Friday, November 12, 2010

A Review Of Michael Licona's The Resurrection Of Jesus (Part 1)

I recently finished reading Michael Licona's The Resurrection Of Jesus (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2010). It's a great book. The scholarly endorsements speak for themselves. I'm only a layman who occasionally reads articles and books about the resurrection, so I'm not as qualified to judge the book as others. But the same is true of most of those who will read it. Even though I've had an above average interest in the resurrection for years, and have read however many thousands of pages of material on the subject, I found Licona's book to be a goldmine of new and rare information. I also think it treats some of its subject matter better than any other source I'm familiar with.

It's particularly good on historiography, the Pauline evidence, and the evidence against naturalistic explanations for the resurrection appearances (hallucinations and related phenomena). As Licona notes, the Pauline evidence is commonly considered "the strongest brick in [the resurrection hypothesis'] foundation" (n. 471 on p. 603). His treatment of that evidence is superb, especially concerning 1 Corinthians 15. The book would be highly significant even if it consisted only of his comments on that one passage. And his material on hallucination theories is the best I've seen. I've often recommended Gary Habermas' article on the subject written several years ago, but Licona's treatment is better. Unfortunately, though, it's broken up into different places in the book, so it isn't as organized and easy to think through as Habermas' article. Hopefully, Licona will eventually pull all of his material on the subject together into something like the article by Habermas.

Any book on the resurrection has to be highly selective in what it covers. The subject can be approached from so many different angles. Licona distinguishes between conclusions accepted by nearly all scholars and conclusions that aren't as widely accepted. He first judges between hypotheses by the most widely accepted conclusions. He then goes to what he considers secondary conclusions, ones less widely accepted, if a judgment can't be made by means of the primary ones. He takes the minimal facts approach further than William Lane Craig and Gary Habermas. He doesn't even include the empty tomb among the core facts by which he evaluates the competing hypotheses. He comments on the widespread scholarly acceptance of the empty tomb, but he doesn't make a case for its historicity. He argues for the superiority of a resurrection hypothesis without making appeal to the empty tomb. Though he mentions that some scholars argue for the traditional authorship attributions of the gospels, and he cites some of the relevant sources, he doesn't argue for any of those attributions himself. He sometimes argues for the historicity of some portions of the gospels, but his focus is on a core set of facts that isn't dependent on the gospels. He isn't arguing for the inerrancy or harmonization of the Biblical material. A lot of the evidence that could be cited in support of the resurrection isn't discussed much or at all.

There are tradeoffs involved in any approach. I don't think Licona's approach has the best overall balance. But there is some merit to it. One advantage is that he'll probably get a wider academic audience for his book, as its endorsements suggest. A case for the resurrection that focuses to such an extent on such widely accepted conclusions is likely to get more of a hearing in some circles. His approach also simplifies the controversy in some ways, and it highlights the evidential significance of the core facts he focuses on. There are some disadvantages to his approach. I agree with putting the most emphasis on the facts supported by the best evidence, and I agree with highlighting the facts that are the most widely accepted among scholars. But I think the lesser facts (lesser in terms of evidence and lesser in terms of scholarly acceptance) should be more prominent than they are in Licona's work (and Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig's, for example). I see the reasoning behind putting more emphasis on the creed of 1 Corinthians 15 than gospel authorship, for example, but I wouldn't give gospel authorship as little attention as people like Licona and Craig give it. We should recognize that alternatives to Licona's approach involve tradeoffs as well, though. They have their own weaknesses. Licona's approach is unique or unusual in some ways, and I think it accomplishes some good things, though it's not the approach I would take.

There's a lot of valuable material in the book that I'll be using in the future. But in the coming days, I want to discuss some of my disagreements with the book, what it doesn't cover and where I think it's wrong at some points. The book is around 700 pages long. I can't address every agreement or disagreement I have with it. But I do want to explain some more of the concerns I have. All of my criticisms will be of a minor or moderate variety. I don't have any major disagreements with the book. After I've discussed some examples of my disagreements, I'll have a lot more that's positive to say, including some quotes from some of the best parts of the book.


  1. Good review Jason. I look forward to your additional posts on this.

  2. For all his extended discussion of historiography, I was surprised that he didn't address the legitimacy of the criteria used to identify historical bedrock. They are the classic criteria used in HJ studies, i.e. multiple independent attestation, embarrassment, historical plausibility, etc. but surely Licona is aware that these criteria have come under sustained criticism by both fairly liberal (Dale Allison) and fairly conservative (Stanley Porter) scholars. In "Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet", Allison made what I thought at the time was a pretty convincing case that such criteria are quite 'blunt' when it comes to probing the foundation of the Jesus tradition. It seems Licona uses them pretty conservatively (that is, he doesn't expect too much from them) and the facts he argues are bedrock have a very strong claim to be such, but I still would have thought he would at least try to justify their usefulness, like our own Chris Price has done recently for the criterion of embarrassment.