Will There Ever Be a Historical Consensus that Jesus Was Resurrected? Part 1

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.

  • And of course in evaluating the claims of Mormons, we should only listen to scholars who have really studied the question of the Golden Plates and the Angel Moroni in depth, and we should only listen to them if their worldview makes them open to Joseph Smith’s claims.

  • If there are so many problems with the scholarly consensus in historical Jesus studies, doesn’t that also undercut Licona’s use of that same consensus to establish his “historical bedrock”? If scholars in this field cannot figure out a way to minimize the impact of their biases on their conclusions, why should I take any of their conclusions seriously?

    Contrary to Licona’s assertion, the reason to trust scholars in any particular field is not just because they have studied the issues in depth. After all, Holocaust deniers sometimes spend their entire lives obsessing about the most minute historical details. The reason to trust scholars is that their conclusions have been vetted in the peer review process by the most objective methods possible. If that isn’t going on, there is no reason for anyone outside the field to trust the conclusions of those inside it.

  • I don’t think you read the post. I specifically said that using scholarly consensus is a good positive test, but a poor negative test. The historical bedrock is something that virtually all scholars agree upon, and thus we can use their consensus as a positive test and say that, yes, these facts are likely true.

    In addition, Licona is not just talking about methods and criteria used specifically in Jesus studies. The whole purpose of his book is to put to use the exact same methodologies and criteria used by professional historians in all areas of study. He has not carved out a special set of criteria for Jesus studies.

    So, if you want to throw out historical facts because you are disappointed that historical scholars cannot minimize their biases to a greater extent, than you won’t just be throwing out historical Jesus evidence. You will be throwing out all historical evidence where there are any worldview, political, philosophical, or other controversial issues involved, a step I very much doubt you want to take.

  • Bill,

    I did read your post, but I am disagreeing with you.

    Let my repeat my point: the value of the scholarly consensus depends on the integrity of the peer review process, not our ability to determine the objectivity of individual scholars. If the peer review process in a particular field is not sufficient to adequately offset the effect of individual biases, then I cannot consider the conclusions in that field to be facts in the first place, regardless of how many scholars agree about them.

  • Then you cannot consider there to be any historical facts whatsoever. And in that case, I am deeply confused as to why you constantly want to comment upon history on this blog, a field about which you are claiming nothing can be known to be true.

  • Another comment about peer review. Why do you believe that this procedure is the be-all, end-all criteria for rendering something to be a fact? We can all think of numerous facts that we know are true that have never been published in a peer review process. In addition, we can all think of facts that have been peer reviewed that turn out to be false.

    Just to pick one example, the intelligent design community has published dozens of articles in peer reviewed journals, but I’m guessing you would not want to say their conclusions are correct.

    I think peer review can be useful for excluding crack-pot claims that use shoddy evidence and poor methodology, but that’s about it. It does not guarantee that what is published is true. I would say that like consensus, it can be a positive test, but it cannot be a negative test. If something is published in a peer reviewed journal, that is a plus for its claims, but it is not sufficient to make it true.

  • Bill,

    I am not aware of any scholar of American history, Ancient Roman history, or European history who questions the workings of the peer review process in his field in the way that Licona does. Therefore I need not reject the possibility of knowing historical facts in other fields just because there are unique problems in historical Jesus studies. That’s just another one of your straw men.

    I am not claiming that peer reviewed scholarship is the be-all and end-all or that it guarantees the right answer. However, for a non-expert in a particular field who doesn’t have the time or the ability to study every issue on his own, it’s the best thing going.

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