Saturday, September 12, 2020

Undesigned coincidences vs. Literary Devices (archived from May, 2018)

 (Originally posted at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at "permalink" below.)

Undesigned coincidences vs. Literary Devices on Bellator Christi [Updated]

[Update: I've decided to put into this post itself a list of some counterexamples to Licona's misleading claims about his, and others' positions. See below. These are also in the podcast on Bellator Christi.]

I had the privilege today to be on the Bellator Christi podcast with Brian Chilton discussing the contrast between the view of the Gospels supported by undesigned coincidences and that of the "literary device" theorists.

The link to the podcast is here. It was great fun being on the show and bringing these various strands together. These really are very different views of what kind of documents the Gospels are. I say this not because I start from an unargued assumption that the Gospels are artless, historical reportage but rather because this is what I find the Gospels to be upon investigation. Undesigned coincidences are just one portion of that argument. Brian was an excellent host, and we had a great conversation.

The podcast is a good introduction generally to undesigned coincidences, and the first good-sized segment of the show is devoted to that positive argument.

Brian introduced the discussion by mentioning the fact that the apologetics community is divided concerning the merit of the literary device theories. Brian mentioned that Tim Stratton has recently hosted a series of conversations with Michael Licona about his (Dr. Licona's) views and suggested that listeners give both sides a hearing.

Naturally, this doesn't mean that I was giving a point-by-point response to what Dr. Licona said in those interviews. For my detailed response to Dr. Licona's actual views, which he has not rebutted or confronted, please see the wrap-up post here of my series and browse from there to posts as your interest and time allow.

One point that I did want to reply to, though, is a completely incorrect characterization that Dr. Licona has made of the views that I (and Esteemed Husband, see here) are criticizing--those of himself, Craig Evans, and Dan Wallace, for example. At minute 23 and following here, in one of the interviews with Tim Stratton, Dr. Licona states that none of these evangelical scholars "who have become targets" (as he puts it) are saying that Jesus did not say the things reported in the Gospels but rather only suggesting that Jesus may not have used those words. They are, he says, saying that some of the reports in the Gospels might be a "loose paraphrase."

This is just false, and even a quick look at my wrap-up post will give examples to the contrary. I do reply to that point in this interview with Rev. Chilton. Please listen to the entire podcast, but that portion begins at about minute 31 in the podcast, here. Here are the counterexamples I give there:

--One idea promoted by scholars Dan Wallace and Mike Licona is that Jesus did not historically, at all, say, “I thirst” while he was on the cross. This isn’t just saying that he really said, “Please give me some water” instead but that there was nothing like that at all. Instead, he said, “My God, why have you forsaken me” and John changed that into “I thirst.” "I thirst" is not even a "loose paraphrase" of "My God, why have you forsaken me."

--Licona has argued (most recently in a debate with Bart Ehrman) that Jesus did not appear first to his male disciples in Jerusalem at all but rather first in Galilee and that Luke “moved” the first appearance to Jerusalem in his gospel for literary reasons. This is not just a matter of our not having Jesus' exact words, nor is it a loose paraphrase of something else. Indeed, this claim of "moving" itself calls into question the historicity of the entire Doubting Thomas scene, since John makes it quite clear that that occurred in Jerusalem before they went to Galilee, and Thomas would have been very unlikely to travel to Galilee if he hadn’t yet seen Jesus at all. This is part and parcel of Licona's theory that Luke "made" all of the resurrection appearances occur on one day rather than forty days.

--One theory, promoted by Craig Evans, is that Jesus never historically said “I am the light of the world” or “I am the bread of life.” Not because he used somewhat different words and said, “I am the lamp of the world” or something instead, but because these sayings didn’t occur historically at all. They were just dramatic portrayals by the “Johannine community” of their theological reflections on Jesus’ other teachings. See video for several minutes here. This is not just a matter of a loose paraphrase, much less of our not having Jesus' very words.

--Another idea, which Dr. Licona attributes to “many Johannine scholars,” is that Jesus would not have been as explicit about his deity as we find him being in John, and saying things like, “Before Abraham was, I am” or “I and the Father are one.” Instead, he just presented himself as God as we find him doing in Mark, by claiming to be able to forgive sins and do these other deeds, and John wrote up these other scenes, which didn’t really occur, in which Jesus makes these “more explicit” claims to deity for himself. See the argument Licona presents for that view here, particularly this statement: "Now, if Jesus was hesitant to announce publicly that He is the Messiah, we would not expect for Him to be claiming to be God publicly and in such a clear manner as we find John reporting." Obviously, this is not just a matter of John's making a "loose paraphrase" of Jesus' historical words and deeds as we find them in Mark but rather of his inventing whole sayings and scenes in which Jesus claims to be God publicly and in such a relatively clear manner as reported in John.

I would like to emphasize again, in addition to what I said in the podcast with Brian, that these examples are not even "loose paraphrases." Jesus' saying, "I thirst" is not even a "loose paraphrase" of "My God, why have you forsaken me." And so forth.

One example I didn't mention in the podcast (but again, there are so many) to the contrary is Dr. Licona's own suggestion on pp. 180-181 of his Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? that John may have invented the scene in which Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit." Allegedly he did so in order to "weave mention" of Pentecost into his own Gospel, since he would not be writing about that event directly. (Were the many references to the coming of the Comforter in Jesus' words in John 14-16 not enough of a mention?) Obviously, if that event didn't happen at all, this is a great deal more than merely saying that Jesus may not have used those words! Nor is it even to say that we have a "loose paraphrase" of an historical teaching of Jesus in that real, historical context, where Jesus engaged in a real action (breathing on the disciples). It's an invention of an entire incident.

If we are going to discuss these matters intelligently and with care, it's very important that we be clear about what we're discussing. It is extremely unhelpful for Dr. Licona or anyone else to suggest that these are mere matters of verbal changes or paraphrase or even "loose" paraphrase. When entire sayings of Jesus or events in Jesus' life are said not to have occurred historically at all, these do not turn into "paraphrases" of something else merely because we say that these invented events are true to the general meaning or spirit of Jesus' completely different teaching or self-presentation in other events. That is simply not what is meant by any sort of "paraphrase." And that is aside from all of the alleged literary devices in which other factual matters besides Jesus' words are changed.

Those considering these matters, both scholars and laymen, should not be chivvied by way of a false dilemma. The false dilemma is the insinuation that either you are opposed to reasonable paraphrase such as what can occur in real, literal historical reportage or else you must adopt the theories of Licona, Evans, et. al., including those "many Johannine scholars" that Dr. Licona keeps talking about who think that the real Jesus would not have claimed to be God in such a clear and public manner as we find John reporting. (See Dr. Licona's own characterization of that argument in those terms to the effect that Jesus would not have claimed to be God in such a clear and public manner, here.) That is not a paraphrase view. That is an outright dehistoricization of Jesus' unique Johannine claims to deity.

We must be clear, and I think that once we are clear, it will become evident that these questions are worth looking into. They are not just trivial differences of opinion. Do the results of scholarship really force us to believe that the Gospels are like bio-pics, including made-up dialogue, made-up scenes, and factually altered events? I have argued, in detail, that there is no such evidence--not from Plutarch and not from the Gospels themselves. And there is much evidence to the contrary. That argument has not been answered. Again, I strongly urge those who are interested to look into these matters for themselves.