January 22, 2022

For those unfamiliar with the drama that has transpired on the internet over the past nine months, let me catch you up. There has been a lengthy critique of Dr. Mike Licona’s recent book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels ? (WDG), by Dr. Lydia McGrew (the wife of the highly esteemed Dr. Timothy McGrew). Roughly, in WDG he argues that the Gospel authors used compositional, literary devices (similar to those utilized in Plutarch, an ancient biographer) for various reasons. For a brief explanation and synopsis of these literary devices and WDG, see Mark Strauss’s review here. From Strauss: [blockquote2]These [compositional, literary devices] include transferal (words or deeds of one character are transferred to another), displacement (an event is moved from one context to another), conflation (two or more events or people are combined and narrated as one), compression (events are portrayed as occurring over a shorter period in one instance than in another), spotlighting (one character is emphasized to the neglect of others), simplification (details are omitted or altered for the sake of simplification), expansion (details that were unknown are added to fill out a story in a plausible manner), and paraphrasing (something similar is said using different words).[/blockquote2] McGrew believes this is dangerously incorrect, and that to believe in their supposed function leads to a drastic historical uncertainty regarding the Gospels.

Some brief background: From my vantage point, her criticisms placed a wedge in my organization’s relationship with Tim’s ministry, the Library of Historical Apologetics, because my organization also does work for Licona’s Risen Jesus organization. At first, the wedge was manageable, but over time it grew and eventually it led to Tim’s departure from the Defenders alliance. This was likely because, while not agreeing in full with Mike, I was defending his position (which included critiquing Lydia’s tone). Critiquing Lydia’s tone was probably the final straw for Tim, but my observations on her tone were not in error (as confirmed by numerous other people who happened to request that her blog posts stopped being shared in the Christian Apologetics Alliance Facebook group); to the best of my recollection, Tim never denied her tone as being uncharitable, but seemed to imply that it was justified given Mike’s positions on historiography. I carry no hard feelings for Tim’s departure from the Defenders alliance and I continue to think fondly of him.

Because Tim’s ministry is no longer associated with my organization, I feel free to more publicly engage against Lydia’s uncharitable and ultimately unpersuasive arguments against evangelical New Testament scholarship (some of which is meshed in with her critiques against Licona). With Mike’s reply to Tom Gilson now public, this is an announcement that I will be preparing a series of blog posts on historiography engaging with McGrew’s blog posts. Both Tim and Lydia are extremely bright persons, so I’m in for a shellacking, but being highly intelligent doesn’t necessitate one’s always being correct, and in this case I think their views of the Gospels and historical reliability are inaccurate, too restrictive, and happens to include the denial of the doctrine of inerrancy (Lydia herself has explicitly denied inerrancy, while Tim has danced around the question on numerous occasions and venues). Ideally I will publish my posts this summer, but there is no guarantee. I have a PhD to finish! On Facebook, I have made an offer to the McGrews to have a formal debate. Lydia declined on grounds that I hadn’t written anything on this topic, so apparently if I write a bunch of blog posts, then I’ll be qualified to debate her. 😉

Just a couple weeks ago, as I expressed concern over Lydia’s writing tone, Bethel McGrew (Lydia’s daughter) requested evidence of my claim that Lydia had made exaggerated claims. Tonight I have found another example of Lydia’s use of exaggeration in her recent rebuttal to Mike’s reply (which is confirmatory of his written observation that she has an incessant desire [my words] to reply to everything concerning this issue):

[blockquote2]
To give just one salient example, Kurt has insisted that Dr. Licona’s position is that the authors of the gospels were merely “apathetic about some details.” Every word of this characterization is grossly inaccurate. Dr. Licona clearly argues that the authors went out of their way to create certain literary/narrative impressions deliberately. Quite a number of the examples in his book clearly go beyond mere “details,” extending to inventing entire incidents and sayings in some cases.
[/blockquote2]

While it might require going back into Facebook threads, I cannot recall and am confident that I have not used the word ‘merely’ to modify that quotation. McGrew does not attribute it in quotation to me, but clearly uses it to modify something I have written. This is a distortion of my position. I’m happy to be corrected if someone were to provide a screenshot of my use of ‘merely,’ ‘only,’ or ‘just’ (meaning exclusive). Assuming my memory is correct and that I have not ever used that modifier with that quotation, her use of that qualifier is deceptive of my actual position because I am fully aware that Licona is arguing something more than that the Gospel authors were merely apathetic about some details. Licona is arguing that the evangelists had a broad literary license to paint a picture of Jesus (figuratively speaking), sometimes the historical details of which may not have any grounding as historical events … and that was permissible for ancient authors. McGrew’s distortion of my position is fairly important. Consider the following two hypothetical sentences:

A. I merely went to the store.
B. I went to the store.

Note here how A entails that I only went to the store (and did nothing else). B, as stated, could allow for other errands to have been completed before or after going to the store. Now consider:

C. Merely apathetic about some details.
D. Apathetic about some details.

C and D certainly convey different meanings. C’s “merely” means that the Evangelists were only apathetic about some details. Lydia goes on to explain how Mike is arguing so much more than that. It really is so easy to attack straw men! Interestingly, I have never defended C (again, happy to be corrected). D could have been stated more precisely, and in fact it was stated more precisely in our March 8th dialogue on Tim’s wall.

In that March 8th dialogue on Tim’s wall, I corrected Lydia on her repeated misunderstanding on this specific point. A word search (Command-F on Macs) for the word ‘merely’ will show you how she, and only she, used that term. In my rebuttal to her I wrote, “My contention is that the changes would be intentional (of course there was purpose to what they wrote), but that the authors were sometimes apathetic with regard to some of the finer historical details. It wasn’t necessarily of interest to them whether person A or person B said something (Jairus or Jairus’s servant(s)), so long as some person said it for the coherence of the story.” It is a sad state of affairs when someone so bright is so blinded by their passions and biases that said person allows those passions and biases to take stated positions and evolve them into a distortion of the truth … and who remains in error after being corrected on the distortion. I hope and pray that Lydia will take this as another correction to her continued distortion. And if she still doesn’t understand it, she should seek out clarification instead of continually assuming the worst of her opponents. Oddly, Lydia never gets confused. She knows exactly what everybody means whenever they write something. I jest, of course, but the lack of charity is something to consider when someone chooses to vehemently, continuous attack someone (many someones) on their blog without first seeking clarification of the person’s position. Given that she had been corrected and yet continues to use a qualifier that I never have (and which I reject), I cannot help but conclude that at this point she is distorting my position to suit her own agenda.

 

Now you might be wondering what I meant by “apathetic about some details”? Is her claim true that “every word” of this observation is “grossly inaccurate”? Let’s see what Licona wrote in his recent work.

On page 17 of WDG Mike wrote that Plutarch, “does not bend to mislead his readers but rather to emphasize an important deeper truth about his main character that readers can now grasp more fully and emulate.” And on page 18 Mike wrote, “[Ancient biographers] would sacrifice a degree of precise historical truth in order to accomplish their objectives.” As I read Licona charitably here, I think that Mike is saying that (at least) sometimes, ancient biographers placed historically precise details to the side in order to utilize some  literary device or present a meaningful theological truth. So when I wrote that Licona believes the Gospel authors were “apathetic about some details” I meant, in this context, to convey that he believes they were sometimes apathetic about including some of the historically precise details of some event/affair in their writings. Again, the Gospel authors were sometimes apathetic about some details. For Licona, part of his understanding of the Gospel authors is that they sometimes just did not care to include every meticulous detail they may had known.

My above statement that the Gospel authors were sometimes “apathetic about some details” (or elsewhere, “the authors were sometimes apathetic with regard to some of the finer historical details“) was an attempt to gauge just how much the McGrews disagreed with Licona (et. al.) on the issue of historical reliability. Given how much she has objected to my description of one facet to Licona’s model (a facet also affirmed by numerous NT scholars), one might think that this appears to be a line between the McGrews and the rest of the world. But the McGrews, themselves, would (it seem) also affirm the statement because they at least allow for the condensing of stories in the Gospels. Thus, perhaps an Evangelist was apathetic about some detail(s) such that he consciously chose not to include them in his written work. An Evangelist sometimes simply did not care (<– apathy!) to include some historical details for some literary purposes (e.g., crafting a shorter version of a story). This really ought not be a controversial issue.

Conclusion: Was “every word” of my statement that the Evangelists were sometimes “apathetic about some details” “grossly inaccurate”? Hardly, even the McGrews believe the Evangelists were sometimes apathetic to include every meticulous known detail.

 

Thanks for reading this post. Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments section below. Be sure to subscribe to the blog and keep an eye out in the future for more posts on ancient historiography!


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Kurt Jaros

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