Thoughts on Ehrman/Licona Debate – Part 1

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:

  1. He died by crucifixion.
  2. His disciples believed they saw Jesus appear several times after he died.
  3. 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:

  1. explanatory scope
  2. explanatory power
  3. plausibility
  4. 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.

  • If you come across the audio, let me know.

  • Wes

    Interesting argument about historians only concluding that likely events happen. I would say all of the interesting historical events are the unlikely ones.

  • Oh my goodness. You went to the debate and posted a response, but you didn’t tell me about it? I’m going to blog it right now!

    You guys have to e-mail when something like this happens, mmmmm’kay?

  • Bill Pratt

    Sorry about that. We’ll definitely give more notice next time.

  • Bill Pratt

    Will do.

  • Great short assessment of the debate on the mentioned points.


    Hi Bill,
    Based on Bible, when a Christian died, his soul leaves his body and goes to heaven with God, so that that Christian won’t be judged by God when He returns to earth. Only those who are alive on earth to be judged?
    God will return to judge those who are dead and alive. Who are the dead mentioned here? Are those who are not saved?
    Thank you!

  • Pingback: What Can Historians Tell Us About Jesus’ Resurrection? | Tough Questions Answered()

  • Andrew Kotarski

    The premise, assumption of Ehrman is that: a miracle can not be debated, explored because it is a miracle. This is a typical example of logical vicious cycle and therefore can not be true. Another error. What it is a miracle? The creation of the world was a miracle or not? The scolars in the XVIII, XIX centuries thought that it was a miracle and therefore said that mater, energy was eternal. The students in XXI centurie are teached that the world was created or “came to being” before 13,7 billions years in a moment from nothing. And it is all to be said about Ehrman’s views.
    Sorry about my mistakes and short statements but the english is not my mother linguage. All the best for anybody.