Licona, Michael R. (2010) The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic. (Buy from here)

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago (see here) that I will be reading through Michael R. Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. In this post and the next we will examine his theory of historiography (pp. 29-107). After that we will begin interacting with his method.

What is history? Licona samples several definitions before settling with Aviezer Tucker’s “history as past events that are an object of story“. (pp. 29-30) What then is historiography? According to Licona it is “the history of the philosophy of history and…writings about the past.” (p. 31) Before engaging a subject like the resurrection of Jesus it is important to set guidelines for what we mean by “history” and what it means for Licona to do “historiography”.

Whether or not historiography can be done in  any meaningful sense is the next item on the agenda. Licona acknowledges that history cannot “be viewed directly nor reconstructed precisely or exhaustively”. (p. 31) He realizes that there is a selective nature to what is reported and what is ignored (even citing the old mantra, “history is written by the winners”, p. 36). Yet he affirms that history can be done.

To begin a historian must realize his/her own horizon. A horizon is one’s “preunderstanding”. (p. 38) In other words, every historian has a bias at the beginning. A historian’s bias can be challenged and put in check, but it is there.

If everyone begins from a particular horizon, do we have any hope of reaching any conclusions that are not completely colored by preunderstanding? Licona says yes. He argues that “it is possible to reduce the influence of one’s horizon.” (p. 51) He gives several ways:

(1) Method: If a historian establishes a methodology, and s/he is open with the reader concerning this methodology, it “can serve as a means toward achieving greater objectivity”. (p. 52). This is because if two different methodological approaches are adopted by two different historians there is a better chance that they can communicate these differences if they are known.

(2) Public Horizon: As stated, one should not hide presuppositions causing the reader to do guess work. A historian should be forthright concerning presuppositions. If a historian acknowledges his/her own horizon then s/he is more likely to recognize his/her own strengths/weaknesses as well as those of others. If one pretends to be objective, and hides one’s presuppositions, then openness and communication are less likely.

(3) Peer Pressure: Licona acknowledges this can be bad (e.g. the so-called “scholarly consensus which is often used to crush new, creative insights in the name of the establishment). On the other hand, it can protect academia from wild, loose research and hypothesis (though, I would add, it often fails to do this if one looks at historical Jesus research, for example).

(4) Unsympathetic Experts: It is one thing to share ideas amongst friends and people of like values. It is something altogether different to openly expose one’s self to people who one knows will disagree and search for weaknesses. The benefit of doing this would be that weaknesses can be seen and addressed if one allows critics to have a voice.

(5) Historical “Bedrock”: Licona sees these as facts that are “virtually indisputable” (p. 56). One example from historical Jesus studies would be that he existed and that he was executed by the authorities. Most scholars would affirm these as legitimate, solid places to start (though some fringe thinkers may deny even this).

(6) Detachment from Bias: This one is difficult and it seems like it may never be fully possible. The idea is to doubt one’s own position or put on the shoes of an opposing position assuming the truthfulness of it. This temporary detachment (read anti-dogmatics) allows one to see from a new perspective.

Finally, Licona ponders “the role of consensus” (pp. 62-66). I already noted how this can be helpful as well as hindering. For instance, fringe ideas like denial that the Holocaust is a real, historical series of events or that Jesus existed can be rightly critiqued and marginalized if we know where a consensus of level headed thinkers stand. On the other hand, it can be used as a power play to protect the establishment from a potentially threatening idea or proposal. As regards the resurrection of Jesus, Licona doesn’t foresee a consensus forming anytime soon. Neither do I. If someone says there is such a thing this likely falls under the header of a power play. There are many who affirm the resurrection; there are many who deny it.

In summary: Licona establishes his understanding of history and historiography early in the book. He provides some guidelines for doing good history. Now he must show that there is any legitimate reason to believe historical knowledge is obtainable. Next time we will review his insights into historical knowledge, realism and postmodernism, truth and fact, and so forth.


Read Pt. 1 here.