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 three essays I summarized and interacted with the main chapters. Now it is time to dive into some constructive criticism.
Critique and Concluding Thoughts
Licona’s New Historiographical Approach to the resurrection of Jesus truly is unique and valuable. He makes a significant addition to the conversation about a central issue in Christian doctrine and history. He provides an unparalleled discussion of historiographical concerns, including a rational and persuasive summons to all historical Jesus scholars to bracket their own horizons when approaching their subject-material. Nonetheless, no scholar is perfect, and there are a couple of critiques I would like to close with.
One element of Licona’s critique of Crossan seemed quite strange from my perspective. Licona noted, quite rightly I believe, that CsH is highly ad hoc (556-57). The grounds on which he does so, however, are somewhat inconsistent. On the one hand, Licona notes: “Although CsH a priori excludes an interventionist view of God, Crossan provides a defense of his worldview and thus does not fall prey to an ad hoc component in this respect.” (556) On the other hand, Licona identifies a highly ad hoc use of sources, particularly the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter (and Crossan’s beloved Cross Gospel identified within it), within Crossan’s hypothesis: Licona senses a purely “arbitrary” operative methodology (556-57). I agree with Licona’s second argument—Crossan’s use of sources is highly arbitrary, ad hoc, and looks very much like a “salvage operation” intended to preserve his metaphorical resurrection hypothesis.
Ironically, however, Crossan spills much ink to explain and defend his apparently arbitrary use of textual sources. Crossan spends the better part of a decade identifying and defending his use of sources, not only in The Cross That Spoke (1988), which Licona cites in his bibliography, but also in a number of earlier works which Licona has not consulted—including Crossan’s significant monographs In Fragments: The Aphorisms of Jesus (1983); Sayings Parallels: A Workbook for the Jesus Tradition (1986); and most importantly Four Other Gospels: Shadows on the Contours of Canon (1985), which defends his treatment of Thomas and introduces his Cross Gospel hypothesis. Numerous scholarly articles from the 70s and 80s also deal with Crossan’s source-critical conclusions—e.g. “Redaction and Citation in Mark 11:9-10 and 11:17,” in Biblical Research 17 (1972); his crucial contribution “Empty Tomb and Absent Lord (Mark 16:1-8),” in The Passion of Mark (1976, ed. Werner Kelber); “A Form for Absence,” in Semeia 12 (1978); and “Materials and Methods in Historical Jesus Research,” in Forum 4.4 (1988).
I concur with Licona’s overall assessment—Crossan’s use of textual sources is arbitrary, purely conjectural, highly dubious, and ultimately a foundation far too weak to support the superstructure Crossan erects upon it. The irony, however, is that while Crossan strives valiantly to explain and defend his textual hypotheses (which as Licona notes are absolutely crucial to CsH), Crossan does not defend his naturalistic worldview. Licona states that “Crossan provides a defense of his worldview” (556), but does not point us to such a defense. All Licona can do is refer, first, to Crossan’s complaint that a literal understanding of Jesus’ resurrection “requires a ‘supernatural interventionist’ understanding of the way God relates to the world” (519); and second, to Crossan’s insistence that “I have made certain judgments about what I’m going to call ‘divine consistency’—how God works in the world. . . . I don’t think it was different in the first century from the twentieth.” (519-20) ‘Divine consistency’, however, is not an argument or defense—it is merely an assertion, a statement of naturalistic presupposition.
Having completed a doctoral dissertation focusing upon Crossan’s worldview presuppositions and their impact upon his historical Jesus research, I can say with full confidence that nowhere in his vast corpus does Crossan provide a defense of ‘divine consistency’—what Licona cites is the fullest defense he gives. But whereas similar assertions and stances cause Licona to accuse Goulder, Vermes, and Lüdemann of presupposing anti-supernaturalism in an ad hoc or a priori fashion, Licona inexplicably states that Crossan has defended his worldview. I thus find it ironic, and not entirely accurate, to accuse Crossan of being ad hoc in his amply-defended textual hypotheses while giving him a pass for his statements of divine consistency. If anything, it ought to be the other way around.
The above might seem like a somewhat trivial critique in a 640-page volume. After all, I concur with Licona’s overall assessment of Crossan’s argument. However, I believe the specific critique also points to a larger critique which strikes closer to the heart of Licona’s enterprise. In his discussion of historiography, Licona notes the need for the critical historian to seek to bracket his own worldview, and proposes six helpful tools intended to approach worldview neutrality, or objectivity, in their study. I applaud Licona on this count—I fully agree that bracketing worldview is a necessary component to critical history, and I believe his six-fold method to doing so is the most helpful and comprehensive method on the market. The question I raise now is twofold: (1) has Licona satisfactorily employed his own six tools; and if not, (2) is it even possible to do so?
In response to the first question, I contend that Licona has not, despite his best efforts, been able to fully bracket his own worldview. He has made, so far as I can tell, the most consistent and complete effort to do so amongst scholars who have studied and written on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (His note that Goulder, Craffert, Vermes, and Lüdemann make no attempt to do the same is both accurate and representative of the general state of the literature in the field, from both friends and foes of the traditional Resurrection Hypothesis.) Nonetheless, he has not completely succeeded. Licona’s sixth (and perhaps most central) tool for bracketing worldview emphasizes “detachment from bias.” (58) It further insists that historians “must achieve full understanding of and empathy for the opposing view.” (60-61)
There are clues throughout that Licona has not set aside his own acknowledged bias in favor of RH (the traditional Resurrection Hypothesis). First, there are two slight linguistic tendencies: (a) consistently referring to the “appearances” of the risen Jesus to the disciples (many critical scholars label them ‘apparitions’ or ‘visions’); and (b) occasionally speaking of what happened “after the resurrection of Jesus” rather than ‘after the death of Jesus’ (e.g. 455), which appears to prejudice the discussion before his historical method has been completed. Second, on a few occasions Licona slips into pejorative language when describing the alternative naturalistic hypotheses—for example, Geza Vermes is described as having “jettisoned his Christian faith in 1957,” (470) rather than simply as ‘changing his perspective,’ ‘transcending his worldview horizons,’ or ‘converting to agnosticism.’ Third, I would argue that at least in Crossan’s case, Licona has not achieved “full understanding and empathy for the opposing view.” I have already noted that Licona’s discussion of Crossan’s textual hypotheses fails to take into account a large swath of Crossan’s earlier scholarship. There is, in fact, a large body of Crossan’s work from the 70s and 80s which already anticipates, explains, and defends his metaphorical reconstruction of the resurrection. To truly achieve “full understanding and empathy” for Crossan’s position, Licona would have needed to gain a fuller understanding of Crossan’s earlier work. Crossan’s early literary criticism and structuralism defined his understanding of human language and religion, and help illuminate that puzzling exchange between Crossan and William Lane Craig which Licona (wrongly, I think) takes as indicating that Crossan does not believe in God (44-45).
Thus, I have to conclude that Licona has not been able to entirely satisfy his own desire to bracket his worldview biases, and fully understand alternative positions. But, to answer the second part of my earlier question, I think it may be an impossible task. In Licona’s case, this task was made even more difficult by the massive scope of his project. After all of the intricate historiographical and textual work in the first four chapters, Licona tackled not one, but five resurrection hypotheses. Each hypothesis was the result of a long period of academic study, including (in Crossan’s case, at least) a stunning array of literary output. I would certainly not criticize the length and depth of Licona’s bibliography (which fills a full fifty-six pages), but I must note that he has not gotten the full depth and flavor of Crossan’s position. Honestly, I don’t think it would have been possible for him to have done so in the context of this project.Licona comes as close to worldview neutrality as any scholar I have seen. His goal was to advance as close as possible to bracketing his worldview during his historical investigation—that goal was achieved. His failure to achieve absolute objectivity does not reflect his scholarly or personal failure; rather, it reflects the abiding and unavoidable influence of worldview presuppositions in historical Jesus research.