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

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.

Read Part III here.

The fifth chapter of this volume consists of Licona examining different hypotheses that have been put forward concerning the resurrection of Jesus. The first contender that Licona interacts with is Geza Vermes. Licona explores Vermes’ hypothesis as found in The Resurrection (2008). Vermes hypothesis is essentially that while the empty tomb and apparitions are indeed historical, the resurrection hypothesis fails to explain this data due to that it can not meet scientific and legal standards. Natural explanations (e.g. visited wrong tomb), as well as a supernatural one (there was a spiritual resurrection) are also deemed by Vermes as being failed hypotheses. Instead, Vermes believes we can only be agnostic about Jesus’ resurrection and that we can only speculate about it.

Michael Goulder’s hypothesis is up next. Essentially he views the resurrection as being explainable by various psychological conditions. Goulder believes that Peter experienced a hallucination bought on by grief, despair, and guilt. Peter then shared this experience with others, making them more susceptible to having their own hallucinations. The empty tomb, bodily appearances, and other details, are speculations that eventually arose to fill in some gaps concerning the hallucinations of the apostles.

The next hypothesis that Licona deals with is Gerd Lüdemann’s. Like Goulder, Lüdemann believes that Peter experienced a hallucination and once he shared it with the other disciples, this lead to their hallucinations of the risen Jesus. The Jewishness of the apostles led to the development of interpreting their own hallucinations as meaning that Jesus had been bodily resurrected.

Licona then tackles John Dominic Crossan’s hypothesis which, in a nutshell, asserts that Paul was the only one to experience a vision of Jesus (which Crossan thinks was a hallucination that Paul experienced while in a trance). The empty tomb was invented by Mark, and the original passion narrative is the “cross Gospel” as partially preserved in the Gospel of Peter. Furthermore, Crossan believes that Paul did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Out of all the alternative explanations for the resurrection that Licona examines, Crossan’s was definitely the weakest and silliest in my opinion.

The final alternative hypothesis that Licona deals with is Pieter Craffert’s. He believes that the apostles were in an altered state of consciousness when they experienced visions of Jesus. Moreover, considering the culture they lived in (which thought visions were really happening), the apostles then misunderstood their own visions as being ontological appearances of the physical Jesus. In other words, Craffert believes that we can only assert that Jesus was resurrected if we maintain that the apostles’ visions were subjective and do not coincide with any ontological reality.

Licona presents what each of these alternative hypotheses contend iss the explanation for the resurrection, provides a helpful bullet-point summary, and then presents any concerns and errors that he thinks the hypothesis contains. He then weighs the hypothesis by the following points:

  1. its explanatory scope
  2. its explanatory power
  3. its plausibility
  4. how ad-hoc it is
  5. the illumination it can provide

After these six alternative hypotheses, Licona then presents his own “resurrection hypothesis” (RH), which is obviously that Jesus was in fact resurrected from the dead. Naturally, Licona finds the RH to be the most satisfying explanation from a historical perspective – by a very large margin! (see table on page 606).

On the plausibility of the RH, Licona says:

One may claim that RH lacks plausibility, since it is generally accepted that the dead do not return to life. However, what is generally accepted is that the dead do not return to life by natural causes. RH and the early Christians have not asserted that Jesus returned to life by natural causes but by a supernatural one. In fact, the statement could be turned around as follows: if a supernatural being wanted to raise Jesus from the dead, RH is the most plausible explanation for the relevant historical bedrock. Thus I reiterate the importance of historians bracketing their worldviews during an investigation of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. If we bracket our worldviews, we have no a priori reason for rendering RH as either plausible or implausible. (602)

The first part of this paragraph demonstrates why I think it is futile to try and prove the historicity of the resurrection. The resurrection was an act of God, thus it should be dealt with as a theological claim, not a historical one! This is why I side with Meier in that historians should not give the judgment of “historical” to a miracle such as the resurrection.

The volume then concludes with a chapter of conclusions and an appendix which reviews Dale Allison’s Resurrecting Jesus (2005). Being someone who agrees with the author that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, I naturally enjoyed reading this book. I believe Licona has bought something new to the field of study into the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. However,  considering that I am not thoroughly equipped in the field of historical studies, I will be waiting to read any criticisms that are leveled against this book (e.g. how its historical methodology is flawed).

One brief criticism of my own is that I don’t think Licona managed to entirely put aside his Christian presuppositions and bias as he desired to do. This isn’t a necessarily bad thing, as I think it is impossible to perform a completely objective study on this issue. Everyone has their own presuppositions which will guide them into how they evaluate the data. Licona is no exception.

As with many books similar to this one, Christian readers will come away with their own beliefs reaffirmed, while non-Christian readers will come away with their skepticism still thoroughly intact. For all those interested in early Christianity and the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, whether you are Christian or not, this book should be on your “to read” list.

4 responses

  1. Hi, I’m a new reader to your blog, and I must say I am very impressed with your fair handedness. I agree that the resurrection hypothosis seems to explain away the evidence the best- but I think Licona is doing more than that. I think he’s trying to prove that it is IMPOSSIBLE to be a skeptic about the resurrection. Like you, I’ve read a lot about hallucinations, and I fail to see how group visions are impossible. We have plenty of examples, like the dancing sun in fatima. Hell, if your a protestant, than the apparations of Mary should be extremely persuasive to you. I remember during a debate with Ehrman, he admitted ot not believing that the apparations of Mary where veridical, and pleaded ignorance on how it could have been. He gave the same answer with Lukeprog during an episode of CPBD. It just seems to me that Licona and Habermas don’t tackle these issues head on. WLC usually grants his opponents that hallucinations can occur, but instead argues that it is implausible- and I agree to a degree it is implausible. It should only be accepted by those who aren’t christian. But I see no reason why a non christian cant be rational in not believing Jesus rose due to these considerations. Anyways thanks for the review and keep it up!

  2. Hey if your actually reading this, can you tell me how his review of Dale Allisons book turned out. Did he deal with any of the naturalistic theories Allison presents. I know its of no concern to you, but I’d like to know whether it is rational to not believe in the resurrection (even if you admit it is the best explaination as I do for the available evidence) since it’s not the ONLY POSSIBLE explaination. As I mentioned above, the trend seems to be arguing that no other explaination for the resurrection is possible, let alone probable- and this deeply disturbs me, since many scholars I know, including many christians, don’t seem to agree with them.

    Thanks for your time (if you end up responding to me) and I hope you keep up the fantastic work!

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