Why Do Two Skeptics Discount Paul’s Testimony about the Resurrection of Jesus?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Historical scholar Mike Licona, in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, argues that the apostle Paul’s writings are critical to historical research on Jesus’ resurrection.  But some skeptics disagree.  Licona explains:

Given the historical nuggets provided by Paul that can assist historians in their investigation of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, it is not surprising to find a few who have attempted to downplay its value.  Roy Hoover writes, “No New Testament text claims that the risen Jesus appeared to anyone who had not been a follower of Jesus or who did not become a believer.”

This is quite a move, simply writing off those who became believers after they were convinced that they had seen the risen Jesus.  Hoover fails to address the question of what may have led them to this belief against their previous wishes to reject who they believed was a false messiah.  So how does Hoover account for Paul’s experience?  He writes, “The risen Jesus was seen by one Pharisee who was a zealous enemy of the early church—Paul, from Tarsus; but so far as we know, Paul never met the Jesus of history and cannot, therefore, be counted among his enemies.”  

Licona wonders how this criterion of needing to meet someone to be counted among that person’s enemies makes any sense.

If we followed Hoover’s logic, no one fighting against the Nazis in World War II or imprisoned in one of the Nazi death camps could consider Hitler his enemy unless he had personally met him!

Licona also cites atheist philosopher Michael Martin, who offers a similar argument.  Here is Martin himself: 

Why should the fact that Paul persecuted Christians and was subsequently converted to Christianity by his religious experience be given special existential significance?  Whatever his past record at the time of his report he was a zealous, religious believer and not a religious skeptic.

Licona continues:

For Martin, it seems that in order to be regarded as a credible witness, it is not good enough to be opposed to everything about Christianity, including its followers; one must also be no less than an agnostic.  But as we observed earlier, historians are quite unanimous in their opinion that there is no neutrality when it comes to these matters.  When we speak of bias the knife cuts both ways, and it is quite clear that some religious skeptics reveal their own bias, which is antireligious in nature.

It is amazing to me that Licona even has to make this point.  You can figure out by reading any religious skeptic’s writing, very quickly, that they are burdened with the same kinds of biases that religious proponents are.  None of us can escape our biases completely, but it seems that religious skeptics, like Martin and Hoover, believe that they can.

The reason any person writes about anything is because they have interest in the subject they are writing about.  Nobody writes about subjects they care nothing about, and if they did, we would rightly ignore most of what they write.  Paul deeply cared about what happened to Jesus, and we should, therefore, pay close attention to what he said.  To discount his testimony because he became a believer is the height of hyper-skepticism.

  • DonS

    Excellent commentary, Bill!

  • Boz

    I’m just checking to confirm that that there is no quotemining. Where did Roy Hoover write these sentences? Where did Michael Martin write these sentences?


  • I too am curious about the context of MIchael Martin’s statement since he seems to be responding to a claim often made by apologists that Paul is somehow particularly trustworthy by virtue of having been an opponent of Christianity at one time. There is nothing in the quoted passage to suggest that Martin is arguing that a person must be religiously agnostic in order to be a credible witness. Rather he appears merely to be arguing that a person doesn’t become any more credible by virtue of having changed his religious beliefs.

    From the quotations provided, it is far from clear to me that Roy Hoover is “simply writing off those who became believers.” Whenever someone resorts to gratuitous Nazi analogies, I smell a straw man.

  • Boz & VinnyJH,

    The trail is slightly murky. Here is what we have.

    Paul Copan & R. K. Tacellis wrote Jesus Resurrection: Fact or Figment? (InterVarsity Press, 2000)—a transcript and editorial of a debate between Dr. William Craig and Dr. Gerd Ludemann. The book concludes with four responses, including a response from Roy Hoover (of the Jesus Seminar) the quote in The Resurrection of Jesus is taken from pp. 134-135. Alas, the section is unavailable from Google books.

    Interestingly, this section in Licona’s book (including the Nazi’s) appears almost word for word in Habermas & Licona’s “Case for the Resurrection of Jesus” pg. 282. That section IS in google books, if you care to re-read it.

    The Michael Martin quote comes from The Case Against Christianity (1991), p 84 (available to read through google books)

  • Thanks, Don. I appreciate the encouragement!