Sunday, April 6, 2008

Licona at IUS on the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ

Michael Licona is the co-author of The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus and a specialist in apologetics for the North American (Baptist) Mission Board. (Check out their website, There are also YouTube videos available on two of his presentations about this topic-- as well as a debate with a Muslim scholar.) He will also be one of those interviewed in Lee Strobel's next book on the historical Jesus.

Licona spoke at IUS on the Thursday before Easter-- and I was fortunate enough to attend.

A caveat: I'll tell you what Licona said-- and although it sounded reasonable to me, I cannot speak with authority about his claims on the study of history or historians' views about the evidences.

He started by talking about the process of studying history and drawing inferences about history. In a nutshell, he argued that historians describe things along a continuum from "certainty in favor of X" to "certainty against X"-- and that certainty in favor is rare, by the nature of historical data (at least going back in time very far). Thus, historians rely on the strength of available evidences and draw inferences about the likelihood of an event occurring-- whether quite probable, more probable than not, less probable than not, quite improbable, and so on.

Licuna claimed that historians largely accept three facts that are relevant to the debate about Jesus' resurrection: his crucifixion, his disciples believed they saw him resurrected, and Paul believed Christ appeared to him post-resurrection. As such, competing theories then line up to explain those facts.

Licuna weighed the actual resurrection theory against the most popular alternative hypothesis-- that the disciples engaged in wishful thinking. (Of course, there are other alternative theories-- such as the "swoon theory", but they are equally dubious.) Although the resurrection theory is fantastic in that resurrections don't happen all that often, it has the advantage of fitting the data. The wishful thinking hypothesis is consistent with his crucifixion but is weak with respect to the disciples and fails to address Paul.

All of this also reminds me of the debate about evolution-- not so-called micro-evolution, but evolution as a (supposed) comprehensive explanation for the development of life. By definition, it's not something one can see. Moreover, we are unlikely see much evidence for it (relative to all of the activity it purports to explain). Thus, evolution of this macro-sort should be decided along the historians' scale of probabilities.

One who is an atheist, for whatever reason, will find evolution to be relatively compelling-- while theists will find macro-evolution to be (far) less likely. In any case, you would hope that both parties look at the strength of the available evidences...


At April 7, 2008 at 12:29 PM , Blogger Steven Carr said...

Paul also claimed to have gone to Heaven.

According to Acts, Stephen saw Jesus in a vision that nobody else could see.

Did Licona mention that early Christian converts scoffed at the whole idea of God choosing to raise corpses?

At April 7, 2008 at 12:41 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Interesting observations, but I don't see the connection to his thesis: how does one explain those three "historical facts".

I suppose one could take the first comment to provide (really strong?) evidence that Paul was irrational. But then you're debating historians (or Licona's assertion about historians)-- that they're wrong about Paul's belief that he encountered the resurrected Christ. In any case, looking at the bulk of Paul's life and writings, it would seem difficult to draw the irrationality inference about him.

Finally, I think you're referring to II Cor 12 where Paul describes a vision of heaven. If one reads it quite literally, you could say that he claimed to have literally gone to heaven on that occasion. But why would one read the passage that literally?

At April 7, 2008 at 10:31 PM , Blogger Vinny said...

I question the "minimal facts" approach as valid historical methodology. It seems to me that Licona is just selecting those "facts" that support his conclusion and insisting that the they are the only facts that are considered.

I would compare it to the 911 conspiracy nuts who find a couple of carefully selected video clips and combine that with witnesses who report seeing a flash or hearing an explosion. They then declare triumphantly that the only way to explain that evidence is a controlled demolition of the building while ignoring the overwhelming mountain of evidence that shows the Twin Towers collapsed because terrorist hijackers flew planes into them.

The explanations for those few anomolous bits of evidence cherished by the conspiracy buffs might sound rather ad hoc when viewed in isolation. However, when viewed in light of all the evidence, those few bits are so trivial that they can probably reasonably be dismissed as outliers with no explanation at all.

Similarly, I would seek to put Licona's selected facts in context with another fact that virtually all scholars of science and medicine recognize as true: once you're dead, you're dead. Now compare the evidence for that fact, which I think is quite impressive, to the evidence for Licona's facts, which seem to depend very heavily on anonymous hearsay accounts written long after the events in question. To me, Licona's facts wind up seeming as trivial as the facts cited by the 911 nuts.

You may of course disagree, but I think that a real historian has to consider all the facts that impinge upon his hypothesis, not just a select few that support it.

At April 7, 2008 at 11:33 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

An interesting analogy, but the difference is that the 9/11 facts can be explained by a more probable hypothesis.

So what's your explanation to explain those minimal facts?

At April 8, 2008 at 1:12 AM , Blogger Steven Carr said...

Paul never claims to have seen a corpse of Jesus risen from the tomb.

So what is there to explain?

Nobody alleged to have seen Jesus wrote one word about any corpse rising from the tomb.

The New Testament insists that Christians believed that dreams and visions were real.

And early Christians converts in Thessalonia were worried about the fate of corpses.

And early Christians converts in Corinth simply scoffed at the idea of God choosing to raise corpses.

How does Licona explain the fact that converts scoffed at what Licona claims converted people to Christianity?

Paul tells them Jesus became a spirit, who is now living inside them.

And the author of 1 Peter says 'All flesh is grass' - a far cry from the 'Peter' of Acts who the anonymous author of Acts alleges said flesh never saw corruption.

At April 8, 2008 at 7:57 AM , Blogger William Lang said...

Eric, if the evidence for the Resurrection was as strong as the evidence for "macro" evolution, I wouldn't ever have any problem with my own Christian faith! The evidence for the Resurrection consists of several books of the Bible, and a handful of references by second-century non-Christian writers. The evidence for evolution consists of a substantial fossil record (containing, for example, a complete fossil sequence for the evolution of whales), and the abundant genetic evidence which shows the common ancestry of all creatures. It is not true that we cannot observe evolution in action (please see the book The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner). Evolution can also be tested, and it passes all tests.

But if I cannot convince you that evolution has and is happening, I must remind you that there is no need to choose between evolution and theism. Only theists of the creationist persuasion doubt evolution. (The false dichotomy between evolution and theism is promoted by the "new atheists" as well as the creationists/ID people. The creationists promote this dichotomy because they believe in Biblical literalism; the atheists promote this dichotomy because it furthers their agenda to make theists look benighted.)

At April 8, 2008 at 9:21 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...


Off the top of my head, I don't remember a case where Paul said that he had seen the risen Christ. In any case, perhaps he (reasonably) inferred it-- or took it on authority-- during and after his encounter with Christ on the Road to Damascus in Acts 9.

Why is it any kind of necessary condition that someone who had seen Jesus would write one word about any corpse rising from the tomb?

The New Testament insists that Christians believed that dreams and visions were real-- and the NT also insists that those people could tell the difference between dreams, visions and reality.

Why is it surprising to encounter difficulties in understanding and skepticism about a difficult concept? We see that all of the time today-- on religion and many other matters.

Finally, I don't understand your point in comparing Acts 2:27 &/or 2:31 with I Peter 1:24. In the former, Luke describes Peter's reference to a passage in Psalm and its relationship to Christ. In the latter, Peter is talking about humans and their mortality. (Also, I Peter 1:23 and Acts 2:32 provide much-needed context.)

At April 8, 2008 at 9:29 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...


I'm starting with Licona's premise and assertions. He makes the claim that the resurrection "explanation" is the strongest available to deal with the three "historical facts".

Likewise, Ehrman and other critics (recent and past) seem quite interested in applying alternative hypotheses, implying that they acknowledge the facts.

If there's a better hypothesis-- or reason to question the facts-- then we can go from there.

I believe that evolution has happened to some (modest or major) extent-- and that it is still happening. And I'm not sure why I cannot convince you that this is my belief!

I agree that one can (easily) say within Christian doctrine that God used evolution to a modest or even major extent. (Likewise, ID'ers should not be lumped in with young-earth creationists; they are agnostic on the extent to which evolution is responsible for the development of life.)

At April 8, 2008 at 11:33 AM , Blogger Vinny said...

Based on all the evidence, there is a more probable hypothesis. However, if you cherry-pick the evidence to find those nuggets that support a predetermined conclusion and view those items in isolation from the bigger picture, that predetermined conclusion will look like a reasonable hypothesis.

As far as Licona’s minimal facts go:

I would concede that Jesus died of crucifixion (although I cannot summarily dismiss the mythical Jesus hypothesis);

I concede that Paul had some sort of vision on the Road to Damascus, but I do not see why that requires an explanation any more than Joseph Smith’s vision of the angel Moroni who told him to go dig up the golden plates of the Book of Mormon. People have religions visions sometimes.

As far as the other disciples who saw the risen Jesus go, I would have to agree with Steven Carr that the evidence is pretty skimpy. Paul is the only one who personally claims to have witnessed an appearance. 1 Corinthians 15. He claims that others saw the risen Jesus just as Joseph Smith claimed that others saw the golden plates, but in neither case do we have surviving accounts from those other people.

It seems reasonable to me that others claimed to have experienced some sort of appearance, but unfortunately my knowledge of those claims relies on anonymous accounts written thirty to sixty years after the events. As Steven Carr pointed out, there is plenty of evidence in Paul’s letters to suggest that many people understood the resurrection as a spiritual phenomenon rather than a physical one.

It is very difficult to determine the point at which the gospels were accepted as the authoritative accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In 110 A.D., Ignatius’ letters demonstrate familiarity with the gospels accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, but the Epistle of Clement of Rome written in 95 A.D. does not. Interestingly, Clement cites the legend of the phoenix rising from the ashes but does not mention any of the resurrection appearances described in the gospels. In 180 A.D., Irenaeous declared the four canonical gospels to be the authoritative and exclusive accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but it is very hard to say what was generally accepted before that and when.

If you take a look at the transcript of the debate between
Bart Ehrman and William Lane Craig
, you will see that Ehrman does not concede any of Craig’s facts (which are essentially the same as Licona’s). What he points out is the highly problematic nature of the evidence from a historian’s standpoint: “these accounts are not as useful as we would like them to be for historical purposes. They’re not contemporary, they’re not disinterested, and they’re not consistent.” He points out that we don’t know anything about the sources for the stories and we don’t know how the stories changed in the years before they were written down.

The other analogy I would offer is a grainy picture in the sports section showing the umpire mistakenly calling out the Red’s base runner at the plate. All the Reds fans who look at the picture may agree that the Reds were robbed. Maybe even 75% of the Cubs fans who look at the picture think the ump got the call wrong. Nevertheless, the evidence is still just that one fuzzy picture. Similary, no matter how many scholars agree to Licona’s minimal facts, the evidence for those facts is still historically problematic.

I would also pose one more question: To what extent am I obligated (in an intellectual sense) to explain Licona’s facts in the first place? On October 13, 1917, somewhere between 40,000 to 70,000 people were reported to have seen the sun “dancing” in the sky at Fatima, Portugal. I am not sure what really happened, but I don’t lose a lot of sleep over it. Nor do I feel that I am being intellectually dishonest by rejecting the attribution of a miracle to Our Lady of Fatima without studying the matter sufficiently to come up with an intellectually satisfying naturalistic explanation. I believe that the objective evidence for the Miracle of the Dancing Sun is much more compelling than the evidence for Licona’s facts, yet the supernatural explanation is so clearly contrary to everything I know about how the world operates that it is not enough to persuade me of the truth of Catholocism.

At April 8, 2008 at 12:41 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...


A distinction: Licona's "minimal facts" vs. what he claims are accepted by historians as facts. (Likewise, this thread isn't about what you or I accept as facts. See also: Is Ehrman representative of most historians?) It seems like your beef is with Licona for lying or most historians for being morons or dupes.

It seems like a very high bar to set-- that the witnesses must pen their own testimony and it must be preserved throughout history.

Of course, you're under no such obligation. In fact, most people don't care about such things. That said, it is interesting that Ehrman & Co.-- and Licona & Co.-- invest so much time in this endeavor.

The early part of Licona's presentation was about how historians do history. (I tried to describe this in the original post.) He noted the paucity of evidence in many historical settings and the probabilistic approach to drawing inferences about history. He would not say that the resurrection hypothesis is certain, but quite probable-- and certainly not "problematic" in an objective, historical sense.

At April 8, 2008 at 1:11 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

My own belief concerning the Resurrection (in so far as I actually have a set belief in this matter) is that the disciples believed that Jesus appeared to them—but these appearances did not necessarily lack objective reality (they were not necessarily merely visions or hallucinations). Skeptics of Christianity generally are skeptical of the supernatural or paranormal as well; but I believe there is substantial evidence for paranormal phenomena, even if this evidence falls short of convincing proof.

Vinny, you make an interesting point about the Fatima apparition. Years ago, I became interested in this subject. I read a book on Fatima by an author (Walsh) said to be a well-known historian. He of course relates the story of the Miracle of the Dancing Sun (which is genuinely spooky). But he also describes the famous prophecies of Fatima (made in 1917). One of these was that the present war (WW I) would soon end, but a more terrible war would ensue, and this would be proceeded by a sign or light in heaven as a warning. It turns out that shortly before the Austrian Anschluss by Germany (arguably the beginning of WWII) there was a deep red light filling the sky over Europe, a phenomon said by Walsh to have no astronomical explanation. This claim prompted me to go to the library to read the NY Times for that date. It turns out there was a deep red light in the skies over Europe on that date—but it was a red aurora. Rare, but well-understood.

Eric, thank you for clarifying your stance on evolution and theism.

At April 8, 2008 at 4:07 PM , Blogger Vinny said...

In The Case for the Real Jesus, Licona describes the minimal facts as being accepted by “the vast majority of today’s scholars on the subject” (emphasis added). I think Gary Habermas is also pretty consistent in describing the approach in terms of “scholars” as well. I have never seen Habermas’ list, but I suspect that many, if not most, of “the scholars on the subject” are theologians rather than historians. It is not that they have been duped, the problem is that they did not have a lot of solid evidence to work with. Even if their conclusion was the most reasonable one based on the available evidence, it might still have to be considered a comparatively weak conclusion because so little evidence is available.

Let’s take a look one of the minimal facts that Licona is claiming the majority of scholars concede. In The Case for the Real Jesus, he cites Paula Fredricksen of Boston University: "I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say and all the historic evidence we have attests to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know as a historian that they must have seen something." While I do not wish to accuse Licona of lying, I think he is certainly spinning things pretty vigorously.

The gist of the “minimal fact” which Paula Fredicksen accepts is that the disciples saw “something.” There is no agreement to how many of them saw this something. No agreement that the nature of the appearance was physical rather than visionary. No agreement about the location of the appearance, whether it was in Jerusalem or Galilee. No agreement about how soon the appearance took place after Jesus’ crucifixion. No agreement to an instantaneous transition from timid cowering to bold preaching. No agreement to a rapid spread of the belief. No agreement to anything in the gospel accounts other than that some unnamed disciples saw something. If the fact that somebody believed they saw something requires a supernatural explanation than we have to believe that Joseph Smith spoke with the angel Moroni and the Blessed Virgin Mary really appeared at Fatima, Lourdes, Guadalupe, Knock, and on that grilled cheese sandwich that sold on e-Bay (or was that Jesus?).

So how does Licona get from scholars agreeing that some disciples saw something to the historical resurrection as the most likely explanation? He does it by reading back into his minimal facts the details from the gospel accounts that he needs to dismiss alternative explanations. He dismisses the hallucination theory on the grounds that hallucinations don’t happen to multiple people at once. However, this assumes the factual accuracy of the appearance accounts in the gospels. He dismisses the theory that Peter had a vision and then convinced the others on the grounds that someone would have produced the body. However this assumes the accuracy of the burial accounts in the gospels and assumes that Peter’s vision took place in Jerusalem rather than Galilee. He dismisses the swoon theory (which I agree sounds silly) on the grounds that it does not comport with the details in the gospels.

So while Licona claims that his case is based on the minimal facts that are accepted by the majority of scholars, he liberally supplements those facts with other details from the gospels that are not so widely accepted. That is the only way he can support his conclusion.

While it is not necessary that witnesses pen their own testimony, the best evidence is certainly going to be the eyewitness who relates what he saw personally soon after the event. All other evidence can be judged by the extent to which it is removed from this gold standard. A journalist who interviews an eyewitness immediately after the event is clearly pretty good. A historian who can work from primary source documents produced by eyewitnesses is desirable. The farther the historian gets from such evidence, the more tentative his conclusions must necessarily be.

Regarding the minimal facts approach as an historical methodology, can you think of any other situation in which it might be legitimately applied? Suppose the question is whether General James Longstreet’s misjudgments were the primary cause of the Confederate loss at the Battle of Gettysburg. Plenty of Southern historians after the Civil War tried to make that case. They found a number of facts about which there was widespread agreement that reflected poorly on Longstreet while ignoring all of the poor choices made General Robert E. Lee. Only in the last few decades has Longstreet’s reputation as one of the best corps commanders in either army been restored.

At April 9, 2008 at 7:46 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Thanks Vinny for another eloquent response.

That's interesting speculation about L&H's definition of "scholars". If you find out anything definitive about that, let me know. (More broadly, who is a "scholar"? For example, you know more about this topic than most historians! And as I'm so painfully aware, virtually everyone thinks they're an economist!)

For what it's worth: When I read Fredericksen's comment, I would draw the same conclusion as Licona. It sounds like what I would expect to hear from the humble historian's approach to history-- when the evidence is modest but the conclusions are "quite probable". (More broadly, I've seen the same thing from archaeologists before and would hope to see more of the same from scientists as they talk about evolution.)

What other "something" would explain this? A series of visions?

"If the fact that somebody believed they saw something requires a supernatural explanation..." Who said "requires"?

I agree that Licona relies to some extent on the gospels for support. The extent to which that's kosher in the historians' world? I don't know. But surely, they wouldn't dismiss the gospels out-of-hand either.

Longstreet/Lee was an interesting example. It's good to see competing hypothesis looking to explain the available evidences!

At April 9, 2008 at 1:55 PM , Blogger Vinny said...

I haven’t been able to find much information on-line about the composition of Habermas’ scholar sample. I have seen some skeptics claim that it is mostly theologians, but I haven’t been able to verify that. I suspect that this is true because I think Habermas and Licona would tout the number of historians in the sample if it were significant, but I suppose I am going to have to get a hold of Habermas’ book to be sure.

I am not claiming that it is or is not kosher for a historian to look to the Bible for support. My claim is that when Licona does so, he is no longer relying only on those minimal facts that he previously cited as being accepted by both conservative and skeptical scholars. He is going beyond his defined methodology.

Since the minimal fact seems to be only that some disciples saw something that they believed to be the risen Jesus, the explanation might be as simple as the kind of encounter described in Luke 24:13-35. A few of the disciples are depressed about Jesus’ death and they encounter a mysterious stranger on the road who talks to them about the recent events and their meaning. It could have happened a couple of months after Jesus died when the disciples had returned to Galilee. After the encounter, one of them concludes that the stranger must have been Jesus come back from the dead and the others agree that this must have been so. They tell other disciples, some of whom conclude that strangers they have encountered must also have been the risen Jesus. Maybe some of them conclude that vivid dreams about Jesus had really been actual appearances.

Inspired by these beliefs, the disciples return to Jerusalem to proclaim that Jesus has overcome the grave. They develop a devoted following which eventually comes to the attention of Paul who decides that it is a heresy that must be stamped out. After persecuting the Christians for a period, Paul has some sort of experience which convinces him that he is wrong to persecute the new group and he embraces their beliefs. It could have been a dream, a vision or a hallucination. Paul doesn’t give us enough detail to really make much of a conclusion.

As the stories are told and retold over the years before the gospels get written, the events become more dramatic (kind of like Hillary's sniper story) and get moved back in time to immediately after Jesus’ death.

At April 9, 2008 at 2:05 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I don't remember Licona narrowing things that far when I heard him. He said there were three facts and then went about trying to explain them. I don't think he said anything about excluding the Bible as one of a set of evidences. (Maybe he did that in one of his YouTube debates?)

Luke 24:31 says that Christ disappeared. If that occurred, it would presumably alter how one remembered or imagined the event.

Paul must have had quite a dream, vision, or hallucination for that sort of career change! And the account doesn't read like one of those options.

I can imagine stories growing over time. But the wilder the story-- like Hillary's-- (but here, something supernatural and so extraordinary) the more easily it will be refuted.

At April 9, 2008 at 4:09 PM , Blogger Vinny said...

Paul must have had quite a dream, vision, or hallucination for that sort of career change!

That’s not really true, is it? Last week I ran across the blog of a guy who went from producing porn movies to being a dedicated Christian. I don’t think he required a personal appearance from Jesus. Don’t Christians believe that dramatic changes in orientation take place everyday without physical encounters with the risen Jesus? Paul’s own account in 1 Corinthians 15 doesn’t give any details that would rule out a purely spiritual manifestation. Acts was written much later, but even those accounts seem to describe a vision more than a physical encounter.

Luke 24:31 does say Jesus disappeared as soon as the disciples figured out who he was, but that seems to like the kind of detail that may have grown in the telling. Like Acts, Luke was written several decades later. Moreover, it was written by someone who wasn’t there who might have been motivated to juice up the details a little just so his readers would understand what an impressive event this had been.

It may be that wilder stories are more easily refuted, but maybe that is why it took so long for the gospels to be acknowledged as authoritative and authentic. On my blog, I have been discussing the Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians written in 95 A.D. Clement quotes liberally from the Old Testament and Paul’s letters, but he does not demonstrate any familiarity with the Gospels even though he knew both Peter and Paul and might have had access to Mark and Luke. In 110 A.D., Ignatius’ letters reflect familiarity with some of the gospel writings although he never cites them or names their authors. Polycarp and Justin Martyr demonstrate greater familiarity with the Gospels but it is not until Irenaeous in 180 A.D. that the authors of the four gospels are identified and they are declared the authentic and exclusive accounts of Jesus’ life. The gospels may have been written within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses (although we don’t know how much influence the eyewitnesses had on them) but we don’t seem to have much evidence that they gained general acceptance until well after the eyewitnesses were gone.

At April 9, 2008 at 5:14 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I agree with your general point, especially when applied in a contemporary setting.

But Paul is not moving into a fully-established religion at that point, so his transition is less likely.

Moreover, getting to the Kingdom through prostitution (or other strong forms of carnality) may well be a more likely route than through Pharisaism. (Or if they had cameras in those days, perhaps that would have been young Augustine's vocation?)

At April 9, 2008 at 5:41 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

If you're interested, Vinny's blog is available at:

At April 9, 2008 at 5:51 PM , Blogger Vinny said...

For a considerable period of time, everybody who converted was choosing to follow a previously unknown religion, often at great personal risk if the New Testament is to be believed.


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