This post was drafted in March of 2018. Lydia McGrew has finally decided to blog about it, so this draft is now published in December of 2018. Proviso: Her remarks in this post are from a facebook discussion which occurred back in March of 2018 and are consistent with her blog post.
TL;DR version: A rebuttal does not require full-scale endorsement of the argument used to show another argument is not true. Whatever we think about the differences in the infancy narratives (even if we think it’s grossly fictionalized), it doesn’t matter for the sake of the reliability of the Gospels.
[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1]n 2017 there was a written debate between Bart Ehrman and Mike Licona. In that debate Ehrman questioned the differences between the Gospel narratives on Jesus’s early life (aka, the infancy narratives). Licona humbly admitted that, as a historian, he does not know what to make of those differences. He is agnostic. He then goes on to write what has become a controversial paragraph, which I provide it and the prior one in full.
[pullquote]Here I must acknowledge that I don’t know what’s going on and have no detailed explanations for these differences. I think one can provide some plausible solutions. But I admit they are speculative. In my research pertaining to the most basic compositional devices in ancient historical/biographical literature, I did not observe any devices that readily shed light on the differences between the infancy narratives.
However — even though, as I say, I don’t know what’s going on here to cause the differences — let’s just speculate for a moment and consider the following scenario. Matthew and Luke both agree that a Jewish virgin named Mary who was engaged to a Jewish man named Joseph gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem. The early Christians all knew this much. However, little else was remembered about this event. So, Matthew and Luke added details to their account to create a more interesting narrative of Jesus’s birth, a type of midrash. I’m not saying this is what Matthew and Luke did. I don’t know what’s going on with the infancy narratives. However, if this occurred, we would have to take the matter of genre — midrash — into consideration and recognize that the historicity of the details outside of the story’s core would be questionable, while the core itself could stand. After all, with such differences between the accounts in Matthew and Luke, one could reasonably argue that the core is attested by multiple independent sources.
But even with the puzzling infancy narratives, …[/pullquote]
This paragraph has led Lydia McGrew to accuse Licona of entertaining this ‘midrash’ theory for understanding the differences: “And Licona also uses ‘midrash’ for his heavy fictionalization theory concerning the infancy narratives, after admitting that he couldn’t come up with the result in question based upon his current understanding of ‘Greco-Roman bioi.’”
But is that what Licona was doing with that example? I questioned her on this conclusion of hers. She responded by stating that it is “an open statement he makes.” Please do not ignore her belittling and condescending attitude (“I guess you haven’t read it, huh?”). I will document this in this post because I have already contacted her privately about this and she believes no wrongful tone exists. I guess for McGrew, if one does not agree with her position, she immediately jumps to the explanation that someone hasn’t read the material or that person is dumb. It just so happens that I’ve read that whole written debate between Licona and Ehrman and I disagree with her assessment of Mike’s use of that rebuttal.[blockquote2]McGrew interprets Licona to be taking a stab at answering the infancy narrative quandary. This is her critical mistake. [/blockquote2]
McGrew interprets Licona to be taking a stab at answering the infancy narrative quandary. This is her critical mistake. Licona isn’t trying to answer the infancy narrative quandary (after all, on multiple occasions he admits he doesn’t know how to solve it). The truth is that Licona is providing a hermeneutical method by which one can recognize that regardless of this or any other textual quandary (read: difference), the story is still reliable in its core. He does this because he rejects the assumption to Ehrman’s objection. Licona is simply showing that Ehrman’s argument is unproven.
Here’s how one should interpret Licona: Licona explicitly states that he’s agnostic about how to solve the infancy narrative differences. He says that there are some plausible solutions, but it’s all speculation (as far as he is concerned). He then says, “However …” This is important because I believe this “However” contrasts itself to what was just stated (i.e., that there are some plausible but speculative solutions and his research didn’t dig anything up which would explain it). Being contrasted to the previous paragraph, Licona goes on to argue that if the Gospel authors wrote x, for any given x we should understand that that was their intention. But even if that leads us to believe some portions are grossly fictionalized, it is not detrimental to the reliability of the core message (either of the passage in question or the Gospels, overall). So he’s basically saying that even if the Gospel authors just made up details in the infancy narratives,
How do I know this is Licona’s view?
Once one takes the specific example out of the principle Licona was communicating, this becomes clear that this is about a hermeneutical principle and not about solving that specific textual quandary. Take a look:
[pullquote]However … let’s just speculate for a moment and consider the following scenario. … if this occurred, we would have to take the matter of genre … into consideration and recognize that the historicity of the details outside of the story’s core would be questionable, while the core itself could stand.[/pullquote]
There you can identify the main purpose of the paragraph. In the infancy narratives, for whatever Matthew and Luke meant by x, x might be questionable, but the core of their message is not. It should be apparent to the unbiased reader that Licona is not attempting to solve the textual quandary specifically, but rather he is attempting to provide a hermeneutical method for which one realizes that any attempted explanation for the difference doesn’t matter for the reliability of multi-attested material in the infancy narratives or for the overall reliability of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospel (because Licona has a framework for believing they are generally reliable).
Undercutting opponents’ objections by using methodological teaching opportunities to the audience be damned, McGrew really thinks Licona was putting that midrash explanation forward as “the only theory he seems to think merits being mentioned” for the quandary, “Mike is clearly putting this theory forward as a, to him, plausible actual theory concerning the correct explanation of the origin of the infancy narratives and their differences,” and “No, he not just *illustrating*. He’s trying to suggest an allegedly plausible *solution* to the supposed *problem* of the differences in the infancy narratives.” Maybe McGrew is angry that Licona didn’t answer the question the way she would have answered it (she lists how she would have answered Ehrman, and how Licona concurs about the difficulty with Ehrman). (More condescending statements “you’re desperate,” “don’t play games,” “do not waste my time”; these sort of remarks are manipulative at face value, but I suspect McGrew has some trouble recognizing that.) Disagreement on how to answer that textual question is no justification for the misguided lengths to which McGrew has gone.
Why McGrew Is Disturbed
To realize why she is so passionate about this it is important to realize the standard/framework she is operating from. She believes that the Gospel authors never sacrifices accuracy for some theological (or perhaps even broader, literary) purpose. So to her, the midrash infancy narrative possibility is “a *ridiculous* and enormously *implausible* theory, one that *abandons* any meaningful reliability to the narratives.” The next sentence is fairly critical: “Hence, one that cannot, by his bringing it up, amount to a *defense* of reliability.” This is important against McGrew’s interpretation of Licona. McGrew, in her mind, believes Licona has mentioned midrash as a plausible explanation in order to support reliability. But(!) Licona states in his paragraph that he isn’t using the example to support reliability. To the contrary, he thinks that such a hypothetical scenario leads to us recognizing that the “historicity of the details outside of the story’s core would be questionable”! So what is going on here?
Licona’s response to Ehrman is an attempt to undercut Ehrman’s assumption about historical reliability. For Ehrman, if the Evangelists occasionally told stories that are historical implausible, this lends to their unreliability. And guess what? For McGrew, if the Evangelists occasionally told stories that are historically implausible, this lends to their unreliability. Ehrman and McGrew both agree on the assumption of the point in question; Licona rejects that assumption.
McGrew really thinks Licona is putting forward midrash as a plausible explanation for the infancy narrative differences … and I don’t think he is. Instead, he’s using it as an example for whatever we think about the infancy narratives (even if we think it’s grossly fictionalized), it doesn’t matter for reliability’s sake.
In her recent public post, Lydia McGrew attacks me. She thinks I hold to “blind partisanship” because I’ve defended Licona against her criticisms. In this post I have provided background information and explain how her interpretation of Licona is sorely mistaken and consequently her criticism is overblown. This is not blind partisanship.
What are the points to be gained from this post?
1. Lydia McGrew failed to recognize what Licona was arguing (answering specific textual quandary undercutting Ehrman’s assumption by providing a hermeneutical method for understanding differences and noting they are not relevant to reliability).
2. Ehrman and McGrew are of likemindedness on the threshold required for something to be considered reliable. So McGrew will attack Licona based upon that framework.
3. It’s absolutely okay to use implausible hypothetical scenarios to illustrate a principle. The use of the implausible scenario is no indication that one actually believes it. For example: ‘If the Cubs had re-signed Dexter Fowler in 2017, then they would have won the World Series.’ It was implausible that the Cubs were going to resign Fowler.
4. If the implausible scenario were, lo’ and behold, actually true, then it still might not matter to one’s overall argument. When that happens then you’re helping to draw distinctions between relevant and irrelevant facts/methods.
What Lydia McGrew has done here is not discerning and it is unbecoming of a scholar hellbent on a crusade against someone with whom she disagrees. She ought to issue an apology to Mike Licona for publicly misrepresenting his position on the infancy narratives and attacking his character as “unprofessional.”
After composing this blog post response, I verified with Dr. Licona my interpretation of his words in the debate with Ehrman. He verified that my interpretation was “correct” (full stop, no ‘buts’ or caveats). Let’s strive for truth, not our own assumptions about people.