Here’s a new interview between Sean McDowell and Michael Licona about his new book. The new book is coming out in 2016, and it’s going to be published by Oxford University Press – probably the top academic press on the planet.
Michael Licona is one of the world’s leading experts on the historical evidence for resurrection. I use his book The Resurrection of Jesus in my Master’s Level course atBiola. For the past few years, Dr. Licona has been working on some cutting-edge research related to Gospel contradictions. His research is both fascinating and groundbreaking. He answers a few of my questions:
SEAN MCDOWELL: Mike, what got you interested in the question of Gospel contradictions?
MIKE LICONA: Back in 2008 and 2009 I was publicly debating Bart Ehrman on the resurrection. He brought up Gospel contradictions as one of his major objections to the Gospels. I have noticed that this genuinely bothers many Evangelical Christians. As a result, I decided to look into it in more depth. I wasn’t so much concerned about resolving them, because I understood that if Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is true, regardless of any errors that might be present in the Bible. So, even if there are contradictions in the Gospels, it wouldn’t negate the truth of Christianity. But it does bother a lot of Evangelicals, so that’s what got me interested in the topic. And to be honest, it did make me question the historical reliability of the Gospels.
MCDOWELL: What makes your approach to Gospel contradictions unique?
LICONA: Most approaches involve trying to harmonize various passages to see if all the details can fit together. This can be a legitimate practice. But many times it can go way too far. Both Richard Burridge and more recently Craig Keener have shown that the Gospels belong to the genre of “ancient biography.” If this is correct, it would be plausible that we would see the same amount of flexibility in the Gospels as we observe in other ancient biographies. So, I wanted to learn what those flexibilities were. By carefully reading ancient biographies written around the same time as the Gospels and comparing how they tell the same stories differently, I began to recognize that some of the differences resulted from compositional devices. Then when I went to the Gospels, I could see that the authors were probably employing the same compositional devices as other ancient biographers; specifically Plutarch. I began to realize that the differences across the Gospels are not so much contradictions but the result of compositional devices that were the standard practice in historical writing of that day.
So, this analysis of the genre of “ancient biography” might give us some useful tools for resolving passages that seem to be in conflict. For some reason, non-Christians want to ignore the main body of accepted facts about the historical Jesus, and focus on these minor details that seems to be in conflict. So I guess we need a book that explains them, and no one better than Mike Licona to do it.
On the other hand… I was actually talking about this with my best friends from my home town over the Christmas holidays. Before we broke out the Pandemic boardgame and the “Keep Talking and No One Explodes” computer game, Jen and Andrew wanted to know what was the most common thing that I was seeing from non-Christians. The most common thing I am seeing is that non-Christians are woefully out of touch with knowledge related to the worldview of Christian theism that are accepted by the broad spectrum of scholars.
To illustrate, I quoted from atheists who admit to the creation event, to the fine-tuning, to the problem of the origin of life, to the problem of the Cambrian explosion, to early dating of the gospels, early dating of the Pauline letters, minimal facts about the life of Jesus, and even minimal facts for an argument for the resurrection. I told Andrew and Jen the skeptics I encounter are intellectually dishonest. They don’t accept the things that mainstream atheist scholars accept about science and historical Jesus and philosophy of religion. And yet they feel comfortable about being on the fringe, because they justify their fringe view by pointing to nitpicky details like apparent Bible contradictions. I.e. – they point to disagreement about one or two angels at the discovery of the empty tomb, and they turn that minor point into support for their fringe view that the gospels were made up completely in the second and third centuries.
So, I guess we do have to be ready to respond to this nitpicking, and Licona’s book will help with that. But I also think that we need to be ready to haul skeptics back to reality. There is a lot we can know about science, philosophy and the historical Jesus that supports Christian theism, and we should disagreements about details get people away from those main points that scholars across the board accept.
The definition of history and philosophy of history
Postmodern approaches to history
Historical bedrock: facts that are historically demonstrable
Historical criterion 1: Explanatory scope
Historical criterion 2: Explanatory power
Historical criterion 3: Plausibility
Historical criterion 4: Ad Hoc / Speculation / non-evidenced assumptions
Inference to the best explanation
Investigating miracle claims: is it possible? How?
Objection of James D.G. Dunn
Objection of Bart Ehrman
New Testament sources: Gospels and Paul’s letters
The Gnostic gospels: are they good sources?
The minimal facts
The hallucination hypothesis
The best explanation
While watching this lecture, it struck what good preparation it was for understanding debates. This lecture is more about historical methods, but if you’re interested in Mike’s minimal facts case for the resurrection, here’s a video on that:
This is the case he uses in his debates with Richard Carrier, Dale Allison, Bart Ehrman, etc.
Peter J. Williams is the Warden (CEO) of Tyndale House and a member of the Faculty of Divinity in the University of Cambridge. He received his MA, MPhil and PhD, in the study of ancient languages related to the Bible from Cambridge University. After his PhD, he was on staff in the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University (1997–1998), and thereafter taught Hebrew and Old Testament there as Affiliated Lecturer in Hebrew and Aramaic and as Research Fellow in Old Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge (1998–2003). From 2003 to 2007 he was on the faculty of the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, where he became a Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Deputy Head of the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. In July 2007 he became the youngest Warden in the history of Tyndale House. He also retains his position as an honorary Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at the University of Aberdeen.
Summary of the lecture:
What if the stories about Jesus are legendary?
were the gospels transmitted accurately?
were the gospels written in the same place as where the events happened?
do the gospel authors know the customs and locations where the events happened?
do the gospels use the right names for the time and place where the events took place?
do the gospels disambiguate people’s names depending on how common those names were?
how do the New Testament gospels compare to the later gnostic gospels?
how do the gospels refer to the main character? How non-Biblical sources refer to Jesus?
how does Jesus refer to himself in the gospels? do the later Christians refer to him that way?
how does Jesus teach? do later Christians teach the same way?
why didn’t Jesus say anything about early conflicts in the church (the Gentiles, church services)?
did the writers of the gospels know the places where the events took place?
how many places are named in the gospels? how about in the later gnostic gospels?
are the botanical details mentioned in the gospels accurate? how about the later gnostic gospels?
And here are the questions from the audience:
how what about the discrepancies in the resurrection narratives that Bart Ehrman is obsessed with?
what do you think of the new 2011 NIV translation (Peter is on the ESV translation committee)?
how did untrained, ordinary men produce complex, sophisticated documents like the gospels?
is oral tradition a strong enough bridge between the events and the writers who interviewed the eyewitnesses?
what does the name John mean?
why did the gospel writers wait so long before writing their gospels?
do you think that Matthew and Luke used a hypothetical source which historians call “Q”?
which gospel do critical historians trust the least and why?
I really enjoyed watching this lecture. He’s getting some of this material from Richard Bauckham’s awesome book “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”, so if you aren’t familiar with it, you can get an idea of what’s in it. Peter Williams is a lot of fun to listen to – an excellent speaker.