Tuesday, May 10, 2016

New post on Licona, genre, reliability, and apologetics

I have a new post up at What's Wrong with the World on the theories of New Testament scholar Michael Licona. One of the things that surprised me as I went back through his older book on the resurrection was that there was so much controversy when that book came out about some things but not others. For example, though I don't claim to have read all of the back-and-forth about the book, I never saw anyone emphasize the fact that Licona states that it is unknown how much liberty the gospel authors took with the resurrection accounts and that this is part of why they are of "uncertain" historical value concerning the resurrection. Or the fact that he rates as merely "possible" the claim that the speeches in Acts represent apostolic teaching. I actually do understand why the claim that Matthew may have added the raising of the saints as a "poetical device" raised alarm bells, but that is of a piece with these other claims, which are much broader and fully bear out the concerns I have raised about the implications of these "poetical" theories for apologetics. In fact, in some ways the potential harm of the claim about Matthew was more limited, since it was said to be added "apocalyptic material," which perhaps we could recognize when we see it. But Licona admits forthrightly that, due to his ideas about the genre of the gospels, it is literally unknown how much liberty the gospel authors took with the details of their accounts! This means, just as I said before, that there are not supposed to be some sort of tip-offs or clues in the text in general when the authors are using these so-called literary devices. They might be making stuff up and changing things without leaving a trace. This is a very big deal, and I'm actually rather surprised that it wasn't noted about the book at the time, including by those who were very concerned about where Licona's approach was headed. But as I say, I wasn't reading such articles religiously, and perhaps it was noted and I just didn't hear about it.

Another matter that I consider very important to discuss is that of genre. It seems that Licona is making a big deal about the genre of the gospels as "being" that of "Greco-Roman bioi" and using this to defend his idea that the gospel authors would have thought they had freedom to invent speeches and dialogue, to make events happen when they didn't really happen, and the like. He is piggy-backing off of the fact that something of a bandwagon has gotten rolling in the last several years for saying that the gospels "are Greco-Roman bioi" and implying that every statement in scholarship to that effect supports his thesis about the gospel authors as using "literary devices." Now, this is particularly ironic, because originally it was thought that classicist Richard Burridge's work arguing that the gospels are Greco-Roman bioi actually supported the historicity of the gospels by showing that they aren't myth or some very tenuously historical, sui generis genre. This probably explains the haste with which evangelical scholars have accepted Burridge's thesis.

My response is two-fold: First, though I spend little time on this in the post, Burridge doesn't really argue convincingly in my view that the gospels are anything so specific as a Greco-Roman genre of "lives." He argues from a broad family resemblance, and the family resemblance can, I believe, be easily explained and more simply explained without invoking any specifically Greco-Roman influences on the gospels. It simply is a stronger thesis than required. But second, and perhaps more importantly (especially since as a sociological matter everybody seems to think "the scholarship is settled" on the former point), Burridge never (that I can see) supports Licona's idea that anyone who wrote "in" this genre would have automatically thought himself "licensed" to take liberties with the details of what he was writing. Rather, Burridge argues that the genre was very broad and could include books that took liberties. But that is not the same thing at all! Licona argues as though the genre wouldn't include books that took no liberties, whose authors would have been totally opposed to such liberties, and whose audiences would not have expected them. That is to turn Burridge's argument on its head: Instead of supporting the historicity of the gospels, this genre designation is then used to put a limit on the extent of their historical accuracy! That's just incorrect. It's a misuse of the scholarship surrounding genre, even if one accepts the conclusions of that scholarship.

This is extremely important, because at this point I see people starting to just follow Licona by implying that it's anachronistic to expect that the gospel authors didn't make stuff up! No, no, they will say, all the ancients thought it was fine to make these kinds of alterations. And these "are Greco-Roman bioi," so that "offered" license to do so, and you have to "take genre into account" in interpretation, etc. It needs to be said: That sort of conclusion is not supported by the claim that the gospels were "in" this genre. The genre as described could include both works that would never take liberties and those that included fictional elements. That's kinda the point of a broad and flexible genre!

There's an important confusion here, and people need to stop thinking that Licona or anybody else has supported the idea that we should just expect the so-called "literary devices" that Licona has claimed in the gospels to be there because genre. It isn't true. This is a confusion and a misuse of this whole genre concept. I challenge anybody to find in Burridge or anybody else good support for a claim such as, "Because the gospels were in the genre of Greco-Roman bioi, they would have been expected to transfer events to times when they didn't really happen, to make up speeches, or to change dialogue deliberately." And no, it doesn't count as good support for that thesis (which is simultaneously rigid and sweeping) if you believe that you've found some Greco-Roman author changing stuff. It doesn't follow that in general this was some kind of expectation or "standard" or even that these were recognized "devices." (Moreover, from what I've seen, sometimes when Licona thinks he's found Plutarch "using these devices" it could just be that Plutarch changed his mind about what happened--again, a much simpler hypothesis than the literary one.)

I also discuss the ways in which the so-called "literary devices" are over-interpretations of the passages in question--far more complex hypotheses than anything required.

So I want to stand athwart the course of evangelical history shouting, "Stop!" here, because people are just running after these ideas like they've been proven and are so wonderful because they enable us to sleep easy at night, knowing that we've been defended by "literary devices" from the Big Bad Wolf of alleged contradictions in the gospels. A) If true, these theories wouldn't be wonderful but rather fairly disastrous and B) They haven't been proved, nor even supported well.

See the post for more detail.


scarlett clay said...

Hello Mrs. McGrew,

I'm an apologetics student at Biola and am thankful to have found your site. I was directed to you by one of N. Geisler's admins. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Licona. We skyped with Dr. Licona during McDowell's class last week and I had an uneasy feeling about some things that were said about his upcoming book. This article (and others I've just perused) brought much needed clarity for me. Thank you and blessings from Texas.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thank you, Scarlett, that's very encouraging.