Can Historians Prove that Jesus Rose from the Dead?
This is an evaluation of the debate between Mike Licona and Bart Ehrman titled “Can Historians Prove Jesus Rose from the Dead?” which was held at Southern Evangelical Seminary in April of 2009. The debate proper consisted of four two-part stages: (1) opening statements, (2) first rebuttals, (3) second rebuttals, and (4) closing statements. Below will be presented the summary arguments used and evidences cited, followed by an evaluation of each debater’s approach to historical investigation, the strengths and weaknesses of said methods, and a discussion of whether the debater’s made their case.
Mike Licona began his opening statement with his personal testimony regarding his historical investigation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He explained how he did his best to overcome personal bias (that of a Christian working for a Christian organization) by rigorously applying the objective methods of historiography. Licona also expressed having distressing periods of doubt during the procedure that was eventually overcome by the evidence.
Licona then launched into his primary arguments which consisted of two basic categories: facts and method. There were three facts that Licona argued are accepted by the majority of historical scholars, both secular and religious, today that together make a compelling case for Jesus’ resurrection. These facts are: (1) that Jesus died by crucifixion, (2) that Jesus was believed to have subsequently appeared to the disciples, and that (3) the apostle Paul, originally an enemy of Christianity, was reported to have been converted due to his experience with the risen Jesus. Licona gave evidences of each of these claims from sources such as Tactius, the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15, reports of the disciple’s martyrdom, Luke’s writings, Paul’s early claims in Galatians 1:23, and other historical sources. Because these facts are conceded by scholars on both sides of the debate (including Bart Ehrman himself), they all must be explained satisfactorily by any theory that purports to explain them historically. The issue, he said, was one of interpretation of these facts.
The method Licona suggested for doing so was to discover an “argument to best explanation.” Borrowing from C. Behan McCullagh, Licona listed four conditions for discovery: (1) Explanatory Scope, (2) Explanatory Power, (3) Plausibility, and (4) Less Ad Hoc. Licona illustrated the process of narrowing down an argument to the best explanation with a medical analogy of diagnosing appendicitis. Applying the process to the resurrection facts listed above, Licona claimed, would lead one to reject the naturalistic explanations offered by many historians.
After a humorous opening comparing himself to Daniel in the lion’s den, Ehrman stated that he was not in the debate to argue that that Jesus was not raised from the dead, but that it cannot be historically proven that he was raised because miraculous events are not, by definition, susceptible to historical proof. Ehrman attempted to show this by arguing (1) that what historians do precludes identifying miracles, and that (2) miracles themselves cannot ever serve as historical conclusions.
Ehrman claimed that “what historians do” involves discerning levels of probability based on evidence. On the issue of evidence, Ehrman noted that for the history of Bill Clinton there would be lots of evidence for his activities in 1992 vs. 1972. He moved backward through history citing historical issues surrounding Shakespeare’s writings, Caesar crossing the Rubicon, and the apostle Peter’s death. (I am not sure, but it seemed as though Ehrman was trying to show that the farther we go back in time the more difficult it is to attain reliable data. He did not say so, but this would have been fairly easy to refute given that data levels are different for different events regardless of their distance in time.)
When seeking sources for these kinds of issues, Ehrman said historians want those that are contemporary to the events, multiple attestations, independent yet consistent reports, and unbiased reporters. Ehrman then considered the sources we have for Jesus’ resurrection, complaining that we had late gospel accounts (40+ year gaps), written by anonymous non-eyewitnesses (evidenced by the gospels being written in Greek, not the native Aramaic, the illiteracy of the disciples [Acts 3:14]). He charged the gospel accounts as being based on unreliable oral traditions that changed over time during oral phase of their transmission in order to convert people. These changes were said to be evidenced by a simple comparison of the gospels of Mark and John concerning things such as the date / time of Jesus’ death, whether or not Jesus carried his cross, whether both robbers mocked him, when the curtain ripped, plus multiple issues concerning the story of the women visitors to the tomb. A 20 year gap for Paul’s writings was noted, but nothing more was said in that regard.
Regardless of the above problems, according to Ehrman the real problem is with historical investigation of miracle claims in the first place. Historians, Ehrman stated, can only show what probably happened by establishing levels of probability for any explanation of historical facts. This is unlike the natural sciences where experiments can be repeated to predict the future. Miracles are, by definition, the least probable of any occurrence (otherwise they would not be useful as miracles). Therefore, miracles can never, by definition, be the conclusion of historical investigation. As an example, Ehrman noted that the odds of someone being able to walk on water are apparently 1 (i.e., Jesus) out of six billion (the current population). Thus, because the least probable cannot be the most probable, a miracle can be believed only on a theological—not an historical—basis.
Licona began (and ended) by pointing out that, as he had claimed, Ehrman was not in contention with the 3 basic historical facts concerning the resurrection—even going so far as to quote Ehrman to that end. Licona then stated that Ehrman had introduced red herrings into the debate by attacking the authenticity of the gospel sources. Many of these can be easily explained, Licona claimed, but moreover none impinged on the 3 basic facts. Even the rhetorical questions Ehrman asked with regard to gospel discrepancies revealed a bedrock of truth that required explanation.
With regard to method, Licona provisionally agreed that if “proof” were taken to mean “100% certainty” then of course historians could not prove miracles (or anything for that matter). But this is not how historians use the term. Rather, proof for the historian consists of “reasonable or adequate” explanations.
More importantly, probability should not be calculated the way Ehrman does. Probability for Ehrman seems to equate to historical frequency. Licona objected that even if the uniform testimony of history indicated that miraculous-type events do not occur, this would only be indicative of probability if external agents are never responsible. In other words, it only shows that, sans God, miracle explanations are is not good history. Here, a better distinction between probability, plausibility, and possibility could have been made. Whether or not a thing is possible is different from whether or not it is statistically likely. Equivocation on these terms caused some confusion. For example, the existence of God would make the resurrection possible, but not necessarily any more likely. Both debaters seemed to use “plausible” as both “likely” and “possible” (although, of course, something impossible is also not likely).
Licona then cited some “empirical challenges” to the uniform testimony assumption which he believed showed that miracles happen today as well (such as the story of coma friend). Finally, Licona said that this was not a theological issue simply because non-historical entities are posited, arguing that science does this as well (black holes, quarks, etc. best explain some things without being proved or seen). He also cited the example of Scipio: we don’t know how died but we all see his dead body. Given the supernatural character of a resurrection, of course, God is a pretty good candidate.
Ehrman began his rebuttal by questioning Licona’s bias. Since historians agree that presuppositions affect investigative outcomes, it is important to question someone who ended where he began: as a believer in the resurrection. Ehrman contrasted this situation with his own, one who had gone from believer to unbeliever.
Ehrman then turned to Licona’s 3 Facts, claiming that there was really only one: appearances. Since Jesus could have died in any way, the crucifixion was not related to the resurrection and did not count as evidence for it. Further, appearances are appearances, so there is no need to distinguish between the disciples and Paul. Thus, only an explanation for the appearances was required. Ehrman asked for source evidence for the alleged martyrdom of the disciples, or even that they all believed. Further, how did Paul know he was seeing Jesus? Finally, given the transfiguration account in the gospels and other visionary experiences in the Bible, how does an appearance prove a resurrection? “Visionary experiences” (Ehrman thought the term “hallucinations” was derogatory, Licona did not – and cited recent professional literature to make his point) could account for the appearances and that would do it for Licona’s “3 Facts.”
Turning to methodology, Ehrman agreed that the resurrection does have explanatory scope and power, but that without positing God it lacks plausibility. Because the historian qua historian cannot do so, a resurrection is implausible. Ehrman gave the example of the crucifixion event—it could be proved by historians but what it accomplished (death for mankind’s sin) could not. Since any explanation is going to have better probability, and visionary experiences are known to occur, evben in groups (e.g., the virgin Mary), then visionary experiences are more probable on an historical account. In fact, even the Syriac twin tradition (the idea that it was Jesus’ alleged twin brother, Didimus Judas Thomas, who people saw), crazy as it sounds, is more probable. Ehrman also asked about how Licona handles the other traditions of resurrection in other religions (e.g., Apollonius).
Licona opened by again accusing Ehrman of offering red herrings as his motives were not at issue, and if so then Ehrman’s time at Princeton and book sales had to be considered as well. Further, atheists have converted on historical evidence as well.
Next, Licona noted that, again, Ehrman is not disputing the facts—only their interpretation. Regarding the crucifixion fact, Ehrman was said to be confusing necessary and sufficient conditions, and gave an example of necessary versus sufficient facts needed to prove Hitler responsible for the Holocaust. Jesus had to die to rise, and so this fact is necessary in a case for Jesus’ resurrection. Licona then moved on to the appearances, claiming that according to statistics hallucinations are experienced by about 15% of the population, are more likely in females and the elderly, are not experienced in groups, etc. These contrast with the situation of all of the disciples (and especially Paul who was not even bereaved).
Positing God, Licona argued, is not being theological, it is just being unbiased—as God is the best candidate to explain such an occurrence. Ehrman, Licona claimed, was confusing an historical conclusion with its theologicalimplications. One could, Licona admitted, posit a resurrection without naming its cause (or, as above, posit a theoretical entity just like scientists do). Licona also mentioned the weakness of the twin theory, including Ehrman’s own writings on the superiority of the canonical material in Jesus studies.
Ehrman began by again arguing that crucifixion is unrelated to the resurrection evidences and pointed out that Licona did not answer his objection that Jesus could have died in any manner. He then pointed out that there are thousands of necessary conditions for Jesus’ resurrection (that Jesus lived, that Jesus lived in Palestine, was a Jew, etc.).
Ehrman said he was happy to accept Licona’s criteria for method, but that plausibility was still lacking. The resurrection is not probable without belief in God (what other option is there?)—a question with which historians cannot deal.
Concerning visions, Ehrman pointed out that they are common with bereavement and that as Jesus was a deeply loved master this would be expected of his disciples. Paul, Ehrman said, was an interesting case, but limited evidence for what really happened and some difficulties in Acts makes it difficult to use Paul as evidence. Further, Licona did not explain how Paul knew he was seeing Jesus in the first place. Contra Liocona, Ehrman stated that multiple visions happen all the time. Further, Ehrman asked that if Judas did not see the risen Jesus, then who were “the twelve” that allegedly make up the best evidence for the appearances? Finally, Ehrman stated that the twin theory was indeed an established tradition and that while is was a little crazy, it was less crazy than a resurrection (on historical grounds)—after all, twins are mistaken for each other all the time.
Besides going back over the debate, Licona pointed out that “The Twelve” is a title like the “Pack 10”– it is an established title whether there are exactly ten members or not. He agreed that the twin theory is crazy, but stated that there is no evidence for it. Licona offered aliens as potential candidates to explain the resurrection besides God, but noted that this only questions the cause of the act which is not the subject of the debate. Finally, he stated that since miracles do occur today, probability increases and that it is only with natural causes that probability decreases.
Ehrman concluded that no one doubts oral stories changed because of Gnostic gospels and other Jesus traditions. Evolution can be seen from the fact that only John is explicit about Jesus being/calling himself God, and not the early gospels. He reminded the audience that other miracle sources existed for other people (Hony the Circle Drawer, Bendoza, Vespasian). Finally, Ehrman said that the resurrection makes no sense without God and that there are no historical grounds for dismissing either alien or God hypothesis.
Debate titles are extremely important when evaluating who wins. The title of this debate was “Can Historians Prove Jesus Rose from the Dead?” Licona argued that they could because the agreed-upon facts of history were best explained by a resurrection. Ehrman disagreed because the resurrection explanation lacked plausibility. This was the substance of the debate.
Licona’s case was evidenced by 3 Facts and a 4 Part Method. Ehrman did not contest the 3 Facts, and Licona was right to point this out. That Ehrman’s attempt to discredit the sources for these facts fell flat was made clear when his counter to Licona’s response of “irrelevant” was “not if he uses them to answer parallel traditions,” for Licona did not do so. Ehrman’s rhetorical attempt to diminish the quantity of facts was not helpful for his case, as he later admitted how interesting Paul’s case was (a tacit admission that this evidence was in a different category). On the other hand, Ehrman’s request for Licona to explain how Paul could have known he was seeing Jesus went unanswered, and Ehrman noted this in his remarks. This was not destructive to Licona’s case but should have been answered.
Ehrman made a strong case for the fact of the crucifixion not being [direct] evidence for the resurrection. This particular fact has value as a preemptive tactic, however; that is, had Ehrman attempted to discredit the resurrection by calling Jesus’ death into question it would have been relevant. But in the course of this debate (over Jesus’ “rising” and not his “dying”) I agree that it is not additional evidence for the resurrection per se. It is difficult, however, to see what mileage Ehrman hoped to gain from pointing this out. Licona was not basing his case on amassed evidence, but only on the facts that had to be explained. Since this necessary condition for the resurrection was granted (along with those which Ehrman helpfully pointed out), then evidence for or against it no longer aided either side.
Licona’s methodology was accepted by Ehrman, so only one point of contention remained between them–whether or not the resurrection could fulfill all four parts of said method. Plausibility, then, became the crux of the debate. Now, Ehrman’s own historical methodology relied heavily on a vague notion of probability based on current knowledge, a predisposition toward naturalism, and seemed to assume a robust idea of proof that approached that of scientific certainty. Licona’s objections to this methodology relied heavily on openness to supernatural agency which he admitted was not part of historical investigation as such. Ehrman’s later admission that the resurrection would be the best explanation if God existed was surprising. If this is so, then the debate might be reduced to theistic presuppositions.
Throughout the debate Ehrman made it clear that when sticking to natural explanations anything was better than the supernatural. Unfortunately, Licona’s responses to this made for a less clear position than his others. On the one hand, Licona asked only for openness to the possibility, but, in what might have been merely a backup plan, he also responded as if Ehrman had a point when Licona added miraculous activity today to his evidences (This also might have only pushed the question back a step although Ehrman did not mention it.).
The difficulty here is that Ehrman’s continued emphasis on supernatural activity not being investigatable by historians as such was true. Historians cannot investigate the existence of God as historians any more than can gardeners as gardeners, or zoologists as zoologists (without apologies to Richard Dawkins). But neither can historians drive cars as historians—for it is not in the nature of historiography to drive a car (nor, contra Ehrman, can they do probability analysis as historians!). The issue is whether people can investigate the existence of God, and how they should go about it. So while I have to agree with Ehrman that discussions of God belong to theology, this does not lead to the conclusion he thinks it does.
Moreover, as Licona pointed out, God’s existence was not at issue here. It was this response to the probability issue that sufficiently answered Ehrman. The debate was not over the existence of God, it was over Jesus’ rising from the dead. As William Lane Craig has pointed out in debates over the same topic, all that is required to prove that is to show that Jesus was alive after being dead. This point is so obvious it is easy to miss in such a theologically charged debate, and I fear that many who listen to the debate will miss its importance because Licona came across less-than-clearly. While claiming not to need to prove God, Licona himself brought him up, and once God gets put into the equation his existence becomes part of the claim. Licona defended this claim by saying he was justified in positing God because scientists posit theoretical agents too (Ehrman did not bring this up, but it might be asked whether this analogy with science is appropriate for an historical investigation). But if agent identification is unnecessary for this debate, why do it at all? When Licona conceded that of course God was a good candidate, Ehrman asked what else it could be. Licona responded that maybe it was aliens. This kind of back-and-forth created confusion over what exactly Licona was arguing, and made Erhamn’s case sound stronger than it was (again, given Ehrman’s correct conclusion that God is not an object of historical investigation—to which Licona agreed when he claimed he only needed to argue for the effect and not the cause.) So while I think that Licona technically answered Ehrman’s objection, it did not come across clearly enough in the course of the debate. A preemptive, strong, and consistent claim that the historical proof for the resurrection does not have anything to do with God’s existence—and then leaving God out of it—would have left the burden of proof off of Licona and sealed Ehrman’s fate in a more satisfactory way.
Now, even when theistic presuppositions (or even mere openness to the supernatural) are present, naturalistic explanations are most often sought first. This is easily proven by asking a Christian what they think of opposing miracle claims by other religions. Thus, the discussion of visionary experiences was very important. Licona’s case was stronger here due to the fact that he cited professional sources while Ehrman had only vague anecdotal evidence for group visions. Licona did not address these head-on in his rebuttals, however, which made them seem stronger than they really were. This was an area that citing comparative apologetic evidence would have been useful. Licona’s repetition of previous arguments in the face of counter-evidence had the appearance of weakness, even when they were still technically strong. The back and forth over the Twin theory suffered a similar problem. Calling out Ehrman’s stories as pale in comparison to the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection would have been welcome.
I give the win to Licona. Using a point-by point comparison, Licona clearly won six out of his seven main contentions (all three facts and three out of four method points were basically granted or very weakly challenged). Ehrman’s methodology came across strongly only when considering proof as 100% (which Licona answered without challenge), and his probability calculation was vague and unsupported. Ehrman was correct about the role of the historian, but his conclusion about the ability of the historian was faulty. Licona could have been more clear about why this was the case, and could have offered better responses to the philosophical flaws, but even discounting this, Ehrman’s focus on requiring God was not convincing.
As to methodology, that Licona made his case was admitted by Ehrman himself so that was a clear win. Ehrman’s specific methodological statements might very well be true, but his understanding of them was flawed. This could have been better attacked as well. For example, virtually any unique event in the history of mankind would be less plausible than the mundane. Given Ehrman’s criteria this would make all unusual events impossible to prove historically (“Billions of people have never walked on the moon.”). As methodology itself is a more philosophical than historical issue, a debate focused on method would be better served with a more focused philosophical attack (although I wonder if Ehrman would respond that historians cannot possibly do this either “as historians”).
A Final Consideration
Ehrman may have made one stronger point than he realized (or at least stronger than he argued). It could be that the resurrection is indeed, by nature, a theologically-laden act. Jesus was not the first to rise from the dead (e.g., Luke 7:11-14; Mark 5:22-43; John 11:1-44), but he was the first to resurrect.
“Jesus’ bodily resurrection is the basis for the future resurrection of humans (1 Cor. 15:42–50). The Spirit, which was given after his resurrection, is the ‘guarantee’ (or ‘first installment’) that God will raise the righteous from the dead, and that they will not be found ‘naked,’ that is, incorporeal (2 Cor. 5:1–5; cf. Eph. 1:13–14), but will have a corporeal existence with God. Even though believers ‘groan’ while in their bodies (2 Cor. 5:2), they will be ‘further clothed’ after their resurrection (v. 4).”* Therefore, “resurrection is to be distinguished from resuscitation or reanimation of the physical body. It denotes a complete transformation of the human being in his or her psychosomatic totality (1 Cor. 15:53-55).”**
If this is correct then a rising from the dead is actually not enough to prove a resurrection. If that is the case then even if someone should rise from the dead it might not prove that God exists. A resurrection would, however, for it could have no other agent by definition. Given the debate title this was not technically a problem, but since “Jesus’ resurrection” was the referent throughout, it is more open to attack on theological plausibility grounds than a “mere” rising from the dead.
* Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1997).