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

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!

Read Part I here.

The second chapter of the book (pp. 133-98) covers the topic of history and miracles, with the latter term being defined as “an event in history for which natural explanations are inadequate”  (134).

Licona addresses the arguments and criticisms of Hume, McCullagh, Meier, Ehrman, Wedderburn and  Dunn regarding whether we can say anything historically about miracle-claims. Personally, even though I believe miracles can and do occur, I side with Meier in that I don’t think historians can ever really judge a miracle-claim as being “historical”. So in the case of Jesus’ resurrection, for which there have been various alternative explanations posited to explain the data we possess, the explanation that Jesus truly was resurrected from the dead (which is what I believe) is inherently less likely to be historically probable than alternative explanation.

Licona also addresses the question as to whether historical claims involving miracles require a greater burden of proof than a historical claim involving no miracle. He says that,

the evidence is not responsible for satisfying the biases of the historian; rather, the historian is responsible for setting aside his biases and considering the evidence. (197)

A good and true piece of advice, but is it really possible for anyone to honestly set aside their biases and be objective? Does Licona achieve that in this book? Something that tells me he may not have completely eradicated his Christian bias is his treatment of the Testimonium Flavianum (discussed further below).

The third chapter of this book (pp. 199-276) examines the historical sources relevant to Jesus’ resurrection. After discussing each source, Licona assigns it a rating that signifies whether it provides relevant testimony to the issue at hand. I liked Licona’s decision to rate Christian sources according to the probability that they provide independent testimony to apostolic teaching. The possible ratings  are:

unlikely, possible-minus, possible, possible-plus, highly probable, indeterminate, and not useful. (201)

The canonical Gospels are discussed first. Licona agrees with the majority that they are Graeco-Roman bioi and concludes that it is “possible”  that their resurrection narratives are independent of apostolic tradition. For the letters of Paul, Licona concludes that it is “highly probable” that Paul preserves apostolic testimony pertaining to Jesus’ resurrection. Sources that antedate the New Testament literature are dealt with next. After discussing the issues surrounding Q, Licona believes that it “does not provide us with any valuable information for our investigation at hand and receives a rating of unlikely.” (215)

Licona also covers other sources (pre-Markan material, apostolic fathers, Josephus, Gnostic materials, etc). In the end, though, it seems that sources which do not mention the resurrection (e.g. Q) are dismissed, and the sources which do mention the resurrection are preferred. Is this the result of a Christian bias? I can imagine many would conclude that it is.

Licona’s use of the Testimonium Flavianum struck me as showing that he may not have truly suppressed his Christian bias. The following quote is an English translation of the Greek version of the Testimonium Flavianum [italic emphasis mine]:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

Licona then deals with Meier’s modified version of the Testimonium Flavianum, which is generally recognized as being an accurate pre-interpolated version of the passage (note that it makes no mention of resurrection appearances):

At that time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) has not died out.

Licona presents his own pre-interpolated version of the passage, which is as follows [italic emphasis mine]:

And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For they reported that he appeared to them alive. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) has not died out. (240)

As you can see, Licona has modified it so that a reference to the resurrection remains in the original text that Josephus wrote. He says that there are “strong reasons” for believing that Josephus did mention the claims of resurrection, though I did not really see any.strong reasons. The only plausible reason provided is that Josephus would mention the resurrection claims because it provides a reason as to why Josephus then carries on to say that the “tribe of Christians has not died out”. It is because of his own version of the Testimonium Flavianum that Licona feels it appropriate to assign the rating of “possible” to Josephus (i.e. Josephus probably provides independent witness to the resurrection). Though, Licona does also say that Josephus will be used with “great caution” in his investigation. All this makes me wonder, however, as to whether Licona is unknowingly making the evidence satisfy his own Christian bias. I don’t know. His pre-interpolated version of Josephus does certainly seem plausible, but I guess that unless we find an earlier Greek manuscript of Antiquities we will never know for sure what Josephus really said in that passage.

Licona ends the chapter by summarizing his findings:

We have reports that Jesus had been raised from the dead from at least one eyewitness (Paul) and probably more (the Jerusalem apostles preserved in the kerygma). These reports are very early and provide multiple independent testimonies, as well as testimony from one who had been hostile to the Christian message previous to his conversion experience. The canonical Gospels probably contain some traditions that go back to the original apostles, although these may be identified with varying degrees of certainty.  To the extent once is convinced that Clement of Rome and Polycarp knew one or more of the apostles, their letters may yield valuable insights pertaining to the apostolic teaching. (275-76)

What these sources mean regarding the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection is discussed in the next chapter (which I will cover in part III of this review).

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