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

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.

Read Part II here.

The fourth chapter is the longest of the book (pp. 277-464). The aim of this chapter is to gather together the “historical bedrock”, that is, the indisputable historical facts about Jesus. Licona starts by arguing for why we should consider that Jesus’ predictions about his passion and execution are historical but ends up concluding that:

[T]he  majority of scholars do not regard the predictions as historical. Accordingly they fall outside of our historical bedrock, and therefore I will not include them in the context of Jesus’ life during our investigation. (301)

Licona then investigates what we can say about how Jesus saw himself and asserts that Jesus considered himself (1) an exorcist, (2) a miracle-worker, and (3) God’s eschatological agent.  However, he then says:

If these “minimal facts” related to Jesus’ opinion of and claims about himself are correct, they provide a fascinating context that is indeed charged with religious significance, a context in which we might expect a god to act if he, she or it chose to do so. If, in addition to our historical bedrock, we were to consider that Jesus predicted his imminent and violent death as well as his subsequent imminent vindication by God, a claim for which there is significant support, the context becomes supercharged. Let me hasten to add, however, that this neither confirms the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus nor does it provide any evidence for it.

If we discover that a naturalistic hypothesis is superior to the resurrection hypothesis, then it is most plausible that the context created the expectation for a miracle and the resurrection legend resulted. However, if the resurrection hypothesis is superior to naturalistic explanations, the context will serve to strengthen the hypothesis that the resurrection of Jesus was historical and that the event was a miracle. (301-02)

Miracles are not confined to religious contexts, and neither does such a context heighten the chance for a miracle to occur. So I think this line of reasoning is a blind alley leading nowhere. In the second paragraph where Licona admits that the highly charged religious context can only be used as an argument once the resurrection is proven the superior hypothesis through other evidence. So why does he even bother bringing all of this up? It seems kind of pointless to me.

To my surprise, Licona brings up the fate of the Apostles (pp. 366-71). Even though he recognizes that the Apostles’ willingness to be martyred does not mean that they were correct in their proclamation of Christ’s resurrection, Licona still claims that:

The disciples’ willingness to suffer and die for their beliefs indicates that they certainly regarded those beliefs as true. The case is strong that they did not willfully lie about the appearances of the risen Jesus. Liars make poor martyrs. … The apostles died for holding to their own testimony that they had personally seen the risen Jesus. (370)

First of all, if the Apostles did intentionally deceive people with their claims of the risen Lord, I don’t think one should be so quick to claim that “liars make poor martyrs.” Furthermore, this whole argument is useless because what if the disciples did not actually see the risen Lord but instead only saw a hallucination bought on by mass psychosis or some other psychological effect. If that is indeed what the Apostles experienced, I bet they would be just as willing to be martyred than if they really had seen the risen Lord.

Licona also discusses the issue of crucifixion and concludes that Jesus was crucified and that it indeed killed him (i.e. he was not still half alive when he came off the cross). He then spends many pages discussing the resurrection appearances, Paul’s conversion, and a variety of other issues (which I won’t get into here as to avoid a book length review). I will say, though, that I thoroughly enjoyed Licona’s examination of Paul’s thoughts regarding the resurrection (even if I came away not terribly convinced by his interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5).

Licona concludes the chapter by saying that his examination of the evidence has confirmed the following three indisputable historical facts of Jesus: (1) he was crucified, (2) his followers proclaimed they had seen him alive after his death, and (3) that Paul converted a few years after the crucifixion when he saw what he believed to be the resurrected Jesus. These three  facts are the “historical bedrock” according to Licona. He does not include the empty tomb as part of this historical bedrock which, I can only imagine, will be surprising to many Christians.

What to make of these three historical facts? Licona tackles this thorny question in the next question by weighing the various alternative hypotheses.

More to come in Part IV of this review.

3 responses

  1. Does Licona discuss the historical sources for the martyrdom of the apostles? I am always puzzled when the apostles’ willingness to die for their beliefs is cited as if these martyrdom stories were unassailable facts.

  2. You mention mass psychosis as explaining the apostles’ accounts of the appearances of the risen Christ, and I’ve seen that mentioned before. I wonder, though, is there such a thing as mass psychosis? Has it been scientifically documented? Just wondering.

    • Medjudgorie, Lourdes, etc. I remember reading about one case where dozens of witnesses who claimed they witnessed something bizzare in the sky (either an apparition of Mary and/or the sky dancing across the sky), though some witnesses in the same vicinity reported seeing nothing unusual at all.

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