Title: Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography
Author: Michael R. Licona
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New York, NY
Year of Publication: 2017
Number of pages: 308
Reviewed by Dale E. Luffman for the Association of Mormon Letters
From among the published essays and book titles regarding the genre of the Gospels, this text stands out. Many have often concluded that the represented narratives in the canonical Gospels appear seemingly contradictory. On the one hand, attempts at harmonization have been pursued by more conservative scholars. Alternatively, Gospel narratives have seemingly been dismissed as historically unreliable accounts of the person and works of Jesus and of his teachings by scholars representing more liberal exegetical traditions.
Seemingly wanting to avoid a persistent scholarly chasm, a rather novel approach has been undertaken by the author of this volume. The reader is invited by the author to journey into the genre of Greco-Roman biography, and to lay aside some of the presuppositions of scholarly entrenchment while attending to the argument of this text.
Two questions are posed to the prospective reader by the very title of this volume: why are there differences in the canonical Gospels? And what might one learn from ancient biography? Michael R. Licona, Associate Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University, attempts to address these two questions by first turning to three dozen or so pericopes narrated in Plutarch’s Lives, carefully examining them. The pericopes [self-contained passages] chosen appear in Plutarch’s narrations in two or more representations and are examined and commented on by the author, identifying differences in the narrative accounts composed by Plutarch himself, a representative of classical Greco-Roman biography. In addition, compositional devices used by Plutarch and other ancient classical scholars are examined.
The author narrates Plutarch’s historical compositions, then analyzes them by comparing similarities and differences in the logion that are to be found in Plutarch’s writings. He then offers a summary regarding the varied accounts of an historical event or figure. Licona finds, among other things, that Plutarch includes and omits materials according to biographical relevance of the various details, sometimes simplifying, sometimes exaggerating. Personalities being reported [e.g. Brutus, Pompey, Cato, Caesar] are often conflated; at other times, they are diminished. Various audiences/readers experience narrated events with slightly different composed detail and nuance in the various accounts provided by Plutarch in Plutarch’s Lives.
The author holds that we must consider that many of the differences encountered in Plutarch’s compositions are the result of recalling the story from memory. The differences that are to be observed have likely resulted from Plutarch’s use of compositional devices that were the conventions of the time. What available sources there might have been are not necessarily consulted, and even stories written earlier by Plutarch in Lives appear not to substantially contribute to evolving compositions.
From Plutarch, Licona turns to consider the canonical Gospels written during the same historical period. Licona asserts that in many cases it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine if a writer of a Gospel has altered his source or is using another in producing a text. Further, that there were likely multiple sources, and that these narratives need not be considered exhaustive.
Assuming a Markan priority, Licona carefully examines the probable historical events that lay behind many of the stories of miracles and exorcisms that are to be found in the Gospels, many of which have been substantially revised or embellished, and yet contain historical kernels that inform the texts themselves. Licona narrates these compositions, and then analyzes them by comparing similarities and differences in the logion that are to be found in the Gospel’s themselves as he had done with Plutarch’s Lives.
Examining Greco-Roman biography and comparing it to the reading of the Gospels in view of their biographical genre has not been widely pursued. Licona appears to be plowing new fields of narrative criticism in this work. As a result of his research, he asserts that during the age when the Gospels were written, the historians and biographers of the Greco-Roman world did not practice writing with the same commitment to precision and accuracy as modern writers. The emphasis was on entertainment, moral guidance, and the promotion of a particular portrait of the one being written about.
Adapting and adjusting details to fit the occasion seemed to be quite permissible. Plutarch paraphrases far more consistently and much more freely than what is to be found in the Gospel narratives. Although Gospel writers employ many of the ancient biographical compositional devices, Licona holds that significant evidence exists to suggest that the extent of the editing of the source materials by the evangelists is quite minimal compared with ancient Greco-Roman standards. Compared with Plutarch, the differences that are to be identified in Gospel pericopes, claims Licona, occur almost always in peripheral details, and not in substantive biographical material.
It would appear that the author of this unique text is desirous of inviting the reader to approach the Gospel narratives in what he considers a new and refreshing manner. Licona invites readers to approach the Gospels in light of an enhanced biographical lens. He invites the reader to peer through a lens that he believes has the potential to provide a way to understanding not only the manner in which Gospel texts differ from Greco-Roman biography but how the Gospels themselves evidence difference from each other based on refined ancient compositional practice.
Members of LDS traditions may find this to be an intriguing volume to consider because of the attention that is often given to the textual development of the formational texts of the movement. The Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith’s Biblical Revision Project, the development of the Doctrine and Covenants, and other writings appear to be addressed in principle in this author’s work. One might ask, how do narrative compositional devices employed by Joseph Smith, Jr. compare with the ancient Greco-Roman biographers such as Plutarch and the canonical Gospel writers? And, what can be learned from these comparisons?
Licona seems to have broken new ground in this unique text, ground that will invite other scholars to join him in tilling, planting, and perhaps harvesting growing insights into the Gospel narratives and their faithful witness in the church. Although it seems that he may be claiming too much regarding his findings at times, his basic contribution is just that, a contribution to the study of the ancient normative texts of the Christian tradition.
Indeed, ancient biography can perhaps enlighten the church’s understandings of the differences in the four canonical Gospels, giving renewed attestation to the Word of God in the contemporary church.