Monday, July 06, 2020

New Licona series: Fictionalizing Literary Devices

(New content: July, 2020)

Accompanying video here.

As followers of my work know, my recently published book is called The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels From Literary Devices. In it I argue against the view that the evangelists considered themselves licensed by the alleged standards of their time to alter events and factual aspects of their narratives and to put words into the mouths of characters that did not occur historically in those settings in any recognizable fashion.

I also provide much positive evidence that the Gospels are instead highly reliable historically because their authors were truthful reporters in a straightforward sense of that word.

Providentially, The Mirror or the Mask (aka TMOM) became available in a Kindle version for just $9.99 just when Dr. Michael Licona began releasing a series of eight video responses to my work.

In this series, Licona claims that he refutes me by a rain of "hard, cold facts." Here is Licona's "trailer" for the series. Here is his introduction (on which I put a few comments on Facebook here). You can find the rest of his videos on his Youtube channel. When a post here is a response to one video in particular, I will of course link it.

This first post and its accompanying video respond not to just one particular video in his series but to an on-going theme of his series--specifically what Licona regards as the illegitimacy of the terminology I use for the alleged compositional devices in the Gospels about which he and I disagree. Licona repeats this theme often. Here is one of the videos in which he voices such objections.

Having already posted regular, though relatively brief, content on my public Facebook profile while Licona's new series was gradually released, I am responding further to his series via a combination of relatively short videos and longer blog posts. My own first video, to which this post corresponds, is here.

My aim in this series of posts and videos is to make it clear that by no means has Dr. Licona refuted my meticulous case in TMOM, but I hope to do so without rewriting TMOM. It would be the task of Sisyphus and probably pointless to write all over again what I have already written. If you are interested in these issues and are inclined to think that the literary devices views endorsed by Licona, Craig Evans, and some other scholars (including some evangelicals) are or might plausibly be correct, please do investigate that question. The topic is important enough that it will be very much worth doing so.

(Note that there is a great deal of free content available on-line on these matters. For example, I did a series of scholarly blog posts on this topic in 2017. Here is a wrap-up post for that particular older series. Here also is a review essay published in the Global Journal of Classic Theology. Here is a written interview on TMOM. TMOM is the culmination of all of this work, but if you are interested in free materials, there are a lot available.)

Fact-changing literary devices

The compositional devices that Licona alleges are found and that I think are not found in the Gospels are what I call in TMOM "fictionalizing literary devices" or "fact-changing" or "fact-altering literary devices." An example of such a literary device claim (which I think is incorrect) is that John changed the year in which Jesus cleansed the Temple. Craig Keener has advocated this view as has William Lane Craig, and Michael Licona considers it quite plausible. This does not merely mean that John narrated unclearly about time order but that he actually made Jesus cleanse the Temple in his narrative at a different time, in a different year, from the year in which he really did so. (Licona himself explicitly brings up this claim and makes it clear what it is in this video.)

Another such claim, endorsed by Licona and others, is that John changed the day of the month on which Jesus was crucified. (Licona has debated the claim that John moved the day and time of the crucifixion with NT scholar Craig Blomberg, who argues that John did not do anything of the kind.) Another such claim, endorsed by Licona, is that Luke geographically moved the first appearance that Jesus made to the disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem. According to that theory, Jesus really first appeared to them in Galilee, as told in Matthew 28, but Luke made it happen instead in Jerusalem in his story.

These stories are narrated realistically, and (on the theory) the original audience just understood that such changes might be made, though there was not some special indicator that some given change had been made. A good analogy would be that of a movie "based on true events." You may know that some things in it might be changed and probably are, but you can't tell from watching the movie what they are. You would have to look that up in some more literally historical source, if you were lucky enough to have one available.

I document meticulously in TMOM that evangelical scholars, especially but not limited to Dr. Licona, have made such claims, and I reply to the arguments for them. These fact-changing claims range from changes of smaller details to quite large changes. Never in TMOM or anywhere else have I said that they are all equally "big" changes or that the theorists think that the Gospels are only fiction or mostly fiction. In fact, I have consistently used the analogy that Licona himself uses of a movie that is based on true events but that makes some changes in facts which the audience can discover only by checking elsewhere. This might, in such a movie, amount to changing a date or some other detail, it might consist in making up something inspiring that a person says in the movie that he didn't say in real life. It might involve making up dialogue to keep the story moving. Or it might consist in making up a whole scene. Thus such movies are partially fictionalized and partially factual.

Many of the claims about the Gospels are even more surprising than those I have already mentioned. These include, for example, John's allegedly inventing Jesus' saying, "I thirst" on the cross as a "dynamic equivalent transformation" of the words, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" Michael Licona and Daniel Wallace endorse this position (Why Are There Differences, p. 166, citing an unpublished paper by Wallace).

In the first video in my response series I give more examples of the theories in question, which include inventing sayings (not just paraphrasing), inventing entire contexts for Jesus' appearances, and occasionally inventing scenes. There are more in my book, with full citations. From these examples it should be clear why I call these "fictionalizing literary devices" or "fact-changing literary devices." To be absolutely explicit: Those phrases are just descriptive terms. The terms themselves do not import the assumption that the evangelists didn't do these things. The terms are just explaining what kinds of things we are talking about. I define them on pp. 10-11 of TMOM, which is Chapter I, section 3. Then we get to the arguments for and against those claims. I wrote the book arguing that the evangelists didn't do this. I wasn't building that assumption just into the terms. The terms are stipulative, meant to put on the table what we are talking about, so that we can see what Licona and others think is present in the Gospels and I think is not present. I never use these labels instead of argument.

Understanding clearly what we are talking about does tend to make it clearer to people that there is a heavy burden of proof for the literary device theorist to meet. That is simply a result of the fact that sensible people who understand the nature of the theories instead of having them obscured by equivocal terms do tend to understand intuitively that they are antecedently improbable. This clear understanding may also incline some more conservative readers against the devices, but that is not the fault of the terms. If a clear description of a scholar's views inclines conservative readers against those views, that doesn't mean that the person giving the description has done something illicit in providing that clear understanding. After all, readers with a different view of the Gospels might actually be inclined to agree as a result of hearing those terms, so that can't be the standard of whether a term is accurate or not.

In his book The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, p. 189, Craig Blomberg uses the phrase “the theory of fictitious doubling” to refer to the theory of so-called “doublets” in the Gospels. The theory of doublets is the idea that a Gospel author made up a second event of the same type, making it look like Jesus did something similar twice when he actually did it only once. Blomberg is not begging the question, using "loaded language," or poisoning the well by using that term "fictitious doubling," though in fact he does not think that such fictitious doublets occur in the Gospels. His term “fictitious” is descriptive--the doublets would, if they existed, involve creating fictitious narratives to make it look like Jesus did something of the same kind twice when only one of the stories occurred in reality. Just as Blomberg uses the term “fictitious doubling” for descriptive purposes, I use the terms “fictionalizing literary devices” and “fact-changing literary devices” for descriptive purposes.

(In passing, here is the full review of Dr. Licona’s book Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? by Craig Blomberg in the Christian Research Journal, of which Licona in this video quotes only a brief portion. It is partially critical, and their later short exchange in the same journal continues to make it clear that Blomberg had important reservations about portions of Licona's book. Dr. Blomberg endorsed The Mirror or the Mask as well. In that blurb for TMOM, which you can find in full on the first page of TMOM, he notes that the literary devices to which I am objecting are not commonly accepted among inerrantist biblical scholars. I do not identify myself as an inerrantist, but my views of specific Gospel passages tend to be very similar to those of traditional inerrantists.)

Licona repeatedly complains that both the terms “fictionalizing literary devices” and “fact-altering literary devices” are loaded. This is a complaint that he and his followers have made before, no matter how patiently I refute it. The basic point is this: We have to have some clear way of describing what we are disagreeing about before we can get to “first base” in deciding who is right and who is wrong. The phrases “compositional devices” or “literary devices” without further qualifier are uninformative. They say nothing about what sort of devices I am disagreeing with Licona and others about.

For example, I have never objected in the slightest to merely omitting details from an account. Omitting is not denying. Some might call narrating an event briefly (what I call achronological compression in TMOM) a "compositional device," but that is not what is at issue between me and Licona. Or there are mere figures of speech such as, "I have a frog in my throat" or "Bow down your ear and hear me, O God," which every mature speaker of a language immediately recognizes are not intended literally. These, again, are not what is at issue. We therefore need a designator that shows what is at issue in this scholarly disagreement.

It is not legitimate to declare every informative, non-euphemistic, descriptive term that I use for the devices at issue to be “loaded.” To do so puts us in a ridiculous place where I am either supposed to adopt a phrase that begs the question against myself (must I call them “the literary conventions of their day,” even though I think that these weren’t the literary conventions of their day?), or to use an ambiguous phrase like “compositional devices” with no indication of what kind, or perhaps even to invent a meaningless jargon word or sound, which would be of no value.

Perhaps what Licona wants me to say is that these alleged devices change only unimportant matters. But that is also not a legitimate requirement. For one thing, even the apparent "bigness" of the alleged changes varies considerably. For another, obviously people will disagree about how important a given change is. Licona and I pretty clearly disagree about how important a matter it is if, for example, John invented "I thirst." I strongly suspect that many readers will disagree with Licona on the importance of quite a few of these changes as well. So it would be entirely illicit to require me, as part of describing what we are even talking about, to acquiesce in someone else's views about what is or isn't really important. For another thing, details have a lot of ramifications.The Gospels are often verified by their details, but it is probabilistically problematic to try to use arguments that they are accurate in detail to confirm them while simultaneously saying that it was part and parcel of their genre to be allowed to change details.

A given so-called detail can have ramifications that Licona himself does not address. The entire circumstances of Jesus' appearance to the disciples as described in Matthew 28 are quite different from that of the appearance described in Luke 24, which is almost certainly the same as the first appearance to the group described in John 20. One is outside; the other is inside. One meeting is expected and carried out by appointment in response to a command relayed from Jesus to go to Galilee; the other is unexpected and startling, which makes a difference to the probability of any kind of group hallucination. One occurs on the same day that Jesus rose from the dead; the other occurs some time later. Putting John and Luke together would lead us to conclude that the meeting in Galilee occurred more than a week later. Saying that Luke geographically moved that appearance to Jerusalem though it really occurred in Galilee (which I discuss in the accompanying video and in TMOM) is epistemologically a much bigger matter than Licona acknowledges, due to the intertwined nature of evidence.

As I point out in TMOM, if the first appearance of Jesus to his disciples occurred in Galilee rather than Jerusalem, as Licona has stated, it's very difficult to see how the doubting Thomas sequence can be fitted in. Did Thomas walk to Galilee while still doubting? Did the other disciples send him a message that they had seen Jesus? How did that even work? This is just one of the ways in which a change that Licona apparently dismisses as no big deal has epistemological ramifications. As an epistemologist, I notice these ramifications and bring them out. So I'm certainly not going to eschew clear terminology like "fact-changing" on the grounds that these are just unimportant matters and that therefore we shouldn't even use the word "facts" for the things have allegedly been altered!

As he goes on in his video series, especially in his video on my supposed "black and white thinking," Licona explicitly indicates that I should not call something a "fictionalizing device" unless it changes the "essence" of the story. But this is quite a subjective standard. Licona may think that certain changes do not alter the "essence" of a story when others would think that they do. Do you think that it alters the "essence" of Jesus' appearance to Mary Magdalene if they didn't have the dialogue recorded in John 20 and if she was just along with the other women who met him on the road as recorded in Matthew 28? This is one of the changes that Licona thinks might have been made, though he does not decide between that and Matthew's having changed the story. In the video accompanying this blog post I give a list of some of the other changes that Licona has advocated and that Craig Evans has advocated, including Evans's casting doubt on the historicity of Jesus' "I am" sayings with predicates, Licona's casting doubt on the number of blind people Jesus healed as described in the Gospel of Matthew, on the day of Jesus' crucifixion, and on the number and locations of his appearances after his resurrection. There are many more examples in TMOM.

In any event, something can be a fact even without being of the "essence" of the story in which it occurs. So a fact can be changed even if it is not "of the essence of the story."

In one of the videos in this series, Licona says this about his theories of chronology in the Gospels:

In my book, I provide a few examples in the Gospels in which it appears that one of the authors has altered the chronology of events and that the alteration was both intentional and not merely a topical arrangement with no chronological ties.

Without quibbling on the phrase "a few examples," I note that this is Licona's own characterization of his views and that it clearly attributes factual change to the evangelists. How much more explicit could he be? He is saying that he believes that the Gospel authors deliberately changed the time when events happened, though they believed that they happened at other times. He emphasizes that the narration is intentional and not merely topical. It alters the chronology. Yet there is something wrong with calling these alleged time changes fact-changing devices? Why?

If a movie maker "made" a real historical event happen three years earlier than it really happened, we would unhesitatingly say that he changed a fact. That would just be a description. In fact, no one would bat an eye if someone said, "Yeah, the year when that happened in the movie was fictional. It really happened in 1977, not 1974."

Was Dr. Blomberg obligated to find out whether people who advocate doublet events in the Gospels  think that this is a change in the "essence" of the story (which story?) before he called doublets "fictitious narratives"?

Once we start trying to tell fellow scholars that they cannot use descriptive terms like “fact-changing," “fictionalizing," or "fact-altering," no matter how carefully defined, unless they agree with some other scholars on what constitutes the “essence of the story,” we have passed far beyond the realm of legitimate rules of discourse. Indeed, such a requirement looks very much like an attempt to beg an important question about whether the changes advocated are important. It also stymies fruitful dialogue by derailing the discussion onto a matter of terminology for what we disagree about.

It should go without saying that there are big facts and small facts about history, facts about details, etc. It should also go without saying that people will have differences of opinion about what sort of factual changes are a big deal. People will often (and this is important) consider even a small change to be a bigger deal if it is deliberate, because that changes one's view of the author or speaker. So it is illicit to try to rule out clearly descriptive phrases like “factual change,” "fictionalizing devices," “changing history,” or "fact-altering" merely on the grounds that allegedly a given change should be regarded as no big deal. Such a principle leads to obfuscation and confusion.

Let’s just admit that we are talking about deliberately changing facts and then let people decide for themselves whether a given deliberate factual change would be a big deal. I provide arguments in TMOM concerning issues like importance for reliability, but first let's have on the table what we are talking about clearly rather than unclearly.

It's interesting to see how Craig Evans describes what he thinks the Gospel authors were permitted to do with their Gospels by the "pedagogy of the times." Here Evans is talking about Jesus' teaching and what he thinks the authors were licensed to do. One is from his opening statement in a debate with Bart Ehrman
[W]e do have at hand a lot of important information about pedagogy...But more importantly listen up, about the way that a master teacher’s teaching was appropriated by his disciples....The teaching was memorized, but then it was understood and could be adapted and applied. It could be expanded, it could be contracted, the wording could be altered, it could be made to fit new circumstances.
When we realize that Evans is saying that after doing this the disciples were allegedly supposed to report these altered and applied statements as if they were really said by the historical Jesus, we can see both that this is significantly more than what would normally be meant by "paraphrase" and also that it is fact-altering--making it appear that Jesus taught in a way that "fit new circumstances," for example.

This one is from a piece called “Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism.”

Each evangelist presented the life and teaching of Jesus in his own fashion, using creative ways that made it understandable and relevant to different cultures and settings. The numerous differences and discrepancies we see in the Gospels are the result of the writers doing what Jesus taught—and in many ways reflect the standards of history writing current in late antiquity.
Notice that Evans expressly says that the numerous discrepancies and differences in the Gospels are the result of the writers changing things creatively. If a discrepancy is a result of a change, then the change is a change of a fact, though it may be a relatively small fact if the discrepancy that results is relatively small.

It's worth noting here: Fact-changing literary devices do not resolve apparent discrepancies. On the contrary, they lock them in by saying that the discrepant historical information was placed into the document by the authors deliberately. Once again, these literary devices are not harmonizations. They are not the claim that these are "merely apparent" contradictions. They involve saying that, for example, John and Mark really do narrate Jesus' crucifixion on different days and are incompatible in that respect. But one then puts a label of "crafting the narrative," "following the pedagogy of the time," a "compositional device," etc., on the factual change that has allegedly been made.

How does Evans apply his notions of pedagogy in practice? Here are some of his comments about the Gospel of John in the Q and A to a debate with Bart Ehrman:

On a historical level let us suppose we could go back into time with a camera team and audio and video record the historical Jesus and we followed him about throughout his ministry. I would be very surprised if we caught him uttering, “I am this” and “I am that” and one of these big long speeches that we find in John. This aspect of the Gospel of John I would not put in the category of historical. It’s a genre question.

The real question then would be, do these from a theological point of view reflect an accurate theological understanding of Jesus’ person, his accomplishment, what he’s achieved, what he brings to his believers? Is he the light of the world? Is he...the way, the truth, the life? Is he the bread of life? See? And that’s what Christians can affirm.... So you could say, theologically, these affirmations of who Jesus is in fact do derive from Jesus. Not because he walked around and said them. But because of what he did, what he said...and because of his resurrection. And so this community that comes together in the aftermath of Easter says, “You know what? This Jesus who said these various things, whose teaching we cling to and interpret and present and adapt and so on, he is for us the way, the truth, the life, the true vine. He is the bread of life,” and so on. And so that gets presented in a very creative, dramatic, and metaphorical way, in what we now call the Gospel of John.
Evans even emphasizes that he would not put these sayings in the category of "historical." If that is not saying that the community altered facts or fictionalized, it's difficult to know what is. This also reflects how Evans applies the concept of "paraphrase." In fact, he has repeatedly implied that anyone who doesn't agree with the following statements of his must think that all of Jesus' words were recorded verbatim, which is a classic false dilemma fallacy. See here for more of his comments on the Gospel of John.

Licona, while saying that he "would not go as far as" Evans (without specifying what this means) has in general defended Evans's view  of John as well within the realm of reasonable evangelical views, considering it to be the claim that John used "paraphrase" or "adapted" the "Jesus tradition." Evans is another of the scholars whose work I rebut in TMOM and whose work I have in mind in the phrases "fact-changing literary device" and "fictionalizing literary device."

And of course, as I've pointed out numerous times, including in the accompanying video, the changes alleged concern things other than the reports of words. They also include circumstances, context, details, times, and so forth, all of which could supposedly be altered or fabricated, according to the standards of the time.

Moreover, if we are not talking about factual change, it's difficult to know what I could be wrong about. Licona certainly seems to think I'm wrong about the Gospels. Yet I've said again and again that the changes where we disagree are just those where these scholars are alleging that facts were altered. If Licona, Evans, and others are just talking about trivial, casual, recognizable, minor verbal variation in reporting words, or merely omitting details from a story to simplify, those are not things that we disagree over. So if I’m wrong about what the Gospel authors did, if the Gospel authors did do something that I think they didn't do, what is it? What am I wrong about concerning the Gospels?

New Testament scholar Dean Furlong made the following apt comment on Facebook about Licona’s repeated objections to terms like “fact-altering." I quote it here by permission:

Why is he so frightened by McGrew's characterization of his "literary devices" as "fact-altering"? I mean, that's what he believes. He can claim that "fact altering" literary devices were acceptable conventions, but he can't simultaneously take issue with her descriptive characterization while also claiming that fact altering was part of an accepted historiographical convention. His annoyance at the expression make me suspect he wants to have his cake and eat it too. "Conventions that alter facts aren't really fact-altering because everyone accepted you were allowed to alter facts."
I'm afraid it does rather look that way. And thank you, Dr. Furlong!

No comments: