He narrates in a different order and even adds incidents (as just discussed). So how is that abbreviating?
The absence of any plausible motive for deliberate change just emphasizes how implausible deliberate change is as a theory! Theorists develop a habit where they jump to the conclusion of deliberate change and sometimes don't even ask themselves, "Why would he do that on purpose?" Sometimes theorists do make up subjective, secret, theological motives. These are a dime a dozen and could be just as easily replaced with others. They testify only to the creativity of the theorist. But sometimes they don't even bother, which highlights the fact that these theories of deliberate change are unjustified. A more "boring" idea that one author might have misremembered is more likely from a purely historical perspective. Notice, too, that if one concludes that one author or another made a good-faith error, this involves (as does my entire analysis) the full acknowledgement that authors can imply chronology.
Getting Geisler Right
I am quite frankly rather astonished that in this video Dr. Licona again suggests that arch-inerrantist Norman Geisler thought that Matthew deliberately moved the day on which Jesus cleansed the Temple, switching it with the cursing of the fig tree. He made this suggestion last October in a dialogue with Richard Howe. Considering Licona's long-running conflict with Geisler about precisely such changes, a conflict in which Geisler explicitly and emphatically rejected such changes as incompatible with inerrancy, the idea that one would try to assimilate Geisler to a compositional device view about Passion Week is simply astounding. Its improbability would be difficult to exaggerate. Of course Dr. Licona is well aware of Geisler's emphatic objections to the literary device views and has often emphasized Geisler's allegedly uncharitable behavior in that famous dispute years ago.
I wrote about this attempt to co-opt the late Dr. Geisler on the chronology of Passion Week immediately when it came to my attention last October. As I wrote there, and stand by what I wrote, Dr. Geisler would have been as likely to be found standing on his head in the middle of Times Square whistling "I'll Fly Away" as to say that Matthew or any other evangelist deliberately changed chronology in his Gospel to make it contrary to fact.
Here is the ambiguous passage in question from The Big Book of Bible Difficulties:
PROBLEM: Matthew places the cursing of the fig tree after the cleansing of the temple. But Mark places the cursing before the temple was cleansed. But, it cannot be both. Did one Gospel writer make a mistake?
SOLUTION: Jesus actually cursed the fig tree on His way to the temple as Mark said, but this does not mean that Matthew’s account is mistaken. Christ made two trips to the temple, and He cursed the fig tree on His second trip. Mark 11:11 says that Christ entered the temple the day of His triumphal entry. When Christ enters the temple, Mark does not mention Christ making any proclamations against any wrongdoing. Verse 12 says “Now the next day,” referring to the trip to the fig tree on the way to the temple on the second day. On this day, Christ threw out those buying and selling in the temple. Matthew, however, addresses the two trips of Christ to the temple as though they were one event. This gives the impression that the first day Christ entered the temple He drove out the buyers and sellers as well. Mark’s account, however, gives more detail to the events, revealing that there were actually two trips to the temple. In view of this, we have no reason to believe that there is a discrepancy in the accounts.The two sentences that Licona emphasizes are, "Matthew, however, addresses the two trips of Christ to the temple as though they were one event. This gives the impression that the first day Christ entered the temple He drove out the buyers and sellers as well." Notice, however, that this does not say that Matthew was attempting to give that impression nor that he is trying to "make" the two trips seem like the same trip. In fact, in context, Geisler and Thomas Howe emphasize that Mark gives "more details" and that "we have no reason to believe that there is a discrepancy in the accounts." That's a pretty strong statement right in the context and should help to interpret the awkward phrase "addresses the two trips...as though they were one event."
Implausible as Licona himself finds the theory of achronological narration in Matthew 21, a perfectly reasonable interpretation of Geisler and Howe is that they are using that theory. Surely Licona can't say that Geisler and Howe would never suggest a theory that Licona himself finds improbable! On the contrary, Licona often implies that traditional harmonizers offer strained harmonizations! In his final video he even suggests that books like this very one (The Big Book of Bible Difficulties) are those that often are leading people astray and are risking people's loss of faith because they are trying too hard to harmonize. Well, in that case, perhaps this is what he would consider to be just such a case--namely, the suggestion that Matthew only accidentally "gave the impression" of a specific order of events but was really narrating achronologically. In October, 2019, and again now Licona literally never even admits the plausibility that Geisler and Howe are proposing achronological narration. Rather, he states as if it is a given that Geisler is saying that Matthew "moved" the day of the Temple cleansing.
Interestingly, Licona in his more recent video immediately goes on to tie this theory about Matthew in with John's allegedly moving the Temple cleansing by three years and John's allegedly moving the day of the crucifixion. Licona implies that if you think that Matthew moved the day of the Temple cleansing by one day you shouldn't have a problem with John's moving it by a much larger amount of time or John's changing the day of the crucifixion for theological reasons. I agree that in Licona's views all three of these alleged actions are the same type of thing. These theories are all, as I define the term, dyschronological narration--trying to state or imply a chronology that one knows is contrary to reality. And I would also add that you should bear this in mind before you start accusing Licona's critics of committing a "slippery slope fallacy" when they connect the acceptance of one fact-changing theory to a push for accepting more. Licona himself does this quite explicitly.
Well, what did Geisler think about the idea that John moved the day of the crucifixion? He emphatically and explicitly rejected it as contrary to his inerrantist commitment:
Licona even goes so far as to affirm there is an error in the Gospels regarding on which day Jesus was crucified. He said “[John] may have changed the day and time of Jesus’ crucifixion in order to make a theological point.” Earlier in a debate with Bart Ehrman at Southern Evangelical Seminary (Spring, 2009) he said, “I think that John probably altered the day [of Jesus’ crucifixion] in order for a theological—to make a theological point there.”This clear, emphatic statement about a similar theory, based upon explicit principles of interpretation that Geisler passionately held, should help to interpret the briefer discussion of Matthew's chronology of the Temple cleansing and the cursing of the fig tree. In the post last fall I give more information about Geisler's views of chronology and his rejection in other places of the idea that the authors changed chronology, as well as his own invocation of the achronological/dyschronological distinction concerning the temptations in the wilderness. All of these are relevant to understanding Geisler's views.
But this is clearly contrary to the ICBI view of inerrancy which demands “the unity and internal consistency of Scripture” (Article XIV). Also, “We deny that later revelations…ever contradict it” (Article 5). We affirm the unity, harmony, and consistency of Scripture…. We deny that Scripture may be interpreted in such a way as to suggest that one passage corrects or militates against another” (Hermeneutics Article XVII). WE affirm that since God is the author of all truth, all t.ruths, biblical and extrabiblical, are consistent and cohere…” (Hermeneutics Article XX).
Another of Geisler's co-authors on the topic of inerrancy, Bill Roach, wrote this, at the time that Licona first brought up this claim:
Recently, a dialogue took place on inerrancy and Michael Licona claimed Geisler allowed for the biblical authors to knowingly change the facts/day/propositional truth claim for literary purposes. Lydia McGrew has responded to Licona's claim. I agree with her assessment. [snip]
[A]s the co-author of Defending Inerrancy, I can say unequivocally that Geisler would never endorse any position that the Gospel writers intentionally changed a fact or propositional truth in Scripture. Howe brought that out by addressing the traditional understanding of a correspondence theory of truth. Finally, one could say Geisler wasn't precise enough or more clarification is required. That's fine, we all sometimes need more clarification in our writings. Also, it is quite a jump to go from an ambiguous commentary to declare Geisler holds to errors in chronology. I think the ambiguity ought to call for us to consult Geisler's clear comments about inerrancy per se to rule out he believes in intentional changes in this instance (i.e., use Norms clear didactic teachings elsewhere to help clarify his interpretation of exegetical texts). If someone doesn't like that, then, they must really be at a loss with John Calvin's corpus of literature. Calvin explicitly said to use the Institutes to clarify his exegetical commentaries when/if he is unclear. The same can be done to Geisler.At a minimum, Licona should have acknowledged the very real possibility of a different interpretation of Geisler and Howe's brief sentences. It was surprising enough that he didn't even think of that last fall, but once it has been explicitly and publicly pointed out, not only by me but by Roach, Licona shouldn't just go on using the claim that Geisler held to one of Licona's time-changing theories when that is in such tension with so much else that Geisler stood for and when there's such a plausible alternative interpretation of Geisler. That's just not kosher, and all the less so since Geisler died about a year ago and isn't around to say anything himself.
I say all of this despite the fact that, as I have always made clear, I am not an inerrantist myself. But I respect traditional inerrantists enough to be clear about my own position and to be careful about theirs. That's just good scholarly practice.
What Jairus said about his daughter
I have a discussion of the slight difference between two accounts of what Jairus said about his daughter in TMOM, Chapter XIV, section 4, pp. 381ff, and don't intend to repeat it all here. As usual in this series, Licona speaks as if this type of small difference is at the heart of his and my disagreements about the Gospels. That is quite far from being the case, as I have illustrated again and again.
There are three general categories of possibility to explain this fairly trivial difference. Here's the difference in question: Did Jairus say that his daughter was already dead or that she was dying when he came first to Jesus? I'm inclined to think that he was upset and said both, because he thought she was on the brink of death when he left his house and therefore poured out something to the effect that "she is dying" and also that "she has just died" because he feared that had happened since he left. This doesn't seem all that improbable to me.
Licona thinks that this harmonization is improbable and that Matthew has deliberately changed what Jairus said. In this case the alleged rationale is to shorten the story. I actually think we can give counterexamples to Matthew's alleged pattern of shortening stories (as I've done above). Also, as is so often the case, that motive doesn't actually explain changing the story. Matthew could have easily shortened without changing. He could have left Jairus's words at the beginning the same as they are in Mark, simply left out the messengers who come to tell him that she died (without denying thereby that there were messengers--not mentioning doesn't mean denying), and then could have added one tiny phrase when they arrived and found the mourners weeping--something like, "for the girl was dead." The reader would figure out that she had died after Jairus left the house to fetch Jesus. So "shortening" doesn't really call for changing anything factual. But changing what Jairus said is the theory.
Notice that this theory is not just a theory of ordinary paraphrase, not even deliberate ordinary paraphrase, because the theory is that Matthew was trying to make it look like Jairus thought something that (on this theory) he didn't really think and that something had happened that didn't really happen (namely, that the girl had died before he left the house). So this would not be paraphrasing either to clarify or to summarize what the person actually said. In terms of casual variation (see below) it might arise in the same way that normal paraphrase arises--from the closeness of the expressions and from the imprecision of memory. But if it was done deliberately, it was changing more of the factual content. I suspect that people are more open to this theory of deliberate change than they otherwise would be because they don't pause to think all of that out explicitly. This, again, is why we need to think explicitly about whether or not something involves factual change, even on a small matter.
The third type of theory would just be that, with a wording change this small--"she has died" vs. "she is dying"--different people might have naturally remembered what Jairus said differently. You might think that this rises to the level of an error, given that it actually would make a difference to the propositional content of what Jairus believed at the time. But again, from a purely historical point of view, such a minor difference in memory would be more probable than a deliberate change.
Here again, though I myself advocate a more traditional harmonization, I want to ask inerrantists to face themselves and reflect: Do you really gain something by saying, "Matthew deliberately 'made' Jairus say something with slightly different propositional content" as opposed to saying, "Matthew or his source remembered Jairus as saying something with slightly different propositional content"? Don't be mesmerized by a word like "compositional devices." It doesn't really make any difference to the situation as regards the passage's correspondence to truth. Remember, the original audience would have no more way than you have to guess that this was changed. They didn't have a secret decoder ring. There wasn't some code word in the passage showing them that Matthew changed this bit of wording. That isn't what "compositional device" is even supposed to mean. It just means that somehow, it's all okay, because this kind of thing was "allowed." But the reader could still easily get a different impression from reality as regards that particular fact or detail. And on the compositional device theory, Matthew wanted to give that contrary-to-fact impression in his story. So again, ask yourself: Is there some gain to you as an inerrantist in saying that an evangelist changed some fact on purpose rather than by accident? I admit, I don't see it. And there are other inerrantists who don't see that either, Dr. Geisler being one of the most prominent of these. See also my discussion here and here with Phil Fernandes.
Again, I myself think a normal harmonization works in this case.
Licona makes much of a quotation from a version of D. A. Carson's commentary on Matthew in which Carson evidently adopts the view that Matthew deliberately changed what Jairus said as part of shortening the story, the theory I've already discussed. (Carson does not allege any cultural "literary device" here, by the way.) So I disagree with D. A. Carson on this particular passage. In passing, contra Licona in the video, I don't adopt the very theory Carson addresses. Carson is talking about a theory concerning the translation of the Greek. Nothing in the harmonization I advocate suggests any special translation of the Greek to say that Jairus literally said "she is dying" in both versions. Given the comments Carson makes about the passage, it's fair to guess that he would reject my suggested harmonization, so this isn't a really big deal, except insofar as it shows yet again that Licona is not reading me very carefully.
Licona takes the fact that Carson appears to adopt the idea that Matthew changed the wording deliberately to illustrate that I'm some kind of extremist conservative oddball. Again, as we've seen throughout his series, the emphasis upon these small matters rather than many, many others of Licona's and others' suggested changes is particularly useful for that purpose.
I'd find it mildly interesting to discuss this passage with Carson per the discussion above, pointing out that deliberately "making" the girl die sooner is a bigger deal than he, perhaps, might otherwise have considered. But here is what's even more interesting: Let's see what model of the Gospels Carson normally, commonly, and habitually adopts and how it compares with Licona's approach, on point after point.
The reportage model vs. fact-changing literary devices in the commentaries of D. A. Carson
Let's have a look at theory after theory that Licona suggests concerning the Gospels. Carson's positions illustrate that what I've dubbed the reportage model is the default approach that a conservative evangelical commentator takes to these passages, rather than the elaborate theories of deliberate change that Licona and other literary device scholars bring forward.
Here are some examples. (The Kindle edition of the Matthew commentary has locations rather than page numbers.)
Concerning the early Temple cleansing in John: Carson clearly endorses two Temple cleansings. (Commentary on John, pp. 223-225, Commentary on Matthew, 15551ff.). In analyzing the arguments, he refers to a "deep-seated scholarly bias against doubles of anything in Scripture" as informing the rejection of two Temple cleansings (Commentary on John, p. 223). He also says that the supposed reasons for John's moving the Temple cleansing "neither agree with each other nor prove intrinsically convincing" (p. 224). He calls the arguments for John's moving the cleansing "weak and subjective" (p. 224), a comment that I strongly suspect, if I had made it, would feature in one of Licona's videos as an example of my "extreme" or "exaggerated" language.
Concerning the suggestion that Matthew doubled up on blind men to compensate for not telling other stories in Mark: Carson calls this suggestion "fanciful" and rejects it out of hand (Matthew commentary, 9163), while Licona (as we have seen) treats it as an extremely live possibility for the presence of two blind men in a healing in Matthew when only one is mentioned in Mark. Indeed, Licona does not decide between this and other options, and Craig Keener goes so far as to use Licona's mistaken "device of inflection" to try to shore up the fanciful suggestion of invented blind men. (I shall adopt Carson's extreme word "fanciful" forthwith.) Carson also rejects with little discussion the allegation of a "doublet"--the invention of an entire healing of the blind in Matthew 9 that never occurred.
Concerning the parable of the wicked tenants, Carson says that only in Matthew does Jesus elicit the self-condemning response of the crowd, but he does not at all suggest that this is a non-historical addition by Matthew. He appears to take it that Matthew is recording a real response (Matthew commentary, 15939).
In his commentary on the centurion, Carson uses language that easily could refer to what Licona calls the "metonymy" view--namely that Matthew is not really "having" the centurion come in person but rather is merely speaking in a way that is accidentally ambiguous. I call this "non-fictionalizing transferral" in TMOM.
The chief difference, apart from theological emphases, between vv.5–13 and Luke 7:1–10 is the use of intermediaries in the latter. Probably Matthew, following his tendency to condense, makes no mention of the servants in order to lay the greater emphasis on faith according to the principle qui facit per alium facit per se (“he who acts by another acts himself”)—a principle the centurion’s argument implies (vv.8–9). (Matthew commentary, 8199)
Concerning the timing of the healing of a leper, for which Licona alleges a chronological discrepancy between Matthew and Mark and hence a "compositional device" in which Matthew has moved the cleansing of the leper dyschronologically (Why Are There Differences, pp. 192ff), Carson instead explicitly invokes achronological narration on Matthew's part. As noted in a previous post, Carson explicitly disagrees with what Licona has tried to argue about the phrase "and behold" as a chronological indicator in Matthew, saying,
The introductory kai idou (lit., “and behold”; also in Luke, absent from Mark, untranslated in NIV) does not require that this healing immediately follow the sermon. In Matthew, kai idou has a broad range, sometimes serving as a loose connective, sometimes introducing a startling thought or event, and sometimes, as here, marking the beginning of a new pericope. Commentary on Matthew, Kindle location 8139I note that Licona has used his argument about the leper as part of his case that I suffer from terribly rigid thinking in interpretation. Supposedly I am unable to recognize that an author implies chronology. He uses this passage by surmising that I would think that there is achronological narration in either Matthew or Mark, though in fact I do not address the alleged discrepancy in that passage in TMOM. But perhaps I would endorse achronological narration along with Carson in either Matthew or Mark. So what? Licona's argument that "and behold" is a time indicator in Matthew is hardly so obviously right that anyone who disagrees is foolishly clinging to harmonization. Or it may be that Mark is narrating topically instead of Matthew.
Concerning the day on which Jesus' feet were anointed in Passion Week, Carson clearly endorses an achronological interpretation of the Synoptics, which is a traditional harmonization:
Small differences among Matthew, Mark, and John are fairly easily reconciled. John may place the incident where he does because he has just spoken of Bethany and will mention that town no more; but his links with the historical setting seem fairly strong, and the most natural interpretation of his account is that the anointing took place before the triumphal entry (Jn 12:2, 12). Mark and Matthew, on the other hand, provide no chronological connection, only a thematic one. (Matthew commentary, 18174)
The least important [difference between the accounts] is the setting: in Matthew/Mark it is placed after the triumphal entry, in John it is placed before. It must be remembered, however, that the time indicators in Matthew/Mark are notoriously loose. These Evangelists often order their accounts according to topic, not chronology. (Commentary on John, p. 365)Carson treats it as quite obvious that nobody deliberately moved the anointing. In other words, he is adopting a reportage model. In contrast, Licona says that either Mark or John has deliberately displaced the foot anointing by moving it to a different day (Why Are There Differences, p. 151).
Concerning whether Jesus' head or feet were anointed at this time (Mark and Matthew mention his head while John mentions his feet), Carson says that this is not a tension and harmonizes in the traditional, additive fashion by saying that Mary anointed both. He explicitly says,
Several small details in the text encourage the reader to inject a small dose of historical imagination before resorting too quickly to the critic’s knife. (Commentary on John, p. 562)Among these details he includes Mark's reference to breaking the neck of the jar and the quantity of ointment. This use of "a small dose of historical imagination" is, of course, characteristic of the use of the reportage model and is what Carson does with the Temple cleansings as well.
In contrast, in a recent interview Michael Licona speaks quite dismissively of this very harmonization (that Mary anointed both Jesus' feet and head) and opts instead for the idea of so-called "cross-pollination" between two accounts. This is the idea that the details concerning what she anointed have become mixed between Luke (where Luke tells a different story in which Jesus' feet were anointed) and John. As I have mentioned before, while Licona will sometimes harmonize, he repeatedly rejects perfectly normal, reasonable, additive harmonizations of this kind, and this is an example of such a pointless rejection instead of using "a small dose of historical imagination."
One of the most striking examples of Carson's use of a reportage model, as I have noted in an appendix to TMOM (Appendix 3), is the fact that he takes it that sermons in Matthew like the Sermon on the Mount really were uttered at least approximately as given on that occasion, since Matthew "brackets" them with words that seem to indicate that he is recording an historical discourse. This rejection of the typical "composite discourse" view is so unusual in its literalism that it is sometimes mocked as the view only of uneducated outsiders. Craig Evans in his debate with me said that "all critical scholars of the Synoptics, and I mean evangelicals, not just, you know, non-evangelicals, recognize this assembling" of discourses by Matthew. Evans was apparently unaware of Carson's minority opinion. "All" is a strong word. Just look at Carson's "black and white thinking" concerning the Commissioning Discourse in Matthew 10!
The setting Matthew gives must be accepted. Although he arranges much of his material topically, uses loose time connectives, and condenses his sources and sometimes paraphrases them, there is no convincing evidence that Matthew invents settings. Nor will appeal to some elusive genre suffice. If Matthew is a coherent writer, such nonhistorical material must be reasonably and readily separable from his historical material, if the alleged “genre” was recognizable to the first readers. Verse 5a could scarcely be clearer: “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions.
Carson reasons that Matthew's prima facie setting for the discourse should be accepted in the absence of clear evidence (which he believes is lacking) of a "genre" of composite discourses that appear bracketed. He reasons that otherwise readers would be misled by "nonhistorical material" that could not be "reasonably and readily separable from his historical material"--exactly the point I have made about fact-changing literary devices.
Carson does not think that John changed the day of Jesus' crucifixion and follows arguments that Craig Blomberg has also laid out for taking it that John and the Synoptics are both referring to the same day (Commentary on John, pp. 602, 786). Carson calls the claim that John moved the crucifixion for theological reasons "flimsy even at the theological level" (p. 601), emphasizing (as I would emphasize as well and as Blomberg has emphasized) that John does not even mention that Jesus is the Lamb of God in these chapters and seems to be making no effort to make the alleged theological point in question. Carson also objects on the grounds that this leaves "the historical contradiction with the Synoptics unaddressed."
In other words, Carson does not grant at all that an apparent historical discrepancy just is the indication that John is altering historical facts for theological reasons. But Licona strongly endorses the theory that John moved the crucifixion. He has debated it with Craig Blomberg. This is supposed to be an example of the so-called compositional device of displacement. Carson does not accept the theory that John changed the time of the crucifixion, either (p. 808).
Needless to say (at least it should be needless to say), Carson takes, "I thirst" and "It is finished" to be historical and never even considers any theory to the contrary (825-826, 829) whereas Licona, following Daniel Wallace, implies that there is some kind of tension between John and the Synoptics as far as which was the "last logion" and "second to last logion" from the cross, concluding that Jesus actually said "My God, why have you forsaken me?" and "Into your hands I commit my spirit" (respectively) and that John changed these to totally different sayings found in his Gospel.
In contrast to Licona, who strongly implies that John invented the sub-incident in which Jesus breathes and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit" (Why Are There Differences, p. 180-181), Carson takes the so-called "Johannine Pentecost" (John 20:22) to be historical and not in conflict with the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2. Implausibly, many critical scholars have claimed that there is some problem here, though in fact on the historical level there is no tension at all. Carson refers to the claim that John has used this action of Jesus as his own "Pentecost" when it did not really occur as the view that John has "sacrific[ed] historical authenticity" (John commentary, p. 875) and argues against it.
Again, notice that for me to say that this is "sacrificing historical authenticity" is the kind of thing that Licona calls loaded language, black and white thinking, and so forth. Carson just takes it to be an accurate description of a view that he happens to disagree with. Carson points out that if Acts 2 is historical, then John's original readers would have known about it, and it would make no sense for John to be trying to "move" Pentecost to a time when Jesus was on earth (p. 875). He also points out that John's readers, having heard of the actual Pentecost, would likely have been confused if they took John to be narrating a substitute for Pentecost in John 20, in a completely different literal context (p. 873).
Licona rejects all attempts to harmonize Matthew 28 and John 20 as far as Mary Magdalene's visits to the tomb and the appearance of Jesus to her. He says that rather than harmonize these he is "more persuaded that one or more of the evangelists have creatively reconstructed the events of that watershed Sunday morning and the weeks that followed" (Why Are There Differences, p. 255, n. 144). When Licona says that either Matthew or John has "relocated" the appearance to Mary Magdalene, which would require a large amount of scene crafting, he even emphasizes this: "This shows the extent to which at least one of the evangelists or the sources from which he drew felt free to craft the story." (p. 176)
Carson, in contrast (John commentary, pp. 847-848), unabashedly harmonizes and adopts a harmonization slightly different from mine and more similar to that of either Blomberg or Gleason Archer--that Mary Magdalene went first to the tomb alone, ran to tell Peter and John of the stone rolled away, returned with the other women, became separated from the other women in some separate way on her second visit, and saw Jesus alone at that time as told in John. I think that John Wenham's harmonization is better, since it links Mary Magdalene's separation from the other women more naturally with her decision to run alone and tell Peter and John, prior to the other women's going into the tomb and seeing the angels. The point is that Carson openly and without hesitation uses a reportage approach here as elsewhere and adopts a harmonization of exactly the sort that Licona rejects as strained, in precisely a place where Licona instead suggests freedom to "craft the story" in virtue of the alleged genre and compositional devices.
This should make it clear that Carson, like so many evangelical commentators, uses the reportage model as a default to guide his approach to the text and to alleged contradictions. Any attempt to emphasize the theory (which Carson apparently accepts) that Matthew changed the words of Jairus is severely cherry-picked. There can be no question what approach is ubiquitous in Carson's work on the Gospels, and it is certainly not a compositional device approach. His minority stance concerning the alleged composite discourses in Matthew, with its emphasis upon Matthew's prima facie literal settings and its rationale, is especially striking here and is consonant with his treatment of passage after passage elsewhere, harmonization after harmonization, even as regards details such as whether Mary anointed Jesus' head or feet. He does not assume the reportage model mindlessly but applies a vigorous intellectual approach to the Gospels and finds that model historically repeatedly more than adequate, just as I do.
The centurion, once more
Licona often emphasizes the apparent discrepancy between Luke and Matthew concerning whether the centurion came to Jesus personally. In a significant sociological sense that passage has proven to be a gateway to much larger acceptance of fact-changing literary devices. Some reasons why that happens: a) Most conservatives have previously accepted a harmonization based on Matthew's only accidentally giving the impression that the centurion came in person. b) That view is not always properly distinguished from Matthew's deliberately giving a false impression. c) There are some real difficulties in the passage for the view that Matthew did not intend to say that the centurion literally came in person.
Conservatives interested in the Bible who have spent much of their lives accepting the view of non-fact-changing transferral here (which Licona refers to as "metonymy" in his recent videos), who are committed to inerrancy, may be taken by surprise when the problems with non-fact-changing transferral come to their attention. These include, e.g., the fact that Jesus appears in Matthew to speak to the centurion using singular terms, which would not fit with his speaking to his servants as the centurion's representatives. If they are then told that it's no big deal just to take Matthew to be transferring these actions and words literally to the centurion, making it look deliberately like the centurion came in person though he believed that he didn't, they may be moved by a superficial resemblance between that view and the view they previously held (and by their reluctance to speak of such a factual discrepancy as an "error") to adopt the fact-changing transferral view that Licona advocates. It will help, of course, if they are assured that this was a "literary device of the time," though of course I have argued that there is no good independent evidence that it was.
My discussion of the account of the centurion is found in TMOM (Chapter XIV, section 3, pp. 375ff), and I will not repeat any significant amount of that section here but will make some additional observations:
In this case as in some others, it is interesting to see how source and redaction criticism are lying behind some of the acceptance of a fact-changing literary device. If you read commentaries on Luke's Gospel, you will see that some liberal scholars have suggested that Luke was the one who invented. The idea there would be that Luke just made up the centurion's emissaries out of whole cloth. That seems like a "bigger" invention than saying that Matthew made the centurion come in person when he didn't, so some evangelicals are inclined to go with the latter (in a sense) as a defense of Luke's historicity--an odd result.
The story is considered to be "Q material" since it is found in Matthew and Luke but not Mark. But (and this is very important) even if one granted (which I'm not at all sure that we should grant) that there was a written Q document and that this story was in it (all hypothetical), we simply do not know how the story appeared there! We don't have "Q." If it existed and the story was in there, did it look more like Luke or like Matthew? No idea. But if you accept the idea that Luke and Matthew "got" the story "from Q," then there would have been only one version, and if you accept the strait-jacket of redaction criticism that I have been writing against all along, you will assume that neither Luke nor Matthew could have had any independent information about the incident. This would mean that one of them must have altered the story non-factually, without any factual justification or separate historical source. We get ourselves into a pretty tangled position when we block out the possibility of additional information for particular stories in individual Gospels.
Why should we accept that assumption? After all, even if there were a Q document that contained one or the other version of this story, why assume that this was the only possible way that either Luke or Matthew could have known about what happened? Again (again, again) this kind of rigid, "black and white thinking" is what I have been constantly writing against. Literary dependence of some kind should not and often does not mean complete factual dependence. We must constantly bear this in mind. Moreover, without knowing what was "in Q," we have no reason to think that Matthew even had access to Luke's version of the story!
Why in the world should we assume that Matthew had even heard about the centurion's emissaries prior to writing his account? This is not even a case where Mark is Matthew's alleged source and therefore where, as Licona often likes to say, one "observes" the way Matthew "used Mark." The story isn't even in Mark! Rather, Licona is assuming the content of Matthew's alleged source for the story without having that source! As Licona himself acknowledged last year in his series of podcasts on the Synoptic problem, it is a minority view to take Matthew to be using Luke as a source. The more common two-source hypothesis, which Licona often says he subscribes to, makes "Q" Matthew's second source. If there were a Q version, how do we know it wasn't similar to Matthew's, while Luke got some additional information elsewhere? No good reason at all.
Next, consider that Matthew 8:11-12 are not found in Luke's version of the story. These verses show Jesus saying that many will come from the east and west and sit down at the table with Abraham, while others are cast out. D. A. Carson specifically considers and rejects the claim that Matthew invented this saying based on some teaching of Jesus in a different context. Instead, tacitly using the reportage model, Carson emphasizes that Jesus often taught on similar concepts (Matthew commentary, 8272). Once again (as in the Temple cleansing and the baptism) we see that, if we assume that any differences between Matthew and some other Gospel must be the result of Matthew's non-factual alteration, this theory tends to spread to include more and more invention of material in the passage.
If we acknowledge that Matthew had an independent factual source about the events, this may be the cause of other differences, such as the fact that the centurion appears to come in person.
Although Licona has now made clear enough that his view is not the "metonymy" view, he will still characterize his own view in a confusing fashion. For example, in his final video he still imagines Matthew hypothetically telling us in heaven that he "just simplified" the account. But as his discussion in these videos and elsewhere makes clear, this isn't accurate. On Licona's view, Matthew did more than "just simplifying." Rather, on Licona's view, he made the centurion appear to come in person, including specific words and statements (such as stating that the centurion came to Jesus) and bits of dialogue meant to give that appearance. This despite the fact that, Licona believes, he knew that the centurion didn't really come to Jesus! This theory is not just a matter of shortening or leaving out details.
At times Licona will speak of "what we do in conversation all the time." In a public, professional presentation at the Evangelical Theological Society (audio available here), Licona said that my opposition to his theory about the centurion shows that I do not recognize what ordinary people do normally in conversation. Ask yourself: Do honest people in conversation directly narrate that someone was present who they know was not present? Imagine that you have a friend who went to a conference. He comes back and tells you, “Lydia McGrew came to this conference, and she told me that she appreciated my encouragement in her work.” But later you find out that I wasn’t at that conference at all. You mention this to your friend, suggesting that maybe he just got it confused with a different conference. He cheerfully admits that he knew full-well that I wasn’t there. He says that he spoke with my husband, who passed on my message of thanks. He says that he erased my husband deliberately and made me come to the conference personally and talk with him in person in his narrative. He says that that's just what "we all do in ordinary conversation." But...your friend said that I came personally to the conference. While knowing that I didn’t!
Was that changing the facts? Of course. Why would anyone question that designation?
If he knew that I wasn't at the conference at all, wouldn’t that be knowingly confusing his audience? You would have no way of knowing that he had done that. And if this is just something this friend considers himself licensed to do, maybe you should now expect this friend at random moments deliberately to “make” someone show up in person who wasn’t really there. After all, he thinks that's just what we do in ordinary conversation! That would make it pretty hard to depend on his accounts about who was present and who wasn’t, wouldn’t it?
Is this really something that honest people in conversation do all the time? No, of course not. And this is one of Licona's mildest examples of a "compositional device."
Notice, too, that this theory does not eliminate the contradiction! On this theory, the factual contradiction not only remains, but cannot and should not be harmonized: On Licona's view, Luke says there were emissaries and the centurion didn't come himself; Matthew says that the centurion did come himself rather than sending emissaries. This is not resolving the contradiction. It is just labeling what Matthew did as a "compositional device" which is supposedly what created the factual contradiction.
If this is supposed to be a special, ancient device, what independent evidence is there for the claim that there was a device of making it look like people were present who weren't present? As I discuss in TMOM, the evidence is an apparent discrepancy between two stories of Plutarch, in one of which Pompey comes into court in person and in another of which he sends a message to the court. This is the merest discrepancy hunting as a way of building an entire superstructure of an "accepted, ancient literary device." A thin reed indeed upon which to build such a large theory. Remember, too, that even on Licona's interpretation of Theon's exercise book (which I've argued is badly misguided), this so-called "transferral" is not supposedly advised there. The case for the very existence of such a device is thus entirely inductive, allegedly "finding" it in an ancient author. As Peter J. Williams has pointed out, to "keep the bar reasonably high" for saying that there was an "ancient literary device," we need more than just finding that Plutarch said one thing in one work and something different in a different work! After all, we find garden-variety discrepancies in secular history all the time, and they aren't due to "literary devices."
So the evidence for such a "device" is severely lacking.
Let me also note that, if there were such a device of "transferral," it would cast doubt on other accounts. Did Jesus actually talk to Nicodemus or did John portray Nicodemus as present when he really sent an emissary? Remember too that Licona will sometimes allege "transferral" when one person was not even the agent of another. In Plutarch he alleges that Plutarch simply "transferred" a saying against Caesar from one Senator to another, even though one was not the emissary of the other. In John's Gospel Licona says that perhaps John the evangelist "transferred" the statement that John the Baptist was the voice of one crying in the wilderness to John the Baptist himself, when in that case no one in the real world said it at all. This "transferral" would just be John's making up the saying, presumably because the Synoptic narrators applied it to John the Baptist. So did Peter confess that Jesus was the Christ as told in John 6:68 or did John "transfer" that saying to Peter from another disciple who really said it? If there really was a device where one expected authors sometimes, without sign or warning, to make up people's presence when they were not present, and to say things that they did not say, this would fuzzify our ability to get information from the Gospels on precisely this type of point.
Making someone present who wasn't present is a bigger matter than I think people always realize when they slide from non-fact-changing transferral to the view that Matthew deliberately made the centurion come personally when he didn't. Thinking more clearly about this fact-changing alleged "device" can help us to see the cost of that. Licona counts on the fact that inerrantist hearers will prefer the phrase "compositional device" over the word "error," even when both describe the presence of literally inaccurate information in a biblical account. Why he, who claims to be an historian untrammeled by confining theological assumptions, should be shocked that I would suggest that perhaps Matthew got a mistaken impression and passed it along honestly is a bit unclear. Licona's only given reason in his recent videos is that he knows of no other scholar who takes that view--a blatant bandwagon argument, and one not tied to any historical principle or argument. Is it really so strange as a purely historical matter that Matthew might have misunderstood something, especially if he was not present?
One attempted argument against the good-faith error theory is that in that case Matthew's human witness source (whose existence I am conjecturing, supported by the presence of vss. 11-12) would have had to deliberately mis-state what happened. So (supposedly) this merely moves the problem back a step to a witness source who deliberately changed the facts. But that's not true. Of course we can only conjecture what such a witness source said. But suppose, for example, that Matthew spoke to someone who told the story relatively briefly and said that the centurion "said" certain things and that Jesus "answered" other things. The witness source would not have had to use the phrase "a centurion came" (Matt. 8:5) but could have said, "A centurion asked Jesus to come and heal his servant, who was lying home paralyzed," etc. The witness source could have said that Jesus answered that he would come and heal him. He could have then related, "But the centurion said, 'I am not worthy that you should come under my roof'..." and so forth, through the story. This really would be simplifying the account, but without the problems for that view found in Matthew's way of stating it. Jesus' words at vs. 13, "Go, let it be done as you have believed" could have been related in the plural, with Jesus speaking to the centurion's servants, but if Matthew, using a natural paraphrase, changed that to the singular it would merely be because he honestly assumed that the centurion was there with an entourage and that Jesus spoke to him among the others. This, though a conjectural version of how Matthew might have heard it, serves to underscore the obvious point: Honest misunderstandings in human communication happen all the time. There are only a few places in the passage that are in significant tension with the view of non-fact-changing transferral. It is therefore fairly easy to see how someone telling the story could have spoken in this way and how Matthew could have received an accidental misimpression, which was then amplified in his entirely honest retelling. The fact that direct and indirect speech would not always have been distinguished would also be in play.
The claim that the witness source would have had to be deliberately changing the facts is the only direct attempt I have ever seen to argue against the honest misunderstanding view. Other than that and Licona's blatant bandwagon, I have encountered little more than shock that this theory does not have what the compositional device claim has--an entirely superficial appearance of being compatible with inerrancy, because it doesn't use the word "error." Again, I would ask the inerrantist: What do you gain by saying that Matthew (like the imaginary friend who went to the conference) deliberately tried to make it look like someone was present who wasn't present? That's hardly better for inerrancy. On the contrary, an honest misunderstanding in the case of an agency relation (emissaries, described explicitly in Luke) is far less likely to apply to other passages, where emissaries are unlikely to have been involved, than Licona's generous notion of "transferral."
But if you do not agree with that theory of honest error, you can continue to try to work with the "metonymy" theory already discussed, or you can take a more traditional harmonization such as that the centurion came later, Jesus saw him on the edge of the crowd, knew who he was, and spoke to him directly at that point. As I've noted in TMOM, a difficulty with this view is that it would mean that Matthew changed without warning from saying that Jesus said certain things to the centurion and that the centurion said certain things to him while meaning "through emissaries" to relating something that Jesus said to the centurion directly. This seems artificial. Moreover, the statement that the centurion came (Matt. 8:5) occurs at the beginning of the incident.
Or, like so many inerrantists past and present, you can just say, "I don't know." Indeed, we don't have to have something to say about everything. It's not a bad idea sometimes just to admit that we aren't confident enough to say what is the best explanation of the data, particularly in a case of apparent discrepancy. I fear that literary device theorists get far too many people to agree with them because of a reluctance to remain in genuine uncertainty about the explanation of something and a preference for having something to say about everything--some phrase or label to put down on top of it. That is certainly not a good reason to say that a Gospel author deliberately changed the facts. Nor is saying, "I don't know" a case of "punting to mystery," any more than it is "punting to mystery" when a responsible historian or scientist admits that he doesn't have the full picture and isn't sure which is the correct theory or explanation of some data.
I have put this much time into a response on these small Gospel differences despite the fact that much larger matters are actually in play in this controversy. Thinking precisely about small alleged changes can help us to think more clearly about larger ones. But an over-focus on small differences can cause people to feel psychologically that this is much ado about nothing. As noted before, someone's accidentally giving or getting an erroneous impression on a small matter is different from someone's deliberately giving a false impression even on a small matter. It can be difficult to keep this point constantly in mind. Dr. Licona's exclusive focus in these videos upon what appear to be small issues thus is likely to cause his viewers to feel that nothing much is at stake, which is why I have pointed out again and again the real scope of these views and the way in which he himself will extrapolate from the smaller to the larger by saying that the Gospel authors felt free to craft their narratives and that the variations in (e.g.) the resurrection accounts show the extent of that crafting.
Once again, these are matters where there is no substitute for careful thinking and detailed argument, and I strongly encourage those who are interested in these questions to see my carefully constructed argument in The Mirror or the Mask.