Saturday, March 03, 2012

Proofs of the resurrection?

"Proofs of the Resurrection" is a video lecture series by Mike Licona on YouTube. Someone posted links to all of the episodes in a comment on one of my previous posts. You can watch the lectures here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. I thought I would watch the lectures. But I don't have time for that, so I ripped the audio content from them and put it on my iPod and have been listening to the lectures on my daily commute to work. There's a lot in here, most of which I won't comment on in detail, but here are my main thoughts and opinions on these lectures.

Despite the title of the lecture series, the first 5 hours of lectures offer no proofs or even evidence for the resurrection or anything else. Licona starts by explaining why only the opinions of experts who have studied the resurrection as historians really matter. Thus the opinions of textual critics like Bart Ehrman or people with a background in theology, but not history, do not matter. These people are not qualified to give informed opinions. Unlike Licona, of course. It seems that only he and his mentor Gary Habermas are really qualified to make historical judgements on this topic. And they both conclude that the resurrection really happened, so it must have done. QED. Licona also (strangely) dismisses the need for consensus - consensus doesn't mean anything if it is a consensus among non-experts. He then relies on consensus in some of his later arguments.

Next Licona, by way of anecdote, implies that the science of physics is very imprecise and that history is at least as precise as this, so therefore history is science. No it is not. Here he is trying, once more, to persuade his (already believing) audience that his conclusions are as firm as anything in science, before he has even discussed the evidence that led him to those conclusions. This is not science or history, this is apologetics. Indeed, later on in the lecture series it becomes clear that this is intended as apologetics, the aim here is not to find out the truth, but to defend the faith.

Can the historian ever conclude that a miracle happened? Well, if history is science (as Licona claims) then I would say only if the same kind of miracle can be observed to happen today (that's a topic for a future blog). Based on this, I don't think the historian can ever conclude that the resurrection happened, as it was a unique event with no other historical or contemporary parallels. Licona redefines miracles here as events which happen with no apparent naturalistic cause and which occur in a religious setting. He contends that you can conclude miracles by historical methods.

After the discussion of miracles (we're now in hour five) we get the biggest and most ludicrous claims in the whole series - firstly, that the 'burden of proof' regarding the resurrection is actually on the side of the skeptic, and unless a skeptic can disprove it, beyond reasonable doubt, then we are entirely justified in believing in it. Then, on the back of this comes his response to Sagan's "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" statement, here he basically claims that it is not required to provide enough evidence to change someone else's worldview, only enough evidence to convince someone who is already predisposed to believe in miracles. Eh? What? I think I'll have to come back to this in a future posting. But this makes it clear that he is dealing with the kind of apologetics which exists only to entrench the beliefs of those who are already believers, not to convince anyone else that Jesus actually came back from the dead. Thus, he fails in the stated purpose of the series, he fails to convince skeptics and, essentially, he fails as an evangelist!

Finally, after a lot of preamble, he gets to the evidence - evidence from the gospels, evidence from the epistles, evidence from 'pre-Pauline' material, evidence from the church fathers, evidence from early non-Christian sources. Despite claiming to be an inerrantist, he (repeatedly) states that he doesn't require the inerrancy of the biblical writings as part of his argument. What he does is he looks at all the evidence and starts labeling it as 'possible', 'probable', 'definite', and so on, using historical criteria. Many of his arguments here appeal to consensus, which is odd as he dismissed consensus as being irrelevant in lecture one!

Along the way, he assumes the gospels and epistles were all written by single authors (OK, Matthew may not have been written by someone called 'Matthew', but it was written by a single individual) and have not been modified by later editors. He also assumes that the gospel accounts are trustworthy and were written as history. He does assume that at least one of the gospel authors (the 4th one) was an eyewitness of the resurrection. He also assumes the earliest dating of most of the documents.

Based on all this he establishes a number of 'historical facts' which are 'beyond doubt', including:
  1. Jesus died by crucifixion
  2. The disciples believed that they saw Jesus raised from the dead
  3. Paul, a persecutor of the church, converted because of an encounter with the risen Jesus
  4. Jesus' brother James, who had been skeptical, came to faith and was martyred for it
  5. There was an empty tomb

Only after he establishes those 'facts' does he consider the skeptical arguments against the resurrection, and he only considers the skeptical arguments which accept that some of the above are historical facts. Thus, crucially, he does not even mention the 'Christ Myth' hypothesis, which claims that all of the above 'facts' are part of the same fiction.

The problem for me is that the above reasoning 'puts the cart before the horse' the facts are established before the source documents are questioned. And then the source documents look good - because they contain facts!

Wearing a slightly skeptical hat (and it doesn't need to be radically skeptical), there is reasonable doubt over those five facts.

  1. Jesus died? What we are sure of is that in the early 2nd century (Tacitus wrote circa 116AD), perhaps the very late 1st century (Josephus wrote circa 95AD) there were 'Christians' who were believers in a Messiah who they claimed was killed by crucifixion by the order of Pontius Pilate. We know when Pilate had responsibility in Palestine, so we can roughly date this alleged event. All the secular references to Jesus death show that there was a belief in this event by Christians, not that the event actually happened. But if there was a real, historical Jesus, then it is reasonable to assume, on the basis of the evidence, that he was crucified and died.
  2. Disciples saw? The evidence is one or two steps removed for this. What we have is evidence that Christians in the late first century believed that their predecessors in the faith had seen the risen Christ. We do not have any eyewitness accounts and the letters attributed to Peter are widely held to be pseudopigrapha.
  3. Paul's vision? This comes from Paul's letters and from Acts. There is good evidence that these documents were edited in the 2nd century, and the accounts are contradictory, so it is hard to conclude 'facts' from this.
  4. James martyred? Someone called James, the brother of Jesus 'called the messiah' was killed. We know this from a secular source (Josephus), but it doesn't tell us what he believed. Had he seen a risen Jesus? We don't know. That comes from 2nd century tradition.
  5. Empty tomb? The earliest stories of the empty tomb that we know of were not widely circulated until 50 or more years after the alleged event, so there is no way of confirming these stories, even then, the stories could not be confirmed as this is over a generation later.

So. If, and only if, we accept the NT writings as accurate historical reportage, can we conclude that the resurrection of Jesus happened.

Unfortunately, it appears that many of the documents we have have been redacted, edited, tampered with and perhaps even rewritten by people up to a century after the alleged events. Given this, it is nearly impossible to figure out what, if any, of the content of the NT writings is original or dates back to a time within living memory of Jesus.

Licona makes a big deal out of the fact that he only considers documents which originated within 150 years of Jesus' death. What he fails to point out is that in that society, at that time, 150 years is about 8 to 10 generations after Jesus and that the average life expectancy was only of the order of thirty years! Even a document written 50 years after the event would likely have been written by the grandchildren or the great-grandchildren of the 'first disciples', or whoever was around at the time of Pontius Pilate.

Proof? No. Its a good case, enough to convince those who already believe that the Bible is trustworthy, but nobody else.


minoria said...


I read your comments quickly but I would like to comment on this one:

"Empty tomb? The earliest stories of the empty tomb that we know of were not widely circulated until 50 or more years after the alleged event, so there is no way of confirming these stories, even then, the stories could not be confirmed as this is over a generation later."

I am surprised since I gave you very good reasons for having Mark,for example,being written in 5O AD,a mere 2O years after Jesus' death.

I also pointed out that Jesus' prediction of the destruction of the Temple is in Q,which is from 5O AD.A great reason why Mark can have the Temple prophecy and so no reason why one has to put him at 7O AD,the year the Temple was destroyed.

I pointed to the 1 Cor 15 creed which is 2 years after Jesus' death and why from a cultural perspective it refers to an empty tomb.

In addition there is the Sign of Jonah in Q which says the Son of Man,who is Jesus,will die"be in the heart of the earth" and after 3 days be alive,like Jonah.

Jews in that region never put any Jew in a grave,"in the heart of the earth",they understood it to mean Jesus would really die,that's all,an expression.

But after dead,he would be put in a cave,as was the custom,so being alive after 3 days means an Empty Tomb.

It is all clear when one is familiar with the customs.I am familiar with several cultures so I know how one from another culture totally misses a detail that is obvious to another.

minoria said...


Regarding your statement:

"Many of his arguments here appeal to consensus, which is odd as he dismissed consensus as being irrelevant in lecture one!"

Here Licona is referring to the basic method used in all historical research,the historical method:

early attestation,coherence,dissimilarity,etc.

To ignore the method is wrong,and in most of his argument there is a consensus because non-Christian scholars,using the same method,have come to the same conclusions:Jesus died,his followers believed he rose from the dead physically,etc.

However the consensus is that Mark from 7O-75 AD.I have looked for the technical reasons and I see that it is always stated that it is so because Mark has Jesus mentioning the destruction of the Temple,and it was in 7O AD.

To go against the consensus one has to have valid reasons,which I gave in detail in other commentaries for other articles.

John A.T. Robinson also had his reasons,he said Mark is before 7O AD,he wrote "Redating the
NT"which you can read here:

About Jesus as a Myth

Virutally no non-Christian scholar believes Jesus was a myth.Why, 1 Cor 15 mentions a historical Jesus and it is from 32 AD.

Q mentions a historical Jesus it is from 5O AD and so on.

That is the consensus.Of course to go aganst it you have to have good evidence,there is none.

About another Consensus

It is that Muhammad existed,in spite of the fact that no non-Muslim or Muslim/Arab writer mentions:

Neither a Muhammad nor a religion called Islam nor a book called the Koran for sixty years after Muhammad's death.

In addition the inscription in the Al-Aqsa mosque that is 8O% about Jesus has the words:

"There is one God and the praised one is his prophet" and then goes on to talk about Jesus.

The way the Arabic is used does NOT mean:"There is one God and Muhammad is his prophet"

Muhammad means praised one but the grammar in the words in Al-Aqsa is such that it is NOT used as a name of a man,it is not about a man called Muhammad.

The first biography of any Muhammad was written 12O years after his death,enough time to invent a fictional life of a man who never lived.

If on such flimsy evidence there is a consensus that a historical Moe existed then the far better evidence for Jesus makes his case far more stronger.

Ricky Carvel said...

Hi there,

I think you may have missed one of my points along the way. My point is that you can only conclude the early dates for Mark, 1 Corinthians 15, Q, etc. if you make certain assumptions about their historical accuracy, etc.

It is not a fact that 1 Cor 15 was written 2 years after Jesus' death, that is a conclusion that some people have come to by making certain assumptions, and combining these with a certain interpretation of the historical data.

Similarly for the dating of Mark, similarly for the dating of Q, if such a collection even existed.

Your reasons for believing these dates are fine, if your assumptions are justifiable. I cannot persuade myself that all of the assumptions are justifiable, so I cannot persuade myself that the conclusions are correct.

It may be that all the dates you claim are right, but history has not left us enough data to conclude this with sufficient certainty!

Now, about the 'Christ Myth' theory, I don't actually believe there was no 'historical Jesus', but the issue is not what I believe, the issue is what we can justifiably conclude from the available historical data.

I think what we can conclude is that in the early 2nd Century, possibly the late 1st Century, the group of people who were called Christians firmly believed that their sect was founded by a man called Jesus, who was also the Son of God, who was executed by Pontius Pilate circa 30AD. They also believed he was raised from the dead.

We do not know with any certainty what the Christians believed in at earlier times, or if their beliefs went back to historical events. I do not think the data allows us to have definite conclusions that are based on justifiable assumptions.

minoria said...

Hi Rick,

You have a good point but I think you missed a detail here.

You have heard the Hebrews is dated pre-7O AD because it mentions the Temple still in existence.

If I understood you correctly Q,since it mentions the detruction of the Temple,would be 7O AD and over.

The universal consensus,even by those who say Jesus is a myth,that it is pre-7O AD, would just be an assumption.

So for you Mark and Q would be 7O-75 AD.But you missed a detail,I had pointed out that Josephus says it was believed before the destruction of the Temple,because of some negative signs,that it would be destroyed.

We have a man who lived before and after the event,he knew what was in the air.Josephus is vital,it shows tangible evidence that to say Mark,or the man who wrote Q,Luke,is just an assumption because there is no proof such an idea was EVER pre-7O AD is incorrect.

And in the 2 Talmuds,as I mentioned before,there is evidence that such an idea existed before 7O AD.They mention that before 7O AD certain Jews thought the Temple would be destroyed.

That is the question to ask:was such an idea pre-7O AD or not?It was pre-7O AD,that is to say it was historical.

Another thing is that the existence of many embarassing passages in the gospels is further proof the authors were being historical,according to the standards of Antiquity.

They recorded things that were counter-propaganda,that means they felt bound to say the truth,they were being historical.

When a book has counter-propaganda passages it is more reliable in historical value.