Recently, a number of New Testament scholars have been very interested in exploring the possibility that the gospel writers might have been using literary devices in their work. Why do some of their accounts differ gospel to gospel? Did they embellish the facts? Did they create stories to make a point? Michael Licona (interviewed by CT on this topic) and other leading scholars are of the mind that some of these literary devices help explain why the gospel writers don’t tell the same exact narrative.
Christian philosopher Lydia McGrew is not convinced, however. After writing blog posts critically engaging this theory, she got significant pushback and decided to dive into the research in earnest. The result of that work is her recently published book, The Mirror and the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices (DeWard Publishing), which argues that literary device theory is not only unnecessary for resolving discrepancies but also may do more harm than good.
CT interviewed McGrew to find out why she’s not a fan of this approach to New Testament interpretation.
Tell us about the catalyst for this project.
I noticed that certain approaches to gospel differences and alleged gospel discrepancies were becoming more popular in the evangelical world and especially the apologetics community. I started looking into them, and I realized that these could potentially be quite a problem. My goal in writing this book is to show that the gospel authors were honest, clear reporters who were not deliberately changing the facts but were trying to tell what really happened.
There is a negative and a positive side to that. My concern with the kind of literary devices these scholars are talking about is that they would seriously undermine the reliability of the Gospels, which are our sources for what Jesus did and taught. Obviously, the evangelical scholars who are promoting them don’t think that. It’s not their intention. But I believe that that is the effect.
Why do you think literary device theory will have this effect?
For some scholars, these literary devices involve the gospel authors deliberately and invisibly changing the facts, the dates, adding or altering details, inventing, putting things in Jesus’ mouth, and even in some cases, possibly making up entire incidents. For example, because the temple cleansing in John occurs in a different place in the story, literary device theorists claim John simply moved the event around to fit his message. That’s actually a fairly radical change in the way that most people think of the Gospels. So, I looked into that and investigated it, and I found that the evidence is lacking for those theories and that, on the positive side, there’s a lot of strong evidence that the Gospels are historical reportage and reliable in a very strong, straightforward sense. And I view that as a real win-win for Christianity.
You’re critical of these literary devices theories and claim to represent a reportage model. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Yes, reportage, meaning that this is reported. So I have four things in mind: First, the Gospels come from witnesses either directly or indirectly but not far removed. So, Luke was not a witness, but I believe he talked to witnesses. Second, the authors are trying to tell us what really happened. They’re not deliberately massaging or embellishing the facts, even minor facts for literary or theological reasons.
Third, they’re highly successful in accurately telling us what happened. And fourth, they tried to record what was said in a way that would be recognizable if you were there and understood the relevant language. It doesn’t have to be absolutely verbatim. But if you were there, you would recognize it immediately.
Is it really a problem if the reporting isn’t play by play?
Not really. Here’s an example. You hear some scholars say things like “Ancient people did not always expect things to be narrated in a chronological way.” But does a statement like that mean that it was expected for authors to change when something happened or just that then, as now, they sometimes didn’t say what order things happened in? I might say, “Yesterday I worked on a chapter of my new book and I made dinner.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I am saying that it happened in that order.
So the reportage model doesn’t mean that they never narrate out of order, but it does mean that they’re not deliberately changing the time ordering and making an event happen on a day or time when it didn’t happen. That’s a very important nuance.
A maxim for biblical interpretation is that we need to pay attention to context. Scholars who argue in favor of literary devices in New Testament writing claim that in the context of the first century, those devices were seen as perfectly consistent with straightforward historical reporting. How would you respond?
I do a lot of legwork responding to that in the book. I look at the sources on which scholars have based their literary device theories, and I think they are misinterpreting them. I also find lots of evidence that ancient writers wanted accurate historical detail, just like we do.
One chapter of my book is titled “Let Ancient People Speak for Themselves.” In that chapter, I have all these direct quotations from ancient authors on truth and accuracy and history and the importance of historical accuracy. We find these authors saying it’s extremely important for us to be accurate and for historians to write accurate truth like a mirror.
There’s one Christian author that I especially like named Julius Africanus. He directly addresses a literary device theory that someone evidently brought up in his own time—the idea that Matthew and Luke had made up some of the names in Jesus’ genealogy to show that Jesus was prophet, priest, and king and that they weren’t really Jesus’ ancestors. And he [Julius Africanus] completely rejects that by saying “no praise comes to God from that.”
Quite a bit of ink has been spilled arguing about what genre the Gospels fit into. Many scholars are saying that they at least bear strong similarities with ancient biography. What genre would you call the Gospels?
I call the Gospels what the church father Justin Martyr called them: “the memoirs of the apostles.” And he also noted some of them were written by the apostles’ followers; presumably he had Mark and Luke in mind. Yes, they’re biographies in a very broad sense. I think it’s probably fair to say that although they present a very consistent psychological portrait of Jesus, they’re not getting into psychoanalysis the way that we might in a biography written today.
I think that three out of four of the traditional gospel writers had probably never read or even encountered much Greco-Roman literature at all. Luke might have because he was a highly educated Greek, based upon the quality of his Greek. But even there, what he seems to have gotten from historiography would be the highest standards of historical scrupulousness, not an idea that he could be licensed to change the facts.
A lot of research has been done to establish that early Christianity was highly literary. Isn’t it likely that the gospel writers had scribes transcribing for them who might have been more familiar with the literature of the day?
Maybe, but I don’t think there’s any evidence that the gospel authors had these active co-authors or scribes who were saying, “Hey, Matthew, this is what they taught me to do in my Greek rhetoric class.” My research leads me to think the Gospels very much have a mark of being written by individual people with individual minds.
Do you think there’s value in recognizing the contextual “locatedness” of Scripture, even as we critically engage scholars who think we’re completely misreading Scripture and taking it out of context?
Of course, you want to understand the author as he understood himself. I’ve never found anybody saying, “Yes, let’s be anachronistic. Anachronism for the win. Let’s impose our views upon the document.” Absolutely we do want to understand the surrounding context. On the other hand, sometimes God is doing something new in a context. So we need to be willing to say maybe God is revealing something and he’s setting his people aside and apart from their surrounding cultural context. I think that’s certainly true with the monotheism of the ancient Israelites. God says “I’m calling you out from the surrounding people.”
And in Christianity, for example, Jesus claimed he was God, God incarnate. It was shocking when Jesus came and taught his deity: “I and the Father are one.” That’s why they tried to kill him. So I also think we need to be open to the idea that there’s new revelation going on in Scripture. And that can limit the extent to which we say, “Oh no, let’s contextualize this. He couldn’t have been saying that because that would have been too different than the surrounding culture.” Sometimes God is teaching something that is different from the surrounding culture.
You critique the literary device advocates on their lack of and mishandling of evidence to establish their views. What evidence is there in favor of your reportage model?
In my earlier book Hidden in Plain View, I examined one type of important evidence called the argument from undesigned coincidences. These are wonderful puzzle-like places where casual statements in the different Gospels fit together. So for example, Mark mentions that the people at the feeding of the five thousand sat on the green grass. And then John doesn’t use the word green, but he mentions that it was near Passover time, in the spring when things are growing. There’s not always a lot of green grass in that region of the world, so it’s a significant detail. These are little bits that fit together, and neither author appears to be trying to make them fit together and yet they do.
In The Mirror or the Mask I also talk about connections between incidental details in the Gospels and outside information from secular history, archeology, et cetera, even confirmation of the early temple cleansing in John and the comment he reports that the leaders said it “has taken forty-six years to build this temple” (John 2:20). That fits with a comment in Luke and another in Josephus when Herod began building the temple. And the great thing about this is that they confirm details, not just the big picture. So the literary device theorists state the Gospels are correct on the big picture but the authors felt free to change details. I’m finding confirmations of those details. That’s not what you would expect if the authors felt free to change or add those as embellishments.
So, what’s the upshot of all of this? Is there a practical payoff to getting this right? For the pastors who are reading this interview, what do they do with these ideas?
I call what I do “giving scholarly support to common sense.” You’re a pastor, and maybe you went to seminary a long time ago before this stuff was hot, and now you’re being told you need to rethink the way you approach the Bible. I’m here to tell that pastor, “Actually, I think the scholarly investigation supports the way you’re probably preaching the Gospels already, where you’re taking them more or less at face value. And that’s not just a naïve thing to do; that can actually be supported by positive evidence.”
I often suggest that when we read the Gospels, we should use what I call a real-world imagination. And since my previous book Hidden in Plain View came out, I’ve had a number of people tell me how the work I did there has revitalized their reading of the Bible and especially the Gospels, because they’ll say, “Wow, we’re reading these like they really happened.” So this encourages us to pay attention to the details and then say, “How might that have happened?”
Here’s an example. If Jesus said, “I thirst” from the cross, and it’s reported in John but it’s not reported in the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, how might that have happened? The beloved disciple was standing near the cross. He could have heard some things that somebody else didn’t hear. Activating our real-world imagination is incredibly fruitful for biblical literacy.
So what I’m encouraging people to do is just open their Bibles and not to be afraid of that kind of nitty-gritty approach. You don’t have to go read Plutarch unless you want to. But when you encounter discrepancies, you can ask, “How could I use my real-world imagination to try to harmonize these?” And in doing that, we can really rejuvenate our reading of Scripture as we think of these events in a vivid, real way.
CT’s previous coverage of Lydia McGrew includes a book review of Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts.