A New Testament scholar, Michael R. Licona is Associate Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University. Professor Licona has authored, co-authored, or co-edited six books, notably The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (with Gary Habermas; Kregel Publications, 2004) and The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2010).
Professor Licona is regarded as one of the world’s leading scholars advocating the truth of Jesus’s bodily resurrection from the dead. For further details about his scholarly work, see his academic website.
In addition to his scholarship and teaching, Licona remains involved in active ministry as a widely sought-after speaker. He has spoken on more than 70 university campuses and has appeared on dozens of radio and television programs. For more on his ministry, see his personal website.
Michael R. Licona Interview
Thank you very much for agreeing to take part in this interview, as well as in the upcoming Focused Civil Dialogue (FCD) with Bart Ehrman, to be published here at TheBestSchools.org over the next six weeks or so.
The focus of this interview will be the same as that of the FCD, namely, the reliability of the New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus, especially of the resurrection. You are the author of The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, a book that in its short life has already become one of the standard works on the historicity of the resurrection.
However, before turning to that work, we would like to begin by asking you about your own life. Could you please tell our readers about your early life? Where and when were you born? What were your most significant formative influences growing up? What religious upbringing did you have? How did you first get interested in Christian ministry, theology, New Testament studies, and apologetics?
Michael R. Licona
Sure. And I want to thank you for inviting me to participate in this FCD. I was born in Baltimore in 1961 and raised in a Christian family. I became a Christian at age 10 and my parents told me I was an easy kid to raise. Since around age seven, I’ve had an interest in religious matters and ended up going to a Christian university.
The first semester of my freshman year, I decided I wanted to go into Christian ministry. But I thought it would be a music ministry, since I played the saxophone. As my education progressed, so did my desire to understand the Bible. That led me to do a master’s degree in religious studies with a concentration in koinē Greek, the Greek in which the New Testament literature was written.
As I neared the end of my coursework, I began to have doubts about the truth of the Christian faith. How could I know if Christianity is really true, especially since many who are a lot smarter than I believe differently? Would I be of the same opinion had my parents been Muslims, Hindus, Jews, or atheists? This led me to search for answers and that’s how I became acquainted with the field of Christian apologetics.
I first discussed my doubts with Gary Habermas who would become a huge mentor figure. It would be difficult to name someone who has had more influence in my life than Gary Habermas. He is a great scholar and has become my best friend aside from my wife. Over the years, I’ve developed interests that differ somewhat from Gary’s and that focus more on the New Testament.
Your undergraduate degree is in music performance (saxophone). What role has music played in your life? How do you see the role of music in Christian ministry, if any? You are also an accomplished martial artist. Tell us about that aspect of your life.
Michael R. Licona
I used to love music and playing my saxophone. I loved playing jazz. But today, music has a very small role in my life. In fact, I rarely pick up my horn. It’s not that I don’t enjoy playing. It’s because I love research and any time I take to play the saxophone is time away from research. So, I guess you could say that I loved playing the saxophone, but I’m passionate about my research.
I had two amazing martial arts instructors. Mr. Robert Fujimura, who would become one of the coaches of the U.S. Taekwondo Olympic Team, a master instructor, and an esteemed leader in the art, was my first instructor. I trained under him while I was in graduate school. But I ended up training most under the eye of Master Sang Ki Eun who had learned taekwondo personally from its founder. After graduate school, I went on to earn my first- and second-degree black belts under him and for three years ran one of his schools in Alexandria, Virginia. It was a wonderful experience!
You did your undergraduate work at Liberty University. What took you to that school? Jerry Falwell, the school’s founder, was a polarizing figure in American life. Describe Falwell’s influence on you and the school at the time.
Michael R. Licona
My parents watched Jerry Falwell on television in the 1970s and knew about the college he had started, Liberty University. They encouraged me to check out Liberty and attend their “College for a Weekend,” which I did in the spring of 1979.
I wasn’t excited about going, at first. But once I was there, I fell in love with the place. I was most impressed with the warmth and kindness I observed. It was amazing. Liberty provided a wonderful environment for me to grow spiritually and academically. I have a learning disability and was a late bloomer, academically speaking.
I attended Liberty during the pinnacle of Jerry Falwell’s political activities. I’ve never been very interested in politics and you’re correct that he was a polarizing figure. He took bold stances publicly and did so against causes that made him unpopular with the political left. But those on the left can also be polarizing. Why should they be the only ones allowed to spread and defend their ideologies? When you take a stance, people on the other side are going to throw tomatoes at you. That’s part of the ideological war, I suppose, and Jerry Falwell fought it well. He was a great man, a moral man, who deeply cared for the students — and we all knew it.
On your web site, RisenJesus.com, you say you experienced a crisis of faith in 1985, shortly after taking your BA from Liberty University. What caused the crisis? How was it finally resolved?
Michael R. Licona
I was actually in the final semester of coursework in graduate school when I began to question whether Christianity is true. I had been raised in a Christian family and had gone to a Christian university and graduate school. It was the only worldview I knew. But I began to wonder whether I would have been a Muslim if I had been raised in a Muslim family in Saudi Arabia? Or a Hindu if I had been raised in a Hindu family in India? You get the idea. I was young and had the bulk of my life ahead of me. I didn’t want to spend it being devoted to a fairy tale. That’s what caused my doubts at that time. I wanted to know and follow the truth, wherever it led.
Dr. Gary Habermas (left) was a philosophy professor at Liberty and had a great reputation among the students. So, I went to his office, introduced myself, and asked if I could speak with him about some doubts I was experiencing. He invited me in, put me at ease, and allowed me to express my thoughts. He never condemned me or made me feel ashamed in any way. In fact, he shared that he had likewise experienced a period of serious doubts. He really helped me that day and would do so even more in the future. In fact, I’m still a Christian today because of Gary Habermas.
I would experience a few more crises of faith in the years that followed. The most painful one occurred during my doctoral studies. I came to realize that all of my previous bouts with doubt ended when I found the answers I was looking for. In other words, I had been looking for ways to confirm the truth of my Christian faith and, not surprisingly, like those holding other worldviews, I found what I was looking for. This time, however, I wanted to engage in an entirely genuine quest for truth and follow wherever the truth led, no matter where that was. I wanted to take a thorough look at whether Jesus rose from the dead. That’s why my doctoral dissertation was more than three times larger than an average-sized dissertation and the book that resulted (Resurrection) ended up being so large. There are a handful of people closest to me who were aware of how much I agonized while wrestling with my own biases throughout my investigation and that I did my very best to minimize the influence those biases had on me.
You did your doctoral work at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, and in 2012 you joined the faculty at Houston Baptist University (HBU). Could you tell us why you chose the University of Pretoria and how your connection with HBU came about?
Michael R. Licona
I was in my early forties when I decided to pursue doctoral studies. At that time I was leading a donor-supported Christian ministry, had a family and a home, and was far behind in my savings for retirement. I would have loved to have studied at a big-name university in the U.S. But it didn’t seem to be the wise thing for me at that point in my life to uproot my family and go into debt. A professor who is twice a Fulbright Scholar told me he regarded many of the South African universities to be on a par with most major state universities in the U.S. The New Testament scholars Ben Witherington and Richard Burridge had both taught at the University of Pretoria in South Africa and regarded it as a fine academic institution.
What attracted me to it was they had a doctoral program that could be completed almost entirely at a distance, just as some prominent universities in the U.K. now have (e.g., Durham University and the University of Wales). The cost was very reasonable given the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and South African rand. My doctoral superviser, Jan van der Watt, was ranked at that time as the top New Testament scholar in South Africa. I had a wonderful working relationship with him and wouldn’t trade it for anything. So, it worked out very well for me in every respect.
I have a unique position with Houston Baptist University. Although I’m a full-time faculty member, the courses I teach are online. I’m usually on campus one week a semester to meet with students and hang with my colleagues on faculty. But I live in the Atlanta area. The remainder of the time, I am engaged in research, writing, and speaking on university campuses all over North America.
HBU is an impressive university with great plans. The president, Dr. Robert Sloan, is an extraordinary person and a visionary who is taking the school to a very high level, just as he did with Baylor when he was its president. I’m very excited and proud to be a member of the HBU faculty.
As one who has debated atheists, you have investigated the arguments for atheism. What were the strongest arguments you found for atheism? What counterarguments did you discover that persuaded you atheism is false?
Michael R. Licona
Most would agree that the best argument atheism has to offer is the problem of evil, pain, and suffering in the world. And it’s a powerful card to hold in one’s hand. But it’s not at all conclusive. The highly esteemed Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has demonstrated the unlikelihood of a race of beings with free will who all choose to do the right things all of the time. Thus, in a world of free beings, there is going to be evil, pain, and suffering that result.
What the atheist must demonstrate is that there are possible worlds of free beings in which there is on balance a greater amount of good and lesser amount of evil than we experience in this world. This burden cannot be met. The late agnostic philosopher William Rowe countered Plantinga by noting there appears to be gratuitous evil, pain, and suffering in the world — that is, evil, pain, and suffering for which there could be no positive resulting benefit. Rowe provided the example of a fawn that burned to death, having been trapped under a burning tree that had fallen on it after being struck by lightning. This argument renders the problem of evil more difficult to answer. But there are Christian philosophers such as Ed Martin, Jeremy Evans, Bruce Little, and David Wood, who have presented what I regard as plausible solutions to Rowe’s challenge and/or the problem of evil, pain, and suffering.
Moreover, when one considers about a hundred cases of well-evidenced Near Death Experiences, apparitions of the dead in which percipients received accurate information from the apparition they could not have otherwise known, extreme answered prayer, and the historical case for Jesus’s resurrection, the evidence for a supernatural component to reality is so strong that atheism becomes untenable. The evidence strongly suggests that the world in which we live is far more compatible with theism than atheism.
In 1997, you founded TruthQuest Ministries, renamed Risen Jesus in 2001. Tell us how you first became involved in Christian ministry, and what part this ministry has played in your life over the years and continues to play today.
Michael R. Licona
Entering college, I had no desire to be in Christian ministry as a vocation. But during my freshman year of college, my vocational desires changed and a strong desire grew in me to be involved in Christian ministry on a full-time basis. I thought that was going to be some sort of music ministry, since I was a music major and loved musical performance. As I continued in my sophomore through senior years of college, I developed a desire to go much deeper in Bible study. I enrolled in a graduate degree program in New Testament Studies and specialized in learning koinē Greek, the language in which the New Testament literature was originally written. I had a wonderful primary instructor named Ron Sauer, who was the last doctoral student of F.F. Bruce. He instilled in us a passion for learning the language.
As mentioned earlier in this interview, during my final semester of graduate school, the fall of 1985, I began experiencing doubts pertaining to the truth of the Christian faith. As I wrestled through the issues in the years that followed, Christian apologetics became a passion of mine. In the early 1990s, I began to teach Christian apologetics in churches and on university campuses. I decided that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. In time, the number of speaking opportunities increased and in 2000 I went into an apologetics ministry on a full-time basis.
You’ve been a prominent figure in Southern Baptist circles over the years, working with its home mission organization, known as the North American Mission Board (NAMB). Tell us about your work there, how you came to work for NAMB, and what your aims were in taking that appointment.
Michael R. Licona
In the summer of 2004 I was loving life. I lived in Virginia Beach, could go to the beach any time I wished — and I went often — and had great friends, as well as the autonomy of working out of my home.
But I began having a sense that God was going to move me into something else and I didn’t know what that was. I didn’t want to leave Virginia Beach. But I asked God for His guidance and told Him I was willing to do whatever He desired.
Unknown to me, my friend Alex McFarland had recommended to the NAMB leadership that they contact me and check my interest in pursuing the position of Director of Apologetics for NAMB. At the time, I went to a non-denominational church. I wasn’t a Southern Baptist and had the same negative stereotypes of Southern Baptists as many others have. I consulted with my board members. We all prayed about it and in the end we were unanimous in our belief that this is where the Lord was leading me because of the platform of influence it would provide in the largest Protestant denomination in North America.
I was hired, moved to the Atlanta area, and began my new position in January 2005. I wanted to spread an awareness of the need for Southern Baptists to familiarize themselves with Christian apologetics and provide training for Southern Baptist pastors and ministry leaders. I oversaw the construction of a new apologetics website, started a program by which others could become certified in Christian apologetics, and with my team members provided training in Christian apologetics all over North America. My time of service with NAMB was fruitful and enjoyable. There were some great people there with whom I served.
You have also been a prominent public proponent for the veracity of the New Testament. For example, you have engaged in public debates with such well-known atheists as Dan Barker and Richard Carrier, as well as with such revisionist New Testament scholars as Elaine Pagels, Stephen Patterson, and, of course, Bart Ehrman. Describe some of the high points in these debates. What are some key things that persons of faith should bear in mind as they face skeptics of the New Testament like this? What made you want to get involved in public controversy and debate? Looking back on your career on the debating platform, would you say, overall, it has been time well spent? If so, why?
Michael R. Licona
I think it was sometime in the mid-1990s that I purchased some audio-cassette tapes of William Lane Craig debating Frank Zindler and John Dominic Crossan. I was very impressed when I heard Dr. Craig pick apart their arguments in an intellectually sound manner. I had never enjoyed controversy. But there was something about confronting bad philosophy and arguments and being able to present a sound case for the truth of Christianity that was very appealing to me.
I never imagined I would participate in a debate. At that point, Dr. Craig had two earned doctorates while I had not even completed my master’s thesis and had no intention of going on for a doctorate. So, engaging in public debate in the type of academic forums he was involved with was not even on my radar.
In the spring of 2003, Gary Habermas was invited to debate Dan Barker. He didn’t like debating and asked me if I would be interested in debating Dan. He said that if I ever wanted to get involved in debate, this would be a good first one, since Dan, though smart, is not a scholar. So, I accepted an invitation to debate Dan (right) and enjoyed the experience. The next year, Gary turned down two more debates and referred them to me, which I accepted. Later, Bill Craig passed along a few to me. And that’s how I got started debating.
Highlights of debating for me are the many emails I receive from others describing how viewing my debates served to move them to become a Christian or bring them back to the faith they had jettisoned after hearing their professors attack Christianity in their classes, or how it moved them to go into Christian ministry as a vocation, or simply how it strengthened their faith. Students are hungry for truth. They want a foundation on which to base their lives that’s grounded in truth rather than wishful thinking. I enjoy debating and have always had respectful interactions with my opponent. And those emails really motivate me.
For Christians who engage in debate or dialogue with nonbelievers, we should always keep in mind that our opponents are not our enemies. I don’t regard anyone I have debated as my enemy. In fact, I now regard some of them, like Bart Ehrman, as friends. Since Jesus taught His followers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, how much more should we love others who are not our enemies and who are not persecuting us!
I’d also suggest that if you’re going to get in the ring with some major scholars like Bart Ehrman and Shabir Ally, you better be willing to do your homework and prepare diligently. Debating successfully is not easy. It takes hard work — lots of it — and can be emotionally draining. It’s not for everyone.
But if you have the personality for it and are willing to put in the effort, there will be plenty of opportunities to engage in public debates and we need more Christians who will do it. I love the challenge and love doing something that I think has a lot of value.
In 2010, you published your doctoral dissertation as The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2010). It is an extremely impressive piece of work, which has now set the standard for historiographical work on the historicity of Jesus and the resurrection. Just the list of endorsers reads like a Who’s Who of New Testament scholarship. What was the research path that led to the completion of this work?
Michael R. Licona
Thanks for your kind remarks pertaining to Resurrection.
In 2003, Gary Habermas and I were working on our book, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Kregel Publications, 2004). I regard Habermas to be the world’s leading expert on the topic. Since 1975, he had been compiling a bibliography on academic sources written on Jesus’s resurrection, and had more than 2,000 sources at the time. Today, that bibliography has expanded to around 3,500 sources! Habermas had read the major works and catalogued where scholars stood on more than 100 topics related to Jesus’s resurrection.
So, I asked him to which discipline the majority of scholars writing on the subject belong. He said the overwhelming bulk of them are biblical scholars and a small percentage are philosophers. I asked him if any professional historians outside the community of biblical scholars had published on the subject and he said he recalled seeing perhaps a handful of journal articles and one short book. At that point, I decided that I wanted to conduct a thorough investigation of Jesus’s resurrection as a historian. I wanted to know how historians conduct their investigations and how those approaches might look when compared to those conducted by biblical scholars and philosophers.
After being accepted into the doctoral program at the University of Pretoria, I immersed myself in literature written by philosophers of history on the nature of historical knowledge and the various methods used for discovering the past. It wasn’t long before I realized that I had a serious challenge before me: Historians are virtually unanimous in admitting that the completely objective historian does not exist and that we are all persons of bias. I realized that I had my own bias. After all, I wanted to show that the resurrection of Jesus was a historical event.
So, I put together a list of steps for managing my bias and did my best to follow them. Did I obtain complete objectivity? No one can and I wasn’t an exception. However, I discovered that I could get pretty close to my goal of complete objectivity if I engaged in an authentic and serious effort to get there, although I found that unless I took deliberate and sustained efforts toward remaining there, I would go back to my default position. It was a continuous struggle.
I became obsessed with my research. I agonized over my biases and remained committed to pursuing truth no matter where it led. The factor that motivated me most was my doubts. By nature, I’m a second-guesser. I second-guess everything, even insignificant matters such as whether I purchased the right cologne or watch. So, how much more would I second-guess the truth of Christianity when the way I respond to the Christian claims about Jesus have the potential to impact how I will spend my afterlife (if there is one)! That’s a matter about which I don’t want to fall on the wrong side.
Some people are just wired to doubt and second guess. I don’t like that about myself. In fact, it’s quite frustrating at times. Since I knew my previous work on Jesus’s resurrection was conducted with the agenda of confirming what I already believed, I was determined to conduct this historical inquiry with as much intellectual integrity as possible for me — so at least I could rest at the end, knowing that I had engaged in an authentic quest for truth, even if that quest resulted in my giving up my Christian faith.
During that time, I intentionally debated some of the finest minds taking a contrary view. I wanted to put my method and conclusions before them in order to see what they had to say, and to learn from the process. And it was during that period that I continually asked God to show me if Jesus did not rise from the dead, even if he had to humiliate me during the course of a debate. I was entirely open-minded at that point and could have tipped into unbelief or belief.
My doctoral research was a long and laborious process. But it yielded priceless knowledge to me. And I was thrilled when IVP decided to publish it.
Resurrection is a 700-page work dense with scholarly annotation. Nevertheless, would you be able to summarize the main conclusions you reach in this work for our readers? What does this book add to conservative New Testament scholarship about the Resurrection? What’s new here? How does it differ from other magisterial work in this area, such as that of Gary Habermas and N.T. Wright?
Michael R. Licona
I think there are four major differences between my new book and where others have previously gone. First, I discuss issues pertaining to the philosophy of history and historical method with a depth that far exceeds what other scholars writing on Jesus’s resurrection have offered to date. Second, I interact with the debate over whether historians are within their professional rights to investigate miracle claims to a far greater extent than has been previously offered. Third, I subject a variety of hypotheses to strictly controlled historical method in a more comprehensive manner than has been previously offered. Finally, I provide an in-depth discussion pertaining to the meaning of two Greek terms in 1 Corinthians 15:44, upon which an important discussion related to Jesus’s resurrection hinges.
Resurrection, despite its very traditional view that the bodily resurrection of Jesus occurred in space-time, has engendered a good deal of controversy in the evangelical community. In particular, well-known apologist Norman Geisler accused you of denying biblical inerrancy for your interpretation of a few verses in Matthew 27. As a result, you ended up resigning your appointment with the North American Mission Board and left Southern Evangelical Seminary. On the other hand, you have also received public support from prominent evangelicals, such as Craig Blomberg, Paul Copan, William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, Dan Wallace, and many others. Please give us your version of what happened.
Michael R. Licona
Matthew’s story of some saints raised at Jesus’s death (Matthew 27:51–53) is a thorny matter that has left many scratching their heads, from the early church through modern scholarship. Why is Matthew the only one to report it? If these saints were raised with resurrection bodies, then Matthew contradicts Paul who stated that Jesus was the first to have been raised with a resurrection body (1 Cor. 15:20). But if they were raised in their old bodies, like Lazarus who would die again, then what happened to them after they were raised? They were homeless, without jobs, food, and shelter. And you’d think they’d have some very interesting stories to tell! Why, then, do we hear nothing about them from the early Christians until several centuries later?
As a historian, I realize that a lack of data may prohibit us from affirming the historicity of a report, but does not justify rejecting it. As I read through the Greco-Roman and Jewish literature of that period, I found numerous examples of reports of phenomena similar to those Matthew reports to have occurred at Jesus’s death. These were connected to historical events having a huge amount of significance. In one case, Virgil lists 16 phenomena related to the death of Julius Caesar in what is certainly a poetic genre.
So, for a number of reasons, I posited that Matthew’s raised saints may have been a poetic element of Matthew’s account of Jesus’s death — the addition of “special effects,” you might say. It’s much like we might say that the events of 9–11 were “earth-shaking” or that “it rained cats and dogs.” When North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Il (right) died in December, 2011, it was reported that a snowstorm hit as he died. Ice cracked on the volcanic Chon lake near his reported birthplace at Mount Paektu. When the snowstorm ended at dawn, a message carved in rock glowed brightly until sunset saying, “Mount Paektu, holy mountain of revolution. Kim Jong-il.” Finally, on the day after his death, a Manchurian crane also adopted a posture of grief at a statue of the dictator’s father in the city of Hamhung. So, the same sort of rhetoric occurs even today.
A few ultraconservatives who have what I regard as an overly wooden view of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy accused me of dehistoricizing the biblical text, asserting that I didn’t believe Matthew’s story because of its supernatural nature. I was shocked! Did it not occur to them that my treatment of Matthew’s raised saints appeared in the context of a large book that contended for the physical resurrection of Jesus? The matter for me was whether Matthew had intended for his readers to think that some saints had actually been raised. My opinion was that he did not. And you cannot dehistoricize a story if Matthew did not intend for it to be read as history.
Could it be that, on the contrary, it was my detractors who were historicizing a text not intended as history? The biblical authors lived in a different culture from ours. So, there are going to be times when the literal meaning of the text is not how we should interpret it. Now, that’s not always easy for us to determine. Many early Christian males castrated themselves after misinterpreting Jesus’s teaching about some making themselves eunuchs for the sake of God’s kingdom (Matthew 19:12). Hermeneutical blunders can have tragic consequences! And notice these early Christians adopted a literal interpretation of a text not intended to be understood in that manner. If they could make such an error while being far more connected than are we to the culture in which Jesus lived, how much more might I be vulnerable to making a similar error!
I empathize with the concern of the ultraconservatives that, taken to an extreme, one might attempt — as many already have — to make the same move with respect to Jesus’s resurrection and claim it’s a metaphor or “special effects.” But I provided reasons in my book why such a move will not work; specifically, we can establish that Jesus’s apostles clearly intended for us to understand Jesus’s bodily resurrection as a historical event. It is far from clear that Matthew had the same intent when it came to the saints raised at Jesus’s death.
Most of the highly respected evangelical scholars sided with me in the controversy. Not all agreed with the interpretation of Matthew’s raised saints I had proposed. But they were all in agreement that this was entirely an interpretive matter and had nothing to do with whether the Bible contains any errors.
Once Norman Geisler accused you of denying biblical inerrancy, some elements of the Southern Baptist denomination for which you had worked became less supportive. For instance, Southern Seminary president Al Mohler, while praising Resurrection’s scholarship, took steps to bar you from working again in Southern Baptist circles, at least the conservative ones in which he held influence (see Mohler’s piece against Licona here). How have you handled such internecine attacks on your work? What does your treatment say about the direction in which the Southern Baptist denomination is headed? Are you optimistic about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention? Why or why not?
Michael R. Licona
Dr. Mohler was not the only person at that time working to blacklist me. I respect Dr. Mohler (below) and he is highly regarded by many in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). But there is no pope in the SBC. Every state convention, every association, and every church in the SBC is autonomous. In this way, the SBC differs from most other Protestant denominations. Dr. Mohler wields a lot of influence in some SBC circles and I wish the very best for him.
My ministry is flourishing and many of my speaking engagements are with SBC entities. During the first few years after the controversy, before I accepted a speaking invitation from an SBC entity, I would ask its leadership if they were aware of the controversy brought on by Drs. Geisler and Mohler, because I did not want for them to be caught off-guard should someone complain that they were having me speak. In every case, they were comfortable with me.
I remain persona non grata with some SBC entities and that’s unfortunate. But they have every right not to want me at their events and I’m comfortable with that. I spoke at the request of several Protestant denominations prior to coming to NAMB, such as the PCUSA, PCA, the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, Calvary Chapel, non-denominational churches, and charismatic churches. And even after joining NAMB, I didn’t limit myself to speaking for SBC entities. Nor do I now. I’ve never regarded Southern Baptists as the only true evangelical Christians. And I’m comfortable speaking outside evangelical circles. While I’m an evangelical by choice, I recognize one does not need to be an evangelical to be a Christian. If one embraces the essentials of the Christian faith, I’m happy to call that person my brother or sister and work alongside them in ministry, whether they are Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or whatever.
I was very disappointed to see the ungodly behavior of a few of my detractors. The theological bullying, the termination of a few professors in SBC seminaries (and intimidation of others) for expressing their opinion that the interpretation of Matthew’s raised saints I had proposed in my book was not incompatible with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, the deliberate misrepresentation of my words, and the working behind the scenes of some leaders to marginalize me — all this revealed the underbelly of fundamentalism.
I’ve handled the fighting largely by ignoring it. One prominent scholar counseled me at the beginning of the controversy that responding to the attacks would be to tangle with the tar baby. And we know how that turned out for Brer Rabbit!
I also listened to the book, A Tale of Three Kings (San Val, 1992), by Gene Edwards, at the recommendation of a friend who once had an experience somewhat similar to mine. That book was quite instructive. Most theological matters outside of the essentials of the Christian faith don’t interest me. So, I also didn’t want to spend my time splitting hairs over an interpretation that, in my opinion, doesn’t have any bearing on the essentials.
You ask for my thoughts about where I think this controversy suggests the SBC is headed. There is no question that there is an ultraconservative wing within the SBC that is working to pull the denomination back into fundamentalism where people are told: “We know the answers. Don’t question me. Just get back in line and follow me. I’m protecting the church.” However, I don’t think that’s where the majority of SBC church members are or even most professors in SBC seminaries.
Am I optimistic about the SBC? There are a lot of very good people in leadership positions in that denomination. There are a number of professors in SBC seminaries who are fine thinkers and are publishing regularly in respectable peer-reviewed journals and with reputable publishers. And, of course, there are academic institutions affiliated with the SBC, such as HBU and Baylor to name a couple, that place a strong emphasis on academics, while allowing an academic freedom you don’t see at the SBC seminaries. And HBU does so while also reminding students that their relationship with God matters. In spite of the good in the SBC, denominations in general are in decline in North America. Many younger evangelicals are disenchanted with denominations altogether and I think some of their concerns are legitimate. The SBC will survive. But I have no idea how it will look 20 years from now.
Why is biblical inerrancy such a hot-button issue among evangelicals? How do you personally understand biblical inerrancy? Do you still consider yourself a biblical inerrantist? Do you regard it as being crucial to sound Christian theology? Please explain.
Michael R. Licona
I think inerrancy is a hot-button issue among many evangelicals as a result of the battle against theological liberalism that occurred in the 1970s and ’80s. There are two primary ways of defining biblical inerrancy in Protestant evangelicalism. The Lausanne Covenant, signed by more than 3,000 evangelicals, including Billy Graham and the late John Stott, states that the Bible is “without error in all that it affirms.” The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy defines it most exhaustively. But even those who helped compose it aren’t in complete agreement about its meaning.
I continue to be a biblical inerrantist and I’m content to define inerrancy as found in the Lausanne Covenant. Almost all inerrantists affirm that inerrancy applies only to the autographs. But we don’t have any of them. So, that allows for an errant text in our hands. Even Norman Geisler (left) admits our present biblical text contains some errors and attributes them to copyist mistakes. See his book with Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Baker Books, 1992), and look at their comments related to 1 Samuel 13:5, 17:50; 2 Samuel 8:4; 1 Kings 4:26; 2 Kings 8:26; 18:13; 2 Chronicles 16:1.
So, if inerrancy applies only to the autographs that we no longer have and, since there are errors in our present biblical text, there is a sense in which the doctrine applies to a text we do not possess. Any view of the biblical text must take these factors into consideration. In my opinion, the definition found in the Lausanne Covenant is sufficiently vague as to allow a high view of Scripture while avoiding the need to overdefine “inerrancy.” I think the Chicago Statement has a fairly good, though imperfect, definition of what biblical inerrancy is and is not. The controversy involving me revealed that even those who penned the statement, as well as those who signed it and those who subscribe to it today, don’t always agree on how it’s to be properly interpreted. And many of them do not interpret it as Dr. Geisler does.
The doctrine of biblical inerrancy is not an essential doctrine for the Christian faith. In fact, William Lane Craig describes it as a tertiary doctrine. There is so much in the Bible historians can verify, such as Jesus’s personal claims to being God’s divine Son, that he performed deeds both he and his followers regarded as divine miracles and exorcisms, that he died by crucifixion, and — I would add — his bodily resurrection shortly thereafter. An inerrant Bible is not the foundation of the Christian faith; Jesus is. If Jesus rose, Christianity is true, even if it were to turn out the Bible is not accurate in every detail.
I’ll state that differently: If Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is true and remained true prior to any of the literature of the New Testament being written, which began 15–20 years later. So, how could an error in any of the New Testament literature negate the truth of Christianity, when Christianity was true prior to any of the New Testament literature being written?
It could not. So, biblical inerrancy is not a fundamental doctrine.
It is time now to move on to the main matter at hand — the historical reliability of the New Testament writings, especially as they relate to the resurrection of Jesus.
You are one of the world’s leading advocates of the view that the account of the personality and career of Jesus of Nazareth in the canonical Gospels and other books of the New Testament is fundamentally factual (historically reliable). This means we have good reason to believe, among other things, that Jesus died on the cross and was buried in a tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea, that several women subsequently discovered the tomb was empty, and that Jesus then appeared in bodily form to his disciples on several occasions, all as recounted in Scripture.
In other words, you believe that the account of these matters found in Scripture is epistemically warranted. This, of course, was what more or less everyone in Christendom believed for many centuries — until about 200 years ago, when German biblical criticism began to call the veracity of Scripture into question. Let us begin, then, with a broadly philosophical question, and move on from there to a more historical focus on the text of the New Testament and its cultural context.
Our philosophical question is the following. It has two parts.
If many people today find the traditional account of Jesus and the resurrection hard to take literally (however moving or true in some symbolic sense they may find it), that is primarily because they find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe in the suspension of the laws of nature — i.e., in miracles. And the resurrection is nothing if not a miracle.
Do you think, therefore, that it is necessary first to convince people that God exists, before even beginning to discuss the historical reliability of Scripture? Or, as some have recently suggested — e.g., Sandra Menssen and Thomas D. Sullivan, The Agnostic Inquirer (Eerdmans, 2007) — might not the strong historical evidence provided by Scripture actually be the best means for bringing an open-minded (“inquiring”) agnostic around to faith?
Michael R. Licona
There are various reasons people reject Jesus’s resurrection as historical. Those raised as Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus are likely to reject it because they were raised to have certain beliefs and these do not include Jesus’s resurrection. That is not to say they are not open-minded. But the way we are conditioned to believe — or not believe — has a powerful influence. And even if they’re not pious practitioners of their religion, they’re often busy with their lives and aren’t motivated to pursue an answer to the question of Jesus’s resurrection. That said, I do think a worldview that excludes a supernatural component is probably the main reason in Western culture why scholars don’t believe Jesus rose.
The laws of nature inform us of what typically occurs in the universe when left to itself. If I hold a pen in front of me and then let go, it will drop to the floor. I can repeat this act a million times over and get the same result. Now, let’s say I let go of the pen and catch it before it drops even the slightest distance. That the pen did not drop is not a violation or suspension of the laws of nature, because my hand entered the scene and altered the normal course of events.
In a sense, then, we should say that nature has not always been left to itself. A miracle is not a violation or suspension of the laws of nature. Rather, it is when the hand of God enters our world and alters the normal course of events. Everyone will agree that the laws of nature inform us that a corpse will not return to life when left to itself. But if Jesus’s resurrection occurred, it was God, the author of life, who altered the normal course of events and raised Jesus. His corpse was not left to itself.
There is disagreement among Christian philosophers and apologists about the best approach toward presenting a thorough case for the truth of the Christian worldview. A presuppositionalist view begins by assuming the truth of the Bible, then proceeds to show that what we observe through history and science is either entirely compatible or not incompatible with what the Bible teaches. That can work, but I don’t think it’s the best approach nor one that’s persuasive for many. Perhaps I don’t like it because it wouldn’t persuade me.
On the other hand, if one were first to establish the probability of God’s existence, that would provide background knowledge that would render Jesus’s resurrection more probable, given the historical evidence we have for it. I think the same could be said for establishing the existence of a supernatural component to reality prior to examining the historical evidence for Jesus’s resurrection. Now, that’s quite easy to do and even many who are uncertain of God’s existence believe supernatural phenomena occur.
On still another hand — a third hand, if you will! — if Jesus rose from the dead, then God’s existence, the supernatural, and the truth of Christianity all follow from that fact.
So, what’s the best approach? The answer may vary according to the needs of the person with whom I’m conversing.
The second part of our philosophical question is this. What do you think are the strongest philosophical (as opposed to historical) arguments in support of the existence of God? Do you believe natural theology has an important role to play? If so, how far does it extend?
Finally, once someone has been convinced of, say, the contingency of the material universe and the existence of a necessary being, how then can we help such a person to move from the God of the Philosophers to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?
Michael R. Licona
I find the argument from design for God’s existence to be quite persuasive. During the last 70 years, scientific discoveries have often been of such a nature that they are suggestive of a Designer of the universe and of life. Skeptics have all but made such admissions.
For example, Francis Crick was one of the two molecular biologists who discovered the DNA molecule. Crick was an agnostic and was overwhelmed by the complexity of DNA. He ended up writing: “An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have to be satisfied to get it going.”
Crick and the popular atheist astronomer Carl Sagan estimated the odds of life forming on earth by natural processes to be in the neighborhood of one chance in 102,000,000,000. (That’s a 10 followed by 2 billion zeros!) Now, when you don’t allow the possibility of a Creator, what do you do with such a scenario? Crick and Sagan did what Richard Dawkins and some others have suggested and proposed that life on earth was seeded from another planet, where it already existed.
Admittedly, that’s possible. But possible is not the same as probable. It’s possible that someone will donate $1 billion to my Christian ministry. But I’m not going to live as though that possibility will occur. The problem with the “seeded from another planet” hypothesis is life would have had to form and evolve to a complex level on that other planet even faster than we imagine it would have needed to on earth.
You see, one of the reasons why the odds for life forming on earth by natural processes are so low is that complex life on its most basic level is already so intricate that the 4.5 billion years during which the earth has existed are not nearly enough time for life’s forming by natural processes to become probable. So, all Crick, Sagan, et al. have done is punt the problem to another planet that is entirely hypothetical and cannot be analyzed.
Moreover, as of this time we have no evidence of complex life existing anywhere in the universe outside of earth. Does that mean it’s not there? No. But it’s unlikely according to some cosmologists such as Freeman Dyson, Leonard Susskind, and Matthew Kleban. The latter wrote an article in 2002 suggesting that what we know about our universe informs us it’s quite inhospitable to complex life and, therefore, the existence of complex life anywhere in the universe is a priori “extraordinarily improbable.”
Thus, if we want to base our worldview on evidence, atheists are in trouble here. Physicist and Templeton laureate Paul Davies went from promoting atheism in 1983, to stating in 1984 that the laws of physics “seem themselves to be the product of exceedingly ingenious design,” to writing four years later “[There] is for me powerful evidence that there is something going on behind it all. The impression of design is overwhelming.”
Arno Penzias was one of the two cosmologists who discovered the 3°K microwave “background” radiation that permeates our universe — a discovery which confirmed the “Big Bang theory” and won a Nobel Prize for the discoverers. Penzias would go on to say: “Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, and delicately balanced to provide exactly the conditions required to support life. In the absence of an absurdly-improbable accident, the observations of modern science seem to suggest an underlying, one might say, supernatural plan.”
None of this proves God’s existence in a strict sense. But these significant advances in science are certainly more at home with theism than atheism. An atheist may push back against the conclusion that a Designer is behind the universe and life, but you can bet that if the extremely low odds were instead on the side of the creation hypothesis, many atheists would be bragging about the cards they held in their hand and how pitiful those theists are who continue to resist scientific knowledge. When it comes to choosing between the cards favoring a Designer and those favoring natural processes for the origin of the universe and life, I’ll take those favoring a Designer anyday!
You ask how one can move from a Designer to the God of the Bible. I think that’s where historical investigation enters. The events reported in the Old Testament are largely unconfirmed. Some items can be verified, but not enough to confirm the truth of the Old Testament narrative. But the game changes in the second half — the New Testament, and Jesus, is the game-changer.
If Jesus rose from the dead, there’s a high probability that he is who he claimed to be and his message is worth hearing and following. And I think the New Testament provides enough data to render Jesus’s resurrection quite probable.
Let us shift gears now, and return to the question of the historical reliability of the New Testament.
Nearly a third of your book The Resurrection of Jesus is devoted to methodological issues. Your opponent in the upcoming Focused Civil Dialogue on the reliability of the New Testament, Bart D. Ehrman, also places a lot of emphasis on the question of method — he has developed an elaborate set of text-critical and historiographical “criteria” for judging the reliability of historical documents in general, largely based on their historical and cultural context.
Could you please elaborate on your own preferred methodological criteria, contrasting them, if you like, with Ehrman’s?
Michael R. Licona
Bart and I will agree on the sort of items that appear on a historian’s “wish list.” We desire multiple independent sources, written by eyewitnesses who were unbiased, who wrote very close to the events they report, and who get all of the details correct so their reports don’t conflict with others. This is what historians desire. But they rarely get everything they want. Notwithstanding, historians can still proceed carefully in their investigations and arrive at substantial and significant conclusions about the people and events in question.
How do my methods differ from Bart’s? When it comes to assessing the authenticity of Jesus’s teachings and deeds, I would guess that we both use a relatively similar method; specifically the criteria of authenticity, such as multiple independent sources, early sources, eyewitness sources, unsympathetic sources, and reports written by early Christians with embarrassing elements they were unlikely to have fabricated. And we look for overall patterns in how Jesus was remembered by the earliest Christians. Bart and I may apply some of these criteria differently and arrive at different conclusions. But we will probably use the same method.
However, things change when it comes to the matter of Jesus’s resurrection. I have carefully articulated various criteria for weighing hypotheses in Resurrection. I didn’t come up with these criteria but use those employed by professional historians who live outside of the community of biblical scholars. Most biblical scholars neither mention nor employ them in their work, probably because they don’t receive any training in matters pertaining to the philosophy of history. It’s hard to believe, but just look at the course catalogues of almost any university or seminary with a department of religion. Search for courses on the philosophy of history or historical method on any level; undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral. They’re as rare as an honest politician!
Proper historical method identifies what we may refer to as “relevant historical bedrock,” that is, facts relevant to one’s investigation, which are so strongly supported by the data that a nearly unanimous and heterogeneous consensus of scholars in the relevant fields have granted them. I say “relevant” because there are many facts we know which will not be relevant to a particular historical question being investigated.
For example, let’s say we are attempting to determine whether it was Curio or Antony who proposed to the Roman senate in December 50 BC that both Pompey and Caesar disarm. It’s historical bedrock that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in January 49 BC and marched on Rome shortly thereafter. But that fact is not directly relevant to the question of whether it was Curio or Antony who put the proposal to the senate in the previous month.
I say “nearly unanimous” because it’s rare to find a unanimous consensus of historians on any matter, irrespective of whether they study religious or non-religious matters. Historians cannot even agree on what it is they are supposed to be doing and whether the past is even knowable.
I include “heterogeneous,” because when a group of historians holding conflicting views can agree on a matter, it’s difficult to cite “bias” as a factor for arriving at that conclusion.
Finally, I include “in the relevant fields” because if one is not trained in the particular field to which the historical question at hand relates, they are not an authority. For example, my opinion on how best to interpret the creation account in Genesis carries little weight, since I’m not an authority in the field of Old Testament Studies.
So, the relevant historical bedrock is a starting point. One can consider additional facts, but must recognize that one then assumes some additional risk of allowing his or her personal bias to corrupt their investigation.
Once the historian identifies a collection of relevant historical bedrock, she formulates various hypotheses of what occurred, then weighs those hypotheses according to criteria of inference to the best explanation. These criteria relate to which hypothesis explains a greater amount of the relevant historical bedrock, does so without forcing the facts to fit and without an excessive amount of ambiguity, does so with the least amount of non-evidenced assumptions, and is compatible with our background knowledge to a greater degree than competing hypotheses.
The hypothesis that best fulfills these criteria is regarded as what probably occurred. The preferred hypothesis does not need to fulfill all of these criteria perfectly. However, it needs to do so to a greater degree than rival hypotheses. And if the preferred hypothesis outdistances its rivals in fulfilling the criteria by a significant margin, the historian may be justified in having an even greater confidence that the preferred hypothesis is an accurate description of the past.
One of the ideas to which you devote the most discussion in The Resurrection of Jesus is that of “horizon.” The horizon — a term we assume you have taken over from Hans-Georg Gadamer — is the boundary of our interpreted world, that is, the world (both natural and human) insofar as it is meaningful to us, insofar as we make sense of it.
While rightly acknowledging that each of us indeed lives and thinks within something like a “horizon” of familiar or accepted concepts — obviously, we all know what we know, and none of us is omniscient — you are nevertheless concerned to counter the notion that we are somehow “prisoners” of our horizons. That is, you consider yourself a “realist” — someone who believes, for example, that there is a fact of the matter (however difficult it may be to determine) whether Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead, or whether he was an ordinary mortal whose followers had “visions” of him after his death and so came to believe in his resurrection.
Could you please explain to us (1) why the concept of “horizon” is so important, and (2) why you ultimately reject it, at least in its radical Gadamerian interpretation as an inherent limitation on what we can know.
Michael R. Licona
What I mean by “horizon” is similar to Gadamer’s. It’s how we view the world, given our race, gender, ethics, nationality, our philosophical and religious convictions, the way we were raised, the academic institutions we attended, and the group of people with whom we keep company. Our horizon is like wearing sunglasses that shade the way we view everything. During a Little League baseball game, one of the players slides into second on a very close play. Do you think he’s safe or out? Your judgment may largely depend on whether your son is the runner trying to steal second or the shortstop tagging him!
I reject the view that our horizons prohibit us from knowing the past, which I’ll refer to as “radical postmodernism.” While the horizon of the historian limits what she can know, this observation does not justify the conclusion that she cannot obtain sufficient knowledge to make a correct judgment on a particular historical matter.
Consider the question of Jesus’s resurrection. If one’s horizon leads them to think God does not exist or, if he does, he does not act in our world, the resurrection hypothesis will seem implausible to the point that it must be rejected. But if one’s horizon leads them to think God exists and acts in the world, the resurrection hypothesis could seem plausible enough to be regarded as a historical event.
Conflicting horizons is why there will never be a consensus on the question of Jesus’s resurrection. However, the conclusion of the radical postmodernist that the past — in this instance, Jesus’s resurrection — is unknowable does not follow. For either Jesus rose or he did not. Either the atheist/deist or Christian/theist historian arrives at the correct conclusion pertaining to Jesus’s resurrection. The horizon of the mistaken historian prevented her from learning the truth, but did not prevent the other historian from doing so. Accordingly, the challenge of horizons may prevent a consensus, but it does not necessarily prevent us from knowing the past.
What I suggest in Resurrection is that historians must take great care to recognize that the presence of their horizon will influence their investigation and that they should make a serious and sustained attempt to minimize its potentially negative influence. They can do this by following a few steps:
- Follow a carefully defined method;
- Acknowledge their personal biases and method in a public manner. In this way, critics are able to have a clear idea where the historian is coming from, and assess whether her method is sound and whether she has followed it carefully. It also fosters a sense of personal accountability;
- Presenting one’s ideas before unsympathetic experts. We all have blind spots. I can learn when I present a matter before experts who do not necessarily have my views, since the unsympathetic expert may not have the same blind spots I possess and will more easily spot a weakness in my view. This often occurs in the peer-review process of getting an article or book published by an academic entity;
- Ensure that one’s hypothesis adequately accounts for the relevant historical bedrock. If it can’t, it should be returned to the drawing board or jettisoned;
- Historians should be intentional in their efforts to detach themselves from their biases and proceed in their investigations with an authentic pursuit of truth that transcends any objective they may have of arriving at a desired conclusion. This is extremely difficult for anyone and requires deliberate and sustained effort. But without this commitment, a historian will be more likely than not to arrive at conclusions that go beyond what the evidence can bear and may even be entirely wrong.
Once we have accepted the realist premise that history is the investigation into “what really happened” (in the famous phrase of Leopold von Ranke), there still remains of course the difficult problem of deciding what in fact happened in a particular case, such as the resurrection event reported by Scripture.
A large number of objections to the historical reliability of Scripture with respect to various particular claims have been advanced. We will only have time to ask you about a few of them here. But let us begin with one of the ones that are most frequently discussed.
The accounts of Jesus’s life in general, and of the resurrection in particular, that we find in the canonical Gospels, the Pauline letters, and the other New Testament writings seem to many to be far from consistent. For example, Matthew and John give different accounts of the time of day when the crucifixion occurred. Also, the fact that Jesus died late in the afternoon on the day before the Sabbath (Friday) and the women found the tomb empty before dawn on the day after the Sabbath (Sunday) seems scarcely consistent with the frequently repeated claim that Jesus rose on the third day. And so forth.
From these and many similar inconsistencies among the various books of the New Testament, their general unreliability as historical sources is then inferred. What is your approach to such apparent inconsistencies, in general? What do you say about the timing of the crucifixion events, in particular?
Michael R. Licona
You ask very informed and interesting questions and I’m glad to address them! Von Ranke’s now famous stated purpose of historical investigation — to know the past as it actually occurred (wie es eigentlich gewesen) — was too optimistic and is now rejected by nearly all practicing historians. Notwithstanding, most practicing historians think we can often get an accurate general picture of certain past events and people. Of course, we’ll be able to know some things with greater certainty than others and contradictions will sometimes force us to settle for confidence in a less specific picture of events.
For example, it’s more probable than not that Marc Antony (left) initially purchased Pompey’s house that had been confiscated in the proscriptions as reported by Cicero and by Plutarch in his Life of Antony. However, the appearance of “Corfinius” as the initial purchaser in all of the extant manuscripts of Plutarch’s Life of Caesar is unexplainable and leaves a degree of doubt pertaining to the original purchaser. Yet, we get a general picture that Pompey’s house was purchased and ended up in the hands of Antony.
Your reference to inconsistencies among the Gospel narratives is of particular interest to me, since it has been the subject of my most recent research. For the past seven and a half years, I’ve been reading ancient biographies, specifically Plutarch’s Lives, in order to gain a greater understanding of the matter of the biographical genre. It’s widely agreed today by New Testament scholars that this is the genre to which the Gospels belong. So, the objective of my research has been to gain a better understanding of the Gospels and how they are to be read by improving my understanding of the ancient biographical genre. It has been a fascinating journey and has led to some fruitful insights. The book is being published by Oxford University Press and will probably be available this fall (2016).
You raise the matter of Gospel discrepancies — specifically, the matter of the time and day of Jesus’s crucifixion. The big problem is that Mark clearly thinks of the Last Supper as a passover meal that Jesus ate with his disciples prior to being crucified the following day, whereas John appears to suggest the Last Supper was not a passover meal, since that meal would be eaten on the following evening and after Jesus had been crucified (John 18:28). There are a number of plausible explanations.
One solution proposed by some evangelical scholars is that any meal eaten during the passover week may have been regarded as a passover meal. This would explain the apparent discrepancy caused by John 18:28. They also explain the time discrepancy resulting from Mark and John rounding off the time to the nearest three-hour segment. So, let’s say Jesus was crucified around 10:30 am. Mark rounded it back to 9:00 am, while John rounded it forward to around noon. While I acknowledge the possibility that these explanations may be true, I think there are other explanations that are more likely.
Ancient historians/biographers usually aimed to report events accurately. But they were also concerned that their historical writings be good literature in its own right. So, they employed various compositional devices that crafted their narratives in such a manner that communicated their desired points more clearly. Even the finest Roman historians such as Sallust and Tacitus would do these things.
A good example in the Gospels is to observe how Matthew crafts his genealogy of Jesus. He omits several generations mentioned in the Old Testament literature and arranges the generations in three groups of fourteen (Matt. 1:17). In order to get these, he even reuses the fourteenth generation in his second group as the first generation in his third group. Why is the number 14 apparently important to Matthew?
Some scholars have suggested, rightly in my opinion, that Matthew is employing a literary device known as gematria where numerical values are assigned to letters. Thus, the Hebrew name for “David” is spelling “DWD” (there are no vowels in Hebrew). “D” is the fourth letter in the Hebrew alphabet while “W” is the sixth letter. So, we have 4 + 6 + 4 for a total of 14. What Matthew appears to have done is to craft his genealogy in an artistic manner in order to emphasize the Davidic quality of his main character Jesus: Jesus is the son of David, the Messiah. Matthew does not create the concept of Jesus being the son of David, the Messiah, out of nothing. And a fuller genealogical record would not have changed the fact that Jesus came from the line of David. However, with Matthew’s artistic arrangement, the message could be clearer to his readers.
Literary artistry may likewise account for the different reported days and times pertaining to when Jesus was crucified. In his magisterial commentary on John’s Gospel, Craig Keener cites the mishna saying that when the passover fell on a Sabbath, the burnt offerings typically made around 2:30 in the afternoon were pushed up two hours to around noon in order to accommodate the sacrifice of the Passover lambs. Keener suggests John has altered the day and time of Jesus’s crucifixion in order to highlight the theological points that Jesus is the burnt offering of our sins (since John says he was crucified just after noon) and our passover lamb (since John says he was crucified during the passover). If Keener is correct, and I suspect that he is, John artistically adapted his passion narrative to underscore theological points he regarded as being true.
Was Jesus actually crucified? Yes. Did it occur during passover week? Yes. Was John responsible for introducing a new teaching that Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins? No, since the other Gospels and Paul likewise make such claims. So, John does not distort the “truth.” However, he crafts his narrative on occasion in a somewhat artistic manner to present the truth more clearly to his readers. John is not unique in doing this, since we observe Matthew doing it with his genealogy of Jesus and we can observe the finest Roman historians doing it, as well.
Another alleged inconsistency that is of particular interest is the difference between the ending of the original version of Mark (which ends at Mark 16:8 and describes the empty tomb but not the appearances/visions of Jesus to/by the disciples) and the other canonical Gospels, which all describe such later appearances/visions. The Pauline letters, on the other hand, do not mention the empty tomb.
From these facts, Ehrman and others infer two independent oral traditions — the “empty tomb” tradition and the “appearances/visions” tradition — and from the existence of these two supposedly “competing” traditions, the unreliability of both is inferred.
Do you see an inconsistency here? If not, why not? If so, how do you account for it?
Michael R. Licona
I see a difference, but not an inconsistency. It’s true that Paul does not mention an empty tomb in his extant letters. However, that by no means suggests he was not aware of an empty tomb. The story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt may not come up during the course of the dialogue we are presently having. But that does not suggest I’m not aware of the story.
We must keep in mind that the Gospels are biographies of Jesus and provide us with resurrection narratives that belong to the life of Jesus, whereas Paul is writing letters that deal with various issues that have risen in specific churches. So, there may be no reason why Paul was required at that moment to mention Jesus’s empty tomb. He does mention Jesus’s bodily resurrection. Even Bart grants that. And if you have a bodily resurrection, you also have an empty grave, whatever that may have been. The Gospels inform us that Jesus’s grave was a tomb that belonged to Joseph of Arimathea. Nothing Paul writes would call the burial narratives into question.
I agree with almost all scholars that our text of Mark’s Gospel probably ended with 16:8 and that the verses 16:9–20 were added later. I lean toward the view held by many New Testament scholars that Mark did not intend for his Gospel to end with 16:8. Rather, he was either unable to complete his Gospel due to sickness, imprisonment, or death, or Mark’s ending was lost.
Moreover, Mark appears to be aware of the appearances. For on numerous occasions he narrates Jesus’s predicting his imminent death and resurrection. On one of those occasions (14:28), Jesus informs his disciples that he will go ahead of them to Galilee after he has been raised. And in 16:7, the angel at the tomb reminds the women Jesus had said this. They are to tell Jesus’s disciples to go to Galilee where they will see Jesus, just as he had told them.
Furthermore, the appearance traditions are very early, appear in Paul’s letters, and can be traced back to Jesus’s disciples with a good degree of certainty. Paul probably wrote before Mark penned his Gospel. And if Acts is correct (see Acts chapters 12 and 15), Mark knew Paul and had even traveled with him during one of his missionary journeys. So, it is very likely he would have been quite familiar with the appearance traditions Paul mentions.
So, why didn’t Mark mention them? It’s difficult to say, though I suspect he did and the ending of his Gospel was lost. Perhaps the lost ending is preserved to an extent in Matthew’s Gospel. We cannot know. But you can see that to claim Mark did not know of the appearances and that the appearances and the empty tomb were “competing traditions” is entirely speculative and, in my opinion, wrong.
Besides the alleged inconsistencies among the various New Testament writings, there is another type of criticism of their historical reliability that has been voiced with increasing frequency over the past several scholarly generations.
We are thinking here especially of the claim that close attention to the text and to the cultural background of Scripture reveals that the conventional or orthodox understanding of Jesus as fully divine is a much later theological achievement that was then read backwards into the canonical Gospels and the Pauline letters. Close attention to the letter of Scripture and to the cultural context of early first-century Palestine, so the claim goes, reveals another story.
Specifically, it is often claimed that Jesus did not in fact see himself as divine at all, at least in the sense in which he came to be viewed later on. Rather, as it is sometimes put, he was “exalted” by his followers to a quasi-divine status, somewhere in between an ordinary mortal and the highest God (YHWH). According to this view, those texts which refer to Jesus as “divine” (theios, in Greek) merely point to a continuum of beings which also included heroes, prophets, kings, and angels. This is sometimes referred to as the “angelomorphic” theory of Jesus. That is, Jesus is supposed to have viewed himself, and/or his followers are supposed to have viewed him, not as co-equal with God, but as his messenger — in short, as an angel.
What do you say to advocates of such views?
Michael R. Licona
I think the “angelomorphic” and developing Christology theories related to how Jesus became God to the early Christians are terribly misguided. I’ve presented a historical case for why it’s more-probable-than-not that Jesus actually regarded himself as being God in some sense and I invite those interested to view my dialogue on the topic with New Testament scholar Dale Martin. But I’ll offer a few points here.
The earliest known Christian literature was probably written by Paul, who certainly believed Jesus was God in no less a sense than we observe in John’s Gospel. Paul knew the Jerusalem apostles Peter, James, and John, and I’ve argued elsewhere that there are significant reasons for thinking Paul was preaching the same gospel message they were preaching. It’s unthinkable that a matter as basic as Jesus’s identity would not have been an element in their message. Thus, if Paul was preaching the deity of Jesus, we can have confidence the Jerusalem apostles were, too.
Moreover, since the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography, reading them in light of their proper genre provides some fascinating insight pertaining to Mark’s view of Jesus. Plutarch explains in his Life of Alexander that the objective of biography was to illuminate who the main character was to readers. What does Mark say about Jesus?
He begins his Gospel by quoting Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 (LXX), which speaks of a messenger preparing the way for a visitation from God. For Mark, Jesus is not the messenger. Rather, it is John the Baptist, and he is preparing the way for Jesus. What does that say about who Mark is trying to tell his readers Jesus is? And he does so in the very first verses!
In Mark 2:1–12, Jesus tells a paralytic his sins are forgiven. The Jewish leaders reply that his statement is blasphemous, since only God can forgive sins. Jesus’s reply said, in essence: “That’s right fellas. Only God can forgive sins.”
In Mark 4:37–39, Jesus commands the wind and waves to be calm and they obey, which is something God does (Pss. 89:9; 107:28–29).
In Mark 5:22–24, 35–43, Jesus raises someone from the dead, which is something only God has the power to accomplish (Eccles. 8:8). While a few others are reported to have raised the dead in the biblical literature, in every case it was God doing it in answer to their prayers (1 Kings 17:17–24; 2 Kings 4:17–37; Acts 9:36–42). Jesus, however, raises the dead by his own power.
In Mark 6:45–51, Jesus walks on water, which is something God does (Job 9:8).
In Mark 9:14–29, Jesus casts out a demon while his disciples were unable. When his disciples later asked why they could not, he answered, “This kind is not able to be cast out except by prayer.” Jesus, however, was able to cast out the demon without prayer. Moreover, others could cast out demons in the name of Jesus (Mark 9:38–39).
In your question, you mentioned a “continuum of beings” that includes heroes, prophets, kings, and angels — an ascending order. Well, in Mark 13:32, Jesus places himself above humans (i.e., prophets and kings) and angels. He is God’s divine Son.
In Mark 13:24–27; 14:61–64, Jesus is the apocalyptic Son of Man to whom God will give all authority to judge the world and who will be worshipped and served in a manner that should otherwise be given only to God. See Deut. 6:13; 10:20; Dan. 7:13–14; 1 En. 38:1–6; 40:4; 45:3; 46:1–3; 48:5; 49:2, 4; 51:1–3; 61:8; 62:5–6, 9, 11; 69:27–29; 4 Ezra 13:8–12, 37–38; 14:3.
See, also, John 9:35–38, where Jesus claims to be the Son of Man and is then worshiped, and John 5:21-23, where Jesus says, like God, he also has authority to raise whoever he wishes from the dead and everyone will honor him just as they honor the Father who shares his glory with no one (cf. Isa. 42:8).
Scholars will continue to debate what Jesus claimed about his identity. However, when the biographical genre of Mark’s Gospel is recognized, it is quite clear that Mark’s portrait of Jesus is that of a being who is, in some sense, God.
And this was the view of Paul, who wrote before Mark, and of John, who wrote afterward. So, we have Paul and John serving as bookends with Mark in the middle, all saying Jesus is God in some sense.
A similar argument that is sometimes made goes like this:
- We know there existed a cultural category in first-century Palestine of “apocalyptic messiah.”
- The historical Jesus is best understood as an apocalyptic messiah in this sense.
- We know that other such apocalyptic messiahs typically did not think of themselves as equal to God.
- Therefore, most likely the historical Jesus did not think of himself as equal to God, either.
This argument, which is a variant on the previous one, is strengthened by the fact that the New Testament text which seems best to support the traditional (incarnation) view of Jesus — namely, John — is the latest of the canonical Gospels, thus farthest removed from the historical Jesus and the first apostles.
Do you find such “cultural background” arguments convincing? If not, why not? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that, generally speaking, the later a New Testament text is, the more “incarnationist” it appears to be (leaving aside arguments about dating the books the New Testament)? Wouldn’t such a pattern strongly suggest an “exaltationist” interpretation?
Michael R. Licona
Well, in answer to your previous question, I demonstrated that the earliest New Testament literature likewise presented a view of Jesus as being much more than only an apocalyptic Messiah — he was God in some sense.
As you noted, John holds an “incarnationist” view of Jesus. But so does Paul, and he’s our earliest author. Consider Philippians 2:6–11, which tells us (a) Jesus had existed in the form of God (2:6), and (b) he emptied himself of that form, took on the form on a servant, and was made in human likeness (2:7). That’s incarnation.
In Philippians 2:8, Paul goes on to say Jesus humbled himself and obeyed God by giving his life on a cross. So, according to Paul, (a) Jesus existed in the form of God, (b) took on a servant’s form, and (c) gave his life.
Mark 10:45 bears a striking resemblance to that message. After teaching his disciples that the greatest among them must humble themselves and become servants (10:42–44), Jesus tells them that not even he “came to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” Although we can’t prove Mark meant precisely the same thing as Paul, it’s certainly plausible that he did. And since Mark views Jesus as being God in some sense, plausibility becomes probability.
Paul also tells us Jesus is the creator of the universe and everything in it (1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16). Thus, when Jesus came into the world, it was an incarnation.
So, in terms of the syllogism you provided, I regard the second premise as false in its present form, because I don’t think “the historical Jesus is best understood as only an apocalyptic messiah.” In my opinion, the data suggest he is best understood as an apocalyptic messiah and God’s uniquely divine Son who is God in some sense.
And if the second premise is false, the conclusion is, too. So, we could revise the syllogism as follows:
- We know there existed a cultural category in first-century Palestine of “apocalyptic messiah.”
- The historical Jesus is best understood as an apocalyptic messiah in this sense and as God’s uniquely divine Son who is God in some sense.
- We know that other such apocalyptic messiahs typically did not think of themselves as equal to God.
- Therefore, most likely the historical Jesus did not think of himself in the same manner as other apocalyptic messiahs.
To wind up this discussion, we would like you to tell us — in bulleted list format, if you like — what you consider to be the five strongest arguments in favor of your view that the New Testament presents a historically reliable account of Jesus’s life, work, and teachings, and in particular that it provides compelling evidence to think that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. Additionally, please lay out for us what you regard as the five weakest arguments that are commonly advanced by critics of the historical reliability of the New Testament like Bart Ehrman.
Michael R. Licona
I suspect that much of how Bart and I will argue for our positions in the discussion to follow will be predicated upon how each of us defines what it means for a text to be “historically reliable.”
I’ve been giving this some thought to this matter in recent days and look forward to fine-tuning my thinking as a result of this interaction with Bart. For now, I want to propose that we may say an ancient text is historically reliable when the following conditions have been met:
- We can verify numerous elements reported by the ancient author to be true in their essence though not necessarily in every detail.
- We have reason to believe the author was neither credulous nor overly indiscriminate in his use of sources.
- We have reason to believe the author intended to write an accurate account of what occurred notwithstanding his use of compositional devices appropriate for the historical/biographical genre.
- We have no good reasons to believe the stories reported by an ancient author are false.
I’ve attempted to provide criteria that do not unfairly prefer the New Testament literature, since Christians like myself regard it as being divinely inspired, but instead appraise it within the cultural milieu in which it was written. Accounts meeting the above four criteria (I’m sorry that I don’t have five) may be regarded as historically reliable in terms of presenting an accurate gist of what occurred. The account is “true enough.” This is all we can hope for when it comes to the biographical/historical literature written during that period, whether Greco-Roman or Jewish. I will be contending that the Gospels meet these four criteria.
You ask what I regard to be the weakest arguments against the historical reliability of the Gospels. I’ll refer to them as the “A, B, Cs, Ds, and Es of a Poor Case Against the Historical Reliability of the Gospels”:
- Authorship: We do not know who the Gospel authors were.
- Bias: The Gospel authors were biased.
- Contradictions: The Gospels often disagree with one another.
- Dating: The Gospels were written too long after the events they purport to describe.
- Eyewitness: The Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses.
Finally, could you please tell us a little bit about your future plans? For example, are you working on a new book project right now? If so, can you share with us what it will be about? What topics do you want to explore in your scholarship over the next five or ten years?
What about your ministry work? Where do you see it, five or ten years down the road?
Michael R. Licona
I’m very excited about my next book! The majority of New Testament scholars now hold that most if not all of the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography and that this genre permitted some flexibility in the manner historical events were narrated. In my next book, I break some new ground. I identify three dozen stories narrated in two or more of Plutarch’s Lives, identify differences between the accounts, and assess whether the differences can plausibly be viewed in light of the compositional devices commonly proposed by scholars who study the classical literature.
I then use the same approach with 19 stories narrated in two or more Gospels. After all, it’s reasonable to expect the Gospel authors would employ the same sort of literary devices found in other biographies and histories of that era if they were writing in a similar genre. I discovered that many of the differences in the Gospels, even most of the major ones, likely resulted from the compositional devices I observe being employed by Plutarch and that classicists have also observed being employed by other biographers and historians of that era.
Finally, I suggest that both strained harmonizations and the appeal to Gospel differences to justify dismissing them as reliable accounts of Jesus are misguided and that one must read the Gospels in light of their biographical/historical genre in order to gain a clearer understanding of why the differences are present. As I mentioned earlier, the book should be out by this fall (2016).
The book does not provide evidence for the historical reliability of the Gospels. However, in my opinion, it will help us improve our understanding of the biographical/historical genre of that era. And reading the Gospels with that better understanding negates arguments from contradictions that dismiss their historical reliability. For the differences we find in the Gospels are no worse than the ones find in other literature of the biographical/historical genre contemporary with the Gospels, including the best of it.
So, if you’re going to define “historical reliability” in such a manner that the Gospels don’t make the cut, you’re also going to end up concluding virtually all ancient literature is historically unreliable, if you’re being consistent. You can do that, I suppose. But no one is required to follow your thinking on the matter.
You ask what I’d like to explore over the next five to ten years. I don’t have any specific topic I’m burning to explore at this time. I’m considering taking some time and writing a few popular-level books: one on the historical evidence for Jesus’s resurrection that’s a little over 100 pages and another that summarizes the book coming out this fall but will also include discussions on the historical reliability, divine inspiration, and inerrancy of the Bible.
You also ask where I see my ministry work being in five to ten years. I’d like to be doing even more lecturing on university campuses across the U.S. and producing a number of short videos on various topics related to Jesus’s resurrection and the New Testament.
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer our questions. We are looking forward very much to your Focused Civil Dialogue with Bart D. Ehrman on the historical evidence for the resurrection — coming soon at TheBestSchools.org.