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.