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

Note: I was going to attempt to blog through this book in multiple parts, but it became apparent that this was distracting and disinteresting to readers. Therefore, I have decided to provide one large overview. If you want to read the notes that I provided on the book thus far you can find them listed here

I would like to say thank you to IVP Academic for sending me a copy of Michael R. Licona’s massive tome titled The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. This book has been an excellent read and it functions as an even better resource. At approximately six hundred and seventeen pages of content this book matches the investigative work found in N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.

What makes this book distinct? Well, it is not that it contains an outlined historiographical method. Wright did this in The New Testament and the People of God when he discussed critical realism. Unlike Wright’s series on Christian origins (wherein we find his book on the resurrection) this book gives much, much more attention to the topic of historiography. Licona goes over both the theory and method of historiographical investigation. He discusses the horizons of the author and the reader (or the event-sources and the historian). He asks whether or not scholarly consensus is meaningful and useful. He addresses the postmodern criticism that we cannot know history and that all history is our own construct (acknowledging where this is true and criticizing where it is misleading).

This book delves deeply into epistemology. How can we know the past? What is knowledge of the past? As you may see this is a different starting point that many works on early Christianity that assume we can know something but that do not define basic perimeters for this type of investigation.

Licona thinks historians need to be forthright with their methodology. They shouldn’t assume a universal method and they shouldn’t assume that their own method is objective. While there is a science to history, it is not pure science. Licona admits and outlines his own presuppositions while being careful to argue that this doesn’t mean he can’t do good research, only that he admits what others may not be willing to confess. This seems to be a tip of the hat to the postmoderns who ruined the myth of objectivity.

If Jesus was raised from the dead this would be what we may call a “miracle”. Can historians factor in miracles? Licona gives this question much attention while surveying the response of many other historians of early Christianity. This section is an important read since I think this topic will continue to be hotly debated. If I understand it correctly Craig Keener will soon be releasing a book on the very topic of historiography and miracles.

Licona concludes that the resurrection is worth investigating (obviously, lest there would be no book). But how should one go about doing this? Licona begins with the sources. The obvious items are the canonical gospels, the Pauline corpus, works that may have existed before the composition of the NT yet which are found embedded within the texts, and then other non-Christian sources ranging from Josephus to Celsus to the Apostolic Fathers to later Christian literature like the Gospels of Thomas and Judas.

Once the sources are selected one must determine what basic knowledge can be excavation from them. Licona argues that Jesus was well-known as an exorcist and miracle worker, an eschatological agent, and maybe (this one is more contested) someone who predicted his own death and vindication (though not necessarily resurrection). Other areas worth noting are the realities that Jesus was crucified (death is a prerequisite to resurrection!), that his disciples believed they saw him post-mortum (not necessarily that they interpreted their data correctly, but that they did believe this), as well as the important conversions of figures like Saul of Tarsus and Jesus’ brother James.

Licona comes across as very fair with the evidence. He is an apologist to some extent, but this doesn’t come across as an apologetic in the classical sense. Licona doesn’t leap from the data that says Peter and Paul were willing to die for the gospel because they really believed that Jesus rose from the dead to the claim that it must be obvious that Jesus did rise from the dead, though it is apparent he is a believer.

What we have is data at this point. We have a Jesus who was crucified and buried. We have a Jesus whom many claim to have seen after his death. We have writings were people like the Apostle Paul explain what they believe it means for Jesus to be raised from the dead (i.e. his actual corpse was given new life and morphed). After this we have to interpret this data.

Licona examines the interpretations of other scholars whose views range from hallucinations to seeing a disembodied Jesus. This section is not new for those who have read Habermas, Craig, and others who investigate the possible ways we can understand the claim of the disciples. At the end of the day Licona rejects these views asserting that the resurrection is the best explanation. He writes,

“I am contending that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the best historical explanation of the relevant historical bedrock. Since it fulfills all five criteriafor the best explanations and outdistances the competing hypothesis 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 event (i.e., who or what raised Jesus), the mechanism behind the event (i.e., how precisely it was accomplished) and the precise nature of Jesus’ resurrected state are beyond the reach of historians.” (p. 610).

So Licona denies that historiographical method can tell us what we must known theologically, but he does find that Jesus rose from the dead to be the best possible interpretation of the evidence. For believer and skeptic alike this is a good read. It is a great resource to have on your shelf (I have been reading through it forever, and it is not an easy, weekend-in-the-sun read). Skeptics may find the path to be a worn out apologetic, but I think even fair skeptics will note that there are very important methodological differences, so it should not be so easily dismissed.

What is Licona’s great contribution? I don’t think it is the second half of the book which I did not find all that new or novel. Rather, it is the challenge for all scholars who write on the resurrection to consider their historiographical theory and method. It will challenge writers on the resurrection to make this evident up front. It will ask that we are forthright about presuppositions when studying this subject. So even if the second half of the book is not your fancy you should consider reading the first half.