Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Great New Resurrection Book!


Today, Mike Licona released his long-awaited historiographical treatment on the historicity of the resurrection. While great apologists have undertaken countless shots at defending the resurrection, few have done so guided by formal training in the field of history. This is something I found myself when researching historians specializing in the resurrection. There aren’t any! While Licona’s doctorate is technically under the banner of New Testament studies, his dissertation – the genesis behind the present work – was approved under watchful eyes of critical scholars at a secular institution (Univ. of Pretoria). Moreover, his concentration was specifically in first century historiography, so his study hits at the heart of the historical Jesus question.

Because of this widespread lack of methodological expertise on the issue, Licona asks a simple question which the rest of the book sets out to answer: “If professional historians who work outside of the community of biblical scholars were to embark on an investigation of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, what would such an investigation look like?” (p19). In case you think he leaves it there, he launches a well-reasoned and heavily footnoted attack in the following 699 pages.

For anyone familiar with resurrection debates, it’s a fun topic. Of course, for Christians, it’s much more than that. In sharing the gospel with unbelievers, objections to the resurrection pose a stumbling block to the core of our message. When we hear the common criticism “there’s not enough evidence,” Licona’s readers can now reply that modern rules of evidence are not how scholars justify events of ancient history. Otherwise, such skepticism would force us to dismiss much of Western Civilization, and even our present knowledge built upon historical experiences in the fields of science, politics, and technology. History must be studied in its context.

This book is a refreshing read. It is comprehensive yet accessible to anyone who takes the resurrection seriously. But reader beware that this book may humble believer and skeptic alike. The believer will learn how difficult absolute certainty of historical events can be and skeptics may be surprised how the evidence for the resurrection compares to unquestioned historical events. I truly hope this is the beginning of a new angle on the historical Jesus through the glasses of a historical scholar, at least as much as it has traditionally been done by biblical and theological ones. So go and order this on Amazon (a steal at $26 bucks!) and leave a comment with what you think. The world will be better off with more stuff like this.

4 comments:

Toyin O. said...

Sounds like a really good book.

Lee said...

Thank you for posting this thoughtful review of Licona's work. I have only one small dispute with the bulk of your review, specifically the part quoted below:

"..such skepticism would force us to dismiss much of Western Civilization..."

If we "dismiss" the existence of Socrates, for example, does the socratic method fall to the wayside? If we dismiss the existence of Caesar, or the banals of the Roman senate, do the lessons learned about that form of government and the many pitfalls of civil society fail to be compelling?

What about Epicurus, Aristotle, Pascal, Voltaire, Leibniz, Darwin, Euclid, Nietzsche, and a myriad others? Even if they are rendered completely unhistorical, and proven to have not existed in even the philosophical sense, their ideas remain. Their works, like those of Shakespeare, do not depend on the existence of the man, but on the value of the idea.

Applying that maxim to your quoted statement, and what appears to be Licona's thesis about skepticism, you must admit that "much of Western Civilization, and even our present knowledge" is built on ideas, not people. Evolution is not contingent upon darwin existing, being a nice person, or what color shoes he wore, it is based upon repeat experimentation and observation. It is built upon ideas.

The fact is, no matter where an idea comes from, it stands or falls upon it's own merits, and any knowledge, be it scientific, philosophical, or mathematic, which builds it's foundation upon ideas has only the failure of those ideas to be concerned about. Hitler could have given us Euclid's geometry, Darwin's evolution, Socrates' methodology, or Kant's imperative, and regardless of our opinion of the man, or his "historicity", the ideas would stand separate and upon firm foundation.

This hypothesis of over-skepticism is simply a category error on Licona's part. He is equating ideas, which are self-justifying in that they require no authority but themselves to be valid, with a form of testimony, which depends heavily upon the nature of the person presenting them.

In the matter of the resurrection, and much of what Jesus taught, it really does matter whether he existed, whether he actually said what the bible claims, and whether the miracles he supposedly performed actually happened. It really does matter whether he actually rose from the dead, and is the son of the creator of the universe, or whether these claims qualify as something we can have reasonable doubts about. Honest skepticism about the stories surrounding Jesus really is a deal breaker when it comes to the claims of christianity.

That is not to say that some of what he presents in his Sermon on the Mount is not compelling, ethically, but these statements stand upon their own merits, entirely independent of Jesus. Some can be shown to pre-date Jesus, but I think that is irrelevant: they are worthy based upon nothing but their own merit. Others, however, like his talk of the end of the world in short order, his claims to divinity, and his followers claims of his resurrection and visitations, really do depend on the man. Testimony cannot be extricated from the witness in the way that ideas can be extricated from the thinker.

I have reasonable, honest doubts about the claims attributed to this character, Jesus, and can therefore not take anything on his word or the word of his followers. As far as I am concerned, his ideas must be worth it for their own sake, and while some of them most certainly are, his extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Lee.

Dan Grossenbach said...

Hi Lee. I think you misunderstood my point about skepticism in historical research. If we reject facts about Jesus arrived at by sound historical methodology, we must also reject other facts of Western culture arrived at by the same methodology. Otherwise, we're just picking the historical conclusions we like rather than being intellectually honest with a consistent method. You say that we can obtain "lessons" from historical figures because of their "ideas" independent of whether they existed or not. My view doesn't contradict that. We can appreciate ideas even if based in legend. Children often learn to behave because of what they are taught about Santa Claus despite his mythical nature. Evolutionary biologists are working on data based on real concepts and beliefs even if Darwin’s theory of macroevolution never actually occurred in history. However, two things blunt your objection. First, I was referring to real knowledge of Western Civilization not just "lessons" or "ideas" within it. I’m referring to “knowledge” as justified true beliefs whereas “ideas” themselves are nothing more than abstract concepts totally subjective in nature. So clearly ideas, in and of themselves, are without any external objective referent. However, historical knowledge requires ideas that correspond to events that actually happened. The second issue is that the main ideas Jesus presented were about his own nature. His primary message was that he was God’s chosen agent to usher in a new kingdom on earth and set in God’s place to judge mankind. Whether you or anyone else accepts that or not, there is a lot riding on how we respond to his identity. We must either reject it (out of disagreement or agnosticism) or accept it and react accordingly. Jesus said there are real benefits or consequences depending on our response to him. The one thing we cannot do is say it doesn’t matter. I wish there was more evidence, but regardless of what kind of evidence each of us would like to be convinced, rest assured, there’s more than enough to warrant the belief for a reasonable person to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. As Licona said himself, if you disprove his conclusion, you must disprove his method.

Lee said...

A couple minor points:

You say "Otherwise, we're just picking the historical conclusions we like rather than being intellectually honest with a consistent method." Yet later in your post, you say, "Evolutionary biologists are working on data based on real concepts and beliefs even if Darwin's theory of macroevolution never actually occurred in history." Have you not, yourself, chosen which conclusions you prefer based on your own 'likes'? Darwin did not posit a theory of "macroevolution", he posited a theory of natural selection and descent with modification. The evidence in favor of this theory is just as strong for so-called macroevolution as it is for microevolution (even if you insist on such a fallacious distinction in the first place). To say the evidence for evolution is not compelling, but the evidence for Jesus' resurrection is, seems a very clear case of intellectual dishonesty, given the disparity between the mountain of evidence for evolution and the mole-hill for Jesus. I don't mean to be offensive here, I am only responding to the statement that rejection of a historical jesus implies a lack of "intellectual honesty".

"I’m referring to “knowledge” as justified true beliefs whereas “ideas” themselves are nothing more than abstract concepts totally subjective in nature. So clearly ideas, in and of themselves, are without any external objective referent."

I don't see how it at all follows that something without an "external objective referent" is then "totally subjective in nature", nor do I find it clear that ideas actually are without external objective referents. Mathematics is not subjective, and it has no such referent, while evolution is an idea with clear external referents, not a matter of opinion. Ideas may be abstract concepts, but they are not merely subjective. That statement threatens to "dismiss much of western civilization," if anything does, for either definition of 'knowledge'.

"The second issue is that the main ideas Jesus presented were about his own nature. His primary message was that he was God’s chosen agent to usher in a new kingdom on earth and set in God’s place to judge mankind."

That is, by definition, testimony. As I said in my previous post, you cannot extricate testimony from the witness like you can extricate ideas from the thinker. It matters whether these things are true, and historical exegesis just doesn't cash out these claims beyond speculation on what the witness testified to.

"I wish there was more evidence, but regardless of what kind of evidence each of us would like to be convinced, rest assured, there’s more than enough to warrant the belief for a reasonable person to believe that Jesus rose from the dead."

I guess I just don't see how the minimalist facts Licona et al use are in any way evidence of a resurrection. An empty aircraft seat belonging to a ticketted passenger doesn't imply that said passenger is going to flap his arms and wing it from dallas to denver any more than an empty tomb implies that the resident has risen from the dead. Is it compatible? Yes. Is it evidence of such an occurrance? No. There is a difference here that is worth considering, and it is no less applicable to the natural world (i.e. there are facts which are compatible with evolution, but do not count as evidence for it; the diversity of life being one example).

"As Licona said himself, if you disprove his conclusion, you must disprove his method."

I disagree with this as well: his conclusions are not deductive in nature, and can therefore be rejected regardless of the soundness of his methodology.

Lee.