Notes from The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach

Along with taking the Yale course on Game Theory on iTunes, I’m reading The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach by Michael R. Licona. It’s over 700 pages. Licona asks the question, “If professional historians who work outside of the community of biblical scholars were to embark on an investigation of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, what would such an investigation look like?” [pg. 19]. I’ve made it to page 180 and the book hasn’t yet dealt with the historical evidence for the Resurrection. The book starts by exploring what it means to do historical research and the role of worldview on the evaluation of evidence. This last part is very important. We may think that “seeing is believing” and there is some truth to that. But it’s also true that “believing is seeing,” that is, that our worldview effects how we evaluate data. The resurrection is one of those events that challenges worldviews. If one is a priori a naturalist, the resurrection account simply could not be what the early disciples of Christ claimed it was. If one is a priori a theist, then the resurrection may, or may not, have happened. For example, Christians say it did; Muslims say it didn’t. If one is uncertain of one’s worldview, it may likely lead to an inability to say that the evidence leads to anything conclusive.

Several statements in the book have resonated with me, because they touch directly on topics of several recent internet “discussions” and because they cohere with positions I’ve taken. Several of these deserve further elaboration and may become topics of future posts. Until then, I’ll just present each along with a brief observation.

The first pertains to how worldview influences the evaluation of evidence:

When historians seek to describe the past, they place facts within the framework of a narrative. Numerous interpretations and theories can be quite imaginative. Moreover, many times specific narratives can neither be proved nor disapproved, and historians from every camp often fail to place a sort of disclaimer informing readers of the tentativeness of their narrative, which is stated as fact. [pg. 57]

The second deals with the question of just how literal an interpretation of a text ought to be (see, for example,
Operation Chaos). Are ancient descriptions to be understood as if they were video recordings?

However, no one would charge a portrait as being errant because they portrayed something in the background that was not there during the sitting but was created in order to communicate character or personality. Literary devices such as invented speeches and encomium are common traits of ancient bioi. Thus, in some instances, those who complain of contradictions and inventions in the Gospels are guilty of judging them in terms of photographic accuracy, when this may not have been the intent of the author. Still, this earmark of ancient bioi makes hermeneutical considerations of the Gospels all the more challenging. [pg. 76]

The third ties in with the second when dealing with “young earth creationism,” which I should note that I don’t think does justice to the Biblical text. Are there any good reasons to suppose “
Tuesdayism” is or is not true, other than philosophical ones or a very literal reading of Genesis?

Neither historians nor philosophers can prove that the world is older than 10 minutes at which time everything was created with the appearance of age and that we were created with memories of events that never took place and with food in our stomachs from meals we never ate. [pg. 82]

The fourth is based on the principle of non-contradiction:

Another theory of truth is coherence theory, which states that a proposition is true when all of its components cohere with other propositions believed to be true. This theory of truth may be especially attractive to those historians who excel in forming creative narrative. Their narrative is true because it coheres better with other widely held propositions. [pg. 91]

The fifth echoes Russell’s statement from “
The Problems of Philosophy” that, “All knowledge, we find, must be built up upon our instinctive beliefs, and if these are rejected, nothing is left.” What Licona says about historians is true for everyone:

Historians are required to make numerous philosophical assumptions before entering every historical investigation. For example, they assume the external world is real. They assume our senses provide a fairly accurate perception of the external world. They assume logic facilitates our quest for truth rather than merely functioning as a pragmatic tool that aims at our survival and quality of life. They assume natural laws in effect today were in effect in antiquity and that they operated in a similar manner. More importantly, the majority of historians assume that history is at least partially knowable. [pg. 156]

These last two quotes touch on logic, science, and the nature of truth and deserve a post of their own.
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