What can a historian say and what can’t a historian say—as a historian—about the claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead? The late Geza Vermes wrote this paragraph in Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels (p. 41):
…in the end, when every argument has been considered and weighed, the only conclusion acceptable to the historian must be that the opinions of the orthodox, the liberal sympathizer and the critical agnostic alike—and even perhaps of the disciples themselves—are simply interpretations of the one disconcerting fact: namely that the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found to their consternation, not a body, but an empty tomb.
This was his summary statement in a section where he examined the Gospel’s claims regarding Jesus’ resurrection. He limits the “facts” to Jesus being crucified and place in a tomb that was known by some of his followers. That is all he will say of the matter as a historian. This statement is not to say that one cannot have an opinion about whether or not Jesus resurrected. Rather, it is to say that whatever opinion may be presented is based on something other than the strict criteria that ought to be used by a historian. Therefore, on the one hand, folks like N.T. Wright or Micael Licona would be perceived as going too far in defending the resurrection of Jesus as historians whereas someone like J.D. Crossan who proposed that Jesus’ body was tossed in a ditch somewhere goes too far the other way in undermining the resurrection of Jesus.
Of course, where one stops being a historian and begins being a philosopher or theologian can be a difficult differentiation to make, but Vermes statement does seem to present wise caution when we speak of the resurrection from the perspective of a historian. What do you think of the limitations set by Vermes? Is further speculation permissible or should the historian stop with these details (assuming one agrees with Vermes conclusions that Jesus was killed and his tomb identifiable) and let the philosopher, theologian, and lay reader decide what they believe about the missing body?