Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Review Of Michael Licona's The Resurrection Of Jesus (Part 2)

Modern Miracles

Some people object to Jesus' resurrection on the basis of an alleged absence of modern miracles. If miracles don't occur today, why believe they occurred in ancient times?

Licona addresses the issue in his book. He mentions his own experiences with the paranormal (n. 75 on p. 491), and he cites Craig Keener's experiences with the miraculous (n. 18 on p. 139) and an upcoming book by Keener that discusses and documents modern miracles (n. 31 on p. 143). He also mentions some of the evidence for apparitions of the dead in the process of responding to a book on the resurrection by Dale Allison (pp. 625-629, 634-637). He quotes Keener's reference to the "anecdotal" nature of some of the evidence for modern miracles and "the unfortunate dearth of academic works cataloguing such claims" (n. 18 on p. 139).

While there is value in citing such anecdotal evidence, citing an upcoming book by Keener, mentioning Licona's own experiences with the paranormal, etc., I don't understand why Licona doesn't cite some of the relevant material that's already been published and widely discussed and is supported by better evidence. What about the paranormal research done by Stephen Braude, for example, as discussed in books like Immortal Remains (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003) and The Gold Leaf Lady (Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2007)? Or see this thread on our blog from a few years ago, in which another scholar who's researched the paranormal, Michael Sudduth, mentions some other sources. To get some idea of the nature of the evidence, see Sudduth's PowerPoint presentation on the mediumship of Leonora Piper here. Licona's mentor, Gary Habermas, often cites the example of near-death experiences. There's so much that Licona could have cited, but didn't, and his references to "anecdotal" evidence and a "dearth of academic works cataloguing such claims" could lead some readers to a misimpression that the evidence is far less than it actually is. The evidence for modern miracles is significantly better than Licona suggests.

The Significance Of Groups

Licona gives a lot of attention to the historical significance of individuals like Paul, Josephus, and Polycarp. He doesn't say as much as he ought to about groups, such as the audiences to whom men like Paul and Polycarp wrote.

Even if Ignatius wasn't a disciple of any of the apostles, some of the churches he wrote to had recently been in contact with one or more of the apostles. And Ignatius' church was itself an apostolic church. When Ignatius refers to the historicity and physicality of Jesus' resurrection in his letters, we shouldn't just ask how close of a relationship Ignatius had with the apostles and other resurrection witnesses. We should also ask how close of a relationship his church and the churches to whom he wrote had with those witnesses of the resurrection. The fact that such an early bishop of an apostolic church would write to other apostolic churches with the assumption of a common belief in Jesus' historical and physical resurrection is significant.

One of the primary reasons why churches like Rome and Ephesus were so prominent in the early patristic era was their historical relationship with one or more of the apostles. When the Roman church writes to the Corinthian church in the late first century, as we see in First Clement, we're getting information about two apostolic communities shortly after the death of some apostles who had been in contact with those churches. As Clement of Rome notes, there were old Christians still alive who had been in the Christian communities of that day from the time of their youth (First Clement, 63). The churches and some individuals within them had historical relationships with the apostles, even if some extant patristic authors, like Ignatius, didn't.

Along similar lines, it's significant when Irenaeus cites Jesus' "resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh" as core beliefs accepted across the Christian world (Against Heresies, 1:10:1). Irenaeus tells us that some heretics rejected some New Testament documents (3:11:7), but that most "do certainly recognise the Scriptures; but they pervert the interpretations" (3:12:12). The fact that documents relevant to the resurrection, like the gospels and the writings of Paul, were so widely accepted, even accepted by most heretics, is significant.

Similarly, it's significant when Celsus attributes to Christians in general the belief that Jesus rose from the dead in the same body that was in the tomb (in Origen, Against Celsus, 3:43, 8:49). Celsus is aware of exceptions (5:14), but he seems to think that a resurrection of the body that died is the mainstream Christian view (as opposed to a non-physical resurrection or one involving an exchange of bodies rather than a transformation of the body that died).

We need to look beyond individuals like Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Celsus to see the larger groups they're reflecting. Majorities can be wrong, but the more widespread a traditional Christian view of Jesus' resurrection was early on, the more difficult it is to argue that so many people misunderstood or rejected what the resurrection witnesses taught. As Irenaeus notes concerning the time when Clement of Rome lived, "there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles" (Against Heresies, 3:3:3). Such people would have had a significant role in shaping the beliefs of early Christianity. We don't need to know many of their names or possess many of their writings in order to make such judgments about their likely influence. I don't think Licona gives enough attention to group testimony and the significance of the widespread nature of the Christian claims about the resurrection. He touches on some of these points at times, but the argument could be developed much more than Licona develops it in his book.

Hostile Corroboration

I agree with Licona that it would be good to have "a few documents dating to the period between the 30s and 60s written by Roman and Jewish authorities describing their take" on matters relevant to Jesus' resurrection (pp. 587-588). What we do have from non-Christian sources isn't as good as what we'd like.

But it's good enough to warrant more attention than Licona gives it. He discusses sources like Thallus and Suetonius, who don't tell us much about Christianity, let alone the resurrection in particular. Yet, Licona says little or nothing about many of the relevant early arguments against Christianity reflected in the gospels, Justin Martyr's Dialogue With Trypho, and Origen's Against Celsus, for example.

While the lateness of such sources diminishes their evidential weight, it doesn't eliminate their significance. Just as Christians would tend to pass down arguments from generation to generation, so would non-Christians. It's not as though the enemies of Christianity would have waited until some time in the late first or early second century to start coming up with arguments to use against the religion. If Jewish opponents of Christianity in Matthew's day and in Justin Martyr's day acknowledge that Jesus‘ tomb was found empty, that's most likely because earlier Jews believed the same, which is what Matthew tells us (Matthew 28:15). Even if Licona didn't want to address the evidence for the empty tomb, he could have said more about the larger principle involved.

That larger principle is that we do have some significant information about how the early enemies of Christianity viewed the religion, as reflected in sources like the gospels and Justin Martyr. It seems that there was early hostile corroboration of Christian claims on issues like the empty tomb and New Testament authorship. See here for some examples.

I don't fault Licona for noting that the state of the evidence from non-Christian sources is far from ideal. And it's understandable that he would give more attention to material like 1 Corinthians 15. But the evidence from these non-Christian sources warrants more consideration than Licona gives it.

He writes that Celsus "shows familiarity with the Gospel narratives, which appear to be his source. Accordingly, Celsus provides no independent material" (p. 246). But Celsus also uses material outside of the New Testament. And his acceptance of the historical genre of the gospels and his acceptance of so much of what the gospels report are significant facts, even if he doesn't go much beyond what the gospels tell us. For a non-Christian to repeat what the gospels tell us has a different type of significance than the repetition of gospel material by a Christian source. It's one thing for Irenaeus to affirm a gospel account. It's something else for Celsus to do it.

Christians were interacting with their opponents from the time of the New Testament onward. We can learn a lot about the beliefs of those opponents from those interactions: what they were claiming about the authorship of the gospels, the genre of the gospels, how the early Christians defined resurrection, the empty tomb, etc. Licona largely neglects that evidence.


  1. One potential concern with an emphasis on 'hostile corroboration' is that for the most part we only have hostile testimony as filtered through the lens of early Christian apologetics and evangelism. Think of all the popular apologetics books that, intentionally or unintentionally, water down skeptical objections or focus only on some of the peripheral arguments. And how often do skeptics (no less than believers) complain that a debator or apologist has misunderstood or misstated their objection? Perhaps Trypho is only a mouthpiece for the objections that Justin Martyr encountered in the polemical works of other Christians. With Contra Celsum we may be on better ground as Origen is actually quoting extensively from Celsus' work.

    That said, I do think that allegations that Jesus cast out devils through Beelzebub, that his disciples stole the body, etc. are very early anti-Jesus and anti-Christian polemic. But the hostile corroboration argument would be stronger if we actually had the words of those hostile witnesses themselves, instead of having to glean them from works on the other side.

  2. JD Walters,

    I agree. As I said above, what we have is far from the ideal, but still has some significance. As you noted, we have to judge each case individually. We may have reasons to trust somebody like Origen while not having such reasons to trust somebody else. But there can also be a cumulative effect. The more sources we have reporting an alleged non-Christian argument, the more difficult it becomes to argue that they’re all misremembering, lying, etc.