Book Write-Up: The Resurrection of Jesus, by Michael R. Licona

Michael R. Licona.  The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010.  See here to purchase the book.

Michael R. Licona has a Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria and has taught at Houston Baptist Seminary.  He is a New Testament scholar, and he is also considered to be a Christian apologist, though (as we shall see) his claims in this book are more modest than those of many Christian apologists.  Still, in The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Licona defends the historicity of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.

One page 583, Licona defines the Resurrection Hypothesis that he supports: “Following a supernatural event of an indeterminate nature and cause, Jesus appeared to a number of people, in individual and group settings and to friends and foes, in no less than an objective vision and perhaps within ordinary vision in his bodily raised corpse.”

In Chapter 1, “Important Considerations on Historical Inquiry Pertaining to the Truth in Ancient Texts,” Licona discusses questions of historiography, which largely focus on the challenges to recovering and accurately representing the past.  Licona describes and appreciates such challenges.  The approach that he adopts is critical realism, so he is critical of postmodern challenges to the historical enterprise and maintains that historians can make tentative, plausible judgments about what happened in history.  Licona’s approach is also methodically neutral, which means that it expects historical texts (i.e., sources consulted to help reconstruct the past, such as primary sources) and historians’ hypotheses to bear the “burden of proof” regarding their claims and usefulness in the historical enterprise.  Considerations in this “burden of proof” include evidence, argumentation, plausibility, explanatory scope, explanatory power, being less ad hoc, and illumination (and these are Licona’s terms).  At the end of the chapter, Licona offers “confessions” about his own beliefs, biases, and situation.  Two parts of this that stood out was (1.) when Licona said that “there have been times when I have been desirous of a nonspecific form of theism” (page 139) (rather than a specifically Christian form, I am assuming), and (2.) when Licona said that “should my research lead me to the conclusion that Jesus did not rise from the dead I would be dismissed from my position and my employment would be terminated.”  I do respect Licona’s honesty.

In Chapter 2, “The Historian and Miracles,” Licona argues against the belief that miracles should be dismissed as a possibility when historians are attempting to recover and convey the past.  For Licona, miracles that pass the muster of historical method should be accepted as an explanation.  Licona would apply this criteria to non-Christian miracles, as well, but, overall, he believes that Jesus’ miracles and resurrection pass the historical criteria in a way that non-Christian miracles do not.  Later in the book, Licona expresses some openness to the Marian apparitions being supernatural, yet he refers to a view that these are demonic.

Chapter 3 is about the “Historical Sources Pertaining to the Resurrection of Jesus.”  In this chapter, Licona evaluates historical sources, both Christian and non-Christian, as to whether they are helpful in enabling historians to draw conclusions about the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.  Licona rates the canonical Gospels, Josephus’ references to Jesus, and Tacitus (to cite examples, as Licona considers other sources as well) as “possible” in terms of their usefulness, but he prefers Paul and the sources that Paul quotes because they are closer to the time of Jesus, plus Paul “knew the major Jerusalem apostles” (page 209).

Chapter 4 is about “The Historical Bedrock Pertaining to the Fate of Jesus.”  This historical bedrock includes three claims.  The first claim is that “Jesus died by crucifixion.”  The second claim is that “Very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.”  The third is that “Within a few years after Jesus’ death, Paul converted after experiencing what he interpreted as a postresurrection appearance of Jesus to him.”  Licona states that these claims are accepted by a large majority of biblical scholars, of different faith commitments (including no religious commitments).  Licona does the historical work of supporting these claims, often by using the criteria that have conventionally been employed in scholarly attempts to identify what is historically accurate and what is historically inaccurate in the biblical Gospels.  Such criteria include the criterion of multiple attestation (i.e., a detail is probably historical because it appears in multiple sources), and the criterion of embarrassment (i.e., early Christians would not invent something that would embarrass them, so an embarrassing detail is likely historical).  Licona evaluates other claims, as well: did Jesus predict his resurrection, did Jesus perform miracles, did Jesus’ brother James convert to Christianity after doubting Jesus, and are the empty tomb stories in the Gospels historically reliable?  Licona believes that there are legitimate reasons to answer “yes” to all of these questions, but he ultimately excludes these from the historical bedrock, one reason being that they are not broadly accepted within biblical scholarship, as least not to the extent that the bedrock is.

Licona in this chapter extensively discusses Paul’s view of Jesus’ resurrection.  For Licona, Paul believed that Jesus rose bodily from the dead: that Jesus’ corpse was transformed into a glorious, albeit physical, body.  This is consistent with what the canonical Gospels present, including the empty tomb.  Licona argues against scholarly ideas that draw a wedge between Paul and the Gospels, by saying that Paul believed Jesus had a spiritual body rather than a physical body, or by positing that the early Christians could say that Jesus rose while acknowledging that Jesus’ corpse was still in the ground decaying.  Licona rejects the idea that the disciples saw a mere vision or hallucination, for he thinks that they objectively saw the risen body of Jesus.  For Licona, this was the view of Paul and Paul’s sources (including the creed in I Corinthians 15:3-7, which mentions five-hundred witnesses to the risen Jesus), which have high historical probability.

Chapter 5 is entitled “Weighing Hypothesis.”  In this chapter, Licona weighs scholarly attempts to account for the historical bedrock that he described in Chapter 4.  Licona looks at the work of Geza Vermes, Michael Goulder, Gerd Ludemann, John Dominic Crossan, and Pieter F. Craffert.  In an appendix, Licona evaluates the work of Dale Allison.  Many of these scholars attempt to account for early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection from a naturalistic perspective, without any recourse to the supernatural.  Some say, for instance, that the early Christians saw hallucinations, and this is how they concluded that Jesus rose from the dead.  Licona rejects this explanation because he does not believe in group hallucinations, since a hallucination can only be in one person’s head.  Licona also rejects these scholars’ models because he thinks that they are lacking in evidence: for Licona, an acceptable hypothesis cannot merely ask “What if?” and poke holes in the Resurrection Hypothesis but must itself must have evidential support and be able to account for and explain the data.  Licona does not completely fail these competing hypotheses, for he gives them a passing grade in some areas and a failing grade in others.  Still, he believes that the Resurrection Hypothesis is the best explanation for the data and early Christian belief in the resurrection.

In terms of positives, this book was thorough, overall, in weighing different scholarly views.  To his credit, Licona was not shackled by Christian fundamentalism or a belief in biblical inerrancy, which is why this book was so controversial.  Although Licona is an apologist, he said that one did not necessarily have to believe that the biblical God was the one who raised Jesus from the dead to accept the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.  Licona differs from Christian apologists who argue that Jesus rose, then smuggle into that the conclusion that biblical inerrancy is therefore true, or that the entire Christian worldview is true.  Licona also manifests some open-mindedness on there being a belief in dying-and-rising gods prior to Jesus.  Licona rejects the notion that these influenced the development of Christianity, but he still thinks that dying-and-rising gods is a topic for scholars to explore further.  Another asset is that there were occasions when Licona offered a fresh interpretation of Scripture.  Why does the Gospel of Mark end by saying that the women did not tell anyone about Jesus’ resurrection, noting their fear?  Licona interprets this in light of Mark 1:44, in which Jesus instructs a leper he cleanses to say nothing to anyone, but to go to the priest to perform the proper rituals.  For Licona, the women’s silence in Mark’s Gospel was temporary, and their fear was reverent awe.  Licona was also informative about ancient historiography, acknowledging that it could embellish or exaggerate, or contain contradictions.

I enjoy reading atheist biblical scholar Robert Price, and Price argues that the creed in I Corinthians 15:3-7 was a later interpolation and thus lacks historical value in supporting the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.  Licona does not directly refute this argument (though he engages Price in the footnotes), but Licona did argue that there are verbal indications in the remainder of I Corinthians 15 that Paul adapted his vocabulary in response to the creed.  That would weigh against the creed being a later interpolation.

In terms of negatives, there were topics that Licona should have explored further.  Licona mentions instances in the New Testament in which resurrection bodies shine like the sun, but he failed to explain how that can be reconciled with Jesus’ resurrection body being physical.  (On one occasion, he mentions II Baruch 21:33 and 30:2-5, which posit a physical resurrection preceding a glorified, shining body, but Licona was not addressing there the resurrection body of Jesus.)  Licona did well to offer an interpretation of I Corinthians 15:45, which calls the risen Jesus a spirit, but (as far as I recall) Licona did not address Paul’s reference to the different kinds of flesh in I Corinthians 15:39-41; this is significant because it pertains to whether Paul is saying Jesus had a different, spiritual kind of bodily composition, which Licona (at least somewhat) disputes.  Licona offers a fairly effective argument that the soma pneumatikon of I Corinthians 15 was not an ethereal or spiritual body lacking physicality, as he looks at the usage of the term in other ancient sources.  While he cited the sources, however, he failed to say what exactly those sources were saying a soma pneumatikon is.

Licona in Chapter 3 is very critical in his acceptance of sources.  He appears to take off the table the canonical Gospels and Tacitus, for instance.  Later in the book, however, he appeals to these sources as authorities when evaluating the historicity of the “historical bedrock,” as he uses the multiple attestation criterion.  On page 509, Licona argues against John Dominic Crossan’s comparison of the five-hundred witnesses to the risen Jesus in I Corinthians 15:3-7 to a (alleged) collective delusion of St. George during the Crusades.  Licona states that the disciples’ condition differed from that of the Crusaders, for the Crusaders were poised and ready to see such a delusion, whereas the disciples “were already in hiding and could have walked away accepting their losses, intent on finding another messiah or finding something else to do with their lives.”  How does Licona know that about the disciples, though?  Is he presuming the historicity of the Gospel accounts?

Licona does offer defenses for the reliability of the Gospel narratives on Jesus’ resurrection, even though he takes them off the table as evidence, on some level.  Many of his arguments will be familiar to those who have read Christian apologetics (i.e., the Gospel narratives are reliable because they present women as the first witnesses to the empty tomb, and women’s testimony was considered suspect in that day).  Some were new to me: If the Gospels invented the resurrection stories to portray Jesus’ resurrection as physical and to counter docetism, why did they portray Jesus’ resurrected body vanishing into thin air?  They would be shooting themselves in the foot, if refuting docetism were their agenda, right?  That was an effective argument, on Licona’s part.  Where Licona left me scratching my head, however, was when he was defending the Gospels by comparing them to other ancient sources.  The Gospels contradict themselves?  So do ancient sources that many historians accept as historical!  The Gospels are later than the time that they depict?  So are other ancient sources, yet historians deem them to be historically reliable.  In these cases, Licona should have explained why historians accept those ancient sources as historically reliable, notwithstanding their weaknesses.

Licona also should have taken a moment to explain why the criteria of authenticity can shed light on the past.  Nowadays, the criteria are becoming a bit outdated, or outmoded.  Since Licona used them, he should have explained their usefulness, perhaps in the chapter on historiography.

Licona was also a little too hard on the competing hypotheses, in my opinion.  He dismissed some of them as lacking any evidence.  Maybe they are limited as full-fledged explanatory hypotheses, but they still have valid insights.  One view was that Paul deep down was struggling with the law as a Pharisee and had a love hate-relationship with Christianity, and that could account for his vision of Christ and his conversion.  Licona dismisses this as historical psycho-analyzing.  But did not Jesus tell Saul that Saul was kicking against the goads (Acts 26:14)?  Does not Paul struggle with the law in Romans 7, and elsewhere in his epistles?  Why are these irrelevant in accounting for the bedrock?

I received a complimentary copy of this book from IVP Academic.  My review is honest!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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4 Responses to Book Write-Up: The Resurrection of Jesus, by Michael R. Licona

  1. Laura says:

    Thanks for this review. I heard Licona speak in person, and have been interested in this book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    I never heard him speak in person, but I have listened to online debates he has had. He actually impressed me more in this book than in those debates. That could be because he could go deeper in the book and acknowledge more nuance.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the review, James. I will have to check it out, particularly his interactions with the other scholars.


  4. jamesbradfordpate says:

    My pleasure! And you may already be aware of this, but, if not, here’s something else: Licona will soon have a new book out about the differences among the Gospels. He looks more at ancient biographies in that book.


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