The Resurrection of Jesus: Miracles, Sources, & Bedrock
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 essay (February 16) I covered the book’s overall structure and the first section (on Philosophy of History). In this post, I will historical inquiry & miracle-claims (Chapter 2), source-material pertaining to the post-mortem fate of Jesus (Chapter 3), and historical bedrock data that historical hypotheses regarding Jesus’ fate must account for (Chapter 4).
Chapter 2 – The Historian and Miracles
Licona’s purpose in discussing horizons is to encourage historical Jesus scholars not to a priori reject certain hypotheses or possibilities due to their worldview presuppositions.His target is already relatively clear in chapter one (see his detailed discussion of naturalistic horizons limiting or directing their biblical studies on pages 42-46); chapter two brings the issue out into the open. Can historians responsibly investigate miracle-claims? If not, there is no purpose in inquiring into the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection—“As historians we have reached a dead end.” (134) Licona responds to arguments by various scholars—Hume, McCullagh, John Meier, Ehrman, Wedderburn and Dunn—that suggest one cannot profitably investigate the historicity of miracle-claims. Licona argues that the principle of analogy (first raised by Hume, later formalized by Troeltsch) is “too restrictive,” making it too difficult to “recognize unique events” and to make “progress in science.” (141) Furthermore, Licona notes that using the principle of analogy to rule out past miracle-claims essentially insists, without evaluation or defense, that miracles do not occur today either—theists could just as easily use the principle of analogy to insist that because miracles do occur today, miracles also could have occurred in the past (142). Licona’s critique of arguments against historical investigation of miracles is persuasive, particularly when he discusses the possibility of a theistic worldview as a “game changer” regarding Christ’s resurrection (175). If scholars presuppose a theistic worldview, their historical hypotheses will be “worldview dependent” (175); but the same hazard awaits scholars who a priori exclude a miraculous resurrection from their pool of live options. Licona concludes that “there are no sound reasons . . . for prohibiting historians from investigating a miracle-claim.” (189)
Licona closes his crucial introductory section with a discussion of the burden of proof required for historical hypotheses in general, and miracle-claims in particular. He insists (contra Sagan) that miracle-claims do not require “extraordinary evidence” (194); rather, they require “additional evidence.” (195) In a helpful and succinct summary, Licona suggests that “There is a difference between demonstrating the historical superiority of a hypothesis and convincing a particular historian to give up a deeply held view.” (197) In other words, a historian can acknowledge that his hypothesis is the best explanation of the relevant historical data, even though his hypothesis runs contrary to worldview horizons of some other historians and is thereby unconvincing to them.
The first two chapters are, in my opinion, the strongest and most innovative of the entire book. Licona effectively reframes the historical debate concerning Jesus’ resurrection. He challenges the reigning biases of mainstream biblical scholarship, appealing to standard historiographical tenets and practices of professional historians. He further challenges the governing rejection of historical miracle-claims, insisting that historians can responsibly investigate such claims in a worldview-neutral fashion (employing his six tools for bracketing or setting aside one’s own presuppositions) without falling into credulity or naïve acceptance of non-evidenced legends, myths, superstitions, and miracle-claims. Licona has made a truly worthwhile contribution to historical study of Jesus’ resurrection; his arguments and conclusions will need to be taken into consideration by all future historical Jesus studies.
Chapter 3 – Historical Sources Pertaining to the Resurrection of Jesus
“Historians must begin by identifying sources relevant to their investigation. The historian will mine these for data, which will eventually be employed as evidence for a preferred hypothesis.” (200) Accordingly, Licona next launches into a discussion of the primary sources pertaining to Jesus of Nazareth (particularly his death and post-mortem fate). Relying heavily upon the research and insights of N. T. Wright, Licona examines sources from the first three centuries C.E. and assigns them ratings according to their historical usefulness: “unlikely, possible-minus, possible, possible-plus, highly probable, indeterminate, and not useful.” (201) Licona’s primary concern is to identify textual material that has the highest likelihood of hearkening back to apostolic witness and teaching. He identifies the (undisputed) Pauline epistles as the most promising and useful historical sources, followed by 1 Clement, the canonical Gospels, the speeches in Acts, some material in Tacitus, Josephus, Thallus, and Polycarp.
Licona engages with the hypotheses of various scholars that Q, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Peter (or older material now embedded within it) supply more helpful and authentic historical material for studying the historical Jesus. He is particularly perceptive in his critique of Helmut Koester and John Dominic Crossan’s use of the Gospel of Thomas (257-67). Licona notes Nicholas Perrin’s published works (from 2002 onward) postulating that Thomas is a late second-century Syriac-Christian creation based upon Tatian’s Diatessaron (265-66), and laments that Koester and Crossan have since failed “even to mention Perrin’s research!” (266)
Chapter 4 – The Historical Bedrock Pertaining to the Fate of Jesus
A viable historical hypothesis has to account for the relevant historical facts—what Licona terms “historical bedrock.” (277-78) Historical bedrock consists of “strongly evidenced” facts which “contemporary scholars nearly unanimously regard . . . as historical facts.” (278) Licona proceeds to present the historical bedrock pertaining to Jesus of Nazareth, facts which are assented to by nearly all biblical scholars spanning a wide theological spectrum (279-80). Licona first presents Jesus’ nature as a miracle-worker and exorcist and his self-understanding as God’s eschatological agent as bedrock concerning his life (281-84). He suggests that Jesus’ “predictions of his death and vindication/resurrection” fall just outside of bedrock status, but nonetheless launches a lengthy defense of their historicity (284-302).
Licona then defends the historicity of Gary Habermas’ three “minimal facts” pertaining to Jesus’ post-mortem fate: (1) Jesus died by crucifixion (303-17); (2) subsequent to Jesus’ death, “a number of his followers had experiences, in individual and group settings, that convinced them Jesus had risen from the dead and had appeared to them in some manner.” (372, larger argument 318-72); and (3) Saul of Tarsus (later renamed Paul) was a vehement foe of the early Christian church until he had a conversion experience which he understood to be an encounter with the resurrected Jesus (373-439). Licona identifies two additional historical facts which, while strongly-evidenced and widely-accepted, fall (in his opinion) just outside of the historical bedrock—the conversion of Jesus’ skeptical brother James (440-60), and the discovery of the empty tomb (461-62)—but treats them as “second-order” facts that will not be utilized when he weighs competing historical hypotheses.
Throughout Chapter Four, Licona displays deft exegetical skills and exhaustive research capabilities. He provides excellent discussion of the Greek text—for example, illustrating Paul’s usage of ‘εν εμοι’ by translating (in context) every occurrence of the phrase in his letters (376-77). Licona also provides an exhaustive analysis of every occurrence of the Greek words ψυχικον and πνευματικον (so crucial to the discussion of Paul’s understanding of the resurrection body, especially in 1 Corinthians 15:44) in extant Greek literature from the eighth century B.C.E. through the third century C.E. (401-24). Licona argues quite persuasively that Paul (in 1 Cor. 15 and elsewhere) is not contrasting material and immaterial objects/bodies, but rather referring to two different “modes of existence.” (410) Throughout the Pauline letters, “Paul never regarded the final postmortem state of believers to be one of disembodiment” (436); thus, given that Paul saw Jesus’ resurrection as the pattern for believers’ future resurrections, Paul shared the Gospel-writers’ view of Jesus’ resurrection as a corporeal resurrection (436-37).
Together, Chapters Three and Four form the historical backbone of Licona’s work. He summarizes the historical sources available for historical Jesus research, and identifies fairly and even-handedly the “bedrock,” those historical facts so undisputed that they must be accounted for by any adequate historical hypothesis. His diligence here will pay off when he turns his focus to weighing the various hypotheses that seek to account for Jesus’ post-mortem fate. It is to those hypotheses, and Licona’s assessment of them, that we will turn in the next blog post!