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?
In part 1 of this two-part series, we started looking at the writings of historical scholar Mike Licona on the issue of consensus in historical Jesus studies. Excerpts are taken from his book The Resurrection of Jesus. We pick up where we left off.
Given the challenges of historical consensus, especially with regard to the historical Jesus, what should we expect in the future? According to Licona,
It is highly unlikely that a consensus will ever exist pertaining to the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. While strong agreement exists regarding a number of “facts” often used as evidence to support the resurrection hypothesis, no consensus will ever exist for the conclusion that the resurrection hypothesis is an accurate description of what actually occurred.
After all, how likely is it that historians who are Muslims and atheists will confess that the resurrection hypothesis is the best explanation or that Christian historians will confess that the resurrection hypothesis is not the best explanation? Yet, either Jesus rose from the dead or he did not; and historians holding one of these positions are more correct than those holding the other.
Because of the uncertainty of historical knowledge, many historical descriptions will never receive a stamp of approval from the consensus of the relevant scholars. This should not restrain the historian from stating that his or her hypothesis is probably true.
Licona concludes that a consensus that Jesus was resurrected will elude us for the foreseeable future. This fact does not mean that Jesus did not rise from the dead, only that consensus across a broad spectrum of scholars is impossible given the major influence of worldviews. After all, an admission that Jesus rose from the dead would usually entail a radical realignment of the worldview of a non-Christian scholar. Although this may happen from time to time, it is highly unlikely to happen at a high enough rate to create a consensus.
As Christians, where does this leave us? I think it means that we are free to point out where there is a positive consensus about the historical facts about Jesus, but we must realize that those facts will only give us a minimal list of true facts. Beyond the minimal consensus facts, we may argue for additional facts using solid historical criteria, but we should not expect non-Christian scholars to always agree with our arguments.
We also now have an idea why there are such divergent views on the historical Jesus. Although scholars may agree on a short list of facts, many of them feel free to argue for additional “facts” that suit their worldview. As lay people reading books written by historical Jesus scholars, we must always be on guard for the author’s worldview nosing its way into the book.
Another implication is that reading historical Jesus works from one side of the philosophical or theological spectrum will never be enough to get a reasonable view of the historical evidence. Readers must force themselves to pick up works from the other side of the spectrum as well.
A co-worker of mine once told me he longer believed in the historical Jesus of Christian tradition after reading a book by a liberal Jesus scholar. When I asked if he read works by believing Christians or conservatives, he answered “no.” He just assumed that the scholar he read had the final word. As Licona has shown, no scholar has the final word. We must all engage the evidence for ourselves.