The resurrection of Jesus is hard to believe. The most we can expect for someone to return from the dead is minutes, not hours, and certainly not days. If someone claimed to have been dead for three days we would find it hard to believe and hard to prove. Much less if it happened nearly 2,000 years ago. How would we even begin to think historically (and rationally) about such a claim?
Yet, the resurrection is the most plausible explanation for the historical “facts in evidence”. In his book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Mike Licona does an amazing job of outlining a) how to conduct historiographical research and b) how the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of the “historical bedrock” that is accepted by virtually all New Testament scholars (which includes Jewish scholars, liberal scholars, atheist and agnostic scholars, evangelical scholars, etc. who study the Bible for academic purposes).
So what is the historical bedrock? Licona informs us that apologist and theologian Gary Habermas has completed an academic review of 3,400 scholarly books and journal articles written on the resurrection of Jesus since 1975. An overwhelming majority of those scholars, whether skeptics or believers, will grant a high probability of historicity to the following four events:
- Jesus’ death by crucifixion;
- Subsequent to Jesus’ death, a number of people (perhaps as many as 500) were thoroughly convinced that Jesus had been raised from the dead and had appeared to them in individual and in group settings;
- The empty tomb;
- The conversion of the church persecutor Paul based upon an experience that he perceived was an encounter with the resurrected Jesus.
Thus, these four events are described as historical bedrock. It is very probable that these events actually happened and very few serious scholars would deny at least these four events.
In his book, Licona also gives us a framework for conducting historiographical research. Much like a detective must arrive on a scene and interpret the data, so must we diligently account for all of the above historical bedrock.
He gives us four criteria that historians use to attempt to arrive at the best explanation for the data:
- Explanatory Scope – The argument must incorporate all of the relevant data.
- Explanatory Power – The argument must have the ability to account for the relevant data without forcing it to fit.
- Plausability – The argument must line up with other facts that are widely accepted.
- Less ad hoc – The argument shouldn’t improv or propose hypotheticals in order to make it work.
To understand these terms, Licona offers the example of a 15 year old male who enters a doctor’s office and says he is suffering from a fever, vomiting, and pain in the lower abdomen. The doctor develops a hypothesis to account for all three symptoms:
Hypothesis: Is it the flu? Well, this accounts for the fever but not for the vomiting or the abdominal pain. This hypothesis lacks explanatory scope.
Hypothesis: Maybe this is the one case where those symptoms are included in the flu diagnosis. Though that is theoretically possible it lacks explanatory power. Furthermore, if you looked through medical journals and found no other cases where the flu was accompanied by these three symptoms then the hypothesis lacks plausibility.
Hypothesis: So, maybe the boy is a martial artist who has the flu. He went to practice and got kicked in the stomach. Then, he went out to eat and got food poisoning which explains the vomiting. This hypothesis would adequately account for all the facts and would do so without pushing the data to fit and it would be plausible but it’s completely ad hoc because of these non-evidenced assumptions that the boy is a martial artist who got food poisoning.
The Best Explanation
So, given the four events that make up the historical bedrock of New Testament scholarship and with the four criteria that help us to arrive at the best explanation for those four events, what explanation has the highest degree of probability? What explanation has explanatory scope, power, plausibility and is less ad hoc?
- Was the resurrection of Jesus simply a metaphor?
- Was the resurrection of Jesus a mass hallucination?
- Was the resurrection of Jesus a hoax?
- Or, is the resurrection of Jesus a historically reliable hypothesis that demands serious consideration?
As a Christian, I obviously believe that it is by faith that we trust the validity of the resurrection. But, I don’t think we have to be unreasonable about our faith. Faith is belief or trust and the resurrection of Jesus is believable and trustworthy.
Here’s the challenge to skeptics: Propose a scenario that uses all of the criteria and explains all of the bedrock with more historical certainty than the one that is already recorded for us in the Gospels. Can you point to a serious NT scholar who rejects any of the above historical bedrock?
For those who find the resurrection of Jesus to be trustworthy: What other evidence would you add that gives you confidence in the historical reliability of the Gospels and of the resurrection of Jesus? Have you read Mike’s book? What do you think?