Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?

Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography is by Dr. Michael Licona, an Associate Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University.  This book is published by the renowned Oxford University Press. Dr. Licona has also written The Resurrection of Jesus, Evidence for God, Paul Meets Muhammed, and other works.  His website, Risen Jesus, offers a number of resources and details about his ministry.

In my meandering book hunting, I came across Michael Licona’s works about a year ago.  It was yet another pleasant reminder of how God has raised up so many scholars and teachers in the Kingdom.  He is not a novice or new comer, but I was not previously aware of his work.  I continue to be impressed by Houston Baptist University because of the big names that are associated with that school.  Along with Dr. Licona, Dr. Louis Markos and Dr. Nancy Pearcey also teach there.  If I suddenly get an all expense paid scholarship to HBU, I will go just to take their courses.

Let me now speak about this particular study, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?

First, notice that this book is published by Oxford University Press.  I quickly snatch up and buy almost any book I find that OUP publishes.  If it is part of the “Oxford Book of ___________________” collection, I usually want it.  But most of my reading and collecting from OUP are in the fields of history and literature.

University Presses are astounding.  They publish far too many books for the average reader to even become aware of.  Yes, many are obscure, esoteric, and deeply academic studies.  Yes, many are priced way beyond the range of any but college libraries and wealthy folks.  But they also publish many readable histories, biographies, and other studies.

In spite of the paranoia we conservative Christians have, college presses publish lots of books that are both politically conservative and favorable to Christianity.  There are, in our times, way more than the 6,000 of Elijah’s time who have not bended their knees to Baal.  Then there are some folks who genuinely respect the academic and spiritual freedom of Christians.

Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers by Daniel Dreisbach, also an OUP publications, is one such example of a great study by a Christian scholar.  Dr. Thomas Kidd’s historical books are published by various secular academic presses.  Michael McVicar’s Christian Reconstruction:  R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism was published by the University of North Carolina Press. The University Press of Kentucky has published Bradley Birzer’s biography of conservative intellectual Russell Kirk and more recently has published Imaginative Conservative:  The Letters of Russell Kirk.  And the list goes on.

Second,  this book is a win/win for people who are in classical Christian education.  The reason is that at least a third of the book is a detailed survey of Plutarch’s Lives and some other ancient biographies.  The other large emphasis in the book is the Gospel accounts.  I suffered great embarrassment while reading about Plutarch’s Lives because it is a book I have read from, but have never read.  I should have long ago read it and should have been teaching it.  But here is a resource for that future eventuality.

Okay, I have read the Gospels!  The jist of this book is that the Gospel writers employed methods of writing that were common for the literary culture of their times.  Biographies in our time (20th/21st centuries) are of a different caliber than biographies of the past.  This is not a good versus bad pairing, but a “this is different from that” approach.  Just read a book a book on a historical figure written in the 1800’s and then read one written in the last twenty years.

Third, there is in the history of the past century or two what was called the Higher Critical Movement.  The force of this movement is still strong.  The higher critics seemed intent on not just scholarly study or literary/historical/theological criticism, but also undermining and attacking the Bible.

At the same time, although getting less attention, is what is sometimes called the Lower Critical Approach.  Studies of authorship, dating, context, and other topics is a legitimate way to critically study the Bible.  The word Gnosticism never appears in the Bible, but that was a cultural and philosophical movement that is under attack by the New Testament writers. Differences in Paul’s writings in Romans and James’ Epistle call for some serious and microscopic examination and study.

Fourth, this book takes the differences in wording, placement, context, and details found in the four Gospels and seeks to explain them.  Am I happy or convinced by all of Dr. Licona’s efforts?  No.  Quite frankly, I am usually content to read the Gospels with complete acceptance and don’t worry about reconciling differences.  But sometimes pastors, teachers, and scholars have to do the heavy lifting.  I would recommend that any reader who is feeling that the premises are shaky on this book should skip over to the Conclusion so as to better understand Licona’s perspective and method.

My first “go-to” book on this topic would be Vern Poythress’ Inerrancy and Worldview:  Answering Modern Challenges to the Bible.  But Michael Licona’s Why Are There Differences in the Gospels would not be far away.  There are, of course, a number of resources.  Remember Christian, the Bible is not a the new, little kid with glasses who is being bullied.  Christian theology and the Scriptures have endured and prevailed through many ages and battles.

Fifth, this book is not an easy read or a devotional read.  Granted, any study of theology can and should impact the heart as well as the mind.  Also, one might wish that they could get the basic sense of this work without having to wade through 36 accounts from Plutarch.  Hopefully, Dr. Licona will write a simplified version of this work for the more general reader.

But we need the scholars who are willing and able to give not just an example, but an entire book length case study of the topic at hand.  This book does exactly that.

I look forward to reading more from Michael Licona.

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Dr. Michael Licona from Houston Baptist University. “The words of the wise are like goads, and the words of scholars are like well-driven nails, given by one Shepherd.” Ecclesiastes 12:11.