Resurrection Considered: History 101


Image Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This post continues the series that considers Habermas and Licona’s The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Having established in the first chapter the need to demonstrate the case for the resurrection historically, they introduce “some of the principles historians employ to determine whether a particular account of history is credible.”

The five principles that support an historical claim are:

  1. Multiple, independent sources;
  2. Attestation by an enemy;
  3. Embarrassing admissions;
  4. Eyewitness testimony; and
  5. Early testimony.

According to the authors, these are the ones that “normally come into play when evaluating evidence regarding the Resurrection.”

They give an example of a red car and a blue car involved in a collision in an intersection witnessed by a group of people. The police officer arrives at the scene and wants to determine who ran the red light. Multiple, independent testimony is going to be persuasive. If a friend of the red car driver said that it was he who ran the red, it would be taken seriously. A dispute among the witnesses about who ran the red would not cause us to doubt that the accident happened. And so on. One can easily see the apologetics looming on the horizon.

In the case of the resurrection, a more apt analogy would be as follows: Five people report on an accident that they did not see themselves, but which they say was seen by a group that they interviewed.

The first says that the witnesses saw the intersection in Brooklyn, but does not mention the accident.

The second says that there was an accident in Brooklyn. And that, at that exact moment, accidents happened at every intersection in Brooklyn. And there were policemen at the intersection watching, but that they were bribed to keep quiet so do not even bother with them.

The third says that the accident happened eighty miles away in New Haven and that anyone who says it happened in Brooklyn is wrong.

The fourth says that the cars were flying and that the witnesses did not recognize the driver, though he was a well-known acquaintance of theirs and was unhurt.

The fifth says that he saw the accident (time and place unspecified), but that the people with him at the time could not see it because it was a vision. But nonetheless, that qualified him as a witness.

There are no cars to be found, and no other witnesses, and all the people involved want you to join their collision-based religion. You could be forgiven for doubting that any collision took place at all. As we shall see the above analogy maps well onto the testimonies of the authors of Mark, Matthew, Luke, John and Paul respectively. See this essay for more.

The authors continue to expound on their methodology in the introduction to Part 2 of their book. They talk about the “minimal facts approach”, which means they do not want to “digress into a side discussion on the reliability of the Bible” and various other topics outside of Jesus’s resurrection. The minimal facts approach “considers only those data that are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones.”

We are told that “[h]istorians recognize that most writings of antiquity contain factual errors and propaganda. They still can identify kernels of historical truth in those sources. If they eliminated a source completely because of bias or error, they would know next to nothing about the past. … For example, Tacitus is considered the greatest Roman historian. Scholars recognize that Tacitus sometimes writes with a heavy bias, but they are still able to benefit greatly from his work. They weed through the bias and use historical study techniques to yield much that can be known with a great deal of historical certainty.”

Essentially, the authors are trying to say that the credibility of the writings in the Bible should not matter, as we can still pick and choose bits of it to be considered factual since we do similar things with other historical writing. Wells paraphrases this position as follows: “So because, for instance, Thucydides gave a sober account of political and military situations in which he personally was to some extent involved, the authors of the miracle-ridden Christian apologetic treatises ‘must’ have written on the same basis.”

The issue with this approach is that we judge writing by the plausibility of its content as well as the character of the writer. We do excuse ancient historians the odd lapse in situations in which they are not impartial: we note that they may not be accurate in a particular passage, but we can see that they have attempted to relate a reasonable history otherwise. That is simply not the case for the writers of the New Testament. As Wells puts it: “In the opening chapters of Mark Jesus is addressed by the heavenly spirit as ‘my beloved son’, is then waited on by angels in the wilderness, recognized as ‘the holy one of God’ by the spirits of evil he defeats, cures a leper instantaneously, has the divine power of forgiving sins, and claims to be lord of the Sabbath. Such writing is not comparable with Thucydides’s account of the Peloponnesian War or with Tacitus’s portrayal of the struggles and intrigues in the empire in the century before he himself wrote.”

However, this rather obvious observation is disavowed by Habermas and Licona, who say they will only use data that “are strongly evidenced” and “are granted by virtually all scholars on the subject, even the skeptical ones.” They say that a “skeptic ought not be allowed to merely cite apparent contradictions in the Bible and say that the Resurrection has been disproved.”

This is one string in the skeptic bow which I will briefly defend before allowing its removal for the purpose of this book. Firstly, the credibility of the witnesses of something extraordinary is important, and comes not just from contradictions with other writers but also when each writer is considered in isolation (see this essay). Secondly, the contradictions are not just in inconsequential areas of the books – they are in the central places, including and perhaps most especially, on the subject of the Resurrection itself!

However, again, I am considering their arguments, and so we will not make appeals to the lack of credibility of the Bible or the contradictions of them in any area outside of the resurrection. I will simply consider the evidence that they provide using their minimal facts approach. Afterall, I do believe that it is possible to deduce with some degree of certainty what happened from the books of the Bible. It is to this that we will turn in the next post.