Michael R. Licona, “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography”

The basic theme of this interesting book is that, in asking why there are differences in the four accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus that we find in the Gospels, one ought to consider, not how biographies are written now, but how biographies were written then — and that, if one does that, the differences are more understandable and do not detract from the overall veracity of those four accounts.

As Craig A. Evans puts it in his foreword (x):

To understand the New Testament Gospels and the kind of biography or history that they offer, it is necessary to compare them to the biographies and histories that were written in their time, not our time.  This is what Michael Licona has done ….  Dr. Licona addresses this important question by inquiring into how the ancients wrote history.  He focuses on Plutarch, who flourished at the end of the first century and the first two decades of the second century and authored the Lives.  The choice of Plutarch is a good one because in several biographies he frequently covers the same ground, thus creating a number of parallels or, we might say, “synoptic” accounts not unlike what we have in the New Testament Gospels, especially in the first three — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — which scholars call the Synoptic Gospels because of their many parallels.

And, as the author himself puts it (3):

This volume will pursue the identification of several techniques employed in the writing of ancient history and biography that can be gleaned from [ancient] compositional textbooks and inferred from observations of the differences in how Plutarch reported the same events in nine of his Lives. We will also observe how the employment of these techniques by the evangelists would result in precisely the types of differences we often observe in the Gospels. This book is not a Rosetta Stone for understanding all of the differences in the Gospels.  Its aim is rather to investigate compositional devices that are often inferred by classical scholars and by some New Testament scholars in order to see if the existence of those devices may be more firmly established and provide insights into many of the differences in the Gospels.

I’ll note also that, while the book limits itself almost entirely to Plutarch, it also makes clear (see, e.g., 86-91) that his techniques were typical of his (and, thus, the Gospels’) time.  One of the most important of those techniques, by the way, is “spotlighting” — that is, mentioning only a particular character present at some event because of his significance, even if there may also have been other characters present.


I would make three points.

First, how plausible and important all this is depends heavily, it seems to me, on Gospel authorship and editorship.  That is, if neither the authors nor the editors knew anything about Plutarch’s conventions, then it seems much less likely that the text we now have was influenced by those conventions.  And, conversely, if an author or editor did know a lot about those conventions, then it seems perfectly plausible that the text we now have was influenced by those conventions.  For whatever reason, the book doesn’t really address this matter.  And it might be that the answer varies from Gospel to Gospel.  We’d expect Luke to be more classically stylized than, say, Mark, wouldn’t we?  — that is, if we accept the traditional view that Mark drew basically from the reminisces of Peter (a Jewish fisherman from Galilee), while Luke was written by gentile physician, likely from somewhere closer to Athens and Rome, conducting interviews and research in order to write something for another, apparently well-educated, gentile (the “most excellent Theophilus”).

Second, for a Christian, the book is not very reassuring in one way, but reassuring in another.  If it was common practice among ancient biographers to write some things that are not exactly true — or, let’s say instead, to write some things that we moderns would consider to be errant — then showing that the Gospel writers followed this common practice is not very reassuring to Christians who want to argue that the Bible is inerrant (likewise,  consider the author’s statement regarding the four Gospels’ account of Jesus’ crucifixion and death:  “Paraphrasing and/or imprecise memory or reporting is responsible for differences in wording” (167)).  On the other hand, if Licona’s thesis defeats those who would point to inconsistencies in the Gospels as proving that its writers were liars or hopelessly sloppy or fantasists — well, then that thesis can provide us Christians some reassurance.  Thus, if the book is right, then perhaps complete inerrancy may become less likely — I’m not going to wrestle now with how to define “inerrant” — but the Gospels’ basic truth becomes more so.

My third point ties in with the fact that, as noted elsewhere on this blogsite, I’m an unembarrassed fan of red-letter Bibles:  I think what Jesus had to say really is more important than just about anything else you can find in the New Testament (the one exception being, of course, what Jesus actually did, especially his miracles and, most important of all, his Resurrection).  If you think there’s anything to this, then Craig Evans’s foreword (x) makes a reassuring point:

… [C]ompared to the compositional practice of Plutarch, the authors of the Gospels were far more conservative, especially when it comes to the editing and paraphrasing of the words of Jesus.  Indeed, it has been observed that the authors of the New Testament Gospels are far more conservative in their paraphrasing of the words of Jesus than was Josephus in his paraphrasing the words of Israel’s ancient Scripture.  What the evidence seems to show is that while the authors of the New Testament Gospels exhibit many of the compositional practices of their day, they also had a very high regard for the stories of Jesus, especially for his words.


Now I’ll flesh out the book at bit more.

In between the book’s “Introduction” and “Conclusion” chapters are five more:  “Compositional Textbooks,” “Who Was Plutarch?,” “Parallel Pericopes in Plutarch’s Lives,” “Parallel Pericopes in the Canonical Gospels,” and “Synthetic Chronological Placement in the Gospels.”

The treatment of Plutarch concludes this way (110-11):

   Having carefully analyzed the differences that appear when the same story is told in two or more of Plutarch’s Lives, we are now prepared to render some final conclusions for this section.  On occasion, Plutarch errs.  Only rarely do his accounts disagree on so many details that we are left puzzled and entirely unaware of what he was doing ….  The differences we observe almost always could have resulted from Plutarch’s use of compositional devices that have been noted by classical scholars for some time and who have contended that there were standard conventions for writing history and biography of that day and were practiced by virtually all.  Moreover, those differences appear to occur only in the peripheral details.  And we must consider the possibility that, in many instances, the differences result from Plutarch’s recalling the story from memory raher than checking his source(s) and even what he had written earlier in another Life.

With these observations in mind, we will now turn our attention to the Gospels in the New Testament and assess a number of pericopes that appear in two or more of them.  We will look for differences in how they report the same story and assess whether it seems likely that the authors were using compositional devices similar to those employed by Plutarch.

In the book’s “Conclusion” (197-98), the author writes that in chapter 3

[w]e identified thirty-six pericopes Plutarch narrates in two or more of the nine Lives and then observed that Plutarch compresses stories, conflates them, transfers what one character said to the lips of a different person, inverts the order of events, rounds numbers, simplifies, and displaces a story or an element of a story from its original context and then transplants it in a different one, occasionally using a synthetic chronology. The most common device we observed Plutarch using was literary spotlighting.

“[C]hronological precision does not appear to have been very important to ancient biographers …” (135).  Later he identifies three kinds of chronology: “floating,” “implied,” and “explicit” (190).  Here’s the “Summary” of chapter 5, “Synthetic Chronological Placement in the Gospels” (196, endnote and sentence transitioning to “Conclusion” chapter omitted):

  In this chapter, I have provided five examples in which Plutarch, Sallust, and Tacitus appear to have altered the chronology of an event and five examples where the evangelists may have done likewise.  We observed three types of chronology in the Gospels:  floating, implied, and explicit.  Lucian taught that the proper method for writing history is not to provide a collections of stories in a disjointed manner but instead to connect the stories like links of a chain, using overlapping material when possible.  We observed Mathew doing this more than the other evangelists and Luke doing it least often, at least if we are thinking of linking events in a chronological manner.  Luke may have instead preferred to link events thematically.  On occasion, the explicit chronology presented in one Gospel appears in tension with the strongly implied or even explicit chronology in another Gospel.  In most of these instances, it appears that one of the evangelists altered the chronology of an event.  In some of these, the reasons for doing so can be plausibly surmised to produce a smooth-flowing narrative, highlight a point the evangelist desired to make, provide a contextual home for an orphaned story, or for reasons not apparent to us.

The author then says (117-18) that, in his New Testament discussion that follows, there are

nineteen pericopes that appear on two or more occasions throughout the canonical Gospels.  Although there are many more than those that follow, I have limited myself to those pericopes I regard as having the best chance of containing differences resulting from the same type of compositional devices described in the compositional textbooks and inferred from the pericopes we examined in Plutarch’s Lives.  On the rare occasion when I have touched on a lengthy discourse of Jesus, I have only mentioned one or a few elements in that discourse.

The chapter on the Gospels concludes with this paragraph (184):

   In short, a very large majority of the differences we have observed could be the result of an evangelist using a different source or employing the compositional devices that were standard conventions for writing history and biography in his day. Moreover, these differences almost always appear in the peripheral details.  [I’ll add here that the author is aware that some Christians argue that there are no actual contradictions at all; he argues, however, that his approach make more sense than efforts to harmonize/explain away every difference.]

Here is a key paragraph from the book’s “Conclusion” chapter (199-200, endnotes omitted, italics used to show author’s block quote within my own block quote here):

This [comparing Plutarch with the Gospels] led me to an interesting observation.  Despite the fact that the evangelists employ many of the same compositional devices that were taught in the compositional textbooks and others that were employed by Plutarch, the extent of editing by the evangelists is minimal by ancient standards.  As interesting as the differences in the Gospels may be, it is the refusal of their authors to paraphrase more freely that is striking to those readers familiar with both the Gospels and Plutarch’s Lives.  This is especially true of the Synoptic Gospels.  I am not the first to make this observation.  Gerald Downing writes:

It is because people were taught to “say the same thing in other words” that close repetition of the same words among our sources [i.e., the Gospels] … appears so striking and so much in need of comment. … With so much pressure in favour of paraphrase, and so common a conviction of its validity, it really does seem very strange that we find so much identical wording among our Synoptic Gospels.

Elsewhere, having compared Josephus’s use of his sources with how the authors of the Synoptic Gospels use theirs, Downing writes,

It is not the divergences among the synoptists (or even between them and John), in parallel contexts, that are remarkable: it is the extraordinary extent of verbal similarities.  The question is, Why were they content to copy so much? rather than, Why did they bother to change this or that?  The procedure is not however mechanical, and there are considerable divergencies.  But it has to be recognized that the relationship may betoken a greater respect, one for the other, even than Josephus’ for Scripture.

Similar to Plutarch, the differences in the Gospel pericopes we examined occur almost always in the peripheral details.  Of course, our samplings of pericopes from Plutarch and the Gospels are limited, and more robust samplings could reveal exceptions.  In our limited sampling, we observed a pericope in which the Gospels narrate a few broader differences than we find in those Lives we examined and cannot be explained by appealing to the compositional devices we identified in them.


A few additional notes:

  • The Lives pericopes chosen are interesting in and of themselves — that is, they discuss people and events that were (and remain) important and exciting.  Also regarding Lives, the author states, “I am making no suggestions that the evangelists were more or less accurate than Plutarch” (25).
  • At the outset of the discussion of the New Testament, there’s a good discussion (113-16) of different theories on the relationship between the four Gospels (including the “Two-Source Hypothesis,” “Farrer Hypothesis,” and “Griesbach Hypothesis”) along with a discussion of differing theories on the authorship of John’s Gospel.
  • Here’s the discussion of an interesting “redaction” (166; emphasis in original, endnotes omitted):

For the next-to-last logion, it appears that John has redacted “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Mark // Matthew) to say, “I am thirsty.” Daniel Wallace proposes that since every occurrence of “thirst” in John carries the meaning of being devoid of God’s Spirit, the evangelist has reworked what Jesus said “into an entirely different form.” It is “a dynamic equivalent transformation” of what we read in Mark // Matthew. Accordingly, in John, Jesus is stating that God has abandoned him. In Mark 15:34, Jesus quotes Ps. 22:1: “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” Thus, John can write, “Knowing that everything had now been accomplished, in order that the Scripture may be fulfilled [i.e., Ps. 22:1], Jesus said, “I am thirsty” (John 19:28, emphasis added). John has redacted Jesus’s words but has retained their meaning.

  • The book has a good paragraph summarizing and listing the non-Gospel parts of the New Testament confirming Jesus’ resurrection (170).
  • Here’s what I think is an important endnote in the book (238 n.10):

Even such a conservative Christian scholar as F. F. Bruce can speak of Shakespeare’s rendition of Antony’s eulogy at Caesar’s funeral reported in Plutarch’s Brutus, “a translation of the freest kind, a transposition into another key,” and write, “What Shakespeare does by dramatic insight (and, it may be added, what many a preacher does by homiletical skill), all this and much more the Spirit of God accomplished in our Evangelist [i.e., John]. It does not take divine inspiration to provide a verbatim transcript; but to reproduce the words which were spirit and life to their first believing hearers in such a way that they continue to communicate their saving message and prove themselves to be spirit and life to men and women today, nineteen centuries after John wrote—that is the work of the Spirit of God” (F. F. Bruce, The Gospel and Epistles of John [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983], 16–17).

  • On the next page there’s another interesting endnote, this one discussing different theories on the authorship of John’s gospel (239 n.12) (in addition to the traditional John the son of Zebedee, there are John the Elder and Lazarus; the Beloved Disciple is considered by many to be a likely eyewitness source even if he did not actually write the gospel).
  • The book has some unusual and interesting appendices/indices (e.g., “Biosketches of Main Characters in Plutarch’s Lives“).
  • The book is dedicated to Craig Keener and John Ramsey.  William Lane Craig, among others, is thanked (xiii), along with Gary Habermas, with whom he coauthored another book, The Case for the Resurrection (2004).  It’s a little odd that the author quotes and cites Bart Ehrman without making clear that he is a Christian-turned-agnostic (112; note that Licona and Ehrman are debate sparring partners but also personal friends).
  • The author had a dispute regarding one of his earlier works; unsurprisingly, to me, it brought in the matter of Biblical inerrancy (see his Wikipedia entry here).
  • Other passages of note:  (1) the principal Plutarch chapter is summarized on pages 108-11 (see this link); and (2) an overview of the format and methodology of the principal chapter on the Gospels can be found on pages 117-19 (see this link).
  • If you want to get a taste of the book, you can read an interview with the author about the subject here: https://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2017/06/why-are-there-differences-in-the-gospels-an-interview-with-michael-r-licona/