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Will There Ever Be a Historical Consensus that Jesus Was Resurrected? Part 2

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.


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Comments

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    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?

    The simplest and most parsimonious answer to this question is that you are incorrect about the strength of the historical evidence.

  • DagoodS

    The
    problem I am seeing in this particular area is the obscuring between “scholar”
    and “historian.” While Dr. Habermas has
    allegedly amassed a huge database of “scholars” regarding Jesus’ resurrection,
    he had not released any data regarding the same. What qualifies as a “scholar” for Dr.
    Habermas? What is the individual
    scholars’ worldview?

    If,
    as Dr. Licona correctly states, one’s worldview impinges one’s view of history,
    isn’t it equally relevant what the world view of all these scholars is?

    Further,
    the works Dr. Habermas reviewed, because of the subject material—Jesus’
    resurrection—weighed heavily in favor of theologians and historians interested
    in this particular topic. Dr. Habermas
    did not review ALL historians—he reviewed all works associated with a
    particular and hotly contested event.

    For
    example, Dr. Habermas noted ¾ (75%) of the persons he reviewed believed in a resurrected
    Jesus—either bodily or spiritually. Yet one
    of the “facts” equally noted was that more than 2/3 of the persons reviewed
    also held to an Empty tomb. Is it a
    surprise the worldview of those holding to a resurrected Jesus would impact the
    “fact” of an empty tomb?*

    *Worse,
    Dr. Habermas noted upon review of his database that his initial estimation of ¾
    of these scholars believed in an empty tomb was incorrect; that actually only “more
    than 2/3” did. How many other “facts”
    will be modified upon a review of this database?

    Dr.
    Habermas has not released the underlying data, yet so many—including Dr. Licona—simply
    take his data as fact. Please
    understand, I am NOT questioning Dr. Habermas’ integrity. What I DO question is what qualifies as a
    scholar (would I?) and whether Dr. Habermas and Dr. Licona equally recognize
    the world view of all these scholars impacting their belief.

    If
    ¾ of these articles are written by theologians holding to a Christian view, are
    we surprised 2/3 of them hold to facts supporting a resurrected Jesus?

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com/ DagoodS

    The problem I am seeing in this particular area is the obscuring between “scholar” and “historian.” While Dr. Habermas has allegedly amassed a huge database of “scholars” regarding Jesus’ resurrection, he had not released any data regarding the same. What qualifies as a “scholar” for Dr. Habermas? What is the individual scholars’ worldview?

    If, as Dr. Licona correctly states, one’s worldview impinges one’s view of history, isn’t it equally relevant what the world view of all these scholars is?

    Further, the works Dr. Habermas reviewed, because of the subject material—Jesus’ resurrection—weighed heavily in favor of theologians and historians interested in this particular topic. Dr. Habermas did not review ALL historians—he reviewed all works associated with a particular and hotly contested event.

    For example, Dr. Habermas noted ¾ (75%) of the persons he reviewed believed in a resurrected Jesus—either bodily or spiritually. Yet one of the “facts” equally noted was that more than 2/3 of the persons reviewed also held to an Empty tomb. Is it a surprise the worldview of those holding to a resurrected Jesus would impact the “fact” of an empty tomb?*

    *Worse, Dr. Habermas noted upon review of his database that his initial estimation of ¾ of these scholars believed in an empty tomb was incorrect; that actually only “more than 2/3” did. How many other “facts” will be modified upon a review of this database?

    Dr. Habermas has not released the underlying data, yet so many—including Dr. Licona—simply take his data as fact. Please understand, I am NOT questioning Dr. Habermas’ integrity. What I DO question is what qualifies as a scholar (would I?) and whether Dr. Habermas and Dr. Licona equally recognize the world view of all these scholars impacting their belief.

    If ¾ of these articles are written by theologians holding to a Christian view, are we surprised 2/3 of them hold to facts supporting a resurrected Jesus?

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com/ DagoodS

    Bill…can you kindly delete my poetically-challenged extra post. I am trying to resolve this Disqus problem, and it is hit-or-miss. Thanks.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Done. The new Disqus is causing me problems as well. They have some bugs to work out, for sure.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Although Licona starts with Habermas, he also quotes numerous skeptical scholars who identify the same minimal facts that Habermas identifies. In other words, it’s not just Habermas he cites. In fact, arch-skeptic Bart Ehrman agrees with every one of the minimal facts that Licona identifies as historical bedrock in his book.

    On page 19 of Licona’s book, he says the following about Habermas’s research:

    “Gary Habermas is a professional philosopher noted for his specialization in the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. He served as director of my master’s thesis, which pertained to the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. Habermas has compiled a massive bibliography consisting of approximately 3,400 scholarly journal articles and books written in English, German and French between 1975 through the present, all on the subject of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. He has extensive knowledge of the relevant literature, the major contributors, the positions they maintain and the reasons why they maintain them. I asked Habermas if he was aware of any professional historian outside of the community of biblical scholars who had approached the question of the resurrection of Jesus. He was aware of only a handful who had contributed a few journal articles and one who had written a short book on the subject.”

    According to Licona and Habermas, there simply aren’t very many historians outside of the community of biblical scholars who study the facts around the resurrection, so they can hardly be faulted for not including scholars in the consensus who do not exist.

    However, if you paid attention to what Licona said, there is a broad cross-section of worldviews among biblical scholars, so it is not necessary to go outside that group to find heterogeneity.

  • Todd

    Historical evidence vs. scientific evidence should be any scholars main concern with their reputation if they intend to use historical evidence as the basis of truth about reality when clearly contradicting science. Resurrection is not possible regardless of historical evidence.

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com/ DagoodS

    Bill Pratt,

    I did not mean to imply there is anything incorrect or nefarious about looking at primarily Christian scholars concerning the Resurrection—I quite agree the subject itself naturally results in a much higher concentration of Christian scholars.

    Christians are more interested in the topic and therefore far more likely to write about it.

    However, if we are considering “worldviews” impacting historical studies, I think we should equally consider the Christian worldview impacting the study as well as the non-Christian. If a theologian qualifies as a “scholar” under Dr. Habermas’ unknown criterion, and reached a conclusion—Jesus resurrected—is it any surprise the same theologian will likewise hold to the facts underlying said conclusion?

    If ¾ of the scholars believe (by virtue of their worldview) Jesus was raised from the dead—and we are to take that into consideration regarding their conclusion—shouldn’t we likewise consider the same ¾’s belief in the underlying facts? And likewise take their worldview into consideration regarding the underlying facts?

    While I am aware numerous non-Christians agree with some of Dr. Habermas’ minimal facts (I agree with some myself) do any non-Christian scholars agree with the minimal facts approach to doing history? Or do they say, “Yes, BUT….” and look for more than the minimal facts?

    P.S. I am not sure what an “arch-skeptic” is, but I want to be one! It sounds like something that comes with a lair…I want a lair…and a cool outfit…

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Neither Licona nor Habermas, to my knowledge, have ever said that there is a majority or consensus of historians that say Jesus was resurrected. What they have said is that there is a consensus on several facts about Jesus and the early years of Christianity, and that these facts can be effectively used to argue that resurrection is the best explanation.

    Licona’s point in his book is that there never will be a consensus that Jesus rose from the dead because of the worldview problem. His conclusion that atheists and Muslims will never admit that the resurrection is the best explanation of the minimal facts seems, well, just obvious. I’m sure you would agree.

    In fact, as a nice illustration, Todd, on another blog post comment, just said today that he will never believe the resurrection occurred regardless of the historical evidence. I admire his honesty even though I think he is wearing thick blinders that literally block out reality from his gaze.

  • Todd

    Bill,

    The hurdle I can’t cross mentally is that resurrection is a scientific impossibility. It does not exist in reality. And while consensus for some historical events may provide our best guess of what happened when there was little recorded evidence, they should not be accepted if they do not adhere to the realm of what is physically possible. Reality is not dependent upon (or dictated by) consensus of historians. How do you reconcile your belief of historical evidence against scientific evidence? I agree that one of us is wearing reality blinders. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Ryan/511764596 Andrew Ryan

    Todd, I can’t quite get on board with this viewpoint. If evidence of the supernatural comes along, I’ll examine it. My deep suspicion is that the supernatural simply doesn’t exist. But I can’t shake the feeling that it is circular to reject the supernatural in principal on the basis that it’s scientifically impossible.

  • Todd

    Andrew,

    I’m not saying to dismiss everything that appears supernatural outright. Like many, if presented with irrefutable evidence of something ‘supernatural’, I will adjust my view of reality. However, this post is not discussing ‘the supernatural’ in general. We’re talking specifically about the resurrection of Jesus. Which, based on the historical evidence does not jive with the reality of death. Science, through centuries of death, is definitive on this subject. I agree that if new scientific evidence is presented that would cause us to re-examine the reality of death, we should proceed. But that evidence will have to be new evidence, something testable. Bill is discussing historical evidence, which is not testable. So, I would still affirm that historical evidence should not be taken seriously unless it conforms to reality.

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com/ DagoodS

    Bill Pratt,

    One wonders…if it is obvious (and I agree that it is)…why Dr. Licona felt the necessity to spend precious ink and space on the point?

    In the end, I realize three things:

    1) Since the majority of the writers on the Resurrection are Christians, the majority of the opinions in the written articles align with Christian thought. To proclaim “a majority of scholars believe facts supporting the Resurrection” when the majority of scholars looked at already hold the conclusion the Resurrection occurred is underwhelming. As termed…”obvious.”

    2) Unsurprisingly, even non-Christians agree with certain claimed facts. Like “Jesus died” or “People make claims regarding supernatural encounters.”

    3) In no other historical study do we utilize the “minimal facts” approach. Quite the opposite, historians hunger for more information; they do not limit themselves to small factual sets. The only time I see this approach used (and please forgive the comparison, but alas…it is appropriate) is by people with an agenda–Christian apologists, holocaust deniers and 9/11 truthers. Each want us to look at certain facts (many which we all agree) and ONLY those facts, without looking at the larger picture, or other problematic issues.

    While I agree worldviews impact one’s approach to historical studies, I do not see this favoring the Christian apologist minimal fact methodology.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Todd,
    You and I have been through this before. You saying that resurrection is a scientific impossibility is not something that you can know. You would have to be omniscient to know what is scientifically impossible. I think you need to question why you are so dogmatic and certain on this point. If I may be so bold, where is your intellectual humility?

    Most scientists believe that the universe and the scientific laws that govern the universe are contingent, meaning they could be otherwise. There is nothing about the way the universe works that says that it must work this way. We can imagine all sorts of variations on the laws of physics and chemistry.

    What that means is that it is entirely possible for there to be anomalies, or exceptional events that take place in our universe from time to time, especially if we accept that there is a supernatural agent out there who can override the scientific laws when he desires.

  • Ggodat

    Then i guess evolution is not true because every scientist clearly does not hold the same beliefs concerning it….

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    Not at all. It simply means that the evidence is not as conclusive on those points upon which scientists disagree.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    “One wonders…if it is obvious (and I agree that it is)…why Dr. Licona felt the necessity to spend precious ink and space on the point?”

    It is obvious to you and I, but there are plenty of people who seem oblivious to the role of worldview in their work. It is to those people Licona is writing.

    With regard to the minimal facts approach, I think you misunderstand the force of the argument. Habermas and Licona are not just satisfied to find a small set of facts about Jesus’s resurrection, and leave it at that. They believe that good cases can be made for a whole slew of additional historical facts about Jesus, above and beyond the minimal facts.

    Their point is that even if they limit themselves to these few facts, there is still a very strong case that can be made that the resurrection is the best explanation for those facts.

    This is an a fortiori argument. If the resurrection is the best explanation given a small number of undisputed facts, the case is even stronger if we allowed additional facts to strengthen the case. That is how Habermas has always presented his minimal facts argument, and I have heard him speak on it several times at conferences.

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