Upcoming Debate with Andrew Pitts on the Genre of the Gospels

[This debate unfortunately had to be canceled, due to the fact that Pitts and I could not agree upon the main prompt for the discussion, which I discuss here. Cancelling the debate, however, has freed up my time to work on reviewing some of the books that I mention below. I just published a review of a chapter in Keener’s new volume, which can be read here. -MWF 9/2/17]

I have been quite busy this summer with a number of professional projects and changes in my personal life. I just finished a 12,000 word academic article and moved to a new apartment, and I likewise plan to spend the remainder of the summer (which extends all the way to late-September in the UC system) working hard on my dissertation.

andrew.pittsTo keep posting new content, however, I have been scheduling debates on the Bible and Christian origins. I just posted a recording of my debate in Riverside last month on the historical reliability of the Bible, and I now have another debate to announce for this following month. On September 7th, from 5-6pm CST, I’ll be holding a debate with Christian NT scholar Andrew Pitts on the genre of the Gospels, and how the question of genre affects their historical reliability. The debate will be moderated by Evan McClanahan, who is the pastor of First Evangelical Lutheran Church, and hosts a radio debate series on topics relating to apologetics and Christianity. I’ve participated as part of McClanahan’s radio series before, when I held a debate on the dating of the Gospels with Christian NT scholar Craig Evans last year. My debate with Pitts can be listened to live at the following link:


I’ve been following Pitts’ scholarship for a number of years now, and although I don’t always agree with him, I have found his work to be helpful for my own research. In particular, I like his article “Source Citation in Greek Historiography and in Luke(-Acts),” since it lays out and organizes several of the ways that Greek historians would cite their oral and written sources.

I had the chance to meet Pitts at the annual meeting of the SBL in 2015, when he was presenting a paper for the Mark Seminar, at the same time as NT scholar Dennis MacDonald, whose presentation I summarized here. I almost ran into Pitts again during my presentation at the Pacific Coast SBL meeting in 2016, during which we were both scheduled to present as part of the NT Gospels and Acts section. I had anticipated that we were going to have a lively debate, since our two papers argued for relatively opposing views. Due to the circumstances at the time, I was actually a bit apprehensive about such a debate, not because it wouldn’t generate good dialogue, but because I was holding my dissertation prospectus defense later that day (which I successfully passed), and was thus not looking forward to defending against criticism likewise in the morning!

Pitts had to cancel his presentation for personal reasons that day, however, and thus any debate between us was postponed. During the 2017 Pacific Coast SBL meeting, Pitts resubmitted the same paper, and, although I was scheduled to present for a different section, I was planning to attend the NT Gospels and Acts section in order hear his presentation and perhaps pose some critical questions. This time for personal reasons on my end, however, I had to cancel my presentation for the 2017 meeting and did not attend.

For a couple of years now, therefore, I have been anticipating a debate between Pitts and myself, and it thus makes sense that we will be holding this radio debate in September. I anticipate that it will be far more technical and nuanced than my debate last month, and so I look forward to a constructive dialogue.

keenerIn the meantime, I want to post an update about four apologetic books that have been on my radar, but which I have been too busy to write reviews of. The first two deal with ancient biography, which is one of my areas of specialization: Craig Keener’s Biographies and JesusWhat Does It Mean for the Gospels to Be Biographies?, and Mike Licona’s Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography. I think both books have their emphasis off in focusing on elite biographers, such as Plutarch and Suetonius, even though I consider the Gospels to actually be far more similar to popular-novelistic biographies, which I have discussed previously on this blog (here and here). I’ve been critical of some of Keener’s generic arguments about the Gospels in this previous article that I published (footnote 10), and regarding Licona’s book, Michael Kochenash (an alumnus from Claremont with whom I’ve corresponded previously) wrote in a recent review:

Art of Biography“[S]ome readers may also find it curious that Licona’s book lacks an engagement with several important classics scholars, most notably Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, Cambridge University Press, 2012). Accordingly, I expect that such readers—though appreciative of Licona’s contribution—will desire greater nuance. David Konstan and Robyn Walsh, for example, identify two different tendencies within ancient biographies: a civic tradition—which foregrounds the subject’s personality and moral character—and a subversive tradition—which foregrounds the subject’s wit using conversations and anecdotes (“Civic and Subversive Biography in Antiquity,” Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization, Cambridge University Press, 2016, 26-43). Konstan and Walsh locate Plutarch’s Lives in the former tradition—among the likes of Suetonius—and the Gospels in the latter, along with the Life of Homer, the Life of Aesop, and the Alexander Romance. Licona, however, does not acknowledge the distinction between Plutarch’s historiographical tone and the Gospels’ novelistic tone.”

Lydia McGrewThe other two apologetic books are Lydia McGrew’s Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts, and Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the New TestamentCountering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs. McGrew’s arguments about “undesigned coincidences” in the Gospels/Acts, as far as I am aware, have not been subjected to secular peer-review nor presented at professional organizations like the SBL. I have seen Internet apologists circulate the “undesigned coincidences” claim, however, and so I have been in correspondence with philosopher of religion Evan Fales about how to counter this slogan. Regarding Blomberg, I’ve countered his arguments about the authorship of the Gospels (here) and historical reliability of the Gospels (here) previously on this blog. 

There is a lot of money in Christianity and an in-built audience of readers, and so I’m not in the least bit surprised that apologetic books continue to be published. I hope that others will take the time to write critical reviews of these books, however, and I plan to write reviews of my own when time permits with my busy schedule.

-Matthew Ferguson

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8 Responses to Upcoming Debate with Andrew Pitts on the Genre of the Gospels

  1. Hello Matthew:

    You wrote:
    “There is a lot of money in Christianity and an in-built audience of readers, and so I’m not in the least bit surprised that apologetic books continue to be published.”

    There are at least four reasons for this reality:

    1) The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS) reports on its homepage:

    “ATS by the Numbers
    $1.8 billion in total annual revenue
    $8 billion in total long-term investments.”
    [See https //www.ats.edu/uploads/resources/publications-presentations/documents/2016-annual-report.pdf]

    2) Another reason for the built-in audience are the number of theological libraries that support “Christian” apologetics. Alone, the ATS has 270 members. If you add to that total the theological schools located elsewhere [Asia, Europe, South America]… well the total number of theological libraries probably exceeds 400.

    3) To that number [above] add the potential number of libraries found in the thousands and thousands of local churches.

    4) Finally, there total almost one hundred Christian publishing houses. [See Wikipedia for a list: Category:Christian publishing companies. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Christian_publishing_companies.

    This topic is partially discussed in a text currently being finalized by this writer.

    The bottom line is as you correctly stated: “There is a lot of money in Christianity and an in-built audience of readers” for books supporting Christian apologetics.

    Take care.

    Michael Alter

    • Celsus says:

      Absolutely, and thanks for the statistics you have provided! We are outnumbered, both in terms of money and manpower, but fortunately I don’t know too many Classicists that are persuaded by these arguments, and a lot of NT scholars who start out as believers become skeptics as a part of their educational journey.

  2. Nathan says:

    In your linked rebuttal of Blomberg, you raise the legitimate complaint that he didn’t actually investigate the historical claims of Christianity, but “merely performed a survey of conservative Christian think tanks and then passed it off as if it were an objective investigation.” It’s striking, then, that in the same paragraph, you say that you’re “in correspondence with philosopher of religion Evan Fales about how to counter [undesigned coincidences].”

    The way you put it makes it sound like you’re just looking for an shut-down answer rather than investigating the arguments put forth by McGrew (and others). If you have done that investigation, you may want to clarify that. As it stands, it almost sounds like you have just surveyed a secular think tank before passing it off as objective investigation.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a secularist and am directly connected with McGrew’s book (part of the publishing company). I have no beef with what you’ve said about it (and appreciate the publicity!)—especially since there was no real statement about it one way or the other! But that paragraph did catch my eye. And from my own experience, I know how easy it is to slip into doing the very thing you accuse others of doing, and so I’m sincerely interested in you clarifying that point.

    • Celsus says:

      That’s not at all what happened, Nathan. Evan Fales *contacted me* to see if I had an opinion about some lectures that Tim McGrew had given, in which he gave examples of so-called “undesigned coincidences.” I then wrote back my criticisms of each of his examples and we had an email correspondence that stretched something like 50 pages (with Ed Babinski also weighing in).

      I don’t see how “being in correspondence” with someone is just looking for a “shut-down” answer. A correspondence involves a two-way exchange back and forth. But in any event, I have seen Tim McGrew’s presentations on the subject, and I’m not impressed by his arguments. The only reason that I haven’t responded online is because I’ve been insanely busy lately, finishing a peer-reviewed article that just got accepted for publication, along with working on my dissertation.

      I have corrected some historical gaffes (on another subject) presented by Tim McGrew previously, however, in this blog post:


    • Celsus says:

      Now that I have you the line, however, this is the perfect time to ask: Has Lydia McGrew subjected her book to peer-review among secular biblical or classical scholars? And, has she presented the “undesigned coincidences” argument at the Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, or Society for Classical Studies?

      • Nathan says:

        Thanks for your clarification above. I think it was the lack of that context that made “being in correspondence about how to counter it” sound worse than it actually was. (To be clear, it wasn’t “being in correspondence” that caught my eye, but being in correspondence *about how to counter it* that sounded a bit like there was a search for a refutation rather than examining it on its own terms to see if it held water.)

        As to what Lydia has done specifically beyond the book, I can’t speak to any details. Although we’ve published it and correspond some, we live more than 1,000 miles apart and both have pretty busy lives (i.e., it’s not like we are close pals and chat regularly). I don’t believe that she has written any peer-reviewed articles related to it, though, and I’m fairly certain that she hasn’t spoken at SBL, AAR, etc. on it. I don’t know if she plans on going that route or not.

  3. navinihilos says:

    I came across this blog while searching for serious responses to the McGrews defending the reliability of the New Testament, and I’m very impressed by your scholarship here, Matthew. I know that you plan to provide a fuller refutation later (and I look forward to it), but could you perhaps provide a brief summary of the problems you find with Lydia McGrew’s book (or even just of the *kinds* of problems with it)?

    • Celsus says:

      I have an earlier (lengthy) email correspondence with philosopher of religion Evan Fales that I can send you, if you are interested, wherein I critiqued Tim McGrew’s use of the argument, across several examples that he gave. You can send me an email (my address can be found on the “about me” section of this blog) and I can forward it to you. I’m going to hold off on publishing my counter-arguments here until I get a chance to review the book.

      Unfortunately I have been very busy lately, so I haven’t had as much time as I would like to write responses to apologetic books, such as this recent book by Lydia McGrew.

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