Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A New Historiographical Approach or the Same Old Apologetic Claptrap?

In my last post I looked at Michael Licona's assertion that miracles are subject to historical analysis.
We may recognize that an event is a miracle when the event (a) is extremely unlikely to have occurred, given the circumstances and/or natural law and (b) occurs in an environment or context that is charged with religious significance. In other words, the event occurs in a context where we might expect a god to act.
I call this an assertion rather than an argument because Licona never explains how a historian determines that an event is sufficiently unlikely to satisfy the criteria nor does he explain how a historian determines where God might be expected to act.   He simply asserts that it can be done.

One obvious hypothesis when a person starts claiming to have seen a dead person is that he has experienced a hallucination or some other known psychological phenomenon.  How can a historian possibly conclude that such an explanation for appearance claims is "extremely unlikely."  What evidence could there possibly be? Licona deals with Michael Goulder's hypothesis concerning the psychological basis for the appearance claims quite neatly:
We may likewise note that Goulder's psychoanalysis of those who lived two thousand years ago is a highly problematic exercise. As Craig explains: "Psychoanalysis is notoriously difficult even when the patient is seated in front of you, but it is virtually impossible with historical figures."
TA DA!   Psychological explanations for the appearances are now off the table, not because there is any way to eliminate them or to declare them unlikely, but because we can't put Peter and Paul on the couch. This fits quite nicely with the historical bedrock that Licona declares any theory must explain.
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 a personal experience that he interpreted as a post resurrection appearance of Jesus to him.
Talk about stacking the deck.  If Licona doesn't have to eliminate psychological processes that might give rise to the type of experience in the last two facts, it is not surprising that his resurrection hypothesis is going to come out on top.

Licona resorts to the same trick to undermine Gerd Ludemann's hypothesis:
Psychoanalyzing persons who are not only absent but who also lived in an ancient foreign culture involves a great deal of speculation and is a very difficult and chancy practice. Allison opines that Ludemann's conjectures "are just that: conjectures. They do not constitute knowledge. In recent decades contemporary historians have been more leery than their predecessors of the viability of reconstructing and then analyzing the psycho-histories of men and women long dead .Ludemann appears not to recognize this. Instead, his approach is a methodical skepticism that says, "As long as I can offer a naturalistic proposal that has an ounce of plausibility, I do not need to consider a supernatural one."
Surprise, surprise!  Licona is criticizing exactly what his methodology requires.  Under Licona's criteria, the historian needs to consider any natural explanation that is not extremely unlikely because if he determines that there is one, he is not justified in affirming the historicity of a miracle. I suppose, however, that an explanation with only an ounce of plausibility may be still be deemed extremely unlikely.  Perhaps a cup of plausibility is required before a miraculous explanation can be rejected.  Perhaps the natural explanation requires a gallon of plausibility before it gains priority over the supernatural one. Alas, Licona never explains how much plausibility is enough.

So we can see that Licona is happy to jettison the first half of his historical miracle criteria when it proves inconvenient for his position.  How about the second half of the criteria?  Well, we can see that tossed overboard when Licona responds to Dominic Crossan's ethical objections to the doctrine of the resurrection.

The ethical objection should be offered only after a close examination of the data and a firm conclusion that Jesus did not rise from the dead has been made. Crossan's ethical objection is an emotional, even political, appeal that says, "Can't we all just get along?" But it is not historical. He has put the cart of theological implications before the horse of historical truth.
Once again, Licona is criticizing what his methodology seems to require.  Surely we have to consider the theological implications of the event in question in order to determine whether it is the kind of thing that we might expect God to do.

According to Licona, his approach "differs from previous approaches in providing unprecedented interaction with philosophers of history related to hermeneutical and methodological considerations and applies these to an investigation pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus."  Unfortunately, he still provides no method for determining that Christianity's supernatural claims are any more likely to be true than any others.  It looks like the same old bullshit to me.


  1. Grrr…this one has started to irk me considerably.

    We are told by Christian apologists it is erroneous to perform “historical psychoanalysis” on people like Paul, or the disciples, etc. Yet when it becomes convenient for the Christian apologist, they happily engage in the same!

    We are told the Disciples had a radical change in personality post-resurrection…isn’t that similar psychoanalysis? Peter went from a hot-headed coward to a mild-mannered martyr. Paul went from a raving Jewish Inquisitor—Torquemada-style—to a missionary.

    We are told no one would die for a lie—more psychoanalysis. They wouldn’t tell embarrassing stories of themselves—even more. They would be forced to tell the truth from fear of being caught—some more. From just a few captured moments, they provide an entire psychological profile on people like Peter or Paul or James, the brother of Jesus. Not to mention Jesus himself, of course.

    And don’t even get me started on the Tanakh with Abraham, Moses, David, Saul, Solomon, Ruth, Esther, etc.

    We all do it…it is necessary to review history; to paint the picture of our historical figures from Napoleon to Julius Caesar.

    1. I think the reason I avoided Licona's book for so long is that I knew how much it would irk me.

      I embraced evangelical Christianity for a couple years as a teenager, but despite thinking about it from time to time over the years, I still don't think I have more than a rough idea why I did so.

      If I can't explain why I converted forty years ago, why would I expect any historian to explain why Paul converted twenty centuries ago?

  2. 'Psychoanalyzing persons who are not only absent but who also lived in an ancient foreign culture involves a great deal of speculation and is a very difficult and chancy practice.'

    So how does Licona know that his god would want to raise Jesus from the dead?

    1. William Lane Craig told him. Craig got it from the Holy Spirit in his heart.