Mythology? History? Biographies? Why are there differences in the four Gospels?

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The Religion Guy observes that the wording of the perennial question above is the title of an important new book by Michael Licona of Houston Baptist University and published by the prestigious Oxford University Press.

Variations among the four New Testament Gospels in parallel accounts of the same events and sayings are fascinating for scholars. And they can perplex believers, though most involve details that don’t affect the main teaching or are easily explained in Bible commentaries.

Meanwhile, those who seek to deride the scriptures and thus the Christian tradition emphasize these differences, calling them “contradictions” and “mistakes.”

In reality, there are fewer such puzzlers than skeptics imply, yet more of them than many believers might admit.

Licona’s research on this is deemed “significant” by Dale Allison of Princeton Theological Seminary, “illuminating” by Richard Bauckham of the University of St. Andrews, and “exemplary” by Christopher Pelling of Oxford University.

In his scenario, the Gospel writers or editors followed a flexible process that was commonplace in ancient times but doesn’t always fit present-day historiography (history-writing): “Ancient biographical conventions provided authors a license to depart from the degree of precision in reporting that many of us moderns prefer.”

One foundation for this theory is found in “What Are The Gospels?” (1992) by Richard Burridge, dean of King’s College, London. He overturned liberal thinking to make the case that the Gospels were meant as history, not mythology, and fit within the genre of biographies in ancient Greece and Rome. (Burridge’s importance is explained right here).

Licona’s research involved writing techniques from seven ancient rhetoric textbooks that have survived, one possibly dating from the 1st Century when the Gospels were written, and then 36 illustrative passages from Plutarch’s “Lives,” celebrated Roman biographies written in subsequent decades.

He observes that ancient biographers might paraphrase texts, omit or expand points, substitute synonyms, shift from singular to plural or vice versa, turn a speech into a dialogue, change a question into a statement, narrate the same story differently depending on context, transfer words from one speaker to another, change the order of events, or round off numbers. The results were “generally accurate” but “not technically precise.”

The writer’s purpose was “to tell a story in a manner that entertained, provided moral guidance, emphasized points they regarded as important, and paint a portrait of important people. If they had to adapt some details on occasion, it was permissible,” Licona concludes, not “to distort the truth but to communicate it more effectively.”

Continue reading "Why are there differences in the four Gospels? ", by Richard Ostling.

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