What Can Historians Tell Us About Jesus’ Resurrection?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Bart Ehrman and Mike Licona locked horns once again over the resurrection of Jesus on the Unbelievable? podcast last April.  The two scholars discussed various elements of the New Testament that historians could use to reconstruct the life of Jesus for much of the radio show.  In the final segment of the debate, however, Ehrman once again charged that historians cannot tell us whether Jesus was resurrected – the conclusion that Jesus was resurrected is simply not one that the methods of historical analysis will allow.

Ehrman has made this charge before.  I witnessed him say the same thing at a debate between him and Licona two years ago.  This time, though, some nuances of his position appeared.  When Ehrman argues that historians cannot conclude that the resurrection of Jesus occurred, we have to ask what he means by resurrection.  Ehrman seems to mean the following: Jesus died and then a few days later was supernaturally re-animated by the Christian God in a miraculous act.

Why does Ehman say that historians cannot draw this conclusion?  As far as I could tell, it is because of the words supernaturally, Christian God, and miraculous.  Ehrman seems to be saying that these are theological words, not historical words.  They are words used by people of faith, not by professional historians.

So how did Licona respond?  He agreed to define the resurrection of Jesus as follows: Jesus died and then a few days later came back to life.  Notice that Licona completely dropped the theological words that seemed to give Ehrman so much heartburn.  Now the two scholars could move on and talk about the historical evidence supporting the non-theological resurrection.  Unfortunately, and much to my disappointment, the show ran out of time and the new discussion was never pursued.

What’s the point in recounting their conversation?  First, it cleared up what Ehrman’s real beef was.  Second, it gives me an occasion to call for Ehrman and his admirers to drop this approach, as the point has been made.  I, like Licona, am glad to use the non-theological definition of the resurrection in order to advance the historical debate.  Let’s get on with it.

  • Although I haven’t heard the podcast, if you are admitting it is too difficult (from a historical standpoint) to demonstrate Jesus came back to life after two days from supernatural intervention…aren’t you agreeing with Ehrman?

    In order for us to investigate this claim to remove supernatural intervention (from a historical perspective, of course) how exactly are you proposing Jesus came back to life after a few days if it was NOT from supernatural intervention?

    Are you aware there are other miraculous claims made by other historians of this time (such as Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio indicating Vespasian healed a blind man)? And that current historians equally dismiss those claims as well?

  • Anonymous

    I can guess how the conversation would have gone. Ehrman would have made a point similar to the one Dagoods makes, whereupon, Licona would insist that the historian has to be open to the possibility that God could raise a man from the dead if He chose to do so.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if Licona saved that nonsense until the end of the show when he was sure Ehrman wouldn’t have time to respond.

  • Dagoods,
    A historian can conclude THAT Jesus came back from the dead without knowing HOW he came back from the dead. Historians and scientists reason this way all the time. In the same way, evolutionists claim THAT land mammals evolved into sea mammals without knowing exactly HOW it occurred. Both are inferences from data to a theory that explains the data.

  • Licona didn’t “save that nonsense” until the end. Ehrman didn’t raise his objection until the end, so Licona had no reason to to say anything about it until that point. Listen to the podcast.

  • Anonymous

    Does anyone find it obtuse to even discuss a dead man coming back to life? There’s not a shred of evidence of this being possible. When will sanity be restored? Perhaps when the zombies attack…

  • Anonymous

    The ability to draw inferences depends on the ability to rely on observed patterns of cause and effect. The reason we can infer who might have used a gun to commit a murder is because we understand the process by which the patterns on human fingers come to appear on other objects. We understand that the secretions on the friction ridges of the fingers get transferred. If we didn’t think that the processes acted consistently or if we thought these patterns appeared on objects randomly or by divine fiat, fingerprints on a gun wouldn’t be evidence of anything.

    All scientific and historical inferences depend on the regularity and consistency of the laws of nature. If we didn’t think these processes acted invariably, we could never draw any inferences about any of the data we encounter.

  • Boz

    tfpratt, the mass zombie uprising has already occured!

    (Matthew 27.45-53)


  • Are you saying that the evolution of land mammals to sea mammals is a regularly observed process?

  • Actually we have historical documents that say this has occurred in the past. That certainly counts as evidence, and, in fact, it is significantly more than a shred!

  • Anonymous

    No. I am not. I am saying that the laws of nature are regularly observed processes and the ability to draw inferences about what happened in the past from the data we observe today depends on the laws of nature being consistent and regular. If the natural processes of cause and effect are not consistent, then we cannot infer past causes from the effects we observe today.

  • Bill Pratt,

    I am on vacation, so my responses will be sporadic. At best. Historians don’t stop looking at “THAT’ an event occurred, they equally inspect “HOW” an event occurred.

    They don’t stop at “Well, three historians claimed a blind man could see again by the power of Vespasian” without also inspecting the culture, the historians, the personage discussed, etc.

    The claim “Jesus was raised from the dead” is not removed from theological purpose—indeed it is so intrinsic and interwoven within its time, culture, claim, persons, purpose, etc. that it is impossible to divorce the two. To do so would be disingenuous to both history AND the claim itself. That a Christian would want to do so is shocking.

    I don’t now what non-Christian historians you are familiar with, but I don’t know any that stop looking once they see “THAT’ an event occurred, without progressing to the “HOW.”

    I am not qualified to discuss evolution biology, but from what little I have read, what I have seen are scientists who likewise do not stop at learning “THAT” an event happened; they, too, search for the “HOW.” (On their own scientific curiosity, might I add—not as a response to creationists.) It is why that fruit fly experimentation is continuing at Michigan State University…to learn the “HOW.”

    Again, it seems to me the problem here is a lack of understanding regarding historical study and science—not any bias on the part of Ehrmen.

    Again, if you are proposing Jesus was raised from the dead absent supernatural intervention—what other proposal do you claim it could be?

  • For a professional historian, the HOW of a historical event is often never going to be known, and the further back we go in history, the harder it will be to determine HOW something occurred. Historians have to settle for knowing WHAT happened frequently. Again, this is the case in the historical sciences as well. I have read and been told numerous times by evolutionists THAT evolution occurred in the distant past, but there is no answer forthcoming about HOW it occurred in many cases. The method being used is inference to the best explanation.

    Now, as a theologian or as a philosopher, I may take the facts THAT historians agree occurred and draw conclusions from them. If my worldview allows for the supernatural, then I may conclude that Jesus rose from the dead because of a supernatural cause. If my worldview disallows the supernatural, then I will chalk up Jesus rising from the dead as an oddity that must be explained by an as yet unknown natural cause.

  • OK. I thought you were trying to say something else. This sounds like a statement of the law of uniformity, which I agree with. What am I missing?

  • Tpratt

    To engage in the absurd… I think we must first define resurrection as returning to life from death and agree that Jesus died. The problem of course is, if you assert that Jesus wasn’t really dead, then there was not a resurrection and the bible is once again false. If you assert there was a resurrection, then the supernatural must have come into play, because reality agrees billions of times over that one does not return from death. If the supernatural is invoked, then all credibility should be taken from your assertion until you can prove the supernatural to be true. (Taking a moment to step on my tongue…) I fear historical documents will simply establish that some ancient person of another corroborates the story of resurrection in some vague way, which is not evidence that should persuade one to have themselves crucified as part of a resurrection study.

    So, was he resurrected or not? If so, then by what means? The bible is clearly askew of reality on its central tenant. I’m waiting for the ring of ‘interpretation’ to strike the apologetic bell…

    …or perhaps I am wrong and we should start teaching resurrection theory to doctors so they can bill insurance companies for 3 extra days, just in case. :p

    **note: please do not excuse the sarcasm, I think it an appropriate tool to underline the absurdity of resurrection.

  • Matthew Taylor

    Do you have references to any of those documents?

  • There are the New Testament documents and there are extra-biblical documents (e.g., Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny, etc.). If you want a thorough treatment, I would recommend reading The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach by Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Habermas and Licona, or The Resurrection of the Son of God by Wright.

  • Matthew Taylor

    I was actually hoping for something more specific. Like a link to details of a manuscript that is authenticated from the right era and contains references that can at least be cross checked with something else.

    My understanding of the Josephus writing on the subject is that its essentially a repeated anecdote, which, frankly doesn’t count for much.

  • Andrew Ryan

    As Boz referenced, is there any extra-biblican references to the dead rising in Matthew 27.45-53? Such an event would surely attract a lot of attention, yet it’s not even mentioned in the other Gospels.

  • You will find references in great abundance in the books I mentioned. I simply don’t have time to dig all of this out for you, but I hope that you will do the digging yourself as there is impressive evidence.

  • I have no idea.

  • Boz

    there are no other references to the dead rising in Matthew 27.45-53.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “there are no other references to the dead rising in Matthew 27.45-53.”

    Thanks for clarifying Box. It is inconceivable to me that such an event could occur and pass unnoticed in any other documents of the time. More likely is that 45-53 is simply false. If that is false, why trust accounts of Jesus’ resurrection.

  • Andrew,
    Your reasoning here is bizarre. The great vast majority of events that occurred, big and small, in antiquity were never recorded by anyone. The things that were recorded have mostly been lost. Our documentation, therefore, from antiquity is extremely fragmentary. If you are demanding that every single event mentioned in the NT be corroborated by outside sources, you are setting up an impossible standard.

    But there are further problems with your approach. One could hypothetically argue that elements of the NT are legendary, but other elements are historical. Maybe the account recorded in Matt 27:52-53 is legendary, but you still have to deal with all of the other material that supports the resurrection of Jesus that is historical.

    That is exactly the approach that Licona, Wright, and others take when they look at the evidence for the resurrection. They don’t just assume that everything in the NT is equally likely to be historical. They deal with consensus historical scholarship and build a case.

  • Bill Pratt,

    I agree, we may never know some “How’s.” and be content with “That’s.” Hannibal getting his elephants over the Alps comes to mind. Although we have a number of possible routes, and know THAT he got those elephants over, HOW may be lost in time.

    However, remember the “THAT” in our equation is that a number of individuals claimed Jesus rose from the dead. The “HOW” within the claim is intrinsically interwoven with theological implications. The claim itself is supernatural.

    Again, to divorce it from time and culture is to take only a very small part of the puzzle, and an incomplete one at that. Something no historian should ever do.

    And no, it is not enough to believe in supernatural—one is far more narrowly focused than that. One must believe in the very supernatural that they are using the claim to support—dangerously brushing with circular argumentation.

    For example, just because you believe in supernatural—do you believe a supernatural angel supernaturally appeared to Joseph Smith giving direction to supernatural plates that were supernaturally translated? Of course not—doesn’t fit with your supernatural paradigm. Because you believe in supernatural, do you believe Vespasian was a god and able to heal a blind person? Of course not—doesn’t fit your supernatural paradigm.

    No, one doesn’t just have to believe in supernatural to believe in Jesus being raised from the dead—one must believe a specific supernatural belief that is supported by Jesus being raised from the dead.

  • Don Sciba

    You and others like you should invest in the excellent book “The Case for the Resurrection”, 2004, by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona. It would help to balance your viewpoints a bit and this book is an excellent place to start in your education.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “If you are demanding that every single event mentioned in the NT be corroborated by outside sources, you are setting up an impossible standard.”

    Bill, I never asked for corroboration for ‘every single event’. We’re talking about large numbers of zombies wandering around a populated area. Regardless of how fragmented our history of antiquity is, such an event would be HUGE – news of it would have travelled far outside the area where it happened.

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  • Maybe your sanity will be restored when you do your homework and take an objective view of the Resurrection, the empty tomb and the transformation of the apostles, not to mention the incredible world growth of a belief in the face of unrelenting persecution.
    To me the real zombies are people who draw conclusions without lifting a finger to do an honest investigation on their own. There’s no excuse here, it’s all out there for you.

  • Todd

    If only resurrecting a human was as easy as resurrecting this post! But before you cast your stone, I’ve done a good bit of research on the subject combing trough scientific publications to find any peer reviewed data on the subject. To date, empirical evidence that resurrection is possible has yet to be provided from any credible source.

    We’ve had one person here tell of a second hand account somewhere in India, but alas not even a before and after photo of evidence.

    If “it’s all out there,” perhaps you can point me in the right direction? Let’s not waste time with historical probabilities or unprovable supernatural accounts. Let’s stick to provable, preferably peer reviewed and repeatable, biology. After all, there have been trillions of case studies with solid evidence to the contrary… I’m just looking for 1 to the affirmative.

    As a jibe, I always amuse myself with the thought of a resurrection experiment. I wonder if there would be any willing test subjects?