Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?

What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography

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Michael R. Licona
  • London, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Why Are There Differences in the Gospels, Michael Licona compares parallels among the canonical Gospels with parallels in, primarily, Plutarch’s Lives. Licona’s implied audience appears to consist of students, scholars, and educated non-specialists situated on the conservative side of the theological spectrum—those who might be troubled by the presence of irreconcilable differences in the Gospels.

Licona helps his readers orient themselves in the introduction and first two chapters. The introduction discusses the judgment of many New Testament scholars that the Gospels resemble ancient biographies. Especially important for Licona’s implied audience, he emphasizes that ancient biographies employed literary conventions that differ dramatically from those guiding modern biographies. Chapter 1 introduces readers to the progymnasmata—“preliminary exercises”—especially chreiai and other narrative exercises, such as paraphrases, elaborations, and inflections. These exercises helped those receiving a literate education gain facility in composing persuasive discourse. Chapter 2 introduces readers to the biographical details and writings of Plutarch. Licona, again, emphasizes the differences between modern and ancient biographies; he also discusses additional compositional techniques evinced in the Lives that are considered later. Explaining the relevance of Plutarch’s Lives for interpreting the Gospels, Licona says that with Plutarch “we are able to compare how the same author told the same story on multiple occasions while often using the same sources” (22); accordingly, Licona often attributes discrepancies to the use of compositional devices.

In chapters 3-5, Licona analyzes parallels in Plutarch’s Lives and in the Gospels. Chapter 3 reviews thirty pericopae that appear at least twice among the nine Lives selected by Licona—those featuring Sertorius, Lucullus, Cicero, Pompey, Crassus, Caesar, Cato the Younger, Brutus, and Antony. These pericopae feature events from the late Roman Republic (ca. 78 BCE-42 BCE) which encapsulates both triumviral periods. Chapter 4 reviews sixteen parallel pericopae from the Gospels. Licona assumes Markan priority and favors the Two-Source solution to the Synoptic Problem. He explains that he selected pericopae regarded “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 ... in Plutarch’s Lives” (182). At the end of this chapter, Lincona observes that the Gospel writers often treat earlier Gospels in the same way—in terms of literary and artistic license—that they treat the Septuagint. In chapter 6, Licona describes ten cases—five from classical literature, five from the Gospels—of “synthetic chronology,” that is, cases where writers have created artificial links between their narrative accounts, including the purposeful relocation of pericopae. Whereas Licona accounts for many of these discrepancies between the different Lives by appealing to the biographical relevance of included or omitted details, he often attributes differences among the Gospels to literary or theological considerations. On the whole, however, he concludes that many of the same compositional tendencies are exhibited in both Plutarch’s Lives and the Gospels.

In a short conclusion, Licona emphasizes that the discrepancies among the Gospel accounts reflect an ancient sensibility more concerned with good storytelling than with factual accuracy. Thus, although irreconcilable differences exist among the Gospels’ narrations of Jesus’s life, most—if not all—of these appear to have been generated in accord with the accepted generic conventions of ancient biographies.

I have only a few quibbles with Licona’s interesting work.

First, Licona asserts that “the Synoptics are clear that John the Baptist baptized Jesus (Mark 1:9; Matt. 3:13; Luke 3:21)” (124). John the Baptist is imprisoned in Luke 3:20, however, and Luke does not state who baptizes Jesus in Luke 3:21.

Second, Matthew’s version of the healing of the centurion’s servant (Matt 8:5–13) lacks details—included in Luke’s version (Luke 7:1–10)—about the centurion sending Jewish elders to summon Jesus and then sending friends to stop Jesus outside his house (Luke 7:3, 6). Licona appears to presume that Luke preserves the story as it appeared in Q because he concludes that “this is likely an example of Matthew compressing the narrative and transferring what a messenger had communicated to the literal mouth of the one who had sent the messenger” (130). The critical edition of Q, however, also lacks these Lukan details. If Licona has referred to a different reconstruction of Q, I was unable to find the reference.

Third, some readers may judge that Licona’s helpful study could have been further enriched by reference to Vernon K. Robbins’s essay “Writing as a Rhetorical Act in Plutarch and the Gospels” (in Persuasive Artistry: Studies in New Testament Rhetoric in Honor of George A. Kennedy, JSOT Press, 1991, 157-86).

Lastly, some readers may also find it curious that Licona’s book lacks an engagement with several important classics scholars, most notably Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, Cambridge University Press, 2012). Accordingly, I expect that such readers—though appreciative of Licona’s contribution—will desire greater nuance. David Konstan and Robyn Walsh, for example, identify two different tendencies within ancient biographies: a civic tradition—which foregrounds the subject’s personality and moral character—and a subversive tradition—which foregrounds the subject’s wit using conversations and anecdotes (“Civic and Subversive Biography in Antiquity,” Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization, Cambridge University Press, 2016, 26-43). Konstan and Walsh locate Plutarch’s Lives in the former tradition—among the likes of Suetonius—and the Gospels in the latter, along with the Life of Homer, the Life of Aesop, and the Alexander Romance. Licona, however, does not acknowledge the distinction between Plutarch’s historiographical tone and the Gospels’ novelistic tone.

Nevertheless, Licona should be applauded for helping his audience rethink their presuppositions about the Gospels by situating them among ancient Mediterranean biographies, rather than the modern kind, correcting a “historical nearsightedness” (201). Moreover, the presentation is very reader friendly, with a glossary and appendices added to assist those lacking certain competencies. Interested readers can add this affordable volume to their libraries with confidence.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Kochenash has a Ph.D. in New Testament and Christian Origins from Claremont School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
May 29, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael R. Licona is Associate Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University.



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