WHY ARE THERE DIFFERENCES IN THE GOSPELS? What we can Learn from Ancient Biography

Michael R. Licona

OUP (2107) h/b £22.99 (ISBN 9780190264260)

Most academic theology students of the older generation will remember being taught that of whatever literary genre the gospels were (and many insisted they were sui generis) they were emphatically not biographies. However in 1992 a classically trained theologian, Richard Burridge, produced a very thorough and well-documented book What are the Gospels? (2nd ed., 2004) which demonstrated how closely the gospels did resemble Graeco-Roman biography. The consensus is now that it is acceptable, and indeed may be helpful, to place the gospels in the genre of biography, written to present a ‘life of Jesus’ like other lives of ancient characters worthy of emulation.

The book now under review, written by an associate professor of theology at Houston Baptist University, seeks to build on the general similarity of the gospels to Graeco-Roman biography by studying the differences in the individual gospel writers’ accounts of the same incidents in Jesus’ life (i.e. the ‘pericopes’ or individual episodes) and by showing how these are similar in their approach to the work of an archetypal ancient biographer, in this instance Plutarch.

L. does not argue (and it would almost certainly be anachronistic to do so) that the gospel writers had read Plutarch, but that they reflected the same approaches to their material in which it was legitimate to move material around, adapt, telescope or expand events and sayings in order to illustrate the achievements and character of their subject.

To do this he outlines, with reference to ancient literary teachers, the range of literary devices which could be deployed e.g. transferral, displacement, conflation, simplification, etc. He then analyses 36 episodes from 9 of Plutarch’s lives where the same incident (e.g. the assassination of Julius Caesar) is reported with differing details depending on who is the subject of the particular life (e.g. Caesar, Brutus or Anthony).

He then examines 19 episodes which appear in two or more gospels where the writers offer differing accounts of the same incidents in Jesus’ life. He notes a similar handling of the material to that which he found in Plutarch and suggests that this is to be explained by a similar use of the literary conventions. His argument is that the gospels reflect the same attitude to detail as Graeco-Roman biography in that ‘it provide(s) authors with a license [sic] to depart from the precision in reporting that many of us moderns prefer.’

Take, for example, the raising of Jairus’ daughter. In Mark and Luke, Jairus is told of her death while he is on the way to seek Jesus’ help—in Mark by ‘some people’ who came from his house, in Luke by ‘someone’. Luke may, L. suggests, have wished to spotlight the messenger for dramatic effect. In Matthew the implication is that Jairus was aware of his daughter’s death when he set out: no messenger(s) intercept him. Matthew, whose narrative is several verses shorter than those of Mark and Luke, simply ‘compresses his account.’ Such narrative manipulations are typical of classical biography.

L. is aware of the difficulties for some readers of straddling the disciplines of classical studies and theology and offers notes, a glossary, a bibliography, ‘biosketches’ of the subjects of Plutarch’s lives, and several indices. But this book is not a polemic. It does, however, cut the ground from under the feet of those who would simply dismiss the gospel writers as pious distorters of history, seeking to re-present a wandering charismatic Jewish teacher as the Son of God. They were, on L.’s analysis, reflecting the literary conventions of Graeco-Roman biography, handling their sources in the interests not of dubious theological preconceptions, but of effective communication.

At one level the ultimate questions are for the theologians to debate, but this book should help to ensure that the renewed study of the gospels as biographical works with a researched historical basis is both justified and worthwhile.

Ray Morris

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