There are no lack of books on the resurrection of Jesus. Pastors, scholars, apologists and critics have all weighed in on the issue. It is fair to ask: After N.T. Wright’s massive Resurrection of the Son of God, is there anything left to say on the matter? Michael Licona suggests there is and his newest book (based on his Ph.D. dissertation) demonstrates that he is correct.
The impetus for this book is the observation that there seems to be a great divide between current historical methodology and attempts to write biblical history. Most biblical scholars have no training in the area of philosophy of history. Licona asks the question: What would happen if one came to the resurrection of Jesus purely through the lens of standard historiographical methods rather than the type of historiography that has developed within the biblical guild?
In the first chapter, Licona familiarizes the reader with the approaches of historians outside the community of biblical scholars. Licona explains that in general, historians have moved beyond postmodern attempts to do history. There is an important need for the historian to manage their horizon, that is the set of presuppositions they bring to the subject. Complete neutrality is impossible, but the historian must seek to be as unbiased as possible. Finally, historians compare competing versions of the past and choose the version that is the best explanation of the evidence according to how they fulfill a number of criteria.
The second chapter tackles the difficult issue of how one speaks historically of what Christians consider a miraculous event. Licona examines the objections offered by David Hume, C.B. McCullagh, John Meier, Bart Ehrman, A.J.M. Wedderburn and James D.G. Dunn. Licona responds to each and explains that professional historians are expressing a new openness to examine miraculous events historically. The resurrection of Jesus is a valid event to investigate historically.
In the third chapter, Licona identifies the sources that he will use in his historiographical investigation. He examines each possible text and ranks them according to their usefulness. Licona concludes that the letters of Paul are the best historical sources for examining the resurrection.
In the fourth chapter, Licona mines his sources for the basic facts concerning the fate of Jesus. What emerges from the study is that 1) Jesus was crucified, 2) shortly thereafter, the disciples experienced something that led them to believe that Jesus had been raised, and 3) a few years later Paul converted based on what he thought was an experience with the risen Jesus. Although not included in what Licona calls the historical bedrock, he also examines the conversion of Jesus‘ skeptical brother James.
In the fifth chapter, Licona pulls it all together by examining a number of representative theories that attempt to deal with these facts. Licona investigates the proposals of Geza Vermes, Michael Goulder, Gerd Lüdemann, John Dominic Crossan and Pieter Craffert. Each theory is graded based on their explanatory scope, explanatory power, plausibility, ad hoc nature, and the potential to illuminate other historical events. While some are better than others, none of these theories pass all of the tests. Only the actual resurrection of Jesus from dead meets all five criteria and therefore is the best historical explanation for the evidence.
Licona’s work is a valuable addition to historical Jesus research in general and the investigation into the resurrection in particular. However, there are a couple of concerns. In his examination of investigating miracles, Licona a number of times uses the illustration that his son can do with his help what the son cannot do on his own. In the same way, what would seem impossible for the historical Jesus to do on his own is completely possible with the intervention of God. That is a helpful illustration for settings such as Christian sermons or devotions but is perhaps less than useful in a historical investigation that seeks to be taken seriously by skeptics. It leaves the Christian with the option of leaning on God’s omnipotence every time one encounters a historical difficulty.
The other problem is with Licona’s decision to rely on the letters of Paul and to avoid reliance on the Gospels. Licona relies on Paul because there is greater scholarly consensus on the date, authorship and genre of Paul’s letters than there is for the Gospels. At the same time, the anonymous nature of the Gospels, their slightly later date and more flexible genre should not disqualify them as historical sources (Licona does not ignore the Gospels, but makes clear his focus is on Paul). In addition, it could be argued that aside from 1 Corinthians 15, the Gospels have a more direct connection to the eyewitness experiences of those who saw Jesus after his resurrection. While, very likely that Paul saw the risen Jesus at his conversion, there still is debate as to the nature of it as either a post-ascension physical appearance or as a vision from heaven (Licona argues well for a an actual resurrection appearance).
Despite these concerns, The Resurrection of Jesus is an important book. For too long, scholarly disciplines have been isolated from each other. Licona’s use of professional historical methods to the resurrection of Jesus is a breath of fresh air. Licona’s examinations of competing theories is where he is at his best. Instead of misrepresenting critical theories in order to destroy a ‘straw man’, Licona confronts the theories head-on, not afraid to mention their strengths. Licona is respectful toward these theories and the scholars behind them, but he does not back down in keeping them accountable to historical method. This book is a book that is long overdue. Licona, himself points out areas on where the conversation can move forward and where to build on his work. This is an essential book for anyone, Christian or skeptic, who is interested in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Stephen J. Bedard