The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach

The question of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection has been repeatedly probed, investigated and debated. And the results have varied widely. Perhaps some now regard this issue as the burned-over district of New Testament scholarship. Could there be any new and promising approach to this problem? Yes, answers Michael Licona. And he convincingly points us to a significant deficiency in approaching this question: our historiographical orientation and practice. So he opens this study with an extensive consideration of historiography and the particular problem of investigating claims of miracles. This alone is a valuable contribution. But then Licona carefully applies his principles and methods to the question of Jesus’ resurrection. In addition to determining and working from the most reliable sources and bedrock historical evidence, Licona critically weighs other prominent hypotheses. His own argument is a challenging and closely argued case for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Any future approaches to dealing with this “prize puzzle” of New Testament study will need to be routed through

Review & Commentary

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  1. Review

    Book Review: The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach by Michael R. Licona. Downers Grove Illinois USA, Intervarsity Press, 2010, 718 pages, ISBN 978-0-8308-2719-0 (paperback)

    The crucifixion, the death and the burial in a cave-like tomb of Christianity’s founder Jesus the Nazarene have been confessed weekly by many with no great problem. However, his reported resurrection or return back to life and the issue of the nature of his bodily form, when he is described as appearing to many hundreds of followers, has generated endless debate over the past 2,000 years and has recently given rise to the composition of this huge 718-page book which has been carefully read and is now being reviewed.

    This review aims to present the author’s stated perspective in his confessions, to outline the content and range of the resurrection hypotheses, to present some critical comments in relation to possible false alternatives and a limited number of hypotheses and to propose a naturalistic and plausible resurrection hypothesis not dealt with and which will be labelled the Darlison hypothesis (DH).  

    Author’s Perspective and Confessions

    The resurrection issue has given rise both to very sceptical and polemical critics and to faith-filled and staunch apologists, one supporter being the author of this book.   His traditional and confessional perspective is evident in his stated aims, in his selected content and in his conclusion in support of a resurrection hypothesis (or RH), which entails a supernatural and miraculous cause.

    Since his publisher’s mission statement declares that the IVP Press “publishes Christian books that are true to the Bible and that communicate the gospel, develop discipleship and strengthen the church for its mission to the world”, this publisher also appears to support such an approach. 

    The author’s confessions, which he includes on pages 130-132 and which are in the worthy tradition of St Augustine, also clarify his beliefs and presuppositions in relation to his writing practices, method and his personal biases. He states that, like many others, he was “brought up in a conservative Christian home”   and he indicates that he “made a profession of Christian faith at the age of ten”.  His early interest in the issues relating to Jesus’ resurrection entailed his “desire for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus to be confirmed” and his previous research was conducted “for use in apologetic presentations”.

    During the writing of this book, he sought to maintain “a position as close to neutral as possible” but what resulted was often “a return to my default position of belief. This was in line with his three previous books, all of which contended “for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus”.  He further explains that he is holding a position of national leadership with a large Protestant denomination in North America, so scepticism or denial of the resurrection doctrine would in his view threaten his employment.

    These honest confessions concluded bravely with the author making it clear that he is wrestling with this topic because he “is committed to seeking, finding and following truth”, while at the same time he is wishing to please “the true God”. Based on the above, his miracle-related conclusion in relation to the resurrection hypothesis is not at all surprising.

    Contents of Book

    Between the author’s initial confessions and his final conclusions are 700 pages of contents, some of which develop naturalistic aspects of historio-graphical investigation and authentication and which I have found to be very interesting.

    The author’s chapter 1 begins with an exploration of both theoretical and methodological issues in relation to historical enquiry and in the establishing of the degree of truth and historicity in ancient texts. Such an enquiry and the resulting conclusions depend a lot on the historian’s “horizons” or pre-understanding, presuppositions, preferences, cultural conditioning and presently-held world-view (p. 38). We are reminded that we all have such horizons but the author suggests six procedures for managing them, which are the following: [1] methods for  promoting objectivity, such as the honest use of data and applying criteria for hypothesis-testing; [2]  making personal horizons public; [3] being open to peer influence; [4] submitting ideas to critical experts; [5] accounting for the relevant historical bedrock and [6] seeking  to become detached from bias (pp. 52-58).  

    He follows this with a study of how historians deal with miracles. His impressive list of names associated with the debate over the facticity, historicity and reality of miracles includes the very famous Scottish philosopher David Hume, as well as C. Behan McCullagh,. John P. Meier, Bart D. Ehrman, A.J.M. Wedderburn and James D. G. Dunn.

    The resurrection-related documents from the first two centuries C.E. are then listed in his third chapter. These include the biblical canonical Gospels, the Pauline Epistles, the Q source, pre-Markan tradition and various oral formulas. Non-biblical sources then  include both the non-Christian Josephus, Tacitus, Thallus, Lucian, Celsus and others but also Christian Apostolic Fathers such as Clement of Rome and Polycarp. Non-canonical literature such as the Gospel of Peter is also a source and this Gospel is the only one which presents an actual description of Jesus’ resurrection and its heavenly-high participants.

    Difficulties arise in chapter 4 with the challenge of establishing what the author calls “historical bedrock” propositions, which pertain to Jesus’ life as a depicted miracle worker and eschatological agent, to his predicted fate of facing death by crucifixion and then to his various reported visual appearances to the disciples and others. Other bedrock propositions relate to the conversion of Paul and James and to the long-standing debates over the “empty tomb”.

    Resurrection Hypotheses (RH)   

    The remainder of this book deals with six resurrection hypotheses or suggested explanations of  how, when, where and why  Jesus’ physical and agonising death by crucifixion and his status as a corpse in a tomb was followed by  his Gospel-depicted, deity-initiated, miraculous resurrection and return to life after three days.                                                                       

    The author’s miracle-related resurrection hypothesis, which is mentioned above, is included as the book’s sixth hypothesis and is considered to be superior to the other five hypotheses, which prefer more naturalistic theories and explanations.

    Geza Vermes presents a rather agnostic proposal in his “Vermes’ hypothesis” (VH). He suggests that historians are unable to determine whether Jesus was actually resurrected. However, he thinks that it is possible to speculate about what caused the subsequent birth of Christianity. The causes may include powerful mystical experiences of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem at Pentecost and the feeling of his presence (p.472).

    Michael Goulder suggests psychological hallucinations in his “Goulder’s hypothesis” (GH).  He takes the original view of Jesus’ resurrection to be spiritual or immaterial and takes the appearances reported by Peter to be psychological hallucinations brought about by his feelings of guilt and grief (p. 482).

    Gert Ludemann also proposes psychologically-driven, guilt-related or ecstatic hallucinations and mass ecstacy, which involved about 500 people at the same time, in his “Ludemann’s hypothesis” (LH).  He suggests that such subjective visions were influenced by the Jewish belief in the bodily nature of a resurrected corpse (p.504).

    John Dominic Crossan sees problems in such wider issues as a miraculous resurrection being a stumbling block to the acceptance of Christianity or the privileging of Jesus and Christianity in relation to such a unique event as a supernatural resurrection, in the “Crossan hypothesis” (CsH). Since a theistic world-view is needed to explain a supernatural resurrection, Crossan doubts an actual resurrection and sees Paul’s encounter with Jesus as a trance. He includes references to the Gospel of Peter, which is the only Gospel to include a description of resurrection and in his view also contain the original Passion narrative (p. 531).

    Pieter F. Craffert  stresses the differences between ancient explanations of events and modern explanations of the same event in his “Craffert hypothesis” ( CfH). His post-modern sympathies lie with “radical pluralism” and the need to distinguish between viewer-dependent, ontologically subjective experience which may be an altered state of scconsciousness (ASC) and viewer-independent, ontologically-objective experience which may be an ordinary state of consciousness. (OSC). He suggests that present-day analysis makes use of the social sciences and that it uses the present as a guide to understanding the past (p. 564)

    These five scholars therefore offer varied resurrection hypotheses, which relate to a metaphorical reading, to psychological and psycho-analytical factors, to naturalistic explanations, to christophanies and to experiences involving altered states of consciousness (ASCs), which are in contrast to ordinary states of consciousness (OSCs).

    The author then examines in turn  each individual hypothesis, in relation to his five criteria for establishing  the best explanation for Jesus’ resurrection. These important criteria first appear on pages 108-111 and the author then  proceeds to apply them to the above scholars by “weighing the hypothesis” on pages 477, 492, 515, 553, 580 and 600.  These five criteria include (1) their explanatory scope, (2) their explanatory power, (3) their plausibility, (4) their ability to be less ad hoc and arbitrary and (5) their ability to provide further illumination.

    Not surprisingly, the mainly critical and naturalistically-oriented scholars all fail this test and the author-backed Resurrection hypothesis is given a pass for all of the criteria. Some of the favourable factors of RH include the proposition that (1) the post-mortem, resurrected body is viewed in the various appearances of Jesus with “with normal vision”, (2) the appearances follow the “plain sense of the resurrection narratives in the canonical Gospels” and (3) the resurrection of Jesus helps to illuminate the degree and extent of the devotion of the earliest Christians towards Jesus, which was to such an extent that they felt obligated to worship him” (p.605).

    Unsatisfactory dichotomy and false alternatives

    In my view, there are some very basic problems with this book, which is written within the context of our 21st century’s scientifically-confirmed, naturalistic and empirical world-view, but which articulates, assesses and appropriates narratives derived from the 1st century. Bible readers are well aware of the first century’s widely-accepted three-tiered cosmos of heaven above, the under-world below and earth in between, as well as its wide acceptance of supernatural beings and places and of miraculous events and actions. The Gospel of Mark has many examples of these.

    As a result, this book presents a dichotomy between its stated historio-graphical concerns, theories and methods and its actual theological and mythological presupposition and conclusions. The concept of analogy implies that the present is the key to the past, so that what can and cannot occur today is what we can expect to have been the case in the past. Such a dichotomy clearly deprives humanity’s rational and logical thinking and its rules for debating of consistency and coherency. In addition, the confusion of supernatural and of naturalistic categories leads to the constant modifying and changing of the rules relating to rational and logical thinking and to the creating of new plausible and probable hypotheses, able to lead to the reality which actually existed in the past.

    This book also presents misleading comparisons, which differ like chalk and cheese. These could also be described as false alternatives.  Most of the described hypotheses relating to the resurrection of Jesus were couched in naturalistic and scientifically plausible theories but, because these were theories incapable of being tested back in the 1st century, the author-backed Resurrection hypothesis was awarded his pass mark as being the best hypothesis.

    The “Darlison Hypothesis”

    Readers will know that the above six alternative hypotheses do not constitute all of the possible explanations for the depicted “post-mortem” appearances of Jesus.  Other explanations besides trances and miracles are certainly available, including the ideas of Bill Darlison in his book, The Gospel and the Zodiac (Duckworth Overlook, London 2007).


    Darlison explores biblical, zodiacal astronomy and provides sources for solar epiphanies or theophanies on mountains or on lakes.   

    These include solar epiphanies or theophanies on mountains or on lakes.   Matthew 28:16 locates one such post-Easter appearance on a mountain in Galilee to the eleven disciples including Peter. In this context, Matthew 17:2   also informs us that the face of Jesus shone very brightly like the sun. Perhaps a similar Galilean, mountain-top, solar epiphany was included by Mark i  concluding chapter 16, but was deliberately removed to minimize comparison with the Roman Emperor claiming to be Sol Invictus.

     Paul offers an  early tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:6  that Christ died, was buried, was raised on the third day and appeared to Cephas and then to the twelve. The number of viewers or witnesses was even increased to 500 at the same time. Readers of Acts 26:13 will of course recall that Paul himself was blinded by the extreme brightness of the mid-day sun, when he experienced his solar theophany with Christ or “Yahweh Saves” while passing through Galilee on his way to Damascus.

    Peter in turn in his 2nd Epistle 1:17 likes to remind  his readers of his glorious experience on the holy mountain, when he was a witness to the Majesty and Sublime Glory  of  his Lord Jesus Christ on the Transfiguration ( and perhasps post-Easter ) mountain during a solar epiphany.

    Even the 2nd century Gospel of Peter, which contains a resurrection or assumption description, hints at an appearance in Galilee to Levi. Unfortunately the appearance details have been lost or were deliberately removed.

    This more naturalistic understanding of the resurrection appearances may even have made the “Darlison Hypothesis” the winning theory, had Licona included it in his very large book.

    Historiographical Approach

    My third critical reflection involves the author’s inclusion in his title of “a new historio-graphical approach” , when in fact this book very readily vacates the realm of scientific, evidential and rationally-argued history and  draws its conclusions within the realms of  theological composition and a mytho-graphical context and methodology. Both of these approaches can readily accommodate the more subjective, theoretical, arbitrary, metaphysical and supernatural thinking and conceptualising required by such theology and mythology, as adopted by the author.

    The mytho-graphical approach is most useful. It has five  levels of analysis, which can provide theory and method for a writer’s super-natural and miraculous dimensions. They  usually include the following: [1] the Mytho-genesis or origin of the myth in the physical or material realm, including the sun; [2] the Mythicisation of the physical realities into the metaphysical deifications such as El and Yahweh in the heavens; [3] the Mytho-poesis or myth-making of divine or deified humans on earth, such as  Jesus or Yahweh Saves; [4] the Materialising or de-mythologisation of the myths for the reconstruction of  an earth-based, human history and historical composition, as required for a scientific and  factual history of Palestine in the first century;  and [5] the Metaphorical use of mythology for the anagogical appropriation for the soul’s spiritual journey in life. These same five are also involved in theological analysis and are each important for a full analysis of  the  supernatural realm. 

    This is a large book, which presents important historiographical theory and methods for exploring the past and for establishing the facts of history. There are also very interesting discussions about such controversial issues as miracles and resurrection appearances.

    However, the book’s dichotomy, its misleading alternatives and its failure to accommodate a mythographical approach, in order to deal with the author’s supernatural conclusions and to balance the historiographical concerns are very real weaknesses in this lengthy book.

    Biblical fundamentalists and Christian evangelicals will no doubt agree enthusiastically with the miraculous and supernatural dimension of the author’s conclusions. On the other hand, Licona’s more sceptical readers may find such supernatural thinking and conclusions to be rather perplexing and unconvincing, especially within the context of our current 21st century scientific and rational understanding of our Universe and its natural laws and mostly predictable processes.

    However, although being a book promoting a biblically literal and evangelical Christian tradition,  I, as a more open-minded and modernistic Christian, found  much in the contents of this book to be very interesting, most  informative and even very entertaining. I wonder who else has actually read each of its 718 pages as I have!

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