Friday, December 3, 2010

Reflective Review: Mike Licona's "The Resurrection of Jesus," Part 1

Over some of the next few days, we’ll be devoting the Ticker space to an in-depth look at Mike Licona’s new book, The Resurrection of Jesus (hereafter ROJ). In the interest of disclosure I should note up front that Mike Licona and I have been in regular contact over the past few years for a number of reasons: for example, he’s currently the head of the Certified Apologetics Instructor program of which I am part; I have done some freelance work for him (notably cartoon art, but also a little research and editing), we’ve been guests in his home for a lunch, and his son in law, Nick Peters, is formally associated with Tekton these days. So the Skeptics have their excuses ready for why to ignore what I say about this book. (Oh, and guys, don’t forget this too: Mike and I both like small dogs. But he likes Westies and I prefer poodles. So there.)

I’ll start with a general observation about readability. When someone produces a book that is this big (718 pages), you don’t want the author to be someone with a talent of saying in 5000 words what could have been just as clearly said in 50, as I have said of some Skeptical writers. Licona has that rare gift among writers (also shared by N. T. Wright) that makes it so that when he writes 5000 words, you feel like you only read 50, because he doesn’t waste a lot of verbiage and knows how to construct a sentence in an engaging way. So don’t use the length of this book as a reason to bypass it. Unless you’re someone who thinks YouTube is the best place to get scholarly information, you won’t be put to sleep by this one.

We’ll start today with a look at the first two sections, the first of which boldly goes where no book on the Resurrection has gone before: How to do historiography.

I’ve observed in other contexts that many Biblical scholars are frequently out of the loop when it comes to how secular academics do their work. The best example of this I had before now was when secular academics gave an evaluation of the Marcan priority and Q hypotheses and came away from it mostly wondering what these Biblical scholars had been smoking. In a similar way, Licona notes that studies of the Resurrection of Jesus haven’t done much to make use of the standard practices of historiography. Indeed, it seems that theological seminaries usually don’t even offer courses on historical method, which is very odd considering that their subject of study is a book that relates historical events. (Of course, that may be because many of these seminaries don’t consider the Bible to be history. On the other hand, I have not seen such courses offered even at conservative seminaries.)

To set the stage, Licona goes all the way back to the beginning, so to speak. ROJ starts with some primers on the conducting of historical investigation, and on the subject of historical epistemology. After a while you may forget you’re reading a book by a Biblical scholar, but that is precisely the point: This is the sort of study that is distinctly lacking in NT studies. It isn’t unbelievable that it is, mind you: If the Context Group has so ably shown the lack of concern for anthropology in NT studies as a whole, then it isn’t surprising that some other whole field (or more) has been missed too.

One of the first lessons offered is that incomplete history is not inaccurate history. Licona offers a wealth of non-Biblical examples of selectivity and variation in reportage. This is a lesson I’ve tried to relate in a number of articles and it is good to see Licona provide even more profitable examples. Some critical NT scholars are rather obsessed by the idea that silences, alleged biases, and so forth make the true history of Jesus unknowable. However, these are known obstacles in secular history as well, as it does not have professional historians (except those of a despairing, postmodernist bent) despairing of knowledge.

NT scholars of this persuasion frequently raise the bar of evidence and discussion much higher than it needs to be, and may grant themselves a level of objectivity that is unwarranted. Licona offers a number of suggestions for aiding and maintaining objectivity in historical research, such as purposely seeking out opposing points of view.

Another set of lessons has to do with levels of epistemic certainty in historical study. In this regard, Licona offers a helpful distinction between absolute certainty in history (which is rare) and adequate certainty. In the legal profession this might be compared to finding parties guilty beyond any reasonable doubt, as opposed to finding them guilty between all possible doubt. The latter is exemplified in such things as Johnnie Cochran’s “Colombian drug lord” defense of O. J. Simpson, in which Cochran attempted to clear Simpson based on nothing more than speculative possibility. Licona also offers a useful side tour into postmodernist historical theory, which denies any serious possibility of having certainty over many historical events, versus what is called the “realist” school, which does think such certainty is possible.

A particularly important point is that although critiques of postmodern historical method can be made, it is hard to make a positive case for realism. Just the same, in the legal field, we can never prove anything beyond all possible doubt, just beyond reasonable doubt. Licona’s treatments of such concepts as “burden of proof” may seem like a case of beating a horse not just dead but long buried, but in reality these are critical issues that lie at the heart of whatever arguments we make concerning historical events such as the Resurrection, and as Licona sagely observes, they are paralleled by the sort of treatments of evidence that those in the field of law must engage. (Someone may find it fruitful to compare Licona’s treatments here with the material found in sources like Starkie’s Rules of Evidence.)

Critical discussions describing types of arguments used in the study of history, and levels of probability, close the first section of TOJ.

The second section will put you back in familiar apologetics territory, as Licona takes on the subject of miracles and the historian. Since it is a subject I cover too, I’ll naturally be inclined to compare our approaches, which actually, would have to be close, since an assignment Licona gave me allowed me to become aware of some of the sources I used for Defending the Resurrection. And sure enough, our critiques are pretty much of the same order, finding much the same flaws in Hume’s repeatedly resurrected (no, make that “resuscitated” since we keep killing it, too) arguments, even as used by modern purveyors.

Licona also takes on some of the other “no miracles allowed in historical study” claimants ranging from Ehrman to Meier, but it is Hume who stands behind this sort of argument inevitably, and as Licona shows (and as also shown by John Earman, one of Hume’s great critics), Hume just raised the bar of evidence arbitrarily high to suit himself.

One of my arguments has also been that the dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural is a false one, and my argument for this has been based partly on some of the same sources Licona uses in a section on the changing climate towards miracle claims being found among professional historians. Some of the quotations from these historians sound like the sort of thing that eg, Robert Price would dismiss as fundamentalist lunacy. My one critique is that I would have liked to have seen more that directly dispenses with the natural/supernatural dichotomy, to the point where I'd almost like to see the latter word banished from the dictionary.

We’ll devote some more entries to ROJ next week!

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