Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: An Interview with Michael R. Licona

by Jonathan Petersen

Why are the same events sometimes reported differently in the four Gospels? Should the biblical accounts be viewed as contradictory and unreliable? What were the intentions of the original writers centuries ago?

Bible Gateway interviewed Michael R. Licona (@MichaelLicona) about his book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (Oxford University Press, 2017).

What is the issue your new book addresses?

Michael R. Licona: Anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time reading the Gospels has observed the manner in which they report the same stories often differs to the point of apparent contradiction. This is perhaps the foremost objection to the historical reliability of the Gospels.

Evangelicals often attempt to harmonize the accounts. While harmonization can be a legitimate approach in some cases, when I read the Gospels in view of their biographical genre, I get the strong impression that harmonization is very often the wrong road to take and that the Gospel authors would have said, “No. Don’t do that, because the event did not occur as you’re proposing.” Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? takes a fresh look at the differences and seeks to discover what led to them.

What does harmonizing the Gospels mean and what do you see as a problem with this approach?

Michael R. Licona: By harmonization efforts, I mean the common practice of laying the parallel Gospel accounts on top of one another, similar to transparencies on an overhead projector. The objective of such efforts is to demonstrate that all of the details—even those appearing to be in conflict—actually fit together without much, if any, tension. Unfortunately, these efforts sometimes lead to subjecting the Gospels to a sort of hermeneutical waterboarding until they tell the exegete what he or she wants to hear.

Those performing strained harmonization are doing so for honorable reasons. They seek to have a high view of Scripture and believe their harmonization efforts are treating the Gospels with respect while rescuing them from skeptics who want to dismiss their contents.

The problem is the literary conventions for writing history and biography in antiquity differed in some ways from those of today. So, we can go wrong by reading the Gospels as though their authors wrote them with 21st century literary conventions in mind…

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Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: An Interview with Michael R. Licona – Bible Gateway Blog