interview with Michael Licona (the second of two). Original audio here. Transcript index here. If you enjoy transcripts, please consider supporting, which makes this possible.
BA: Hello, this is Brian Auten from Apologetics 315. Today, I interview Mike Licona. [At the time of this interview] He is the Apologetics Coordinator at the North American Mission Board and Research Professor of New Testament at Southern Evangelical Seminary. I had the privilege of interviewing Mike in the past on Apologetics 315 and we talked about his book on the Resurrection with Gary Habermas, and we also touched on his goals in his new book that we’ll be talking about specifically today, which is The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.
So Mike, welcome back and thanks for being with me.
ML: Thanks Brian. Appreciate you having me on and thanks for the great work you’re doing.
BA: Well, Mike, when I received your most recent book and had a look at it, I knew I wanted to talk to you about it some more. It’s entitled The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach and in it you’re applying the historical method to assessing the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Now, this is a big book, 718 pages, this is no small afternoon read! But I should note though, it’s dense but you know, the reading isn’t a plow! It’s organised and it’s clear. I have to admit I haven’t read every page just yet but I was, like, wow, this really flows well and it’s really laid out well so my first impression would be that, although it’s a big book, it’s not going to kill the average reader but - we’ll get into the content in a few minutes - but this represents a lot of your work for the last...I don’t want to ask you how many years this has taken you to create this work and tell me what this book, as a project, represents for you.
ML: Well, it’s a, it’s a beast! My doctoral research took five and a half years and – but even after I completed my dissertation, I continued to delve still further into what others had written on the resurrection, because new books were coming out, and was interacting with their work. So I suppose you could say the book is roughly seven years of work.
BA: That’s a lot of work! But you know it’s so great that so many people are going to be able to benefit from this. It’s just phenomenal with such a crucial, central issue to our faith. Starting with some of the super-simple stuff, before we go deeper, for those who are wondering what the title actually means. What is “historiographical”? And then, what is your overarching goal in the book?
ML: Well, historiography – the term, “historiography” – is what some would call an essentially contested concept, meaning that there is no consensus agreement on the meaning of the term.
It is the same thing with the term, “history”. Even historians don’t agree on a definition of “history”, what it means. I found a number of different definitions. Same thing with “historiography”, so you know, with many others I used it in the sense of a historical investigation, that’s documented in either a written form, or in film such as a documentary. So the title, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, means that this volume contains a fresh approach to investigating a question of whether Jesus rose from the dead, and attempts to answer that question.
BA: Craig Keener called the book ‘the most thorough treatment of the resurrection and historiography to date’ and then of course, Gary Habermas, who has done so much work on the Resurrection, he also endorses the book, among many others. He says, ‘this is simply required reading for anyone who wants to master the subject’.
So, well the reader will notice that, when they are looking into it, the first hundred or so pages, you are just covering this subject of philosophy of history and historical methodology, so why is it important to lay that foundation before looking at the historical data.
ML: Well, because if we don’t we’re just going on a blind journey. What I have attempted to do in the first chapter is to say, ‘OK, what is history?’ ‘What is historical investigation?’, ‘let’s talk about historical certainty’, you know, ‘can we really know the past?’, ‘to what extent can we know the past?’, ‘what kind of obstacles come in the way of our knowing the past?’, ‘how do we surmount these obstacles, if it’s possible at all?’, ‘what about bias?’ and ‘everyone’s biased’ and right, what I did in that chapter was to interact with a large body of literature written by professional historians outside of the community of biblical scholars to see what professional historians said. How do they approach historical investigation, so that I could – this could serve as a guide to my investigation because that’s the kind of approach I wanted to take.
I had found that biblical scholars just really aren’t trained in these areas. They do study things like the criterion for authenticity for the sayings and deeds of Jesus, things like that, but they really don’t have any training whatsoever in terms of how to weigh hypotheses, how to compare one hypothesis to another to see which one is better, historically speaking. They really don’t ponder these things. You go through the course catalogues of eight Ivy League schools in their undergraduate, graduate and doctoral level courses offered and you find when you look at all the courses they offer to students in the departments of religion and philosophy, that discuss historical method and the philosophy of history, and you add all of those up from all eight schools, undergraduate, graduate, doctoral level, the total number of courses in that field is one, um and from all the schools. And yet a lot of students will get their PhDs from those schools, go out and call themselves historians of Jesus and they haven’t had a single course in how to do history. So I thought it necessary to explore that if we’re going to do a real historical investigation.
BA: You’d say that this philosophy of history foundation you’re laying would be crucial to the soundness of our conclusions then?
ML: Oh sure. If we don’t come up with a philosophy of history, well we’re just like just a blind man stumbling through a minefield. We have no idea of what we’re doing or where we’re going and as the prominent Philosopher of History, C B McCullagh says, it results in a haphazard practice of history.
BA: Well, let me ask you then a question about history. People will say, how can we really know what happened historically? Can we have, actually have, any historical certainty? So how would you with your studies, and your perspective there, how would you answer that objection or, assertion?
ML: Professional historians divide themselves pretty much into two camps. They’re either realists, who believe that there is a past that is knowable to some extent, or they’re postmodernists that say all of the past, any reconstruction of the past, is a narrative and its fiction. So the past is unknowable. It’s pure interpretation. So, by far most historians are realists.
This debate raged, has raged for the last couple of decades amongst philosophers of history and professional historians outside the community of biblical scholars. We find a lot of it in history of theory and the debate got heated at times but, towards the end of the 20th Century, like around 1997, you find some of the leading lights of the postmodernist historians, like Keith Jenkins, saying that pretty much, the postmodernists have lost! Later on, as we get into the early part of the 21st Century you have more of them who are conceding defeat.
Now, that doesn’t mean that they’ve become realists, it just means that they concede that the overwhelming majority of professional historians today are realists. Again, this means that they believe that there is a past that can be knowable to some extent.
Now, an exhaustive knowledge of the past of course would be unobtainable. Just like if someone was to write an exhaustive biography of Brian Auten, uh, or just try to cover everything that you did when you were eight years old and why you did it that kind of a biography would be unobtainable. You couldn’t possibly write an exhaustive story of Brian Auten. You’d have to be very selective in the material you chose. Now, many persons and events that belong to the past have been forever lost. Now, this is because no-one ever recorded them and they left no appreciable… the people left no appreciable impact that’s still felt today.
But on the other hand, many events and persons are reported by others from the past and they can be believed with varying degrees of certainty. So I like to think, Brian, of a spectrum of historical certainty represented by a staircase. The bottom step, let’s say, represents certainly not, in other words, you are certain that this event, it is certain that it did not occur. The next step is, ah, it’s very doubtful that what is reported occurred, and in the next step, it is quite doubtful, and then somewhat doubtful, and then indeterminate, it could go one way or another. So you see, it starts off very certain that it didn’t happen, and goes all the way up to like, we really don’t have any idea. And then as you continue up the steps, then it becomes more positive so you would have more probable than not, quite probable, very probable and finally, certain. Though that final step is rarely ever achieved.
Now, historians aren’t in complete agreement as to where the steps, ah, where in the steps a hypothesis has to stand before they will award historicity to that hypothesis. But many agree that it is somewhere around the quite probable step. And a hypothesis is on that step, you could say it is on that step when it fulfils most of criteria for the best explanation and it significantly outdistances competing hypotheses. To that extent, we can achieve a degree of historical certainty.
BA: Now along that same line then, you hear people talk about ‘this is a historical fact’. So are there facts in history or is there such thing as a ‘historical fact’?
ML: Well, it’s a good question and scholars today debate over the definition of a historical fact. What is it? Do they exist? Some like to contend that facts are merely interpretations of the data and this is true to an extent but it would be a low level interpretation so, I mean you could, I don’t know, you know, someone’s missing – just trying to think of this now – but someone’s missing, a body turns up, the DNA matches, you know, there...there...it’s a month later, you can’t recognise the corpse, their DNA matches, so that would be the data I think it would be fine to say for a fact that person is dead but to an extent there’s some degree of interpretation there.
I like the definition offered by a Philosopher of History, Richard Evans of Cambridge University. He defines a historical fact as something that happened and that historians attempt to discover through a verification process, that’s how I like “facts”. So, yeah, I think that there are facts in history. In fact, there are many scholars who would regard… to say that historical facts do exist, they’re more than interpretations. They are facts. This is a description of what happened in the past. A narrow description of something that happened in the past and of course then, scholars are going to disagree on what they allow into their country club, to be members of this country club called “facts”!
BA: Along the same line of what we call certain historical things, or how certain we are about things that have happened and the level of accuracy or vagueness that we’re going to achieve, what would you say historians mean when they say something ‘probably happened’?
ML: Well, what they would be saying is, given the available evidence that we have, given the available data, when we apply strictly controlled historical method to hypotheses, a number of different hypotheses that have been formed to account for this data, the results would suggest that a certain hypothesis is an accurate reflection or description of the past. But we would always have to be open to saying that there may be evidence in the future that pops up that disconfirms our current conclusions, and we may have to revise our hypothesis or abandon it altogether.
So, as many historians would say, you are... when you have a hypothesis and you say this probably occurred given the available data and the subjection to historical methodology this probably occurred but we’re going to hold it with an open hand because it may be shown to be false in the future. It could be otherwise...
ML: ...it doesn’t mean you can’t hold it and let me say that the same thing applies to science. It doesn’t matter whether it’s biology or physics. I had a very enlightening discussion just a few years ago at MIT. I was having dinner with two Professors, physics Professors at MIT, and at the table was a Philosophy of Science Professor at Harvard. And so the four of us were discussing criteria for saying, ‘OK this is probably an accurate reflection of the past when you’re caught without a scientific theory for the way things are today’. So what criteria do you use to affirm that this is what occurred? One physics Professor just shocked me. He just said, ‘Well, we really don’t have any. The data we have is very fragmented most of the time and so we form theories of what happened – hypotheses – and we try to fit the data in it and because there’s so many gaps, in many, many, many, many cases, what we accept as an accurate description of reality today, we will abandon it just a few years from now’. And I said, ‘Well, wow, that really shocks me because we are kind of led to believe otherwise on television programs and, you know the other physics Professor just kind of nodded and agreed and said, ‘Well, yep, that’s the way it is. There’s not a whole lot in physics for which we are extremely certain – absolute certain’. And I said, ‘Well that just astonishes me because my impression is that physics is the most secure of all the sciences because it is based on mathematics’. And the physics Professor said, ‘It is but again, there’s very little for which we have absolute certainty in physics’. And my jaw just must have hit the table and I looked over at the Harvard Philosopher of Science Professor, and he just nodded and smiled and said, ‘That’s exactly the way it is’. And I thought, wow, you know, I thought that since history is such a subjective sort of, kind of discipline, uh, a lot of the time that we were at a great disadvantage to other sciences and I found that that is just not the case. Other sciences, which we would think would be very, very certain and secure aren’t as secure as we are many times led to believe.
BA: Ha, well, that’s interesting! And I suppose there is – this may be a common misunderstanding that we need certainty in order to... to really trust, uh, how do I put it...
ML: Yeah, before we put our faith in something or commit ourselves to a belief or a position that we would want you know, absolute certainty, and you know, what I’m finding, what I found is that they don’t do that in.... no scientists do that. In fact, we don’t do that in our everyday lives, Brian, I mean think about it. You know if I come to work every day, I drive to work am I absolutely certain I’m going to make it without an automobile accident happening where I’m going to be injured or killed, or something like that? Well of course not! You know if I waited till all the lights were green until I headed into town, I’d be spending the rest of my life at home! When I married my wife, did I...was I absolutely certain that she was the best woman for me? No! Is that kind of certainty available to us? No! And that’s evidenced by so many people who are absolutely certain they were marrying the perfect person only to find that they got divorced a few years later because they’d made the wrong choice. So we can have absolute certainty I suppose, but the real question is whether we are warranted in having absolute certainty.
ML: And historically speaking, and in terms of the sciences, the answer must be ‘no’ to that.
BA: Another foundational concern before we look at the specific data to the resurrection is this topic of miracles and all of Chapter Two is you dealing with this issue of miracles for the historian. So would you mind describing some of the basic considerations relevant to the resurrection?
ML: Sure. In fact this is an issue that is not only discussed amongst biblical scholars, but is also being debated presently among professional historians outside of the community of biblical scholars. In fact, in 2006 there was a theme issue – the theme issue for History and Theory (perhaps the only philosophy of history journal that’s out there) devoted the entire thing to religion and historians and they debated this issue and there have been, secondary debates that have occurred within History and Theory since. So, it’s happening amongst, again, professional historians.
Now, in the field of historical Jesus research, there is a lot of discussion over what the real Jesus actually said and did. And you know, they’re fine with doing that but then in many cases when a scholar mentions the term ‘miracles’ or ‘resurrection’, you know, it’s not uncommon for some scholars to jump to their feet and say, ‘Stop! You can’t go there as a historian!’ And these offer a number of reasons why, um scholars are forbidden from investigating miracle claims, like the resurrection of Jesus. But I’m convinced, Brian, that these reasons, are ... they’re all mistaken, if a past event left traces, most historians hold that it can be the subject of historical investigation, uh, so the question about what happens when the event in question is a miracle, well, some scholars like Ehrman, and many others, they punt to theologians and philosophers, saying that historians don’t possess the necessary tools for investigating the occurrence of a miracle. So, if a miracle truly occurred, the historian - as historian - or in their professional capacity as a historian, well, they could never conclude that it did. Well then, one of my responses to that would be what happens when you have someone like Gary Habermas who is trained both as a philosopher and a historian? Gary could say to someone like Ehrman or others with this kind of objection, say, ‘Hey listen, I’m a philosopher...’ He could say, ‘I’m a philosopher, I’m a historian – you’re only a historian, you only have training in history, so why don’t you just go ahead and bow out of this debate on whether Jesus rose from the dead and leave the questions of the historicity of a miracle claim to properly trained experts, like myself?’
So you know, of course, Ehrman and many of these others wouldn’t be satisfied with the conclusion to which their own arguments lead them. So I think that this is really either they’re not thinking through it enough or they’re just using it as a smoke screen. Rather than saying, ‘I want to deny the resurrection but I’ll get fired from my job if I do’ or, ‘get in trouble if I do’. Or, ‘you know your evidence is pretty good and I don’t know how to deal with it so let me just a priori say that historians can’t even engage in such an investigation’. You know it might be a ploy for one of those kinds of arguments.
BA: Well in that Chapter, you list various objectors and the main objections that come from them about miracle claims and can we really say we know a miracle occurred or can we even know that. Then you systematically go through and you answer each of these concerns, so I mean you really go through these...you tackle all of them one after another before you get to the actual data of the resurrection. It seems very thorough.
ML: Well, I appreciate that. I do think that that Chapter is ah, one of the main or I said major contributions of this volume to the current discussion. I am unaware of any substantive answer to these kinds of objections. Yes, with Hume, there’s plenty out there but when it comes to some of the more recent objections by biblical scholars, even some of which you may consider evangelical, who say, you can’t, you can’t as a historian confirm a miracle claim, I just think that these folks are going down the wrong road. I think that their reasons are wrong-headed and I explain why in there. I think that a lot of them have good motives behind it but I think they’re simply wrong! I’ll leave that to my readers to determine whether I have pointed that out, but it really surprises me that even, like I said some evangelical scholars, are picking that same course to say they might say, ‘Yeah, we think that ... I mean you can make a case for Jesus’ resurrection but you really can’t conclude it as a historical fact because it’s a divine miracle and that’s outside the purview of historians’. And I think, no, that’s wrong and as you know, I share a number of reasons why.
BA: Yeah. So let’s talk about the historical sources that you look at when you’re assessing the evidence for the resurrection. What are available to the historian and really, how do we judge what’s credible?
ML: Well, yeah, you have to consider all the relevant literature that was written within a reasonable period of time. I mean you wouldn’t include in your pool of sources, the hymn from the 18th Century, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Hallelujah” because it’s too late and it’s not a primary source. So what I did was I tried to consider all the relevant literature written within let’s say 100 years of Jesus and that would include sources such as Paul’s letters and even more importantly, the oral traditions that are embedded in them that we can identify.
It includes the canonical Gospels, it includes “Q”, it includes the pre-Markan tradition, the speeches in Acts, some of the non-canonical literature such as a few of the apostolic fathers, like First Clement, Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippian Church, the Letter of Barnabas, it would include the Gospel of Thomas, it would include the Gospel of Peter, and perhaps a few others.
So I looked to see how well the data in these relevant sources to Jesus’ fate can be traced back to the original disciples of Jesus and how far removed, if at all, the author was from those disciples. And in the end, I concluded that although most of the literature I just mentioned is promising to varying degrees, the most secure sources we have on Jesus’ death and resurrection, is Paul’s undisputed letters and the oral traditions in them.
And that’s because their authorship and the time of their writing can be stated with more confidence than with the others, even the Gospels. It’s because these writings were written by someone who knew all of the leading Jerusalem apostles and virtually all scholars would agree on that, and Paul believed he was an eyewitness of the risen Jesus. He can be shown to accurately report the traditions that had been handed down to him as well. So, it makes him a very, very good source when it comes to providing data that we’ll use in answering the question whether Jesus rose from the dead.
BA: And like what I’m sure that probably a lot of our listeners are familiar with your work on the resurrection that you did with Gary Habermas, the book, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Now in there you use what you call the ‘minimal facts approach’ to arguing for the resurrection. So maybe their question is going to be, to what extent are they going to be reading you interacting with that sort of approach in this particular work?
ML: Well, fair question. Years ago when Gary came up with the minimal facts approach, he argued that the evidence for the resurrection is so good that you could use a strong historical case for it, using just twelve relevant facts that are granted by most scholars and he listed those dozen facts. And then he went on to say, uh, kind of like a Rush Limbaugh thing where he say, “Hey you know, half my brain tied behind my back, just to make it fair’, he kind of said, ‘in fact I can use just three to five of those twelve facts and still build a very strong case that’s hard to pull apart’. Since then, and I’d say that that case went back to the... he was using that back in the 80s. That case the way he presents it now, has now morphed to one that says, uh, ‘Hey if you consider only those facts that are granted by virtually 100% of all scholars who have studied the subject, a very strong historical case for Jesus’ resurrection can be made’. So that’s kind of how Gary argues and how I was arguing in that book with the minimal facts approach.
Now, when historians and when biblical scholars refer to historical bedrock, they are referring to facts that are, for all practical purposes, beyond doubt, those kind of facts are called ‘bedrock’ because any responsible reconstruction of, say, the historical Jesus must use these facts as the bedrock, the foundation, upon which that reconstruction is built. Otherwise, it’s almost certainly mistaken. So, you start with the bedrock and you consider which of the many hypotheses, or portraits, of Jesus, or pertaining to what happened to Him, which of those can best account for the bedrock. And the one that comes out on top is probably what occurred, uh, so and you know if you have some that are close or are tied, well then you would go to ... ah, you’d reassess those hypotheses but now you would add second-level facts that would be other strongly attested historical facts but they don’t meet the criteria of being referred to as bedrock.
I’d say that some...a reader of my new volume is certainly going to see some similarities between the approach I take in it - the ‘historical bedrock’ approach – and Gary’s ‘minimal facts’ approach. Where one will see a difference in our approaches is the method to which I subject the various hypotheses. So, we’re pretty much going to use the same bedrock, which he calls minimal facts and a historian, a biblical scholar, would refer to as historical bedrock, and we’re going to take those facts and we’re going to subject them to different approaches in arriving at what’s the best explanation, historically speaking.
BA: Would you mind just briefly listing now what some of the historical bedrock pertaining to Jesus and His resurrection would be?
ML: Well, if we’re talking about, say, just Jesus, in general, I’d say the historical bedrock ah, let’s see, this wouldn’t be comprehensive but it would include items such as that Jesus was a Jewish itinerant preacher, who performed a number of actions or deeds that led Him to regard Himself and others to regard Him as miracle worker and an exorcist. It would include the fact that He taught in parables, uh, He believed Himself to be God’s eschatological agent, chosen to usher in His Kingdom, it would include that He was crucified by Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem in April of either the year 30 or 33.
And if we’re talking about what happened to Jesus after His death I would add to that, that historical bedrock would include the fact that His disciples had a number of experiences that they interpreted as appearances of the Risen Jesus to them, and that these experiences occurred in both individual and in group settings. We’d also add that a persecutor of the Church, named Paul, also had an experience that he likewise interpreted as an appearance of the Risen Jesus to him and he converted to Christianity as a result.
BA: Well, I think that’s helpful and so in your final Chapter you begin to pull together all the ground you’ve covered up till that point and you apply the historical method and you weigh competing hypotheses. And I think you weigh about six different hypotheses. Now you don’t have to describe each one of those of course, but for time’s sake can you talk about how you go about weighing these different hypotheses?
ML: Ah, sure, well, in Chapter One of the book, I discuss criteria employed by professional historians for weighing hypotheses. They’re often called by different names or are presented in a slightly nuanced version but C Behan McCullagh, who is a Philosopher of History, a prominent one, he does what I consider to be the best job of any historian at articulating these, it first appears in his 1984 book, Justifying Historical Descriptions, and then they are, I think there are six or seven, I think there are seven of them in there, and then in his 2004 book, The Logic of History, he condenses them down to I believe four or five of them, something like that.
So after mulling over these and all these different writings, especially McCullagh’s, but, and others that present them as well, I ended up sticking pretty close to McCullagh while offering a slightly different presentation of the criteria and how I define them. So in some cases, the name of the specific criterion may be the same but we may define it a little differently. The criteria that I use – there’s five of them – explanatory scope, explanatory power, plausibility, less ad hoc and finally, illumination.
Now, without getting into a lot of detail at this point, I’d say that assessing a hypothesis is a lot like making a medical diagnosis, a physician – you ever go to the doctor, you’re not feeling well, he or she is going to ask you a lot of questions, going to try to gather as much relevant information as possible, such as what are your symptoms, how long have they been occurring - asking questions in order to gain hints of possible causes.
So, Brian, think for example, let’s just suppose there is a 15-year-old young man, not feeling well, he goes to see his family physician. He describes his symptoms: he says he is vomiting, he has a fever, he’s got pain in his lower abdomen. So the physician, let’s say he’s got three medical students with him and he asks what diagnosis they would give. And the first student suggests the flu since a fever is the most common symptom of the flu but the experienced physician points out that the flu isn’t normally accompanied by vomiting and abdominal pain. So the flu diagnosis in that case would lack explanatory scope because it can’t account for all of his symptoms.
The second student chimes in and says, ‘Hey, OK, so vomiting and abdominal pain aren’t common symptoms for the flu but it’s still possible, though rare, that they resulted from the flu, couldn’t it be?’ And the physician agrees but, he adds that if another diagnosis is available that more easily accommodates the symptoms, then the flu diagnosis would lack explanatory power because you’d be forcing the symptoms to fit the diagnosis. And then he adds that in all of his years practicing medicine that he has never run into a case of the flu in the professional literature that included the three symptoms possessed by the boy. So the attempt by the second student to salvage the flu diagnosis would also lack plausibility because it’s not in accordance with...in accord with other knowledge that is widely accepted.
So now the third student decides to use her imagination and suggests that the boy has the flu, as indicated by the fever, and since it is the middle of the flu season the plausibility factor would be increased. And then she says that there may be reasons for the other symptoms that are unrelated to the flu. Perhaps the boy is a martial artist and he decided to push through his fever and work out, go to his martial arts work out the prior evening and during a sparring session he got kicked in the lower right side of his abdomen and then after practice he went out with a few other students who were his friends for a bite to eat and he got food poisoning and that would explain the vomiting.
So the physician at that point, the experienced one, says I agree with you – these conditions do a good job of explaining the three symptoms without forcing any of them to fit, or without any ambiguity, but it doesn’t do so without a price. And that price is that it requires a lot of improvisation involving two non-evident assumptions. One, that the boy is a martial artist and that, you know, that he got kicked in the abdomen that bruised him during a sparring session –non-evidenced assumption without that knowledge – and that secondly that he got food poisoning from going to – you know, that we don’t know about afterward, so, because it’s got a lot of improvisation and is therefore ad hoc, based on non-evidenced assumptions.
So the experienced physician then goes on to inform his three students that the symptoms that the boy has described are a classic case of appendicitis and an inflamed appendix would explain all three symptoms without any strain or ambiguity, in fact because it’s a textbook case of appendicitis, it possesses plausibility, and because it doesn’t require any non-evidenced assumptions it avoids any hint of being ad hoc, so appendicitis is clearly the best explanation of the symptoms since it fulfils the criteria far better than any other diagnosis. So based on this the physician will strongly recommend that the boy have his appendix removed.
Now, I’d want to add that it’s very worth noting that none of these other diagnoses can be ruled out as impossible. They’re all possible! But the physician is going to treat the symptoms according to the diagnosis that is most likely correct and that is determined by which diagnosis fits, or fulfils, the important criteria best.
The same may be said of historical investigation. Historians are rarely able to demonstrate that a particular hypothesis is impossible so they render conclusions by determining which hypothesis is the best explanation. It’s better than its competitors and they hold that conclusion as provisional, in order words, it could be wrong.
Now Brian when I was learning all of this, it was enlightening to me to understand how historians carry on their trade in this manner because so often in the sceptical community we hear voices saying that, as long as there is a naturalistic explanation that is even remotely possible, we cannot claim that Jesus was raised. And that betrays a gross naiveté on their part in terms of their understanding of what a careful historical investigation looks like. ‘Careful’ means an investigation that proceeds under strict controls. It doesn’t mean merely exercising a stubborn denial of anything that can’t be proven beyond all doubt.
BA: You mention how this applies to scepticism and people who would want to maybe resist the conclusion and therefore you know, try to come up with any sort of explanation other than a resurrection. So, my thought along that line is your own bias and perhaps the bias of Christians could be that, well Jesus rose from the dead so we have to jam this data and make it turn into a resurrection, as opposed to, you know, this issue of historical bias, what you think happened could skew the outcome. So I want to ask you about your own bias and how you are able to keep that in check while you are doing historical studies so that you can follow the evidence where it leads.
ML: It’s a...it’s a fair question, Brian. You know, I’ll be the first to admit that I was not able to overcome my own bias. I make no pretence of doing so. What I can say is that during my research I attempted to distance myself from my Christian bias and to work towards experiencing empathy when reading the works of those who I disagree with. I remember as I was doing my investigation I’d read some of the literature, like a journal article by, say, someone like a John Dominic Crossan or a Gerd Ludemann, and I found myself on a number of occasions, I felt myself just kind of skimming over their article, not reading it with a great amount of attention, thinking, ‘Well, they’re wrong, they don’t have a whole lot to offer but I’ve got to say I read it’. You know? And I found myself doing this, and I said, ‘Wait a minute! I can’t do this! I have to read this stuff with an open mind. I have to read it and scrutinise it to see what good points they may have here, if I’m going to do this in an objective sense’. And so I went back and re-read all that stuff and, worked really hard at detaching myself from my desired outcome, while my investigation proceeded.
It was – the whole process was one of the most agonising times of my life. My closest friends can tell you this, my doctoral supervisor, Jan van der Watt, could tell you this, my wife could especially tell you this. She knows how I struggled with this stuff, I know Bill Craig and Gary Habermas... I only shared it with a very, very small group of intimate friends and how I was struggling with my bias, and as a result of working very hard to distance myself from my bias, I developed a lot of personal doubts about whether Christianity was true and I ... I almost gave up my faith a couple of times.
I remember laying in bed one night and my wife, you know we hadn’t talked for probably close to half an hour - I figured she was asleep and I was just laying there in bed just wrestling through some of this in my mind and her voice broke through the silence and said, ‘You’re doubting again, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yep!’ And she said, ‘Well, what do you believe now?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know; I think God exists – that’s about all of which I’m certain’. She said, ‘You mean you don’t ... you don’t even know if Jesus rose from the dead?’ I said, ‘No’. She said, ‘But you’ve written books on it, you’re doing all this study’. I said, ‘I know, but I’m trying to be as objective as I can about this and I’m reading all these books and articles written by sceptics. I’m not trying to answer them, I’m only trying to read it, to appreciate what they’re saying, almost to enter into their heads and experience what they’re experiencing, to think the way they’re thinking so that I can really empathise with what they’re saying, and that way I’ll be able to consider their arguments in an honest and objective way and so I really put off trying to work through these things, as I’m going through this, and there was so much battle in here and again, it was just absolutely agonising.
It was really hard and I can’t say that I obtained complete objectivity. The only thing is that I can say that I think I got very close to it because again I came very close – I was walking on a balance beam and could have tilted either way, with just a little blow of the wind! I remember telling my wife, ‘I don’t know where I’m going with this, but I do know I’m going to pursue truth. If Christianity is false I want to know it. I don’t have to fear the truth and I want to stop serving Christ and the Kingdom of Christ, if it’s a false religion. I’d just be wasting my life and maybe wasting the eternal destiny of my soul if some other view is correct, I may lose my job but I’d rather lose my job than my soul. God will take care of me, and...’
You know, I came up with all other kinds of, things, little exercises to try to counter-balance my bias in the direction of Christianity, so I’d think to myself, ‘OK, well, let’s say I come to the conclusion that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead? Yes, I’d give up Christianity but I’d seek God in other ways, and, maybe a general type of theism and then I can write a book debunking the traditional Christian view, and how would that be, you know, “A leader in the largest Protestant denomination in North America completes his research and concludes that Jesus did not rise from the dead. He loses his faith, and his job!” You know that makes national news! And now I can write a book like Ehrman does, or something, and make money off of that and maybe I don’t even need a job any more.
So I would do these exercises like this to try to minimise my bias and so I’m just pulled in all these different directions and it was really tough! So, all I can say is that I think that in the end I came to agree with the nearly unanimous consensus of professional historians that there is no-one out there, there are no historians that can be completely objective in their investigation and can completely overcome their personal bias, because it’s not just religious bias, there are other biases that impact historical investigations, like race, gender, ethics, nationality, our political, our philosophical convictions, the way we were raised, the academic institutions we attended, the very group of people whose respect and acceptance we desire. You know, we can’t get out of this and we’re all impacted by this. I have a colleague here where I work at the North American Mission Board who shocked me a while back. He’s black, he’s African-American, and he said, he told me that the only reason he voted for Barack Obama in 2008 is because he’s black. And, he was not able to transcend his racial bias, so it impacts us in many different ways.
As one professional historian noted, however, although we can’t transcend our biases completely, we have to try. We can’t in a hospital get a completely sterile environment but surgeons aren’t allowed therefore to do surgery in a sewer. And in the same way, even though we can’t be completely objective and free of bias, it doesn’t free us up to say, OK, well then just have at it with your own bias and just go at it. You know, just do whatever you want in that sense. No! You know, we have to be as objective as we can and we can perform a number of actions in order to minimise our bias. These would be things such as a sustained, authentic effort to detach ourselves from our desired outcome, while our investigation proceeds. It means things like submitting the method we use and our results to unsympathetic experts and to do so with an open mind to their criticisms. And at the end I can say with a totally clear conscience, Brian, that I worked very hard at this and that the research in this volume is, to the best of my knowledge, an honest and informed investigation of the data related to the resurrection of Jesus.
BA: Now Mike you describe your agonising process and the soul-searching and the different things that have happened during the writing of the book, but how do you think people will be affected by the reading of the book? Do you think that they’ll be encouraged in their faith? Do you think that there are things that are going to shift in their own thinking? What are your thoughts on how people will respond to it when they read it?
ML: Good question! First, I’d want to just say that when I wrote the book that was not my concern. My concern was just telling of my journey in this investigation, define every step I took along the way, so it could be submitted to public criticism and I could get feedback on that and to see if it holds in these... I mean, it’s not going to be airtight but you know, I’m certainly open to criticism. I’m, you know, everybody’s biased so even some of my critics aren’t going to think objectively and I’m not going to agree with a lot of their criticism. Some of them, I probably will agree on and take those criticisms to heart.
But I didn’t write the book with an objective of saying, ‘I want people converted’, or ‘I want to encourage the Christian’. Naturally I would want that to be the case once I came to the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead, but while I’m going through it my primary objective, in fact my sole objective as I’m going through it is, I need to find this out for myself because, honestly, you know, we all have our idiosyncrasies and one of mine is I’m a second-guesser. I really struggle with that. It’s not just in religious things. It’s in little, stupid things. So that was the primary goal of writing this thing but I do hope – my hopes now with this book is that Christians will be encouraged and I suppose many of them will be.
I suppose that there are going to be others with a rigid, wooden form of their faith, maybe a rigid, wooden form of biblical inerrancy that struggles with some of the things I say because I, you know, the Gospels aren’t my primary sources on this. In fact, I say that for historical purposes investigating this, they’re not as good for us as Paul’s letters. And they might go, ‘Yeah but all of it’s inspired by God! How can you say one’s better than the others?’ You gotta understand, I’m looking at this as a student of history, not as a man of faith and I can’t consider biblical inerrancy when I’m going through this and I have to bifurcate faith and historical investigation when I’m doing this, so some of them might struggle with that.
You’re going to have some sceptics who are looking at it and some that are as biased as anyone you’ve ever met and they’re just going to do what I tended to do as I was in the initial part of my investigation and they’re going to skim through it and not really read it and they’re going to misinterpret some things because they have an idea of what I’m going to say anyway, so without reading it very carefully, they’re just going to skim through it and come to false conclusions and offer criticisms that really don’t apply.
And then you’re going to have some that I think look at it with a fairly objective mind. They’re not believers but they’ll go, ‘Um, these are some interesting points I’m going to have to think about’. So I think people will fall into a number of different camps – the readers that is.
BA: Well, Mike it looks like there’s tons of great content in it and so I’m real excited about the book and I hope that it does very well and I pray that it makes a significant impact for years to come.
Mike, thanks for being with me today.
ML: Well, thank you Brian. Thanks again, I appreciate it. God bless you all – your listeners - and keep up the good work, my friend.