Published on September 23, 2019 by Benjamin J. Montoya

Oxford University Press, 2016 | 332 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

Reviewed by Alexander E. Stewart



Michael R. Licona, Associate Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University, explores the differences in the Gospels in view of rhetorical devices taught in the progymnasmata (preliminary rhetorical exercises) and the compositional devices used by other ancient biographers. This is an interdisciplinary study which will prove of interest to both classicists and students of the New Testament.

In the introduction, Licona begins by noting that differences between the Gospels have interested Christians and skeptics from the early centuries of Christianity. He aims to demonstrate that many, if not most, of these differences can be understood or explained by the evangelists’ use of common biographical compositional techniques and devices. Licona briefly reviews the genre of Greco-Roman biography and argues that the “objective of Greco-Roman biography was to reveal the character of the subject through the person’s sayings and deeds” (p. 4). He affirms the growing consensus that the New Testament Gospels are closer to Greco-Roman biography than any other genre and argues that we should expect the Gospel authors to have utilized contemporary compositional devices. He notes that one difference between ancient and modern biography is that “ancient biographical conventions provided authors a license to depart from the degree of precision in reporting that many of us moderns prefer” (p. 5). Ancient historians and biographers had freedom to alter details if the main picture remained “true enough” (p. 6).

In chapter 1, Licona explores the progymnasmata to determine how students in antiquity were taught to communicate historical and biographical accounts. Seven progymnasmata have survived (5 in Greek and 2 in Latin) from the 1st to 5th centuries AD. These handbooks codified techniques and practices in existence before the first century. The principles were applied beyond speeches to all forms of writing (poetry, history, etc.). Licona focuses on Theon’s text since it is likely the earliest and closest to the time the evangelists wrote. According to Theon, chreia (a short biographical saying or action told to make a point) could be altered by restatement, grammatical inflection, comment, contradiction, expansion, and compression (p. 11). Regarding narratives, “Theon discusses how there is a substantial amount of flexibility involved when reconstructing speeches, and the imagination of the writer is welcomed. However, the narration must be credible and suitable to the speakers, audience members, and occasion” (p. 11). Theon notes that when paraphrasing an author could “alter the syntax of a sentence . . . add to the original words or thoughts for clarification, further description, or artistic improvement . . . subtract words or thoughts from the original . . . [and] substitute words in the original” (pp. 13–14).

In chapter 2, Licona introduces Plutarch and discusses the significance of comparing his Parallel Lives to the Gospels. Plutarch was a prolific author who died in the early second century. Fifty of his biographies have survived and are referred to as Plutarch’s Lives. Nine of these Lives overlap with each other (Sertorius, Lucullus, Cicero, Pompey, Crassus, Caesar, Younger Cato, Brutus and Antony) and provide an opportunity for synoptic comparison of how the same author could tell the same story differently on separate occasions while using the same sources. Plutarch’s “primary objective was to illuminate the character of the person who was the subject of that Life” (p. 17). This objective differs from modern historians who aim to produce a precise and detailed objective account of what exactly happened. In contrast, “In order to accomplish his objective, Plutarch occasionally bends the facts to support the portrait he is painting—a portrait that is largely true though not always entirely so in the details. He does not bend to mislead his readers but rather to emphasize an important deeper truth about his main character that readers can now grasp more fully and emulate” (p. 17; emphasis original). Licona proceeds to list and describe eight of the compositional devices observed in Plutarch’s Lives:

  1. Transferal: “an author knowingly attributes words or deeds to a person that actually belonged to another person” (p. 20).
  2. Displacement: “an author knowingly uproots an event from its original context and transplants it in another [either earlier or later]” (p. 20).
  3. Conflation: “an author combines elements from two or more events or people and narrates them as one” (p. 20).
  4. Compression: “an author knowingly portrays events over a shorter period of time than the actual time it took for those events to occur” (p. 20).
  5. Spotlighting: “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” (p. 20).
  6. Simplification: “an author adapts material by omitting or altering details that may complicate the overall narrative” (p. 20).
  7. Expansion of narrative details: “A well-written biography would inform, teach, and be beautifully composed. If minor details were unknown, they could be invented to improve the narrative while maintaining historical verisimilitude” (p. 20).
  8. Paraphrasing: an author could alter the syntax and words of a source.

In addition to these eight compositional devices, Licona draws attention to the law of biographical relevance. This simply means that each “story is told in a manner that is most relevant to the main character (p. 21).

In chapter 3, Licona explores the thirty pericopes (narrative units) that appear twice or more in the nine overlapping parallel lives which contain differences. He summarizes the content of each pericope and analyses the differences to identify patterns which could point to compositional techniques. In summary, Plutarch “compresses stories, conflates them, transfers what one character said to the lips of a different person, inverts the order of events, rounds numbers, simplifies, and displaces a story or an element of a story from its original context and then transplants it in a different one” (pp. 197–98). Licona concludes that Plutarch occasionally errs but most of the differences could result from the use of the eight compositional devices discussed above which were standard practices employed in history and biography writing in the first century.

In chapter 4, Licona turns his attention to the Gospels and, after a brief introduction to source criticism, explores the differences in sixteen pericopes which appear in more than one Gospel. These sixteen were selected because they were considered most likely to provide evidence for the use of the compositional devices identified in Plutarch (p. 182). Licona summarizes each pericope and provides analysis of the differences. Regarding techniques identified in the progymnasmata, the evangelists “substitute words and phrases, alter syntax, change the inflection of a term from singular to plural (or vice versa), add to intensify, clarify, translate, or expand upon the thought. They, especially Luke, also change a statement to a question or a command” (pp. 182–83). Regarding the compositional devices identified in Plutarch, the evangelists “occasionally displace an event from its original context and transplant it in another either to raise tension in the narrative or to link it with another story involving the same characters. They simplify, though not often. More than the other evangelists, Matthew occasionally transfers what one person said to the lips of another. And the evangelists occasionally change the recipients being addressed. They compress and probably conflate stories” (p. 183). Licona admits that some of the differences between the Gospels cannot be explained by the compositional devices under consideration. This reality “could suggest the event itself was remembered while some of the peripheral details were not” (p. 184). Licona concludes the chapter by noting that most of the differences relate to peripheral details and can convincingly be explained by use of diverse sources or of the common compositional practices of the time.

In chapter 5, Licona explores synthetic chronological placement. With synthetic chronological placement literary artistry, thematic progression, or theological themes take compositional precedent over historical chronology. After discussing five examples from classical literature (Plutarch, Sallust, and Tacitus), Licona discusses five possible examples of synthetic chronology in the Gospels: the anointing of Jesus at Bethany, the date and time of Jesus’ crucifixion, the cleansing of the leper, Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth, and the cleansing of the temple. These five pericopes seem to exhibit differences, not just in floating or implied chronology, but in explicit chronology. Licona suggests that recognition of synthetic chronological placement frees interpreters to recognize that the event is historical but the chronology is artificial in at least one of the Gospels. Licona, following Keener, suggests that John changed the day and time of the crucifixion to make a theological point. He also suggests that Matthew moved the account of the healing of the leper in order to highlight the fact that Jesus was performing the signs expected of the Messiah in response to the question from John the Baptist (Matt 11:4–6), Luke intentionally places Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry in contrast to Matthew and Mark, and John moved the temple cleansing to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to make a literary or theological point: “In most of these instances, it appears that one of the evangelists altered the chronology of an event. In some of these, the reasons for doing so can be plausibly surmised to produce a smooth-flowing narrative, highlight a point the evangelist desired to make, provide a contextual home for an orphaned story, or for reasons not apparent to us” (p. 196).

In the conclusion, Licona summarizes his main points and reflects upon the significance of the study. The Gospels fit within the genre of Greco-Roman biography. Ancient historians and biographers did not privilege precision the way modern authors do and felt free to use a range of compositional devices to make a narrative better as long as the narrative remained true enough: “The evangelists appear to have made frequent use of nearly all of the compositional devices upon which we focused . . . . Accordingly our study has revealed quite clearly that each of the evangelists had some level of rhetorical education” (p. 198). Licona suggests that the Gospels differ from other ancient historians and biographers in an important way: “the extent of editing by the evangelists is minimal by ancient standards” (p. 199). Even though the same compositional techniques were utilized, the evangelists showed a great deal more respect for their source material.

Licona concludes with some practical applications. First, Christians should not seek implausible harmonization when confronted with differences in the Gospels; the evangelists wrote using the compositional devices and with the level of precision which was normal and expected in their time and culture and not with that of our time and culture. Second, critics of Christianity should not be so quick to dismiss the historic claims of Christianity based on differences in the Gospels since to do so is to confuse general historical accuracy with artificial precision. Licona pleads with both apologists and critics to recognize and respect the historical context of the Gospels as Greco-Roman biographies. The evangelists were first-century authors who wrote for first-century audiences: “A truly high view of the Gospels as holy writ requires us to accept and respect them as God has given them to us rather than to force them into a frame shaped by how we think he should have” (p. 201).

Licona has provided a well-researched and well-written discussion of ancient historiographical and biographical composition techniques and shown how these techniques were likely utilized by the authors of the four canonical Gospels. Several concerns or cautions, however, should be noted.

  • First, the identification of several possible shared compositional techniques does not demonstrate that the evangelists had some level of rhetorical education. This could be argued more easily for Luke and perhaps Matthew than for Mark and John, but it has not been established by this study and should be viewed as a possible implication and avenue for future research.
  • Second, even if these compositional techniques were common practice in the first century, it does not automatically follow that the techniques would have been accepted and utilized by the earliest Christians. They rejected many common practices and habits of the contemporary broader Greco-Roman culture.
  • Third, how true does something have to be to be “true enough”? Licona seems to suggest that if a difference between the Gospels can be linked to a contemporary compositional technique, then it should be viewed as true enough and it should not really matter if peripheral details in the accounts do not match up. This way of phrasing things will not sit well with many of Licona’s evangelical readers and raises bigger questions about the meaning and boundaries of inerrancy. There is not space here to explore these concerns further but it is important to note that Licona views his conclusions as compatible with a high view of Scripture.
  • Fourth, the solution of a perceived difference by recourse to Greco-Roman historiographical composition techniques is but one possible solution among many. Each of the five possible examples of synthetic chronological placement identified by Licona have other possible solutions which do not involve a conclusion that the evangelist intentionally altered the chronology to make a theological, literary, or thematic point. Each one must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

One mistake would be to think that just because Plutarch or Tacitus changed their sources in a certain way, the evangelists also always treated their sources in that way. The opposite mistake would be to think that the evangelists wrote their biographies of Jesus the way we would have tried to write them today. Licona calls readers to accept the Gospels we have and not the Gospels we wish we had; in doing so, he is arguing for something of a paradigm shift in how Gospel differences and harmonization are popularly approached. He is not alone here, and many evangelical scholars are exploring how to best express the difference between precision and accuracy and between truthfulness and pedantic precision. (For a brief but helpful discussion of terms see Vern Poythress, “Inerrancy, Harmonization and the Synoptic Gospels: A Response to Darrell Bock,”)


Alexander E. Stewart is Academic Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Tyndale Theological Seminary, Badhoevedorp, The Netherlands.

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Oxford University Press, 2016 | 332 pages

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