Thursday, February 23, 2017

Licona's Resurrection Masterpiece, Part III - Weighing Competing Historical Hypotheses of Jesus' Post-Mortem Fate

The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.  By Michael R. Licona.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010, 718 pp., $40.00. 

Michael R. Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2011), represents a substantive scholarly contribution to the wealth of academic literature on the resurrection.  In this series of 4 blog essays, I am providing an in-depth interaction with Licona’s careful work.  In the first two essays I covered the book’s overall structure and Licona’s significant historical work on historiography, miracle-claims, historical Jesus sources, and bedrock data concerning Jesus’s fate.  In this post, I want to engage Licona’s assessment of various historical hypotheses that seek to account for the historical bedrock.  Next week, we will critically analyze the strengths, weaknesses, and contributions of the overall work.

Chapter 5 – Weighing Hypotheses

Having discussed historical methodology, the possibility of investigating historical miracle-claims, the relevant historical sources, and the historical bedrock pertaining to Jesus’ post-mortem fate, Licona finally turns to the crux of the matter—determining what actually happened to Jesus after his crucifixion. 
Licona insists that a successful historical hypothesis must account for the full range of historical bedrock “in order to place a check on undisciplined imagination,” (466) and must be demonstrably superior to competing hypotheses (467).  Licona proceeds to critically analyze six competing hypotheses: five naturalistic hypotheses set forth by Geza Vermes (VH), Michael Goulder (GH), Gerd Lüdemann (LH), John Dominic Crossan (CsH), and Pieter Craffert (CfH); and the traditional Christian ‘Resurrection Hypothesis’ (RH).  I found it somewhat disingenuous for Licona to analyze five personalized naturalistic hypotheses, while considering the sixth one under a generic heading.  Licona has already acknowledged (130-32) that RH is the position that he has historically embraced and defended.  I think it would have been fitting to have labeled the position his own (LiH), or attributed it to Habermas (HH), Wright (WH), or Craig (CgH).  I quibble, and shall move on.
Space prevents a full presentation and analysis of the five naturalistic hypotheses Licona engages; thus, I will provide exceedingly brief accounts.  Geza Vermes (VH) takes an agnostic position, arguing that none of the naturalistic hypotheses “stands up to stringent scrutiny.” (472) In his hypothesis, Vermes fails to account for Paul’s conversion experience (477), does not explain the nature of the disciples’ apparitional experiences (473), fails to shed light on other areas of study (478), and a priori rejects RH (calling it extreme) because of its presumption of a theistic worldview (473-74, 478).
Michael Goulder (GH) and Gerd Lüdemann (LH) present slightly variations on the theme of hallucination.  Goulder theorizes that Peter and the other disciples suffered from intense guilt and cognitive dissonance (479-80), leading to subjective individual and group hallucinations (the latter of which, Licona notes, are not evidenced in the scholarly literature).  Licona notes that GH provides illumination of religious experiences, but is “entirely speculative, positing compounded psychoanalyses in order to explain the data.” (494) Lüdemann’s hypothesis (LH) is similarly built upon ungrounded psychological speculations (505, 518), though he explains the disciples’ hallucinations as self-delusion rather than cognitive dissonance (497-99).
John Dominic Crossan (CsH) proposes that Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament is intended metaphorically, not literally (519-21).  “Resurrection was only one way the early Christians expressed the presence and power of God’s kingdom through Jesus.” (531) Crossan identifies six “concerns” with literal interpretations of Jesus’ resurrection (519-21), each of which is answered by Licona (532-38).  The biggest challenge to Crossan’s hypothesis, according to Licona, is its foundation: Crossan builds his historical reconstruction upon a highly speculative identification of a hypothetical source (the Cross Gospel) which he isolates within the second-century Gospel of Peter (522-24).  Licona notes that responsible historiography resists “the temptation to employ sources of uncertain value”—Crossan, he declares, has not done so (542).  Crossan’s dubious use of textual sources renders his hypothesis considerably less plausible than others (556); combined with his employment of questionable psychohistory, CsH is also highly ad hoc (556-57).
Pieter Craffert (CfH) suggests that the disciples experienced the risen Jesus while in “altered states of consciousness” (‘ASC’, 565), common occurrences in ancient mystical religion.  Those subjective experiences were interpreted as ontological realities, leading to the centrality of resurrection belief within the early church (563).  Given a modern scientific worldview (naturalism), however, we know that those appearances could not have been ontological realities—thus we must accept them as cultural artefacts, not objective historical facts (561).  CfH “makes no attempt to explain the appearance to Paul,” (580) and the assertion of ACS violates the plain reading and meaning of the texts (570).
Not surprisingly, Licona finds each of the five naturalistic hypotheses severely lacking.  Even apart from RH, none of them qualifies as a satisfactory historical hypothesis (582).  Each fails miserably to satisfy at least one of the core historical criteria.  The traditional Resurrection Hypothesis, on the other hand, passes Licona’s evaluation with flying colors.  RH accounts for the full historical bedrock (as well as Licona’s second-order facts) “without any strain whatsoever.” (600) If worldview presuppositions are properly bracketed, then RH is not implausible (602-04); similarly, RH could only be accused of being ad hoc in the sense that it “allows for the supernatural.” (604) Finally, RH provides rich illumination of numerous other historical questions, particularly the puzzle of the birth, growth, and survival of the Christian faith (605-06).  “RH comes in first place and is the only hypothesis to fulfill all five criteria.  RH is not only superior to the competing hypotheses examined, it outdistances them by a significant margin.” (606) Licona concludes that “if one brackets the question of worldview, neither presupposing nor a priori excluding supernaturalism, and examines the data, the historical conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead follows.” (608) Ultimately, he assigns the traditional Resurrection Hypothesis status as a “very certain” historical fact—“a rendering higher on the spectrum of historical certainty than I had expected.” (619)
In some ways, Licona’s conclusion is unsurprising—he has not hidden his starting position.  What stands out, however, is Licona’s honest assessment of alternative hypotheses, and his accurate diagnosis of their key problems.  It must surely count for something when the historical evidence is such that non-resurrection hypotheses must invoke a priori rejections of the miraculous in order to render their ad-hoc assertions more probable than supernatural resurrection.

In our next (final) blog post, I will draw some general conclusions about the merits of Licona’s massive resurrection tome.  Stay tuned!