- Paperback: 582 pages
- Publisher: DeWard Publishing (10 December 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1947929070
- ISBN-13: 978-1947929074
- Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 3.3 x 22.9 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 762 g
- Customer Reviews: 8 customer ratings
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 171,219 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices Paperback – 10 December 2019
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In recent years some evangelical scholars have claimed that the Gospel writers were allowed by contemporary literary conventions to present events one way even when the historical reality was different. This involves a number of distinct claims about writing conventions, each of which requires individual investigation. McGrew has done her homework and systematically considers the evidence for each convention, ultimately finding them all wanting. At the same time she amasses evidence that the gospels should be read in a way lay readers are likely to read them anyway. I am grateful for her knowledgeable contributions to Gospel studies.
Peter J. Williams | Principal, Tyndale House, Cambridge
As Thomas Kuhn pointed out long ago, it is often someone from a different discipline who has the epistemic distance and objectivity to evaluate a widely accepted paradigm/methodology in another discipline, because practitioners in the latter tend to look at things the way they were trained and, thus, cannot see things accurately. Kuhn’s remarks are right on target when it comes to philosopher Lydia McGrew’s critique of widespread methodological practices in New Testament studies. While The Mirror or the Mask is very easy to read, it is also a massive piece of first-rate, rigorous scholarship that leaves no stone unturned. Replete with very careful distinctions, The Mirror or the Mask offers a precise analysis of the contemporary practice of employing “fictionalization” to exegete various Gospel texts. McGrew’s careful analysis finds such a practice wanting and dangerous and replaces this practice with an approach that treats the Gospels as honest historical reports based on eyewitness testimony. This book is a must read for all who are interested in the historical accuracy of our portraits of Jesus. I highly recommend it.
J.P. Moreland | Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Talbot School of Theology
Readers can learn a lot about good historical method, ancient and modern, from McGrew’s extremely thorough and meticulous analysis. However, three clarifications are essential: (1) This book is not about literary devices in general but about fictionalizing devices. (2) The approaches most criticized are not common among inerrantist Gospel scholars. (3) The evangelical scholars criticized, both inerrantist and non-inerrantist, have overall been significant defenders of Gospel reliability and of the Christian faith more generally.
Craig L. Blomberg | Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary
Speaking as a specialist in Biblical studies, I find Dr McGrew’s work here to be a cold breeze right in the face: it is both bracing and refreshing. It is bracing because of the scrupulous attention to detail in the primary sources and the relentless logic of the analysis. But it is refreshing, not only for its clarity of presentation but also for the sense that good scholarship actually brings us a greater confidence that the Gospels really do tell us things that Jesus did and said and that he entrusted his apostles to remember. I commend this work to my fellow specialists and to all who enjoy clear thinking.
C. John (“Jack”) Collins, Professor of Old Testament | Covenant Theological Seminary
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2. There are situations in which harmonization can be special pleading. If we're dealing with someone who's known to play fast and loose with the facts, then there's no presumption that his statements are consistent. He's not entitled to the benefit of the doubt. If, however, we're dealing with someone in a position to know what he's talking about, someone who has no reason to misrepresent what happened, then that merits a different approach.
3. One point Dr. McGrew makes is that uncorroborated testimony can have evidential value in its own right. It doesn't necessarily require independent confirmation.
Take Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe. You know in advance that no one was better qualified to write a book like that than Ike, given his position in the war effort, his range contacts, his access to intel, as well as his experience in the field. What makes it prima facie trustworthy is the source itself. By the same token, if there's good evidence for the traditional authorship of the Gospels, then that in itself creates a strong presumption for their probative value.
Furthermore, testimonial accounts can have internal indications of veracity. For instance, Dr. McGrew discusses the evidence from unnecessary details.
4. In some evangelical circles, however, historical reliability has been redefined so that even if an account is generally unreliable, it is deemed to be historically reliable so long as it contains some residual facts. But that's a highly eccentric definition of historical reliability.
5. Bart Ehrman notoriously takes the position that the Gospels are unreliable because they are riddled with contradictions. In response, some scholars (e.g. Craig Keener, Dan Wallace, Craig Evans, Mike Licona) have responded by saying the contradictions are indeed real, but they don't amount to error because the narrator wasn't aiming to record what really happened. Take alternate movie endings. These can't be harmonized, but since the movie is fictional, it's not a factual contradiction.
In varying degrees, the scholars in question think the narrators took historical and theological liberties. As such, their respective accounts may sometimes between irreconcilable, but that's not a mistake because historical accuracy wasn't always their intention. They didn't necessarily attempt to reproduce what was said and done, even approximately.
That explanation succeeds in narrowly sidestepping Ehrman's criticism, but the cost is tremendous. We lose the historical Jesus behind the legendary embellishment. This doesn't mean the scholars in question regard the Gospels as mostly fictional. But they have no criterion to distinguish the factual elements from the narrator's imaginative manipulations.
6. One other thing to keep in mind is that compared to witnessing an event, historical writing is reductive. Even if the account is by an eyewitness, the process of verbalizing what he observed will shave off many details.
The reader is therefore left with a sketchy account in which there's lots of play regarding how to visualize the original event. There's nothing "gymnastic" about that. It's just a fact that if you weren't on the scene, if you are simply reading an account of what happened, then there may be multiple ways to mentally fill the gaps. Which in turn means multiple ways to harmonize variant accounts. Historical reconstruction isn't unique to the Gospels. It's something biographers, historians, archeologists, and detectives routinely do.
In her monograph, Dr. McGrew has exhaustively and painstakingly scrutinized the slack methods and assumptions of the scholars in question. And by proposing her own explanations, she has provided positive evidence for the historicity of the Gospels, in response to critics like Ehrman.
Unfortunately some good people have some really bad ideas.
In the first chapter titled What if the Gospels where only based on true events? Lydia examines the epistemological implication of the claim that Gospels are like modern “bio pics”. An analogy that actually comes from Michael Licona’s book. She uses the example of the film Chariots of Fire, however since at the time of writing this I have not seen that movie so I’ll relate this analogy to one I have seen. Namely, the recent Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. I don’t know much about the history of Queen or exactly how they meet or got started as a band etc, but I remember there being a scene where Freddie talks to the other band members for the first time and thinking to myself “this feels very movieish, but maybe it really did happen”. I wasn’t sure if the scene was factual or not(turns out it wasn’t). There were numerous points in the film where I was wondering “did that really happen?”, ”that seems like it could be true” etc. But really I mostly guessing and knew that I would have to fact check the movies later to see which parts were true and which were made up. Fortunately in this case, after the movie, I was able to look up which parts where fabricated and which were not. However when I hear that the Gospels are like bio pics my mind always goes back to that uncertain feeling I had when I was watching Bohemian Rhapsody and trying to figure out while watching which parts were true. This seems like a very awkward position(to say the least) if this is what the gospels are supposed to be like since(as Lydia points out) they are the primary source documents for Jesus. So her main point in this chapter really struck home for me.
Early one she makes a bunch of distinction between the various senses of “Compression”, “displacement”, and Chronology etc. Since many scholars tend to blur the distinctions which leads to misunderstandings. One of the most helpful distinctions that really stuck with me was the achronological/dischronological distinction. Achronological narration simply means that an author narrates without being explicit on which order events are taking place in and this may sometimes accidently give the impression that events happened in the narrated order even though the author didn’t intent that. Dischronological narration means that the author is deliberately narrating as if events happened in a certain order when in fact they knew it didn’t. What’s interesting is even St. Augustine seemed to recognize this distinction. Later in the book on page 235 Lydia gives a lengthy quote from Augustine where talks about achronological vs dischronological narration in the gospels.
But of course the most important point is her use of the term “fictionalization”. The term is her own but she quotes from Mike Licona to show that her definition and use of the term accurately captures what she’s arguing against. Basically she defines to term to mean that an author deliberately writes things that they know are contrary to fact. She further qualifies this by distinguishing between normal paraphrase and the more extreme paraphrase used by scholars such as Daniel Wallace who argues that Jesus saying “I thirst” in John is actually a “paraphrase” of “My God why have you forsaken me?” in Mark. Since the more normal use of paraphrase means that, although the wording is different, the rephrase is recognizable from the original saying. This is clearly not the case with the Dan Wallace example and thus that form of paraphrasing would count as “fictionalization”.
She also spends a chapter giving lots of quotations from the scholars that she interacts with throughout the book such as Licona, Keener, Evans, Burridge etc. She demonstrates early on that she does in fact understand what these scholars are saying and is not misrepresenting their positions.
Part Two of the book Unmasking History was perhaps the most interesting and eye opening part of the book. The Chapter “Let Ancient People Speak for Themselves” is about showing that ancient writes generally did care about literal facts and that it is in fact modern scholars like Richard Burridge who are in fact being anachronistic in claims that ancients were mainly interested in “higher truth”. She has lots of quotations from Lucian, Thucydides, Polybius, Cicero etc and even Julius Africanus that demonstrates this.
The chapter on compositional textbooks, titled “Going Chreia-zy”, was probably one of the biggest eye openers in the book for me. The use of compositional textbooks in the ancient worlds plays an important role in Mike Licona’s case in Why Are There Difference in the Gospels? I remember when I first heard his argument in lectures and his book about how students would have been taught these various literary devices and that they could apply them to history, I found it very persuasive. However after reading this chapter I’ve pretty much gone the other direction. Basically Lydia shows that these are simple writing assignments about how to write well and not about taking factual liberties when writing historical texts. Similar to how if we look at a modern English textbook’s writing assignments we wouldn’t conclude that students are being taught to alter historical facts. The first Appendix at the end of the book is basically an extension of this chapter.
She has a very helpful flowchart on page 180 that nicely illustrates the burden of proof that literary device theorists have when it comes to showing if an ancient author used them. It was fascinating seeing her go through various examples in Greco roman literature that scholars point to show that these devices were supposedly common place amongst ancient authors. She always quotes the sources themselves and argues how they are being misinterpreted. What’s really neat to me is that since the sources and arguments are laid out in front of the reader in such a clear manner you can decide for yourself if she’s being fair and accurate in her assessment and how much weight to put on these various texts. This really rings true in the chapter where she examines the various examples from Plutarch where scholars such as Mike Licona and Christopher Pelling claim to find Plutarch engaging in these sorts of literary devices. Examples are also used from Josephus and Tacitus(in appendix 2). My big takeaway from this chapter is once you look at the actual Plutarch texts(she quotes them in every example) there’s often not even apparent discrepancy and when there is it’s easily harmonizable. In the very rare case there is a genuine contradiction scholars are way too quick to jump to a literary device and don’t properly rule out that fact that Plutarch may have just made a mistake. One example from appendix two that comes from Tacitus is the dating of Pisos trial. Basically a senatorial decree was discovered in the 1990’s that caused classicists such as Ronald Mellor to claim that Tacitus deliberately moves the date of the trail. However Lydia shows the inference for this is very shaky and that even Ronald Mellor himself changed his mind in 2010.
Of course this book is not purely a negative case. In part 3 she defends what she calls the “reportage model” of the gospels. Meaning that the Gospel authors where accurately trying to report the facts. Right out the gate she clarifies what the reportage model is and isn’t since some people think that means we have to have tape recorder accuracy and there’s no room for normal paraphrase etc. Rather it’s the idea that the gospel authors were trying to report facts in a historically recognizable way. She spends two chapters giving evidence for this model via Undesigned Coincidences(the subject of her previous book Hidden in Plain View which I highly recommend), unnecessary details, unexplained allusions, and the unity of personalities. All these fit with the idea that the authors were trying to just tell it like it really happened and contradict the view that they felt licensed to change the facts and the details didn’t always matter.
Part 4 is devoted to arguing against the specific applications of fictionalizing literary devices to the Gospels that some scholars use. She gives many plausible harmonization’s for the various alleged discrepancies in the Gospels. Show's how implausible and contrived many of the literary device theories are in accounting for the differences. I suspect some readers might be uncomfortable with the fact that at some places(but only a few) she considers it likely that one of the gospel authors made a minor good fair error. At least if the reader is an inerrantist. Of early on the book Lydia makes it clear that she is not an inerrantist herself. However while I do consider myself an inerrantist and disagree about the gospels making an occasional minor error, I do agree with her general point and methodology. Namely that a witness making a mirror error is not detrimental to their reliability the way that someone deliberately altering facts in an invisible way is. As she points out, if a witness in a courtroom makes a minor error about what time there at a place, that’s very different that if they said they deliberately said they were at a place at a time that they knew they were not.
Regardless of whether or not you agree with Lydia McGrew's conclusions, this is a very rigorously argued and researched book that is definitely worth your time. That fact that she takes all these complex issues and makes it readable is also really nice. This is definitely a must read for anyone interested in this subject. If you haven’t read her work in this subject because you’ve heard she’s unqualified I urge you to reconsider. At the end of the day it’s the arguments and evidence that matter, not who has certain credentials.
Lydia McGrew takes a closer look at the evidence for this and what she discovers is quite the opposite. She finds that the general view that ancient historians felt free to make things up, and that ancient audiences expected that this was the case is simply due to overactive imaginations. Hang on, this is a wild and exciting ride through these ancient texts which will be rewarding to those who embark on it.
What's interesting to me is that Dr. McGrew *isn't* and doesn't claim to be an inerrantist, and yet I find she has a higher view of Scripture than those who often want to claim that description.
While it's a fair point to argue that we need to read the gospels with the authors and the locatedness of where they were writing, and to whom, Dr McGrew makes the argument with compelling force that this shouldn't be an excuse for a lazy harmonization where details don't matter, and we don't need to attempt harmonization between the accounts because "meh, it's just a literary device so facts don't matter"
From concepts like achronological vs dischronological narration, citations from ancient sources like Julius Africanus who directly attack the idea that the gospel writers weren't honestly reporting what they were seeing, and examples of incidental details (such as independent secular evidence from Josephus that the temple really did take 46 years to build, as the gospel writers reported), Dr McGrew puts together a compelling case that fits what Christians have always believed: The gospel writers were honestly writing down what they remembered.
Is this enough to prove inerrancy? Of course not. But it's enough to show that we need not turn to tortured literary devices when reading the gospels. I give this book my highest recommendation if you're wondering whether the gospels were some sort of Greco-Roman literature that we shouldn't take seriously as historical reportage, and the authors wouldn't have expected us to.
This is a great addition to this dialogue, and I learned a lot reading it. Highly recommended.
Let me provide an example. Among Jesus' post-resurrection appearances are two cited by Matthew (28:7) and Luke (24:36-39) in Galilee and Jerusalem, respectively. In Galilee, Jesus' disciples encounter Him on a mountain outside, while in Jerusalem, they encounter them inside of a house. Due to their different locations, Dr. McGrew states the obvious - that the appearances were likely at two different times. Dr. Licona instead states that Luke has "compressed" the accounts and they are "most certainly" the same event. These sorts of assertions may lead some to conclude that the Gospel authors were taking many liberties while writing their books.
Dr. McGrew meticulously and carefully examines these sorts of conclusions in over 500 pages of highly rigorous research. I hope you enjoy reading her book as much as I did. Hats off to scholarly work!