Post Author: Bill Pratt
If you are a Christian who is waiting for the day when most historical scholars, both Christian and non-Christian, affirm that the evidence does indeed indicate that Jesus was resurrected, I’m afraid you’ll be waiting until the Second Coming, when there will be no doubt. Why is that? If, as we say on this blog, the historical evidence for the resurrection is so strong, then shouldn’t every scholar be lining up behind it?
Historical scholar Mike Licona addresses this issue in his book The Resurrection of Jesus:
Given the prominent role of horizons [i.e., worldview] in every historical inquiry, we can anticipate that consensus opinions will often elude historians . . . . Unfortunately, rather than an objective and careful weighing of the data, the subjective horizons of historians, especially historians writing on religious, philosophical, political and moral topics, exert the most influence in their final judgments. Moreover, many members of the audience to whom historians present their research are no less biased. Accordingly, what is judged as sound and persuasive research to one group may be viewed as inadequate and overly biased by another.
Licona’s point is straightforward: worldviews (or horizons) of historians exert a strong influence on their interpretations of data. There may be some historians who can limit that influence, but there are just as many who cannot. He continues:
A consensus opinion can be valuable for recognizing objectivity when the group is composed of scholars from all interested camps with the exception of some fringe positions. Tucker cites agreement among historians of the Holocaust: “Jewish and Gentile, German and British, right-wing and left-wing historians agree that there was a Holocaust.”
Here is another important point. If you have agreement on historical facts from a full spectrum of worldviews, then this is valuable for recognizing objectivity. However, just because a historical interpretation does not garner assent from a broad spectrum does not indicate that it is not objective. In other words, consensus across a broad spectrum is a good positive test, but not a good negative test.
With regard to historical biblical studies, Licona offers the following analysis:
A group exhibiting greater heterogeneity is the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). Annual SBL meetings are attended by members of many theological and philosophical persuasions: liberals, conservatives, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists, all from numerous countries and ethnic groups from all over the world. If a consensus opinion is going to be of any value for historians, it must come from such a group.
However, a consensus from even this group is valuable only when all of its members opining on a subject have personally researched that particular subject. For example, a consensus opinion of all SBL members on a matter pertaining to a recent archaeological find has little value if less than five percent of all SBL members have a significant knowledge of that find and expertise in the field. Similarly, little if any value should be assigned to those scholars opining on the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus who have not engaged in serious research on the matter.
Licona argues that consensus opinion on the historical Jesus can be valuable coming from a group such as the SBL because of its heterogeneity. However, he warns that only scholars who have actually studied the subject in depth should be counted toward the consensus.
In part 2 of this series, we will finish off Licona’s analysis of consensus among historical biblical scholars.