Tag Archives: Mike Licona

How Did Roman Crucifixion Kill Jesus?

James A. Brooks, in Mark, vol. 23, The New American Commentary , writes:

Crucifixion seems to have been invented by the Persians, who transmitted it to the Carthaginians, from whom the Romans learned it. It was the ultimate Roman punishment for slaves and provincials, but it was not used for Roman citizens. It was one of the most horrifying forms of execution ever devised. After having been stripped and flogged, the victim was lashed and/or nailed to a pole. John 20:25 certainly implies that Jesus’ hands at least were nailed (cf. Acts 2:23; Col 2:14). Evidently there were different styles of crosses including a single upright pole and two crossed poles in the form of an X, but the most common seems to have been a vertical pole and a horizontal one in the form of a T with the crossbar either at the top or near the top of the vertical piece. The usual practice was for the condemned to carry the crossbar to the place of execution where he was affixed to it and where it was hoisted upon the vertical stake that was permanently fixed. Death usually came slowly as a result of exposure and exhaustion. Inasmuch as no vital organ was damaged, it often took two or three days for the subject to die, although death could be hastened by breaking the legs (cf. John 19:31–33).

Norman Geisler writes in the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics :

The nature of the crucifixion assures death. . . . Jesus hung on the cross from 9 in the morning until just before sunset (Mark 15:25, 33). He bled from gashes in his hands and feet and from the thorns that pierced his scalp. These wounds would have drained away much blood over more than six hours. Plus, crucifixion demands that one constantly pull up by the hands and push on the injured feet in order to breathe. This caused excruciating pain from the nails. . . .

Beyond these injuries, Jesus’ side was pierced with a spear. From this wound flowed a mixture of blood and water (John 19:34), a proof that physical death had occurred. This detail alone, and its confirmation by modern medical experts, strongly validates the claim that this narrative is an eyewitness account. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (21 March 1986) concluded:

‘Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted and supports the traditional view that the spear, thrust between his right rib, probably perforated not only the right lung but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured his death. Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.’

Jesus said he was dying when he declared on the cross, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’ (Luke 23:46). And when ‘he had said this, he breathed his last’ (vs. 46). John renders this, ‘he gave up his spirit’ (John 19:30). His death cry was heard by those who stood nearby (Luke 23:47–49).

The Roman soldiers, accustomed to crucifixion and death, pronounced Jesus dead. Although it was a common practice to break the legs of the victim to speed death (so that the person could no longer breathe), they did not believe it necessary to break Jesus’ legs (John 19:33).

Pilate double-checked to make sure Jesus was dead before he gave the corpse to Joseph to be buried. ‘Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph’ (Mark 15:44–45).

Jesus was wrapped in about 100 pounds of cloth and spices and placed in a sealed tomb for three days (Matt. 27:60; John 19:39–40). If he was not dead by then, the lack of food, water, and medical treatment would have finished him.

There is simply no way that Jesus did not die on the cross. But let’s pretend that somehow he was only near death when he was put in the tomb. What would have happened next? Michael Licona, in The Resurrection of Jesus, describes the scene:

D. F. Strauss’s critique is every bit as pertinent today as it was on the day he offered it. He asked us to suppose that a man was removed from his cross half dead, buried in a tomb and somehow reenergized after a few days. Having awakened from his stupor and wanting out of the dark tomb, he places his nail-pierced hands on the very heavy stone blocking his entrance and pushes it out of the way. He then walks blocks on pierced and wounded feet in search of his disciples. Finally, he arrives at the place they are staying and knocks on the door, which Peter opens only to see a severely wounded and dehydrated Jesus who is hunched over and looks up at Peter and through his extreme pain grimaces and says, ‘I’m the firstfruits of the general resurrection!’ Such a Jesus would never have convinced his disciples that he was the risen prince of life. Alive? Barely. Resurrected? Never. Allison comments, ‘How a flagellated, half-dead victim of the hideous torture of crucifixion could impress others as triumphant over death is hard to envisage.’

Did Jesus Really Die on the Cross? Part 2


And the fourth line of evidence is

the very low probability of surviving crucifixion. As noted earlier, crucifixion and the torture that many times preceded it was a very brutal process. In fact, only one account exists in antiquity of a person surviving crucifixion. Josephus reported seeing three of his friends crucified. He quickly pleaded with his friend the Roman commander Titus, who ordered that all three be removed immediately and provided the best medical care Rome had to offer. In spite of these actions, two of the three still died. Thus, even if Jesus had been removed from his cross prematurely and medically assisted, his chances of survival were quite bleak. In addition, no evidence exists that Jesus was removed while alive or that he was provided any medical care whatsoever, much less Rome’s best.

Licona summarizes the views of historians with quotes from across the ideological spectrum:

Given the strong evidence for Jesus’ crucifixion, without good evidence to the contrary the historian must conclude that the process killed him. This is the conclusion shared by virtually all scholars who have studied the subject. John McIntyre comments, ‘Even those scholars and critics who have been moved to depart from almost everything else within the historical content of Christ’s presence on earth have found it impossible to think away the factuality of the death of Christ.’ McIntyre is quite correct.  Atheist Gerd Ludemann writes, ‘Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.’ Crossan, who denies the authenticity of a large majority of the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus in the canonical Gospels, comments that there is not the ‘slightest doubt about the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion under Pontius Pilate’ and, ‘That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.’ For the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes, ‘The passion of Jesus is part of history.’ The rather skeptical scholar Paula Fredriksen writes, ‘The single most solid fact about Jesus’ life is his death: he was executed by the Roman prefect Pilate, on or around Passover, in the manner Rome reserved particularly for political insurrectionists, namely, crucifixion.’

Licona wraps up his analysis:

In summary, the historical evidence is very strong that Jesus died by crucifixion. The event is multiply attested by a number of ancient sources, some of which are non-Christian and thus not biased toward a Christian interpretation of events. They appear in multiple literary forms, being found in annals, historiography, biography, letters, and tradition in the form of creeds, oral formulas, and hymns. Some of the reports are very early and can reasonably be traced to the Jerusalem apostles. The Passion Narratives appear credible, since they fulfill the criterion of embarrassment and contain numerous plausible details. Finally, the probability of surviving crucifixion was very low.

Did Jesus Really Die on the Cross? Part 1

Many Muslims, and other skeptics of Christianity, deny that Jesus actually died on the cross. They promote theories that Jesus had a twin that died, or that someone took Jesus’ place on the cross, or that a drug put Jesus into a coma-like state until he revived in the tomb. What evidence is there that Jesus actually died from crucifixion?

Virtually all historical scholars agree that Jesus died from crucifixion. Historian Michael Licona, in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach , argues that there are at least four reasons that scholars come to this position.

The first evidence is that Jesus’ death by crucifixion is multiply attested by a fair number of ancient sources, Christian and non-Christian alike. It is very probable that [the Jewish historian] Josephus reported the event in his original version of Antiquities of the Jews 18.3. [The ancient Roman historian] Tacitus, [ancient pagan writers] Lucian and Mara bar Serapion are all certainly aware of the event. Lucian adds that Jesus’ crucifixion took place in Palestine.

In Christian sources, Jesus’ execution is widely reported, with and without specifying the mode of crucifixion. All four canonical Gospels report Jesus’ death by crucifixion as do numerous other books and letters of the New Testament that refer to it regularly. Jesus’ death and/or crucifixion are also abundantly mentioned in noncanonical literature. Moreover, there is no ancient evidence to the contrary.

A second evidence for Jesus’ death by crucifixion is that the reports are early. Paul mentions Jesus’ death by crucifixion no later than A.D. 55 (1 Corinthians, Galatians) and said he preached the same to those in Corinth in A.D. 51, or within twenty-one years of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ death may be alluded to in Q [a hypothetical source for Matthew and Luke], which may be contemporary to Paul. It appears numerous times in the kerygma of the oral formulas. The earliest report of Jesus’ death is found in the tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3. Virtually all scholars who have written on the subject hold that Paul here provides tradition about Jesus that he received from others. There is likewise widespread agreement that it was composed very early, reflected what was being taught by the Jerusalem apostles, and is the oldest extant tradition pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus. It is really quite amazing to think that we are probably reading what was taught by the original disciples of Jesus.

A third evidence for Jesus’ death by crucifixion is that the Passion Narratives appear largely credible given their satisfying of the criterion of embarrassment and the plausibility of certain peripheral details. Earlier we observed that a number of accounts existed of Jewish martyrs who acted bravely under circumstances of extreme torture and execution. In light of these, reports of a weaker Jesus at his arrest and crucifixion could cause embarrassment in contrast. . . .

For this reason, we get a sense that in the canonical Gospels we are reading authentic reports of Jesus’ arrest and death, even if Luke may have cleaned up or omitted some of those embarrassing details, and John all of them, and even if some embellishments are present. Accordingly, the embarrassing elements in the Passion Narratives weigh in favor of the presence of historical kernels. These include, most importantly in our investigation, Jesus’ death by crucifixion.

What are some of the other peripheral details in the Passion Narratives that lend credence to the death of Jesus by crucifixion?

Lucian reports of crowds following those on their way to being crucified and renders plausible Luke’s statement that a crowd of people followed Jesus on his way to being crucified. John reports that because it was the day of preparation for the Passover, the Jewish leaders asked Pilate to remove from their crosses the bodies of Jesus and of the two thieves crucified with him so that they would not remain there on the Sabbath. Pilate granted their request and ordered that their legs be broken in order to expedite death. When they came to break the legs of Jesus, the soldiers noticed that he was already dead and instead pierced his side with a spear, upon which blood and water came out. . . . Breaking the legs of crucified victims is also reported by [ancient Roman orator] Cicero and the [third century apocryphal] Gospel of Peter. In the latter, breaking the legs is forbidden so that the crucified victim would actually suffer longer. The skeletal remains of a crucified victim named Yehohanan ben Hagakol were discovered in Jerusalem in 1968. Of interest is that one of his shins had been smashed, although it has also been theorized that this occurred when removing his corpse from the cross.

Licona continues:

The Romans often left crucified victims on their crosses for some time after they had died in order to become food for birds and dogs. However, Josephus provides an interesting report that indicates Jerusalem was an exception. Two or three years prior to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, mercenaries for Rome killed some Jewish high priests and did not permit their burial. Josephus adds that until then the Jews had taken great care in their burial of the dead, burying the crucified prior to sunset. . . .

John reports that when the soldiers saw that Jesus was already dead, rather than break his legs, they pierced him in order to provide some ‘death insurance.’ This too has plausibility, given Quintilian’s statement: Cruces succiduntur, percussos sepeliri carnifex non vetat. (As for those who die on the cross, the executioner does not forbid the burying of those who have been pierced.)


Do Historical Scholars Think Jesus Existed? #2 Post of 2012

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Every once in a while, you may hear from hyper-skeptics that Jesus probably never existed, or that if he did exist, we cannot know anything about him because the historical evidence is so poor.  Mike Licona, in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, provides a sampling of quotes from scholars who have studied the historical Jesus, and who regard the idea that Jesus never existed as simply false.  These quotes span from 1958 to present day.

Truth is not determined by a vote, but when it comes to historical studies, it certainly is important to see where the scholarly consensus lies.  After all, these people have supposedly studied the evidence far more than the average person.  So, below I have copied Licona’s collection of quotes just to give you an idea of the consensus opinion on the existence of Jesus.

Bultmann (1958): “Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the oldest Palestinian community.”

Bornkamm (I960): “To doubt the historical existence of Jesus at all . . . was reserved for an unrestrained, tendentious criticism of modern times into which it is not worth while to enter here.”

Marxsen (1970): “I am of the opinion (and it is an opinion shared by every serious historian) that the theory [‘that Jesus never lived, that he was a purely mythical figure’] is historically untenable.”

Grant (1977): “To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ-myth theory. It has ‘again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rank scholars.’  In recent years ‘no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus’—or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.”

M. Martin (1991): “Well’s thesis [that Jesus never existed] is controversial and not widely accepted.”

Van Voorst (2000): “Contemporary New Testament scholars have typically viewed their [i.e., Jesus mythers] arguments as so weak or bizarre that they relegate them to footnotes, or often ignore them completely.”

Burridge and Could (2004):  “There are those who argue that Jesus is a figment of the Church’s imagination, that there never was a Jesus at all. I have to say that I do not know any respectable critical scholar who says that any more.”

Allison (“Explaining,” 2005): “No responsible scholar can find any truth in it.”

Maier (2005): “the total evidence is so overpowering, so absolute that only the shallowest of intellects would dare to deny Jesus’ existence.”

R. J. Miller in Scott, ed. (Finding, 2008): “We can be certain that Jesus really existed (despite a few hyper-historical skeptics who refuse to be convinced).”

Vermes (2008): “Let me state plainly that I accept that Jesus was a real historical person.  In my opinion, the difficulties arising from the denial of his existence, still vociferously maintained in small circles of rationalist ‘dogmatists,’ far exceed those deriving from its acceptance.”

C. A. Evans in Evans and Wright (2009): “No serious historian of any religious or nonreligious stripe doubts that Jesus of Nazareth really lived in the first century and was executed under the authority of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea and Samaria.”

Why Is Paul So Important to Historians Studying the Resurrection of Jesus? #5 Post of 2012

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Historical scholar Mike Licona, in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, asks just this question.  His answer is important to understand.

A priority must be assigned to Paul because he is the earliest known author to mention the resurrection of Jesus, and there are numerous extant texts he wrote that give us clues pertaining to the nature of Jesus’ resurrection.  Paul’s letters are the only verifiable reports by a verifiable eyewitness of the risen Jesus himself.  And he personally knew the other disciples, who were also claiming that the risen Jesus had appeared to them in both individual and group settings.

Paul’s conversion is especially interesting because he was an enemy of the church when his experience of the risen Jesus occurred.  Therefore Jesus’ resurrection is reported not only by his friends but also by at least someone who was a vehement foe at the time of the experience.  Paul’s belief that he had witnessed the risen Christ was so strong that he, like the original disciples, was willing to suffer continuously for the sake of the gospel, even to the point of martyrdom.

Let’s recap what Licona is saying.  Paul is important because:

  1. He is the earliest known author to mention the resurrection of Jesus.
  2. There are numerous extant texts he wrote that give us clues pertaining to the nature of Jesus’ resurrection.
  3. Paul’s letters are the only verifiable reports by a verifiable eyewitness of the risen Jesus himself.
  4. He personally knew the other disciples, who were also claiming that the risen Jesus had appeared to them in both individual and group settings.
  5. He was an enemy of the church when his experience of the risen Jesus occurred.
  6. He was willing to suffer and be martyred because his belief in the risen Jesus was so strong.

In future posts, we will look at a couple of skeptical arguments as to why we should discount Paul’s writings as evidence of the resurrection.  Licona presents these arguments and then responds to them, so stay tuned.

How Do We Overcome Our Horizons (Biases)? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 of the post series, we looked at three guidelines for historians who are attempting to limit the undue influence of their horizons. These guidelines are taken from Mike Licona’s book The Resurrection of Jesus. In part 2, we will review Licona’s next three guidelines.

4. Submitting ideas to unsympathetic experts may assist in minimizing the negative impact of horizon. This is taking peer pressure to the next step by submitting our interpretation of data and historical descriptions to those who are certain to have a different opinion and a motivation to locate weaknesses in competing hypotheses. While historians are inclined to catch comments that support the view they embrace and to skim quickly through comments that oppose it, their critics are not so inclined and will labor diligently to identify and expose weaknesses.

5. Account for the relevant historical bedrock. Some facts are so evidenced that they are virtually indisputable. These facts are referred to as “historical bedrock” since any legitimate hypothesis should be built on it. If a hypothesis fails to explain all of the historical bedrock, it is time to drag that hypothesis back to the drawing board or to relegate it to the trash bin. Historical bedrock includes those facts that meet two criteria. First, they are so strongly evidenced that the historian can fairly regard them as historical facts. Second, the majority of contemporary scholars regard them as historical facts.

6. Detachment from bias is non-negotiable. . . . Roy Hoover articulates this principle well: “To cultivate the virtue of veracity, you have to be willing to part with the way tradition and conventional wisdom say things are, or with the way you would prefer things to be, and be ready to accept the way things really are. Veracity has to be the principal moral and intellectual commitment of any science or scholarship worthy of the name. That means, as I see it, that as a critical biblical scholar you have to be concerned first of all not with how your research turns out, not with whether it will confirm or disconfirm the beliefs or opinions or theories you had when you began the inquiry. You have to care only about finding out how things really are—with finding evidence sufficient to enable you to discover that and with finding also whether or not what you think you have discovered is sustainable when it is tested by the critical scrutiny of others.”

Licona observes that for a historian to be completely objective, or better said, completely unaffected by his horizon, is impossible.  However, if these guidelines are followed, biases can be kept in check enough so that objective scholarship results.

How Do We Overcome Our Horizons (Biases)? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Those who take on the task of interpreting the ancient accounts of Jesus’s life are faced with a difficult task.  As we’ve seen from previous posts, the horizon of each individual must be faced and addressed before investigation begins.

But does the horizon of an individual render objective study of history impossible?  Clearly not.  What a historian must do is limit the influence of his horizon on the historical investigation, especially when aspects of his horizon may directly distort his interpretations.

Mike Licona, in his book The Resurrection of Jesus, offers six guidelines for historians who are attempting to limit the undue influence of their horizon.  Licona goes into some detail about each of these guidelines, but I will only introduce them and give a brief description of each one from Licona’s book.

1. Method can serve as a means toward achieving greater objectivity. Method encompasses many parts, including the manner in which data are viewed, weighed and contextualized; criteria for testing the adequacy of hypotheses; and the fair consideration of competing hypotheses. Of course, method is not a sure means for avoiding too much subjectivity, but it is helpful. . . . Therefore, attention to method may reduce the amount of control a horizon has on a historians research, but it alone is inadequate.

2.  The historian’s horizon and method should be public. It is certain that at least portions of the historian’s horizon can be public or open to scrutiny. For example, historians who hold to the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus most likely have a theistic component to their horizons, and this component may be challenged. Methodological naturalists, who do not allow for the possibility of the supernatural in historical investigation, should likewise have their horizons open to challenge. Moreover, historians should be clear about the methods they employ for achieving results.

3. Peer pressure may also be helpful in minimizing the impact of horizon on the historian’s work. Judges of a sporting event such as gymnastics seem to be able to lay aside or at least minimize their prejudices and national pride when acting in the capacity of a judge. How is this accomplished when national pride and prejudice can be so strong? Perhaps it is the knowledge that a number of other judges with similar strictures are also making judgments and that, if the judgment of a particular judge is far different than those rendered by the other judges, it may reflect a personal bias of a sort. Thus, peer pressure can act as a check on bias and can serve to minimize the effects of horizon.

In part 2 of this series, we will look at the final 3 guidelines for curbing the influence of one’s horizon.

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.

What Role Do Worldviews Play in Historical Research?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

When it comes to a person interpreting historical texts, particularly where ultimate issues (e.g., heaven, hell, God, sin) are at stake, that person’s worldview (or horizon) often plays a critical role.  What is involved in a person’s horizon?

Historical scholar, Mike Licona, provides a useful explanation of horizon in his book The Resurrection of Jesus:

Horizon may be defined as one’s “preunderstanding.” It is how historians view things as a result of their knowledge, experience, beliefs, education, cultural conditioning, preferences, presuppositions and worldview.  Horizons are like sunglasses through which a historian looks. Everything she sees is colored by that horizon.

What are a couple of examples of how these sunglasses cash out in our everyday lives?

Take baseball, for example.  In a baseball game, if there was a close play at second base, do you think the runner was safe or out?  It depends on whether your son is the guy stealing second or the shortstop tagging him.  When we read books about Jesus, we find ourselves in agreement or disagreement with certain authors usually based on whether the Jesus they reconstruct is like the one we prefer.

Are there historians who are exempt from their horizons?

For better and for worse, historians are influenced by their culture, race, nationality, gender and ethics; their political, philosophical and religious convictions; their life experiences, the academic institutions they attended and the particular community of scholars from which they covet respect and acceptance. They cannot look at the data devoid of biases, hopes or inclinations. No historian is exempt.

After making the claim that no historian is exempt, Licona provides a long footnote which chronicles various scholars’s views on horizons.  He is not alone in making his claim:

Allison (“Explaining,” 2005): “To observe the obvious, people’s arguments regarding the origins of Christianity are unavoidably driven by large assumptions about the nature of the world, assumptions that cannot often if ever be the upshot of historical investigation” (133);

R. Evans (1999): “We know of course that we will be guided in selecting materials for the stories we tell, and in the way we put these materials together and interpret them, by literary methods, by social science theories, by moral and political beliefs, by an aesthetic sense, even by our own unconscious assumptions and desires. It is an illusion to believe otherwise” (217);

McCullagh (The Truth of History, 1998): “I conclude that the cultural bias now being discussed, which does not involve false or misleading descriptions of the past, is inescapable, and provides the main reason for saying that history is subjective. In this way I agree that history is subjective” (35);

Meier (1991): “Whether we call it a bias, a Tendenz, a worldview, or a faith stance, everyone who writes on the historical Jesus writes from some ideological vantage point; no critic is exempt” (5);

Moore-Jumonville (2002): “In the end, differences in hermeneutical method around the turn of the century (as today) had to do with one’s presuppositions and the relationship one constructed between theology and criticism” (167);

A. G. Padgett, “Advice for Religious Historians: On the Myth of a Purely Historical Jesus” in Davis, Kendall and O’Collins, cds. (1998): “World-views don’t just give us the questions we ask; they also affect our understanding of the evidence and our historical judgment. There just is no such thing as data apart from some interpretation” (293-94);

Waterman (2006): “We as observers must bear in mind an inevitable bias in our own theological interests. The latter is the so-called ‘historian’s subjectivity,’ which is influential in choosing and judging historical materials” (86-87; cf. 12).

What do we conclude from this brief survey of the effect of horizons on historical interpretation?

Horizons are of great interest to historians since they are responsible more than anything else for the embarrassing diversity among the conflicting portraits of the past.  How can so many historians with access to the same data arrive at so many different conclusions? Horizons. Geoffrey Elton writes, “The historian who thinks that he has removed himself from his work is almost certainly mistaken.”

Are we able to do objective historical analysis?  Yes.  Can we mitigate the effects of our horizons?  Yes.  But just like the first steps an alcoholic must take in getting treatment, you first have to admit that there is a problem.  After all, those who deny there is a problem with horizons in historical research are likely to be the most impacted by their horizons.

Should We Calculate Prior Probabilities to Determine if Jesus Was Resurrected?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I am aware that there are philosophers who employ Bayesian analysis to determine probabilities that historical events occurred, but I am becoming skeptical of the value of these analyses.  A Bayesian analysis requires a calculation of the prior probability that a historical event occurred, without considering any of the evidence we have that the event occurred.  But how we do calculate prior probabilities for a historical event?

I think the problem was clearly illustrated in a debate between Greg Cavin and Mike Licona.  Cavin mounted an attack on the resurrection of Jesus by arguing against the prior probability of it.  Remember that prior probability calculations ignore the actual evidence for the event.  Here is Licona’s summary of Cavin’s argument (note: Greg Cavin has contacted me and denied that he made the argument presented below, so I have edited the comments below to represent a generic argument made by a generic atheist named Bob; even if Cavin did not make this argument, I have heard arguments like it made plenty of other times by other atheists):

[Bob’s] first argument is the probability that Jesus rose is astronomically low, since, even if God exists, he doesn’t have a tendency to raise people from the dead. In support he said that, of the estimated 100 billion people who have lived and died on the Earth, the historical evidence is inadequate to suggest that any have been raised from the dead. So, even if the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection were good, there would still be only a 1 chance in 100 billion that Jesus was raised.
Bob argues that the prior probability of Jesus rising from the dead is 1 in 100 billion.  Given this low prior probability, there is no need to even look at the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.  The evidence doesn’t matter because it can never overcome 1 in 100 billion odds.  Here is Licona’s response:
I replied that historians don’t use prior probabilities in historical inquiry.  One cannot calculate the prior probability that the U.S. would drop nuclear bombs on Japan during WWII, since in all of human history no nation had dropped a nuclear bomb on another before or since WWII.  Moreover, I’ll be 51 in two weeks.  That’s a lot of days in my life. Yet Sunday was the first day I had ever spent in Temecula, California. Given my “tendency” not to go to Temecula, one should conclude that I wasn’t there that evening.  Historians examine a historical report then look at the evidence for the event occurring.  Thus, prior probabilities are the wrong tool for historical inquiry.  It’s like using a calculator for an archaeological dig.
I think Licona’s response is compelling.  You cannot determine whether a historical event occurred without actually examining the evidence for it.  Calculating prior probabilities may be an interesting exercise, but I doubt that it is the best way to approach historical inquiry.  It just doesn’t matter that resurrections are rare.  In fact, even Christians claim that resurrections are rare in history.  But that fact just has no bearing on whether Jesus rose from the dead.