by George Brahm
The following is a review of Lydia McGrew’s ‘The Mirror or the Mask’ that I first posted on Goodreads. For details on how to purchase the book, click here.
A fashionable trend in contemporary historical Jesus studies is to resolve alleged contradictions in the New Testament by claiming that the Gospels belong to the genre of ‘Greco-Roman biography’; a genre that allegedly allowed the biographer to play fast and loose with the facts by using fictionalizing literary devices if they thought it would help make a ‘larger point’—in the case of the Gospels, ‘larger theological points’. Some have even gone on to claim that Jesus encouraged his disciples to alter his words in this fashion—a bizarre claim to most, but also the sort of claim that is gaining traction among evangelical scholars.
In her new ‘The Mirror or the Mask’, analytic philosopher Lydia McGrew launches a frontal attack on this ‘fictionalizing device view’, pointing out its key weaknesses and the unwarranted assumptions made by its adherents, while also presenting a viable alternative, namely her own ‘reportage model’, which she claims is useful in understanding the Gospels as the robust and reliable historical sources that they are.
In the first section, McGrew outlines certain preliminaries that are essential to the rest of her discussion. She highlights why it is so important that we pay attention to the views of the literary device theorists—what is at stake is whether the Gospels give us a historical, factual, and reliable picture of Jesus, or whether we are presented with a hodge-podge of the historical Jesus and a fictional Jesus of the authors’ own making. The latter, she says, is equivalent to hiding the historical Jesus behind a mask—not a very enticing prospect for those of us who take the reliability of the Scriptures seriously. She also sets out a probable reason why the fictionalizing view has taken such a strong hold in evangelical circles today—its salesmen have engaged in a bit of linguistic hijacking: conflating the non-fictionalizing use of commonplace words like ‘paraphrase’ and ‘transferral’, conflating ‘achronological’ with ‘dyschronological narration’ (a valuable distinction that McGrew makes and uses throughout the text), and tossing out the strong sense of the word ‘reliability’ for a much weaker sense, without explicitly conveying the switch to their audience, of course. She also devotes an entire chapter to the issue of inerrancy, pointing out that while she is not an inerrantist herself, the fictionalizing device view does no service to inerrancy. And while its adherents claim to be inerrantists, this is ‘inerrancy’ in a qualified, almost meaningless, sense. In fact, the inerrantist can no longer hold to his views if he concedes that the Gospels contain information that are contrary to fact, regardless of whether they exist there with or without the original author’s intent.
In the second section, McGrew takes the literary device theorists to task on their own claims. First, she dismantles the case for reading the Gospels as Greco-Roman biographies in any meaningful sense. Then, she takes apart the view that it was commonplace among both Greco-Roman biographers and ancient Christians to play fast and loose with the facts, opting to intentionally change factual details or fabricate entire events to make larger points. Third, while affirming that ancient writers did put words into a speaker’s mouth while documenting speeches made, McGrew argues effectively that it is unlikely that the Gospel writers did so for Jesus’ own discourses. She then attacks the aforementioned point made by Craig Evans and others, namely that Jesus instructed his disciples to add to and extrapolate on his words, and that the Gospel writers were influenced by Greek pedagogic methods in which students were encouraged to alter the words of their teachers. Finally, using a large number of examples from their texts, McGrew casts doubt on claims that Plutarch and others actively engaged in the use of fictionalizing devices while writing their literary works. Allow me to warn you that this is a heavy section to read—McGrew says as much and allows her reader to skip to the next section and return at their convenience. What I must add, however, is that this section is a clear demonstration of the hard work that McGrew has put into this volume, and a reason why it needs to be taken seriously (rather than dismissed, as it has been by some of those she is criticizing.) Here, she delves deep into the sources that her opponents often carelessly cite, meticulously walking us through each one and showing us how the case constructed by the literary device theorists is not as strong as they would like you to think.
In the third section, McGrew turns to a positive project—setting out her ‘reportage model’, which she claims gives us a far clearer, more reliable picture of Christ in the Gospels when compared to the fictionalizing device view. The evidence from ‘undesigned coincidences’, ‘unexplained allusions’, and ‘unnecessary details’, all supporting the reportage view, give us a renewed confidence in the historicity of the Gospel accounts. In addition, most of the alleged discrepancies, as she points out, can be solved by simple harmonization; there is no need to multiply entities without necessity, which happens to be something the literary device theorists find great pleasure in doing. The thing that struck me the most was the pains that she went to in order to demonstrate how her model says something as commonsensical (and widely-accepted) as “The Gospel writers are just trying to relay to us what they saw and heard in those days, as they saw, heard, and remembered it”. This is in opposition to the gymnastics that we find some of the literary device theorists putting themselves through when they say things like, “The writer said incident x happened, but what he really meant was to make a larger theological point y using the entirely-made-up incident x.” Perhaps this goes to show how out of touch some of the folks on the ivory towers of academia happen to be, or how desperate they are to come up with a ‘fresh’ perspective on how laypeople ought to read the Gospels. And if you want to see how out of touch they are, you should go on to read the fourth section, where McGrew lays out the various ways in which literary device theorists foist fictionalization when they aren’t even close to warranted.
You might wonder whether you need to be well-versed in the works of Evans, Licona, Keener, and the others whose literary device theories McGrew takes aim at in this book. While she encourages her readers to pick up their books, doing so is not a prerequisite for one to keep up with McGrew’s own book. In fact, ‘The Mirror or the Mask’ quotes Licona, Evans, and Keener extensively and in context, before responding to the points they make.
So, regardless of what her critics might tell you, Lydia McGrew has done her homework and produced a piece of top-notch scholarship that is worth paying attention to. ‘The Mirror or the Mask’ is a book I highly and wholeheartedly recommend. Most importantly, it reminds us that the Gospels do give us an image of what Jesus was really like, as opposed to a mask that hides his true face from us. And this is good news.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other authors at Cogent Christianity.