Monday, July 13, 2020

New Licona series: "Black and white thinking"?

Dr. Licona's video entitled "Black and White Thinking" (which is supposed to be a bad thing, and which he attributes to me) is a mosaic repetition of problems I've already addressed. For example, he takes issue with my descriptive terms, equivocates on matters like “paraphrase,” and insinuates something about John’s being less robustly historical than the other Gospels, while failing to tell the viewer what this amounts to in specific terms. Licona continues to leave radically unclear to the viewer the extent and nature of the changes that he alleges in the Gospels, choosing to focus instead on an alleged change that might sound "small" to many viewers--Matthew's supposedly adding an answer from the crowd in response to one of Jesus' parables, an answer that Matthew allegedly knew did not really occur. Since these matters have been dealt with in other videos and posts in this series, I will include in this post only a few additional points without an accompanying video specifically for this post. This post is extra and covers some of the scattershot things that Licona does in the video "Black and White Thinking."

"Black and white thinking"--You say that like it's a bad thing!

At times, Licona uses the phrase "black and white thinking" to apply to any clear distinction that I might make. It seems that stating things in clear language, drilling down, and defining what is at issue are not welcome. But this is actually something that I have to offer to the discussion--the philosopher's standard of always asking, "What do you mean?" and "How do you know?" This allows us to try to find out what the arguments are for and against a given proposition. Ambiguity and fog are not the friends of scholarly discourse.

If (as appears to be the case) by "black and white thinking" Licona often just means describing clearly what we're talking about so that we can talk about the evidence about what we're talking about, I own the soft impeachment. I would even venture to suggest that everyone else join me in that kind of "black and white thinking."


Licona does a number of things in this video that are just irrelevant. Interviewing random people about the nature of truth? Counting the number of times I use “extreme” and its cognates? You cannot tell if the application of “extreme” or “extremely” is appropriate until you look up the contexts and read and think about the arguments for yourself. After all, one of my theses is that the field of NT studies is badly confused and that evangelicals are following some of these badly confused trends. It would simply be question-begging to assume that the word “extreme” and cognates are not often applicable in a negative sense.

It is somewhat striking how often Licona takes snippets of phrases or pieces of sentences from my work and puts them up in his videos. I gather that this is sometimes supposed to make it appear that I am, shall we say, extreme (!) in my own positions. But I would encourage you to look up the quotations for yourself and see if they are parts of intriguing discussions. If so, they deserve something better in the way of scholarly evaluation than a purely rhetorical treatment. The fact that I think that the views I'm disagreeing with are seriously wrong is hardly a reason to think that I'm wrong! After all, perhaps the views I'm critiquing are seriously wrong. How will you know if you don't investigate?

Here, for example, is a paragraph from which Licona quotes a snippet. I hope the paragraph will make you interested to read the detailed discussion that precedes it. I have just been discussing the foot washing in John's Gospel, the disciples' dispute on the night of the Last Supper recorded in Luke's Gospel, and Licona’s suggestion that Luke moved the disciples’ argument from a different night. In preceding sections I have discussed other instances in which Licona and others miss evidence for the Gospels because of the assumptions with which they approach them, I say at the end of a section:

The contrast between the undesigned coincidences in these passages and Licona’s redactive theories provides a clear instance of the incompatibility between the literary device approach and the picture of the artless author that is supported by undesigned coincidences. It also illustrates the way in which the blinkered, hasty assumptions of anti-realistic redactive criticism cause scholars to overlook genuine evidence for the historicity of the Gospels. (TMOM, p. 272)

Well, does that contrast provide that instance? Read and decide for yourself. That is obviously a better response than vaguely feeling that there must be something wrong with my arguments because I wrote the phrase "blinkered, hasty assumptions of anti-realistic redactive criticism." Why should that have been a bad thing to write? Because it's a strongly negative evaluation? Because nobody should ever say that phrase, no matter what? Maybe these scholars are led astray by blinkered, hasty assumptions and are thus missing positive evidence for Gospel reliability. How can you know if you don't check?

John 14:26: Can we know what Jesus really taught?

Licona represents me as saying that John 14:26 means that Jesus forbade or would have forbidden his disciples from making factual changes to the Gospels. I did not say something that strong, though in point of fact I do think that he would have forbidden them from doing so. But that wasn't the point of what I wrote. Here is the passage:

Similarly, John 14.26 makes a distinction between the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing to remembrance the words of Jesus and in teaching the disciples. Contra the use that is sometimes made of this verse, the two functions are not conflated either in the words attributed to Jesus or, apparently, in the mind of the author. The verse does not speak of a function in which the Spirit gives the author license to write “as if” Jesus is teaching the theology that the author extrapolates from Jesus’ authentic statements. On the contrary, the very fact that John chooses to record a promise to bring to their remembrance what Jesus has said implies that John considers it important that they remember and relay to others what Jesus historically said. (TMOM, pp. 129-130)

In a footnote in this passage I note that Craig Keener suggests (Commentary on John, pp. 78-79) that John would have especially considered himself licensed in some way to take liberties in reporting what Jesus said and that this is related to this verse. While Keener is frustratingly unclear about exactly what this amounts to, he cites John 14:26 as supporting some kind of liberty in reporting the spoken word. The idea apparently is that, since John thought he was guided by the Paraclete, he had some sort of additional license to put elaborations into Jesus’ mouth. In this passage I am countering that interpretation of this verse to license extrapolative reporting of Jesus' teachings.

I point out in the above passage that actually John 14:26 distinguishes the Spirit’s teaching the apostles from bringing Jesus’ historical teaching to their memories. My point is that there is nothing in John 14:26 that licenses putting words into Jesus' mouth. It doesn’t necessarily follow that Jesus prohibits it by these very words, but the verse certainly does not license it. I also note that John himself obviously considers reporting accurately what Jesus historically said to be important, since he reports this promise.

Licona goes on to say that I have some kind of problem since I supposedly cannot tell whether John has already extrapolated Jesus' words--an activity that I think John didn't engage in. He calls the changes that I don't think John engaged in "redacting Jesus' words, while maintaining the message behind those words." He says, "Furthermore, she cannot know whether John has already done with Jesus's words in John 14:26 what she imagines Jesus would have forbidden."

This is quite confused and even quite a telling admission on Licona’s part, though evidently he makes the admission unconsciously. Tacitly, by saying this, Licona admits that the views that I am opposed to would indeed make it hard to know what Jesus taught and that they would indeed make it difficult if not impossible to draw further conclusions from Jesus' reported words. Why else bring it up? Tacitly, the idea is that I can't use John 14:26 to argue for a position if I can't know what Jesus historically said, and that I can't know what Jesus historically said if I can't know that the literary device theorists are wrong about John's putting words in Jesus' mouth. Licona's own attempt to engage in some kind of "gotcha" move here brings out what he would usually not admit--that I'm opposing changes that would, if they occurred, make it difficult to use the words of Jesus reported in the Gospels to know what Jesus really, historically taught. And that, moreover, if you believed that the authors made such changes, you would have difficulty knowing how or whether to use the reported words of Jesus to resolve theological disagreements. 

I have, of course, argued (not simply assumed) that the Gospel authors record Jesus' teachings accurately and faithfully. As I've noted again and again, that doesn't have to be verbatim recording, but it is, I believe we can argue, quite close enough that we can make further arguments from Jesus' reported teachings. So contra Licona, I have argued that we can know that changes didn't occur already in John 14:26 that would make it impossible to know what Jesus taught. I know that by arguing for the Gospel authors' accuracy and for the reportage model, including the reports of Jesus' teachings. 

But I thank Dr. Licona for his accidental admission that, if I'm wrong about that, it becomes difficult to know when and whether we can rely upon what Jesus appears to teach in the Gospels for making further arguments.

In fact, the attempt to use some bit of Jesus' teaching to license the apostles' flexibility in reporting Jesus' teaching produces a self-reference problem for the literary device theorists rather than for my position, as I note in TMOM, p. 147, n. 18. This self-reference point was brought to my attention by a friend concerning Craig Evans’s attempted use of Matthew 13:52. Evans performs an extravagant eisegesis upon that verse, using it to argue that the disciples were instructed to make creative modifications of Jesus' teachings (presumably in the spirit of Jesus' true message, or something of that kind) and then to report these creative extrapolations as if Jesus really said them. If the theorists themselves want to say that Jesus said something and that his saying that historically means that the apostles considered themselves licensed to make Jesus say things that he did not historically, recognizably say, then their position has a self-reference problem: Maybe, given their own position, Jesus did not historically utter the teaching that supposedly grants the license.

Since I am arguing that the evangelists (yes, including John) recorded Jesus’ teaching accurately, in a recognizable fashion, at specific places and times, this is not my problem. But it is theirs!

Well, some scholars think John is really different somehow...

Licona ends his video with a lot of broad insinuations about the Gospel of John. Of course, “Johannine idiom,” which he mentions, can mean a lot of things, and if it means that Jesus never recognizably said, “I and the Father are one” or “I am the light of the world” (as Craig Evans has said), this is just another misleading use of a phrase ("Johannine idiom"). And the same is true for the use of the phrase ipsissima vox (the very voice), which I have discussed repeatedly. Obviously, making up whole sayings is not merely using some different “idiom.” Nor does N.T. Wright's comment (which Licona frequently quotes) that he feels about John the way he feels about his wife (he loves her but would never claim to understand her) tell us anything at all useful about the degree of historical scrupulousness in John's Gospel. As Licona uses this quotation, it implies that John is somehow different without committing Licona to any clear position concerning John's historicity in particular places. I am finishing up an entire book on John’s Gospel that answers these sorts of insinuations about John’s greater license with the truth.

Dr. Licona also ends his video with a barely-concealed sneer about the probability that in The Eye of the Beholder I will disagree with some other scholars with credentials that he considers preferable. This is just more credentialism such as Dr. Licona has engaged in, sadly, far too often in the past. Readers of good will who are interested in truth and in arguments will know how to respond to it. When Licona says that "one wonders what she will find that has gone totally unrecognized by those that have spent lifetimes studying the Fourth Gospel," Licona performs the interesting feat of committing three popular fallacies in one fell swoop--ad hominem, poisoning the well, and bandwagon.

On top of that, the implication of the comment is incorrect, as one can see by reading my work on the Gospel of John published already in blog post form. Licona gives the impression that I am inventing or planning to invent views of John's Gospel that are so unusual that they "have gone totally unrecognized" even by conservative Johannine scholars. This is false. The view of John's Gospel that I am defending is very close to the view of the Gospel's historicity held by Craig Blomberg, D.A. Carson, Peter J. Williams, and Andreas Kostenberger, not to mention other scholars who just happen to be already dead, such as Leon Morris, classicist E.M. Blaiklock, John Wenham, and J. B. Lightfoot. This of course does not mean that I and those scholars agree on every interpretation or every nuance; indeed, I doubt that they all would agree with one another on every point about John. Nor does it mean that the view of John's historicity that I'm defending is correct. But it does mean that there is a shared view of Johannine historicity that is by no means "way out there" or unique to Lydia McGrew that is a good deal more conservative than the view advocated by Craig Evans and repeatedly defended by Michael Licona.

I doubt that any of these scholars would consider it plausible that John "relocated" (i.e. invented) the private appearance to Mary Magdalene after Jesus' resurrection, that he invented Jesus' breathing on his disciples in John 20, or that the "Johannine community" is the real author of the "I am" sayings with predicates. The closeness or otherwise of my views to those of other scholars is something that readers can judge for themselves, but I strongly advise you not to conclude anything on that point based upon Licona's statements.

This sort of attempted credentialist isolating move concerning my views is not only inappropriate and unscholarly but also historically inaccurate.

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