Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Review Of Michael Licona's The Resurrection Of Jesus (Part 6)

The Unusual Phenomena At The Time Of Jesus' Death

Critics of the resurrection often cite the alleged non-historicity of some of the phenomena associated with Jesus' death (the darkness at the time of Jesus' crucifixion, the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27:52-53, etc.). They ask why we should believe in the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus if such events reported in the nearby context don't seem to be historical. Licona argues for a metaphorical interpretation of such passages while maintaining that the resurrection passages can't be placed in the same category. He acknowledges that there's some evidence for a historical reading of the phenomena in question, such as the apparent corroboration of the darkness at Jesus' crucifixion offered by Thallus. But he concludes that a metaphorical reading of the New Testament passages makes more sense overall. I think Licona makes some good points, but I lean toward a historical reading of the passages.

Licona is right to point out that the widespread early understanding of the resurrection as a historical event is evidence that the New Testament accounts were meant to be taken as historical narratives. But the same point can be made about the other phenomena in question, like the darkness at the time of the crucifixion. Yet, I think we have better and more widespread evidence for a historical reading of the resurrection accounts than the accounts of the other phenomena, so there is some difference between the two. There's some merit to Licona's argument. It's not as though we find patristic sources affirming the historicity of the darkness at Jesus' crucifixion nearly as often as we find them affirming the historicity of the resurrection. Affirmations of the latter are far more plentiful than affirmations of the former. Still, Licona needs to address the affirmations of the former that do exist.

He only mentions corroboration of the darkness by Thallus, but even that one source tells us that a historical understanding of the darkness existed early on. And Tertullian and Jerome tell us that other non-Christian sources corroborated the darkness. Thallus wasn't the only one who did so. Furthermore, the manner in which men like Tertullian, Julius Africanus, and Jerome respond to critics of the darkness suggests that a historical interpretation was widespread among Christians. See here.

I've discussed Matthew 27:52-53 elsewhere at this blog, such as here. Licona asks why the resurrected saints would have remained in their tombs until after Jesus' resurrection if they had been raised at the time of Jesus' death. The answer depends on which of multiple potential readings of the passage we adopt. Perhaps the opening of the tombs occurred at the time of Jesus' death, but the raising of the saints didn't occur until later. Or maybe they did leave their tombs at the time of Jesus' death, but didn't enter Jerusalem until after Jesus' resurrection.

Like I said, I think there are some significant points that can be made in favor of Licona's position. But the evidence for the alternative I'm proposing is weightier. Licona's position of rejecting the historicity of phenomena like the darkness while accepting the historicity of the resurrection is better than the critic's position of rejecting both. Pointing to the alleged lack of evidence for, or alleged evidence against, something like the darkness at the time of the crucifixion isn't sufficient to overcome the evidence for the resurrection. Licona's position is preferable, but not the best option.

The Conversion Of Jesus' Brothers

Licona's focus is on James, for whom we have an early report of his seeing the risen Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:7). But one or more of Jesus' other brothers may have seen the risen Christ as well. We don't know. Licona makes many good points about the brothers of Jesus, and James in particular, but he stops short of articulating some conclusions that he should have included in his argument for the resurrection. He sometimes seems to imply some of the conclusions I have in mind, but it's often unclear just what he's saying.

Before I explain what I'm referring to, though, I want to mention a good resource on the skepticism of Jesus' family prior to His resurrection: Eric Svendsen's Who Is My Mother? (Amityville, New York: Calvary Press, 2001). Licona makes a lot of the same points Svendsen does, but Svendsen's book covers the issue more broadly and deeply.

Licona writes:

"Habermas asserts that the majority of critical scholars writing on the subject grant the conversion of James as a result of what he perceived was a postresurrection appearance of Jesus to him." (p. 460)

He then lists some of Habermas' sources for that conclusion and adds some sources of his own. Licona thinks that James' conversion upon seeing the risen Christ is "plausible" (p. 459). He thinks that James' belief in the resurrection is "the best explanation" of his conversion (p. 461). But he also makes comments like the following:

"However, with Allison, I am open to the possibility that James and his brothers had heard from their mother or others of Jesus' postresurrection appearances and, having noted their sincere conviction that Jesus had appeared, it seems plausible that James and his brothers converted based on their conviction that Jesus had appeared to others and that Jesus appeared to James sometime after his conversion, either prior to or after Pentecost." (pp. 459-460)

Licona makes a lot of comments about James at different points in the book. I could be overlooking something he said. But I don't remember any place in the book where he attempts to distinguish between the likelihood of the scenario he describes above (James' conversion prior to Jesus' resurrection appearance to him) and the alternative (James' conversion upon seeing the risen Jesus). But it seems to me that the latter has more explanatory power and is less ad hoc. I wish Licona had addressed this subject in his book. He should have pressed the issue further rather than leaving it so unsettled. We should admit ignorance where we are ignorant, but I think Licona could have gone further than he did.

There's another significant point that Licona hints at, but doesn't express as clearly as he should have. The skepticism of Jesus' family has evidential significance for the resurrection regardless of whether any of them converted upon seeing the risen Jesus. Let's grant, for the sake of argument, the scenario suggested by Licona in my quote from pp. 459-460 above. Still, for skeptics like James and one or more of his brothers to convert based on the testimony of Mary or others would require that their testimony was highly credible. As Licona notes elsewhere in his book:

"Regarding Ludemann's proposal that the brothers of Jesus were caught up in the 'mass ecstasy' behind the experience of Pentecost, it seems more likely that Jesus' unbelieving brothers, especially James who was apparently quite pious about his Jewish faith, would have regarded their dead brother as a heretic rather than rush to Jerusalem and be caught up in such group ecstasy, as Ludemann would have us seems more likely that Jesus' execution as a criminal and blasphemer would have supported their continued unbelief rather than their conversion to a faith that the especially pious James would have regarded as apostasy." (p. 517)

Whatever convinced James and one or more of his brothers to convert, it probably was something more than an ancient equivalent of a Benny Hinn rally. 1 Corinthians 15:7 is the best explanation for James' conversion. But if it was some lesser reason that persuaded him, such as the credibility of other resurrection witnesses, that lesser reason still has some evidential significance. Jesus' brothers can't be dismissed as the sort of gullible believers that men like Peter and John are often made out to have been.

Other Disagreements

I've spent a few days now discussing some of my disagreements with Licona's book. But as I said in my introduction to this review, I think the book is great. It covers some subjects better than any other source I've seen. I want to move on to discuss more of my agreements with the book. In the coming days, I'll be quoting some portions of the book that I found helpful.

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