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Mike Licona Admits Contradiction in the Gospels

Norman L. Geisler, January 2013

 

 

The Charge of Contradiction in the Gospels

Critic Bart Ehrman wrote: “Maybe when Mark says that Jesus was crucified the day after the Passover was eaten (Mark 14:12; 15:25) and John says he died the day before it was eaten (John 19:14)—maybe that is a genuine difference,” that is, a real contradiction (Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 9).  This is not an uncommon claim for a Bible critic and agnostic like Bart Ehrman.  But is it consistent for an evangelical New Testament scholar like Mike Licona?  In a debate with Ehrman at Southern Evangelical Seminary(Spring 2009),  Licona said, “I think that John probably altered the day [of Jesus’s crucifixion] in order for a theological—to make a theological point there.  But that does not mean that Jesus wasn’t crucified.”  In short, John contradicts the other Gospels on which day Jesus was crucified.

Holding Greco-Roman Genre Allows for Contradictions

But how can one hold to inerrancy, as Licona claims to do, and yet affirm that there is a contradiction in the Gospels?  According to Licona, the answer is found in embracing the Greco-Roman genre view of the Gospels.  He claims this is a “flexible genre,” and “it is often difficult to determine where history ends and legend begins” (The Resurrection of Jesus, 34).  Indeed, he claims “Bios offered the ancient biographer great flexibility for rearranging material and inventing speeches…and they often included legends” (ibid., emphasis added). 

Until recently, Licona has not offered a public response to the charge that his reference to John contradicting the synoptic Gospels on the day of Christ’s crucifixion is consistent with the doctrine of inerrancy which he claims to accept. Despite his belief that such scholarly discussions as these should not take place on the internet, Linoca recently did a YouTube interview in which he sets forth his “justification” for believing that there can be a contradiction in the Gospels and yet one can claim they are inerrant!

In a professionally transcribed interview by Lenny Esposito of Mike Licona on YouTube on November 23, 2012 at the 2012 Evangelical Theological Society meeting (see http://youtu.be/TJ8rZukh_Bc), Licona affirmed the following:  “So um this didn’t really bother me in terms of if there were contradictions in the Gospels.  I mean I believe in biblical inerrancy but I also realized that biblical inerrancy is not one fundamental doctrines of Christianity. The resurrection is.  So if Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is still true even if it turned out that some things in the Bible weren't. So um it didn’t really bother me a whole lot even if some contradictions existed.  But it did bother a lot of Christians.” 

So, contradictions in the Gospels do not bother Licona because inerrancy “is not one of the fundamental doctrines.”  Why? Because, says Licona, they don’t affect any important doctrine like the resurrection of Christ.  However, Licona realized that “it did bother a lot of Christians.”  In fact, he said, “I asked the class [he was teaching] how many of this thing [sic] about potential contradictions really bothers you, and the majority of the class raised their hands” (emphasis is mine in all these quotations). 

How Greco-Roman Genre Allows for Contradictions in Gospels

Since it bothered so many other Christians to think that there may be contradictions in the Gospels, Licona said, “I started reading ancient biographies written around the time of Jesus because the majority of New Testament scholars, thanks to Richard Burridge initially, and also people like Charles Talbert, David Aune, and even more recently Craig Keener shows that uh the majority of New Testament scholars regard the Gospels as ancient biographies, Greco-Roman biographies.”  So, what did he discover?  Licona replied, “They all followed Greco-Roman biographies. So I started reading through these. There was like 80 to 100 written with in just a couple 100 years of Jesus and the most prolific is Plutarch and he wrote over 60, fifty of which have survived and so I read through all of those not only to understand not only how ancient biography worked but to actually read these.” 

What did he find? Licona continued, “I noticed that nine of the people that he [Plutarch] wrote biographies on lived at the same time so this provided me as a historian a unique opportunity  because so, for example the assassination of Julius Cesar is told in five different biographies by Plutarch, so you have the same biographer telling the same story five different times and so by noticing how Plutarch tells the story of Caesar's assassination differently we can notice the kinds of biographical liberties that Plutarch took and he is writing around the same time as some of the Gospels are being written and in the same language, "Greek" to boot.”   So, “as I started to note some of these liberties that he took I immediately started to recognize that these are the same liberties that I noticed the Evangelists did, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”  So, “these most commonly cited differences in the Gospels that skeptics like Ehrman like to refer to as contractions aren't contradictions after all.  They are just the standard biographical liberties that ancient biographers of that day took.”

Licona admits that most of the problems in the Gospels are just difficulties but not really contradictions.  He said, “a second point we can make is we have to look at genre of the Gospels, the literary style and that's ancient biography and they were allowed to take liberties.  I want to point out a couple of those liberties like time compression or lack of attention to chronological detail …. So there's all of these different liberties and I can give examples of some of these so that these aren't contradictions they are just biographical liberties that were taken.  And then the third one, and I am trying to think what that third is right off and um, oh you have to distinguish between a contradiction and a difference.”

However, even in eyewitness accounts like the Gospels, Licona insists that “there are certain cases when some things can't be reconciled like the Titanic broke in half prior to sinking, [or]the Titanic went down intact, um that can't be reconciled, that is a contradiction and most of the things we find in the Gospels are differences.  I mean there are only maybe a handful of things between Gospels that are potential contradictions and only one or two that I found that are really stubborn for me at this point and they are all in the peripherals again.” 

An Evaluation of Licona’s View on Contradictions in the Gospels

            Licona’s view on contradictions in the Gospels includes several important points. First, we will state the point and then give a brief evaluation of it from the standpoint of historic biblical inerrancy.  Licona contends that:

            First, most alleged contradictions are not real contradictions.  There are plausible ways to reconcile the discrepancies.

            Response: With this point we have no disagreement as such, expect that it does not go far enough. The historic doctrine of inerrancy, as embraced by the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) and The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI), affirms that all, not just most, alleged contradictions are not real, and there are possible , if not plausible, ways to harmonize all of them. This we have demonstrated in our volume, The Big Book of Bible Difficulties (Baker, 2008).  After examining some 800 alleged contradictions in the Bible, we found not a single one proved to be a demonstrable error!  And the vast majority of them had possible, or even plausible, explanations.

            Actually, Licona employs several good principles in reconciling alleged contradictions in Scripture. For one, he is opposed to “abusing the text or to force meaning so they kind of twist the words to not mean what the author meant but to mean something else.”  Also, he rejects “pushing twenty‑first century scientific classification onto animals that did not exist 3500 years ago.” Had he applied similar logic to imposing Greco-Roman categories on the Gospels, he could have avoided his own error of using alien and extra-biblical categories on the Gospels that yield legends and contradictions. 

            Second, there are some contradictions in the Gospels, but they are only on peripheral matters and do not affect any essential doctrine of the Christian Faith.

            Response: Nowhere has Licona (or any other Bible critic) actually proven there were any real contradictions in the Gospels.  The one Licona mentions about the day of Christ’s crucifixion has several possible explanations.  First, there could have been two different Passovers, one following the Pharisees and the other the Sadducees.  Second, the Gospel writer could have been referring to two different days, one the Passover day itself and the other the beginning of the feast following the Passover (see Walvoord, ed. Bible Knowledge Commentary, vol. 2, 258).  Third, John could have been using Roman time, not Jewish time. If so, there is no contradiction as to the time of day.  Further, John 19:14 is not contradictory to Mark 14:12 since it is possible that the “preparation” day to which John referred could be the Friday before Sabbath of the Passover week.  This view was held by the great Greek Scholar A. T. Robertson who affirmed that the phrase “day of the preparation of the Passover” in Jn. 19:14 means ”Friday”(Nisan 15), the day before the Sabbath in the Passover week.  This harmonizes with the other Gospels (cf. Mark 14:12).  Ellicott’s Commentaries (vol. 6, 560-561) presents the same view (in “Excursus F” by Prof. Plumptre): “Even the phrase which seems most to suggest a different view, the ‘preparation of the Passover’ in John XIX. 14, does not mean more on any strict interpretation than the ‘Passover Friday,’ the Friday in Passover week….”  So, there are plausible explanations to the alleged contradiction mentioned by Ehrman and Licona.

            Third, these contradictions are not contrary to the Greco-Roman genre of the Gospels which allows for legends and contradictions.

            Response: It is true that Greco-Roman genre allows for legend and error.  But, despite its current popularity, it is not necessary to take the Gospels as part of Greco-Roman genre. In fact, this Greco-Roman genre view is a kind of current scholarly fad that stresses some similarities but overlooks some crucial differences between the Gospels and Greco-Roman biography.  First of all, the Gospels themselves claim to be historical and accurate.  Luke wrote, “Just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the world have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught (Lk. 1:1-4, emphasis added).  This claim for accurate historicity in Luke has been demonstrated in numerous details in the work of Roman Historian Colin Hemer in his monumental work, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenic History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990).  He showed that in nearly 90 details of the account of Luke in Acts, he is accurate in even minute historical details. Not once has Luke been demonstrated to be in error.

            Second, similarity does not prove identity. The Gospels are like Greco-Roman biography in some respects, but they are not identical to it. The Jewish nature of the New Testament is well known to biblical scholars. The NT citations are overwhelmingly from the Old Testament.  It considers itself a fulfillment of the OT (Mt. 5:17-18 cf. Book of Hebrews). The NT is rooted in Jewish history and considers itself a fulfillment of it in Jesus the Messiah and his kingdom.  The NT writers give no evidence that they are borrowing from a Greco-Roman genre.

            Third, the Bible does use different genres of literature (History, poetry, parable, etc.).  But these are all known from inside the Bible by use of the traditional “grammatico-historical exegesis” which the ICBI framers embraced (Article XVIII).  The genre categories into which the Bible is said to fit are not determined by data outside the Bible.  The Gospels, for example, may be their own unique genre, as many biblical scholars believe. As the ICBI statement puts it, “Scripture is to interpret Scripture” (Chicago Statement, Article XVIII). The Bible is the best interpreter of the Bible.

            Fourth, whatever light extra-biblical information may shed on the biblical text (e.g., in customs or use of words), it does not determine the overall meaning of a text.  The meaning of the biblical text is found in the text and its context. Certainly, extra-biblical Greek legend characteristics do not determine the meaning of the biblical text.  This is an unorthodox method[1] and, when applied to the Bible, it yields an unorthodox conclusion.

            Fourth, one can believe there are contradictions in the Gospels without giving up his belief in inerrancy.

            Response: The Law of Non-Contradiction that rules all thought, including theological thought, demands that opposing views cannot both be true.  If one is true, then the opposing view is false. But inerrancy demands that every affirmation in the Bible is true. Jesus could not have been crucified on Friday Nisan 15 and not crucified on that day.  The claim that He was crucified on a day that He was not is false.  For inerrancy demands that all the affirmations of the Bible are true. The ICBI statement on inerrancy declares: “We affirm the unity and internal consistency of scripture” (Article XIV).  And “We deny that later revelations…ever correct or contradict” other revelations (Article V).

            Fifth, inerrancy is not an essential doctrine of Christianity like the resurrection of Christ is.  It is a non-essential or peripheral doctrine.

            Response: On the contrary, the inspiration of Scripture is one of the essential or fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith, along with the deity of Christ, His atoning death, and his bodily resurrection.[2]  And inerrancy is an essential part of divine inspiration.  Thus, a divinely inspired error is a contradiction in terms.  As the ETS statement on inerrancy puts it, “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs” (emphasis added).  It is clear from this statement that the framers meant that the Bible is inerrant because it is the Word of God.  Inerrancy flows from inspiration and is a necessary part of it. The Bible is the Word of God, and God cannot error.  Therefore, the Bible cannot err.  After all, “God” means the Theistic God who is omniscient, and an omniscient Mind cannot make any errors in His Word.  So, it is simply wrong to affirm that “inerrancy is not an essential doctrine of Christianity.”

 

         Concluding Comments

First of all, whatever else there may be to commend Mike Licona’s view of Scripture, one thing is certain: his view is not consistent with the historic view of inerrancy as held by the framers of the ETS and ICBI statements.  To claim, as he does, that the Gospels represent Jesus as being crucified on different days, is a flat contradiction.  And contradictions are inconsistent with the doctrine of inerrancy.  To claim otherwise is unbiblical,[3] irrational, and nonsensical.

Second, classifying the Gospels as Greco-Roman biography which allows for errors and legends is not in accord with the historic view of the full and factual inerrancy of Scripture.[4]  An error is an error whether it is a legend or a contradiction.  And errors cannot be part of the inerrant Word of God.

Third, Licona adopts an unorthodox methodology, and unorthodox methodology leads to unorthodox theology.  Any method that can be used to justify errors in the Gospels and yet be able to claim they are inerrant is not only contrary to the Bible, and the historic view on inerrancy, but it is contrary to logic and common sense.

Finally, As Professor Al Mohler of Southern Baptist Seminary pointed out in his critique of Licona’s view, “Licona has handed the enemies of the resurrection of Jesus Christ a powerful weapon” by denying or undermining the historicity of other sections of the Gospels.  For he uses an extra-biblical method by which he claims “it is often difficult to determine where history ends and legend begins” (Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 34).  He also claims that “Bios offered the ancient biographer great flexibility for rearranging material and inventing speeches…and they often included legends” (ibid., emphasis added).  What is more, using that method, Licona came to the conclusion that an event directly connected to the resurrection of Christ, and that occurred as a result of it, namely the bodily resurrection of some saints (in Mt. 27:52-53), was merely a “poetical device,” “special effects” (ibid., 552), or a “legend” (ibid., 34).[5] This, indeed, is handing “the enemies of the resurrection of Jesus Christ a powerful weapon.” For how can we be sure the resurrection of Christ is historical when in the same passage the resurrection of some saints that resulted from Christ’s resurrection it not considered historical?

 

 

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[1] See Norman Geisler, “Methodological Unorthodoxy,” by Norman Geisler  and William Roach in Journal of the International Society of Christian Apologetics (vol. 5 No. 1, 2012), 61-87.

[2] See N.L. Geisler and Ron Rhodes, Conviction without Compromise (Harvest House, 2008), Part One for a comprehensive list of the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith.

[3] The Bible declares, “Avoid…contradictions” (ESV, Greek: antitheseis, 1 Tim. 6:20).

[4] See John Hannah, Inerrancy and the Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984).

[5] Licona has since moderated his certainty about this conclusion, but has not retracted either its possibility or reality.