The gospels and compositional devices

I am reading a book by Lydia Mcgrew at the moment called “The Mirror or the Mask”

I have to say that the issues she raises have me somewhat troubled. I mentioned in a previous post that I am currently floating on the edges of giving up my faith. One thing that I thought I could rest on as I re-assessed where I stand is Jesus’ words in the gospels. It seems that a number of evangelical scholars now think that some sayings (I am not worried about exact words) are just theological reflections of the authors using literary devices that the audience would have accepted. An example is the “I am” sayings - do we see these as theological reflections of John put into a narrative, or do we see these as things that Jesus said.

You can see a series of videos by Dr Licona responding to Lydia McGrew, as well as her responses to his videos at the following link:
She also has a good interview with Mike Winger at The Controversy Over "Literary Devices" in The Gospels with Dr. Lydia McGrew - YouTube

So, my question is really one for the theology nerds here; it does however have potential implications for the science / faith question if we call into question whether Jesus really did affirm the Genesis accounts in whatever fashion we think is more probable.

Question: How mainstream is the approach that Dr Licona takes - he gives the impression that it is the majority view now? Do you know of other resources that tackle this issue of literary devices from either side? He is joined by the likes of Craig Keener and Craig Evans to a certain extent so I need to buy and read their books, I purchased Dr Licona’s book as well as Richard Burridge’s “What are the Gospels”.

It strikes me that if we can pick and choose which bits are factual and which bits aren’t then I frankly have good reason to strongly question whether I really want to trust it.

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Not a theologist, but speaking as a scientist it’s irrelevant to science whether Jesus actually said it or someone else put words into his mouth. The bible isn’t relevant to science.

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Hey John, I more see if as relevant in the sense of whether people who believe in the Bible should put weight behind those words.
I agree that it doesn’t affect science, more how some people may approach it if they are committed to the Bible and whether they should be more open

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I have not read Dr. Michael R. Licona’s nor Lydia McGrew’s works–I have only watched their YouTube videos where they summarize, present their work, or explain bits of their works. I am aware of their positions. I have seen Mike Licona explain his understanding of compositional devices in the Synoptic Gospels, and I have equally read some of Lydia’s articles and seen her YouTube channel videos on this matter. But, I have not extensively studied the Gospels from an academic point of view. I am well aware of Mark Goodacre and Dennis R. MacDonald’s works as well. Dr. Steve Mason is excellent in this matter, too.
I had already watched Licona’s response to McGrew when it came out, but McGrew doesn’t seem to have much traction in the scholarly world–so I doubt I would side with her even if I am not an expert to judge the arguments myself. I would prefer lending more credence to Licona.
Dr. Keener is a guru in NT scholarship, if one wants to look at some evangelical work on all of these issues, he is another reason for me to lend more expertise to Licona. Keener and Licona are sometimes together for interviews.

However, although I have not extensively looked at these Gospel issues and I have not read these works, I would not believe the Message of the Gospel (not the “Gospels”) based on the historical reliability or factuality of Gospel pericopes. I would agree with Bart D. Ehrman, even if he is an atheist and agnostic, that the NT Gospels are not historically reliable–they have theological agendas and inclinations. I have watched all debates between Licona and Ehrman for the past 12 years and it’s been clear that just because the Gospels may not be historical reliable that faith was never based on historical reliability of the Gospel accounts. (Of course, the historical core must be true at one level, it cannot be Jesus Mythicism à la Richard Carrier). The fact remains that becoming a believer normally is done by faith, not by extensive historical analysis, which only scholars can attain with their eyes and document extensively for the rest of the world to consider. Since I am not qualified to defend or refute either case at this moment, my take on “trusting” the NT as a whole would align with young NT scholar Laura Robinson (who had an exchange with Licona about the resurrection on YouTube and also with Digital Hammurabi on YouTube), who is a Christian but is well aware of the historical limitations, and the theological inclinations/agendas, of the NT. Another example of a believing scholar who was well aware of these issues but still believed as a respectable textual critic, NT historian, and Christian origins expert, was Prof. Emeritus Larry W. Hurtado. Lastly, Digital Hammurabi is produced by Dr. Joshua Bowen (Assyriologist who became an atheist this past decade), but it’s also produced by his wife Megan Lewis (Assyriologist who is still an Anglican Christian!). Both Laura Robinson and Megan Lewis still believe for faith-based reasons that I have not heard them unpack in full, but I think I would resonate with them.

I, for my part, am still investigating metaphysical phenomena and the Shroud of Turin.


Speaking here as an atheist with only a limited reading history in theology, but…

I think it’s fair to say that there is no basis for treating the credibility of the text as something about which judgment does not have to be exercised. Whether one regards exercising judgment about the credibility of particular passages or stories or sayings as “picking and choosing” or not, there’s no substitute, when judging historical questions, for careful, reasoned judgment. And there’s no basis for exempting “holy” writings from that scrutiny.

For myself, this boils down to: I have no reason to believe that the authors of these texts had any more insight into the supernatural than anyone else has. Modern writers and mystics and such along analogous lines are, to a man, either mountebanks or people with severe mental difficulties, neither of which are the sorts of people I look to for credible accounts. So my own take on it is that ancient writings can be of no value at all in judging the truth of supernatural claims. These claims are best judged by the demonstration, in the here and now, of the forces and entities claimed to be at work. And that’s a bit thin on the ground. Apologetics for why that is abound, but are of limited persuasive force.

But the other take, of course, is that the need to exercise judgment doesn’t mean none of it is true. It means, instead, that you cannot assume any of it to be true, but that you may, on balance, judge it to be so. I disfavor that because historical evidence is, in my view, incompetent on supernatural claims. But, of course, Biblical texts need not be viewed as factual testimony to the reality of paranormal entities. As an account of events to be understood as reflecting on the human condition, one might derive something of value from them. One might follow certain of the ethical teachings without subscribing to the whole paranormal setting in which they are offered, for example.

For someone raised in a more fire-breathing version of faith, of course, that might be unsatisfying. But it also might be more defensible.


Your approach to faith seems sort of backwards to me, but it seems like your questions are common in times of doubt for anyone so I wouldn’t let that bother you.

This explanation may be helpful. The best of men was a doubter. :slightly_smiling_face:

What I’m trying to say is that the reliability of the Bible isn’t the reason why anyone should believe. Instead it is what Jesus has done for you a sinner and that’s why you trust the scriptures and read and get to know them intimately to cultivate a relationship with God.

Just like if you constantly think about your spouse’s possible faults, you’re probably going to get a divorce. :upside_down_face: But if you’re grateful for salvation and God’s love, the pages of the Bible will hit you in a different way I think. Do you want that relationship? Are you reading the Bible itself as much or more than critical or scholarly books?

I’m not at all saying you shouldn’t pursue truth, but instead that the God of the Bible describes knowing him as a relationship of love and not as teacher-student relationship for a reason.

I hope what I wrote here is a hindrance and not a help to you.

I am certainly not well versed (pun somewhat intended) in the Bible but I have read a number of passages. To my untrained eye the conclusion of literary devices having been employed seems very obvious.

Just a couple of examples, when Jesus prays in the garden we are told the exact words he spoke, yet there were no eyewitnesses (the disciples had all fallen asleep). So how do we know these words? He was arrested immediately afterwards.

Likewise, how do we know the exact words that Jesus and Pilatus exchanged - the disciples had fled by then and would not have been present.

This style is commonly known as the ‘omnipresent narrator’ device. It is one way in which writers put their slant on what they report.

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:face_with_monocle: huh ?

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Thanks for the lengthy response Brian. It got late last night here and then busy this morning hence delay in replying

I just purchased Craig Keeners 2019 book Christobiography. I will ensure I read carefully and compare to what Mcgrew is saying.
Hopefully the combo of Keener, Licona and Burridge will give me a good coverage of those issues from their side

She does seem to be in alignment though with some scholars such as Blomberg and a few others, so not entirely an outlier.

Agreed. The position I am in at the moment is very much one of deciding whether to keep hanging on on the fringes hoping things change, or whether I just bite the bullet and say that I currently have no reason internally or evidentially to believe

I did try to find her work on Amazon, but couldn’t find anything. Is there something you would suggest?

Agreed, just a case of questioning if I have reason intellectually to hang on in there on the boundaries. Broadly speaking I have come to the admission that at the moment I am more an agnostic than a theist at heart. Unfortunately the “you just need to choose to believe” that some (not saying you) suggest is not how human psychology works, nor exactly what I see as compatible with the believe of God working in someone’s heart to bring them into a relationship with him

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Agreed entirely on this - I don’t hold an inerrantist view, but have broadly affirmed the reliability of events etc up to now. That is obviously being shaken a bit right now
The problem I have is that if we are able to cast doubt on the desire of the authors to portray events accurately in many situations, then why would I believe they are telling the truth when portraying events as historical that support arguments for the resurrection. If we can say that some events were theological narratives that didn’t have a correspondence to actual events in history, then why not about the appearances etc.

I slightly differ from you on this, but don’t have the mental energy to really think through why. I will however ponder on what you say here and see whether my difference in opinion is reasonable

Agreed entirely.

I am not confident that those are definitely slam-dunk cases.
Perhaps the disciples were in earshot of Jesus when he was praying. Perhaps he told them afterwards what he was praying about when raised.
Perhaps there were guards or servants around when Jesus was with Pilot etc.

I definitely don’t expect exact verbal correspondence between words of people in history and the words that appear in historical writings. That would be entirely unreasonable, but the general gist and the meaning and intention I would hope would be in close correspondence

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I didn’t spot that (hopefully) error. Always nice to know someone actively wants to be a hindrance and not a help :laughing:

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You forget that the scriptures were inspired. God told the writers what Jesus had said. Literally, the omniscient narrator.

Some folks think this. I don’t. I don’t believe that most scholars think this. The Bible is best described as a human/devine partnership. God inspired prophets and scribes to write and put the different writings together, but I see no evidence from the text that he told them what to write.

An omniscient narrator, who makes mistakes when tired.

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@ho_idiotes, I can’t watch the videos and catch up on the scholars you mentioned because of time constraints, but I’d like to chime in just based what you wrote.

Are you wrestling with whether or not the presence of literary design suggests that the stories written by the authors of the Gospels are not based on actual events? If that’s the case, my two cents: I don’t think the use of literary design to tell the stories has anything to do with whether or not the stories are based on real events.

Are literary design tools utilized for story telling? Are the stories based on actual events? Two different questions, the answers of which don’t have to be related.

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Hi Chad, examples of such things I am concerned about are:
Transferral - moving the words or deeds of one person to record them with a different person
Compression - changing the number of days and hours that an event took place over to a shorter
Conflation - combining different events into one in the narrative
Displacement - changing the location of an event
Creation of a context that didn’t happen in order to embed some narrative


Matt, I’m far from an expert, but I few thoughts

The Gospels are not written to 20th century history standards. They are a form of ancient biography written to people in a different culture and time. To really dig in and understand how much we can trust we need to first understand what the original audience would have expected. For example, from my understanding conflation was very expected, and therefore we can expect to see some conflation in the gospels. (The sermon on the mount was very unlikely to be been given as a single sermon). But the original audience would have understood that what was being communicate was not that this was a single event, but that a literary mechanism was used to present the message being conveyed.

However this does not mean that the gospels are fundamentally untrustworthy.

I believe Craig Keener has been mentioned. He has a new book out " Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels", that based on an interview I heard, would be a really good starting point to really understand how to think about the reliability of the Gospels.


Thanks for the clarification. Yeah, interesting things to work through. Is this a fair way to rephrase my question?

The authors of the Gospels used literary devices to tell their stories. In doing so, did they stretch and alter events to such an extent that it calls into question whether or not the stories are based on actual events?

If this isn’t helpful, let me know. I just like to pinpoint the question I’m sorting through, if it’s possible.

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I’m not an expert, or even particularly knowledgeable, regarding this field. But it seems self-evident to me that any claims regarding the process by and circumstances under which these texts were written, as well as the degree to which they accurately reflect the events described therein, cannot be asserted with much beyond a minimal degree of confidence.

I appreciate that, in theological terms, it would be very important be quite certain about these matters. Just because its really important that you know something does not mean it is possible for you to know it.