Decisions: A discussion between Bart Ehrman & Mike Licona



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Christian apologist Jonathan McLatchie recently sparked some controversy when on Facebook he posted a thread saying, “Modern Biblical scholarship is in dire need of a reformation. Case in point [McLatchie provides a link to a video conversation between agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and Christian New Testament scholar Craig Evans].” In the video, Ehrman asks Evans if he thinks Jesus actually uttered the “I am . . .” statements in John’s Gospel. Evans answered that most of them were probably not uttered as recorded and that John was probably of a genre different than the other Gospels. Yet, he adds, “John is studded with historical details” and goes on to say, “Bart, I object to saying it’s not historically accurate.”

Now I realize some of my conservative brothers and sisters in Christ will experience some discomfort at Evans’s statement about Jesus’ “I am” statements. They perhaps do not realize that this is the position of the majority of New Testament scholars, and that probably includes a significant number of evangelical New Testament scholars as well.

I can understand how easy it is to draw conclusions that are misguided, and in some cases, cause folks to misjudge others. What I mean by misjudging others is that some folks who have not spent years looking at these matters might be concerned that many evangelical scholars have lost their way using historical criticism and that there ought to be a “clean house.” But consider the unintended consequences of this proposal. Many of conservative Christianity’s finest New Testament scholars would find themselves out of work. Take Craig Keener, for example. He has spent far more time studying the Gospel of John than perhaps everyone reading this post combined. Keener is one of the most informed and honest scholars I know. He is also one who models Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount more closely than almost anyone I know. He walks with God while being committed to scholarship of the highest level. So, if some evangelicals wish to “clean house” in their community then Keener would find himself out on the street. What a loss that would be for that community!

In his commentary on John, Keener said that “all” Johannine scholars acknowledge Johannine adaptation of the Jesus tradition. To see this in action, I recommend reading through the Synoptic Gospels several times in Greek. Then read John’s Gospel and 1 John several times in Greek. (One can also observe this in English but it is far clearer and even more striking in Greek.) One will observe a few items relevant to this discussion:

  1. Although the message is the same, the way Jesus “sounds” in John is very different than the way He “sounds” in the Synoptics.
  2. The way Jesus “sounds” in John’s Gospel sounds very much like how John “sounds” in 1 John. That is, the grammar, vocabulary, and overall style of writing in both are strikingly similar.

Number 2 could be because John adjusted his style to be similar to his Master after spending much time with him. This would be similar to how some married couples adapt their laughs and expressions to one another over time. The other option and the one believed by most scholars is that John paraphrased Jesus using his own style. The reason scholars go with this latter view is because Jesus “sounds” so differently in John than in the Synoptics.

By no means does this mean John is historically unreliable. It means that John is often communicating Jesus’ teachings in a manner closer to a modern paraphrase than a literal translation. Stated differently, John will often recast Jesus saying something explicitly the Synoptics have Him saying implicitly. For example, one does not observe Jesus making his “I am” statements in the Synoptics that are so prominent in John, such as “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). That’s a pretty clear claim to deity. Mark presents Jesus as deity through His deeds and even some of the things He says about Himself. But nothing is nearly as overt as we find in John. Granted, the Synoptics do not preserve everything Jesus said. However, in all four Gospels, Jesus is cryptic in public even pertaining to His claim to be the Messiah. In Matthew 16:16-20 // Luke 9:20-21, Jesus charged His disciples that they should tell no one that He is the Messiah. In Luke 4:41, Jesus would not allow the demons to speak because they know He is the Messiah. In John 10:23-25, Jesus is walking in the temple when some Jews gathered around Him and said, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Now, if Jesus was hesitant to announce publicly that He is the Messiah, we would not expect for Him to be claiming to be God publicly and in such a clear manner as we find John reporting.

There are additional items in the Gospels that suggest Jesus spoke of His identity implicitly, even in terms that were somewhat cryptic. Consider the following:

Jesus said all of these things in parables to the crowds. And He did not speak to them without a parable, so that what was spoken by the prophet may be fulfilled, saying, “I will open my mouth in parables. I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” (Matt. 13:34-35)

Not only does Jesus teach in parables, He does so in fulfillment of prophesy. It is ironic, then, that none of Jesus’ teachings appear in parables in John.

These are just some of the reasons why scholars think John adapted Jesus’ teachings. Jesus’ precise words (ipsissima verba) may not be preserved in John but His voice (ipsissima vox) certainly is. One can at least see why many New Testament scholars have concluded that John adapted Jesus’ teachings while preserving their essence. Of course, one may offer alternative explanations. But please do so in a graceful and non-judgmental manner. We are on the same team!

As part of the research stage for my book on Gospel differences, I had to become familiar with numerous matters related to the Late Roman Republic. Among those items are the various genres of literature written during that period. Since the Gospels were written on the heels of that era, I naively thought the learning curve would not be significant. Well, I was mistaken. The learning curve was far more than I had imagined. Despite the fact I was reading on the relevant topics, had it not been for a handful of classicists who directed me, I still would have made several egregious errors. One should not take crossing disciplines lightly!

One of my recent online critics, Lydia McGrew (Ph.D. in English Literature, Vanderbilt University), asserted that Professor Evans’s view of the “I am” statements in John is dangerous and that, in my explanation of why most scholars have arrived at a similar conclusion, I had thrown “all of the ‘I am’ statements under the bus.” For by saying John was paraphrasing Jesus with the “I am” statements, it was just another phrase for “making stuff up.” She then adds, “Licona is expressly arguing that Jesus would not and hence did not publicly, clearly, and overtly claim to be God in the real world. But in John he does do so. No use of the term ‘paraphrase’ nor the phrase ‘ipsissima vox’ (which I believe Evans originated) can get around this.” The error with Lydia’s statement is that I did not say this. Here is what I wrote: “Those are just some of the reasons why scholars see John adapting Jesus’ teachings.”

Going on, Lydia states her concern about, “when he hypothesized that the whole Doubting Thomas episode might be made up ….” This surprised me. Where did I say that? It appears Lydia is referring to what I wrote on pages 177-78 of my book Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).  Noting differences in the resurrection appearances between Luke and John, I write:

Moreover, with Judas now dead, there were eleven main disciples. Thus Luke 24:33 can speak of Jesus’s first appearance to a group of his male disciples as including “the eleven and those with them.” However, John 20:19–24 tells us Thomas was absent during that event. Thus, only ten of the main disciples would have been present. Accordingly, either Luke conflated the first and second appearances to the male disciples, or John crafted the second appearance in order to rebuke those who, like Thomas, heard about Jesus’s resurrection and failed to believe. Some have sug­gested that the “eleven” may have been a way of referring to the core of the apostolic body. However, while scholars generally agree that “the Twelve” became a nickname for Jesus’s main disciples (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:5), there is no indication that “the eleven” was ever used in a similar sense. Thus, it seems more probable in this instance that Luke has conflated the first and second appearances of Jesus to his male disciples.

I hypothesized that John invented the Doubting Thomas episode as one possibility to account for the differences between the versions of the story offered by Luke and John. However, I go on to give a reason why the solution that Luke conflated two appearances is to be preferred. But Lydia is angered that I would even consider the former option. For her, John could not have done this. Why not? Apparently, because God would not have allowed it in the process of divine inspiration. But how would she know that apart from hearing it from God Himself? And why require the Gospels to have been written using literary conventions for historical reporting that were not generally accepted until the nineteenth century while eschewing attempts to understand them within the cultural and literary context of their own day?

Some of Lydia’s criticisms of my approach might have been avoided per page 119 of my new book:

My proposed solutions are tentative. Others have offered different solutions. Some New Testament scholars may prefer to view some of the differences as resulting from an evangelist redacting the tradition in order to make a theological point rather than seeing the use of a compositional device. Such an approach may sometimes be preferable. In these pericopes, I am primarily attempting to view the differences in light of compositional devices to see if a greater understanding of what lays behind the differences may be obtained in some instances.

Throughout the book, I provide various options of what I think could be going on that resulted in one Gospel reporting an event differently than another. On most occasions, I state which option I think best explains the difference and why, while on others I reserve making a choice and merely note the difference.

Lydia then writes,

Saddened as I am by what Dr. Licona is apparently endorsing, I’m afraid that I think this is a crucial enough matter that it needs to be known. Jesus’ claims to deity are, to put it mildly, important, and so people should know when scholars think he didn’t make them. I pray that the Lord will use any such publicizing and/or criticisms that come as a result to motivate Dr. Licona to reconsider.

To this concern I want to be clear: I have not denied that Jesus made claims of deity. I have argued in public debate that he did ( And last week I submitted a chapter arguing the same in even more depth to be included in a book published by T&T Clark. So, it is not a matter of whether Evans, I, or another scholar think Jesus made claims of deity. I think that He did. It’s a matter of whether Jesus made those claims implicitly and John recast them in an explicit manner. In John, are we reading Jesus’ words or the message behind them? That’s the question. Asserting that I or Evans or another are denying that Jesus made claims of deity is simplifying the matter to a point that it borders on deceit.

So, I’m grieved to see Lydia once again stretching my words to say more than I did. I try to nuance my words carefully, especially in view of some like Lydia who wish things were stated with a precision that leaves no questions unanswered. But that’s an unreasonable expectation for online discussions. Sometimes I am not as careful as I should be and assume (wrongly) that others will grant some leeway in communications and be charitable.

Lest the record remain ambiguous (if it ever were), I’ll be clearer now. I agree with all Johannine scholars that Johannine adaptation is present in his Gospel. However, scholars differ on the degree of adaptation that is present. I wouldn’t go as far as Craig Evans for whom I have the highest regard. To be honest, I do not know how much John adapted certain traditions. But some is obviously present to anyone who spends a significant amount of time studying the Gospels. Are the “‘I am’ (without predicate)” statements in John part of his adapting things Jesus implicitly said and presenting them in a manner in which Jesus says them explicitly? In other words, are we reading the ipsissima vox (his voice) of Jesus here rather than the ipsissima verba (his very words)? I don’t know. Nevertheless, I have argued elsewhere that historical data strongly suggest Jesus believed He was deity. So, if Jesus made implicit claims to deity and John recasts those claims in a manner that has Jesus making them in an explicit sense, then that’s what John did and we need to be comfortable with that. Otherwise, we take issue with the way God gave us the Gospels.

This does not mean I have a “low view of John’s accuracy” or that, necessarily, “the doubts of his accuracy are cast far wider than even those statements.” I believe Lydia has an anachronistic view of demanding the Gospel authors to write how she believes they should have written, and if she would spend years studying the text, learn how to read the Gospels in their cultural setting and in their original language, she might find herself in agreement with Johannine scholars.

The more I study the Gospels within their cultural context, the literary conventions of that day, and in the original language in which they were written, the more I come to admire them and learn from them. Years ago, I imagined the authors of the Gospels had simply reported what they had seen and heard in manners similar to those we use today. Now I see the Gospel authors doing much more. They wrote accurate accounts of Jesus and, to different degrees, wrote with literary artistry that sometimes sacrificed precision in order to communicate points more clearly and to bring out the even deeper meanings behind them. Matthew’s genealogy is another clear example where this occurs (see my short video on the matter:

When we come to John’s Gospel, we moderns are faced with matters that perplex. That John adapted is certain. The extent to which he did is not. N. T. Wright’s humorous comment accurately summarizes the thoughts of many New Testament scholars: “I feel about John like I feel about my wife; I love her very much, but I wouldn’t claim to understand her.” Even such a conservative scholar as F. F. Bruce wrote of John’s different way of reporting. After speaking of Shakespeare’s dynamic rendition of Antony’s eulogy at Caesar’s funeral reported in Plutarch’s Brutus, Bruce writes the following in his commentary on John:

What Shakespeare does by dramatic insight (and, it may be added, what many a preacher does by homiletical skill), all this and much more the Spirit of God accomplished in our Evangelist [i.e., John]. It does not take divine inspiration to provide a verbatim transcript; but to reproduce the words which were spirit and life to their first believing hearers in such a way that they continue to communicate their saving message and prove themselves to be spirit and life to men and women today, nineteen centuries after John wrote—that is the work of the Spirit of God.

The point to be made here is that there is so much more going on behind the Gospels of which Lydia fails to see. She appears unaware or unappreciative of the historical and literary context in which they were written. As a result, she makes erroneous assertions that a number of evangelical New Testament scholars think “God gave us factually crappy gospels” and that it is “no big deal if we are left with only a poor and unreliable record in John of what Jesus taught about one of the most important truths in the world—that Jesus is God.” This is hardly the truth.

It is important to know that I am a historian. When the practice of history is conducted with integrity, the historian does not permit himself or herself to allow their theological presuppositions to weigh in to their investigation. After all, the results of one’s inquiry may reveal that certain presuppositions are mistaken. For example, an atheist historian should not bring his or her presupposition “God does not exist” to an investigation of Jesus’ resurrection. For it would force the conclusion that Jesus did not rise from the dead, in spite of the abundant and forceful evidence to the contrary. Conversely, if I as a Christian historian want to conduct an investigation in the Gospels with integrity, I cannot bring a theological conviction that the Bible is God’s infallible Word to that investigation. Historians who practice with integrity must come to an investigation being as open as possible to what it may yield, even if what it yields suggests something that I presently believe should be modified or abandoned. Otherwise, one ends up being guided more by his or her presuppositions rather than the historical data. That’s practicing theology or philosophy, not history.

Surprisingly, my book has received praise from conservatives, moderates, and even liberals. Although two of the top New Testament scholars in the world and the foremost scholar on Plutarch endorsed the book, unsolicited comments are often the most valuable. Here are a few of the latter:

Professor Licona’s new book is a monograph exploring some compositional techniques which the synoptic evangelists appear to have used. Clarificatory and thorough, it is an accomplished piece of work which it is a pleasure to commend. –J I Packer

Licona’s book is the most important book I’ve ever read on the literary techniques of the Evangelists. There is no book that has this finesse based on the Gospel genre as a ‘biography’ and hence this study can be used with confidence in classes engaged in the Synoptic Gospels. His conclusions about how the Evangelists did what they did are reliable and yet give us one more clear glimpse in how to understand the nature of the Gospels. –Scot McKnight

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. –Michael Kochenash (in his review of the book for Reading Religion)

I provide these comments with no intent to brag but rather to show that those who have formal training and have spent years of serious study of the Gospels think the book has some good things to offer and gets a lot right.

God’s Word is rich and beautiful. We can learn new things from it our entire lives. The deeper I study it, the more impressed with it I become. And there will still be much much more for us to see. I, for one, love God’s Word and I’m by no means trying to lessen its value or cast doubt on its reliability. However, I think we can misread it when we do so through modern lenses, as though the Gospels were written using modern literary conventions. Why would we demand that they be? Realizing that the Gospel authors felt free to report with some elasticity makes some uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable at first. But a principle I have come to live by is this: I must accept the Gospels as God has given them to us rather than forcing them into a mold of how I think He should have. If I fail to do this, I may believe I have a high view of Scripture when, in reality, I merely have a high view of MY view of Scripture. That would constitute misguided piety.

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