Why Do The Gospels Contain Differences? - Interview with Dr. Mike Licona

Posted by Greg Monette on January 28 2014

As someone who struggled mightily with nagging doubts during university and throughout seminary I was greatly helped by reading both the testimony and books of Mike Licona. Like me, Mike is someone who doesn’t settle for easy answers and the typical “easy apologetics” responses to tough questions. I’m thrilled Mike has offered to take part in today’s blog interview because the topic is related to something that has massive importance for multitudes of Christians, and to those who have been turned off by the faith because of accusations by skeptics and college professors. What are these accusations? That because the Bible contains differences/discrepancies that it can’t be trusted. I believe Mike’s present research into the causes for the differences between the Gospels to be some of the most important research being done in the field of biblical studies today. Ignore Mike’s present work at your own peril. 

Having earned his Ph.D. in New Testament History from the University of Pretoria in South Africa (with highest distinction after being examined by the great New Testament scholar Richard Hays from Duke), Mike has published and edited numerous volumes including The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. He is currently a professor of theology at Houston Baptist University and the president of Risen Jesus Ministries. Mike is a rare breed of not only a very well studied apologist and defender of the Christian faith, but also an honest historian willing to go where the evidence leads no matter what. I admire both his ministry, his academic honesty, and especially his friendship.

I’m interviewing Mike today on his current research topic on Why the Gospels Contain Differences. Let’s jump in!

GJM: Can you please tell us about your current research? What made you want to research the differences between the Gospels?

MRL: Several years ago, I was teaching a graduate level course on the historical case for Jesus’s resurrection. On the last day of class, the students viewed one of my debates on Jesus’s resurrection with Bart Ehrman. In that debate, Ehrman went after the historical reliability of the Gospels with passion. The students all agreed that Ehrman lost the debate on whether Jesus rose. But most of them admitted to being quite shaken in their confidence in the Gospels as a result of Ehrman’s arguments, one of which concerned differences or contradictions. At that moment, I decided to look into the matter with much more care than I had previously.

Harmonizing the Gospels is a common practice and certainly a legitimate means for reconciling differences. However, we should look for another solution when harmonization efforts begin subjecting the Gospel texts to hermeneutical waterboarding until they tell us what we want to hear.

Richard Burridge’s book What are the Gospels has been largely influential in persuading a majority of New Testament scholars that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography. Why Greco-Roman rather than Jewish biography? In the time of Jesus there were no Jewish biographies of sages. Accordingly, if the Gospel authors had to select a genre in which to write their biographies of Jesus, Greco-Roman biography was the only game in town.

During the past five and a half years I’ve been reading carefully through the Gospels and noting every difference I observed in a document that has now grown to more than sixty pages in length. At the same time, I’ve been reading through biographies written by Plutarch. Much of our knowledge about the ancient world comes from Plutarch. He wrote more than 60 biographies of which 50 have survived. Of these, nine feature Roman leaders who had lived at the same time and knew one another. These were written between AD 96-120, right on the heels of the Gospels and in the same language, Greek. This provides historians with a unique opportunity. Because the main characters in these nine biographies often knew one another, a significant overlap of material is present. When material overlaps in two or more of these nine biographies, we can examine that material very carefully for differences. Differences can occur for numerous reasons, such as lapse of memory or sloppiness or Plutarch used better information he had obtained after writing an earlier biography or he employed a compositional device that required him to alter certain details.

Thus far, I’ve identified around 45 stories that appear two or more times in these nine biographies. Differences abound in them. At present, I’m engaged in identifying the differences and especially looking for recurrences of the same type of differences. It’s from these one gets the impression Plutarch has altered the details intentionally. I then propose explanations (or compositional devices) for the alterations that appear to account well for the differences in many, if not most, of the contexts in which the differences occur. Finally, I’m revisiting the more than 60 pages of differences I’ve noted in the Gospels to see if the compositional devices I’ve posited for Plutarch may have been likewise employed by the Gospel authors.  

GJM: How does your work in Plutarch shed light on Gospel differences?

MRL: Scholars who specialize in the Gospels inform us that the genre in which they were written – biography – offered a degree of flexibility in which the biographer would portray their subject. Biographers varied greatly in their commitment to portraying their subjects accurately. But even the more accurate biographers like Suetonius would adapt his material for various reasons. In other words, ancient biography did not require the sort of legal precision we expect in modern biography. Unfortunately, it is common today for readers of the Gospels to approach them anachronistically as though they were modern biographies. Many readers just assume the Gospels are accounts of events that occurred precisely in the manner they are reported and down to the very detail. When readers observe differences in the Gospels that challenge that assumption, many end up concluding the Gospels are historically unreliable when it’s actually their view of the Gospels that’s unreliable. However, when we view the Gospels as ancient rather than modern biographies, we gain a significant understanding of why many of the differences are present.

GJM: You mentioned that Plutarch used compositional devices that resulted in differences. Can you provide some examples of these in Plutarch and the Gospels?

MRL: The most common device I’ve observed is what I’ll call spotlighting. During a theatrical performance, the lighting crew sometimes will shine a spotlight on an actor and draw such attention to the person in the spotlight that others who are present in the scene are not really visible to the audience. When an author focuses attention on a person so the person’s involvement in a scene is clearly described whereas mention of others who were likewise involved is neglected, the author has put the person in the spotlight. Thus far in my research, spotlighting appears with greater frequency than other compositional devices in the nine biographies under consideration. Space allows only a few examples.

During the Catilinarian Conspiracy of 63-62 BC, some letters are delivered to Crassus that are addressed to him and many of the senators, informing them of the impending violence to the city planned by Catiline. In Plutarch’s Life of Cicero, Crassus, Marcullus, and Metellus go together to the home of Cicero and deliver the letters to him, since he is one of the consuls that year (Cic. 15.1-4). However, in his Life of Crassus, Plutarch mentions only Crassus in the visit to Cicero (Crass. 13.3). Although Plutarch does not say Crassus was alone, that is the impression his account gives. Plutarch is spotlighting.

On the following morning, Cicero calls the senate together to reveal the conspiracy. Soon afterward, Catiline leaves Rome. However, he has friends in the city who were intending to carry out the rebellion. When these friends in turn are discovered and arrested, Cicero once again calls the senate to discuss the fate of the conspirators. At first, many opine that they should be executed. However, Caesar contends that they should not be executed without trial but should be imprisoned until they can be properly tried. In his Life of Caesar and Life of Cicero, Plutarch reports that Catulus and Cato oppose Caesar and are successful in persuading the rest of the senate to execute the conspirators (Caes. 7.4-8.2; Cic. 20.3-21.4). However, in his Life of Cato Minor, Plutarch mentions only Cato’s opposition, and his account gives the impression that Cato alone opposed Caesar and persuaded the senate to execute the conspirators (Cat. Min. 22.3-23.3). Plutarch is shining his literary spotlight on Cato.

Recognizing this compositional device in Plutarch sheds light on a few details that appear to be contradictory in the Gospels’ resurrection narratives. How many women went to the tomb on Easter morning? The Synoptics report multiple women went (Matt 28:1; Mark 16:1-2; Luke 23:55-24:3). However, John’s account says Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early in the morning and discovered it empty (John 20:1). John made no mention of others accompanying her. But given the compositional device of spotlighting witnessed repeatedly in Plutarch, it’s quite plausible that John knows of the other women but neglects to mention them in order to focus on the primary woman who went to the tomb, Mary Magdalene. This suspicion is virtually confirmed by the second verse of John 20:

She ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They took the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they laid him” (John 20:2).

Who is the “we” referring to? It seems highly likely that it’s the other women.

John is not the only evangelist to mention the primary person while neglecting to mention others who are present. In Luke’s resurrection narrative, when the women returned from the empty tomb and informed the disciples that Jesus was raised and that angels had announced this to them, Peter got up, ran to the tomb and found it empty (Luke 24:1-12). This appears to contradict John who says Peter and the beloved disciple ran together to the tomb and found it empty (John 20:1-10). But one need read only twelve verses further in Luke 24 to see what Luke has done. Jesus is conversing with the disciples walking to Emmaus who are kept from recognizing him. He asked why they are troubled, and they relayed the story to him: “We thought Jesus was the Messiah. But he was crucified on Friday. Then something strange happened this morning. Our women folk went to the tomb and discovered it empty. They also informed us they had seen angels there who told them Jesus has risen from the dead. Then some of our own went to the tomb and discovered it empty as the women had claimed” (Luke 24:21-24).

In verse 12, Luke mentions only the lead disciple, Peter, running to the tomb. But the “some of our own” in verse 24 strongly suggests that Luke knows of one or more who had accompanied Peter. In these examples, both Luke and John appear to employ spotlighting. On occasion, they mention only the chief person involved, although they also appear to be aware of others who were present and who are mentioned by another evangelist. And while we are on the subject of the resurrection narratives, the use of spotlighting may be precisely why Matthew and Mark mention a single angel at the empty tomb, whereas Luke and John mention two. Perhaps Matthew and Mark are focusing on the angel announcing the news to the women that Jesus was raised from the dead just as Plutarch focused on the major person bringing the letters to Cicero.

GJM: What impact do you hope your current research will have on the modern study of what historians can know about Jesus of Nazareth?

MRL: I’m hoping my present research will lead us toward reading the Gospels closer to how their authors intended. If my observations are correct, evangelicals should not be too quick to harmonize the differing Gospel accounts, and critics should not view the differences as a reason to regard the Gospels as historically unreliable accounts of Jesus. I also hope a nuanced view of the Gospels will guard believers against the sort of faulty thinking promoted by skeptics like Bart Ehrman that has led some of them to jettison their faith.

GJM: Some Christians believe that the Bible must not contain any disagreements or contradictions in order for Christianity to be true. What would you say to these people? Does Christianity need four perfectly harmonizable Gospels in order to be true?

MRL: Christianity is true because Jesus rose from the dead. And Jesus’s resurrection can be historically established without even appealing to the Gospels. Moreover, if Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity was true prior to the penning of the New Testament literature. So, even if the Gospels contained historical errors, that would not at all suggest the Christian faith is false. Let me put it simply: If Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is true, even if it were to turn out that some events reported in the Bible are not.

GJM: Do you have any final words for the readers of this blog?

MRL: I’ve been working on this present research for close to six years and I’m very excited about what I’m discovering. I hope to wrap up my research by the end of this summer. Then I’ll begin writing a book on why there are differences in the Gospels. I’m hoping it will be available for purchase by the fall of 2016.

Mike is one of the world's leading experts on the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. I highly recommend his two books on the topic:

(Popular) M. R. Licona & G. R. Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus 

(Academic) M.R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach

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