After a long night (two centuries worth) of attempts at “objective” historiography—“The principles and methodology of historical research and presentation” as one dictionary defines it—both biblical scholars and historians proper are beginning to sober up, that is, they are realizing that a purely objective historical method that allows us to reconstruct history in completely neutral terms is a modernist fallacy. Especially, when it comes to the so-called “miracle” claims of ancient texts; for on the one hand, if when historians or biblical scholars following their methodology deem that the miraculous or inexplicable is the best way to describe the events in question, then many historians/scholars following Humian principles a priori reject the hypotheses, after all, “miracles don’t happen.” On the other hand, many theistic historians/scholars might likewise reject off-hand any hypotheses, no matter how sound the evidence and argument, that concluded with naturalistic explanations for some of Jesus of Nazareth’s reported miraculous deeds.
Of course, such a historiographical deadlock smells like a conflict of worldviews, not so much a disagreement on method. This ideological tug of war is especially apparent when the question of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead—“The prized puzzle of New Testament research”—is raised. Can historians, to a degree, bracket their worldviews while following a historiographical method in order to arrive at a firm conclusion on the matter? Michael R. Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach is a bold attempt at doing so. Licona’s writes this concerning his approach in comparison to other attempts at answering this question:
So how does my research differ from previous treatments? In the pages that follow I will investigate the question of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection while providing unprecedented interaction with the literature of professional historians outside the community of biblical scholars on both hermeneutical and methodological considerations.
In other words, Licona will offer an unparalleled attempt to strictly follow the methods that historians proper do when attempting to reconstruct adequate description of past, only this time, in relation to the historicity of the resurrection event. However, as many postmodern historians are quick to remind us, such an adventure will require methodological criteria for transcending one’s horizon—“How historians view things as a result of their knowledge, experience, beliefs, education, cultural conditioning, preferences, presuppositions, and worldview.” Thus, Licona proposes six criteria for transcending one’s horizon (or at least momentary detachment):
Method: “the manner in which the data are viewed, weighed, and contextualized; criteria for testing the adequacy of hypotheses; and a fair consideration of competing hypotheses.”
- The Historian’s horizon and method should be public: “[that] historian’s horizon can be public or open to scrutiny.”
- Peer pressure: “submitting our interpretation of data and historical descriptions to those who are certain to have a different opinion.”
- Account for historical bedrock: that is, “that any hypothesis that fails to explain all of the historical bedrock, it is time to drag that hypothesis back to the drawing board.”
- Detachment from bias: “they should force themselves to confront data and arguments that are problematic to their preferred hypothesis.”
There are however, many scholars, philosophers, and historians that reject any notion that historiography can make a determination for or against the historicity of the resurrection; believing that judgments on the miraculous are outside the realm of the historiographer. This actually proves to be nothing more than an ideological wall that Licona must scale by showing the logical inconsistencies in the various arguments of philosopher David Hume, historian Brian McCullagh, and biblical scholars J.P. Meier and Bart Erhman. He concludes, “Historians are not prohibited from investigating the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, although historians cannot grant the resurrection in the fullest theological sense.”
Before Licona can test the resurrection hypothesis in light of other naturalistic hypotheses for the resurrection claims of the early church, he must sift through potential ancient sources and establish the historical bedrock—the uncontested historical facts—to which ever hypothesis wins the day must explain. After a detailed examination of the data, Licona concludes with three historical bedrock; they are as follows:
- “Jesus died by crucifixion”
- “Very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.”
- “Within a few years after Jesus’ death, Paul converted after experiencing what he interpreted as a postresurrection appearance of Jesus to him.”
The final chapter is a weighing in of competing hypotheses. In order to grade the plausibility (and thus most probable), the hypothesis must rate the highest in five categories: “(1) plausibility, (2-3) explanatory scope, explanatory power, (4) less ad hoc, (5) illumination.” The competing hypotheses are Geza Vermes’ apparition theory, Michael Goulder’s hallucination theory, Gerd Lüdemann’s emotional state-to-hallucination theory, John D. Crossan’s altered state of consciousness theory, and finally Pieter F. Craffert’s ethical and theological objections; all are weighed on the scales of our five criteria along with the resurrection hypothesis. What happens next is perhaps as shocking as the original resurrection appearances themselves: the resurrection hypothesis far exceeds the other five explanations both in explanatory scope and in accounting for our historical bedrock. Licona concludes, “Accordingly we are warranted in placing [the resurrection hypothesis] on our spectrum of historical certainty at ‘very certain.’” He continues, “The only legitimate reasons for rejecting the resurrection hypothesis are philosophical and theological in nature.” In sum, Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus is the work for which all future proposals will have to contend, and as I see it, it’s going to be awhile before we see that.