Book Plunge: Why Are There Differences In The Gospels?

What do I think of Mike Licona’s book published by Oxford University Press? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Go to any debate online about the New Testament and one idea you’ll see pop up regularly will be “It contradicts itself over and over.” Go listen to Bart Ehrman and hear him speak about these and what will he say? “Depends on which Gospel you read?” Gospel differences are something that is a cause of concern to many a skeptic and of course, many a Christian as well. Especially if you hold a high view of inerrancy, you want to know why there are so many differences in the Gospel accounts.

This question isn’t anything new. It goes back to the church fathers. This is in fact why there was even an attempt to turn the four Gospels into one Gospel, but the church didn’t really go for it. As it stands, we have four today and they do contain obvious differences, so do we just have sloppy historians or what? Should we call into question the reliability of the Gospels because of this?

Mike Licona has chosen to answer this question and has done so by doing something that many in our world could consider cheating, but hey, he did it. He actually went back and compared differences in accounts of the same event by an author close to the time of Jesus. His choice was Plutarch and he looked at some of his lives that described figures who lived at about the same time and were quite likely written close to each other chronologically.

Of course, everyone should be warned of possible bias on my part. As many know, Mike Licona is my father-in-law, but at the same time when we have our discussions, if I think he is wrong on something, I do not hesitate to tell him. He got a blunt son-in-law when I married Allie.

Mike’s approach is unique and something that had not been done before. If there is any difficulty I encounter when I am engaging with skeptics of the faith is that they assume the way we do things today is superior simply because that is the way we do them. If we do history this way, well that is the right way to do history. If we want this kind of precision in an account, well that has to be superior and that is what the ancients would want. The greatest error we often make is we impose our own time and culture and society on the ancient world and then misread them.

This is why I say Mike cheated, though in a loose sense of course. He actually went back and saw how they did history and what do you see? You see that the differences that you see in the Gospels that are so problematic are the same kinds of differences you see in Plutarch. Some will no doubt complain and say that surely the Gospel writers would not write Holy Scripture in a style that was known to the pagan world. (Yeah. The second person of the Trinity can condescend to become a human being and die on a cross, but using a certain literary style? God forbid!) Such an opinion is going against the overwhelming majority of Biblical scholarship and ignores how God has often met people where they were and if the writers wanted to write a biography of Jesus to tell about His life and teachings, there weren’t many other options.

Mike goes through the accounts and shows that Plutarch used many different techniques when writing and that the Gospel writers did the same. He has a number of pericopes in Plutarch and a number in the Gospels that give a cross comparison. If one wants to throw out the Gospels as unreliable then, one will have to do the same with Plutarch. This indeed raises the debate to a whole new level. Is the modern skeptic willing to throw out one of the most prolific writers in ancient history just to avoid the Gospels?

What does this say for we moderns as well? It tells us what I said at the beginning. We can too often assume our own standards of accuracy and throw those onto the text not bothering to ask if the ancients followed them. If they did not, then we are being anachronistic with the writers and in fact, being unfair with them. They were not moderns and we should not treat them like moderns.

This should also be taken into account when considering our modern idea of inerrancy. For instance, many of us might think inerrancy means we have to have the exact words of Jesus. What if the Gospel writers did not think that but wanted the exact voice instead? In other words, they wanted the gist of what Jesus said even if it wasn’t exact wordage? That’s okay. We just have to accept that. The ancient works were not modern works and if we impose on them what they aren’t, we will get the wrong message and also miss the true message of them.

Mike’s work has really raised the bar of debate and pushed it beyond just simple harmonization. It is harmonization based on how the ancients did it and not how we moderns do it. I fully hope that other scholars will come alongside and critique the work, both positively and negatively¬†and that we can, in turn, come to a greater understanding of the Gospel texts.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

  • Jasper Dale

    I read excerpts of Mike’s book with great sadness. What has happened to him? I used to be so blessed by his lectures and writings. Jesus promised the disciples that the Holy Spirit would bring to their remembrance the things to write down in their gospels.

    Mike’s approach to the Scriptures does nothing short of making Jesus a liar! If we cannot trust the Gospels to give us an accurate description of what ACTUALLY happened……..everything is up for debate.

    What is causing him to “plunge” into such deep waters of heresy? Is it peer pressure? Or has he always felt that we cannot trust the gospel writers to get it right, and is just now admitting his liberal bent?

    I am so saddened by all of this. It seems like Bible teachers are falling away right and left. Truth is thrown away……everything is relative. Everything is an allegory or a “re imagining” of the facts.

    I feel so sorry for young people in the church today. They are being fed a lie by people we thought we could trust. I used to enthusiastically recommend Mike Licona to anyone passionate about Jesus. No more.

    • Jasper. I’m afraid you’re living with a misconception. No one thinks we have the exact words of Jesus. We have numerous accounts of the same event with different words being said. The words are not the same, but the gist is and that’s what ancients went by. Not only that, Jesus spoke most often in Aramaic and the Gospels are in Greek so even then, if we read the Greek, we don’t get the exact words but a translation of what was said.

      For the passage in John, that’s not what it says. It says that the Spirit will call to remembrance what was said. That says nothing even about the deeds and would not apply to Mark and Luke either who weren’t among the twelve.

      There is no heresy here. There is no peer pressure. It’s just the data. If you think you have to have the exact words of Jesus, be prepared. Down that road lies a painful path no Christian should want to go down because they’re not there. They don’t need to be. The gist is what we’re going for.

      • Jasper Dale

        yes, but Mike says that John “created” the narrative regarding “doubting Thomas”. do you honestly believe that the Holy Spirit inspired John to create an encounter out of whole cloth?

        You can paraphrase someone’s words and still tell the truth in what they said. But Mike is not just saying that we have the “gist” of what Jesus says. Mike is saying that the gospel writers felt free to “invent” situations in order to make a certain point.

        I’m sure you will disagree with her take, but Lydia McGrew’s commentary about Mike’s approach is devastating. Frankly, I don’t understand why Mike feels he needs to come up with all these alternative meanings behind the text when it is truly unnecessary.

        The main problem I have is that Mike claims that he is being a “good historian”. He says that he is treating the gospels as he would any other piece of ancient literature. But THIS IS THE PROBLEM! We cannot just apply historical methods to Scripture because God says that it is inspired. It is unlike any other writing and when Mike comes up with all these convoluted scenarios, he is absolutely undermining Scripture.

        I have seen many others travel down this road. If Mike does not change course, there is a real possibility that he will not only shipwreck his own faith, but bring many many others down with him.

        • You’ve misheard things. Mike doesn’t say that at all. He presents it as an option, but that’s what happens in scholarly works. You present all options and then you present the one you think is most credible. In fact, when I called Mike to tell him that that was what people were saying about it, he was surprised to hear that he believes that.

          If you want to say Mike thinks a situation can be invented, please show where.

          No. I don’t think Lydia’s critique is accurate, but if she does, feel free to submit it to New Testament scholarship and see if it can pass peer-review.

          Also, I disagree entirely. We treat Scripture like any other book to show it’s not like any other book. If we treat Scripture with a different standard than every other book, then it’s just special pleading.