The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. By Michael R. Licona. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010, 718 pp., $40.00.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ stands at the center of the historic Christian faith, making it a focus of scholarly theological focus. The Apostle Paul declares that if Christ has not been raised, then Christian faith is in vain (1 Cor. 15). The resurrection is also the key historical miracle-claim in Christianity, making it a focus of scholarly historical investigation. Given that the resurrection is a riveting topic of theological and historical investigation, it is no surprise that scholarly articles and books focusing on the resurrection continue to proliferate. By Gary Habmeras’ count, there were approximately 3400 journals and books written in English, German, and French, on the subject of Jesus’ resurrection between 1975 and 2002 (see particularly his 2005 article on the topic in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 3.2).
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. Licona serves as Research Professor at Houston Baptist University, and is a popular apologetic speaker and well-known debater, having engaged (among others) Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, Shabir Ally, and Richard Carrier. Licona’s Resurrection is an excellent addition to the corpus of literature on the historical core of Christianity, an absolute must-read for resurrection buffs, and a necessary resource for historical Jesus scholars. In this series of 4 blog essays, I intend to engage in an in-depth examination of Licona’s book. I will provide a brief summary of the broad structure of Licona’s work. I will lay out key sections of his dissertation more thoroughly in order to highlight unique contributions he makes to the scholarly discussion. I will then critically engage key sections of his argument.
Licona’s research began with the observation that studies of Jesus’ resurrection are marked by a lack of consensus,and a resulting question: “I began to wonder whether the reason why a more unified conclusion on these matters eludes scholars is because biblical scholars are ill prepared for such [historical] investigations.” (18) Further study led him to conclude that in fact biblical scholars are ill-equipped for historical investigation. Licona’s dissertation therefore provides “unprecedented interaction with the literature of professional historians outside of the community of biblical scholars on both hermeneutical and methodological considerations.” (20)
Licona’s historiographical analysis and methodology truly sets his study apart from other treatments of the historical Jesus and the resurrection. N. T. Wright’s trilogy (The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and The Resurrection of the Son of God) contains detailed discussion of critical realism as an historical approach; John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus (and subsequent works) provides a rigorous methodological approach to historical Jesus studies. What sets Licona apart is explicit in-depth interaction with key issues in historiography, particularly pertaining to the person and work of Jesus: (1) the possibility (and nature) of historical knowledge; (2) the nature and impact of scholarly horizons; (3) the questions raised by postmodernist history; (4) the nature of historical facts; (5) the burden of proof in historical hypotheses; and, most significantly, (6) the possibility of historical investigation of miracle-claims.
Licona structures his work in five major chapter. Chapter One (29-132) covers “important considerations on historical inquiry pertaining to the truth in ancient texts.” (29) Chapter Two (133-98) specifically tackles historical investigation of miracle-claims. Chapter Three (199-276) surveys and evaluates the usefulness of “historical sources pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus.” (199) Chapter Four (277-464) attempts to isolate and establish “the historical bedrock pertaining to the fate of Jesus.” (277) Chapter Five (465-610) brings together the conclusions of the previous chapters in order to evaluate six historical hypotheses (from Geza Vermes, Michael Goulder, Gerd Lüdemann, John Dominic Crossan, Pieter Craffert, and Licona’s own traditional ‘Resurrection Hypothesis’) concerning the post-crucifixion fate of Jesus of Nazareth. Licona summarizes his findings and contributions in a brief epilogue (611-22), and attaches a critical analysis of Dale Allison’s conclusions regarding Jesus’ resurrection (623-41).
Chapter 1 – Important Considerations on Historical Inquiry Pertaining to the Truth in Ancient Texts
Licona’s first major chapter tackles the theory and method of historical inquiry. While noting that both history and historiography are “essentially contested concepts” (30) lacking consensus definitions, Licona nonetheless adopts conventional definitions of both: history is “past events that are the objects of study” (30), and historiography is “matters in the philosophy of history and historical method . . . concern[ing] epistemological approaches to gaining a knowledge of the past.” (31) Licona’s definitions anticipate and presume his later conclusions regarding post-modern historiography (70-88). Licona notes that postmodern historians (White, Ankersmit, and Jenkins) have rightly chastised the undue optimism often marking modernist history. Nonetheless, historians generally (including Licona) adopt historical realism and a correspondence theory of truth, embracing the partial knowability (92) of historical facts (events that “happened and that historians attempt to discover through verification procedures”, 93).
Licona also addresses the means of arriving at historical conclusions. He follows the example of fellow evangelical scholars Habermas and Craig in adopting a version of C. B. McCullagh’s criteria for weighing historical hypotheses (108-13). The five criteria which Licona adopts in his own study are: (1) explanatory scope—“the hypothesis that includes the most relevant data” (109); (2) explanatory power—the hypothesis explains the data with the least effort, vagueness, and ambiguity (109); (3) plausibility—the hypothesis is implied or accepted by a greater number and variety of accepted truths and background knowledge (109-10); (4) less ad hoc—the hypothesis does not employ “nonevidenced assumptions” (110); and (5) illumination—the hypothesis provides solutions to other historical problems or issues (111).
Licona first says that he will follow McCullagh’s prioritization of criteria (113, and repeated on 467 and 607): plausibility as the most important criterion, followed by explanatory scope, explanatory power, less ad hoc, and illumination (109-11). Strangely, however, when Licona weighs the six competing historical hypotheses in chapter five, he departs from McCullagh’s prioritization—Licona considers explanatory scope and explanatory power first, followed by plausibility, less ad hoc, and illumination (476-79, 491-95, 515-19, 553-57, 580-82, and 600-07). Licona thus leaves considerable ambiguity as to which historical criterion is actually the most important. While this is not harmful to his overall project, it does leave unnecessary confusion. It would have been simple (and consistent) to have treated the criteria in the order he claimed he was going to follow, rather than moving plausibility from the place of priority to tertiary status.
Licona includes an excellent discussion of the role of scholarly horizons in historical investigation (38-61). A scholar’s horizons encompass the theological and philosophical worldview from which she approaches her subject matter. Many scholars (Licona quotes Allison and Meyer) note the influence that worldview presuppositions exert upon historical Jesus research (although others seem equally oblivious to the impact of horizons). Where Licona goes further is in proposing six tools which he suggests can, when used together, minimize the influence of horizons and help the historian approach objectivity in their research. Three tools in particular are helpful and worth noting.
First, Licona insists that “the historian’s horizon and method should be public.” (53) Many historical Jesus scholars (e.g. Wright and Crossan) willingly expose their methodology to public scrutiny; however, Crossan is notoriously coy about acknowledging his worldview presuppositions. Licona sagely notes that exposing one’s horizons “subjects them to public—and hopefully personal—scrutiny.” (53) When worldview horizons will affect historical investigation, those horizons will need to be defended vigorously rather than merely presumed in the course of study.
Second, Licona encourages historians to submit their ideas “to unsympathetic experts” who will “labor diligently to identify and expose weaknesses.” (55) There is a constant danger in historical Jesus research to only expose your research and conclusions to the eyes of constructive critics. Thus, for example, the early Crossan (pre-1991) simply does not interact with conservative, traditional, or evangelical scholarship. He interacts regularly and deeply with like-minded scholars (e.g. Koester, Robinson, Kelber, Via, Funk), but is either oblivious to or consciously ignores contrary-minded scholars.
Third, in a broad-ranging suggestion, Licona insists that “detachment from bias is nonnegotiable.” (58) Historians “should force themselves to confront data and arguments that are problematic to their preferred hypotheses.” (60) Contrary evidence and argumentation should be taken fully into account in such a way that historians “achieve full understanding of and empathy for the opposing view.” (60-61) I will return to this suggestion later in a later post, and argue that Licona himself does not fully satisfy his own methodological suggestion. Nonetheless, his suggestions are on-point, and (in my estimation) Licona comes closer than any other scholar I have read to a worldview neutrality in his historical Jesus research.
Licona’s work in philosophy of history in The Resurrection of Jesus is commendable. His presentation is succinct, his research thorough. There is, indeed, much to applaud already! We will see more in the blog posts to come.