Many of us remember the movie Field of Dreams. In it, a man builds a baseball field with the adage that “If you build it, they will come.” In similar fashion, we could make a statement about Mike Licona’s books. If he writes it, Geisler and his allies will come after it. At this point, since they have gone after everything else said, we expect that if Mike Licona put up his grocery list on his web site, that Geisler would find some way of accusing him of denying inerrancy in doing that.
This time, it’s David Farnell who is doing the writing. Unfortunately, it’s just as weak as many of his last critiques. Farnell looks to be someone who thinks there’s value in holding a position because it is traditional and he’s going to stand to the end with that position. This is especially so if the new information could dare bring into question the Gospel of Inerrancy.
As we can expect, this starts off with a denial of the idea that the Gospels are Greco-Roman Bioi. Never mind that there is broad agreement across the board in New Testament scholarship that the Gospels fit into this genre. Farnell knows better! Sure, there’s no real reply to Burridge at this point, but is one needed? Just bring out the same old arguments before that has been addressed.
At this point it is worth pointing out that Geisler was explicitly challenged on the point of denying that the Gospels are Greco-Roman bioi. We can be sure that the same challenge would be happily given to Farnell. We could also see if Geisler would respond to the challenge the same way he did when it was posted on his Facebook page. That way of responding was the classical response of delete the post and ban the user. You know, the scholarly approach.
The problem for Gesiler is that the post was seen by others, with whom I have since become friends. What we saw from that is Geisler does not like intellectual challenges to his authority in this area. He apparently does not want to play where he is obviously not in charge of what happens. Perhaps Farnell will take the field as it were on behalf of Geisler. He seems confident after all that the Gospels are not Greco-Roman bioi. We will see if that happens.
Farnell’s critique would not be complete without talking about Licona’s first book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach where he says Licona dehistoricized a text. The question-begging nature of this claim has been addressed ad infinitum. A text can’t be dehistoricized if it was not meant to be historical to begin with. Geisler and his followers keep asserting that the text must be a literal historical event and therefore, anything different must be dehistoricizing. The rest of us, meanwhile, who actually care about investigating claims and being open (Just wait until later to see what Farnell has to say about us if that sounds too harsh) decided that the question is one worth investigating. It is better to debate a question and not settle it than to settle it without debating it. Farnell just has the classic panic button pushing that says “It has to be historical because, well, we have to save inerrancy!” Farnell quotes Licona saying:
“Bioi offered the ancient biographer great flexibility for rearranging material and inventing speeches . . . and they often included legend. Because bios was a flexible genre, it is often difficult to determine where history ends and legend begins.”
A look at the footnote in Farnell’s article will show that Farnell took several different quotes from Licona throughout his book and compiled them together to form this one quote as if all were about the same thing. We do find it interesting that Farnell used this compositional device in a review complaining about Licona using compositional devices. “Do as we say and not as we do”, I suppose. It’s quite amusing to find a crowd complaining about the accusation that the Gospel writers are inaccurate in quoting don’t seem to mind being inaccurate themselves. Farnell goes on to quote Licona:
“It can forthrightly be admitted that the data surrounding what happened to Jesus is fragmentary and could possibly be mixed with legend, as Wedderburn notes. We may also be reading poetic language or legend at certain points, such as Matthew’s report of the raising of some dead saints at Jesus death (Mt 27:51-54) and the angel(s) at the tomb (Mark 15:5-7; Matt 28:2-7; Luke 24:4-7; John 20:11-13.”(bold his)
Unfortunately, Farnell and others failed to notice that what Mike wrote is his dissertation. He did not write it to an evangelical audience alone. He wrote it for all audiences in a way that would pass peer-review. At the start, you remain open to where the investigation would lead. For Farnell and company, that openness is not allowed. Inerrancy must be protected at all costs! This never seems to register with the Geisler faction.
Farnell then raises the cry of “How can you tell what is legend and what is not?” Unfortunately, this kind of silver bullet thinking will not help us with evangelism. As an apologist who actively debates with atheists today, I encounter this kind of magic bullet thinking regularly. One classic example is the Old Testament. How do you know which laws apply today and which do not? If you want some magic bullet with how you read the text to know, there isn’t one. You actually have to do the work of study. So it is when you approach the New Testament If you approach it as it is, there’s no magic way of reading a text that tells you that this event is absolutely 100% true. What does Farnell expect, really? Does he think that the words in Greek will glow if that’s the case?
Farnell no doubt thinks he has a killer case in a syllogism he gives on this. I am sure that to many unaware readers, it looks convincing. Unfortunately, it just isn’t.
PREMISE ONE: Greco-Roman Bioi presents a mixture of history (facts) and legendary material that are hard to distinguish
PREMISE TWO: The Gospels are an example of Greco-Roman Bioi
CONCLUSION: The Gospels presents a mixture of history (facts) and legendary material that are hard to distinguish.
We see this with a syllogism Geisler uses.
Premise One: The Bible is written by men. (While we hold to divine authorship, there is no doubt there was a human component to the writing.)
Premise Two: That which is written by men has errors.
Conclusion: The Bible has errors.
As Geisler would rightly point out, the error is in thinking that when men write,
they necessarily errSo it is with Greco-Roman bioi. That biographers erred did not
mean that they erred because they had to. It’s not as if Plutarch would write a life
and then look back and say “Now I need to necessarily err so I better make sure I
put one mistake in this.” The problems for this get worse for Farnell.
For instance, if we go to the Old Testament, it as well has several genres. Consider that many books are written in the genre of wisdom literature. In wisdom literature in pagan nations, there are many errors. Therefore, there must by this standard be errors in the Biblical wisdom literature. The pagan world had their own prophets that erred, therefore if prophets erred, then surely so did the Old Testament prophets. The Jewish world had its own apocalypses that had errs. Therefore, the book of Revelation must have errs. Farnell’s syllogism proves too much.
Farnell also says Licona stirred up much controversy with his book. Unfortunately, Farnell has missed the real problem. There was no real controversy until Geisler accused Licona of denying inerrancy, and sought to end his career. If Farnell wants to see who caused a controversy, he needs to look at Geisler instead. Had Geisler not engaged Licona’s arguments instead of attacking Licona, today, we might actually be talking about the resurrection of Jesus. Instead, we’re talking about inerrancy, and not to the benefit of Geisler. If anything, Geisler has simply destroyed any reputation he had in the eyes of several (Including myself) and caused us to say that if this is the kind of actions that ICBI entails, then so much for ICBI. Ironically, if anyone is undermining ICBI today, it is not Licona. It is Geisler and Farnell is helping him out very well with that.
Much that follows is about the Gospels as Greco-Roman bioi. We will suffice to leave the challenge presented open for Farnell as well and see if he takes it. If he does not want to, then we will not really take his challenges too seriously. Therefore, let us move on to other points.
This rejection of classical grammatico-historical harmonization is very evident in Licona's work and such rejection is also reinforced in the foreword when Craig Evans, Distinguished Professor of Christian Origins and Dean of the School of Christian Thought Houston Baptist University, and colleague of Licona, starts an immediate negative tone in the Foreword of the book, wards of criticism from "naïve conservatives who rely on simplistic harmonizations and pat answers that really do not do justice to the phenomena." Apparently, evangelical critical scholars like Evans brands anyone who raises concerns regarding Licona's analogy of the Gospels to the phenomena of Greco-Roman biography as somehow lacking in scholarship in daring disagree with Licona's approach, or for that matter, evangelical critical scholarship's growing assessment that the Gospels are patterned after the genre of Greco-Roman bioi. Furthermore, he wants the readers of the book to have an "open and teachable mind" even though Evans's mind is clearly closed on the issue. Such pathetic name calling is also done by Licona when he remarks that he was "scolded on the Internet by ultra-conservative Christians" who disagreed with his approach.
Yes. The name-calling is apparently pathetic. Now going after Licona’s livelihood and having speaking engagements cancelled and such is all well and good, but please don’t make any statements that could be considered name-calling. The irony of this only increases when we see this phrase in the EXACT SAME PARAGRAPH.
“In response, the evidence shows that those who are confident in the Gospels trustworthiness will be vastly more troubled by Licona's approach to resolving alleged discrepancies through the application of the genre of Greco-Roman bioi than any "apparent discrepancies" that one may find troubling.”
Yes. You dare not call into question someone’s scholarship after all, but it’s okay to say your brothers and sisters are not people who are confident in the Gospels’ trustworthiness. To use some phraseology of Farnell, ‘one wonders’ about someone who complains about scholarship being called into question, but has no problem calling someone’s attitude towards Scripture into question. Again “Do as we say and not as we do.” In speaking of acknowledgments in Licona’s book, Farnell says
Licona also mentions apologist ‘William Lane Craig . . . who encouraged me to push forward with this research . . . and to Craig Evans, Craig Keener . . . Dan Wallace, all of whom encouraged me to pursue truth no matter where it led when my observations made me uncomfortable. 
This is followed by Farnell saying “The latter word "uncomfortable" used by Wallace would imply that even Licona had reservations about his own approach contained in the book as to its impact on Gospel trustworthiness.” It never seems to occur to Farnell that the uncomfortableness could be due to being painted as a villain in the evangelical community and having someone like Geisler go after him. No. Farnell would rather play psychologist and claim that Licona has some secret inner angst about what he is writing. It would be nice if Farnell could show the rest of us this silver bullet method whereby he knows this authorial intent behind what Licona says. Seeing as for Licona, I am his son-in-law who communicates with him regularly, I think I’m in a better position to know what Licona means by this and yes, I do have the conversations with him to know what he’s uncomfortable about.
Farnell makes much of a tweet in which Licona says the Gospels give a portrait of Jesus that is true enough. Of course, true enough is enough to get Farnell pushing his panic button. The rest of us meanwhile who don’t get hysterical at a thought we find disagreeable instead look and say “Well yes, of course. The Gospels can’t tell us everything about Jesus. They say that such as in the end of John 21, but they do give us enough that we can know the truth about the historical Jesus. It is a shame that for all the talk about harmonization that Farnell brings, he has no room for a charitable interpretation.
Farnell goes on to wonder about Licona’s “arbitrary” decision to use Plutarch. There is nothing arbitrary about it and this makes us wonder if Farnell even read Licona’s book. As Licona says in his book on page 22:
Upon concluding my first read of Plutarch’s Lives, I noticed that nine of them feature characters who had lived at the same time and most of them had known each another. Sertorius, Lucullus, Cicero, Pompey, Crassus, Caesar, Younger Cato, Brutus, and Antony were all involved in events that ultimately led to the fall of the Roman Republic.
Nothing arbitrary about that. Licona chose a unique idea of Lives written around the same time about people who lived at the same time by the same author.
Of course, for Farnell, the idea that the methodology of historiography and investigation at the time would actually involve any human means seems anathema. What would the Gospel of Luke look like if Farnell had his way? Let’s consider this for the opening.
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.3 With this in mind, I just listened to the Holy Spirit and wrote down everything that I was told, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Luke said that he carefully investigated. Now this seems anathema to Farnell since the writers had the Holy Spirit in them so surely there would be no need to go and investigate what was said. Unfortunately, Farnell’s referring to passages like John 14:26 proves too much. For one thing, I was completely unaware that Mark and Luke were in the upper room that evening. No doubt, this will be a shock to Biblical scholars everywhere to learn this, but it must be so. After all, they were told that everything would be brought to remembrance.
There’s still more. Jesus says in this passage that everything that He said would be brought to remembrance. It says nothing about what Jesus did. It says nothing about what others did or said. It says nothing about what the apostles themselves did or said. We could ask what is going on with Peter when he is called out by Paul in Galatians 2 and when he doesn’t rise to kill and eat in Acts 10. Did the Holy Spirit not call to remembrance what Jesus said? As we see, this is the problem of having a text that is being used in a way it was never meant to be used.
Farnell also thinks he’s made a powerful blow to the idea by saying that Plutarch was not always an accurate historian. What of it? Licona himself admits as much. That doesn’t change the compositional devices that were being used. Are we to suppose that compositional devices only matter if the writer is 100% telling the truth? This does indeed seem like an ‘arbitrary’ standard on Farnell’s part.
Farnell’s syllogism on this is subject to the same criticism as noted above. Farnell then claims
Willard Swartley, in his Israel's Scripture Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels, presents an excellent case for the Gospels as anchored to ‘common structures and themes rooted in the Israel's stories about itself. Common to the synoptic stories are traditions about Israel's past that defined it throughout the centuries: Exodus and Sinai, Way/Conquest, Temple, and Kingship.’ “ It is interesting to see that Farnell somehow thinks this is a problem. I can agree entirely with Swartley and still see the Gospels as Greco-Roman Bioi. That Farnell thinks this is a strong case against it shows he doesn’t really understand what he is arguing against. Of course, this is common for people who are hitting a panic button.
From here, we return to the standard complaints about Greco-Roman bioi. Again, we point the reader to the above challenge. If Farnell wishes to make his case, then we simply ask him to make it by entering the ring of debate. We do not expect this to happen as the method seems to be to talk loud but don’t dare step up and if you are challenged. Play the victim. We will henceforth be ignoring all remarks about Greco-Roman Bioi.
As we go further, Farnell tells us that one reason Plutarch cannot be used is that Plutarch did not claim inspiration. To be fair, many of the Gospel writers did not claim inspiration either. That was a claim made about their writings. It’s a claim I accept, but it is not one that they themselves make. Still, we have to ask, “What difference does it make? Writing style changes with inspired literature? Did the Gospel writers go out and pick up a copy of God’s Guide To Writing Inspirational Literature.?” This reminds me of the many times I hear skeptics say “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.” How do you recognize this extraordinary evidence? Does it glow in the dark?
Farnell goes on to say that “A ‘grocery list’ of Plutarch's characteristics as a writer also reveal Licona's low view of the canonical Gospels as he describes Plutarch's writings, especially as listed in the summary sections of the pericopes he analyzed in Plutarch.” Now of course, Farnell again has a problem with Evans making claims that could call his scholarship into question, but it’s okay to speak about Licona having a low view of the Gospels. No doubt as we speak, Licona is warming up a Christmas fire at his place with copies of the Gospels. Again with Farnell, do as he says, not as he does.
Farnell from here continues his idea that there must be a one-to-one correspondence between the Gospels and Plutarch in Mike’s view. Such does not follow. It does not follow any more than there is a one-to-one comparison between Wisdom literature in the Old Testament and Wisdom literature in the pagan world and the intertestamental period. We might as well say writings that were written in Greek erred, therefore since the Gospels were written in Greek, they had to err.
With great irony, we find that Farnell writes on how Licona wanted to find compositional devices in the Gospels and lo and behold, that’s what he found. We can just as easily say Farnell wants to find a low view of the Gospels and attacks on inerrancy in Licona and lo and behold, that’s what he found! All Licona found was differences in the Gospel accounts. This is nothing new. He also found weak attempts at harmonization. This again is not new. He wanted to find a better way to reconcile them. It’s quite amusing to hear that Licona is writing a book on how to harmonize Gospel differences and he’s still accused of denying inerrancy.
Farnell goes on to say that “The distinct impression given in his book is that Licona is so overzealous to prove his thesis of the similarities of the phenomena of the canonical Gospels to Greco-Roman bioi like that found in Plutarch's Lives that he frankly discounts any other possible explanation.” We can just as easily say that the distinct impression given in Farnell’s review is that he is so overzealous to prove his thesis that Mike Licona denies inerrancy that he frankly discounts any other possible explanation. Sadly, one would not be too far off the mark in saying that.
When it comes to a statement about John sacrificing precise accuracy in the interest of a higher view, we see that as expected Farnell cites ICBI, the 67th book of the Bible as we all know, to make his case. Unfortunately, Licona’s statement isn’t really that problematic. All he is saying is that John is presenting a higher view and he prefers to present that in a more monologue form instead of the parabolic and such teaching we find going on in the synoptics. Do I agree with this approach? I say why not study it and see? Why not go to the scholars of John across the board?
He goes on to take a quotation of Licona’s saying it could be suggested that the dialogue with Pilate is made up. This can neither be confirmed or disconfirmed. Of course, to say that it could be suggested naturally means that Licona definitely thinks that this is made up entirely. Somehow, Farnell has received access to the authorial intent of Licona. You know, that stuff we’re not supposed to bring into consideration. What Licona is saying is not controversial. Historically speaking, we can’t confirm or disconfirm conversations that took place in the past. That’s why many of us go with reliability.
Farnell also says that Licona makes up multiple sources. He does no such thing. He instead suggests them as a possibility. These would be Q, Special M, Special L, and perhaps others. I for one am skeptical of all of these. I happen to place a greater strength on oral tradition. Of course, it could be that someone like Matthew was following Jesus and taking shorthand notes on wax tablets. Such is within the realm of possibility. Quite frankly, we just don’t know, and I’m okay with saying that.
When it comes to Licona’s statements about miracles, Farnell still lives with the idea that Licona is writing strictly for evangelicals. Licona is also writing for other scholars in a scholarly fashion where you try to have openness to other views and make your case. Licona admits his views, but he’s fine with others challenging them from different viewpoints. In fact, he would welcome it. This is how scholarship works.
Farnell goes on to go through many of the different pericopes in the Gospels Licona brings up. Unfortunately for Farnell, he brings up just one aspect. In fact, if this was the only aspect, I would agree that no compositional device would be needed. Licona brings forward much more. I find it quite dishonest of Farnell to bring this up as if this is the only difference in the pericopes that Licona sees. No doubt, he is anticipating his readers will not read Licona’s book. (Why should they? They have Farnell to tell them the truth about it.) I happen to have my copy right here. Licona’s analysis goes from 120-125. There is much more that Farnell did not touch. Why is that?
When it comes to the demoniac, Matthew records two while Mark has one. Farnell says there is a simple solution. There were two of them. Then what are we to make of Mark’s report? Were you to read that, you would walk away thinking there was just one. Did Mark not tell the truth? Did he mislead his readers? Or could Mark actually be using “spotlighting” as Licona suggests. (Wait. That can’t be it. That was pagan, so I guess we’re stuck.)
With regard to the feeding of the 5,000, we have written about that elsewhere. It need not be done here. I can say that with all the suggestions made, I have been with Licona when he discussed this with Craig, Habermas, Qureshi, and myself. Licona is not closed off to explanations, but he wants the best one. Would that we all had that approach of not wanting an acceptable answer, but an excellent answer.
When we reach the conclusion (Hallelujah) we see more of what is just a temper tantrum on Farnell’s part. Frankly, I look at this and remember the old joke about the fundamentalist preacher writing out his sermon and at one point putting in the side “Weak point. Pound pulpit harder.” Licona begins by restating that the Gospels are Greco-Roman bioi.
“REPONSE—The pattern of the Gospels is NOT Greco-Roman bioi but the Old Testament. The Old Testament pattern contained in its 36 books of promise and fulfillment fully explains the writings found in the Gospels.”
It’s worth pointing out that there are in fact 39 books in the Old Testament. Could it be that Farnell does not see the other three as “books of promise and fulfillment.” Of course, by the standards that Farnell has given, since Farnell can be inaccurate on this point, we have reason to question everything else that he has said in this paper.
For our next part, Licona’s premise is about compositional devices in the Gospels.
“RESPONSE—The canonical Gospels' usage of such devices has not been demonstrated by Licona. These compositional devices are easily explained by simple harmonization without any need for postulating of any such Greco-Roman compositional devices.”
Sure, that is if you just ignore most of what Licona says and go with any answer and assume that that is acceptable. Some of us don’t want acceptable answers. We want great answers. Again, it’s just the temper tantrum response.
The third section is about the usage of Plutarch as a comparison model for the Gospels. Farnell says more of the same.
“RESPONSE: Plutarch's Lives are the WRONG paradigm for the Gospels, as is the whole of Greco-Roman bioi. Merely because Plutarch did these things is non-sequitur in asserting that the canonical Gospels did the same or similar literary devices. While Plutarch erred, the Gospels do not (John 14:26; 16:13; 1 John 4:4-6).”
Yes. It’s awfully cute at this point. Somehow pointing out the Gospels do not error indicates that they did not use any devices of their age. We’re surprised at this point that Farnell is not claiming a whole new language was made just for the Gospels to avoid the corruption of the age.
For the final one, we see Licona explaining how this method of harmonization works with the problems of the Gospels.
“RESPONSE: Licona has NOT proven his case whatsoever. He imposes his ideas upon the Gospels by merely refusing to perform simple harmonization, which harmonization provides ample evidence to dismiss any of his hypothetical "compositional devices."
Simple harmonization, which has also been unconvincing to a world at large and will be easily dealt with by internet skeptics who are free to use evilbible.com or the Skeptics Annotated Bible. Farnell can keep acting like we’re living in the past. We are not. I have seen the effects of this simple harmonization. It creates more apostates than it does believers.
Farnell then goes to Ehrman for his conclusion on Licona as Ehrman says that :
I would like to point out an interesting phenomenon, which I think is probably an empirical fact, that the only people who think the Gospels are absolutely accurate in every detail are Christian fundamentalists who are committed for theological reasons to thinking that the Bible cannot have any mistakes of any kind whatsoever because the authors were inspired to write exactly what happened in every detail. Mike is clearly not in that fundamentalist camp.” (emphasis his)
Sadly, Farnell looks at this as a mark of shame on Licona’s part. He is not in the fundamentalist camp. Farnell says that Ehrman used to be and he recognizes an aberration when he sees it. Farnell is wrong on both counts. It is to Licona’s honor that he is not a fundamentalist. It is also the case that Ehrman is still a fundamentalist, which is why he hangs so much on inerrancy. If Farnell wants to see more people like Ehrman out there, then by all means make inerrancy the central issue.
No, Licona is a scholar who is willing to follow the evidence where it leads and will not settle for pat answers. He wants the best answers when he goes to a debate. I have taken up the same practice trying to read the best information. The answers of the past may have worked then, but perhaps we have new information today and that needs to be taken into consideration. If Farnell wants to hold on to fundamentalism, let him. It has only led to a self-centeredness of our culture on Scripture where we think it was written to us in a way that we immediately understand. As I said, I have seen the effects of this most everyday in my debates. (Dare I say, I might see more of this than Licona since I interact more with the rank and file skeptics than with the leading scholars.)
Farnell terms this scholarship as a fad, though it is more an expression of hope on his part and says there is no difference now between the ETS and the SBL. Can we get some clarification on this then? You see, Geisler has said ETS should now be the Formerly Evangelical Theological Society, but now he uses its judgments on Gundry as a standard for Licona and the fact that it accepts ICBI as a standard, so apparently we should go with ETS, even though he said we shouldn’t. Now Farnell says there’s no difference between it and SBL, so perhaps we shouldn’t go with ETS. I’m confused. Maybe there’s a compositional device that can help with this.
In conclusion, Farnell can pat himself on the back thinking he is standing up for Scripture, but as we should have learned from the Reformation, standing up for tradition does not equal standing up for Scripture. I am proud of Licona’s work and I look forward to him making the advances in the world of scholarship while the old pattern retreats into the world of obscurity where it belongs. Let’s get to the hard work of understanding Scripture!
 Craig Evans, ""Forword," in Licona, Why are There Differences in the Gospels?, x.
 Evans, "Foreword," x.