Review: The Resurrection of Jesus (Licona) (Part I)

Title: The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach

Author: Michael Licona

Bibliographic info: 605  +  93 (appendix, indices and bibliography)

Cover: Soft

Publisher: InterVarsity Press  (2010)

ISBN-10: 0830827196

ISBN-13: 9780830827190

Buy it from Amazon

With thanks to Adrianna Wright of InterVarsity Press for the review copy!

Licona’s volume on the resurrection is a revised and updated version of his doctoral dissertation that he completed at the University of Pretoria. It is the end result of many years of Licona’s studying the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. For those interested in the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, no doubt you may have heard of Licona’s work in the field (he co-authored a book with Gary Habermas – The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus).

I am sure many of my readers are familiar with N.T. Wright’s large volume The Resurrection of the Son of God and are wondering what makes Licona’s volume different to Wright’s. Essentially, Wright’s volume was largely concerned with investigating the views of the afterlife held by ancient peoples as well as providing a look at what the texts of the early Church said about Jesus’ resurrection. Licona’s volume, on the other hand, is more concerned with discussing the matters which pertain to the philosophy of history and how one should conduct a historical investigation into a matter such as Jesus’ resurrection. One issue in particular that Licona triumphs Wright on, is the discussion of alternative explanations for the resurrection. Whereas Wright briefly skims over these explanations in his book, Licona offers a much thorough treatment of them. Though, I think I would not be too far afield in saying that Wright and Licona share a very similar methodological approach to approaching the historicity of the resurrection.

The Resurrection of Jesus is divided into five main chapters. The first chapter (pp. 29-132) tackles the necessary prerequsite questions and issues of what is the nature of truth, who bears the burden of proof, the problem of certainity in history, the philosophy of history, etc. In a nutshell, the aim of this chapter is to ascertain how historians outside the community of biblical scholars proceed in their own historical investigations. Licona does this so he can use their historical methodology to establish his own approach for examining the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. I particularly liked that Licona laid bare his own beliefs and biases and how he has attempted to be as objective as possible (pp. 130-32).

At one point Licona says that ruling out the resurrection as a valid historical explanation of the data based upon an anti-supernaturalist outlook is an inappropriate bias. Wouldn’t it be true, though, that from a historians perspective (not that I am a historian by anyones standard),  any natural explanation for the resurrection is inherently more probable than a supernatural explanation? Thus, it isn’t necessarily an anti-supernatural bias but just an application of Occam’s razor?

Here are a few short snippets from this chapter that I liked:

[O]nly the naive would maintain that historians who are agnostics, atheists or non-Christian theists approach the question of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus without any biases. (46)

There are a few today who assert that Jesus is a myth who never existed, although it appears that  no widely respected scholar holds this position. There are also those who deny there ever was a holocaust. (62-3)

[T]he inability to obtain absolute certainty does not prohibit historians from having adequate certainty. (69)

[H]istorians have not reached a consensus pertaining to how historians come to know the past. (125)

Read part II of the review here.

9 responses

  1. Wouldn’t it be true, though, that from a historians perspective (not that I am a historian by anyones standard), any natural explanation for the resurrection is inherently more probable than a supernatural explanation?

    What does it mean for explanation A to be inherently more probable than explanation B?

    Thus, it isn’t necessarily an anti-supernatural bias but just an application of Occam’s razor?

    Licona addresses this (pp. 494-5): “Goulder appears to realize that his theory is on somewhat shaky grounds. However, he asserts that — given Ockham’s razor, which states that the hypothesis importing fewer assumptions or subhypotheses is simpler and thus preferable — since a natural explanation can account for the known data it should be preferred over a supernatural explanation. In other words, this criterion seeks to explain data using the least number of suppositions. Accordingly Goulder disposes of the resurrection hypothesis (RH) since it must presuppose God. I agree with Goulder’s appeal to Ockham’s razor and his contention that hypotheses “should not be multiplied beyond what is necessary.” But he appears careless in his use of it. GH certainly multiplies explanations, presupposing a psychological experience by Peter, another for Paul resulting from multiple psychological conditions — all of which are presupposed without evidence — and still more psychological experiences for the disciples. Whether GH is less ad hoc than RH will be assessed in our analysis of RH. For the moment, I simply observe that GH is far more ad hoc than VH [Vermes] and thus fails this criterion [less ad hoc].”

    The issue is brought up again on pp. 585-7. He closes by saying: “In our previous discussion of criteria for the best explanation, we observed that historical events often have multiple causes. For this reason, the criterion of simplicity, or Ockham’s razor, may be inadequate. Although it can accommodate multiple subhypotheses — which should please Goulder — the “less ad hoc” criterion looks for the hypothesis with the least number of nonevidenced assumptions. RH is far superior to GH, LH, CsH and CfH [natural explanations] in fulfilling this criterion.”

  2. Thanks for pointing out where Licona addressed Occam’s Razor. When I was writing the review out, I had not yet made it that far through the book.

    When I said that “any natural explanation for the resurrection is inherently more probable than a supernatural explanation”, what I was getting at by using “inherently” is that (in my opinion) any explanation which asserts some kind of supra-natural involvement is necessarily going to be less likely than an explanation which does not. Thus, in that way, the alternative explanations for the resurrection (e.g. mass psychosis) are inherently more likely to be correct simply because they do not invoke the supra-natural.

    • Diglot, assuming that natural explanations are necessarily more plausible than supernatural explanations is begging the question. The plausibility of an historical explanation must be determined in relation to the specific evidence under discussion. If one is not open to the possibility of changing his mind in light of the evidence then he is biased.

  3. “If one is not open to the possibility of changing his mind in light of the evidence then he is biased.”

    True. But there is other evidence that needs to be taken into account. Dead bodies do not come back from the dead after three days. Dead people stay dead. That is an unequivocal fact of biology. To say that someone came back to life after three days (not to mention that it was in a supernatural body of some kind) is never going to be historically probable in my opinion, unless there is strong enough evidence to overturn what we know for fact through thousands of years observing the fate of humans (i.e. the dead stay dead).

    In my opinion, the resurrection is a theological argument and can not be made into an historical argument because the strongest evidence will always leads to the conclusion that the resurrection is historically improbable.

  4. Diglot:

    But there is other evidence that needs to be taken into account.

    But this other evidence is not all stacked against the resurrection. For example, as far as I know, certain mass hallucination hypotheses have no scientific support.

    Dead bodies do not come back from the dead after three days. Dead people stay dead. That is an unequivocal fact of biology.

    If this evidence is used to rule out the resurrection hypothesis entirely then it is begging the question. If God exists, then information about how He generally sustains the universe (biology) does not dictate how He can specially intervene in the universe (resurrection).

    To say that someone came back to life after three days (not to mention that it was in a supernatural body of some kind) is never going to be historically probable in my opinion, unless there is strong enough evidence to overturn what we know for fact through thousands of years observing the fate of humans (i.e. the dead stay dead).

    This appears to be a Bayesian approach and therefore different than saying a natural explanation is inherently or necessarily more plausible than a supernatural explanation. This approach has some emotional appeal to me but I’m not sure it can be supported intellectually. Suppose I believe that the resurrection has an a priori probability of one in a billion while you say that the resurrection has an a priori probability of one in a trillion. There seems to be no way to argue for one’s position. It isn’t like we are trying to determine the odds of the ace of spades being picked out of a deck of cards. Licona’s method gets around this problem.

  5. as far as I know, certain mass hallucination hypotheses have no scientific support.

    Strange! I was actually going to write in my previous comment that mass hallucinations do have scientific support but decided not to because I can’t remember the source I read which asserts this.

    If this evidence is used to rule out the resurrection hypothesis entirely then it is begging the question. If God exists, then information about how He generally sustains the universe (biology) does not dictate how He can specially intervene in the universe (resurrection).

    I was not saying that natural laws dictate whether God can intervene supernaturally. What I meant was that the evidence required for the resurrection to be sustained historically would need to quite strong (i.e. more than an empty tomb and claims by some people that there was a resurrection).

    Also, I don’t really think I am using a Bayesian approach. I’m not exactly sure what made you think that, though I assume it is because I said that the resurrection is less historically “probable” than an alternative explanation. If that is the case, then it is not a Bayesian approach (at least, it isn’t as far as I understand what a Bayesian approach entails).

    I think that the probability of the resurrection just naturally occurring is zero. Thus, I would say that any alternative natural explanation, no matter how flimsy it is, is going to have to be accepted over an explanation which requires an action from something outside our cosmos. For this to be a Bayesian approach, I would have to assign a probability to the argument that something outside of our cosmos would resurrect Jesus then use this to derive a specific probability which I can assign to the resurrection hypothesis (which is essentially what Swineburn did a few years ago). As I mentioned in a recent blog post, there is no way of doing this and so the resurrection should not be spoken of in historical terms.

    I happily accept the fact that my approach to history may be completely wrong, but as for now, it is the approach I use.

  6. Strange! I was actually going to write in my previous comment that mass hallucinations do have scientific support but decided not to because I can’t remember the source I read which asserts this.

    On p. 484 of Licona’s book there is a quotation from Gary A. Sibey, a licensed clinical psychologist, that says he is not aware of a single documented case of a group hallucination in the professional literature during the past two decades.

    Also, I don’t really think I am using a Bayesian approach. I’m not exactly sure what made you think that, though I assume it is because I said that the resurrection is less historically “probable” than an alternative explanation.

    I am confused as to your exact position. On the one hand, you seem open to the possibility that the evidence could (in theory) be strong enough to warrant belief in the resurrection. On the other hand, you seem to believe an alternative natural explanation to the resurrection should always be accepted over the supernatural explanation. To be clear, I don’t think one can neatly separate philosophy, science, history, and theology from each other. Perhaps you do and that’s part of the miscommunication.

    Thus, I would say that any alternative natural explanation, no matter how flimsy it is, is going to have to be accepted over an explanation which requires an action from something outside our cosmos.

    I think this rule is arbitrary and defective (see below).

    For this to be a Bayesian approach, I would have to assign a probability to the argument that something outside of our cosmos would resurrect Jesus then use this to derive a specific probability which I can assign to the resurrection hypothesis . . . . As I mentioned in a recent blog post, there is no way of doing this and so the resurrection should not be spoken of in historical terms.

    Let’s suppose, as a hypothetical example, that an alien spaceship landed in Washington D.C., that the aliens gave a message to the President, and that the aliens then flew back to their home planet. Assume that this visit had enough evidence in its favor to convince you that it really did occur (I don’t want to get bogged down in that discussion). You seem to be saying, in the above quotation, that we could not speak of this event in historical terms because we could not assign a probability to how likely it is for aliens to visit earth. This shows your position to be defective. I believe your position is arbitrary because we could replace the aliens in the above example with God and that would somehow effect whether we could speak of the event in historical terms (according to you). Licona’s approach seems to be able to handle any (possible) historical event and should be preferred.

    • You seem to be saying, in the above quotation, that we could not speak of this event in historical terms because we could not assign a probability to how likely it is for aliens to visit earth. This shows your position to be defective.

      No that is not what I was saying. You said earlier that what I said sounded Bayesian and I replied that I was not using Bayes’ theorem and I gave an example of what a Bayesian argument would be. That is, a Bayesian approach would have to figure out the probability that God would act by resurrecting Jesus. Since I think that is impossible to ascertain, I would not apply Bayes’ theorem to the question of Jesus’ historicity.

      So in the example you just gave about aliens, I would not conclude that we would have to reject that aliens landed due to not being able to assign a probability to aliens landing. Also I think there is a flaw in that example because the evidence we have for Jesus’ resurrection is not even comparable to the evidence we would have for aliens landing in Washington D.C. Also, the arrival of aliens on earth isn’t a supra-natural claim as the resurrection is.

      I am confused as to your exact position. On the one hand, you seem open to the possibility that the evidence could (in theory) be strong enough to warrant belief in the resurrection. On the other hand, you seem to believe an alternative natural explanation to the resurrection should always be accepted over the supernatural explanation. To be clear, I don’t think one can neatly separate philosophy, science, history, and theology from each other. Perhaps you do and that’s part of the miscommunication.

      Yes, in theory I guess it is possible that there could be evidence strong enough to say that Jesus’ resurrection is historically the the most probable explanation for the evidence. And yes, I think a natural explanation should always be preferred over a supra-natural explanation, at least for historical claims that happened before the age of cameras and videos which can verify such claims for those who were not there. Personally, I don’t think that is contradictory, though I guess I can see why you might.

  7. Never got past the passages in Licona’s book you liked. Comparing the denial of the existence of Jesus to the denial of the holocaust totally misrepresents the evidence of the two supposed events. The evidence for the existence of Jesus is all second hand. The evidence for the holocaust is supported by thousands of first hand accounts, by films, by the analysis of reputable, neutral scholars, none of which is the case for the existence of Jesus. I happen to believe that Jesus exists, the evidence is pretty good, but not anywhere near as good as the holocaust. To compare the historicity of the two, is simply, well, stupid.

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