May 28, 2024

Colossians 4:6, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”

In my series on understanding the Gospels I have been analyzing the writings of Lydia McGrew, an analytic philosopher with a PhD in English Literature. McGrew has now published a blog post critiquing the highly respected Craig Keener’s view of the Gospel of John. I am confused as to why she decided to critique the man who wrote the foreword to her only book on the Gospels.

Writing a post like this is not quite pleasant for me because it doesn’t stick just to the biblical/theological issues (properly speaking). It’s relationally more tense but Christians should hold other Christians (intellectually and spiritually) accountable for their behavior, especially when it appears no one else will. In this post I will argue that McGrew has been unfairly selective in her harsh tone against Mike Licona when compared to equivalent topics in writings against Keener. Additionally, I will illustrate that McGrew lacks objectivity in using labels to categorize certain scholars. Her tone is so poor, that I believe the apologetic community ought to make a louder call for her to cease her internet blog posts until a later time.

In her recent post against Keener, McGrew’s tone is fairly academic. Yet in her lengthy series critiquing Mike Licona, another New Testament scholar, she comes across as an uncharitable polemicist. Why is this of value to analyze? Because on multiple relevant issues Keener and Licona agree, including one McGrew criticizes (i.e., the day of the Passover meal). Compare:

[table type=”striped_minimal”] [trow] [thcol]McGrew on Keener[/thcol] [thcol]McGrew on Licona[/thcol] [/trow] [trow] [tcol]

In this post I want to examine some passages from the commentaries of eminent and learned New Testament scholar Craig Keener that illustrate the unwarranted bias against John and that also illustrate the negative effects of an undue mingling of theological interpretation with the attempt to answer the simple question, “Did this really happen?”

It goes without saying that my criticisms of Dr. Keener’s ideas in these commentaries are in no way, shape, or form a personal attack but rather a part of our mutual search for truth concerning God’s word.

Keener’s oft-repeated claim that John imaginatively changes or adds things to his narrative in the service of a theological agenda, and the thin arguments on which this is based, do unfortunately show a somewhat low view of John’s reliability. Nor, when one thinks about it, is this just a matter of itsy bitsy details. After all, if John invented Jesus breathing on his disciples and saying the things that accompany this act, that is the invention of an identifiable, separable incident in the gospel, though it occurs within the larger context of the first appearance of Jesus to his male disciples. If John invented the exchange between Jesus and the beloved disciple and the handing of the sop to Judas, this is the pure invention of dialogue and events which prima facie appear entirely historically serious when one reads the narrative. Why should we think that John ever did that? And where else did he do it, if he is that kind of author?

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I have argued in this series that Licona’s argument fails at every point. He does not justify his claims concerning Plutarch in the first place, and he does not justify his claims concerning the Gospels, either. He gives us no good reason to accept the conclusion that the Gospel authors ever changed the facts deliberately, either for theological or for literary reasons.

Since his theories severely undermine the literal historical reliability of the Gospels, it is extremely important for us to find out whether his conclusions are justified. Fortunately, they are not, and anyone interested in the reliability of the Gospels, the evidence for Christianity, and the resurrection of Jesus should know this.

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For those familiar with her blog post writings, it is evident that McGrew thinks more highly of Keener than of Licona. She is entitled to think that, as many of us do with various scholars and their publications & accolades. But sadly, she critiques Licona more harshly than Keener on the very same issues. This, I submit to you, is unfair and in some cases she has even justified a malicious tone. (See her general defense of harsh tone from her post, “Millennials, Sit Down and Shut Up” specifically her final comment here.)

Consider her criticisms of Keener and Licona on the day of the Passover meal and, relatedly, the day Jesus died:

[table type=”striped_minimal”] [trow] [thcol]Against Keener[/thcol] [thcol]Against Licona[/thcol] [/trow] [trow] [tcol]

So Keener is declaring with great confidence that this detail makes it impossible that this should have been after sundown of the first day of Passover and that the disciples could have been eating a Passover meal with Jesus, because Judas wouldn’t have been able to purchase anything at that time.

A reader might well feel that this is a very telling point, taking Keener’s statement at face value. And if asked for further details, Keener could argue in support of his point (Leviticus 23:7) that the first day of the Passover was treated like a Sabbath and that laborious work was forbidden on that day; hence, the shops would not have been open after it was night, since Hebrew days begin at sundown. Case closed, right?

Not so fast. It might come as a surprise to the same reader to find that Craig Blomberg makes precisely the opposite argument, stating that the shops would have been open on that night for people to make last-minute purchases for the feast! (See here, for example.) So Blomberg is arguing both from this point and from the reference to Judas’s possibly giving alms to the poor that John 13:29 is evidence for harmony between John and the synoptic gospels.

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If Jesus wasn’t really crucified on the day and at the time that the Passover lambs were killed (and I think that he wasn’t), his crucifixion at that day and time cannot make the point that he was the Passover lamb. Fake points don’t make points. John the Baptist of course does call Jesus the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, and I am strongly inclined to think that his crucifixion at the general time of Passover was no accident at all, theologically or Providentially. But the fit between Jesus and the Passover lamb cannot be made better by the insertion of a false fact into the narrative.

Similarly, if the thief on the cross did actually speak to Jesus as he does in Luke, repenting and asking Jesus to remember him, then in just that sense Jesus was not strictly “rejected by all,” and it would have been misleading for Mark deliberately to suppress the thief’s conversion in order to make the point that Jesus was “rejected by all.” Fake points don’t make points. (Mark, of course, may well simply not have heard about the second thief’s conversion. As usual, this extremely simple hypothesis doesn’t make it onto the New Testament scholar’s radar.)

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One of the takeaways from here is McGrew’s repetition that “Fake points don’t make points.” Also noteworthy is her claim of an “extremely simple hypothesis” that Licona supposedly fails to consider. Maybe that hypothesis wasn’t considered by Licona (or perhaps it was), regardless, the point could have been made in a more charitable way, a la the way she engages with Keener.

Consider a final example:

[table type=”striped_minimal”] [trow] [thcol]McGrew on Keener[/thcol] [thcol]McGrew on Licona[/thcol] [/trow] [trow] [tcol]Dr. Keener is by no means a strongly liberal New Testament critic, and he is immensely learned and tries hard to consider issues of historicity from a variety of points of view and upon consideration of a great deal of evidence. Readers will note that he wrote the foreword to Hidden in Plain View, for which I am very grateful. In multiple places in his commentary he speaks against any wholesale dismissal of the historicity of John’s gospel, and it appears to me (thus far) that his view of John’s historical reliability is higher than that of Craig Evans (to take one example). It would be, I think, fair to call Keener a “moderate,” at least in evangelical circles, on the question of John’s historicity.

I bring these labeling points up both to illustrate that I am well aware of gradations on such matters and, perhaps more importantly, to show that the world of New Testament criticism does not divide neatly between those properly labeled liberals (who cannot be trusted at all to give due weight to the probability of historicity) and those labeled conservatives (who have no biases against historicity and imply ahistoricity only when the evidence is strong). Matters are by no means that simple, and presumptions against robust historicity, especially for John, are rife at nearly every level of biblical studies, regardless of labels.If a younger, less well-established scholar nowadays were to take the positions taken by Carson and Blomberg on the historicity of all of these passages in John and on John’s gospel generally, he would probably be considered “ultra-conservative”! [/tcol] [tcol]The idea that the genre of “Greco-Roman bioi” gives us this dropped-from-heaven mathematical function that tells us precisely how unreliable to expect the gospels to be is, frankly, ridiculous, nor is it something that anyone has argued for with any force. Licona himself has made the most systematic *attempt* by his section on Plutarch and then by using a rigid as-Plutarch-so-the-Gospels form of analogy. But I’ve argued that his Plutarchan arguments fail, and of course the automatic connection to the Gospels is unjustified anyway, and the magic word “genre” won’t do it. In a sense, Burridge’s own comments on the flexibility of the genre are *against* Licona on that shift. But Burridge’s liberal NT critical methodology agrees with Licona’s in “finding” fictional changes, so neither of them notices the point.[/tcol] [/trow] [/table]

What is interesting to note here, aside from her mocking of Licona’s book as an “*attempt*” <– note the asterisks for emphasis, is McGrew’s claim to understand the spectrum of NT scholarship on the Gospel of John (or perhaps scoped within Evangelical NT scholarship on the Gospel of John). She makes an accurate observation that “the world of New Testament criticism does not divide neatly between those properly labeled liberals … and those labeled conservatives.” Yet she then goes on to say that she thinks Blomberg and Carson would be labeled as ultra-conservative. And just six months ago she accused Burridge of being a liberal: “Burridge isn’t going to correct him in this, because Burridge himself is just a plain liberal NT critic.” Whatever happened to NT criticism not dividing neatly?

As someone who has been interested in NT scholarship, I certainly would not label Blomberg and Carson as “ultra” conservative, but simply conservative. Where would someone place the McGrewian position on such a spectrum if ultra-conservative were already claimed? When I think of ultra-conservative, I think of rigid fundamentalism (e.g., smash the Gospels together and see what chronology we can come up with!). The McGrew’s are not that far on the spectrum, but they strike me as closer to the “ultra-conservative” side more so than Blomberg, Carson, etc.

Moreover, Burridge is not a liberal. Burridge’s book What are the Gospels? proved to bring a significant shift that moved NT scholarship from thinking the Gospels were sue generis to being bioi, which is a historical genre, broadly speaking. Liberals write on how the later Christian community created whole cloth stories about Jesus (e.g. the Jesus Seminar), liberals write on the sexual innuendos of Jesus in the story of the woman at the well (John 4), liberals write in support of the reader-response interpretative framework (e.g. Hans-Georg Gadamer). That Burridge, because he supposedly uses liberal methodology, could be described as someone who “cannot be trusted at all to give due weight to the probability of historicity” is certainly false. It becomes clear that McGrew has not recalled (or read?) Burridge’s ninth chapter on What are the Gospels? a conclusion of which is that, “through the chronological narrative, all the necessary information about Jesus’ cosmic origins, earthly ministry, Passion and Resurrection is provided for the reader to realize the true identity of Jesus, while through the discourse material the reader comes to appreciate the teaching of Jesus and the Christian faith” (pg 230, italics his, bold mine). Moreover, on multiple occasions, Burridge argues that John’s Gospel is more like the synoptics than NT scholarship previously believed (in fact, more alike than different), and that all four Gospels belong to the genre of bioi. Burridge arguing that John is more alike to the Synoptics than not is certainly something McGrew would appreciate as she has argued for the exact same idea. That McGrew thinks “Burridge himself is just a plain liberal NT critic” is yet another example of her naïveté of New Testament scholarship and her exaggerated claims. Why aren’t more people speaking out against her false accusations?

When Licona, Burridge, or even Craig Evans assert that John has made some literary/theological modifications for his biography, McGrew’s tone is unforgiving and relentless. But when Keener asserts that John has made some literary/theological modifications, her tone is academic and respectful. I am sure that McGrew believes she has warrant for the different tone for each of her interlocutors, but when it comes to the same issue why is there no consistency? Why does she not accuse Keener of “fake points don’t make points” or of being a “liberal NT critic”?


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Kurt Jaros

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