Book Review: The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach by Michael R. Licona

Given that Easter is upon us, I’d like to do something a little different.

A few months back, one very intelligent man whose opinions I deeply respect on a number of matters (he’s an agnostic, or at least he was at the time, he prefers to keep his beliefs to himself) was asked what single event in history he would choose to witness if he had a time machine. He replied the resurrection, since it would answer a lot of questions.

My response was to recommend the next best thing to such a time machine that I know of, which is the book I am about to review here.
The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach by Michael R. Licona is the most thorough and balanced treatment of the subject I have ever seen in a single volume. Recommendations for further reading are given, but here is a brief summary of some of the topics covered:

Licona begins with a definition of what history and historiography are, then by noting what a polarizing figure Jesus is, the question of his resurrection in particular. One unfortunate result of the massive personal significance of concluding that his resurrection occurred (or did not occur) as a real historical event is that people (even historians) tend to find it very difficult to overcome their initial presuppositions and prejudices, giving their previous personal beliefs and biases too much weight in their investigations. This is known as the horizon problem. Licona then outlines what can be done to overcome this problem, to “transcend their horizon” and approach greater objectivity, listing the following steps:

1. method – ‘including the manner in which data are viewed, weighed and contextualized; criteria for testing the adequacy of hypotheses; and the fair consideration of competing hypotheses.’ Focusing on method can help to mitigate personal bias, but it is not enough on its own.

2. The historian’s horizon and method should be public – this enables the relevant portions of the historian’s horizon to be challenged and his method critiqued.

3. Peer pressure – This can sometimes be a help, discouraging wild speculation and excessive bias, and at other times a hindrance, delaying breakthroughs in historical research.

4. Submitting ideas to unsympathetic experts – someone with a vested interest in opposing your position (as well as relevant knowledge of the field) is much more likely to notice and intelligently critique any leaps in logic arising from your personal biases that they do not share. Such critiques can sometimes be overly harsh, but only ever receiving feedback from a philosophical echo chamber of like-minded people is almost sure to result in massively underestimating the effect those biases are having on your conclusions.

5. Account for the relevant historical bedrock – ‘Some facts are so strongly evidenced that they are virtually indisputable. These facts are referred to as “historical bedrock” since any legitimate hypothesis should be built on it. If a hypothesis fails to explain all of the historical bedrock, it is time to drag that hypothesis back to the drawing board or to relegate it to the trash bin. Historical bedrock includes those facts that meet two criteria. First, they are so strongly evidenced that the historian can fairly regard them as historical facts. Second, the majority of contemporary scholars regard them as historical facts.’

6. Detachment from bias – ‘Historians should search “for evidence inconsistent with the preferred hypothesis before being willing to assert its truth.” They should force themselves to confront data and arguments that are problematic to their preferred hypotheses. Historians must allow themselves to understand and empathize fully with the horizon of the author/agent and, furthermore, allow themselves to be challenged fully by that horizon to the point of conversion. They must achieve full understanding of and empathy for the opposing view. When this is maintained during an investigation, the historian is close to transcending her horizon. While full detachment may be unattainable, temporary detachment is attainable to some degree and provides value.’

After looking at postmodern approaches to history, the questions it raises, the problems with it and responses to it, Licona then follows these steps.

He outlines his method, including where the burden of proof lies, choosing methodological neutrality (the one making the claim bears the burden of proof, applying to hypotheses and counter-hypotheses alike) and what criteria to use when deciding which hypothesis offers the best explanation:

1. Explanatory Scope – the number of facts accounted for by the hypothesis

2. Explanatory Power – how naturally those facts fit into the hypothesis (i.e. how many are vague or forced “square pegs in round holes”)

3. Plausibility – how much the hypothesis is implied by accepted truths or background knowledge (i.e. whether other areas known with confidence suggest a certain hypothesis.)

4. Less ad hoc – a theory is more ad hoc if it requires additional assumptions with no evidence to support them.

5. Illumination – Whether a hypothesis provides a possible solution to other problems without confusing other areas held with confidence.

Licona then confesses to his horizon and biases as a conservative Christian employed in a Christian organization, including how he would react and change his life if he concluded that the resurrection was not a historical event.

From there he addresses the issue of whether historians are even able to address claims of a miraculous event, dealing with the arguments of David Hume, Bart Ehrman and others. I think he does a very good job here, but an excellent (but overwhelmingly huge) supplement to this section would be Miracles – the Credibility of the New Testament Accounts by Craig S. Keener, which addresses the issue of whether there are credible modern-day claims of miraculous events.

After this section, he looks at the various historical sources that we have concerning the resurrection, assessing their credibility and usefulness as sources.

The next section looks at the historical bedrock that can be obtained from those sources; i.e. the facts that are strongly supported with evidence and agreed on by the vast majority of scholars in the field of all theological(i.e. Atheist, agnostic, Jewish, Christian etc.) and political persuasions. These are:

1. Jesus died by crucifixion

2. Very shortly after his death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.

3. Within a few years after Jesus’ death, Paul converted after experiencing what he interpreted as a postresurrection appearance of Jesus to him.

He also identifies four ‘second-order facts’ that are just short of meeting the criteria to be classified as historical bedrock:

1. The tomb of Jesus was found to be empty after his burial. (there is a far from unanimous consensus from scholars on this, but still a strong majority, including significant non-christian scholars)

2. James the brother of Jesus, a skeptic of Jesus who distanced himself from Jesus during his lifetime, became a devoted follower of Jesus and leader in the early church after experiencing what he interpreted as a postresurrection appearance of Jesus to him.

3. During his life, Jesus predicted his violent and imminent death and subsequent resurrection by God.

4. The claim of the earliest disciples was that Jesus was raised bodily.

In the next and final section, Licona compares six hypotheses concerning what happened to Jesus, those of Geza Vermes, Michael Goulder, Gerd Ludemann, John Dominic Crossan and Pieter Craffert, and the hypothesis that Jesus was physically raised from the dead

These other hypotheses include such things as mystical experiences, hallucinations, visions, self-deception and communal delusions or mass ecstasy to explain the appearances; and such things as mythmaking, speculation, parables and metaphors being mistaken for literal history to explain the historical details.

Licona analyses the nature, strengths and weaknesses of these theories respectfully and in great detail, comparing and rating them relative to each other and the resurrection hypothesis in terms of how well they account for the historical bedrock according to the categories for determining the best explanation. His reasoning is strong and his conclusions logical, that the resurrection hypothesis fits the available data far better, and it is very reasonable to conclude that it is an actual historical event.

I bought this book to form part of a reference library that my children will find useful when they grow up and have serious questions about Christianity. This book exceeded my expectations and I am very happy with my investment.

Don’t just take my word for it, get yourself a copy and come to your own conclusions. Some of it will no doubt go over your head (as it did me), but you will be guaranteed to learn a lot along the way, and it may just help you make the most important decision you will ever make.

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