Book Review: Jesus Contradicted: Why the Gospels Tell the Same Story Differently by Michael R. Licona

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Think Apologetics. Tabernacle of David considers this resource trustworthy and Biblically sound.


Jesus Contradicted: Why the Gospels Tell the Same Story Differently by Michael R. Licona 266pp. Zondervan Academic, 2024.

I have known Dr. Michael Licona for several years. I first came across his name when I read his book that he co-authored with Gary Habermas called The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Here in Columbus, Ohio I lead two apologetic ministries. I have had Dr. Licona speak and debate here. I own a copy of his more academic work called Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography. I was delighted when I heard that he was going to release a version of his book for the average lay person. It is certainly a book that the lay person can follow.

As Licona notes, anyone who reads the Gospels carefully will notice that there are differences in the manner in which they report the same events. Differences in the Gospels or what people call “contradictions” have never been a huge struggle for me. From my experience on campus, these issues come up occasionally. Most of the time it is Muslims who try to show us this is one of the main reasons the Bible can’t be trusted.  However, there are plenty of skeptical websites and people like Bart Ehrman who like to make so-called contradictions as some sort of huge defeater to the Christian faith.

Anyways, Dr. Licona thinks that the differences in the Gospels can be cleared up by paying attention to the genre of the Gospels. After all, whenever we attempt to interpret the Bible, we do need to know the type of literature we are attempting to understand. For example, whenever I try to read the Book of Revelation, I know it is apocalyptic literature.  Or, we need to remember that with the Wisdom Literature (i.e., Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes) some of the language is metaphorical and poetic, and this should be taken into account during analysis. Other examples can be given.  

When it comes to genre of the Gospels, withing New Testament studies, there was a period when most New Testament scholars regarded the Gospels as sui generis. Sui generis is a Latin phrase meaning “of its own kind” or “unique.”

However, this all changed when in 1977, Charles Talbert proposed that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography, and others made similar proposals in the years that followed. Afterwards, scholar Richard Burridge released his book What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. I should note that the 25th Anniversary Edition was released in 2018. Burridge placed special attention on the prologue, verb subjects, allocation of space, mode of representation, length, structure, scale, literary units, use of sources, style, social setting, quality of characterization, atmosphere as well authorial intention and purpose. Because of the gospel’s similarities to these ancient biographies, Burridge concluded that the genre of the gospels is what is called an ancient bioi which bear some similarities to Suetonius’s Twelve Ceasars or Plutarch’s Parallel Lives.

I should note that there is still some debate over the genre issue with the Gospels. I recommend the chapter called “The Genre of the Gospels” by Wes Olmstead in the book The State of New Testament Studies which is a series of essays edited by Scot McKnight and Nijay K. Gupta.  But when I first saw the push for the genre of the Gospels fitting into the category of Graeco- Roman biography, I find myself wondering whether the Gospels fit more within a Jewish biography genre. But Licona has answered my concerns. While he rightly notes that the Gospels contain plenty of Jewish elements, he  notes that with the possible exception of Philo’s Life of Moses, which many scholars do not regard as biography, there are no clear examples of biographies of Jewish sages written around the time of Jesus.

What is important is that we understand that the Gospels are not comparable to modern biographies which are a product of the nineteenth century. Therefore, as moderns we can’t ask the Gospels to have the degree of precision in reporting that many of us prefer.

In order to demonstrate that the differences in the Gospels  can be resolved, Licona relies heavily on the Compositional Devices of Plutarch (46 CE-119 CE). Plutarch wrote more than 60 biographies, of which 48 have survived (pg. 102).  His biographies are referred to as Plutarch Lives. These biographies were written between AD 90 and ca. AD 120. The biographies recount the noble deeds and characters of Greek and Roman soldiers, legislators, orators, and statesmen.  According to Licona, the following are some of the compositional devices we will observe in Plutarch’s Lives,

  1. Transferal: When an author knowingly attributes words or deeds to a person that actually belonged to another person, the author has transferred the words or deeds.
  2. Displacement: When an author knowingly uproots an event from its original context and transplants it in another, the author has displaced the event.
  3.  Conflation: When an author combines elements from two or more events or people and narrates them as one, the author has conflated them. Accordingly, some displacement and/or transferal will always occur in the conflation of stories.
  4. Compression: When an author knowingly portrays events over a shorter period of time than the actual time it took for those events to occur, the author has compressed the story.
  5. Spotlighting: When an author focuses attention on a person so that the person’s involvement in a scene is clearly described, whereas mention of others who were likewise involved is neglected, the author has shined his literary spotlight on that person. Think of a theatrical performance. During an act in which several are simultaneously on the stage, the lights go out and a spotlight shines on a particular actor. Others are present but are unseen. In literary spotlighting, the author only mentions one of the people present but is aware that others were there.
  6. Simplification: An author omits or alters the details that may complicate the overall narrative and may do so to abbreviate and communicate the main ideas.

Licona goes to great lengths (he has done his homework) to explain these compositional devices and demonstrate where we see them in the Gospels. This in turn provides readers with answers to why we see differences in the Gospels.  

One concern I have always had was how scholars actually know the Gospel authors were familiar with the writings of Plutarch. In other words, did they have access to Plutarch’s writings and were they aware of Plutarch’s compositional devices? Licona is aware of this concern. He proposes the following: “The matter of whether Matthew, Mark, and John as Jews would have been familiar with Graeco-Roman genre is irrelevant since all that would have been necessary is that their secretaries were.” (pg. 56). Thus, since we know Paul used secretaries in his letter writing (he does mention them), it is probable that the Gospels used secretaries as well. I don’t know how much evidence there is for this. I assume it is possible. I know we have a great amount of confidence in Paul’s use of secretaries because he mentions them. Despite this issue, Licona does a fine job of showing the parallels between Plutarch’s use of compositional devices and the Gospels.

When I heard Dr. Licona was releasing a lay version of his more academic book, I was excited to hear that he was adding two chapters that were not mentioned in his more academic book. These chapters are called “Fine Tuning our Doctrine of Inspiration” and “Fine Tuning Our Doctrine of Inerrancy.” There is no doubt that these two topics are quite underdeveloped. Licona introduces two principles we that we should consider:

1.Our view of Scripture should be consistent with what we view in Scripture.  

2. If we truly have a high view of Scripture, we need to embrace it as God has give it to us than insist that it conforms to a model shaped by how we think he should have given it. If we refuse to do this, we may sincerely believe that we hold a high view of Scripture when we actually hold a high view of our high view of Scripture (Pgs. 190-191).

In my experience, when we say the Bible is inspired and people quote 2 Tim. 3: 16 or 2 Peter 1: 20-21, as a way to support inspiration, I don’t think the average Christian has any idea how inspiration works. I know I don’t know exactly know how inspiration works. And as Licona points out, the Bible doesn’t tell us much about the mechanism of inspiration. Licona goes to great lengths to show us the history of the word Greek word theópneustos, which, broken down, is literally theo “God” and pneustos “breathed-out. But I think if you pressed many Christians on the issue, they assume inspiration means God “dictated” His Word to the writers of Scripture, who were nothing more than human stenographers for the Holy Spirit. The dictation theory says that the Spirit wrote through the agency of human writers who were fully under God’s control. With the authors in a state of relative passivity, God dictated every word written with pinpoint accuracy. In this way, human personality and human error could not interfere with God’s intended message.

This is more in line with what Muslims believe about the origins of the Quran. But as Licona points out, we need to remember inspiration must emphasize the human element. The Bible doesn’t endorse a dictation view. Many Christians will also say they believe in what is called “Verbal Plenary Inspiration.” Verbal means that every word of Scripture is God-breathed. Every single word, not just the ideas behind the words, is in the Bible because God wanted it there. Plenary means that all parts of the Bible are equally of divine origin and equally authoritative. But when it comes to explaining differences in the Gospels, this view can be problematic:  Why God would allow any errors on minor details or editorial fatigue or memory lapses in the writers? 

In other words, why would God allow Paul to say in 1 Cor. 11-16 that he doesn’t remember if he baptized anyone else. Or, as Licona points out, if God is going to allow any errors, why does Mattheew say the following: “Then what was spoken by Jeremiah[ the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty silver coins, the price of the one whose price had been set by the people of Israel,and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me” (Matt 27: 9-10). The quotation by Matthew here is more closely related to Zech 11: 12-13, not to Jeremiah. While there is no exact match for this text in Jeremiah, but there are some conceptual parallels. So what is going on here? If God can’t error, wouldn’t he make it so Matthew could never do such a thing? There are some other examples given. By the way, Licona isn’t saying God can error. The issue is whether we have a faulty view of inspiration.

When it comes to inerrancy, many North American Evangelicals have followed the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.  In 1978 the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) sponsored a conference in which several hundred Christians met to discuss and debate the inerrancy issue. Over 300 Evangelicals signed the statement. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was written to address the inerrancy of Scripture, the doctrine that the Bible is free from error.

Licona notes that many evangelicals outside of America (such as Michel Bird) don’t use the word “inerrancy.” They tend to say the Bible is “infallible” which means “incapable of error.” If something is infallible, it is never wrong and thus absolutely trustworthy. Granted, to some, this may seem like infallibility and inerrancy are the same thing. Licona thinks the Chicago Statement needs a facelift. He thinks we should argue for “flexible inerrancy” rather than “traditional inerrancy.”  Flexible inerrancy holds the Bible is inerrant in all it teaches. It is consistent to what we observe in Scripture —imperfections resulting from human authors such as Matthew and Luke improving Mark’s grammar, editorial fatigue and memory lapse. Flexible inerrancy says the Bible is true, trustworthy, authoritative and without error in all it teaches (pg. 206).

Licona also notes that the Chicago Statement that it is only the original autographs that are inerrant. Of course, we don’t possess these autographs. They could be inerrant. But do we truly know?

Licona is correct when he says that the traditional view of inerrancy can carry a heavy burden. Some Christians who have been taught the traditional view of inerrancy have defected from the faith. To find out there is a discrepancy or “error” in the Bible is unsettling. So perhaps we need an alternative model for people?  Licona understands many that hold to the traditional view have proposed harmonizations to the differences in the Gospels. But some of them can be strained and he thinks the model he proposes is a more plausible alternative.

We should note that a correct view of both inspiration and inerrancy means we need to recognize the difference between ipissima verba  and ipissima vox. Ipsissima Vox is a Latin expression meaning “the very voice” and describes the view that the Gospels capture the concepts that Jesus expressed, but not exact words. Ipsissima Vox is contrasted with Ipsissima Verba, meaning “the very words of Jesus.” The Bible often records conversations. This sometimes raises the question of whether the words transcribed are the exact ones spoken by Jesus in conversation or just a summary or paraphrase of them. As Licona points out, when conversations are written down for historical purposes, the intent of the writer is often not to produce an exact transcript. Newspapers and history books are examples of this. Thus, the writer often selects certain phrases to quote, uses approximate wording for the rest, and condenses the main points so that the meaning can be quickly understood.

According to the ipsissima vox view, what we have recorded for us is a condensed, although still accurate, version of Jesus’ words and actions. Just a side note: Darrell Bock and Daneil Wallace hold to the ippisima vox view.

In conclusion, there are plenty of new insights to be gleaned from Dr. Licona’s book. I know for a fact that Dr. Licona didn’t write this book as the means to stumble his fellow Christians. While some may not agree with him, one should appreciate his honestly and his attempts to help people who struggle with the issues he discusses in his book. I am aware that many traditional inerrantists won’t agree with certain aspects of the book and pile on Dr. Licona. My hope and prayer are that people will actually take the time to learn and listen to what Dr. Licona is actually saying. There are plenty of evangelical scholars that agree the Chicago Statement does need some refining. I know these men all have a very high view of Scripture. I hope people will be charitable to Dr. Licona.

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