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The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Michael Licona)

Michael R. Licona. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010. 718 pp. $45.00.

resurrection liconaThe bodily resurrection of Jesus is a foundational tenet of the Christian faith. As such, it’s frequently addressed in apologetics books. In the biblical studies guild this topic also receives an enormous amount of attention, being considered the “prize puzzle of NT studies.” With approximately 3,400 scholarly journal articles and books on the topic of the historicity of the resurrection from 1975-2010 alone (19), can a new tome on the topic really contribute anything new? Indeed, it can. In The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach Michael Licona has accomplished something rather remarkable and largely unprecedented by providing a rigorous examination of the approach taken by historians outside of the biblical studies guild and then applying the methodology to an examination of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. The result is a historiographical examination that is impressively expansive and rigorous on any count, but especially noteworthy and possibly unprecedented on a biblical subject.

Licona begins in chapter one by laying an epistemological and methodological foundation for this work. Noting the lack of consensus in defining history and historiography, he defines the former in this volume as “past events that are the object of study” (p. 30, italics original) and the latter as “matters in the philosophy of history and historical method” (31). Licona’s goal in this chapter is to determine how historians outside the guild of biblical studies investigate their (nonreligious) matter in order to establish his historiographical approach for examining the historicity of Jesus’s resurrection. On the theoretical end, Licona discusses topics such as philosophy of history, the nature of truth, the problem of horizon, the burden of proof (Licona notes that he adopts methodological neutrality), and the problem of certainty.

Moving on to method, he discusses the two methods historians use for adjudicating between competing hypotheses, argument to the best explanation and arguments from statistical inference, and deems the former more fitting when discussing hypotheses related to Jesus’s resurrection. He also discusses the spectrum of historical certainty. Having set out to discover how historians study their subject matter on the conviction that biblical scholars and philosophers are ill-equipped to study the resurrection historically, it is interesting that Licona came to the conclusion that most historians don’t fare better and that historians outside the biblical studies guild are struggling with the same epistemological and methodological questions.

In chapter 2 Licona addresses objections to the historical investigation of miracle-claims by six prominent scholars: David Hume, C. Behan McCullagh, John P. Meier, Bart D. Ehrman, A. J. M. Wedderburn, and James D. G. Dunn. While these are all noted scholars, Bart Ehrman probably has the most influence due to his popular-level success and ability to penetrate the non-academic market. As such, I’ll briefly highlight Licona’s treatment of Ehrman. He summarizes Ehrman’s five arguments in support of the conclusion that the historian cannot demonstrate the occurrence of miracles as follows:

In summary, Ehrman argues that the best sources about Jesus are poor; that historians must choose the most probable explanation, and miracle, by definition, is always least probable; that the statement “God raised Jesus” is theological and cannot be touched by historians; that if we admit the miracles of Jesus we must be open to the possibility of others performing miracles; and that the canons of historical research do not allow such an investigation by historians.

(Licona 174)

Licona believes that Ehrman is misguided on each of these five counts and addresses them point-by-point. Through all of his responses in this chapter, Licona demonstrates that “there are no sound reasons, a priori or a posteriori, for prohibiting historians from investigating a miracle claim” (189). The chapter concludes with a look at burden of proof in relation to miracle-claims and concludes that the legal paradigm used in civil court is best suited for the investigation of miracle-claims.

Chapter three shifts the book from theoretical to practical and begins the true investigation of the study. Here, Licona surveys primary literature that mention Jesus’s death or what happened to him afterward and that are considered by at least some scholars to have been written within one hundred years of his death. Licona rates these sources according to their value to a historiographical investigation of the resurrection of Jesus and identifies the most promising sources. The most promising material identified here are mined in the subsequent chapter to form a collection of historical facts pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus that are virtually indisputable across theological and philosophical spectrums. These are used as a historical bedrock on which subsequent hypotheses will be built. The three virtually indisputable facts pertaining to Jesus’s fate are as identified as follows:

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
  2. 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.
  3. Within a few years after Jesus’ death, Paul converted after experiencing what he interpreted as a postresurrection appearance of Jesus to him.

(Licona 302-303)

These three facts are subsequently discussed as to whether they can be considered historical bedrock. Four additional “second-order facts” are discussed: the appearance to James, the empty tomb, Jesus’ predictions concerning his death and resurrection, and the claim of the earliest apostles that Jesus was raised bodily.

In the final and by far lengthiest chapter, Licona considers six major hypothesis concerning what happened to Jesus after his death. As he does throughout this volume, here Licona is careful to emphasize methodological neutrality and an attention to transcending horizon and checking bias. The major representative naturalistic hypotheses examined here are those of Geza Vermes, Michael Goulder, Gerd Lüdemann, John Dominic Crossan, and Pieter F. Craffert. The final hypothesis examined is the resurrection hypothesis, that Jesus rose from the dead. The hypotheses are weighed using only the historical bedrock initially to eliminate the weaker hypotheses. When no clear winner emerges from this, second-order facts are considered for the remaining hypotheses. Each of the six hypotheses are explained, analyzed, and then evaluated according to the previously established criteria of 1) explanatory scope, 2) explanatory power, 3) plausibility, 4) less ad hoc, and 5) illumination. Licona concludes this final chapter with the following:

I am contending that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the best historical explanation of the relevant historical bedrock. Since it fulfills all five of the criteria for the best explanation and outdistances competing hypotheses by a significant margin in their ability to fulfill the same criteria, the historian is warranted in regarding Jesus’ resurrection as an event that occurred in the past. Questions pertaining to the cause behind the even (i.e., how precisely it was accomplished) and the precise nature of Jesus’ resurrected state are beyond the reach of the historians.

(Licona 610).

The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach is an essential resource for those with academic interest in apologetics and NT studies (specifically Jesus and historical Jesus studies). For students of apologetics, this is the most robust treatment of the historicity of the resurrection anywhere and illuminates and utilizes a general “secular” methodology. It builds a positive case as well as engages objections. Those with a love for apologetics must have this book on their shelves, as it is a game-changer for defending the historicity of the resurrection. This book is also a valuable resource for the NT student/scholar, especially for those who focus on (historical) Jesus studies. Besides what we learn from this book specifically in regards to the historicity of the resurrection, the general theory and historical methodology offer valuable lessons for biblical scholars for whom there is a historical dimension to their work.

Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!

Purchase: Amazon

Leave a comment


  1. Great review Jennifer. I’ve long appreciated Licona in general and this work in particular, and I’m glad to read that you also find it helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jamesbradfordpate

     /  July 9, 2015

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.


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