The Resurrection of Jesus, Historical Method and the Genre of the Gospels: Considering Michael Licona’s Historiographical Approach

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of three major components of the Gospel, described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4:

“…that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…”

While the death may be the central component, since it was by His death as our substitute that He paid the price to the Father for our sin (both inherited and committed), His burial evidenced the legitimacy of His death, and His resurrection evidenced the legitimacy of His substitionary work on the cross. The resurrection declared with power that He was indeed the Son of God (Romans 1:4), and the Jews of Jesus’ day understand that His claim to be the Son of God was a messianic claim to be God Himself (see Jn 8:24-25, 28-30, 56-59 (Is 48:12,16; Rev 22:13-14, 16)). The resurrection, then was an important evidence of who Jesus was and therefore that His death was efficacious and not empty.

Paul describes the resurrection as the key component of the Gospel, since that event confirms the other components. He further explains that if Christ has not been raised from the dead, we are fools to be pitied, we are hopeless, and we are even blasphemers (1 Cor 15:12-19). Consequently, the resurrection of Jesus is the pivot point for all of Christianity. If Christ was raised, His message and work is confirmed, if not, then all who believe in Him as the Bible prescribes (e.g., Jn 3:16) are simply misguided idiots at best.

In arguing for the historicity of the resurrection, Michael Licona attempts to compare five naturalistic theories of the resurrection (offering non-supernatural explanations for what happened to Jesus) with the theory that the resurrection was in fact historic.[1] In this specific enterprise, Licona does a commendable job, concluding that the historical resurrection theory is more historically sound than the other five naturalistic theories. The detail and painstaking scholarship evident in the development of his arguments is exemplary in many aspects.

However, I would argue that in his work there is a significant methodological flaw that undermines his case. I cite this defect as a cautionary tale, but before I examine this problem in some detail, I must first warn the reader not to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Licona does some excellent work here, and I hope his efforts serve as a springboard for other Biblical scholars to fill in the gaps left by his work. As an overall project – as a scholarly and objective presentation of the arguments for and against the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, this work is worthy. Nonetheless, the methodological flaw is perhaps fatal to his case, and at least undermines the authority of his primary sources (the canonical Gospels). Further, it is worth noting that this methodological device assumed and employed by Licona is gaining in popularity and influence. Consequently, I believe it worthwhile to discuss in this forum the device, and encourage the reader to investigate and conclude on the matter.

First, Licona commendably builds a case for his methodology, asking, “”What does it mean when historians say that a particular event occurred?”[2] He argues for the importance of objectivity in the historiographical process, citing “horizons” as preunderstanding that can often impede the objective pursuit of truth in historical matters.[3]  He describes that historians have a responsibility to manage their horizons by being transparent about them, and by attention to method, but even then complete objectivity is elusive.[4] With that caveat, he agrees with Richard Evans definition of a historical fact as “something that happened and that historians attempt to ‘discover’ through verification procedures,”[5] and he is transparent in his employment of that definition. He further describes the method employed as methodical neutrality, “where the one making the claim bears the burden of proof,”[6] and further suggests that “historians….speak of the probable truth of a theory rather than absolute certainty. Historical conclusions are provisional.”[7]

It is evident at this point that there will be some friction between Licona’s historiography and the idea of inerrancy. Whereas Licona’s historical method demands only a provisional understanding of truth, it would seem his Biblical theology would demand a very different approach. Where these two concepts collide, there is a decision to be made as to what interpretation of the data is to be preferred. This subtle tension has not –so- subtle results as Licona explains his interpretation of the Gospel data, and as he underscores his rationalistic preference for historiography over theology. He admits candidly, “While I believe that the occasional feelings I have experienced of closeness with God may be authentic, I am aware that they may also be the result of long-term conditioning and expectations…For me, if the resurrection of Jesus were ever disproved, I would feel compelled to abandon my Christian faith and remain a theist with no commitments to a particular view.”[8]

Now, I must be careful here not to misrepresent Licona, as he makes it clear in the following pages that he does not believe the resurrection can be disproven (though he does admit that he is open to the possibility that the historical evidence might not be strong enough to conclude the resurrection is historical[9]), and on the contrary he concludes with great confidence that the resurrection is historical, rather than a fiction. I don’t mention these passages to suggest doubt on his part; rather I think they are important as they betray a preference for historiography over and against the Biblical data as inspired. In other words, if I understand Licona’s case correctly, it seems he values first determining historicity, and then appreciating its doctrinal value. This order of priority has significant hermeneutic consequences, as we will see. The question arises: What if historicity cannot be determined beyond the immediate claims of a particular text? How this question is answered in Licona’s work underscores what I believe is the fundamental flaw in the method employed.

One such passage, described as “a strange little text,”[10] for which there is no external historical verification is Matthew 27:52-53. This passage describes the bodily resurrection and post-resurrection ministries of saints in Jerusalem at the time of Christ’s death. Licona explains (away) this passage as follows:

“Given the presence of phenomenological language used in a symbolic manner in both Jewish and Roman literature related to a major event such as the death of an emperor or the end of a reigning king or even a kingdom, the presence of ambiguity in the relevant text of Ignatius, and that so very little can be known about Thallus’s comment on the darkness…it seems to me that an understanding of the language of Matthew 27:52-53 as “special effects” with eschatological Jewish texts and thought in mind is most plausible.”[11]

Special effects. Since the events in these verses are historically unverifiable, their literal interpretation (as historical fact) is implausible, and consequently redefined as special effects. How does Licona arrive at this conclusion?

Licona spent nearly 500 pages describing with transparency the method he would employ in weighing the hypotheses. But very early on, he inserts a very pivotal statement: “There is somewhat of a consensus among contemporary scholars that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography (bios). Bioi offered the ancient biographer great flexibility for rearranging material and inventing speeches in order to communicate the teachings, philosophy, and political beliefs of the subject, and they often included legend. Because bios was a flexible genre, it is often difficult to determining where history ends and legend begins.”[12]

And there it is. Bios is flexible. Some of it can be historical, other aspects can be mere special effects. On this point, Licona offers a lengthy footnote and further refers to pp. 201-208,[13] in which he defers in particular to Richard Burridge, who writes,

“The genre of Bios is flexible and diverse, with variation in the pattern of features from one Bios to another. The gospels also diverge from the pattern in some aspects, but no to any greater degree than other Bioi; in other words, they have at least as much in common with Graeco0Roman Bioi , as the Biois have with each other. Therefore the Gospels must belong to the genre of Bios.”[14]

Burridge is also transparent about the hermeneutic implications of this genre assumption:

“Finally, we have outlined some generic and hermeneutical implications of this result. The four canonical gospels belong together as Bioi Iesou, unlike the non-canonical gospels, many of which have lost the generic features of Bios. Furthermore, nothing in the social setting of the gospel texts, writers and audiences prevents them being interpreted as Bioi. Finally, this genre of Bios has distinct hermeneutical implications for the gospel studies, reaffirming the centrality of the person of Jesus of Nazareth.” [15](emphasis mine)

Burridge admits that the genre classification is difficult to prove, but is very useful. He observes, “It has become clear in this study that the narrower the genre proposed for the gospels, the harder it is to prove the case, but the more useful the hermeneutic implications.”[16] (emphasis mine)

In these passages, Burridge admits several important points: (1) the canonical Gospels share some similarities, but also have key differences, (2) while there is nothing that prevents their genre classification, there is also nothing that requires it, (3) there are significant hermeneutic implications, and (4) those hermeneutic implications are pragmatic ones. Specifically, it seems the Bios genre classification allows the interpreter to arbitrarily cast aside certain aspects of the text as long as we don’t cast aside the centrality of Jesus.

To his credit Licona anticipates the question this begs. He notes, “If some or all of the phenomena reported at Jesus’ death are poetic devices, we may rightly ask whether Jesus’ resurrection is not more of the same.”[17] He offers two brief arguments against that conclusion (no indication of early poetic interpretations, and no known early opponents of Christianity critiqued on the basis of misunderstanding poetry as history)[18] Despite these two points, I believe the damage has been done. Burridge uses the Bios classification in the same way Philo utilized allegorical interpretation – to redeem the Scriptures from rationalistic critiques. By adopting the Bios theory, Licona is participating in genre override, which allows for explaining away difficult passages, via a menu approach to historicity in the Gospel events.

Admittedly, for a historian who adopts Licona’s historiographical presuppositions, Matthew 27:52-5 is problematic because (1) it sounds implausible, and (2) there is no external historical verification.  To resolve the difficulty by changing a genre classification creates a far greater problem, precisely due to the hermeneutic implications Burridge identified.  Such a hermeneutic move is useful for resolving isolated difficulties, but it is also useful for undermining the authority of the entire text. If it is implausible that people could be resurrected at the death of Christ, then it would seem equally implausible that Jesus should be the Son of God – even God Himself – and should be raised from the dead. As Licona admits, if any of the text is legend, it becomes difficult to know where the legend ends and the history begins. What he may view as history, I may view as legend, and he has made the case for my understanding-as-legend to be legitimate. And if the Gospel writers had the flexibility of inventing speeches, how can I have any certainty about what Jesus said? Sometimes “useful” can be the enemy of truth (e.g., Gen 3:6).

Why not view the Gospels not as Bios, which is so nebulous as to defy definition and certainty, and instead view them simply as historical narrative – which even Burridge admits is possible (at least if only by implication). After all, should Matthew be viewed as a totally different genre than Luke, who described his work as “the exact truth?” (asphaleia –certainty, Lk 1:4)? Why not take the writers at face value? Granted if we do so, we are stuck with these pesky resurrection narratives that we can’t historically verify – and which still look foolish to skeptics no matter our historiographical method.

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[1] Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2010), 465-610.

[2] Ibid., 30.

[3] Ibid., 39.

[4] Ibid., 50-62.

[5] Ibid., 93.

[6] Ibid., 96 and 99.

[7] Ibid., 103.

[8] Ibid., 130-131.

[9] Ibid., 131.

[10] Ibid., 548.

[11] Ibid., 552.

[12] Ibid., 34.

[13] In these pages it is seems especially evident as well that Licona is comfortable with the Q theory, a position that is symptomatic of the methodological flaw I am describing.

[14] Richard Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison With Graeco-Roman Biography, 2nd. Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 250.

[15] Ibid., 250-251.

[16] Ibid., 247.

[17] Licona, 553.

[18] Ibid.

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