Last night, Darrell and I attended the debate between Bart Ehrman and Mike Licona at SES in Charlotte. They debated whether historians can prove Jesus rose from the dead. Here is my summary of the arguments that each of them presented.
Licona opened the debate with a historical argument that goes like this. First, he argued, virtually all historians (close to 100%) agree on three key facts about Jesus:
- He died by crucifixion.
- His disciples believed they saw Jesus appear several times after he died.
- The apostle Paul believed he saw Jesus appear after he died.
Then, Licona explained that the historian’s job was to figure out the best explanation of these three facts. There are four criteria that the professional historian should use to judge possible explanations of the facts:
- explanatory scope
- explanatory power
- less ad hoc
According to Licona, the explanation that Jesus actually rose from the dead meets all four criteria whereas all other explanations offered by skeptics fails to meet the above criteria (Licona spent a lot of time evaluating the idea that the disciples plus Paul hallucinated Jesus’ appearances). Therefore, historians can “prove” that Jesus was raised from the dead.
Ehrman opened his case by making two key arguments. First, he spent several minutes arguing that the four gospels are of poor historical value. He showed this by claiming they were written late, they weren’t written by eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and death, and they are full of contradictions and discrepancies.
Second, he argued that it is impossible for historians to ever prove a miracle occurred. Why? Because the job of the historian is to find out what most probably happened in the past. But, he argued, since a miracle, by definition, is always the least probable explanation of a historical group of facts, then a historian can never conclude that a miracle indeed occurred. In other words, no matter what the evidence suggests, Ehrman claimed that a historian would always be wrong to accept a miracle as the explanation because miracles are the least possible explanation, and historians only deal with probability.
Interestingly, Ehrman did fully accept Licona’s three facts about Jesus as historically true. He just didn’t accept the explanation of Jesus rising from the dead to explain those facts. His favorite explanation seemed to be hallucinations, so the two debaters spent a lot time discussing hallucinations.
Next post, I will share my thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of each man’s arguments.