Friday, February 7, 2014

More on Michael Licona's Apologetics

It's not often that you can engage with a big time apologist about his book, but I had the opportunity to do so on a post at Crux Sola which discussed a recent interview with Michael Licona.  After I criticized his claim that "Jesus’s resurrection can be historically established without even appealing to the Gospels," he replied
You obviously have not read my large volume on the topic, “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach” (IVP Academic, 2010). In that volume, I’m very clear that I’m not using the Gospels.
Which gave me the opportunity to say
I have read your book and it explicitly appeals to the gospels repeatedly. Among other things, you use the gospels to “support the conclusion that the reports of Jesus’ resurrection place it in a significantly charged religious context,” which you claim is one of the criteria by which a historian can judge that a miracle took place. Your discussion of the nature of the appearance experiences necessarily depends almost entirely on the gospels as Paul gives us no details about them.
Whereupon he responded
You’re correct about that, Vinny. However, it’s not at all a major portion of my historical argument as I thought you were suggesting. Of course, I also use the Gospels to discuss the empty tomb, the conversion of Jesus’s brother James, and Jesus’s predictions pertaining to his imminent death and resurrection. However, I distinguish all of these as tier two facts. And I state that I would only use tier two facts in my process should two or more hypotheses end up in a draw after only considering tier one facts. My final case for Jesus’s resurrection only appeals to tier one facts. So, I would not put it as you did that my book “depends heavily on the portrait of Jesus painted by the Gospels.”
So let's take a look at Licona's tier one facts and see whether or not they depend on an appeal to the Gospels:
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.
Now I suppose that Licona might claim that he can establish that Jesus was crucified without appealing to the gospels, but in fact he cites them as a source for this.  However, I can't see any way he can get his second fact without appealing to the gospels, because Paul doesn't provide us enough information to do so in his only discussion of the appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Let's note the elements of Licona's second fact that Paul doesn't corroborate:
  • Paul doesn't say that the appearances occurred "very shortly" after Jesus' death. In fact, Bart Ehrman has written that it may have been weeks or months later.
  • Paul doesn't say that the appearances led to the belief that Jesus had been resurrected. One of the points Kris Komarnitsky makes in his book is that the process of cognitive dissonance reduction might have led the apostles to rationalize the seeming failure of their movement by inventing the idea that God had returned Jesus to life before they had any visions and that it was in fact the rationalization that primed them to have the visions.  For all we can say from Paul, the belief in the resurrection could have led to the appearances.  Interestingly, Paul never says whether Jesus' appeared to him before or after he came to believe in the resurrection.  Perhaps the appearances were similar to the Mormon's Twelve Witnesses, who believed in the Golden Plates and the Angel Moroni before they saw them.
  • The only appearance that Paul explicitly identifies as a group experience is the appearance to the five hundred.  Although the occurrence of group appearances is not expressly a part of Licona's second fact, he does refer several times to the appearances occurring to individuals and groups, but Paul doesn't say that the appearances to the Twelve or the appearances to all the apostles were simultaneous.
  • Paul also doesn't say much about anybody's proclamation but his own.
So I'll be interested to see whether Licona responds to my follow up comment:
Do you really suppose that there would be any consensus among scholars on your first tier facts were it not for the Gospels? Don’t you cite them yourself as evidence that Jesus was crucified? How would any scholar be certain that the appearances occurred “very shortly” after Jesus’ death without the Gospels? Paul never says so (and in fact Ehrman thinks it might have been weeks or months). Nor does Paul tell us it was the appearances that convinced the apostles that Jesus had been resurrected rather than simply confirming a revelation that was received in some other way. Without the Gospels, you have no basis for claiming that your first tier facts constitute “historical bedrock.”


  1. It's pretty amazing to watch as he misses your point in bringing up your blog. "Sorry, no disrespect but I can't be expected to have read every layperson's blog." When you miss the point that badly I think you kind of expose how you aren't really interested in a serious conversation.

    1. I doubt that he spent much time thinking about it. Since he knew by faith that whatever my point was, it was wrong, all he figured he needed was to contradict me in some way.

  2. Curious that apologists now emphasize they do not rely upon the canonical Gospels in making the case for the resurrection of Jesus. (Albeit, I agree they do tacitly through familiarity anyway.) And then they want to argue for the historicity within the gospels. Isn’t this incongruous? If the gospels are sufficiently historically accurate, why bother emphasizing not utilizing them?

    Dr. Licona did a lecture at HBU regarding his position, and I am looking forward to his posting it for review. I am particularly interested in his statement, “…most of the differences in the Gospels do not result from careless reporting but are rather the byproduct of compositional devices…” What method does he use to distinguish differences “from careless reporting” to “compositional devices”? Is he saying the authors were not reckless or inadvertent in modifying the stories, but deliberate and planned? If so—how does this bolster historicity?

    1. I suspect that the point of establishing the resurrection without the gospels is that you don’t have to worry all that much about trivialities like the validity of your method for distinguishing compositional devices from careless reporting. Once you’ve got the resurrection under your belt, it’s easy to rationalize a presumption in favor of compositional device. So what if you are wrong? After all, you aren’t using the gospels to prove the resurrection anyway.

  3. I'm curious why you say, in your last comment to Licona, that all his tier one facts rely on the gospels. From what I can see, all you have done in this post is demonstrate that part of one of his facts isn't fully demonstrated by the creed in 1 Corinthians 15. Are you saying that Jesus didn't die as a result of crucifixion and that Paul was not converted to Christianity after he believed he experienced an encounter with Jesus?
    Also, could you point me toward Ehrman's argument that the appearances were weeks/months after the crucifixion?

    1. Anon,

      I don't think I said that "all" his tier one facts rely on the gospels, did I? I argued that he "cannot legitimately claim that [his] historical bedrock is historical bedrock without appealing to the gospels" because parts of it are found only in the gospels.

      I think I might argue that all of his tier one facts rely on the gospels at least indirectly insofar they rely on the consensus of scholars since I doubt that most scholars would agree on those facts if they were not corroborated by the gospels, but I didn't make that argument in that comment.

      I do have my own questions concerning Jesus' death by crucifixion, but for purposes of this discussion, I merely point out that Licona cites the gospels for that fact in his book.

      I don't think that it is clear from Paul's letters whether he converted after Jesus appeared to him or whether he had been convinced either by studying the scriptures or some other means that Christianity was true before Jesus appeared to him.

      On page 229 of Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium, Ehrman writes "Nor can we say for certain that Jesus' followers began to proclaim his resurrection three days later. Our earliest account of this belief comes from Paul, for example, in the verses cited at the beginning of this chapter. And he was writing well over twenty years later. It's possible of course that the disciples came to believe in Jesus' resurrection that very weekend. But it's also possible that they came to this conclusion only later--say weeks or months later--and that having come to believe that Jesus was still alive, they turned to the Scriptures (like Hos. 6:2 and Jon.1:17) and saw there references to the dead coming back to life on the "third day," and began saying, then, that that's when Jesus' body was reanimated by God."