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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 65, 2017

MICHAEL R. LICONA, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). Pp. xxi + 308. Hardback. US$35.00.

Largely as a result of the work of Richard Burridge (primarily his 1992 monograph What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography), it has become commonplace over the past two decades to view the New Testament gospels as akin to the ancient genre of bioi. The present monograph seeks to extend this line of inquiry by comparing the compositional principles used in the creation of the four canonical gospels (though primarily the synoptics) with those employed in the writing of ancient biography. Licona has in mind specifically the techniques that an author would use to alter a source text to make it suitable for his final composition, which can be elucidated by comparing the final form of a text with those sources. Of course, there is an important distinction between the gospels and ancient bioi that would complicate this attempt, namely that with the gospels we have texts that have a literary relationship with one another, whereas literary dependence among ancient bioi is rarer and usually more ambiguous. Hence, for the other pole of his comparison Licona looks at the changes made when a single author reused the same source material on multiple occasions. The specific examples he has chosen are nine of Plutarch’s Lives: Lucullus, Cicero, Pompey, Cato Minor, Crassus, Caesar, Brutus, Antony and Sertorius. Licona identifies thirty-six pericopes that appear two or more times in these nine bioi (see the list on 203–4), and concludes that, of these thirty-six, thirty have sufficient differences to warrant comparison with the gospels.

In order to provide some sense of what tools an ancient author might use for his composition, Licona in Chapter One surveys very briefly the advice of the rhetorical progymnasmata, focusing on the concepts of chreia, narrative and paraphrase, though it is likely that even more pertinent material from the progymnasmata could have been drawn out, which might have further enriched the following study. Chapter Two is an introduction to Plutarch that assumes a reader with limited knowledge of the ancient world. Chapter Three is devoted to a lengthy analysis of the thirty relevant pericopes from Plutarch. For each of these examples Licona provides a narrative summary of the parallel pericopes, an analysis of their differences and a bullet-point summary of his conclusions. In Chapter Four Licona turns to the gospels and subjects nineteen gospel pericopes to the same mode of analysis in the previous chapter. Based on the advice of Lucian in his treatise How to Write History, chapter five examines the use of synthetic chronology in ancient composition and identifies five likely examples of this technique in the gospels. A brief conclusion summarises the results of the study.

The conclusions of this study are what one might expect. The parallel pericopes in Plutarch’s Lives do show some variation, though the differences are often minor and are rarely outright “errors.” (Licona at times slips from discussing the pericopes simply in terms of literary analysis to making comments about their degree of historical veracity.) Most frequent is the highlighting of specific details pertinent to the subject of the biography in question, and Licona concludes that with such variations Plutarch was “employ[ing] numerous techniques observed in the compositional text-books” (109). His conclusion regarding gospel material is similar. The gospels too, in his estimation, employ these same rhetorical devices, and the differences between pericopes that do appear are “almost always … in the peripheral details” (184). The implication of this analogy between Plutarch and the gospels is that the evangelists were writing within the conventions of historical writing for their time. As a result, “devout” readers of the gospel need not despair at their differences, nor should “cynical” critics persist in carping about apparent contradictions undermining divine truth (201).

I suspect that not many readers of this journal will be surprised at these conclusions. However, Licona apparently has a different audience in mind. This is primarily a book for a popular readership, as indicated not just by the inclusion of introductions to Plutarch and the synoptic problem, but also by statements like: “Those outside the field of New Testament studies may be surprised to learn that the question of whether Jesus actually rose from the dead is a topic on which there is an abundance of academic literature” (170). Indeed. With this popular audience in view, Licona writes with an apologetic purpose that, while often implicit, is ever present. This does not invalidate the conclusions that he reaches, but this limited focus does seemingly prevent him from asking other more interesting questions about the source material.

Review by
Australian Catholic University