The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach
Michael R. Licona, IVP Academic/Apollos, 2010, 718pp,
The author’s main thesis is that biblical scholars often engage in the study of history in a way that is quite different from historians who are not involved in the world of biblical studies. Frequently critical scholars regard the biblical texts with a high degree of scepticism. They demand an almost impossible degree of historical certainty before they will acknowledge that an event described in the Bible actually happened. Licona wants to see what biblical scholars might have to learn from the methods and practices of other students of ancient history. He then proposes to apply the methodology of non-biblical historians to the question of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
The first main section of the book gives attention to historical method (that is what is meant by “historiography”). Here Licona faces the issues such as the historian’s horizon or worldview prejudicing his reading of the facts, whether it is possible to recover the past in any meaningful way, and what is the burden of proof. He concludes that the best explanation of the historical data will pass five basic criteria: 1. Explanatory scope. 2. Explanatory power. 3. Plausibility. 4. Less ad hoc, meaning no need to employ extraneous arguments. 5. Illumination.
Next Licona discusses whether it is legitimate for historians to investigate miraculous events. Many would say, “no”. But after laying down some careful safeguards against naïve gullibility regarding the miraculous, the author argues that historians should not simply rule out the serious investigation of supernatural events like the resurrection of Jesus.
Attention is given to the evaluation of historical sources. For the sake of this study, Licona wants to determine what is the most plausible source of historical data for the resurrection of Jesus. He argues that greatest plausibility should be awarded to the earliest witness to apostolic teaching on the resurrection. This is largely found in the writings of Paul, especially 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. Other biblical writings such as the canonical Gospels are regarded as “possible” sources of information for the early apostolic tradition, alongside Josephus, while 1 Clement is awarded a “possible plus”. This is in keeping with Licona’s methodological neutrality, where, for the sake of this study he does not regard the Bible as the inspired Word of God, but a merely human source of historical data. I will return to this point later in the review.
A chapter is devoted to The Historical Bedrock Pertaining to the Fate of Jesus. By “historical bedrock”, Licona means strongly evidenced facts accepted as such by nearly all contemporary historians. There is some good exegetical material here on "spiritual" nature of the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15. Having surveyed the evidence, Licona boils the historical bedrock down to three main points: 1. Jesus died by crucifixion. 2. Jesus' disciples had experiences that led them to believe that he had risen from the dead. 3. Later, Paul was converted after experiencing what he understood to be a postresurrection appearance of Jesus.
Finally Licona weighs six different hypotheses that attempt to explain the historical bedrock against the five basic criterion set out earlier in the book. The first five hypotheses offer various naturalistic explanations of the facts, claiming that the disciples' experience of the risen Jesus were hallucinations or grief-induced sates of altered consciousness. Licona finds these theories wanting. The best explanation for the historical bedrock is that Jesus rose bodily from the grave. Thus, Licona concludes, having deployed rigorous historical methodology, that it is “very certain” that Jesus rose from the dead.
We are pleased that Licona reached this conclusion after almost 600 pages of close argumentation. His attempt to bring the rigour of responsible historical method to bear on the world of biblical studies is to be welcomed. But I question his general approach to apologetics, especially his claimed neutrality on the Bible as God’s inspired Word. The Christian apologist should begin with the presupposition that God is there and that his Word is truth. The Gospels are more than a “possible” source of historical fact. Holy Scripture may be trusted on historical just as much as theological matters. That is the starting point for attempting to give a reasoned defence of the Gospel, including the claim that God raised Jesus from the dead. The task of the apologist is to endeavour to demonstrate that the known facts are fully in accord with God’s self-revelation in the Bible and that competing views and theories cannot offer an adequate explanation of reality. This does not mean that the apologist is bound to prove that the Bible is God's inerrant Word before saying anything else, but it should be made clear that this is one of his underlying presuppositions. That said, this volume should stimulate biblical scholars to give fresh and serious attention to the Bible’s witness to the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ from the dead.
* Reviewed for Protestant Truth magazine.