Ten Upcoming Books I Will Be Reading

My list of books to read is growing faster than I can keep up, but that doesn’t stop me from continuously adding more. I know that there are many upcoming titles that I’m probably forgetting, but below are 10 that are scheduled for publication in 2012 (or thereabouts) and relate to early Christianity (follow the links for further information on each). And because I never stop reading, tell me which other books in this area of study are you most looking forward to…

Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory: The New Testament Apostle in the Early Church - Markus Bockmuehl (Baker Academic, November)

The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment – Ronald Sider (Baker Academic, July)

Folly to Gentiles: The Death and Resurrection of Jesus in the Faith of the First Christians – Jeffrey Peterson (Baker Academic, November)

Earliest Christian History: History, Literature, and Theology. Essays from the Tyndale Fellowship in Honor of Martin Hengel – Michael F. Bird and Jason Maston, eds. (Mohr Siebeck, February)

Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth – Bart D. Ehrman (HarperOne, March)

Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity – Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, eds. (T & T Clark, August)

Raised from the Dead According to Scripture: The Role of the Old Testament in the Early Christian Interpretations of Jesus’ Resurrection – Lidija Novakovic (T & T Clark, November)

Contested Spaces: Houses and Temples in Roman Antiquity and the New Testament – David L. Balch and Annette Weissenrieder, eds (Mohr Siebeck, March)

Paul and the Faithfulness of God – N. T. Wright (Fortress,  ??? might not appear until 2013)

A Contested Identity: Volume 3 of Christianity in the Making – James D. G. Dunn (Eerdmans, ? 2013 or 2014?)


Why Arguments for Jesus’ Resurrection Don’t Accomplish Much

This post will serve to wrap up my discussion of Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Licona is convinced that a fair examination of the evidence will lead to the conclusion that Jesus was raised from the dead. But yet I’ve not heard of anyone changing their mind after reading the book. I don’t doubt that somewhere someone has been convinced, but I’ve not heard of such an instance. So for the sake of argument, let’s say that a handful of people have become convinced that Jesus was raised. Why don’t more? Some will claim that Satan has blinded the masses, others that it’s due to a reluctance to believe a Christian claim, and still others that it’s simply because the evidence just isn’t enough. I want to illustrate this last suggestion by proposing my own hypothetical scenario…

Imagine that you are transported back to the year 34 C.E. and you are able to speak and understand both Greek and Aramaic, and whatever standard you require to be convinced that you truly are in 34 C.E. is met. While in Jerusalem, you find your way to Peter, John, and James the brother of Jesus. Amazed at this opportunity, you begin asking them questions and learn that all three of these men are convinced of the following things:

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
  2. He was buried in a tomb.
  3. Two days later a group of women discovered the tomb empty and some of Jesus’ male disciples also visited the tomb to verify the women’s story.
  4. Peter saw Jesus alive.
  5. James the brother of Jesus saw Jesus alive.
  6. A group of over 500 people saw Jesus alive.
  7. Several other times Jesus was seen alive by some of his followers, and these followers, including Peter, John, and James, ate and talked with Jesus.
  8. Some guy named Paul, who had formerly opposed these disciples, claimed two years ago (two years after Jesus’ death) to have seen Jesus and has now begun teaching that Jesus truly is Israel’s messiah.

Even after having such an experience, I doubt that more than a handful of people who were previously skeptical would change their mind and become convinced that Jesus rose from the dead. Our worldviews and preconceptions are too powerful to overcome – skeptics would still remain skeptics, and believers would feel even more affirmed in their beliefs. What do you think? Would any skeptics be convinced within this scenario? Am I too skeptical about it?

Granted my suspicion, it comes as no surprise to me that books such as Licona’s seem to accomplish as little as they do in persuading doubters. If someone wouldn’t believe under my hypothetical scenario, they sure won’t believe 2000 years later.

Dale Allison’s description puts things exactly as I see them:

It is our worldview that interprets the textual data, not the textual data that determines our worldview. One who disbelieves in all so-called miracles can, with good conscience, remain disbelieving in the literal resurrection of Jesus after an examination of the evidence, just as a traditional Christian can, without intellectual guilt, retain belief after surveying the pertinent particulars. (Resurrecting Jesus, 342)

Pieter Craffert on Jesus’ Resurrection: Licona’s Summary and Evaluation

Michael Licona‘s fifth hypothesis to examine is that of Pieter Craffert. Licona summarizes Craffert’s hypothesis (CfH) this way:

  • Craffert’s approach is postmodern in nature, accepting the validity of multiple realities. (my clarification: Craffert is not a radical postmodernist; he does believe that there is a real history that can be retrieved to a certain extent).
  • Events have both “viewer-independent qualities” and “viewer-dependent qualities.” For example, a tree can be described in biological terms (i.e., viewer independent) or described as a shelter (i.e., viewer dependent). Historians must distinguish between these qualities.
  • Historians must recognize that ancient people interpreted events differently from the way modern people do.
  • Jesus’ disciples were in an altered state of consciousness (ASC) when they saw the “risen” Jesus, but such experiences were normal events for ancient people, who considered these experiences real. Therefore, when the disciples had a subjective vision (i.e., they didn’t see an external object), they judged it to be an objective vision of a physical, living Jesus, even though Jesus’ body was still in the grave.
  • All of Jesus’ appearances occurred in a subjective sense (i.e., only in the minds of those who “saw” him), not in an “ontologically objective sense” (565).

For the sake of reference, here are the abbreviations Licona uses for the hypotheses under consideration:

CfH = Craffert’s hypothesis;  CsH = Crossan’s hypothesis;  LH = Lüdemann’s hypothesis;  GH = Goulder’s hypothesis;  VH = Vermes’ hypothesis

Using the five criteria for weighing historical hypotheses, Licona judges Craffert’s hypothesis as follows:

1. Explanatory scope. CfH explains Jesus’ death and the appearances to followers, but it does not account for Paul’s experience. Therefore, CfH fails this criterion and is inferior to GH, LH, and CsH in scope.

2. Explanatory power. CfH fails this criterion because it “proposes interpretations that clearly run contrary to the plain sense of the texts” (580).

3. Plausibility. CfH is implausible because it cannot account for Paul’s experience. It trails VH in this category.

4. Less ad hoc. Because psychohistory is “purely conjectural,” CfH possesses a strong ad hoc component (581-82). It is thus more ad hoc than VH.

5. Illumination. It passes this criterion because if it’s true, it would shed  light on ancient religious experiences.

I’m not convinced by Craffert’s proposal. I concur with Licona’s assessment that, if one is skeptical of supernatural claims, it is better to propose that the stories are legendary and developed quickly, rather than to say that they were part of ASC experiences. More importantly, though, I remain unconvinced that Jesus’ disciples would have used resurrection when speaking of Jesus if they knew that his body remained dead somewhere. This seems to be part of CfH.

John Dominic Crossan on Jesus’ Resurrection: Licona’s Summary & Evaluation

Michael Licona‘s fourth hypothesis to examine is that of John Dominic Crossan. Licona summarizes Crossan’s hypothesis (CsH) this way:

  • There are numerous problems with a literal interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection (i.e., bodily), most notably that it requires a theistic worldview and it misunderstands the culture in which Christianity originated.
  • Paul’s vision of Jesus was a hallucination while in a trance.
  • Other early Christians believed that God’s kingdom was still active after Jesus’ death, a belief that arose through visions, ecstatic experiences, and examination of the Jewish Scriptures. All of this happened after they were convinced that Jesus was still alive in some sense.
  • Resurrection was only one of several ways that early Christians understood the presence of God’s kingdom through Jesus.
  • Mark invented the empty tomb story.
  • The appearance stories in the NT gospels are expressions of authority within early Christian communities, not attempts to describe actual appearances of Jesus to his followers (i.e., the stories were not intended to be understood in a literal sense).
  • Paul used the metaphor of resurrection to describe Jesus’ fate and believed that, while the risen Jesus lived in an embodied existence, “it was a body with no continuity with his corpse, which still lay in a spot unknown to the Christians” (532).

For the sake of reference, here are the abbreviations Licona uses for the hypotheses under consideration:

CsH = Crossan’s hypothesis;  LH = Lüdemann’s hypothesis;  GH = Goulder’s hypothesis;  VH = Vermes’ hypothesis

Using the five criteria for weighing historical hypotheses, Licona judges Crossan’s hypothesis as follows:

1. Explanatory scope. CsH accounts for the three historical facts under consideration and thus passes this criterion in the same way as GH and LH.

2. Explanatory power. Licona concludes that “CsH is severely lacking in explanatory power,” largely because it fails to explain why Paul’s vision led him to support rather than to continue to oppose the Christian movement, and because Crossan fails to demonstrate that the appearance stories are merely expressions of early church authority and conflicts (554). CsH trails VH in this area.

3. Plausibility. Crossan’s use of sources hurts him in this area, according to Licona. For instance, CsH is based on the conclusion that the hypothetical Cross Gospel is the earliest resurrection narrative. This approach is unsound and makes CsH less plausible than VH.

4. Less ad hoc. Licona contends that CsH is fraught with “arbitrary use of method” in its examination of Paul’s visionary experience and its use of source material. This makes CsH “certainly more ad hoc than VH and perhaps even more so than GH and LH” (557).

5. Illumination. CsH passes this criterion because, if true, it sheds light on the way early Christians “could create purely symbolic stories and cast them as historical events” (557).

In my judgment, CsH is the weakest of the four hypotheses reviewed thus far. Many have noted inconsistencies in Crossan’s use of sources, not just when it comes to the question of Jesus’ resurrection but also in other areas as well. He is thus building on a weak, if not invisible, foundation for much of his case. In my next post, we will look at the proposal of Pieter Craffert.

Gerd Lüdemann on Jesus’ Resurrection: Licona’s Summary & Evaluation

Gerd Lüdemann’s explanation of the origin of Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection is the third to be examined by Michael Licona. Lüdemann’s hypothesis (LH) can be summarized as follows:

  • In order to cope with mental remorse caused by extreme sorrow and guilt, Peter experienced a hallucination of the risen Jesus.
  • Peter then shared this experience with other disciples who were also experiencing guilt from their desertion of Jesus. They then experienced “shared hallucinatory fantasies” (similar to Marian apparitions), grief hallucinations, and ecstatic experiences in which they experienced the risen Jesus.
  • Mass ecstasy explains the appearance of Jesus to the more than 500 that Paul mentions in 1 Cor 15.
  • James the brother of Jesus heard news of others seeing Jesus and himself saw Jesus as part of either a group ecstatic experience or a later private experience.
  • Paul was conflicted in his religious views, being frustrated with the “God of Judaism” and attracted to the “Christian God of Christ.” As a result, he resolved this tension subconsciously through his hallucinatory experience of the risen Jesus.
  • All experiences of the risen Jesus were subjective visions (i.e., nobody actually saw an external object). However, because most of those who experienced such visions were influenced by their Jewish belief in bodily resurrection, they came to interpret their experiences to mean that Jesus’ resurrection was bodily.
  • More sophisticated later Christians (i.e., not those who had the visionary experiences) created narratives supporting the claim of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.

For the sake of reference, here are the abbreviations Licona uses for the hypotheses under consideration:

LH = Lüdemann’s hypothesis;  VH = Vermes’ hypothesis;  GH = Goulder’s hypothesis

Using the five criteria for weighing historical hypotheses, Licona judges Ludemann’s hypothesis as follows:

1. Explanatory scope. LH meets this criterion well and is equal to GH in this area, since both account for all three historical facts.

2. Explanatory power. LH’s explanation of Paul’s experience is lacking, in Licona’s judgment, and thus LH trails VH in explanatory power.

3. Plausibility. According to Licona, collective hallucinations are “not supported by the professional literature in psychology,” thus rendering LH somewhat implausible (517). Licona is also skeptical of LH’s explanation of James’ experience, although he does not count this against LH “since the appearance to James does not belong to our relevant historical bedrock” (518). In terms of plausibility, Licona ranks LH > VH > GH.

4. Less ad hoc. Licona judges this the weakest area of LH due to its positing of many psychological conditions in several different people. An explanation of hallucination might be acceptable in the case of Peter but not in many of the other instances. LH is thus far more ad hoc than VH.

5. Illumination. LH passes this criterion.

I disagree with Licona on a few points. First, I’m at a loss to understand how and why he concludes that LH has less explanatory power than VH, since VH does not even propose an explanation to account for Paul’s experience. Furthermore, VH is vague on specifying the precise nature of the appearances whereas LH is more precise. I consider LH significantly superior in explanatory power than VH. I do agree with Licona, though, when he judges LH to be more plausible than both VH & GH. Of the three hypotheses reviewed thus far, I would judge LH to be the leading candidate.

Michael Goulder on Jesus’ Resurrection: Licona’s Summary & Analysis

The second hypothesis Michael Licona examines pertaining to Jesus’ fate is that of Michael Goulder, who appeals to psychology and sociology to account for the rise of early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Licona summarizes Goulder’s hypothesis (GH) as follows:

  • Peter experienced a hallucination in which he saw Jesus. This was caused by Peter’s low self-esteem, guilt, and grief in the wake of Jesus’ death. He was prone to this type of experience based on his personality type.
  • Peter told the other disciples of his experience, which led them to experience “communal delusions” similar to Bigfoot, Mary, and UFO sightings.
  • The pre-Christian Paul probably harbored doubts about his views toward the Christian movement and his own Jewish faith. He might have had a Gentile friend as a child, and this led him to connect his conversion experience with his call to evangelize Gentiles.
  • The original Jerusalem apostles believed that Jesus’ resurrection was immaterial, but Paul believed in bodily (material) resurrection.
  • Later Christians began speculating about what happened to Jesus, which led to the empty tomb and appearance stories found in the NT gospels.

Using the five criteria for weighing historical hypotheses, Licona judges GH as follows:

1. Explanatory scope. GH does well because it accounts for the three historical facts, thus making it superior to Vermes’ hypothesis (VH) in this area.

2. Explanatory power. GH appeals to hallucinations, delusions, and hypnotic experiences to account for the “appearances” of Jesus, but it is uncertain exactly which explanations account for which experiences of the disciples. “This ambiguity throughout GH demonstrates how much it lacks explanatory power” (493). Licona judges that GH trails VH in explanatory power.

3. Plausibility. Licona doubts GH’s contention that the Jerusalem apostles held to a spiritual resurrection, as opposed to Paul’s physical resurrection, but he does find the suggestion that Peter’s experience was a grief hallucination to be plausible. On the other hand, “[s]ince group hallucinations are rare to impossible and are not supported by … psychology, a group hallucination to the disciples is implausible” (493). Likewise, because Paul was not in a state of grief, it is implausible to attribute his experience to a hallucination. Licona judges VH superior to GH in plausibility.

4. Less ad hoc. Licona states that this might be GH’s weakest area, since it is almost entirely speculative in its multiple and diverse psychological analyses. GH trails VH by a significant margin in this area.

5. Illumination. GH passes this criterion.

I am probably less skeptical of GH than Licona is. Having said that, I think that GH’s weakest areas are 1) its claim that the Jerusalem apostles did not believe that Jesus’ resurrection was bodily; 2) its claim that Paul was growing dissatisfied with Judaism (Goulder’s exegesis of some of Paul’s references to the law lacks much); and 3) it is highly speculative. The one making a claim for something bears the burden of proof, and I don’t think Goulder demonstrates several of his claims very well at all (e.g., the original disciples’ belief in “spiritual” resurrection).

Geza Vermes on Jesus’ Resurrection: Licona’s Summary and Evaluation

In The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Michael Licona examines several hypotheses that attempt to explain the rise of early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Each of these is evaluated on the basis of five criteria: 1) explanatory scope; 2) explanatory power; 3) plausibility; 4) level of “ad hoc-ness”; and 5) illumination. How well does any hypothesis account for the three known historical facts: Jesus’ death by crucifixion, his disciples’ belief shortly after his death that he had been raised from the dead, and Paul’s belief that he had seen the risen Jesus. I offer here a very brief summary of each of Licona’s five criteria for judging historical hypotheses:

  • Explanatory Scope – How much of the historical bedrock is accounted for by the hypothesis?
  • Explanatory Power – What is the quality of the explanation of the facts? “The hypothesis that explains the data with the least amount of effort, vagueness, and ambiguity has greater explanatory power” (109).
  • Plausibility – “This criterion assesses whether other areas known with confidence suggest a certain hypothesis” (110).
  • Less ad hoc – A hypothesis is more ad hoc when it “enlists nonevidenced assumptions, that is, when it goes beyond what is already known” (110). All other things being equal, the hypothesis that is least ad hoc is to be preferred.
  • Illumination – A hypothesis might provide “a possible solution to other problems [not central to the main question being explored] without confusing other areas held with confidence” (111). This criterion is the least important for Licona and is “unnecessary for confirming the overall probability of a hypothesis” (114).

In essence, then, Licona is suggesting that historical work be done by making an “argument to the best explanation” of the known facts.

The first hypothesis to be examined is that of Geza Vermes, whose view can be summarized as follows:

  • The empty tomb is historical. Jesus’ tomb really was empty at a point shortly after his death and burial.
  • The appearances (apparitions?) to Jesus’ original disciples are also historical.
  • Belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is not supported by evidence that meets the standards of legal or scientific inquiry.
  • The following naturalistic explanations all fail upon further examination: Jesus’ body was stolen, the wrong tomb was visited, Jesus did not actually die, or Jesus resurrection was spiritual.
  • Historians are unable to determine whether Jesus was actually resurrected. Agnosticism on the matter is the proper position to take.
  • After Jesus’ crucifixion, his followers had a powerful mystical experience at Pentecost that convinced them he had been raised and motivated them to continue their ministry (472-73).

Licona judges Vermes’ hypothesis (VH) as follows:

1. Explanatory scope. VH fares well in explaining Jesus’ death and the post-resurrection appearances to Jesus’ original disciples. However, it does not explain Paul’s experience. It thus lacks full explanatory scope.

2. Explanatory power. Because VH is imprecise in describing the nature of the appearances, the hypothesis lacks in this area. Were they hallucinations, actual communications from heaven by Jesus, or what? Furthermore, what was the cause of Paul’s experience and why did it convince him that Jesus had been raised bodily? And while Vermes believes Jesus’ tomb was empty, he offers no explanation for this while rejecting all of the traditional ones (i.e., Jesus rose, body stolen or moved, wrong tomb visited). These and other issues show VH deficient in explanatory power.

3. Plausibility. Because VH does not assess the nature of the appearances, it is difficult to judge him in this area. Licona, however, does not “wish to penalize Vermes for refusing to speculate beyond what he believes is allowed by the evidence” (478), so Licona will wait to see if other hypotheses fare better in this area.

4. Less ad hoc. VH seems to do well in this area, as there are few, if any, appeals to nonevidenced facts or claims. However, according to Licona, “its a priori exclusion of [the resurrection hypothesis] without argument may be an ad hoc component” (478).

5. Illumination. VH does not provide illumination for other areas, largely due to the fact that it “possesses a great deal of ambiguity and vagueness” (478).

Licona concludes by stating that “VH lacks explanatory scope, explanatory power, is only somewhat plausible and may contain an ad hoc component. It provides no illumination for unanswered questions” (479).

I concur with most of Licona’s assessment of VH. Vermes’ complete lack of explanation for the empty tomb significantly weakens his case, IMO. Once that detail is judged historical (a step Licona himself doesn’t include in his own argument), and the appearances are judged historical, there needs to be SOME hypothesis about what happened to the body. To punt on the matter will not cause many to be persuaded by one’s case.