Friday, July 10, 2020

New Licona series: On Greco-Roman biography, literary devices, and assistants

(New content: Summer, 2020)

The content of this post responds to  this video in Dr. Michael Licona's series. It corresponds to this second video of mine.

Genre and prior expectations

Dr. Licona relies strongly on the concept of genre to defend his thesis that the Gospel authors sometimes changed the facts. The idea is supposed to be that the genre of Greco-Roman biography licensed such changes and produces what a philosopher would call a "high prior probability" that the Gospel authors made them. Here is one of the things Licona says about that:

The majority of New Testament scholars agree that, at minimum, the Gospels share much in common with the genre of Greco-Roman biography. Therefore, it should be of no surprise to observe the Gospel authors using the compositional devices that were part-and-parcel of that genre. In fact, we should be surprised if we did not observe it. Accordingly, gaining a better understanding of that genre should, in principle, yield a greater understanding of the Gospels for us.
 [snip]
Where I differ [from most evangelicals] is, I place a priority on genre over harmonization. So, before seeking to harmonize Gospel texts, one should read the Gospels in view of their biographical genre, which includes their authors’ use of the various compositional devices commonly used when writing history and biography.
So the genre claim is playing a big probabilistic role for Licona. That is not to say that he is deductively reasoning to the presence of a literary device in a passage from genre alone. But he is quite explicit that "we should be surprised if we did not observe" the devices he alleges. So the genre itself and what he thinks that genre licensed lead him to approach the Gospels with a high probability of finding these devices.

I rebut the thesis that the evangelists made such deliberate factual changes on multiple levels in TMOM. I argue that it was unlikely that at least three out of four of the evangelists would have been influenced by the literary genre of Greco-Roman biography anyway. I also argue that literary devices like changing times and days and transferring words from one person to another were not known, accepted conventions even of secular biographies. And I argue that the Gospel authors were highly motivated to communicate literal historical truth and hence not to make such changes even if there had been such conventions and even if the Gospel authors had known about them.

Licona's video that I am discussing here ("Lydia McGrew Answered! Are the Gospels Greco-Roman Biographies?") concerns in large part whether the Jewish evangelists who were probably not Greek-trained (Matthew, Mark, and John) would have been influenced by Greco-Roman biography. In what follows concerning Greco-Roman biography, please remember that I am not actually granting that these devices were "part and parcel" (as Licona says) even of Greco-Roman biography. I'm addressing the question of what influence their conventions would have had upon the Gospels and of how this would have worked even if these Greco-Roman literary forms had these conventions.

Genre, Burridge, influence, and traditional authorship

In TMOM I argue that influence by such a specific genre is especially unlikely for Matthew, Mark, and John, and that any influence of Greek literature (whether history or biography) that there might have been on the probably more Greek-educated Luke seems only to have been to cause him to adopt the highest standards of historical investigation.

Since these alleged compositional devices (if they existed) would not be the kind of thing that one can do by accident or unconsciously, the notion of influence is quite important. It isn't enough for a Gospel to (in a sense) "fall into" a resemblance to this highly specific genre. The author has to have learned somewhere that this genre licenses these highly deliberate activities. This point is important when it comes to the arguments of Richard Burridge, which Licona mentions.

Contra Licona's implication in the video, I did not merely say that Burridge's arguments are unconvincing. I argued it in detail. You can see that in Chapter V itself.

One important point that I make there is that the sorts of resemblances between Greco-Roman biography and the Gospels that Licona mentions are really not so uncanny as to probabilify literary influence and the adoption of literary norms based on influence. Far from it. These characteristics include such things as length (which in several of the Gospels is approximately the length of a scroll anyway), the focus on one character (what else would you expect in memoirs about Jesus by his apostles and their associates?), the number of verbs that have the main character as their subject (ya' think?), and the like.

In fact a point very much like mine here was made by NT scholar Robert Stein, who is not nearly as conservative as I am, in his partially negative review of Licona's book (JETS 61, no. 1, March, 2018). Stein spends much of his review rather sharply criticizing the thesis that the Gospels are Greco-Roman bioi. Like me, Stein points out that a broad resemblance arising from natural human behavior is sufficient to account for the broad similarity without any influence. Stein then praises Licona for not harmonizing too much (as Stein sees it) and for admitting contradictions in the Gospels. But in the review as a whole he emphasizes some real reasons for skepticism about the genre thesis that has become so popular. Once again, Licona cannot shake Stein's and my concerns off merely by shifting to the phrase "have much in common with" Greco-Roman biography, since the Gospel authors had to know enough about that genre to adopt its alleged conventions, where these conventions supposedly involved altering dates, times, people involved, and the like. They had to know enough about the genre to believe that this was licensed.

Richard Burridge himself has made the rather telling admission that the Gospel of Mark may have, as it were, fallen into the bios genre by accident.
[Mark] may have been consciously writing about Jesus in a way which was similar to βίοι of philosophers, or he may have done it unconsciously, falling into a βίοϛ pattern simply because it is the natural genre for any text concentrating on the deeds and words of a single person. (What Are the Gospels, p. 241)
Mark’s biographical genre may be a natural, if unconscious, consequence of his decision to present his Christian message with such a concentration on the life, deeds and words of Jesus of Nazareth. (What Are the Gospels, p. 246)
This fits with the fact that Burridge is clearly more interested in his book in defending family resemblance among documents than actual influence and spends only a short section of his book even discussing the question of real influence and conscious adoption of the genre by the evangelists. In TMOM I discuss at more length the few extra arguments, such as they are, that he tries to bring to argue that Matthew, Luke, and John were consciously attempting to produce Greco-Roman bioi. It is typical of the weakness of these arguments that one of them is the fact that Luke and Matthew contain infancy and birth narratives, while Mark does not. How much more is there to say about this than that it is...unconvincing? One could add "weak" and "non sequitur." However, in TMOM I found more to say about how pointless this is as evidence that Matthew and Luke were consciously trying to conform to the norms of Greco-Roman bioi:

The addition of ancestry (genealogy) and birth and infancy narratives, and in Luke of a story about Jesus’ boyhood, does not fare any better as an argument for deliberate adoption of the conventions of βίοι. It should go without saying that Jews were intensely interested in genealogy and especially the genealogy of a Messianic claimant. If Matthew believed that he had information about the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah he hardly required a Hellenistic model as a motive to include it. And a similar consideration applies to Luke, even if he was a Gentile author. Jesus’ genealogy, either as reckoned through his mother or through Joseph, would have been important both to the authors and to their audiences. If we take at all seriously the hypothesis that Matthew and Luke had historical sources that they trusted for their genealogies, that theory is quite sufficient to explain the inclusion of the information. Similarly, if they believed that they knew something about Jesus’ birth—Jesus, the Savior of the world—and especially if they believed that they had information about Jesus’ virgin birth, this would be of interest in itself and would warrant inclusion. (The Mirror or the Mask, p. 81)
What I've said here should be enough to show that I have by no means brushed off Burridge's arguments with naught but a word. For the rest (and there are even more facts and arguments), I refer the reader to The Mirror or the Mask, Chapter V.

All of this shows why I emphasized influence so much. Mere accidental family resemblance won't do. Licona needs real influence in order for the authors even to know about the devices that he wants to ascribe to them.

In his response video, Licona seems to assume that the evangelists must have been following some literary model of biography. Hence, since there weren’t a lot of Jewish biographies around to follow, the idea seems to be that they would have needed to use Greco-Roman biographies as models. But to say that they are ancient biographies in a broad sense isn’t at all to say that they were following some literary model. Why even think that? Why think that they needed a literary model? Why not think that, as Burridge conjectures may have happened with Mark, they wrote as they did because of their "decision to present [their] Christian message with such a concentration on the life, deeds and words of Jesus of Nazareth," and, of course, because they either were eyewitnesses and/or had the testimony of eyewitnesses?

The brand-new "Greek-literature-trained assistant" hypothesis

To try to bolster the Greco-Roman biography theory, Licona introduces in this video for the first time in public the theory that the Gospel authors were able to use these supposed “conventions of their day” (such as changing the date of an event, transferring words or actions from one person to another, making up dialogue, inventing a context, and many more) because they were being assisted by Greek-educated scribes or assistants. He notes, correctly, that I do not address this suggestion in TMOM. The reason for this is simple: The suggestion that some of the evangelists adopted such factual changes by the help of Greek-educated assistants, or that they permitted assistants to make such alterations in reporting with or without their consent, is far-fetched and blatantly ad hoc. At the time that I wrote TMOM I knew of no one, including Licona, who had ever suggested such a thing in public. In fact, in Licona’s writings he has previously (prior to this video series) referred to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the authors themselves, as making such changes. In one video-taped lecture he even stated that Matthew would have been instructed from exercise books like the Greek Progymnasmata to do things like creating dialogue in his Gospel. This obviously raises the question of how in the world Matthew, if he was the real Matthew, would have been educated from Greek rhetorical exercise books. Though it is implausible, it is what Licona said. It would have been irresponsible and uncharitable to attribute the "assistant" view to anyone, much less to Licona, and pointless to make TMOM even longer to address such a view merely on spec.

Now that Licona has suggested this idea publicly, I can say that its problems are numerous. Indeed, it is quite a classic instance of ad hoc reasoning for purposes of appearing to “save” a theory from a counterargument. It must be emphasized: To say that the Gospel authors may have had amanuenses (scribes) to help them write is a far cry from what would be involved to “help” them to make their work conform to the sort of “literary conventions” that Licona alleges. Licona implies that, since we know independently that authors sometimes had scribes/secretaries, that makes this much stronger view probable, but that is not the case.

Imagine what that would amount to in some concrete case. Here is, say, Matthew or John, with (so goes the theory) a Greek-trained secretary to help him write. Does the secretary ask permission to move things around, even if that were a convention of the genre?

Apollos (scribe): John, in my Greek rhetoric training we learned that it can make a better story to change the timing of events. Based on what I'm learning from you about Jewish customs, I think it would be really cool to move Jesus' crucifixion back by one day in the month to make him appear more directly to be the Lamb of God. Is that okay with you?
John, the Beloved Disciple: Why, sure, Apollos. We definitely want to keep up with all of those Greek conventions. I'm sure my audience won't mind, even if they've never heard of it. But some of them might be Greek-trained like you, so maybe some of them will notice it and then figure out that hidden theological meaning. Go right ahead, no problem! Of course, hmmm, others will think that because I emphasize that I was present and saw these things and am bearing a true record, they can count on me for the accuracy of those kinds of details, and they might be confused somehow, but never mind. 
Or did the entirely hypothetical Apollos just go ahead and do such things on the theory that it's easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission? Did John not notice, or did he notice and decide to let it go when he looked over the Gospel at the end? Or maybe John said, "Hey, Apollos, go ahead and write up those notes that I've given you about Jesus' life however it strikes you will look best," and Apollos went for it and switched around and invented various facts on the way.

It should go without saying that any such theory guts one of the main things that people usually think we are gaining if we affirm traditional authorship--namely, closeness to the facts and factual accuracy and scrupulousness. Bear this in mind the next time you see Dr. Licona in a video saying (as he frequently does) that he thinks the Gospel of John was written by John the son of Zebedee and that he  maintains that minority view against more liberal or skeptical scholars. In his usage, apparently that traditional authorship ascription requires a footnote that says, "But let's remember the very real possibility that John had a very active co-author who was introducing factual changes based upon Greco-Roman literary conventions."

Once again, Licona's new suggestion is not just the view that John or Matthew may have had a scribe or secretary. He mentions Tertius, Paul's amanuensis, whose name is given in Romans 16:22. But we must distinguish the activity of Tertius in taking down Paul's letter, perhaps even making stylistic decisions in the language, and any activity of meddling with historical facts, however small. Consider Paul's autobiographical information in Galatians 1-2, which includes specific references to numbers of years. The sort of suggestion Licona is now making for the Gospels would be like saying that Tertius or someone in that secretarial role changed the years or order of events that Paul explicitly narrates there for his own life and conversion. That would be an entirely different matter, and it is difficult to imagine that Paul would allow any such thing.

Here it is relevant to quote Richard Bauckham's rather strong words concerning the attempted interpretation of "write" in John 21:24 to mean that the Beloved Disciple "lay behind" the Gospel:

What this evidence proves is that graphein can refer to authorship by dictation to a scribe. Many ancient authors did not themselves wield the pen when they composed their writings, for writing was a craft better left to those who had been trained to do it well. However, we should be clear that in this slightly extended sense of graphein the author dictates the words. While Pilate probably did not write the inscription on the cross with his own hands, John’s narrative makes it completely unambiguous that he dictated the precise words used (cf. 19:21–22). Of course, it is also true that an ancient writer, like modern writers, might receive assistance with his work but not consider himself any less its author. A scribe taking dictation of works such as Paul’s letters might exercise discretion in minor grammatical or stylistic matters, just as a modern secretary taking dictation or a publisher’s copy-editor preparing an author’s text for publication might do. We know that the Jewish historian Josephus, for example, employed secretaries to improve his Greek style. But in such cases the author reads, approves, and takes responsibility for the final text. It is not that the author has merely caused the work to be written, but that he or she has been assisted in writing his or her own work. This kind of assistance does not require a special “causative” sense of “to write.”
            Many scholars...have taken the evidence that graphein could refer to writing by dictation as a warrant for interpreting John 21:24 as attributing to the Beloved Disciple a relationship to the Gospel considerably less direct than Pilate’s to the inscription on the cross or Paul’s to his letters. Bernard’s own position is moderate: “the Beloved Disciple caused these things to be written. They were put into shape by the writer who took them down, and afterwards published them, not as his own, but as ‘the Gospel according to John.” It is not very clear what this “putting into shape” is supposed to have involved, but other scholars have stretched it a long way.
            Writing in the hugely influential Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gottlob Schrenk first cited the Pauline evidence that graphein can refer to dictation and then continued:

In the light of this incontrovertible fact it may be asked whether the ho grapsas tauta [“who has written these things”] of Jn. 21:24 might not simply mean that the beloved disciple and his recollections stand behind this Gospel and are the occasion of its writing. This is a very possible view so long as we do not weaken unduly the second aspect. Indeed, it would be difficult to press the formula to imply other than an assertion of spiritual responsibility for what is contained in the book.

The progression of thought in these three sentences is breathtaking. Somehow Schrenk finds it possible to move from the “incontrovertible fact” that graphein can refer to dictation to claiming “it would be difficult to press the formula” to mean more than that the Beloved Disciple had “spiritual responsibility for what is contained in the book.” Not a single example is given of the use of graphein to assert no more than “spiritual responsibility” for the content of a book. No evidence at all is added to the Pauline evidence that graphein can refer to authorship by dictation.
            What is even more remarkable is the way in which this staggeringly faulty piece of argument has been uncritically followed by scholar after scholar.... It must be stressed that no one has yet produced any evidence that graphein can be used to refer to a relationship between “author” and text more remote than that of the dictation of a text to a scribe. No one seems even to have looked for such evidence. Yet the notion that John 21:24 asserts no more than that the Beloved Disciple’s witness lies somewhere at the source of the tradition that later, in other very creative hands, produced the Gospel, has become common. Scholar after scholar has evidently found it sufficient that previous Johannine scholars have found this view credible despite the lack of linguistic evidence. This must be because they have found it so hugely improbable that the Beloved Disciple could himself be the author of the Gospel that they have grasped like a dying man at the straw of possibility that 21:24 does not say that he was. But whatever reasons a scholar might have to doubt that the Beloved Disciple wrote the Gospel, these cannot serve, in the absence of linguistic evidence, to determine the meaning of the words “has written them” in John 21:24. (Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pp. 359-361, emphasis in original)

It is clear that when Bauckham considers the possibility that a scribe was assisting John in writing, he is taking that role to be one of taking dictation and correcting style, not one of changing or even influencing the factual reportage of events. Bauckham might or might not agree with me about what John, the author, chose to do in reporting events, but whatever John did, it was John who did it in Bauckham's view, not a co-author (being called a scribe) introducing conventions from Greco-Roman literature of which John had no other knowledge.

There are even more specific reasons against such a theory. Consider, for example, the fact that the church father Papias said that Mark wrote down what Peter narrated about Jesus. That is where the traditional view of Markan authorship comes from. This view casts Mark in the role of secretary and assistant for Peter, showing that he knew how to write Greek and even how to write stories of Jesus as narrated. Papias seems to regard Mark's activity as a full explanation even of the structure and arrangement of Mark's Gospel.

Are we now to hypothesize a hitherto-unknown "secretary to the secretary" who came along and assisted Mark, even introducing conventions of changing the story that Mark was unaware of otherwise? That would be to multiply entities with a vengeance!

As I note in TMOM (Chapter V, section 3, p. 78), we must distinguish the ability to write in the Greek language from acquaintance with Greek literature, culture, and learning. The distinction between learning the Greek language and wider Greek learning or wisdom is explicitly drawn in the Talmud, but it is persistently ignored by Licona, Craig Evans, and even Richard Burridge.

Then there is the matter of Johannine style. As Dr. Licona must know, since he often emphasizes his knowledge of the Greek language and the number of times he has read the Gospel of John in Greek, one of the most distinctive things about John's Greek style is its relative simplicity. This includes matters like sentence structure, word choice, and use or absence of connectives. John's Greek is very different from the far more polished, less choppy Greek of Luke's Gospel. This is just basic in New Testament studies. It is so widely acknowledged by scholars that it is not even controversial, and I concur in it. I am certainly not denying it in the slightest. Indeed, even a good English translation gives something of the flavor. (As Licona repeatedly points out, I do not read Greek, by which I mean that I cannot sit down and read a passage of Greek and understand it, though of course I do know the transliteration of the letters and have studied Greek to some extent. But the point I am making here is so basic to a knowledge of the Greek of the New Testament that I am well acquainted with it, as Licona must be as well.)

In fact, the unity of Johannine style is something Licona uses elsewhere, as others have used it, to insinuate somehow that John "adapted" the stories about Jesus. I will be discussing that particular poor argument against John's scrupulous historicity in my forthcoming book, The Eye of the Beholder. But that very unity consists in no small part in not being a highly literate and polished type of Greek. Linguistic style is the first place where we would most expect to see evidence of the activity of a highly trained Greek scribe. John shows exactly the opposite. If, in fact, John did use a secretary to help write down his Gospel (which is not impossible), any such secretary seems to have left John's very Semitic and somewhat choppy voice and language intact, which makes it all the less likely (if it were not already unlikely enough) that he did anything like the hypothetical "Apollos." Are we to believe that the hypothetical Greek-trained co-author/scribe/secretary came along and left John's linguistic style alone, distinctive, while simultaneously introducing Greek devices into the facts of the narrative? Such a theory strains credulity.

And what about the audience? As the imaginary dialogue above between John and "Apollos" points out, if we concede that the evangelists themselves needed help to know about such compositional devices, why should we think that their audience knew to expect them? As I've emphasized in my work again and again, the only reason that these compositional device theories do not simply turn into deception is because of the claim (which doesn't stand up to scrutiny) that the evangelists' original audience was familiar enough with this genre that they knew not to take the Gospels too literally. An analogy here in our own time is the genre of a movie "based on true events." Parents tell children, "It's just a movie." But if the clever, more knowledgeable assistant needed to tell even John or Matthew about this possibility, why should their audience, composed of educated and uneducated, Greek and Jew, be expected to understand that such things even could be deliberately changed?

In a later video, Licona dismisses any concerns about audience awareness briefly. He states with virtually no argument that "those possessing a reasonable degree of literacy" would have known to expect and would have accepted the literary devices that he and I differ over. The only argument Licona gives for this claim is his view of various Greek exercise books, which I have dealt with at length in TMOM and which I will address as well in a later blog post and video. (On this matter there is no substitute for reading Chapter VIII and Appendix 1 in TMOM.) But even for those who had been educated from such exercise books, Licona admits (Why Are There Differences, p. 117) that "many of the compositional devices in use by Plutarch are likewise not found in the compositional textbooks" and further that various alleged deliberate changes by the Gospel authors do not correspond to what he thinks he has found either in the textbooks or in Plutarch. So even on Licona's view of compositional textbooks, the Gospels' original audience members are expected just to have known (how?) that an author was likely invisibly to change a date or shift something from one person to another, though they'd never even heard of that "device." Does this seem plausible?

But there's more: Licona's comment that a "reasonable degree of literacy" together with a reference to "the exercise books" takes care of the audience problem is completely unsatisfactory. Why think that the majority of the Gospels' audience members could be expected to have this so-called "reasonable" degree of literacy if several of the authors themselves didn't?

To be clear, I am not saying and do not believe that most of the disciples or evangelists were unable to speak Greek or were illiterate in the Greek language. But as noted above, we must distinguish being able to speak, read, and/or write Greek from being familiar with Greek literature, the works of Greek historians, and receiving an education using Greek rhetorical textbooks. As I argue in TMOM, it is a jump to move from one of these to the other. It is by no means obvious at all that a person's knowledge of the Greek language supports a reasonable conclusion that he would have studied from a Greek-literature-based curriculum or would have read Greco-Roman biographies.

Very much to the contrary, Jews particularly in more conservative areas apparently made a distinction between the Greek language and other Greek learning, and the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament provided plenty of examples of Greek language to form the basis of an education for "literacy" in a sense that did not include knowledge of the things that Licona, Burridge, and Evans need for their thesis.

As I argue in TMOM, Craig Evans, Richard Burridge, and Licona all manifest a persistent Hellenistic bias and a failure to grapple seriously with these issues of familiarity that fails to take due account of the Jews' deliberate cultural separateness from Gentile learning and literature and other causes of diversity in the 1st-century world. One need not think of the evangelists or their audience members as ignoramuses in order to have a very reasonable doubt that they would have been familiar with any specific Greco-Roman literary devices. Licona's dismissive answer is in itself anachronistic, reading back into 1st-century culture the homogeneity of pop culture that we find in our own globalist world.

Again, if the Gospel authors needed Greek secretaries to teach them about literary devices, who taught their audience members to expect them? Let's remember that it is not as though Greco-Roman biographies were being performed for Jewish audiences like movies in our own time. It is not as though Jewish moms and dads were whispering to their children, like parents at a movie, "It may not really have happened like this. It's just a bios."

The idea of a pervasive, unconscious, homogenous cultural knowledge of the norm of a partially ahistorical genre is anachronistic. As we see again and again, it is the literary device theorists who are being anachronistic, not I.

Licona's "assistants as co-authors introducing Greek literary conventions" idea is a pretty desperate expedient. If the genre thesis clashes with the evidence for traditional authorship unless we add a far-fetched auxiliary hypothesis, so much the worse for the genre thesis.

Hemer on genre and Luke

One of Licona's odd claims in the video is that I have misunderstood the quotations I give from the late classicist/NT scholar Colin Hemer concerning the genre of Luke and Acts. Licona may be somewhat confused about what I was saying in the passage in question.  In keeping with my desire not to rewrite the work I've already done in TMOM, here is the passage in question from pp. 87-88, at the beginning of Chapter VI:

Hemer’s judiciousness on the issue of genre criticism and its relevance to the reliability of the New Testament stands in stark contrast to the overstatements I have already quoted concerning the genre of the Gospels. Hemer is quite firm that questions of actual dependence, such as we examined in the last chapter, are crucial and that their answers are probably elusive:

It is reasonable to consider the Gospels and Acts with reference to ancient biography or historiography. But the comparisons may be disappointingly fluid. Their significance is enhanced only as we can establish resemblances as reflecting organic relationship, conscious dependence, or the like. (The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, p. 42)
It is unclear to what extent any of the New Testament documents are self-conscious literature which make deliberate use of contemporary forms....It is wholly probable that their writers, and especially one with the literary ability and aspiration of Luke, were influenced by their cultural environment and reflect its trends, but by no means certain how closely or consciously. (Ibid., p. 34)
Moreover, as Hemer points out, it is wrong-headed to draw simple conclusions even if one thinks that an author has made deliberate use of a particular literary form.

A good writer may use, perhaps deliberately, literary forms. But he will make them his servants, not his masters. He ought ultimately to be judged by what he says, rather than by an over-preoccupation with the way he says it. If he is moved by an urgent mission, he will strive to express his meaning in the most effective style. But our focus is upon the matter, not the manner. (Ibid., p. 35)
Hemer was already well aware of the suggestion that the Gospel of Luke might be considered a Greco-Roman βίοϛ, and he cautions against thinking that such a category provides us with much information about the Gospel. His careful comments deserve to be quoted at length.

The Gospel at least is, on the face of it, a βίοϛ. But from the perspective of our theme [of historical reliability] we need to measure Luke-Acts by a more exacting historical standard than that of Plutarch. The relevance of biography to this question is largely negative. It is another kindred strand in the ancient cultural complex. It testifies to the existence of an anecdotal or encomiastic tradition of the interest in personality....There are certainly parallels between Luke-Acts and features of history, biography and technical literature. But those parallels are neither exclusive nor subject to control. They are fluid, relevant to the general milieu, if perhaps partly in reaction against it and hard to place accurately within it. Most of the New Testament is perhaps best seen as a popular literature, imperfectly representative of any defined literary type, and motivated by a dominant theological purpose scarcely paralleled in pagan writing. If Luke is a partial exception, aspiring to a more formal style in addressing a man presumably of some literary education, his type is still somewhat free and mixed, a concisely effective vehicle for what he had to say, drawing on a flexible use of the style most natural to him. The uninitiated reader might have taken the Gospel at first sight for a biography, but soon have found it an unusual one, and then have been moved by the impact of the double work in directions other than the normal reactions to biography or history. It is my contention that one of the inevitable questions posed as a result of the document was whether it really happened. Ancient biography, no less than ancient historiography, may need to serve as a historical source. The question here is whether the work is a good source....Rigorous concepts of history existed in Luke's world: Luke must be judged by his performance rather than on the slippery ground of parallels. (Ibid., pp. 93-94, emphasis added)
These emphatically cautious comments could not be farther from Licona’s insistence that, if the Gospels even have much in common with βίοι, we should be surprised if they did not make use of transferral, displacement, and/or other fact-altering literary devices, because these were part and parcel of that genre. In other words, Licona concludes from genre identification that the prior probability for fact alteration on the part of the Gospel authors is fairly high, which runs directly contrary to Hemer’s crucial cautions about the “slippery ground of parallels,” the fluidity of the type, and the need to judge a work on its individual performance.
Licona in his video says that "there is nothing in Hemer's words that suggests he embraced McGrew's wooden concept of truth-telling and reporting" and therefore that I have misused Hemer. If by this Licona means that I think that Hemer agrees with me about how reliable Luke in fact was, then that isn't my point when I quote him. Indeed, from all that we can tell from just these passages, Hemer might have thought Luke less reliable than I do. As a matter of fact, I leave it to the reader of Hemer's magisterial work on Acts and history to decide what he would have thought of the theory that, e.g., Luke moved Jesus' first appearance from Galilee to Jerusalem, but in this passage in TMOM, that is not the point

To put it simply, I am quoting Hemer here on this question: How much does it tell us about how literally reliable Luke was historically to find out that a work of his bears a resemblance to Greco-Roman biography? And Hemer's fairly emphatic answer is...

Not much.

Now, as I point out in the passage, contrast that with Licona's statements that he prioritizes genre over harmonization and that, based on genre considerations, "It should be of no surprise to observe the Gospel authors using the compositional devices that were part-and-parcel of that genre. In fact, we should be surprised if we did not observe it." Licona's answer to the same question appears to be,

We can tell quite a lot.

Licona insists that he emphatically agrees with Hemer's statement that Luke must be judged on his performance, but that appears to be a form of words. It is not even clear how he is applying the principle that he thinks Hemer is articulating. 

Both Licona's own explicit statements about how genre influences his evaluation of the probability that the Gospels contain his fact-changing literary devices and his practice (as I extensively show in TMOM) indicate what he thinks we learn from the genre of the Gospels, as he views it. While he doesn't always follow the disastrous methodological precept that "before seeking to harmonize" one should read the Gospels "in view of their biographical genre, which includes their authors’ use of the various compositional devices commonly used when writing history and biography" (that is, the ones he believes were commonly used), he follows it often enough to have quite measurable results. Hemer, in contrast, tells us not to draw much of a conclusion at all (for that matter, good or bad) concerning how scrupulous Luke was about history from his general literary appearance . 

If Licona cannot see that his approach is quite different from what classicist Hemer is advising about not putting much weight at all on these "slippery" alleged literary parallels, I suspect that there are readers who can.

Moreover, if Licona means that there is nothing in Hemer's words that I quote here that speaks to the question of whether the ancients had a different view of truth from ours, as Richard Burridge has claimed they did, then he is simply mistaken.

Licona often says and implies that my very concept of factual reliability and accuracy is wooden and in some way inapplicable to ancient documents. Richard Burridge has said, apropos of John's Gospel, that "the negative connotation of ‘fabrication’ is modern" (Four Gospels, One Jesus, pp. 169-170). There's a strong statement! But on this point there most undeniably is something in Hemer's words to the contrary. Hemer explicitly states, "Rigorous concepts of history existed in Luke's world: Luke must be judged by his performance rather than on the slippery ground of parallels." In other words, Luke must be judged by his performance relative to rigorous concepts of historical truth. 

Hemer is saying, contra Burridge and Licona, that such concepts are not anachronistic or inapplicable.

Josephus and Lucian

This last point--that rigorous concepts of truth are not some modern invention--brings us to Licona's statement in the video that Josephus and Lucian sometimes did things that did not live up to their explicitly professed standards of truth. It has always been hard to see how this type of point is even supposed to support the literary device views. After all, Licona's position is that the compositional devices he supports were part and parcel of the genre of Greco-Roman biography and widely accepted and common at the time. They are supposed to be things that audiences knew to expect, making them non-deceptive, whether or not the audiences could pick them out on a case-by-case basis. And Burridge and Licona say that any evaluative standard according to which that would be misleading is anachronistic. 

If, then, we find authors explicitly saying, as if professing allegiance to a standard that they expect their audiences to appreciate, that they are telling the literal truth, this must be evidence against such claims about ancient views, whether or not the author in question always lived up to those standards. I provide many quotations in Chapter VI of TMOM, titled "Let Ancient People Speak For Themselves," that show that high standards of truthfulness were well-known in ancient times. Many of these (though not all) I got by following the citations given by Darrell Bock in this paper, though Bock at the end implies that these high standards of literal truthfulness are compatible with Licona's views. I include this point only in the interests of full disclosure and leave the reader to decide if Bock is right or not about that compatibility. The point I'm making here is that I am far from alone in agreeing with Hemer that rigorous standards of history are not an alien imposition on the ancient world.

Since I had already run into the strange implication that, if some ancient authors were misleading in their work despite stating high standards of literal truthfulness, this somehow supports Licona's views, I anticipated it in TMOM. So this was already addressed. Licona, unfortunately, brings it up in this video as if it had never been answered. Here is what I said:


Darrell Bock, Colin Hemer, and others have noted that Josephus did not live up to the standards of accuracy he professed. In a later chapter I will discuss a case in which Josephus appears to have shaded the truth to his own advantage. Propaganda and a lack of due regard for the truth were by no means unknown in the ancient world, as they are not unknown in our world. But Josephus’ failure to live up to the standards he professed do not show anything remotely like the different ancient concept of truth that Burridge claims. Very much to the contrary. Josephus has to pay lip service to existing standards of historical accuracy even if he does not follow them himself at all times. Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue; if Josephus is sometimes a hypocrite, he knows what he is expected to aspire to. The witness of Josephus attests to the fact that deviations from truthfulness on the part of ancient authors through carelessness, bias, or deliberate distortion were instances of universal human faults, flying in the face of the best practice of their own time. As Hemer says, “Rigorous concepts of history existed in Luke’s world.”
"Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue"--and to the fact that the virtue in question is expected. Why bother to say that you're being highly literally truthful if high standards of literal truthfulness are alien to your and your audience's culture?

I have discussed on pp. 217-223 of TMOM (Chapter IX, section 8) one case where Josephus seems to have been trying to whitewash his own past history. Obviously, this wouldn't work for its purpose unless the expected audience were taken in. As I pointed out in TMOM, deception is not a literary device. Propaganda is not a literary device. Whitewashing one's own past for a possibly unfriendly audience is not a literary device.

Licona's reference to Lucian in this same context in the video is particularly confused, given what Lucian is actually doing in the passage to which Licona alludes. What is Lucian doing? He's bragging to a friend about how he lied to some credulous strangers he met in order to see what far-fetched claims he could get them to believe. I discuss this more in this post. Here is Lucian's letter in question. This is not even remotely close to the use of a literary device. On the contrary, it is deception plan and simple, for one's own entertainment! Is that supposed to provide some kind of model for what the Gospel authors are doing?

Lucian's cynical in-person trolling is not only at odds with the historical standards he expressly avows for serious historical work, it also would not have worked if his audience didn't believe it. Licona and others who accept his views will become quite agitated if one suggests that they are suggesting that the Gospel authors are deceptive, yet he brings this passage up as though it supports his views! That Licona has repeatedly brought up this letter by Lucian as if it supported the notion of different ancient standards of truth and even the existence of understood "apocalyptic language literary devices" shows an astonishing insensitivity both to genre considerations and to evidential relevance. If anything, the fact that Lucian got away with such a thing in a conversation (or thought that he did) shows that the ancient audience to whom he spoke on that occasion did not have a "different view of truth," expecting the facts to be changed. Just the opposite. It was because they accepted what he said too credulously that they could be taken in.

Again, I am aiming not to rewrite TMOM, but I trust that this detailed post indicates the ample resources and ample facts that I have assembled that rebut the views in question.

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