What Are Some Examples of Bias Affecting Historical Scholarship on Jesus?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In the previous blog post, I cited Mike Licona’s analysis of horizons and their impact on historical interpretation.  In this post, I will go back to Licona and review just a handful of the numerous examples he gives of horizons affecting particular scholars’ historical analysis.

The scholars who Licona quotes are all affected by a strong anti-supernatural presupposition. Seeing these concrete examples should prove to be quite eye-opening to those outside the historical  research community.

The first example comes from Charles Hartshorne, a scholar who The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy refers to as “one of the most important philosophers of religion and metaphysicians of the twentieth century.” Licona describes Hartshorne making the “following comments in reference to a debate on the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus between then-atheist philosopher Antony Flew and Christian philosopher Gary Habermas”:

I can neither explain away the evidences [for the resurrection] to which Habermas appeals, nor can I simply agree with [the skeptical position]. … My metaphysical bias is against resurrections.

According to Licona,

Flew himself later said, “This is in fact the method of critical history. You try to discover what actually happened, guided by your best evidence, as to what was probable or improbable, possible or impossible. And the miracles are things that you just take to be impossible.”

Continuing with examples, “A. N. Harvey confidently asserts that the biblical picture of Jesus is ‘incompatible with historical inquiry’ and requires a ‘sacrifice of the intellect’ to hold it.”  Harvey also writes, “An historical event which involves a resurrection from the dead is utterly inconceivable.”

Harrington adds that believing that the corpse will one day be reanimated and transformed is to “ask too much of my credulity.”

Licona then reveals the horizons of one the most famous NT scholars of the 20th century, Gerd Ludemann.

It is clear that the horizon of atheist New Testament scholar Gerd Ludemann is a driving force behind his historical conclusions when he a priori rules out the historicity of the ascension of Jesus reported in Acts 1:9-11 “because there is no such heaven to which Jesus may have been carried.”

Tabor makes similar remarks:

Women do not get pregnant without a male—ever. So Jesus had a human father…. Dead bodies don’t rise. . . . So, if the tomb was empty the historical conclusion is simple— Jesus’ body was moved by someone and likely reburied in another location.

Licona then cites Jewish scholar Alan Segal:

When a heavenly journey is described literally, the cause may be literary convention or the belief of the voyager; but when reconstructing the actual experience, only one type can pass modern standards of credibility.

These kinds of examples can go on and on.  Because these are historical scholars writing books about the life of Jesus, it is imperative for the reader to understand the anti-supernatural horizon of these writers.  This fact must be taken into account when reading their works.

Of course the same could be said of Christians who are writing on the historical Jesus, but everyone recognizes Christian scholars’ horizons, while non-Christians often try to deny they bring any presuppositions to their historical Jesus research.  This is obviously false.

  • If I were to discuss the history of ancient Greece with a Christian apologist, I suspect that we would have very few disagreements about the most likely explanations for the evidence. When we did differ, I suspect that we would both acknowledge that the evidence was such that reasonable minds could differ. Moreover, I further suspect that the question of our presuppositions regarding the supernatural would never arise. Only when discussing certain events that occurred in 1st century Palestine does the apologist accuse me of an anti-supernatural bias.

    If I discussed the history of antebellum America with the same apologist, the issue of those presuppositions would never arise; however, it would if I discussed certain events that occurred in upstate New York with a Mormon apologist. Similarly the issue might arise if I discussed certain 7th century events that occurred on the Arabian Peninsula with a Muslim apologist.

    Is anyone else struck by the fact that the question of anti-supernatural presuppositions only arises when apologists discuss the faith based claims of their own religious traditions? In all other historical inquiries, the apologists recognize the validity of methodological naturalism.

  • Boz

    You would of course agree that the same point can be made about Vespasian and Appollonius and Hubbard and Sathya Sai Baba and any other figure with magical stories attached?

  • Boz

    Would you agree?