Book Review: The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach by Michael Licona

from Apologetics 315

The resurrection of Jesus is a favorite topic for many Christian apologists and a popular subject of contention among New Testament scholars. With over 3,400 academic books and articles published on the fate of Jesus in the last 35 years alone, one might doubt that anything new could be said on the subject. However, early in his own investigation of the resurrection, Mike Licona observed that the vast literature on the fate of Jesus largely failed to consider issues of historical method and hermeneutics. While this deficiency has been addressed to some extent in recent work by N. T. Wright, James D. G. Dunn, and Dale Allison, Licona contends that something is still missing. “Almost without exception,” he notes, “the literature pertaining to Jesus’ resurrection has been written by biblical scholars and philosophers,”[1] and so far the outcome has been a remarkably wide variety of conclusions on the matter. Licona wonders if part of the problem is a failure to apply the methodology of historians who lie outside the community of biblical scholars. It is precisely this methodology that Licona seeks to identify and employ in his monumental 700-page tome The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.

The book is divided into five long chapters, the first of which is devoted to considerations of method. Here Licona tackles the issue of horizons—the worldviews that historians bring to their research, which almost inevitably impact how they interpret the relevant data, and therefore what conclusions they draw. Throughout the book it is evident that Licona has a special interest in horizons and striving for objectivity. He outlines several strategies for reducing bias, and, since one of these strategies asks historians to make their horizons public, Licona even concludes the first chapter with a couple pages of “confessions,” where he outlines his own worldview and other relevant personal background information.Licona also discusses the debate between postmodernist and realist approaches to history, arguing that, while postmodernists have provided some helpful cautions, in the end the postmodern approach to history is too extreme, being based in an implausible brand of skepticism. For this reason, most historians are realists. Licona observes that:

While biblical scholars appear to be moving in the direction of postmodernist history, their historical cousins have recently completed a lengthy debate between postmodern and realist approaches and have for the most part abandoned postmodernism. It is surprising to find biblical scholars who appear to regard themselves as pioneers in adopting a postmodern approach, apparently oblivious to the fact that others have already camped there, extinguished their fires, scattered the ashes and returned home to realism.[2]

Licona also opts for “methodological neutrality” with regard to historical texts and hypotheses. Neither the reliability or falsehood of texts and hypotheses should be presupposed, but rather the burden of proof should be shouldered by anyone who makes a claim regarding them. Licona goes on to outline the criteria by which historical hypothesis may be evaluated. True to his intent, he models his methodological approach on that of historians outside the biblical studies community.

Chapter two is devoted to the question of miracles. What place (if any) do miracles have in historical investigations? Licona considers the arguments of several thinkers (Hume, McCullagh, Meier, Ehrman, Wedderburn, and Dunn) who have attempted to show that a historian cannot establish the past occurrence of a miracle. Though he finds all of these arguments unsuccessful, he draws some important insights from them that help in the construction of a principle for identifying miracles. According to Licona, we may recognize that an event is a miracle if:

  1. it is extremely unlikely to have occurred given the circumstances and/or natural law and
  2. [it] occurs in an environment or context charged with religious significance.[3]

This criterion is not as precise as it could be. For example, just how unlikely must something be before it counts as “extremely unlikely”? And are we to assume that there is some kind of implied “all things being equal” clause? For it seems that certain epistemic situations might render this criterion insufficient (e.g. someone who believes he or she has a strong a priori argument against miracles). But the general thrust of the principle is promising.

Once this preliminary work is out of the way, Licona begins to apply the methodological findings of the first two chapters to the fate of Jesus. He begins this phase of the investigation by surveying the relevant literature written within 200 years of Jesus’ death, and rating each source according to its usefulness. Licona ultimately concludes that Paul’s letters and the various oral traditions that they contain are the most valuable sources available, while the canonical gospels, 1 Clement, Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians, the speeches in Acts, the Gospel of Thomas, and occasional non-Christian sources are somewhat less useful but still valuable. Licona finds other sources mostly unhelpful.

With this material in hand, Licona sets out in chapter 4 to establish the “historical bedrock” regarding the life and fate of Jesus—the set of relevant historical facts which are so firm that any viable hypothesis must accommodate them. He notes several facts about the life of Jesus which qualify as historical bedrock: that Jesus was known by his contemporaries as a miracle-worker and exorcist, that he believed himself to be God’s eschatological agent, and that he predicted his own death and resurrection. Licona expresses some surprise at the amount of support that exists for the latter fact. He also notes that the historical bedrock pertaining to Jesus’ life shows that the resurrection, if it occurred, occurred in a religiously charged context—an important observation considering Licona’s criteria for identifying a miracle.

But what about the historical bedrock pertaining to the fate of Jesus? Following Gary Habermas, Licona pairs this down to just three facts:

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
  2. Very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.
  3. Within a few years after Jesus’ death, Paul converted after experiencing what he interpreted as a postresurrection appearance of Jesus to him.[4]

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