As my regular readers know, I have been accused by Christian apologists in the past of not having read enough Christian scholarship to make an informed decision on the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus. I can now say that I have read books by New Testament Christian scholars NT Wright, Richard Bauckham, Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, and Lutheran theologians John Bombaro and Adam Francisco.
So do I really need to read more? I’m not sure I do. Here is why:
I have come to the conclusion that Christians and skeptics will never come to an agreement regarding the strength of the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus based on one issue: very differing views regarding the probability of this event. Christians believe that the probability of this miraculous event is high and that a resurrection is the most plausible explanation for the evidence because they assume the existence of the all-powerful, all-knowing, miracle-working, resurrection-prophesying god, Yahweh.
Skeptics believe that the probability of this event is close to zero because we do not believe that there is any good evidence for the existence of the ancient Hebrew deity Yahweh. We skeptics point out that even if one believes that there is evidence for a generic Creator, this evidence does not fit the alleged character of Yahweh. For instance, Yahweh claims to have performed many spectacular deeds which defy the laws of nature. Modern science finds zero evidence that the laws of nature have ever been violated.
So if I were going to read one more book by a New Testament scholar, it would probably be Mike Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus, a New Historiographical Approach. It seems to be very highly regarded by Christians. But having just finished reading a book co-authored by Licona in which he dismisses the possibility that the early Christian resurrection belief could have started due to hallucinations, I’m not sure it is worth my time. I believe it is highly plausible that one of the disciples (Peter?) suffered a bereavement hallucination. He then convinced the other disciples to believe his delusion. Several years later, Paul experienced his own delusion or hallucination. And that is how the early Christian resurrection belief began. So should I bother reading a very thick book that is just going to say the very same thing that Licona said in “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus“???
Before I make my decision, I thought I would read a couple of the critical reviews of Licona’s book on Amazon. Some of the critical reviews are by atheists just out to trash a Christian book. I ignore those reviews. The critical review below seems thoughtful and insightful. Let me know what you think of it.
Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus, a New Historiographical Approach is a comprehensive collection of information that tailors to the evangelical understanding of Jesus’ resurrection. This accessible and scholarly book is a must read for those with interests in historical Jesus studies. Whether one agrees with Licona’s conclusions or not, his book is worth reading for a solid overview of historical methods and the historical Jesus from a various positions. His fair treatment of competing views provides for an informative tour through the predominant views surrounding the historical Jesus. The “new historiographical approach” is supposed to fill a void in historical Jesus research with a “carefully defined and extensive historical method” (Licona, 20).
Although not entirely new, Licona’s historiographical approach presents an extensive collection of historical methods, a discussion of bias or personal “horizon”, offers suggestions for assuaging biases, and offers a case that Jesus rose from the dead. This case includes textual evidence, extra-biblical evidence, an epistemology that encompasses coherence theory, and inference to the best explanation (hereafter IBE). Given the lengthy, but deep engagement with textual interpretation, many in-house debates could ensue, such as a current debate over the historical significance of Matthew 27. However, my review will focus on key arguments supporting the resurrection hypothesis (RH) from the historical bedrock, and ultimately conclude that RH does not succeed as the best explanation.
In outline, Chapter 1 presents various approaches to historical inquiry and the challenges that face accurate interpretation of the data. Chapter 2 offers a defense of miracles and addresses multiple views of miracles from Hume, C. Behan McCullagh, John Meier, and Bart Ehrman. Chapter 3 ranks the reliability of Biblical and extra-Biblical sources pertaining to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Chapter 4 aims to establish the “historical bedrock” or facts that hold the most agreement of Jesus and his resurrection. Chapter 5 evaluates five resurrection hypothesis: Vermes’s hypothesis, Goulder’s hypothesis, Lüdemann hypothesis, Crossan’s hypothesis, Craffert’s hypothesis, and Licona’s view, the resurrection hypothesis.
Chapter 1: Important Considerations on Historical Inquiry Pertaining to the Truth in Ancient Texts.
Chapter 1 presents an overview of historical methods outside of biblical studies, the challenges that face one’s historical research (e.g. one’s “horizon”), and discusses the philosophy of history. Amidst this discussion, Licona reveals his agenda and methodology, which as he proclaims, “was conducted more in the interest of confirming my faith and for use in apologetic presentations than being an open investigation in which I would follow the evidence where it led me” (Licona, 131). His historical method utilizes inference to the best explanation (IBE) over statistical inference since the resurrection and miracle events represent one-time events, which do not comply with the method of statistical inference. Given chosen historical method and personal biases, this chapter highlights a crucial point that personal agendas, biases, and hopes for certain outcomes jeopardizes the truth that one ultimately seeks or at least purports to seek.
In order to alleviate bias, Licona offers several helpful suggestions: 1) Historians should use a method to foster greater objectivity. 2) Historians need to publically state their horizon or biases. 3) Have an awareness of his or her peer group pressure. 4) Submit arguments or ideas to scholars who do not agree with your view and engage with criticism. 5) Begin historical research with investigation of the historical facts that historical scholars endorse. These facts represent an event’s “historical bedrock” that Historical hypotheses should account for in order to remain in the running as a reliable fact. 6) Detach from personal bias as much as possible (Licona, 50-60). These points apply to many areas beyond history and will prove useful in almost any quest for truth.
Chapter 2: The Historian and Miracles
This chapter begins with a critique of a Humean view of miracles. Before analyzing his reasons, it is worth noting that even if one’s critique of Hume’s view of miracles succeeds, this does nothing to help the case for Jesus’ resurrection since a non-Humean approach can equally discredit miraculous events. This is because one may use IBE, criteria from legal testimony, and criteria for credible eyewitness testimony to arrive at a low probability assessment, if not a complete rejection of Jesus’ resurrection as a plausible scenario.
To address Hume’s view of miracles, Licona highlights Hume’s view of testimony, which indicates that an event:
“Must be attested by sufficient number of witnesses of `unquestioned good sense, education, and learning,’ and of such `undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion’ of deceit. Moreover, these witnesses are to be of such a high reputation in the eyes of others, that they would have much to lose if lying. The event must be performed publicly in a major part of the world so that its visibility would be unavoidable” (Licona, 138).
In response to this, Licona claims that, “if Hume’s criteria for accepting testimony as true were employed outside of miracle-claims, we would probably have to dismiss the vast majority of what we believe we presently know about the past” (Licona, 138-139). Without providing examples to support this claim, the paragraph ends with a curt comment that historians still offer historical judgments even if they do not meet Hume’s criteria with the use of “criteria for authenticity and arguments to the best explanation.” While this last part is true, the problem for the bold claim about dismissing vast amounts of history points to the fact that widely accepted, historical events and figures in history do not include miracle claims. In fact, most all of events in history survive Hume’s criteria about reliable testimony quite well. Licona first needs to provide evidence for his statement in order to motivate his claim, which is supposed to weaken Hume’s criteria.
Licona’s second criticism refers to Hume’s concern with intelligence and integrity of witnesses. If evidence for a miracle is credible and no plausible natural explanation exists, to reject it based on the fact that many other miracle claims exist among the uneducated and ignorant is guilty of the ad hominem fallacy (Licona, 139). While he is correct with this assertion, Hume’s point, which should have different wording, is a good one; that the problem for miracles does not rest in the characteristics of ancient cultures (e.g. ignorance and gullibility). Rather, it rests with the fact that certain cultures made miracle claims that abundant naturalistic explanations account for over time. While this well evidenced claim is not enough to completely reject miracle claims as potentially true, since a unique event with minimal evidence may be true, it does give good reason for caution in assigning miracle status to an event.
Licona’s third criticism of Hume surrounds his principle of analogy. I agree that Hume’s principle cannot single-handedly eliminate the possibility of miracles (i.e. miracles do not exist in the present, so they do not exist in the past). However, the principle of analogy does provide compelling evidence that, when combined with the following: IBE, legal testimony, and eyewitness criteria, adds to a cumulative case for or against a particular miracle claim. Licona’s complaint that the principle of analogy would eliminate the existence of dinosaurs is incorrect. First, the principle of analogy would confirm the fact that animal species do go extinct. Second, since compelling evidence in favor of the existence and extinction of dinosaurs (e.g. fossils) combined with the principle of analogy that affirms this fate of the dinosaurs, the principle of analogy is not a problem for dinosaur existence.
Towards the end of chapter two, Licona asserts his definition of a miracle “as an event in history for which natural explanations are inadequate. I am contending that we may identify a miracle when the event is (1) is extremely unlikely to have occurred given the circumstances and/or natural law and (2) occurs in an environment or context charged with religious significance” (Licona, 171). If these criterion find fulfillment in the resurrection hypothesis (RH), and RH is the best explanation of the historical bedrock, then the historian may warrant that a miracle occurred.
I find this miracle criterion problematic due to the fact that point (1) assumes that criteria exists to discern a supernatural event and relies on a plea from ignorance. Simply because an event appears mysterious or unlikely, and one cannot provide a natural explanation does not automatically rule out natural explanations. If one wants to establish a supernatural explanation, then one must give criteria for determining such an explanation that moves beyond the mystery factor. What this would be, I think theists have yet to produce (1). Point (2) is even more problematic because a highly charged religious climate does nothing to support a miraculous event. The only viable criteria that Licona offers here is IBE and how well the evidence explains the historical bedrock.
Interestingly, the principle of analogy does align miracles in the bible with various legends that no one accepts as historical very well. It also provides solid reason to hold much caution in affirming miracle events. Thus, when the principle of analogy combines with IBE, eyewitness testimony, and legal case criteria, it provides significant insight into a case for or against a historical claim. With this in mind, lets move forward to assess the comprehensive evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.
Chapter 3: Historical Sources Pertaining to the Resurrection of Jesus
This chapter opens with a discussion of Canonical Gospels genre (i.e. mythology and biography), gospel dating, dependency between the books, the Q source, oral formulas (i.e. oral traditions in worship or baptismal settings may have come from an earlier source, so they are earlier than they appear in the New Testament), and non-Christian sources mentioning Jesus. Licona also discusses the debate over Paul’s interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection as bodily or spiritual. He rates the following documents that “possibly” reflect oral sources prior to the Gospels: Josephus, Tacitus, Thallus (barely), Clement of Rome (possible-plus), and Barnabus (possible-minus). The rest (canonical Gospels, Clement of Rome, Rabbinic sources, Celsus, Mara bar Serapion, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, Thallus, Tacitus, Polycarp, the Acts speeches, and the Gospel of Thomas), are under the “unlikely” category.
The central claim of this chapter asserts that oral traditions exist throughout the New Testament and provide the best evidence that supports the reliability of apostolic teaching of Jesus’ ministry and resurrection. The fact that Paul and perhaps other Jerusalem apostles, Peter, James, and John, mentioned in the kerygma, provide multiple accounts of Jesus’ ministry and resurrection (Licona, 275). Dunn’s criteria provides some support highlighting influence from the Jerusalem Church given the grammar, parallelism, an untypical term for Paul to use, and word order in Romans 1:3b-4a. The only exception is the “primitive description of Christ’s resurrection as `the resurrection of the dead'” because the verse does not read the same as the primitive description. `The resurrection of the dead” yields a different meaning than the primitive description; “of the dead,” a general phrase is different from the particular phrase, “his resurrection from the dead.” Despite this, I find the evidence presented in this chapter quite compelling that apostolic influence permeates Paul’s writings.
As for Paul’s conversion story, it is worth using caution towards its reliability since, according to Licona, “we have no material written by Paul (Saul) during his pre-Christian life, no written material by Jewish leaders during the time of Paul’s ministry describing his conversion, no documents from the Roman or Jewish governing bodies that mention the Christian sect, nothing about apostolic preaching, and no reports that Jesus rose from the dead” (Licona, 275). Despite this, if the facts of Paul’s life are well supported and reliable, which remains debatable, this chapter offers strong ties between Paul and apostolic teaching.
Chapters 4 & 5: The Historical Bedrock Pertaining to the Fate of Jesus
Chapter four presents evidence that identifies widely accepted facts about Jesus as a miracle worker, as an eschatological agent, His predictions of His death and Resurrection, the bedrock that applies to Jesus’ fate, appearances to the Disciples, the conversion of Paul, Paul’s beliefs about the resurrection of Jesus, the conversion of James, and the empty tomb. The chapter ends with the following bedrock: 1) Jesus died by crucifixion. 2) Shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe that Jesus appeared to them. 3) Several years after Jesus’ death, Paul converted to Christianity after a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to him and taught about the resurrection of the body (Licona, 463).
Chapter five, my favorite chapter, offers an impressive analysis of six resurrection hypotheses. Licona’s fair presentation of each view includes an analysis of how each one fares IBE criterion. This chapter highlights worthy concerns for each view outside of RH, such as a naturalistic bias and assertions that assume too much (e.g. reason requires naturalistic explanations over supernatural explanations). However, even granting all of the proposed historical bedrock of Jesus death and resurrection, I do not think he has made a convincing case that RH stands out as the best explanations above all others.
First, the assertion that RH “explains all of our bedrock without any strain whatsoever” is a hasty induction (Licona, 600). Basing RH’s explanatory power above all other possible explanations based on the historical bedrock leaves a gap between how humans can know or identify a supernatural event. Licona’s criterion for a miracle contains the assertion that “the event occurs in a context charged with religious significance” (Licona, 468). But this seems to work against reliable identification of a miracle in the sense that religiously charged contexts may cloud the individual’s interpretation of an event more than contexts with little religious, emotional influence.
Second, Licona does not allow for hallucination or mistaken visions, which are well documented in neuroscience research (2). In fact, an individual under distressing situations can experience a one-time hallucination. It is difficult to see how one could rule out the possibility that Paul experienced a hallucination. Certainly, this does not automatically eradicate the possibility of a supernatural event such as, Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance. What this evidence does do is leave options open in a way that does not help RH’s case as the best explanation of Jesus’ historical bedrock.
Third, Licona admits that establishing the plausibility of RH is difficult because it requires a supernatural explanation (Licona, 601). This highlights a significant problem for reaching best explanations for supernatural or miracle events if a reliable criterion does not exist for such assertions. So far, we have personal testimony without evidence beyond personal experiences in a religiously charged context. But this seems to leave much room for speculation and does not establish the case for RH one way or the other. Reasons why will unravel in more detail in the next two points.
Fourth, without presupposing anything about God, one can take a “position of openness”, as Licona suggests, and arrive at the conclusion that reasoning from the ground up does not help establish RH as the best explanation. One need not presuppose naturalism, agnosticism, or even supernaturalism to realize that RH fails IBE criterion two, three, and four (especially the fourth). Operating from a position of openness reveals that invoking a miracle event or supernatural intervention is the least parsimonious and most ad hoc from all other explanations. The reason is not due to a presupposition of naturalism, but rather, it means the existence of a reliable method or criterion for identifying supernatural events remains a mystery. To base a miracle event on claims to ignorance, personal experiences, and the consideration of whether an event makes sense in a “religiously charged context” does not account for a supernatural explanation. However, it does explain the existence of certain facts. The case for supernaturalism needs to bridge the gap between how one jumps from certain facts to a supernatural event.
Fifth, even if I presuppose a personal, omni-competent God (i.e. a God with all the omni’s), this leads to undesirable implications for RH’s case under IBE. The underwhelming historical bedrock is evidence enough that God is probably not interested in revealing His message to the world. If eternal destinies remain at stake, I do not think it is unreasonable to expect overwhelming appearances of the resurrected Jesus as opposed to a select few. While I agree that simply because we do not have more desirable evidence, that RH does not fail as a plausible explanation. However, it does present a challenge to establish RH as the best explanation.
To assert that a naturalistic explanation fares better than a supernatural explanation does not automatically mean that someone necessarily presupposes naturalism or remains captive to personal bias. While biases remain a challenge to anyone seeking truth, I do think that if one utilizes Licona’s suggestions for resisting bias, then it is impossible to arrive at conclusions from a perspective of openness. Given the lack of a good theistic or supernatural explanation, this points to the fact that more work must occur to establish one. While supernatural events may very well occur, however, it is best to refrain from supernatural conclusions until a reliable account surfaces (3).
Even if those in favor of supernaturalism and RH claim that they need not produce an accurate account that identifies supernatural events, that testimony and IBE is all they need, problems remain; that is, multiple explanations for visions, conversions, and an empty tomb (this does not reside in the historical bedrock), remain available in a way that does not allow supernatural events to win out above all other explanations. Those in favor of RH could claim that these comments reflect a presupposition of naturalism. However, an analysis from the openness position could conclude that it remains a mystery as to how one accounts for supernatural or miraculous explanations; that is, without committing an argument from ignorance and committing a hasty inference.
(1) See Gregory Dawes, Theism and Explanation for an excellent analysis of explanatory power and theistic or supernatural explanations.
(3) On this topic, see Gregory Dawes, Theism and Explanation and Evan Fales, Divine Intervention: Metaphysical and Epistemological Puzzles.