Book Review: The Resurrection of Jesus

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I recently (in the last year) read an outstanding book on the resurrection by Michael Licona called The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographic Approach. What follows is a brief review of the book. I do not intend this review to be exhaustive, but encourage readers to pick up the book themselves. As will be evident in the below text, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the historical case for the resurrection. Those interested, more generally, in the philosophy and method of history will also find this book to be a fascinating primer and case study to the subject. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the conclusions of this scholarly work, one should appreciate and respect the rigor and attention to detail with which Licona approaches this highly controversial subject. There is much to learn from this work, not least of which is how to think critically when approaching the subject of history.

Theory and Method

The most fascinating section of the book, in my opinion, is in the first 200 pages which focus on the theory and method of history. It was quite refreshing to see a scholar not only apply a specific method to a historical inquiry, but explain in detail the theory behind that method in a way that the reader can understand and learn. The nature of history and truth are discussed in detail in order to get a good understanding of the problems that historians face. The past is gone, never to come back, and we moderns have no direct access to it. We are limited to seeing the past through the eyes of others, in the sources that are discovered, which are themselves biased and often have agendas. Unlike logic and mathematics, which yield absolutely certain conclusions, or empirical science which can be tested in a lab a million times over, history is impossible to verify. To quote Licona:
When historians say "X occurred" in the past, they are actually claiming the following: Given the available data, the best explanation indicates that we are warranted in having a reasonable degree of certainty that x occurred and that it appears more certain at the moment than competing hypotheses. Accordingly, we have a rational basis for believing it. However, our conclusion is subject to revision or abandonment, since new data may surface in the future showing that things happened differently that presently proposed.1
Additionally, historians have their own biases about which to worry. Licona discusses this in great detail; every historian brings his own knowledge, experience, beliefs, education, cultural conditioning, preferences, presuppositions and worldview to the table when he attempts to reconstruct the past. This will inevitably affect the conclusions that are reached, having a negative impact on the whole enterprise. This is called one's horizon. While historians cannot completely neutralize their horizon, Licona proposes that the careful application of several criteria can help them minimize the effects. These criteria include (1) a method which is publicly available for the viewing of others, (2) peer pressure, (3) submitting one's ideas to unsympathetic experts, (4) accounting for the relevant historical bedrock, and (5) detachment from bias in the form of forcing oneself to confront data that seems to go against one's accepted hypothesis. An objective method is the most important of those criteria, and Licona discusses the one which historians prefer: inference to the best explanation. This method entails comparing competing hypotheses in several different areas: explanatory scope, explanatory power, plausibility, degree of ad hoc-ness (are many additional facts required to make the hypothesis work, or can it work based on the existing facts alone?), and illumination (does the hypothesis help explain any other unrelated phenomena?). In the subsequent sections of the book, Licona seeks to isolate non-controversial historical facts surrounding the alleged resurrection of Jesus, list all major hypotheses which seek to explain these facts, and then compare these hypotheses in the above listed areas.

Historical Sources Pertaining to the Resurrection of Jesus

In the second section of the book, Licona seeks to list all historical sources which are relevant to the resurrection of Jesus and rate them based on the likelihood that they "provide independent testimony relevant to the present investigation." Each source is given one of the following ratings: unlikely, possible-minus, possible, possible-plus, highly probable, indeterminate and not useful. These ratings are based on such criteria as chronological gap between the event and the writing, as well as how close the author was to any eye-witnesses. Sources are limited to those which were potentially written within 100 years of Jesus' death and include the canonical gospels, the letters of Paul the Apostle, sources that potentially antedate the New Testament literature (these include oral formulas contained in the New Testament literature, as well as other source material possible used by biblical authors), non-Christian sources (for example, the Jewish historian, Josephus, or the Roman historian, Tacitus), material written by the early Church Fathers, and other non-canonical Christian literature. Licona rates Paul's letters, as well as the oral formulas contained in some of the Epistles and Luke2 to be the best sources, rated highly probable. In contrast, he rates the theoretical source  'Q,' Celsus the pagan historian, and the Gospel's of Judas and Thomas to be the worst sources, rated unlikely. The method for isolating non-controversial facts in these texts, used in the following section, focuses more attention on the better sources.

Historical Bedrock

After a short introduction, Licona looks at what we can know for certain about Jesus' life and death. Several facts are concluded to be among the historical bedrock based on Licona's arguments and consistent with scholarly consensus. Pertaining to Jesus' life:

1. Jesus was perceived by others to be a miracle worker and exorcist

2. Jesus believed himself to be God's eschatological agent of some kind

Additionally, Licona argues that we can also know with certainty, based on the sources discussed above, that Jesus predicted his own death and resurrection. However, since there is no consensus among scholars on this point, Licona chooses not to use it as part of his historical bedrock.

Next, Licona looks at what we can know for certain pertaining to Jesus' death:

1. Jesus died by crucifixion

2. Jesus' disciples were convinced that he has appeared to them after his death by crucifixion

3. Saul (later called Paul), a persecutor of the early Church, was convinced that Jesus appeared to him after his death

4. James, a former skeptic and brother of Jesus, believes that Jesus appeared to him after his death

Weighing Hypotheses

In this section, Licona lists all major hypotheses pertaining to the historical "facts." He weighs each one individually with the criteria mentioned in the first section: explanatory scope, explanatory power, plausibility, degree of ad hoc-ness, and illumination. Illumination is really only used as sort of "bonus criteria" used to break ties between hypotheses that are otherwise on par. For the sake of brevity, I will only discuss two hypotheses: the so-called "Resurrection Hypothesis," and one developed by Gerd Ludemann. Ludemann seeks to explain the relevant data in the following way:

1. Peter experienced a hallucination of the risen Jesus in order to cope with his mental anguish bought about by his profound sorrow and guilt.

2. Peter shared his experience with the other disciples, who were experiencing guilt over deserting Jesus. These then had experiences of risen Jesus that may be called "shared hallucination fantasies," and were similar to Marian apparitions, grief hallucinations and ecstatic experiences.

3. The appearances to the more than five hundred resulted from mass ecstasy that started with one or two others.

4. Hearing reports of what was occurring, the brothers of Jesus went to Jerusalem and were caught up in the group experiences. James may have been one of the more than five hundred who partook of the ecstatic experience and/or had a private experience that occurred afterward.

5. Paul was disenchanted with the God of Judaism and attracted to the Christian God in Christ. Given his need for acceptance and self-importance, he subconsciously resolved his mental tension with a hallucination and seixed an opportunity to assume the role of the leading Apostle to the Gentiles.

There is more to the hypothesis than the above facts, but this largely consists of ways in which the Early Church interpretted the above information to fit their beliefs. This hypothesis passes the criteria of explanatory scope and illumination. The model that Ludemann has crafted does indeed explain each of the facts, and additionally, provides illumination to other major religious experiences reported throughout history. However, the hypothesis fails in terms of explanatory power-- it is pretty obviously pushing many of the facts to make them fit the model. It also fails in plausibility, due to the low likelihood of so many different groups have such similar hallucinations at different times. As the for "ad-hoc" criteria, it fails this because there are several additional assumptions that must be made up: for example, the assumption that Paul was disenchanted with Judaism. So, while it is the best of the hypotheses discussed, apart from the Resurrection Hypothesis, it falls short in a number of ways.

The Resurrection Hypothesis, however, fulfills each of the specific criteria as follows:

1. Explanatory Scope: RH nicely accounts for each of the facts listed above.

2. Explanatory Power: RH also accounts for each fact without stretching the data. The one uncertainly mentioned in the analysis, is whether the disciples and others believed the resurrection/appearances to be physical or merely spiritual.

3. Plausibility: The author concludes here that RH does have "some degree of plausibility." I disagree, in a sense, because each person will have a different idea of plausibility. An atheistic naturalist will not give any credence to the idea that a man could be physically raised from the dead, and so will deem it implausible. A Christian will obviously grant that it is plausible. A non-Christian theist, deist or agnostic may find the hypothesis anywhere on a range of plausibility. My point is that each person will have a different opinion on this criteria based on their own background knowledge.

4. Degree of Ad Hoc-ness: RH passes this criteria easily because it does not need to posit any additional facts.

5. Illumination: RH does provide illumination in the sense that it answers a question that has baffled historians. Namely, why were the early Christians so devoted to their beliefs and faith, to the point of death for many of them? RH explains this fact by positing that their high degree of devotion was due to them actually having seen the risen Jesus Christ.

Whether the criteria of plausibility passes, fails, or falls somewhere in between, it is obvious that the Resurrection Hypothesis finished far ahead of Ludemann's, and the others' even moreso.


This work is nothing if not rigorous. A single, cogent argument is developed over a span of 718 pages that will leave one's head spinning with information overload. Even apart from the argument itself, the reader will find a rich mine of knowledge from the philosophy and methodology of history, to the ancient sources surrounding this controversial event. While I have not read many books strictly on the history of the resurrection, this is by far the best treatment of the subject of which I am aware. It is an absolute must read for anyone-- atheists, Christians or other-- looking to enter the debate over whether or not this astounding event actually occurred the way that the authors of the New Testament believe it did. A word of caution is, I believe, in order: do not expect this book alone to radically alter someone's belief. As the author discusses, presuppositions play a large role in this debate. While Licona devotes a whole chapter on why one should shelf their views on God's existence and the possibility of miracles in order to come to an unbiased conclusion, it seems to me to be an impossible task. No matter how good the argument, an atheist who neither believes in God's existence, nor in miracles, will not likely be convinced. They will automatically give the so-called "Resurrection Hypothesis" the lowest rating in terms of plausibility, and the argument will fail from their point of view. Nevertheless, I still encourage atheists to read the book, if at least to correct some large misconceptions about the debate that are held by many. On the other hand, a non-Christian theist, deist or agnostic, who holds to even the possibility of supernatural miracles, will find it hard to read this book without feeling intellectually challenged in a significant way. Likewise, Christians who read this book will be, at the same time, encouraged by its strong conclusion and slightly taken aback by some of the admissions of uncertainty the author has about specific details.


1. Licona, 2010
2. There is, recognized by scholars on all ends of the spectrum, material used in several of the Epistles and Luke which actually pre-dates the writing of these specific books. This is oral tradition which the author is quoting to an audience who is clearly already aware of it. For example, 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 begins by saying "For I passed onto you as first importance what I also received..." and then continues to give a concise account of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances to different groups of people. This oral tradition is believed to predate all of the written New Testament material.
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