In his book, Why are there differences in the Gospels?, he introduces us to a new way to read the Gospels. Licona has done extensive research into Greco-Roman literature and has noted made similarities between their biographies and the Gospels. He states, "The majority of New Testament scholars agree that, at minimum, the Gospels share much in common with the genre of Greco-Roman biography." Again, this is something I think any student of Scripture can agree with. At the same time we must remember the operative word in this quote is much. That is, The Gospels share much, not all, with Greco-Roman biography. Licona goes on to summarize his research. He compares the compositional devices of Greco-Roman biography to the places he finds it in the Gospels to prove his points. For example he points out a device called literary spotlighting. It is where many characters are on a stage yet the spotlight highlights one. A case in Scripture is the Gospel's account of the different angels at the tomb. Matthew and Mark say there was one angel while Luke and John describe two angels. Is this a contradiction? No! It is a literary device of spotlighting. Matthew and Mark are simply highlighting the one angel that made the resurrection announcement. Pardon me but I do not find this groundbreaking for a few reasons.
- Scholars have noted this long before anyone did extensive research into Greco-Roman biographies
- I, along with countless others, have harmonized the Gospels in this scenario by stating there were multiple angels. A simply acknowledgement of one does not deny the presence of others. If Matthew and Mark said there was only one angel, then we would have a contradiction
- This literary device is not unique to Greco-Roman literature. We use it in English and I'm sure other cultures do the same thing today. I can only assume if this is one of the stronger examples to his point then I doubt the others would be impressive. I state this with reservations for I have not read his book.
I want to commend Dr. Licona for his research and desire to understand the Gospels in their original intended meaning. I think most Christians have that desire and I'm sure he does not doubt that as well. I believe he is being sincere in his desire to faithfully divide the Word of God. With that being said I still believe he is stretching his research to far. The pivotal point revolves around one's view of Scripture before they even approach Scripture. If, for the sake of argument, an atheist approached the Bible they would read it with the idea it was an invention of man. This would greatly change the way they interpret certain passages. The major philosophical difference I have with Licona is where he places his priorities. He states, "Where I differ is, I place a priority on genre over harmonization." Let me turn our attention to one place there is no need to question harmonization.
- John 14:26 "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you."
- John 16:13 "But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come."
John 14-17 is one long discussion between Jesus and His Apostles. You can study the passage yourself but Jesus is stating this:
- I am going away but don't be worried (14:1-4)
- Previously, I led you, specifically in your preaching ministry, but I won't leave you as orphans. I will send you another person to lead you, The Holy Spirit (14:16-8).
- Remain connected to me or you will not be able to fulfill your ministry as Apostles (John 15).
- This other person I am sending to lead you will lead you into all truth (16:13).
My point is this; Truth takes priority over genre. This is where I think Dr. Licona goes to far. He argues we must place a higher priority on reading the Gospels according to ancient biographies than trying to harmonize them. I would argue, while God did allow the Gospel writers to use the common literary devices of their day, He also guided them into writing in such a way as to be harmonized since what they were writing would be the perfect truth. We must remember the Gospels were written to the 1st Century man but FOR ALL MEN throughout the rest of time. I would further argue most people, outside of Greco-Roman culture, would not be satisfied to approach a legitimate contradiction in the details of the Gospels only to be told it is ok because that is their genre. In my opinion that would produce a lot of skepticism towards the Gospels' veracity in regards to the identity of Jesus.
Therefore, while we can learn better hermeneutical techniques by analyzing ancient literary styles, we must also remember God led all the Apostles into all truth. Therefore, what one Gospel writer states cannot contradict another and is thus able to be harmonized.
I understand Mark and Luke were not Apostles but Mark wrote his Gospel at the dictation of Peter and Luke questioned the Apostles in his research. These are points I simply do not have space to get into now.
Finally, I would admit have not read any of Dr. Licona's books but I would be interested to see what places in the Gospels he believes are absolutely unable to be harmonized in the traditional fashion. I have great respect for Dr. Licona as a scholar and a Christian. I write this blog as a humble attempt to help lead all of us closer to the truth as I am sure he wrote his book for the same reason.