The Mirror or the Mask? An Interview with Lydia McGrew

by George Brahm

I had the opportunity to ask Lydia McGrew a few questions about her upcoming book The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices, which can now be pre-ordered via DeWard Publishing Company. She is a widely published analytic philosopher, specializing in formal and classical theory of knowledge, testimony, and the philosophy of religion. She received her PhD in English from Vanderbilt University in 1995. She is the author of the widely acclaimed Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts (DeWard, 2017), which defends the reliability of the New Testament using a long-neglected argument from incidental details. She and her husband, philosopher and apologist Timothy McGrew, live in southwest Michigan with their children.

GB: Dr. McGrew, can you tell us a bit about this new book and what motivated you to write it?

LMG: My new book is called The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices. In it I’m rebutting theories put forward by Michael Licona and others such as Craig Evans that the Gospel authors considered themselves permitted by the standards of their time to alter historical facts deliberately and invisibly. I’m clarifying what these views are that I’m disagreeing with, because there are some misunderstandings out there about what these scholars are claiming. I’m also clarifying the alternative, which is a nuanced positive view that I dub the reportage model. I’m also bringing forward positive evidence for the Gospels’ robust historicity.

The topic is extremely important, because it goes right to the heart of how well justified we can be in our beliefs about what Jesus said and did, and even the support for his resurrection, from our primary documents about him–the four canonical Gospels. In my research that went into this book, I discovered great evidence for the historicity of the Gospels, even more than I had had before when I wrote my earlier book, Hidden in Plain View, and I also discovered some wonderful statements in the church fathers and other ancient authors about the importance of historical truth.

“The topic is extremely important, because it goes right to the heart of how well justified we can be in our beliefs about what Jesus said and did, and even the support for his resurrection, from our primary documents about him–the four canonical Gospels.”

Lydia McGrew

GB: And what are some of the new types of evidence for the historicity of the Gospels that you explore in this book?

LMG: One kind that I’m especially excited about is what I call the evidence of unnecessary details. I also discuss what I call unexplained allusions. You find so many places where the Gospel authors are just throwing in pointless details. You would have to be doing literary criticism on steroids to make up deep theological meanings or literary meanings for these, and if you did that, someone else could just as arbitrarily make up something different. The fact of the matter is that these just look like oral history. If you get someone talking about the old days, he will often throw in things that don’t have any point to them at all. He’s just musing, remembering. Sometimes these sorts of details allude to something lying outside the story that the person doesn’t bother to stop and explain. So, for example, in John 3:22-23 it mentions that the disciples of John the Baptist were having a dispute with another Jew about purification. They come to John the Baptist and complain that Jesus is baptizing more people than he is. But there is no explanation at all about how this complaint fits into the dispute about purification. It’s just random. Were they debating methods of baptism, or what? Not explained. That is a mark of verisimilitude. And it’s a particular kind of mark, because it really doesn’t advance a literary purpose, either. If anything it interrupts the narrative. It’s not thematic at all, and it’s not even particularly vivid.

Sometimes these details are unnecessarily specific. So John mentions the number of water pots and the amount of liquid that could be held in each of them at the marriage at Cana. And it’s pointlessly precise–six water pots, each containing about twenty or thirty gallons. He also mentions that they were stone. We’ve actually found stone water pots near Cana, and it would be a good material for water pots in a Jewish context, because they would not become ritually impure easily.

This is the kind of thing that lends great verisimilitude to the narrative, and this is especially relevant to the question of genre. The views I’m countering are claiming that these documents were part of a partially factual and partially non-historical genre, where details might be invented at any moment. But instead these details look like signs of memory and the intention to narrate real history.

We have to remember that the realistic novel was simply not a genre at the time. Fiction tended to be highly romantic instead of realistic. So there was no precedent for making up these ultra-realistic details (like the number of gallons in the water pots or what the disciples of John the Baptist were arguing with someone about) in order to make the document look realistic even though it was a partly invented genre.

But if the authors are putting in even these little things because they or their human sources actually remember them, then that is an important signal that they are trying to narrate literal historical truth, even in matters of detail. We find this in all of the Gospels.

Another type of evidence I discuss that older authors used to discuss but that has gone out of style is the unity of personality. In The Mirror or the Mask I have a section on the personality of Peter. In my next book I’m going to be discussing the personality of Jesus. It’s fascinating to see how these human personalities are shown from all these different, independent incidents in different documents, and it’s so clearly the same person. For example, Peter is often arguing with Jesus. But he’s arguing with him because he loves him. It’s a very vivid trait. Again, this kind of thing shows that the authors are not massaging their data. As I said in my earlier book, Hidden in Plain View, their project is primarily testimonial rather than primarily literary. That really tells against this hyper-literary view that the theorists are giving us, in which the authors are constantly portraying people in slanted ways to fulfill some agenda or promote a theme.

There are many other types of evidence, including of course undesigned coincidences, which I argued for in a lot of detail in Hidden in Plain View. These are incidental interlockings that point to the truth of the narratives. As I point out in The Mirror or the Mask, the little details that I call unexplained allusions and unnecessary details can often participate in undesigned coincidences. So, for example, Mark mentions specifically that the grass was green at the time of the feeding of the five thousand, and John mentions that it was around Passover time. This fits together with the weather in that part of the world. That little pointless detail in Mark about the green grass fits together in an uncontrived way with what John says about when this incident took place.

I have a whole chapter in The Mirror or the Mask about how the literary device views blind the theorists to good evidence, in specific cases, for the accuracy of the Gospels, because they are following these artificial theories rather than reality.

“The Gospels are highly reliable in a straightforward sense, not in a qualified or redefined sense.”

Lydia McGrew

GB: You also mention misunderstandings of the scholarly positions you’re critiquing. What is one of the most common misunderstandings of your opponents’ position that you are trying to clear up?

LMG: Probably the biggest misunderstanding is a confusion about what is meant by a phrase like “literary devices” or “compositional devices.” Audiences will assume that the literary device theorists are helping us to distinguish factual from non-factual narration in the documents in a way that the original audience would have been able to do, using objective indicators in the text.

They are likely to think that it’s like figures of speech in modern usage. So, for example, if I say that a lightbulb went on in my head, a non-native English speaker might need to have it explained to him that that is a way of saying that I had a moment of inspiration. No adult, native English speaker thinks that that means that I literally have a lightbulb in my head. It’s a figure of speech that is understood by speakers in the linguistic community and has a clearly designated metaphoric meaning. Or if I say, “Once upon a time, there was an old woman who lived in the forest,” that phrase “once upon a time” is a tag that indicates that what follows is a made-up story.

I think a lot of people believe that these literary devices must be like that. Perhaps, they think, the original audience would have read, say, Matthew or heard it read aloud, and they would have said, “Aha! I see that phrase there. That is a tag indicating that what follows in the story is not literally true.” Or even, “Well, I realize that that way of putting it is non-literal,” because of some background knowledge. For example, when it says that Pilate took Jesus and scourged him, obviously if you know the background you know that the governor didn’t personally scourge people. Then the hope is that the scholars are just telling us what these tags were that we didn’t know about before so that we can understand the documents in the same way that the original audience did and find these additional places that are not literally historical. Then the idea is that it’s quite limited. It’s like parables: You know where the parable begins and where it ends, so you can be confident that the surrounding narrative is historical, because it’s not marked off in this way.

But this is not the case at all. That isn’t even the theory. In fact, Michael Licona repeatedly emphasizes how realistic the narratives are at these points and how the authors are deliberately narrating as if things happened in a way that they did not happen. They are allegedly deliberately narrating in a way that gave an impression to the readers that was contrary to fact. This is exactly the opposite of their putting a tag in the text like, “Once upon a time.” It’s exactly the opposite of their using a linguistically recognizable idiom like a “lightbulb in my head.” Licona even says at one point that John appears deliberate in his attempts to lead his readers to think that the Last Supper took place on a different day from the day when it really happened. In a recent public dialogue with Richard Howe at Southern Evangelical Seminary he expressly stated that Matthew was trying to make his readers understand that, in his narrative, the fig tree withered immediately when Jesus cursed it, even though (supposedly) Matthew knew that that was not the case. So these theories are not saying that the original audiences could just read or listen to a Gospel and pick out objectively the parts that were and were not historical by way of some tag or indicator.

What they are saying is that the audience knew that things like this might be changed in general and that they didn’t mind. So the theory says that they held various aspects of the narrative somewhat lightly as far as expecting to get historical information. This would be like our attending a movie based on true events, which is an analogy that Licona himself uses. If you go to a movie based on true events, you know that some things might be changed. You can guess which parts are changed and which parts are literally true. But the movie appears realistic, so you might guess wrong. You don’t let that worry you, because you know ahead of time that this might be the case, and you’re just enjoying the movie. This is why, according to this theory, we shouldn’t think of the evangelists as deceivers. But within the narrative world that they are creating, they are in various places deliberately giving an impression that is contrary to fact. Their readers are supposed to be savvy enough to know that this might happen and even maybe to make surmises about where and how it’s happening. But it’s all very conjectural. They did not have some specialized ancient knowledge that allowed them to make a clear cut between historical and non-historical. They were guessing just like we are. The theorists are suggesting a lot of these invisible changes. It’s not limited just to a few places; it’s not even limited just to places where there is an apparent discrepancy. Over and over again, they are saying, “Maybe this author changed this,” “Maybe this author added that.” Licona will also repeatedly say, “It is impossible to tell” which author changed something.

You can see once you understand this why it makes a big difference to the reliability of the Gospels. We would not consider movies based on true events to be very reliable historical sources. If readers understand this, they can see how strong of a thesis it is about the Gospels, why it matters, and why we should look into it and see if such a theory can stand up to scrutiny. I argue that it can’t.

GB: What is the approach that you take to critique these literary device theories? Is there something that drove you to adopt this particular approach over some other one?

LMG: The Mirror or the Mask contains a lengthy rebuttal of the claims about literary devices in the culture surrounding the Gospels. That rebuttal section also includes positive evidence about the real attitudes toward historical truth among ancient historians and Christians. The book then has several chapters of mostly new positive evidence in which I lay out what I call the reportage model of the Gospels and show how that is supported. It then has a section on specific Gospel examples in which I show how the reportage model handles these as opposed to the fact- changing literary device model.

The rebuttal section is fairly long and detailed, and I struggled with the question of how much information to put there. I also put some of it into appendices. But I decided to make a lot of information available somewhere in the book and also to include links to places where readers can check these things for themselves. Certainly readers are free to skip some chapters and all of the appendices if they are worried about getting bogged down, but the material is there, so if you have a question later you can look it up. I have detailed indices as well. I did these things because one of the things I’m telling readers is this: Even if you are a layman, you can evaluate these claims for yourself. You don’t have to be at the mercy of self-styled experts. In fact, your common sense may make you better suited to evaluate these claims than the “experts” who have accepted some confused ideas about how reality works, influenced by the fashions in their own insular disciplines. I didn’t want to be asking readers just to take my word on blind faith either, so I wanted to provide my evidence in detail. 

I also wanted to show that this is a positive project. This isn’t just a negative project. And I wanted to show how this nuanced, positive reportage model can handle the data in a way that is attuned to real life rather than being an ivory-tower theory divorced from how witness testimony actually works and plausible authorial motives.

“Even if you are a layman, you can evaluate these claims for yourself. You don’t have to be at the mercy of self-styled experts.”

Lydia McGrew

GB: Do you recall running into any significant difficulties or challenges that you had to overcome during your period of research/preparation for this book? If so, how did you overcome them?

LMG: The first major challenge that I ran into was the sheer scope of the research and writing project involved. The advocates of these fact-changing literary devices have made so many confident assertions about so many different things–ancient Greco-Roman literature, the genre of the Gospels, ancient exercise books, contradictions in the Gospels, one Gospel author’s redaction of another–that to respond to them in a thorough way was extremely time-consuming. I found repeatedly that I couldn’t just take someone else’s word for anything. I couldn’t take anything for granted. If an author I was reading claimed that some activity was accepted at the time, he might have an impressive-looking footnote to several ancient books, but that didn’t mean that his initial statement was well justified. I had to go back and check. And it was just astonishing how often I found complete misinterpretations of the ancient works, tendentious representations, eisegesis. So that was quite a slog, which is why so many other people are just accepting what they are told in this area. It’s a lot of work to check it up, and people assume that they aren’t capable of checking into it and just have to accept what they’re told. Well, I’ve checked it out, and I’m telling my readers something completely different, so now they’re going to have a decision to make. I had to have a lot of perseverance to do the relevant research and to write it up in a way that would give my readers access to what I had discovered without bogging them down.

The second major challenge was the temptation to discouragement that came from realizing that a number of people simply will not consider my arguments, no matter what I do. There have been several personal attacks on my credibility and especially on my credentials. While I was researching, I was making a lot of the work I was writing available in an informal blog form, and those posts were attracting pot-shots at everything but the arguments–straw manning, ad hominem, credentialism, tone policing. Pretty much anything but understanding my arguments carefully and engaging with them in a professional, intelligent, scholarly way. In fact, one of the main scholars I’m disagreeing with, Michael Licona, stated publicly on record that he would not engage with my arguments. He has strongly implied that I’m not qualified and that he therefore won’t take the time even to read my arguments. Whether or not he will read them now that they are in book form rather than “on the Internet,” I don’t know, but it does not seem probable. So that has been discouraging. I realized after a while that whatever I did, something negative and dismissive would be said. If I address a lot of details and arguments, the claim is, “Her work is too long; don’t bother reading it.” But I’ve noticed in comments on social media that however much I address, there’s always some other book that I was supposed to be addressing instead. Constant goalpost shifting. So it’s clear that with some people, this is a no-win situation. There was also a certain amount of private communication trying to put pressure on me to stop writing and publishing my work on this topic. And that on-going personal stuff can get you down, especially when it’s taking place while you’re right in the middle of doing research and writing, trying to do a meticulous, top-notch job. I’ve just had to keep telling myself that I’m writing for the fair-minded reader who is willing to look at the arguments, and I know that there are many such out there.

The third challenge (which is related) was the realization that there are some Christians who don’t want to hear or think about these matters very much because they don’t like the idea of one Christian disagreeing with another publicly. And they almost can’t bring themselves to think that certain scholars they respect could be significantly mistaken. This sometimes has taken the form of refusing to publicize my work or even give it a hearing. Sometimes it’s taken the form of agreeing with me privately but refusing to say anything in public. Sometimes it took the form of telling me or implying that I shouldn’t be doing this at all. So that’s been disheartening. I’m a scholar, so at first I expected other people to be scholarly as well. I’ve never thought of myself as an idealist, but I didn’t expect quite the extent to which these purely personal factors are influencing some whom I would have expected to be more concerned with the direct pursuit of important truth about the Gospels. Again I’ve had to remind myself that I’m doing this for the Lord and for those who are willing to listen.

GB: Are there any general objections or reactions from your opponents and critics that you anticipate? For instance, how would you respond to those who bring up the fact that you are not an inerrantist about Scripture?

LMG: As you suggest, one statement you may hear is, “Lydia’s not an inerrantist, so you shouldn’t listen to her. And anyway, if she doesn’t claim to be an inerrantist, why does she care about this anyway?” Well, I would definitely say, “Read Chapter IV,” because I discuss that at length there. But the brief answer is that I care about Gospel reliability, and these views very significantly undermine Gospel reliability. Their advocates say that they don’t undermine reliability, but their practice makes it clear that that is the case. They themselves are questioning things out of the blue, treating the Gospels in ways that no one would treat a reliable document. Sometimes there isn’t even an apparent discrepancy, and they’ll just say, “Maybe John changed this.” I call these utterly unforced errors. So their own practice of gratuitously questioning historicity makes it clear that this method does undermine not just Gospel inerrancy but Gospel reliability. That’s a very serious matter, so that’s why I care. Every Christian should care. I also care because I care about truth, and these conclusions are not well-justified, and I think they are not true. Since they concern the evidential foundations of our faith, I want to get it right. Obviously, a non-inerrantist can have good arguments that support important truths, so I hope people will read my arguments.

I would also point out (and this is very important) that an inerrancy stance does not support my opponents’ position. Far from it. In fact, an inerrantist has every reason to be concerned about the position I’m critiquing. Keeping a word like “inerrancy” while radically changing its meaning is no victory for the original concept. Nothing in my case for the reliability of the Gospels depends upon denying inerrancy. The main difference is that in some cases where there are discrepancies a real inerrantist is going to say, “I don’t know,” whereas I’m more likely to think in some of those cases that it’s likely there is an error. But a real inerrantist and I are both going to agree that it’s not likely that the Gospel author deliberately, invisibly changed the facts. In fact, that would be completely incompatible with traditional inerrancy. So the traditional inerrantists and I have some important common ground here. I was really pleased with a long interview I did with Dr. Phil Fernandes, a very strong, traditional inerrantist, on this very topic. And John Warwick Montgomery has strongly endorsed my work in this area, even though he knows that I am not an inerrantist, and he is a very strong inerrantist himself.

“Keeping a word like ‘inerrancy’ while radically changing its meaning is no victory for the original concept.”

Lydia McGrew

GB:  What would you say to someone who asserts that you’re ignoring the literary conventions of the time, such as the use of literary devices, and are being anachronistic?

LMG: Well, that’s the assertion. I would ask, “What’s the argument?” This type of assertion is the reason why my book is so long. I’m taking that claim seriously and rebutting the supposed arguments for it, point by point. I would say that actually it is my opponents who are frequently anachronistic. They are remaking ancient people in the mold of hyper-skeptical biblical scholars. Actually, ancient people, especially the evangelists and early Christians, were very concerned about literal, historical truth. I answer these claims in detail about some “different ancient view of truth” and “different conventions of the time.” And it’s fascinating: Craig Evans, for example, will take one word (literally, one word) that the church father Papias uses in a passage totally out of context and use it to argue that Papias and the evangelist Mark were changing the facts in the Gospels. That interpretation is totally contrary to the whole point that Papias is making in the passage itself, which is that Mark never changed any of the facts! But Evans’s statements about this word chreia (which as Richard Bauckham has pointed out just means “anecdote”) are just being swallowed uncritically by evangelicals who think this word means that Papias endorsed “flexibility” about truth in telling the stories in the Gospels. Papias says just the opposite. I have other examples in the book. So to these repetitious claims about standards of the time and anachronism I’d say, “Don’t just say that. Read my book, and see what the evidence really shows.”

GB: And why do you think it is that your opponents engage in this kind of hyper-skeptical anachronism? Could peer pressure from their more skeptical academic colleagues play a role?

LMG: There are a lot of strands going into their theorizing. One strand is just that they have gotten used to being far too literary, to the point that they have lost touch with living reality. An example here is Craig Keener’s claim that John exaggerates how far Jesus carried his own cross in order to make Jesus look like he’s in control of his own death. If you think about the reality of the situation, this is bizarre. Here is a bloodied, beaten prisoner being forced to carry the crossbeam of his cross over a distance, being driven by the soldiers. This certainly does not convey the idea of his being in control of his own death! There is no reason at all to think of this as some heavy, thematic thing. John just didn’t happen to mention Simon of Cyrene, probably because the Synoptics had already mentioned him and because John was so struck by what it was like for Jesus to carry his own cross for the distance that he did carry it, until he could not carry it anymore. I could give many more examples of this kind. The scholars have gotten so used to doing far-fetched literary criticism on the Gospels (of a kind that I’m familiar with from my graduate studies in English literature) that they don’t realize how truly implausible their theories are. They confuse what strikes them as deep and cool with what is reasonable to attribute to the author.

There certainly is peer pressure from more skeptical scholars. William Lane Craig tells of a time when his dissertation director sneered at him for harmonizing the resurrection accounts. Bart Ehrman definitely bullies people when he debates them. But I think it’s important to realize that a lot of evangelical scholars have internalized an anti-harmonization bias to the point that they put implicit or explicit pressure on fellow Christians, too. In a correspondence I had with an evangelical NT scholar, I said that I thought two accounts were about two different events. As I recall, it was two places in different Gospels where it says that the people in Jesus’ home town of Nazareth rejected him. And he responded pretty condescendingly, “How often are you going to do that?” He meant to ask how often I am going to say that there were two different events. The obvious response from my side was, “As many times as the evidence warrants it. Why do you ask? Is there a bag limit on reasonable historical harmonizations?” In general he was pretty dismissive of harmonization. I couldn’t help thinking about what it would be like to be subjected to that rhetoric if I were this person’s student.

Several prominent evangelical scholars seem to be self-consciously occupying a space they envisage between the liberal scholars to their left and anyone they regard as too conservative to their right, and they are inclined to congratulate one another on not being crude, uneducated people who are overly rigid, too conservative, etc. You can see this clearly in Craig Evans’s rhetoric and Michael Licona’s rhetoric. They are there to explain to others how all of this really works. Evans talks explicitly about teaching his students to loosen up and agree with him when they come to him too conservative initially, as he views it. And he repeatedly creates straw men of positions that he views as to the right of himself. Michael Licona has implied that a Christian who thinks that he is seriously wrong should believe that the Psalms teach that God sleeps, because the only people who would strongly disagree with him from the right would be hyper-literalists who should reject anthropomorphism. So you can see how this atmosphere would be influential among scholars. Simultaneously, there is a bias against strongly, publicly disagreeing with anyone in the guild of biblical studies who is regarded as a fellow evangelical and who moves more in the mainstream (aka liberal) direction than one does oneself. This social dynamic more or less guarantees that the Overton window of that self-conceived “reasonable evangelical” space is going to be shifting left over time.

The other thing is that certain really bad methodologies in historical Jesus scholarship have been internalized by some evangelicals to the point that they identify them with the standards of objective scholarship. These include, for example, the use of what are called the “criteria of authenticity” that are accepted by mainstream scholarship as the only way to show objectively that some event in the Gospels really happened. These also include an aversion to harmonization, especially additive harmonization, the acceptance of the argument from silence, skepticism about unique material in John’s Gospel, and so forth. I call these anti-standards. Once they view these anti-standards as the real standards of historical scholarship, then the conservative scholars end up with a false view of how this works: Either you must show that some fact asserted in the Gospels is probable while hampering your argument by these faulty standards or, if you believe anything beyond that, you do so just “as a Christian” but not “as an historian.” I’ve found repeatedly that when I try to tell Christian scholars that more can be objectively shown to be true than they are acknowledging, they almost literally can’t hear what I’m saying. They think that I’m appealing to a religious commitment to induce them to affirm more of the content in the Gospels.

“[C]ertain really bad methodologies in historical Jesus scholarship have been internalized by some evangelicals to the point that they identify them with the standards of objective scholarship. “

Lydia McGrew

GB: Perhaps another objection that could be raised is that the views you are opposing in The Mirror and the Mask are ones that have been held across the board by conservative evangelical scholars for a long period of time. Perhaps that makes your view a fringe one. How would you respond to that?

LMG: Well, truth was never determined by numbers, but this type of claim is just incorrect. In fact, it’s kind of interesting: Craig Blomberg blurbed my book, and one of the points he stresses is that the positions I’m critiquing are not widespread among inerrantist evangelicals. So it’s interesting that on that point Blomberg is disagreeing with a recent push on the literary device side to say that everybody already believes some of these controversial things that they are saying. That’s just not true. These views of Licona’s are indeed catching on more widely among people interested in apologetics, and they have been endorsed in general outline by some big names, but the clear endorsement of deliberate factual change by the evangelists is still fairly new in conservative evangelical circles. It’s definitely not widespread among pastors and laymen. This is why I think we need to think carefully about these ideas now.

At the SES conference recently, Michael Licona even went so far as to say that the arch- inerrantist Norman Geisler, of all people, endorsed the idea that Matthew changed the day when something happened in Holy Week, which is completely wrong. Geisler was adamantly opposed to all ideas that the Gospel authors changed facts. He fought those ideas strenuously, which was why he opposed Licona’s views so explicitly from the moment he became aware of them up to the end of his life. Even living scholars who are regarded as less personally strident than Geisler, like D. A. Carson, Andreas Köstenberger, and Craig Blomberg, as far as I know have never endorsed the theory of deliberate factual changes by the evangelists. 

This sociological implication that virtually all evangelical scholars already agree that there are factual changes by the evangelists is supported by blurring some very crucial distinctions. One of the most important of these distinctions is between what I call achronological and dyschronological narration. What numerous evangelicals have held for a long time is that the Gospel authors sometimes narrated vaguely about chronology (time ordering) and that therefore they might have narrated things in a topical order or something of that kind, without implying that the narrative was giving a chronological order at all. This is what I call achronological narration. I don’t deny that; I affirm it. In fact, suggesting achronological narration is a type of harmonization. It’s not an alternative to harmonization. But what is newer, and is often conflated with that, is the claim that the evangelists changed the chronological order–that in their narratives they deliberately made things appear to happen at a time when they didn’t really happen. This is what I call dyschronological narration. That’s much, much more controversial and is not something that has been held by numerous evangelical scholars for a long time. So this insinuation that I’m a wild-eyed extremist who disagrees even with all of the conservative scholars arises from conflating very different things and trying to make far more dubious claims look like they are the same as more commonly acknowledged things. That is not legitimate. 

I think people who hear this type of claim should ask themselves this: If Dr. Licona and Dr. Evans and others are really giving us, as Dr. Licona tells us in one of his books, a new pair of glasses through which to view the Gospels, how can they simultaneously just be saying uncontroversial things that everybody knew already? It can’t be both. If this research is really new and ground-breaking, what are the new, ground-breaking claims? Not that the Gospel authors sometimes narrated without specifying chronological order, etc., because that isn’t new and ground-breaking at all. So immediately the question should arise, “What is this new way of looking at the Gospels?” And the new way is the claim that the Gospel authors changed the facts, invisibly, while narrating with apparent realism, so that even their original audience could not pick out with confidence in which places it was happening. That’s definitely new, but it’s by no means uncontroversial, and you don’t have to be a crazy extremist to think it’s incorrect.

GB: Is there any other major objection that you anticipate from your critics?

LMG: I think people are likely to hear that I do too much harmonization and that this makes me hyper-literal. Or perhaps you will hear a rejection of my view in one of the few places where I think that there may be some minor error. Licona dismissed one of my positions recently in a passing comment in his SES presentation by dubbing it “flat-footed literalism.” That phrase, of course, is not an argument. The idea is that if there isn’t a harmonization they think is plausible, and if they are speaking to an audience that isn’t likely to want to say there is an error, then they try to get such an audience to think that they have to accept their literary device view as the only remaining option. You get a kind of blitzkrieg: “What about this?” “What about that?” “What about this other Bible difficulty?” The implication is that if you don’t have a solution they think is reasonable for some specific alleged Bible discrepancy, especially if you harmonize someplace where they think harmonization is ridiculous, then your criticism of their method falls to the ground, and you have to accept their approach to the Gospels, at least in principle. Dr. Licona tried to take this approach in his recent dialogue with Richard Howe at the SES. And of course that doesn’t follow at all, and Dr. Howe rightly resisted it. There have always been multiple possible harmonizations of various alleged Bible difficulties. There have always been places where it’s quite legitimate for historians to say that they don’t know what the correct explanation is for some apparent discrepancy. In secular history and even modern police reports and court testimony, there are always some apparent discrepancies and even real discrepancies, even between highly reliable witnesses.

If we applied their method to secular history and witness testimony, we’d be turning all of the garden-variety apparent discrepancies into “literary devices,” which is not a good way to do history, to put it mildly. It’s not the case that the literary device view wins by default if you don’t agree with every one of Lydia McGrew’s or Norm Geisler’s or Richard Howe’s preferred responses to, “What about this?” This should go without saying, but unfortunately it has to be said. It’s easy for people to get overwhelmed by the immense air of confidence in a literary device theorist who pushes his own idea as the only possible answer if you can’t satisfy him with your answers to these favorite examples. It’s like forcing a card. If they push one methodology as what people have to accept in the face of a barrage of challenges, the audience may be psychologically inclined to accept that faulty presupposition.

It’s important to remember that this literary device view is incredibly complex, bears a large burden of proof, and is alien to much of human experience. I’ve argued at length that it is unsupported even in the surrounding culture of the Gospels, including Greco-Roman literature. It is about as far as possible from being the default position if you can’t solve some alleged Gospels discrepancy even to your own satisfaction, much less to someone else’s satisfaction. There are a lot of other more probable types of explanations of problem passages, even if we don’t know for certain which one is correct in every case.

GB: You seem to be advocating for a commonsense approach to solving Bible difficulties, something that a layperson is capable of doing without the guidance of an overbearing New Testament scholar. Would you agree with that assessment? If so, what are the advantages to this common-sense approach as compared to the ones that your critics use?

LMG: Yes, I think that’s a good assessment. The most important advantage is that I just think we’re more likely to get our conclusions right! When you’re out there making up these incredibly complex theories that a Gospel author duplicated this to compensate or had a secret intention and so forth, those theories are probably not true. They have nothing in the way of good evidence to commend them.

Here’s another example that illustrates how common sense is a better guide to truth than these literary device theories: Daniel Wallace and Michael Licona say that John changed “My God, why have you forsaken me” into “I thirst.” Wallace argues that the thing Jesus probably really said (“My God, why have you forsaken me”) wouldn’t have fit with John’s themes. But it also wouldn’t (they think) fit with John’s themes to record Jesus saying, “I thirst” if Jesus really said that he was thirsty! So John invented that saying but felt okay with it as an expression of his themes–that Jesus’ crucifixion is his glorification and that “thirst” is only spiritual in his Gospel–because John knew in the privacy of his own mind that it was metaphorical. But there is no possible way to tell that it’s metaphorical, neither for us nor for the original audience. It’s narrated completely realistically; people even bring Jesus a drink in John after he says it.

This is incredibly far-fetched. Why would you even think a thing like that? It’s not even convincing as a literary theory. In contrast, when you think about it in a realistic way, you remember that dehydration was common as part of the suffering of crucifixion and that in fact John does portray Jesus’ human side. (For example, he weeps at the grave of Lazarus.) Plus there is the insistence in John that the speaker was an eyewitness of the crucifixion. And of course there’s no reason at all why Jesus could not have said both “My God, why have you forsaken me?” and “I thirst.” There’s not even an apparent discrepancy there.

So taking a more commonsense approach makes us more likely to discover the truth, which is what should be most important to all of us. I think it’s really a matter of simplicity. The commonsense approach far more often coincides with what we know human beings do. So in that sense it is much simpler. It does not multiply complexities without necessity. I would say in every case in the Gospels the best explanation is at least that the authors believed what they wrote.

“The commonsense approach far more often coincides with what we know human beings do. So in that sense it is much simpler. It does not multiply complexities without necessity.”

Lydia McGrew

GB: If there were one thing that you would want a reader to take away from your book and remember for the rest of their lives, what would it be?

LMG: The Gospels are highly reliable, and we can know that historically. To elaborate a bit: The Gospels are highly reliable in a straightforward sense, not in a qualified or redefined sense. It isn’t just that we can get some historical information out of them. Rather, the Gospels have been confirmed well enough that, if something is asserted historically in one of the Gospels, and if there isn’t good, independent reason to doubt it, you have good reason to believe that it happened. And note that this is true even if it is in just one of the Gospels. You don’t have to have double attestation from two or more Gospels before believing something that one of them says. This is not a conclusion of faith without evidence. It is not a religious presupposition. It is a conclusion we can come to through examining objective evidence.


To find out more about Dr. McGrew, visit her website http://lydiamcgrew.com/. She also blogs regularly at What’s Wrong with the World. Her new book, The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices is now available for pre-order via DeWard Publishing Company. Her previous book, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts is also available to order from DeWard


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other authors at Cogent Christianity.

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