Destroying Biblical Inerrancy? A Muslim’s thoughts on Mike Licona’s Compositional Device Theories: Plutarch and the Gospels

I’m going to offer a few thoughts concerning Dr Mike Licona’s appeal to Plutarch in order to explain away “contradictions” in the Gospels. Yes, this is prior to the release of his book. If you’re a conservative Christian you may want to follow my train of thought here as I don’t believe Dr Licona’s project is as helpful to your position as it may initially appear.


Dr Licona believes he has noticed 5 compositional devices in the writings of Plutarch which could explain many of the tensions within the Gospels. Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-c.122) was a Greek philosopher and author known for his biographical writings.

I think Dr Licona’s book may cause more problems for the conservative position than offer solutions to their current problems.

How so? Well, let me throw a few thoughts your way.

Plutarch’s Parallel Lives was written in the last two decades before his death in 125 A.D.

The Gospels would have all been penned by 100 CE according to the conservative position. The Synoptics earlier, prior to c. 70 CE. What does this mean?

The Gospel writers couldn’t have been influenced by Plutarch – Plutarch did not finish his work till after the 4 (now) canonical Gospels were composed. Even if Plutarch wrote at the same time or earlier that wouldn’t mean the Gospel authors were aware of his work and the nuances of his writing style.

We’ve reached a crossroads. We can go either of two ways:

1. The later SCRIBES were responsible for the compositional devices as Plutarch’s Parallel Lives would not have been written at the time of writing the Gospels. This would not be a compatible theory to the conservative Christian stance.

2. The use of these compositional devices was common place in the 1st century literary custom and Plutarch was not the originator of such devices. This theory, on a surface level, would work within the conservative Christian paradigm as it would not impugn the Gospels as products of the scribes rather than their original authors.

If we go with 1 then we are talking about editing by the scribes of the Gospels.
If we go with 2 then there’s no real issue for the conservative Christian to worry about. Or is there? I think there is upon deeper thought.

More conceivably, these compositional devices would only be known to the well read and well literate. I mean, even in this modern age of literacy, how many people know today’s equivalent in writing styles and nuances in literature?

Only specialists in the field and the well read.

Do the Gospel authors fit the bill? Or are we more than likely talking about later scribes who would have been well read and specialists in literature of their day due to their profession. They were copying them for living thus they were amongst the best people to be aware of any literary devices in vogue whilst writing.

If we contemplate traditional authorship theories – especially for John – would John the son of Zebedee have been educated enough to pick up on these literary tools? And what about the others; were they really reading the cutting edge in Greek literature of their day and deciphering intricate literary devices?

Hmm, it seems more plausible that we are talking about later scribes here. The scribes would have picked up on the nuances of elite contemporary biographical writing.

That spells problems for the conservatives.

But hey, let’s be more sceptical. Dr Mike Licona, as far as I can tell, is only putting forward Plutarch. What makes us think he was representative of a the writing style of the 1st century? Not only this, how about the MSS tradition for Plutarch? Is it conceivable these devices in the work of Plutarch were the product of later copyists themselves? It’s possible, right?

The oldest and, with one exception, the most authoritative MS., is the Codex Sangermanensis (Sg), p. xvin the library of the monastery of St. Germain-des-Prés,º in the French Department of the Loire. It is a parchment MS. of the Xth century, but unfortunately contains only fifteen of the Lives: Antony (last part), Pyrrhus-Marius, Aratus, Artaxerxes, Agis and Cleomenes, Tiberius and Caius Gracchus, Lycurgus-Numa, Lysander-Sulla, and Agesilaüs-Pompey.
The second oldest MS., and on the whole the most authoritative, is the Codex Seitenstettensis (S), belonging to the monastery of Seitenstetten, near Waidholfen, in Lower Austria. It is a parchment MS. of the XIth century, containing sixteen Lives [Source]

Dr Mike Licona may cover all this ground in his book – I’d be surprised if he doesn’t. However, let’s add some further pre-book release thoughts.

Dr Mike Licona’s compositional devices

These are the five Mike Licona listed in an interview with Nick Peters.

1. Compression. This is when an author knowingly portrays events over a shorter period of time than they actually occurred.

Is it possible this is merely a case of scribes taking liberties to save time, ink, energy and papyri space? In some cases at least?

2. Displacement. when an author knowingly removes an event from its original context and transplants it into another. Eg. John – changing the day and time of crucifixion narrative to make theological points.

So we would call that dishonesty right? Dr Licona would call it a compositional device but come on folks, is this just not a case of semantics to shield the author of that portion of John from cries of dishonesty?

Dr Mike Licona has a vested interest here, aside from being a Christian, his primary case for his faith is his argument for one of the resurrection stories in the Gospels to be historical (the one about Jesus, not the one about the many saints).

If one of his sources is caught red-handed in dishonesty it’s problematic for Dr Licona’s arguments for the resurrection story being historical.

Dr Licona has to explain why such would not be considered dishonesty according to his displacement theory.

I assume Dr Licona believes the same for the Sermon on the Mount; Prof. Richard Bauckham doesn’t believe that sermon to be historical.

3. Spotlighting. This is a direction of focus on certain characters by excluding the mention of others. An example would be the number of women who went to the tomb. John: Mary Magdalene. Others: Multiple women.

I personally don’t think this is a huge issue for the conservative position.

But for Dr Licona, why can’t this just not be a case of a lazy scribe who doesn’t want to write a host of names into the text again rather than “spotlighting”?

4. Transferal. An author knowingly places what was said by one person and is transferred onto the lips of another. An example: story of the centurion’s servant being healed.

What makes Dr Licona think this was some sort of deliberate act? Why not a product of scribal confusion?  Surely the theory of scribal confusion is more plausible, right? Dr Licona has already acknowledged the author of Mark could have been confused in his discussion of a tension arising from a narrative in the said Gospel.

I’d imagine Dr Licona will go through this in his book – if he doesn’t I’d be surprised.

5. Simplification. Eg. The story of Jesus struggling in the garden not being mentioned in John.

What if the simplification is due to theological reasons?

Dr Mike Licona opening up a can of problems?

How about we start delving into Greek literature that would have been popular at the time of the Gospel authors and theorizing like Dr Licona has? The results will not always be accommodating to the Christian position.

The work of the historian Herodotus (d. 425 BCE) would have been familiar by the 1st century. He included fantasy stories in his history such as flying snakes. Could this be a compositional device to make such written accounts more appealing to the reader?Perhaps a tactic that the author of Matthew used when he introduced the story of many saints resurrecting?

See what I just did there? I theorized just like Dr Licona does when he compares the Gospels with Plutarch’s writings.

Thucydides (d. 395 BCE), criticised historians for making stories up to make them more attractive to the reader. He also criticised them from accepting the first source they came across uncritically. What’s there to say this practice did not continue to the time of the Gospel writers and they in turn also concocted stories and/or accepted the first story they came across uncritically in a culture where making stories up was common place! Again, see what I did; I theorized like Dr Licona.

On the whole, however, the conclusions I have drawn from the proofs quoted may, I believe, safely be relied on. Assuredly they will not be disturbed either by the lays of a poet displaying the exaggeration of his craft, or by the compositions of the chroniclers that are attractive at truth’s expense; the subjects they treat of being out of the reach of evidence, and time having robbed most of them of historical value by enthroning them in the region of legend. Turning from these, we can rest satisfied with having proceeded upon the clearest data, and having arrived at conclusions as exact as can be expected in matters of such antiquity. [Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War  1.21.1]

Staying with Thucydides, notice in the above citation he proclaims his work to be neutral and based on clear data. Hmm, does that not remind you of the author of Luke who claims to have investigated in order that an accurate account is given whilst seemingly casting the aspersion of unreliability on other writings [see Luke 1:1-4].

Was Thucydides reliable or was his claim of reliability just a device that one uses to gain the trust of the reader? Is that what Luke was doing here, using a compositional device to gain the trust of the reader so the reader will believe him and not others who are making contrary claims?

I did hear Dr Candida Moss bring up Thucydides and suggest he made up speeches. I assume she refers to:

With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said. [Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War  1.22.1]

How about the author of the Sermon on the Mount (see the Gospel of Mathew),might he have heard that Jesus made a sermon on a mount and the author, being unaware of the contents of the sermon, amalgamated a load of sayings which were circulating at the time or simply made some up imagining what Jesus would have said as per the method of Thucydides? Now does this not explain away the lack of historicity of this sermon as suspected by folk like Prof. Richard Bauckham? See what I did, I theorized like Dr Licona!

To go further in this exercise, replace Thucydides with “author of Gospel of x”:

A noteworthy difference between Thucydides’s method of writing history and that of modern historians is Thucydides’s inclusion of lengthy formal speeches that, as he himself states, were literary reconstructions rather than actual quotations of what was said — or, perhaps, what he believed ought to have been said. [Source]

Now, do you not see how Dr Mike Licona may well be opening a whole can of comparisons which add to the suspicions around the 4 (now) canonical Gospels? Can you imagine somebody who is a classicist doing this?

I understand Dr Licona’s work in this regard is solely  geared towards contradictions in the Gospels and is meant to be comfort and aid for the conservative Christian. I don’t think it will be such. I think his work will either imply the scribes were behind some of these compositional devices he theorizes and/or his work will lead to an increased focus on comparing the Gospels to other literature which would have been in circulation in the 1st/2nd century. The Gospels  will be seen as nothing other than ancient writings on par with others which were in circulation using this methodology – a concern Dr Al Mohler has already expressed

Dr Licona’s book may cover all this. It may not.

It’s also worth keeping in mind Dr Licona recognises the theory of compositional devices does not explain away all the claims of contradiction. One such example is what he styles as the toughest contradiction claim – the infancy narratives:

Categories: Islam

11 replies

  1. I have invited Dr Licona to have a look at this post – I know he’s busy but if he does comment please be welcoming. He seems to be one of the more mild mannered Christian apologists and responds to critique in a mature and scholarly way.

    I’d welcome his feedback – even if it’s edification for my consideration!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The movement amongst many Christian apologists to minimalize the Bible for pragmatic purposes is of relevance here. The reader may also want to watch this video and pay keen attention to what James White says

    Liked by 2 people

    • 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
      4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
      5 and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
      6 After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep;
      7 then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles;
      8 and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.

      1 Corinthians 15:3-8


  3. Hello Yahya:
    Interesting post,you already know my reasons for why I believe the Synoptics are pre-62 AD based on internal evidence,

    plus why I think the authors were honest(more than 30 embarrassing passages(many repetitions) in the 4 gospels

    plus the fact we have those counter-propaganda parts shows those who copied were honest,by not eliminating them

    plus the fact the Mark is in bad Greek is more proof,since Greek-speaking scribes didn’t correct the bad grammar.

    The techniques that appear in Plutarch also appear in Matthew and Luke(regarding Mark).

    The fact that they existed 60 years before Plutarch his Parallel Lives is documentary proof in 2 texts (Matthew and Luke) that they were already established.

    I don’t see the techniques are being sophisticated,that you would need an aristocratic education to know them,they seem common in an oral culture.


  4. Hi Richard, thanks for the response.

    1. I allow for the possibility compositional devices were known prior to Plutarch but the real issue here is who put them into the text; the authors or the scribes?

    2. I think the scribes as it is implausible to think complex devices such as transferal and displacement were in built in an oral culture. No way IMO.

    Sure devices such as simplification and possibly spotlighting but the two I mentioned I highly doubt they weren’t exclusive to the written medium.

    3. It seems more plausible to believe the scribes would have been more aware of these devices rather than the supposed authors of the Gospels by the traditional camp. I don;t see John being aware of such complex devices.

    4. A bit of what is thought to be embarrassment doesn’t make a whole Gospel reliable.

    5. Notice what we are doing here, speculating! Mike Licona is speculating for a more conservative position while my speculation is for a less conservative position (understatement of the year! :)). Whose speculation is more valid; in my mind I think mine is pretty solid but maybe Mike will shed some further light on matters that will lead me to change direction.

    However, seen as it is all about conjecture right now, I’d add in Mike Licona’s view that the first generation, inc. Paul of Tarsus, thought Jesus would return in their lifetime


  5. most scholars (conservative and liberal) would date the gospels to much later. They are right.

    How do you know they are right?

    It is clear that Luke has to be dated to 61 or 62 because of the way Acts ends in Acts 28 and the rest of the internal evidence.

    If it was written later, we would get more details on what happened to Paul. It ends abruptly and he is still under house arrest.

    Since Luke is 61-62 with Acts, then Matthew and Mark are earlier.

    Case is solid for this.


  6. Hello Yahya:

    I find your reply stimulating,but first let me add that I dont understand Licona’s insistence in that the Passover first day(an 8 day festival) in John is the same as the first day of Passover in the Synoptics.

    We know from documents that the Essenes celebrated on a different day,

    and then you read here and there that the Sadducees had a different day for the beginnign of Passover,and if I am not wrong,in 30 AD,it was one day difference from the Pharisee Passover.

    Another pt is that every day of the 8 day Passover had a Passover meal,

    so the Passover meal that the Pharisees mentioned to Pilate doesnt mean they had Not Yet Had one the day before.Many think it 100% means they Still Had Not eaten the first Passover meal.

    A.About later scribes compressing,spotlighting,etc. From what I have read the custom then was to have a complete biography in Only One Scroll,

    B.And scrolls and any kind of paper then were Very Expensive.

    Books then were scrolls,not pages,that custom appeared later.

    C.Matthew and Luke had a lot more material than Mark.

    D.They have the Q material plus,purely Lucan material, and purely Matthean material.

    E.The authors were under the pressure of fitting it all into one scroll,so even if not trained historians,it would have been natural(or maybe some friend suggested it) for them to

    compress,spotlight,transferal(thus allowing for space for new materail later on) and do simplification,

    since by common sense that left future space in the scroll for the Q material and the Lucan/Matthean material.



  1. Are James White’s Inconsistencies Being Noted? – Blogging Theology

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