I would like to take the opportunity of this final contribution to our debate to thank Mike Licona for a lively exchange on an unusually important topic and to express my appreciation to TheBestSchools.org for making it possible. I hope that our back-and-forth has been useful to those who very much want to know whether the New Testament can be seen as a historically reliable set of documents.
I do want to stress that this has been the question we have been debating. We have not had as our topic the question of whether the New Testament is the Word of God, whether it is theologically truthful, whether it is a reliable guide to how a person should live, love, and behave, or anything else. Our topic has been whether the events it describes — specifically in the Gospels — happened in the way that it indicates, or not.
As Mike has laid out his view, it has become clear that he thinks the Gospels are basically reliable in the main things they say, but that they are not reliable in their details. The authors of the Gospels, as Mike has repeatedly stated, felt completely free to use literary license in order to change the details of their accounts for artistic reasons. And so they often would modify a story so that it was no longer expressing what really happened, in order to make it a better story (he uses the example of the healing of Jairus’s daughter as an example); or they would tell a story as if it happened, but not really mean that it happened — that is, some of their accounts are actually not historical records of what took place (he gives as an example one of the key events that allegedly occurred at Jesus’s death).
Other people would think that if the Gospel writers changed their accounts away from what actually happened for literary reasons, or if they told stories that did not actually occur, this would make them historically inaccurate. But Mike doesn’t think so. This, then, separates Mike from other Bible readers who have firm views about the historical accuracy of the Gospels. I would like to point out an interesting phenomenon, which I think is probably an empirical fact, that the only people who think the Gospels are absolutely accurate in every detail are Christian fundamentalists who are committed for theological reasons to thinking that the Bible cannot have any mistakes of any kind whatsoever because the authors were inspired to write exactly what happened in every detail. Mike is clearly not in that fundamentalist camp.
But I also want to point out a related phenomenon which I think is also an empirical fact, that the only people who want to argue that the Gospels are completely reliable in each and every thing that they strive to affirm — this is more or less Mike’s view — are also committed Christians who have theological beliefs about the inspiration of the Bible that would be violated were they to take some other view of the accuracy of their accounts. If that’s true — that only committed Christians are the ones who see the Bible as historically accurate in everything it affirms, and that this view is rooted in theological beliefs — then I think we should ask how much this view is a view historians would draw or, instead, is a view that only believers (whether historians or not) would draw. If it’s a historical view, why do historians who do not have a stake in the matter not share it?
I am not objecting to the view because it is rooted in a theological set of beliefs. I’m simply saying that if it is a view driven by a theological commitment to God, Christ, and the Bible, then we should recognize it as a theological belief, not one driven by a historian’s concern to decide what really happened in the past. Historians — whether believers or not — have one thing, and only thing, as their focus of study. They want to know what happened. And so they want to know if our sources are reliable. Not just in general, but in detail. If the only people who think the Bible is historically reliable in all that it affirms as having happened are theologically committed to that view, in what sense is it a view that passes muster among historians? And if it doesn’t pass muster among historians, in what sense can we affirm that it is a historical view?
I take heart in Mike’s statements that the authors of the Gospels often used literary devices in the molding of their stories, and that in doing so they were simply doing what other authors of the period did, authors such as Plutarch or Suetonius. I completely agree that when we are looking at ancient sources such as the Gospels, we need to situate them in their own historical context and see how authors of their own day presented their accounts. Ancient writers simply didn’t have the tools of research that are available to us today. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — whatever their real names, and whoever they actually were — did not have data retrieval systems or databases. They didn’t even have libraries. Or, many written sources to go on. They can’t be expected to have produced historical accounts the way modern biographers and historians produce historical accounts.
The problem is that so many modern readers — Christians who revere the Bible — expect them to be accurate in ways that modern writers are. If we approach these Gospel accounts with modern eyes, we seem to expect them to produce modern results. When we read a biography of Abraham Lincoln or Ronald Reagan, we expect the facts to be researched, verified, cross-checked, and accurate. Not just basically accurate, but really accurate. I completely agree with Mike that this is a wildly unrealistic expectation with respect to Scripture. We cannot impose modern standards on ancient writers.
But does that mean that we can then conclude that these books are accurate? That seems to be Mike’s position — that if the Gospels are as accurate as Plutarch or Suetonius, then they can be seen as accurate. I think a lot of readers will think that this is somewhat skirting the real issue and changing the terms of our debate. Most readers, when they want to know if the Gospel accounts “tell it like it was” — that is, that the Gospels narrate events that actually happened in the way that they are described — they are not asking whether the Gospels are “as good as” some other books. They simply want to know: Did this event happen? And did it happen in the way the Gospels say it did? They do not want to know if Matthew’s account of Jesus is about as good as Plutarch’s account of Romulus. Most people don’t know that Plutarch wrote a Life of Romulus. Why would they care of Matthew’s Gospel is as good as a book they’ve never heard of? They want to know whether Matthew’s account accurately describes what happened in Jesus’s life.
I should point out that if even if Matthew’s account of Jesus were as good as Plutarch’s account of Romulus, that would definitely not make it very reliable! Many of Plutarch’s Lives are notoriously unreliable, historically. It’s kind of like saying that I must have been a good tennis player because I was at least as good as everyone else in my high school. But what if no one in my high school was any good in tennis? We can’t say that Matthew must be reliable because he is at least as good as skilled Plutarch — which by the way, he is not, as any classicist will tell you — unless we know how reliable Plutarch is.
So, does Matthew accurately describe what actually happened in Jesus’s life? Mike has already told us that he thinks in some cases the answer is no. Matthew has employed literary license in order to change details in his accounts so they didn’t happen as he described, and he tells some stories that are “non-historical” — that is, they didn’t happen at all. But Mike then wants to say that Matthew is, despite all that, historically reliable. I don’t think most people would think that this is what we today mean by “historically reliable.” And I think a lot of people — including many people reading this back and forth — would very much like to know how often Mike thinks this sort of thing happens in Matthew. Does Matthew frequently change his stories and make up other ones that he doesn’t think happened? How would we know? If an author is willing to change the details of one story, why not other stories? Why not lots of stories? Why not most of his stories? And how would we know? Moreover, if he is willing to make up a story and present it as something that happened when he knew full well that it didn’t happen (as Mike concedes Matthew did), then how often did he do that? A few other times? Lots of other times? If he did it lots, how is he accurate?
In short, to say that Matthew was doing that because everyone was doing it doesn’t really help us out very much, if what we want to know is whether we can trust that what Matthew tells us happened actually happened, and happened in the way that he says it happened. Just because everyone else changed and made up stories, does that mean Matthew is accurate when he does so? That’s kind of like saying that I haven’t broken the law when I got a speeding ticket because everyone goes over the speed limit.
Some Key Points
Now let me stress several of my overarching points.
- The Gospel accounts are filled with discrepancies and contradictions. You don’t need to take my word for it. Simply compare the accounts yourself. Take the birth narratives of Jesus in Luke 1–2 and Matthew 1–2 and compare them carefully, line by line, statement by statement; note all their similarities and differences; and see if any of the differences are irreconcilable. For example, if Luke is right that after the sacrifice for Mary’s purification — this would be 33 days after giving birth, according to Leviticus 12:4 — Jesus’s family returned to Nazareth, how can Matthew be right that they fled to Egypt? Even Mike says that these two accounts are so entangled that he “doesn’t know what’s going on”! What’s going on is that the two accounts cannot be reconciled. So, obviously they both can’t be telling us what actually happened. But that’s the case, why should we conclude that they are “accurate”?
- You can do the same thing with the resurrection narratives. Simply go line by line and compare the four accounts. Mike in his response tries to reconcile these accounts, but he skips over some of the really important issues. Here’s a big one: Matthew explicitly states that the disciples were told to go to Galilee to see Jesus. They do so. They see Jesus there. And he gives them there his final instructions. Fair enough. But Luke explicitly states that on the day of his resurrection Jesus met the disciples in Jerusalem and point-blank told them not to leave the city. And they don’t leave the city. They are there for 40 days with him, and then had ascends to heaven. And they stay in Jerusalem until the day of Pentecost and beyond. So how can Matthew be right that they went to Galilee? If you want to say “it’s not an important point,” then I have to say that I disagree. We’re not talking about a picayune little matter here, but about the heart of the resurrection narratives.
- One of the reasons the Gospel narratives are filled with so many discrepancies and contradictions is that the authors were not able to base their accounts on substantial numbers of records made by people who had accompanied Jesus at the time. There were no substantial records. Mike himself agrees that the disciples of Jesus were lower-class, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking peasants from Galilee. They could not read, let alone write. None of them wrote down what Jesus said. Moreover, the Gospel writers do not claim to have been among Jesus’s followers. Mike claims that the author of John claims to be an eyewitness. That is absolutely wrong. Simply look at the verses that Mike quotes from John. John 19:35 does not say anything about the author being the person he is talking about (it only talks about what “he” said); and John 21:24 clearly differentiates between the author and the person he is talking about (“he” said this and “we” know he’s right). The Gospels were written by highly literate, Greek-speaking Christians living 40–65 years after the death of Jesus. Let me stress: this is NOT a disputed point among critical scholars of the New Testament or ancient historians generally. These authors were not eyewitnesses. They lived in different countries from Jesus. They spoke a different language from Jesus. They did not have extensive written documentation from those who were eyewitnesses to Jesus because there was no documentation.
- Where then did the authors get their accounts? They heard the stories about Jesus that had been in circulation for year after year, decade after decade, all by word of mouth. Mike has made some rather general comments about how oral traditions can be trusted to be historically accurate, and he refers readers to a book written about it. I would indeed urge readers to read that book. But don’t restrict yourself to a book written by a New Testament scholar. From 2013–15, I did almost nothing but read books about memory and oral tradition. There is a lot out there, written by real experts. The literature on what happens to stories as they are circulated by word of mouth in oral cultures is fascinating, and very much worth reading. Three of the most important books — these are classics, which most scholars of the Gospels have never looked at — are Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales (Harvard UP, 1960), Jack Goody’s The Domestication of the Savage Mind (Cambridge UP, 1977), and Jan Vansina’s Oral Tradition (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965). You don’t have to take my word for it that in oral cultures traditions change, and change radically, from one telling to the next. Just read what experts tell us. You’ll be amazed. What our common sense tells us, and what we all used to hear (i.e., that in oral cultures they made sure they didn’t change their stories because there was no written materials to preserve their traditions intact), is in fact wrong. This was the subject of my most recent book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2016). If you’re really interested in seeing how the study of memory (i.e., how we individually remember, misremember, forget, and even invent memories) and the study of oral cultures (as studied by real experts in cultural anthropology) can help us understand how the stories of Jesus were changed over the years of telling and retelling, I’d suggest reading my book. If nothing else, you’ll read about the fascinating studies done in all the relevant fields, and you can then read them for yourself!
Let me conclude simply by saying what a privilege it has been for me to participate in such a lively and important back-and-forth. If you are really interested in knowing whether the Gospels of the New Testament are historically accurate — if you really do want to know — then I suggest you look long and hard at the actual evidence. When I started out as a graduate student studying the New Testament, I was absolutely convinced that the Gospels were completely accurate, with no mistakes in them. I was committed to that belief theologically, but I also thought that it was completely defensible historically. And because I was sure of that, I was not afraid to consider the evidence.
I knew that others (I considered them dangerously “liberal” scholars) had other views, but I was sure they were wrong. I wanted to examine their claims and their evidence precisely so that I could show that they were wrong. But I was committed to accepting the evidence, whatever the evidence was. And over time, I started realizing, slowly at first, that in fact these other scholars had some good points. I realized that there were a few small details in the Gospels that represented discrepancies. Even contradictions. And once I began to admit that it was possible, I started seeing more of them. Then more. And then more.
I began to wonder if the discrepancies could involve not merely small picayune little details but bigger matters. Larger parts of stories. Major parts of stories. Entire stories themselves. And I started realizing that some of the things that the Gospels said could not be reconciled with the facts of history.
Throughout this entire process, needless to say, I was changing my views of the Gospels. I continued to be committed to them as God’s revelation to his people, as speaking God’s word. But I also came to realize that they were not the historically accurate accounts that I had previously assumed they were.
I’m not saying that you will necessarily draw these same conclusions. But I do hope you will look at the evidence. If we are interested in the Gospels purely for religious or theological or personal-devotional reasons, then the question of whether they are historically accurate or not may not matter to us. But if we want to know whether the events they describe actually happened in the way they indicate, or even happened at all, then we need to pursue that question by looking at them historically. And to do that requires us to consider the historical evidence. That evidence is both abundant and clear. As deeply cherished as the Gospels are to believers throughout the world and throughout history, as much as they continue to speak to people today, from a strictly historical view they cannot be seen as historically accurate. When I was younger, I wished that was otherwise. But I got to a point where I realized it was true, and I came to realize that for me it was more important to affirm what was true than to hold on to what I simply hoped and wanted to be true. I hope you will feel the same way.