Friday, July 17, 2020

New Licona series: Equivocation, Plutarch, and more

Dr. Licona's 40-minute video "On Plutarch," allegedly refuting my work in The Mirror or the Mask (TMOM) on Greco-Roman literature, unfortunately ignores crucial points and distinctions that I have already addressed carefully in The Mirror or the Mask. It does this even more than the previous videos in his series. Licona repeatedly fails to address a problem I have pointed out with an equivocal use of a term or phrase. He also continues to attribute positions to me that I have made clear in TMOM that I do not hold or in some other way implies that my position is counterintuitive in some way that is not the case. This is particularly striking since this series is supposed to refute my book.

Although I will be in a sense responding to his video in this post, as well as in the accompanying video here, I cannot emphasize too strongly that the best and most thorough response to Licona's and others' claims about the Gospels is The Mirror or the Mask itself and that I cannot re-write that book in the form of yet another series of blog posts. (I did a previous series of carefully constructed scholarly blog posts as well. See the wrap-up post for that series here.) The fact that Licona's video series has come out since TMOM does not mean that he is providing all-new material that I have not addressed before. But if there was a portion of the video on Plutarch that you thought sounded like a refutation of something that you think I have said or that I hold, have a look at this post and see if you find it discussed here.


The fallacy of equivocation occurs when someone uses the same word in two or more different senses and then moves between those senses when making an argument. This can in principle occur unconsiously. Licona frequently equivocates on words like “paraphrase,” “compression,” and even “compositional devices.” Craig Evans has repeatedly equivocated on the term "paraphrase." Dr. Licona will use these words and others to indicate things that seem quite reasonable, which I do not challenge at all and then use those senses of the words as if they supported the existence of the sorts of “devices” that I argue we do not find in the Gospels. I've emphasized frequently before, including in an earlier post, how this equivocation takes place on the word "paraphrase."

I have tried to prevent such equivocations by what I have written in TMOM, but it does not seem to be having an effect.

Licona does not consistently distinguish between speaking of a change made with the intent to give a contrary-to-fact impression and, on the other hand, merely dropping some detail or summarizing just to save time or space, because one wasn't aware of that part of the event, or for some other similar reason that involved no intent to narrate contrary-to-fact. Listeners may not tease out this distinction, given the relative smallness of the matters of fact involved. Many changes are small matters with regard to factual content in that passage, but their impact upon reliability and the nature of the documents is larger if they were made with the deliberate intent to make it look like something happened in a manner contrary to fact, because this tells us something about the character of the author and the way he views his responsibility to his readers.

In this video, for example, Licona says, "We sometimes describe an event as though occurring over a shorter period of time than it had actually occurred." This is an equivocation on the concept of "compression," which Licona uses with some frequency. In TMOM (Chapter II, section 1, p. 20) I discuss the supposed device of compression and point out the difference between trying to make it appear that things took less time than they actually did and merely being imprecise on that point without any intention of giving an impression contrary to fact. Licona speaks as if no one has ever made such a distinction. He thus gives the impression that I have objected to merely or writing speaking imprecisely in a way that might accidentally give the impression that something took less time than it did, even though I have expressly said that I recognize that as a plausible occurrence in the Gospels and elsewhere. This question of whether or not the author is trying to give a contrary-to-fact impression lies at the heart of the issue between us, and eliding that crucial distinction obscures the issue.

At the same time, this equivocation could give the impression that this is all that Licona himself is saying that the evangelists did. But in fact, that is not true. As I document in TMOM, he explicitly says that they sometimes tried to make it look like things took less time than they did. E.g. He says that Luke put all of Jesus' appearances and his ascension on Easter Sunday, not merely that Luke narrated briefly and hastily in a way that could accidentally give that impression. This is related to his claim that Luke geographically moved Jesus' first appearance, since there would not have been time to walk to Galilee in one day. So equivocation on a term like "compression" and on the idea of "what we all do in ordinary conversation" is a serious problem in these videos.

With regard to the word “spotlighting,” I assumed in TMOM that Licona was not equivocating. I assumed that by that word he meant (as he appeared to mean when he explained it) merely the uncontroversial activity in which an author or speaker may refer to one person as doing something or being present when a larger number were present, as when one Gospel author mentions two angels at the tomb while another mentions only one. I assumed that he was not talking about an author’s attempting to give the impression that only one person was present when he knew that there were more. It is a long-standing principle of biblical and historical interpretation that if a document mentions one person but doesn't mention others we should not assume that the author means to exclude or deny others.

As I pointed out in TMOM (Chapter III, section 1, pp. 38-39), if this is all that “spotlighting” means, it is a puzzle as to why Licona seems to take it to be a “compositional device” that is in any way at all different from harmonization or that is a new insight. It is a puzzle as to why Licona seems to think it is something that we learn about from Plutarch or something that his research in Greco-Roman literature is bringing to the table to help us to explain Gospel differences. In fact, traditional harmonizers of the Bible have used this principle again and again in precisely the sorts of books on Bible difficulties that Licona claims to be supplementing with his special insights from Greco-Roman literature. I explicitly said that “spotlighting” in this uncontroversial sense should be set aside in considering my critique of fact-changing compositional devices. It is, of course, not something that I am challenging.

In this video, Licona entirely ignores my discussion of spotlighting in TMOM and continues to use it as if it is something that he and I disagree about or as if it supports controversial alleged devices such as changing the date when something happened, fabricating details, deliberately making something look like it took less time than it did, and more. Why would he do this?

I can only guess, having viewed this recent video on Plutarch, that perhaps there is an equivocation going on here concerning “spotlighting” as well. Could Licona be using the term both in the totally uncontroversial sense I just discussed and also at times to mean that an author mentions only one person because he is trying to give the impression that only one person was present, contrary to fact? That might explain the way that he keeps bringing spotlighting up even though, if we take that term in the garden-variety sense, it is totally irrelevant to the issues between us.

Once we have distinguished a fact-changing from a non-fact-changing use of “spotlighting,” we can see that these two things are quite different and that it is much, much harder and indeed much more uncharitable to argue that an author who mentions only one person is trying to make it look like only one person carried out an action when he knows full-well that more people were involved. Why would one assume a thing like that? 

If Mark, for example, is “shining his spotlight” on one blind man in Jericho (Bartimaeus), while Matthew writes of two blind men healed there by Jesus, why should we think for a moment that Mark, by mentioning one, was trying to give the impression that the other one was not there, even though he knew that there were two? Should we think that when Mark mentions only one angel speaking to the women at the Jesus’ tomb while Luke mentions two, Mark knew about two angels and is trying to erase one of them and give the impression that there was only one present? Why would he do that? What purpose would it serve? After all, if only one angel spoke to the women, that could easily be a reason why either Mark or one of the women happened in a given account to mention only one. The only reasonable approach is not to over-interpret the mere fact that an author mentions only one to mean that he is denying the others. If we avoid equivocation, we can see that “spotlighting" can have both a reasonable and a much more dubious meaning, and we can also see that the mere differences between documents are not any reason to think that the author who mentions only one individual is "spotlighting" in a fact-changing sense

This sort of equivocation also explains a strange fact in the video on Plutarch and elsewhere: Licona says both that the devices he endorses are the kinds of things that honest people ("we") do in ordinary conversation all the time and that they are special, ancient devices that one must learn about specially by scholarly study of the very different ancient world. He says that we should "expect zebras" (alluding to my principle that you should "think horses, not zebras") if we know that we are in Africa, saying that the past is like another country. Well, which is it? Are these special, ancient devices that you need specialized knowledge to know about, or are they so uncontroversial that we do them all the time in our daily conversations?

The claim about ordinary conversation, of course, makes it look like Lydia McGrew is terribly unreasonable. How could she oppose something that "we" all do in ordinary conversation? She must be really weird! In contrast, the claim about special ancient devices carries a higher burden of proof, since it requires showing that these ancient devices existed and were accepted by audiences at the time.

Let me go on record here and now: There is not a single proposition at issue between Dr. Licona and myself where I oppose something that honest people do all the time in ordinary conversation. 

Not one. Not one issue. That is worth reflecting on. If you think that there is something I'm opposing as a Gospel interpretation that is a common practice of honest people in ordinary conversation, I challenge you to find it and to find a place in my work where I oppose it.

If we are considering uncontroversial meanings of various terms and phrases, like "spotlighting," "the guy version," "just leaving out some details," "compression," and "paraphrase," which honest people do carry out in ordinary conversation, these refer to activities that I have explicitly said over and over that I do not challenge at all. Those activities don’t at all involve trying to give an impression contrary to fact. But the “heavier” meanings correspond to things that honest people do not do when trying to report accurately, and this is why it is entirely reasonable to question whether these were accepted devices in the evangelists’ own time. I have meticulously argued that Dr. Licona and other authors, such as Evans, Craig Keener, or Christopher Pelling have not discharged the burden of proof for the existence of those devices, especially not in the Gospels.

Differences between Mark and Luke: Jesus before the Sanhedrin

The on-going equivocation on the terms "paraphrase" and "compositional devices" causes quite a tangle when it comes to Licona's attempt to predict what I would say or must say (given my views) about Mark 14:61-64 and Luke 22:67-71 and then to use that prediction to criticize my flowchart. (More on the flowchart criticisms below.) Licona thinks that Luke altered "right hand of power" to "right hand of the power of God" in vs. 69 to clarify what "power" meant for his reader Theophilus who might not have recognized the Jewish expression "right hand of power."

Because Licona strongly implies that I am (or that I must be, to be consistent) opposed even to minor, entirely recognizable paraphrase, willfully ignoring the many times I have said that that is not something I disagree with at all, he implies that the suggestion that Luke made this trivial change is a counterexample to something I have said.

I have said that one should at least see if the differences between two accounts appear to create a discrepancy before alleging a fictionalizing literary device based on those differences. Otherwise we would wrongly conclude that entirely compatible variations between two accounts were results of these fact-changing literary devices, shutting ourselves off to sources of further information about what happened. See below for more discussion of this point. Licona says that Luke's using "power of God" for clarity doesn't rise to the level even of an apparent discrepancy from Mark's "right hand of power." I agree. He then says that this is a counterexample to the need at least to see an apparent discrepancy before hypothesizing a "compositional device." In a later video Licona says that I would say that the Gospel authors would never "add elements to clarify." Obviously, that depends greatly on what one means by "adding elements"! But if all that one means is the addition of the words "of God" in Luke's entirely faithful and recognizable paraphrase of Jesus' words before the Sanhedrin, then that is not something that I have ever opposed, and it fits unproblematically within my reportage model, since I have written again and again about ordinary paraphrase.

But here he is tripped up by his own persistent objection (which I have discussed thoroughly in earlier posts and videos) to my clarity about what kind of compositional devices I am objecting to--fact-changing or fictionalizing devices. If this trivial rewording by Luke doesn't give rise even to an apparent discrepancy, because it is simply faithful, recognizable paraphrase for reasons of clarification, then this example fits with my flowchart, which says that this is not a fictionalizing literary device. This is an example of how the flowchart is supposed to work, not a counterexample! But when one is using "compositional devices" to mean all kinds of different things and using "paraphrase" to mean anything from using a synonym to making up "I thirst," one can get confused into thinking that somehow this means that McGrew is wrong about something-or-other, because we should allege a "compositional device" even when there is no apparent discrepancy. But I agree that there is no apparent discrepancy, and I agree that there is trivial paraphrase. Trivial paraphrase is not a fictionalizing literary device. So in the absence of any apparent discrepancy, were are not alleging a fictionalizing literary device.

Licona also suggests that Luke has not recounted the high priest's tearing his clothes because it was distinctively Jewish and would have been unfamiliar to Theophilus as a reaction to blasphemy. This seems to me more historically dubious, though not per se fact-changing. But Luke includes things that Theophilus almost certainly wouldn't have understood as references. (For example, Luke records Jesus' reference to eighteen people killed when the Tower of Siloam fell in 13:4. He also records in Acts 18:18, also sent to Theophilus, Paul's cutting his hair in honor of a vow. ) Whatever his motive, even if Luke deliberately didn't mention the high priest's tearing his clothes, this does not mean that he was trying to suppress it or trying to make it look like it didn't happen. I certainly hope that Licona is not implying that Luke suppressed the tearing of the high priest’s clothing in an attempt to make it appear that no tearing of clothes took place! It would be a very bad historical method to take an author to be trying to deny any facts in his story that he does not choose to include. That would be the creation of non-existent discrepancies with a vengeance. Notice, too, that if one were to adopt that misguided principle, one then would be saying that there is an apparent discrepancy between the two accounts--one account is affirming the clothes-tearing while the other would be "denying" it by not telling about it. Of course, that is a fairly ridiculous claim right on its face. But we should bring it up clearly so that we do not wander around in a fog saying that somehow, someway, Luke has "used compositional devices" here that are at issue between Licona and McGrew even though there is "no apparent discrepancy."

Licona also suggests that Luke "elaborates" by having the Jewish leaders ask if Jesus is the son of God at the point where Mark recounts that the high priest tore his clothes. This seems to imply that Luke is making up a question and an answer that never took place and adding them to the scene. But in Mark they do ask if Jesus is the son of God at vs. 61 along with asking if Jesus is the Christ. And Jesus answers in the affirmative in Luke just as he does in Mark. Luke recounts that they ask if he is the Christ at 22:27 and if he is the son of God at vs. 70. There is no good reason why Luke would have deliberately moved this. Perhaps Licona is insinuating that Luke did move it (or added it to the scene without historical warrant) because he was trying to make it appear that no clothes-tearing took place and was replacing the clothes-tearing with the question and answer. That would be a completely unjustified inference. There is no reason to doubt that the question (asking Jesus if he is the son of God) happened, and both Luke and Mark record it. To call it a Lukan elaboration is confused. The minor differences in ordering and wording discussed thus far may be a result either of Luke's having a different witness source from Mark (an option Licona does not consider) or of his basing his writing of the scene on notes taken from Mark and/or Matthew rather than his attempting to copy verbatim and making all changes deliberately (another option Licona does not consider, but should). 

There is additional material in Luke 22:67-68 where Jesus says that they will not believe and will not answer his questions if he asks. This provides additional evidence in favor of Luke's having additional information about the scene. (See below on partial dependence and partial independence among the Synoptics--a very important concept.) If Licona is now going to say that that is elaboration by Luke (which he hasn't yet said, as far as I know), that merely would be another example of the problem with his method. We certainly shouldn't just put down any saying by Jesus included in Luke but not in Mark in such a scene to "elaboration" by Luke, even if there is no reason for Luke to make it up. To say that this additional saying looks like elaboration would be to rule out our learning about some additional things that Jesus said in a scene. Actually this doesn't look like elaboration unless you come to the document with an unwarranted predisposition to believe that Luke couldn't have known that Jesus said anything additional in that scene (e.g., about their not believing or answering) and that anything that Luke adds is his own invention.

In any event, there is indeed no apparent discrepancy between Mark and Luke in these passages, including at the places where Licona has alleged compositional devices. One of the "devices" he alleges is ordinary, trivial paraphrase; this is not a fictionalizing "device" at issue between us. It is not something I have ever denied or said does not happen in the Gospels. One is Luke's simply not telling about the tearing of clothes; merely not including something by itself is not a "compositional device" at issue between us, and saying that Luke suppressed to deny would be an uncharitable theory (to Luke) and an entirely unwarranted hypothesis. One claim that Licona makes is "elaboration" by adding the question about whether Jesus is the son of God; but the question whether Jesus is the son of God to which Licona points in Luke is actually found in Mark earlier in the passage. Licona didn't mention verses 67-68 in Luke. These simply contain information not found in Mark and do not constitute any apparent discrepancy. 

Avoiding equivocation helps us to talk about these matters clearly rather than obscurely. This also helps us to evaluate claims of "compositional devices" by spelling out what they are, separating them, and discussing the evidence.

Circularity, classicists' opinions, and the prior probability of devices

In defending his methods and those of classicist Christopher Pelling for "finding" Plutarch and others engaging in the compositional devices that he and I disagree about, Licona continues to speak of certain devices as found or seen in "the exercise books." He uses this as a basis for a high prior probability that the "devices" in question existed and were likely to be used in Plutarch and other ancient historians.

This gives a false air of objectivity to the entire procedure, as though there is some definite and objective list of devices that Licona and others have "found" in the exercise books. Someone who doesn't notice carefully what Licona says might think that only those "found" independently in "the exercise books" are being applied to Plutarch and other authors. I have already argued at length (see this previous post and, more importantly, the careful discussions and quotations in TMOM) that Licona and others are completely misunderstanding the genre of the exercise books themselves.

But aside from that, by no means is Licona confining himself to "the devices" that even he believes that he has found discussed independently in an exercise book. Notice that he repeatedly mentions not just those found in the exercise books but also those that some classicists believe were widespread in ancient literature. Well, how do those classicists come to that conclusion? In point of fact, a ratchet effect is taking place in which Licona, and perhaps Christopher Pelling as well (whose work he is basing his own work on), leverages the exercise books to yield a higher prior probability that Plutarch and others were changing facts more generally, not just in those areas that they think are mentioned in exercise books. Then, when working directly with Plutarch and other ancient authors, Pelling and Licona use mere differences, eisegesis, and dubious claims of discrepancy, without other independent, objective grounding, to allege yet more "devices" by a purely inductive (and highly questionable) conjectural method. Licona then applies this probability to leverage a high prior probability in the Gospels for their making factual changes, and finally, he alleges still more factual changes in the Gospels under vague headings like "crafting" even when they correspond to none of the previously alleged device headings. In fact, he admits that this on-going addition of new "devices" is taking place:
There are many observations of differences in the pericopes [in the Gospels] that follow for which potential devices are neither described in the compositional textbooks nor observed being employed by Plutarch. We will keep in mind that many of the compositional devices in use by Plutarch are likewise not found in the compositional textbooks. Nor are they taught in any of the ancient literature that has survived. Accordingly, much of what an ancient author did and why he did it will remain in the realm of informed guesswork for modern historians. (Why Are There Differences, p. 117)
The expansion of claimed devices without objective control is not merely a hypothetical, much less a slippery slope fallacy. Both Licona's statement on p. 117 and his actual practice in the Gospels (as I show extensively in TMOM) show that this subjective expansion has occurred already, which rather urgently raises the question (if it were not raised already) of the impact of the methodology upon reliability.

There is something suspiciously circular about the entire argument here for a high prior probability that Plutarch, Tacitus, and others engaged in such activities as "devices." Licona implies that, because he has a justified high prior probability of his "compositional devices," he can legitimately skip other types of possibilities that I suggest, such as that two accounts in Plutarch are really compatible and harmonizable. But the instances in Plutarch and other historians are supposed to serve as the inductive basis for alleging the very existence of many of the most important devices.

Licona tries to move past this issue in this video by saying that "classicists" think that these additional devices (that aren't even supposedly "in" the textbooks) are present in Plutarch and other historians. But what method have these classicists used to draw that conclusion? Licona’s examples, many of which I discuss in great detail in TMOM, show that it is the very method of jumping to conclusions that I am pointing out and challenging. Therefore, Licona does not get to ignore garden-variety causes of differences (non-contradictory variation, ordinary error, gaining more information, etc.) on the grounds that we already have a high prior probability that a classical author moved an event, transferred words, and so forth, when these are the very types of cases that are supposed to establish inductively the existence of such a “device” in the first place. If the work of a classicist who alleges the existence of such an accepted device does not stand up under examination, because the classicist merely notes differences and then jumps to conclusions on the basis of his own fertile imagination, we cannot use the authoritarian "classicists say" to justify the same activity in the Gospels. And we certainly should not use a mere reference to what "classicists think" in the classical cases themselves that are supposed to establish the existence of the devices, independently of the Gospels. That would be blatantly circular. (And that is in addition to the erroneous reading of the compositional textbooks themselves, already discussed.)

Similarly, the examination of the secular authors is supposed to provide a kind of baseline frequency of how often authors used the alleged devices. If we assume in approaching any given passage that that frequency was high and that any difference we discover is a plausible sign of a device, then we are assuming the very frequency that the sample is supposed to help us discover. This is especially important when we remember Licona's claims that these devices were "part and parcel" of the Gospels' genre and that we should be surprised, approaching the Gospels, if we did not find them. How has such a claim about what is "part and parcel of the genre" been established in the first place? If the secular documents themselves were evaluated by starting with the assumption that the frequency of a given type of alleged device is high, in the absence of independent evidence, that simply won't work.

New Testament scholar Peter J. Williams has made a similar point about the burden of proof and the problems with a mere difference-hunting method in a recent interview:

Each one of those conventions needs to be analyzed and demonstrated...You need to go to ancient writers and you don’t just need to say, “Does Plutarch do this story one way here and the story the other way here and then because there’s a difference this shows that this is a convention.” Because Plutarch might not remember that he did one thing and another or a reader at the time may have said, “No, I’m not happy with that.” So I think we need to raise the bar of proof reasonably high before you can say definitely that a convention did exist.

As I noted in an earlier post, Licona's admission that he is alleging devices that (even on his own interpretation) are not found in exercise books creates severe problems with the claim that the original audiences would have known that "the genre" was likely to contain such additions and changes. As far as I have been able to discern, Licona has not even claimed to have found chronological displacement, compression (in the sense of "putting" events into a smaller timeframe than they actually took), or the transferral of words from one person to another in the exercise books, yet these are quite prominent in his allegations about both secular historical documents and the Gospels. According to Licona, additional device allegations are the result of "informed guesswork for modern historians." How would an original audience have known to expect them and take various aspects of the narrative with the appropriate number of grains of salt? It is not as though an audience would just have ESP to know intuitively that this was another "accepted" literary device that an author might suddenly engage in--moving an event from one time to another, for example. People do not just automatically assume that such things have been changed. Why should they? Indeed, if we did, we could hardly get any information from a document at all about such matters. An activity doesn't count as an accepted device in any remotely objective sense if the audience has ever heard of it.

If our only argument for the very existence of such devices is that they are supposedly "found" in Plutarch and other authors (where the "finding" happens by "informed guesswork"), why should we think that they were accepted at the time by audiences? Should we assume that the audience, like modern scholars, merely noted differences or apparent discrepancies in the documents and jumped to conclusions that these were the result of deliberate change?

Even in the unlikely event that an audience jumped to such a conclusion, why would they have not considered such a deliberate change to be carelessness about the truth, deception, or propaganda? It is crucial to bear in mind that these ordinary ways in which an author might play fast and loose with the truth are not literary devices. This is a point that Licona consistently overlooks, as discussed in earlier posts and in TMOM, when he brings up the claim that some authors did not live up to their own stated standards of truthful reporting as if this supported the existence of accepted literary devices that were non-deceptive.

The treatment of ancient works from the outset of one's analysis as if they are in an accepted genre that was expected to make such alterations (the kinds that Licona and I disagree about) is itself highly anachronistic. It is in our own day and culture that we have a widely recognized genre of, e.g., partially fictionalized memoirs and movies merely based on true events, the existence of which people of many different educational backgrounds learn about readily (e.g., from parents casually telling children) and that are widely and explicitly discussed. We are so used to the existence of a widely shared popular culture, the norms of which are understood in a way that crosses ethnic, educational, and cultural boundaries, that we need consciously to take care not to project the existence of such a homogenized popular culture and its genres upon the ancient world.  A moment’s googling turns up a web site devoted to explaining which aspects of various partially historical movies are and are not literally true. Here, for example, is an explicit discussion of the partially factually changed elements of Hacksaw Ridge, which Licona expressly mentions. It occurs on a website entirely devoted to discussing movies and their relationship to literal history. Here is just one of many such discussions of Chariots of Fire.

We possess no remotely comparable, independent evidence for the existence of such an accepted genre at the time of the Gospels, much less for the Gospels' belonging to it, much less that an audience of varied educational and ethnic background would know that the Gospels are using the conventions of that genre. Merely saying that "classicists" believe that additional devices existed for which we have no independent discussion at all is a poor argument. We need to examine the methods to decide if the classicists who say this have made good arguments. As Williams says, we need to keep the evidential bar reasonably high.

The claim that Plutarch wrote a certain set of Lives during a short time period

Licona relies heavily upon the claim that Plutarch wrote a certain set of Lives within a short time period to dismiss other sources of variation besides compositional devices. He does this in his book as well. Though you would not know it from Licona's video, I already addressed this claim and its use in TMOM (Chapter IX, section 5, pp. 209ff). In his videos, he ignores my discussion of that issue.

One thing that probability theorists and epistemologists rightly warn against, is the tendency to chain arguments together where each step is conjectural. If we have a conjecture that six of Plutarch's Lives were written within a relatively short period of time, we need to remember that this theory has a fair bit of uncertainty associated with it in the first place when we start to use that to make the yet further (and far more questionable) claim that Plutarch would have remembered everything that he wrote and that any apparent discrepancy was introduced deliberately. And the tighter one tries to make the time frame in question, the more conjectural it is.

In Why Are There Differences, Licona (following Christopher Pelling's scholarly conjectures) merely dated six of Plutarch's Lives in the year 110 or a bit later (p. 19). In the recent video, he keeps using the phrase "a few months," which is a narrower time frame and hence harder to establish. The attempt to date Plutarch's biographies is fraught with difficulty. Licona says in his book that "the chronology in which Plutarch penned them is difficult to establish." Pelling's conjectures on this point are based upon guesses concerning the causes of certain cross references among the Lives. If we are then going to decide what Plutarch must have known and must have done deliberately, we should continually bear in mind the uncertainty at the start of any such chain of reasoning. 

Moreover, as I pointed out in TMOM, classicist J. L. Moles (who accepts Pelling's conjectural conclusion about the composition of several Lives approximately simultaneously) explicitly warns against taking the more general concept of when Plutarch "composed" these Lives to mean that he wrote them simultaneously. This point, again, is highly relevant to the claim that any differences or even discrepancies must be deliberate.

Moreover, as I pointed out in TMOM, one can gain new information or re-read a source and understand it differently within a few hours or minutes, so these plausible sources even of a discrepancy, much less a mere difference, are hardly ruled out or even rendered particularly unlikely by placing the composition of six Lives within a year or even, for that matter, within a few months.

Licona also seems to think that Plutarch, a single author composing Lives within a relatively short period of time, would not be expected even to vary his wording or the facts he selects to report in ways that are non-contradictory or easily harmonized unless he were trying to make some point or use one of the compositional devices that Licona and I disagree about. So even variation (aside from apparent discrepancy) is supposed to be a clue to some heavier device. Why think such a thing? Plutarch or any author can certainly tell a story multiple times with variations of emphasis, selection, and wording that do not even remotely correspond to fact-changing literary devices. This is quite a normal thing to do. It would get boring to use the same wording and emphasis over and over again, and Plutarch is indeed telling about lives of different people. But emphasizing the actions of different people or mentioning different aspects of the action need not at all mean trying to give differing factual impressions.

As I point out repeatedly in TMOM, many times scholars are even lacking plausible motives for an author to make contradictory claims or to give contrary-to-fact impressions. There is no motive, for example, for Plutarch to shift a saying against Caesar randomly from one senator to another. Licona and Pelling just assert that he has done so in a case that I will discuss below and have discussed in TMOM, as though he did it just because. This is erasing normal variation in reportage where one reports that Person A said something in one account of an event and that Person B said it (or supported or agreed with it) in a different account of the same event. Because different accounts contain different, compatible information, we are able to gain more information by reading more than one account, even by the same author. Indeed one gets the curious impression that Licona may think that normal variation of that kind just doesn't occur in multiple accounts by the same author composed around the same time. This is unrealistic and cuts us off from sources of information.

Finally, the whole idea that composing six Lives (a lot of material) in some sense approximately simultaneously means that Plutarch is unlikely to have made mistakes or to have forgotten what he wrote, given the types of issues involved, is highly artificial. As I wrote in TMOM:

The fact that Licona is talking about six biographies, together with the sheer technological aspects of writing, makes it obvious that the writing itself must have taken some significant time period. We should also remember the great difficulties in comparing large scrolls in a world without even the convenience of large writing tables. It is highly unlikely that Plutarch would have gone to the trouble to do a careful, visual comparison of all overlapping event accounts among six different Lives in order to ensure that either no discrepancies had crept in or that all discrepancies were deliberately introduced rather than accidental. This is especially relevant when, as is so often the case, the matters in question are bewildering or trivial or both—a name here, a difference of one or two days there, a statement uttered on one of two or more similar occasions, back-and-forth wrangling in the Roman senate, etc. (TMOM, p. 211)

This is a very important point to keep in mind, but Licona doesn't even consider it in his video. I even note by way of illustration on this point that Licona himself misunderstands or misremembers what Cicero said in one of his orations concerning the precise day on which something happened.

In our own time, one can have Cicero’s oration in defense of Murena open in a computer tab, translated into English, at the very moment that one is writing about these historical events on the same computer. Licona was attempting to discuss precisely when Cicero dated Catiline’s threat. Yet even with all the advantages of 21st-century technology, he made a small slip about what Cicero was saying. My point is simply that this is an excellent illustration of the complexity of the events involved and of how easy it is to make a mistake. TMOM, p. 199
In his video, Licona, quoting Pelling, emphasizes Plutarch’s use of other historians as if this somehow told against any explanations other than deliberate change. But does Plutarch's using another historian as a source mean that it is implausible that Plutarch became confused on a point, misunderstood a source, or didn’t look something back up? Of course not. Shall we assume that everyone who follows or uses a source never misunderstands or forgets some minuscule detail? On the contrary, doing so is quite likely, as this example shows.

Licona simply ignores all of this and continues to ask readers to share his high confidence that some small matter on which there are differences in literal, factual content between two of his Lives represents a deliberate change without factual basis.

What if we knew ahead of time...?

Licona criticizes a flowchart that I give to guide the attempt to use differences between accounts to infer a fictionalizing compositional device. As I say in TMOM explicitly (Chapter IX, section II, pp. 188-189) this flowchart is meant to apply in cases where the "kickoff," the thing to be explained, is the fact that there are differences between two accounts of the same event or time period. It is meant (as I said at the beginning of the same section) to help us to think carefully about whether "differences between two historical documents lead to the reasonable conclusion that a fictionalizing literary device is present." 

Licona suggests in the video that there is something wrong with my flowchart because we might "know ahead of time" that a given author was engaging in propaganda, which only comes up at a later stage of the flowchart, not right at the beginning. But this is irrelevant. Obviously, if we knew already from strong, independent evidence that a given author was (say) a propagandist and that this particular document was a piece of propaganda, that would change our prior probabilities. It would cause us to read his document with suspicion. But Licona himself claims to be finding and observing Plutarch and the Gospel authors using compositional devices inductively from the observation of differences in the accounts

After all, we want to find out whether the Gospel authors actually do this. Once again, it would be circular to claim or imply that we already know that the Gospel authors do such things and then to point to what could very easily just be garden-variety variations in reporting, variations such as we find more common causes producing in history and testimony, and to dub them "compositional devices" unnecessarily, because we came to the Gospels with the prior assumption that such devices were going to be present. 

Note, too, that such a high prior probability for factual change is in severe tension with any attempt to retain Gospel reliability on matters to which these supposed devices relate--time ordering, details of accounts, sometimes even whole scenes, and so forth. I have pointed this out repeatedly: If we are really to believe that there is such a high prior probability that the Gospel authors changed such things because such changes were part and parcel of their genre, we should take what they say on these matters with many grains of salt. That is what is supposed to make them non-deceptive. Hence the literary device theorist cannot simultaneously claim high literal reliability for the Gospels and claim that they were of a genre in which such devices were highly probable.

The reference to a case where we already know independently that a given work is propagandistic is either irrelevant or question-begging. It is irrelevant if it is merely bringing up the possibility of such a case, since I already made it clear that the flowchart is meant for cases where we don't already know that a document is propaganda. The flowchart guides us when we are trying to work from the observation of differences and make a reasonable conclusion about the cause. It is question-begging if it is actually meant to say that we already know that any place where two Gospel accounts differ, even if they are not apparently discrepant or are reasonably harmonized, is probably a case where one author or the other is using a fact-changing compositional device.

What happens if we skip steps 1 and 2?

In step 1 of my flowchart, after the given fact that the accounts contain differences, I ask whether these differences even appear to be in contradiction or tension. Is there even an apparent discrepancy? If one report says that John ate ham for breakfast while another report says that he ate ham and eggs for breakfast, it would be illicit to jump to the conclusion, based on this difference, that one author added the eggs as an elaboration or that the other author suppressed the eggs in order to give the impression that John did not eat eggs! 

Surprisingly, Licona disagrees that we should first see if two accounts even appear discrepant before we decide from their differences that one of them has changed the account in some factual respect such as a detail. In fact, he says that my statement that we should at least find an apparent discrepancy before drawing this conclusion is a problem with my flowchart. This is pretty amazing. If we have the two accounts above, why would we think from looking at that difference that one author fabricated the eggs? Again, we aren't talking about a case where we know ahead of time that one author regularly fabricates breakfast items and puts them into accounts! Again, to say that we do know that would be to cook the books when approaching the very stories that are supposed to provide the evidence for such a generalization. (I note here that this sort of circularity is precisely the kind of thing that work in epistemology and probability teaches us to be careful about.) We're trying to find out by observing differences if an author fabricates details. But for one author to include eggs while another leaves them out, without any intention on either part to make things appear contrary to fact, is normal account variation. It could very easily be a natural variant between two accounts of John's breakfast told by the same speaker or author.

How does such a rejection of Step 1 play out in classical literature? Suppose that a friend tells you that Bob suggested going to the coffee shop for a latte. In another account of the same event he says that Jim was in favor of going to the coffee shop for a latte and doesn't mention Bob. These accounts are totally compatible. Obviously Bob could have made the suggestion while Jim agreed with it. This is not remotely implausible, nor is there any appearance of discrepancy. Would it not be extremely odd to say that your friend “transferred” the suggestion from Bob to Jim (who didn't say anything in favor of going for a latte)--thus falsifying one of the accounts on this historical detail? This is what happens when we don’t even care if there is an apparent discrepancy between two accounts before alleging deliberate change of the facts.

If you think immediately that this is an example of something that Licona and his classics mentor, Christopher Pelling, would never do, you’d be mistaken. In his Life of Caesar, Plutarch says that Scipio introduced a motion in the Roman Senate that Caesar be considered a public enemy if he didn’t disarm by a certain date. In his Life of Pompey, Plutarch says that Marcellus urged that Caesar be voted a public enemy if he did not disarm. Licona says that Plutarch has “transferred” this activity from Scipio to Marcellus. He does not even suggest any motive for Plutarch to do this and (as far as one can tell) bases the allegation in this case solely on the differences in the documents. But it is the normal practice of a deliberative body that multiple people endorse the same proposal!

In the Gospels, this notion of not even seeing if there is an apparent discrepancy results in what I call utterly unforced errors. Licona talks about the fact that the Synoptic Gospels do not mention that John the Baptist called himself the voice of one crying in the wilderness, but John does mention this. In fact, John 3 mentions it in an account of a conversation that isn’t recorded in the Synoptics at all, when representatives of the Jewish leaders come to ask John the Baptist who he is and why he is baptizing. Mark, in the voice of the narrator, quotes the Old Testament verse about the voice of one crying in the wilderness and applies it to John the Baptist but doesn’t tell about this conversation. Licona suggests out of the blue (Why Are There Differences, p. 121) that John may have invented this saying by John the Baptist when he never really said it. He calls this “transferring” these words to John the Baptist, but it just means making up that he said them. In the Synoptics, nobody in the story says them. The narrator associates those verses with John.  Why would you think a thing like that? If John’s Gospel has any reasonable degree of reliability at all, why not think that the conversation he records, which the Synoptics don’t record, happened recognizably as he gives it? Licona acknowledges that this is possible but goes on to say that it is “impossible to know” whether John the Baptist actually said this or John the evangelist made up his saying it. This kind of baseless skepticism about the Gospels' reports is what we get when we allege fact-changing literary devices without even caring about whether there is an apparent discrepancy. Does this seem like an historically reasonable procedure?

One thing we can say for sure: It certainly doesn't involve treating John's Gospel as if it has any force worth speaking of as an historical report, if so mundane a thing as John the Baptist's use of this phrase for himself is cast into doubt so easily by...what? Apparently just the fact that the conversation isn't recorded elsewhere as well.

Dr. Licona keeps saying in the video that we can and should consider all possible explanations "at once." What exactly does this mean? If “considering all of these at once” means treating them all as equally probable with no mental ordering in which one gives preference to more common explanations, that is a very poor methodology. It's even worse if it means treating more uncommon explanations involving the invisible moving or changing of events to be more probable from the get-go than the ordinary sources of variation in accounts--differing interests or emphases, differences in what is noticed, even (especially in secular documents) ordinary error. How would we consistently decide to combine information found in multiple accounts if we are approaching documents from the outset thinking that there are ulterior motives in the most innocent-looking, non-discrepant differences? This is why the rational ordering of the flowchart is so useful. It forces us to slow down and remember to consider what might seem less interesting explanations that are often operative and quite sufficient to explain the facts of the documents.

Step 2 of my flowchart asks whether the accounts can be harmonized without undue strain, if there is an apparent discrepancy. (This is why it comes after step 1.) At one point Licona misrepresents me as saying that we should harmonize if it is possible to harmonize, but that isn't what I said, and it is an important confusion to clear up. I certainly think that there are such things as strained harmonizations, though I think there are a lot fewer of them in relation to the Gospels than Licona thinks there are. And I'm well aware (as I've said before) that there will be disagreements about what counts as undue strain. But the point of this step is that we shouldn't jump to the conclusion that there is a "compositional device" without even making any attempt to see how both accounts could reasonably be true.

Licona emphasizes that historians try to find out the most probable explanation, as if this is somehow in conflict with what I have said, but actually, finding reasonable harmonizations is an important part of how we try to find the most probable explanation! Often we initially get a somewhat incorrect impression (because human beings don't explain everything, or there are misunderstandings, and so forth) from one account that is corrected from another. Or one account adds supplementary information, and in accommodating that supplementary information we have to adjust somewhat what we thought at first. If you thought that Mr. Jones was alone with his interlocutor when he had a certain delicate conversation, since no third person was mentioned in the first account you read, the fact that a separate account mentions the presence of a third person will correct your erroneous first impression. That's how historical inquiry is supposed to work. So searching for reasonable harmonizations is very important.

At this point Licona might point out that sometimes he does harmonize, as he mentions in the video. Yes, occasionally I've seen him do so, usually in cases so obvious that a reasonable historian should harmonize unthinkingly and without any ponderousness. He sometimes does harmonize, but his emphasis is in the other direction. Indeed, he often reflexively says something negative about harmonization when the topic comes up or when he brings the topic up. For example, see here his unnecessarily negative implication about harmonizing by saying that Mary of Bethany anointed both Jesus' feet and head.

As I show in TMOM, in case after case in Why Are There Differences, Licona either dismisses or does not even consider very plausible harmonizations. In fact he has said quite explicitly that he prioritizes genre over harmonization. So his theory and practice are fairly consistent, and that is not a good thing, since it means that he is manifesting an anti-harmonistic bias quite often.

That Licona has a tendency to dismiss harmonization, despite sometimes allowing it, is borne out again in this video when he expressly says that I am wrong to say that we should look for a harmonization that can be made without undue strain before alleging a fact-changing literary device. He says,

This brings us to McGrew's second step, which says that if the differences can be reasonably harmonized, there is no reason to think that a compositional device was involved. This does not seem quite right.
Why does it not seem quite right, especially if we stipulate "reasonably" harmonized? One looks in vain for an argument against it other than the fact that too many scholars would disagree with you if you consistently preferred reasonable harmonization over the conclusion that a Gospel author has changed things:
For example, many new Testament scholars acknowledged that there could have been two temple cleansings, but for a number of reasons, most regard it as being more plausible that John has dislocated Jesus's temple cleansing from its actual setting on the final week of his life and transplanted it at the beginning of Jesus's ministry. One can reasonably harmonize and claim that there were two Temple cleansings. However, chronological displacement may be the more plausible explanation.
Well, that settles it then! If most scholars think John has moved the Temple cleansing, for a "number of reasons," it doesn't matter that the theory of two Temple cleansings is quite a reasonable harmonization.

Actually, of course, scholars who say that John moved the Temple cleansing without historical warrant usually say that hypothesizing two temple cleansings is not reasonable. Hence they say that accepting that conclusion would cause undue strain. That’s why I’ve tried to answer these arguments in TMOM in detail. The fact that scholars argue that, e.g., the two cleansings are too similar to be different events, weak though those arguments are, is at least some sort of tacit acknowledgement of the flowchart’s second step. Scholars are at least supposed to claim that the harmonization that has immediately sprung to the minds of traditional commentators for centuries is strained, even if they can't support that allegation very well. It's quite an admission to say that the harmonization is reasonable but that we're just skipping it anyway and going for deliberate chronological change.

Interestingly, Licona is fairly dismissive of my suggestions about the parable of the wicked tenants. I suggest that perhaps Jesus asked the crowd a question and that someone in the crowd spoke up at the same time that Jesus answered his own question or that Jesus affirmed the answer of the crowd. Licona calls this "McGrew's entirely invented scenario" and asks why this type of scenario should be regarded as more probable than the theory that Matthew or his secretary invented out of whole cloth the claim that someone in the audience answered Jesus' question. Licona continues to insist that either Matthew or his secretary "would have been taught" from Greek exercise books to make up dialogue. And of course I have challenged by argument based on genre Licona's claim that the exercise books were teaching these as methods of historical alteration.

But beyond Licona's question-begging wording (since he knows that I do not grant that Matthew or his hypothetical secretary would have been taught any such thing), why is my "invented scenario" more probable than Matthew's making stuff up? Because the variation there between Matthew and Mark is the kind of thing that happens all the time in real life with normal, honest witnesses, without anybody's using special rhetorical techniques learned from exercise books. And because the types of interaction with the crowd that I suggest are normal, interactive activities.

Again and again we find in real life that such additive harmonizations are true; they turn out to be the true resolution to variations in witness testimony.

In fact, if one is not an inerrantist, one can add that, as a purely historical matter, it's also not all that implausible that Matthew or Peter simply slightly misremembered what happened--one of them thinking wrongly that Jesus answered his own question or the other thinking that the crowd answered. This sort of trivial error, too, happens all the time and is more historically probable than Matthew's randomly and in an entirely unmotivated fashion making up an answer from the crowd that didn't happen. Indeed, it's striking how often Licona suggests changes that make no motivational sense at all. Maybe Matthew or his secretary was just feeling bored that day and felt like making up the crowd's answering a question.

Why are all of these, including the suggested additive harmonizations, more probable than invention? Because, if you have common sense, you recognize how common they are in the real world, which cannot be said for the theory of pointless invention. In TMOM (Chapter XI, section 3, pp. 264ff), I note that there is also plausibly an undesigned coincidence between Luke and Matthew in this passage, showing that Matthew may indeed have had his own knowledge of the conversation rather than merely "redacting Mark" without additional information.

Bart Ehrman constantly scoffs at harmonizations because (he says) they are "writing your own Gospel." It is a signature tactic of Ehrman to imply that it is illicit to use real-world imagination to put together two accounts in an additive fashion. But he's wrong. And he's being a bad historian by trying to rule out so-called "invented scenarios," which are in fact rational attempts to use our information to learn all of what happened. Let's not imitate him.

How does this refusal to accept entirely reasonable harmonizations play out in Classics? Here's another example: In the above scenario concerning the Roman Senate, one Plutarchan account mentions that one senator said that against a robber (by which he meant Julius Caesar) arms were needed rather than votes. A different Plutarch account says that Marcellus (who also urged that Caesar should be voted a public enemy if he did not disarm) called Julius Caesar a robber. If you think that this question of who called Caesar a robber even rises to the level of an apparent discrepancy (which I would question), an obvious harmonization is available: In political contexts multiple people who do not like someone often use the same insults against them. It is very plausible that two different people in the Senate called Caesar a robber. Licona does not even give this harmonization a second thought but simply declares, on the basis of the difference, that Plutarch has "transferred" this "logion" (saying) from one senator to another. This is exactly the sort of thing that Peter Williams is warning about when he says that we need to keep the bar reasonably high. Here the bar for declaring a "compositional device" is lying flat on the ground.

Here there simply is no substitute for reading the discussions in TMOM and reading the Plutarch sections for oneself, which I quote in the book. Again and again we find eisegesis of Plutarch going on that one can see right on the face of it. Sometimes Licona or the classicist he relies on will say that Plutarch reports something as happening in a certain way or on a certain day when that is just one possible interpretation and other interpretations of Plutarch are at least equally plausible or even more plausible. Sometimes they neglect even to attempt to put two accounts together in a unified picture when this would be quite reasonable to do and would allow us to gather a fuller picture of what happened. At times they are alleging that different historians are in conflict with one another when this is a result of an historical method that we might dub dis-harmonization or anti-harmonization--willfully placing accounts in conflict, a technique that Christians are all too familiar with from biblical higher criticism. It is a shame to see it applied to secular historians as well. 

I can certainly say (as a scholar who has worked in multiple humanities fields) that there is no want of such preferences for more complex, seemingly exciting or literary theories over more “boring,” everyday theories in the secular humanities; a specifically anti-religious or anti-supernatural bias need not be in play at all. Be the motives what they may, the eisegesis of Plutarch and other authors and the jumping to conclusions speaks for itself. Normal variation is overlooked again and again in these claims of devices.

I even give an example in TMOM (Appendix 2, section 1) where a secular historian (Ronald Mellor) alleges that an ancient historian (Tacitus) moved a trial and talks largely about how Tacitus would have thought nothing of doing so if it would serve some moral purpose, yet does not even bother to suggest what moral purpose was supposedly served by the allegedly deliberate (and very indirectly inferred) chronological displacement of this trial. No such moral purpose is easy to think of, either. I also show that Mellor appears (to his credit) later to have changed his mind and to have decided that Tacitus didn’t move the trial after all. But most of the time such changes of mind don’t seem to occur, and Licona cites the case of Tacitus moving the trial as an instance of moving an event chronologically (Why Are There Differences, p. 189). 

It’s useful to remember, again, that the differences among Plutarch’s own Lives and between Plutarch and other authors are on the face of it just garden-variety differences and/or apparent discrepancies that we find constantly in history, both written and oral. There is no special ancient or literary aura about them. I stand by what I said in TMOM: This method of mere difference-hunting, applied consistently, would turn normal, garden-variety differences and discrepancies in history into “compositional devices” all over the place. The fact that a given scholar doesn’t always follow his own incorrect methodology and hence doesn’t even more often postulate a fact-changing literary device without good evidence does not tell us anything good about the method itself.

I give a great many examples in TMOM, both in the Gospels and in the secular literature, where commonsense explanations are being overlooked or rejected. This methodology leaves us in a realm where the allegation of such a compositional manipulation can be made at the whim of the scholar on the basis of almost any difference between two documents, without any objective control. This is not a good way to learn what has happened in history.

Cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace says the following about these methods:

I see people now, even people who are in the Christian camp, our brothers and sisters who are theologians or historians or textual critics....They compromise something on the part of the author.... “Oh, this is a form of biography in which it was not unusual in the first century to exaggerate certain details.” Really? I mean, if you took that approach with the cases I work, you’d never solve a case. Because you will see differences between authors, and unless you think there’s some genre of eyewitness testimony that’s offered in 1975 when this thing was written, and there isn’t. This is just what eyewitness testimony looks like. So I’m always careful not to jump into some theory that a historian or a theologian is offering about why there might be differences. Because I’ll bet you that guy has never interviewed eyewitnesses. And if you have done that for a living you’ll realize that...there is no reason to jump to other explanations. This is just what reliable eyewitness testimony looks like.

Partial dependence and the Synoptic puzzle

In the video on Plutarch, Licona gives a long analogy to a dispute in a restaurant in order to argue that the relationship among the Synoptic Gospels appears to be a literary relationship rather than a relationship showing variations of witness testimony. He repeatedly places these explanations in competition as alternatives and seems to imply that I see them as exclusive alternatives as well. In an especially revealing statement about the clause "Let the reader understand" in the accounts of the Olivet Discourse, he says,

Moreover, the same awkward location of the parenthetical clause in both Matthew and Mark is a much cleaner fit with there being a literary relationship between Matthew and Mark than with McGrew’s appeal to normal variation and eye witness reporting. Nevertheless, McGrew downplays the literary relationship between the Gospels and goes straight to harmonization efforts. It’s very difficult to dispute that a literary relationship exists between the Synoptic gospels. And this is why I place a priority on identifying how Matthew and Luke use Mark over harmonizing the differences by viewing them as normal variations.
He leaves unclear precisely what he means by saying that I "downplay" the literary relationship of the Synoptic Gospels, but the context indicates that he does not even understand my position, though I expressed it clearly in TMOM and had even discussed it to some extent in my earlier book, Hidden in Plain View. When Licona talks about something as having a "cleaner fit with there being a literary relationship between Matthew and Mark than with McGrew’s appeal to normal variation and eye witness reporting," this gives the strong impression that, in hypothesizing eyewitness testimony and natural variations, I am denying that there is a literary relationship among the Synoptic Gospels. But that is not true. I have never done so.

In fact, in TMOM I expressly discuss this point. There I describe a neutral version of the concept of Markan priority and the two-source hypothesis among the Synoptic Gospels and distinguish it from an invidious version that "erases" both Matthew as a witness and the plausible possibility that Luke had additional witness sources.
A major problem in New Testament scholarship, which has now apparently spread to evangelical scholarship, is an overly rigid understanding of Markan priority and the two-source hypothesis. The general idea of the two-source hypothesis, stated in neutral terms, is that Mark wrote before Matthew and that, when a story is found with closely similar wording in both Matthew and Mark (even if it is also found in Luke), Matthew probably used Mark as a written source. Material found in Luke and Matthew but not in Mark is taken to be “Q material,” with the theory that in these places Matthew and Luke used a now-lost source known as Q.
            The major problem arises not with a generic version of this hypothesis but with using it to lock out any consideration of independent information in places where Matthew is supposedly following Mark or Q. It cannot be said too often: It does not follow from the general idea that Mark wrote first and that Matthew used Mark that Matthew does not have his own memories or other sources of information, even in places where he is similar to Mark. “The two-source hypothesis” and “Markan priority,” and their wide acceptance by scholars, should not be used to deny the possibility of independent Matthean information. We should not accept a false dichotomy according to which Matthew or Luke must be entirely independent of Mark or else entirely dependent upon Mark for some incident. Yet often, this is precisely what happens. (Chapter XV, section 2, p. 404)
In other words, I do not deny a literary dependence among the Synoptics, and it may indeed be the "two-source" type of literary dependence in which Matthew and Luke both used Mark and in which there was some additional "sayings" source (which I think might have been an earlier version of Matthew) used by Luke, this hypothetical source being known as Q. But I warn that we should not rigidly assume that, if there is literary dependence between two passages, this means that Matthew or Luke could not also have had additional factual information in that passage. In fact, I repeatedly show in TMOM that there is evidence, such as from undesigned coincidences, that that is precisely what they did! Matthew might have used Mark literarily for convenience, but it is unreasonable to assume that this means that Matthew knew nothing further about what happened in a given scene, and all the more so in scenes where he was plausibly present.

If the development of this mixed type of hypothesis is what Licona means by my "downplaying" the literary relationship, I own the soft impeachment, but I also point out that Licona has done nothing whatsoever to refute the evidence for it. Instead, as I show in TMOM, he repeatedly assumes without argument that Matthew and Luke had no additional factual information if they appear similar in wording to Mark and then attributes any differences to their factual elaborations or changes. We saw a bit of this in the passage about Jesus before the Sanhedrin. We also see it in his assumption about the parable of the wicked tenants--that Matthew had no additional information. This is presumably what Licona means here by saying that he "places a priority on identifying how Matthew and Luke use Mark over harmonizing the differences by viewing them as normal variations." But the only evidence he gives is that there is a literary relationship! In fact, he says that explicitly: He says that there is evidence that there was a literary relationship and that "that is why" he places such a priority. He doesn't even seem to consider the very possibility, supported by evidence, that I have brought up again and again (including in the book he claims to be responding to) that Matthew or Luke used Mark literarily but also had additional information, even about a scene where they may have used Mark literarily. (Two-source scholars often admit independent Matthean or Lukan information in completely separate scenes or incidents but rarely or never admit it in scenes that they believe they "got from Mark.") Yet that hypothesis is repeatedly supported, not only by undesigned coincidences but even by the very variations that Licona rigidly insists on putting down to their non-factual redactive manipulations. This is not good methodology.

Licona's comments about the clause "let the reader understand" certainly do not support such a rigid approach. Obviously, that clause appears to be a result of literary dependence of some kind. And so what? Precisely how does that show that whenever Matthew or Luke have some additional dialogue or wording, some additional detail, some apparent variation in ordering, and so forth, in some passage that appears similar to Mark, we should literally disregard the possibility of their really knowing something else about what happened? Indeed, that should be a very obvious suggestion in those cases. As I say in TMOM, discussing the story of Jesus healing the man with the withered hand,
If we are genuinely to be open to reasonable historical hypotheses, we have to resist this urge to erase Matthew as a potential historical source of information in his own right. This is not a crazy idea, unworthy of consideration, simply because too many New Testament scholars wrongly believe that they must cut out Matthew as a witness in order to be faithful to a consensus view. Indeed, the very variations of wording and detail that scholars persistently use to argue that Matthew redacted Mark are in many cases evidence instead of at least some independent information in those places. It is not good historical practice to treat this possibility as a non-starter when interpreting a story like the man with the withered hand.... (Chapter XV, section 2, p. 406)
Licona, again, speaks as if I have never addressed this issue. He (again) ignores what I wrote on this very issue in TMOM and appears to be pushing his hearers toward a false dilemma--either a particular story in the Synoptic Gospels is totally independent literarily among them or there is factual dependence with no additional true information in the supposedly derivative documents. Licona represents me as if I don't understand the two-source hypothesis and am trying to insist that the passages I deal with are entirely all literarily independent, based only on witness testimony. I explicitly reject this false dilemma in TMOM and suggest a more nuanced view that, I argue, fits the evidence better. Yet I am supposedly the one engaging in "black and white thinking" and closed to nuance?

This lengthy blog post, in response to one of the longest and messiest of Licona's videos, is meant to be fairly thorough. I am suggesting the shape of the debate and of the responses, many of which were already present in The Mirror or the Mask and are simply ignored by Licona. Once again, this is not a substitute for The Mirror or the Mask, which presents the full case in an organized and more complete form. I consider it providential that it became available in a searchable, electronic form on the very day that Licona's first video was released. Neither my publisher nor I planned this. Do have a look.

Consider: Should it not be good news from a Christian perspective that the Gospels are more thoroughly, literally, historically accurate than the compositional device views would lead us to believe? I'm here to tell you that they are and to provide arguments to that effect. Don't accept straw men of the reportage model for which I have provided so much evidence. Instead, consider seriously the evidence that that good news might just be true.

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