Book Review—The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach

Cover image of Michael Licona’s in-depth examination of Jesus’ Resurrection from a historian’s perspective.

I had been looking forward to reading this book since the first time I heard about it. I was sitting in Dr. Gary Habermas’ class on miracles and he told us about Mike Licona, who was currently working on his dissertation on the Resurrection. Although it was published in 2010, I finally had the opportunity to read it over the past few months.

At over 700 pages, including an extensive bibliography and over 2,000 footnotes, this book is not a light read by any stretch of the imagination. As the subtitle states, this is a book dealing with historiography. Readers looking for a deep theological treatment on the Resurrection of Christ may want to look elsewhere since Licona’s focus here is not theology, but history. Using methodological principles agreed upon by a vast number of historians from a variety of religious and philosophical backgrounds, he sets out to determine whether or not the historian “is warranted in regarding Jesus’ resurrection as an event that occurred in the past” (p. 610).

Surprisingly, the book consists of only five chapters, so each chapter averages more than 100 pages in length. Also, the second half of the book contains a significant amount of Greek, giving me a good opportunity to brush up on that. If you can’t read Greek, don’t worry, Dr. Licona provides an English translation throughout.

The first section deals with a significant number of preliminary considerations. There is an excellent critique of the skeptical postmodern view of history and a complete dismantling of the beliefs of Jesus “mythers” (those who claim Jesus never existed). There’s also a good discussion on horizons (the presuppositions we all have). While total neutrality may not be possible, Licona gives several principles historians should implement to help them transcend their horizon. Finally, he provides an honest discussion of his own biases so that readers are well aware of where he is coming from.

The second chapter focuses on whether or not miracles fall within the purview of the historian. Licona addresses the popular objections of David Hume and Bart Ehrman, as well as McCullagh, Meier, Wedderburn, and Dunn. Many skeptics simply have an a priori objection to miracles, so they aren’t willing to even consider the possibility that historical evidence for a miracle may exist. There’s an interesting discussion on the burden of proof as it relates to the historicity of miracle claims. I thought the following quote summarized the nature of evidence when it comes to miracle claims:

It is the responsibility of the historian to consider what the evidence would look like if she were not wearing her metaphysical bias like a pair of sunglasses that shade the world. It is not the responsibility of the evidence to shine so brightly that they render such glasses ineffectual. (p. 196)

With all the preliminary matters out of the way, Dr. Licona gets down to the business of doing history. Chapter three examines the historical sources pertaining to Christ’s Resurrection. Many Christians may object to the methodology employed in this chapter since he does not automatically accept every biblical passage on the subject as evidence, but bear in mind that Licona is doing his best to transcend his own Christian horizon to be as neutral as possible. He discusses over two dozen early sources and rates them as “unlikely, possible-minus, possible, possible-plus, highly probable, indeterminate [or] not useful” (p. 201).

The fourth chapter uncovers the historical bedrock pertaining to the fate of Jesus. This approach follows on the heels of the exhaustive work of Dr. Habermas who, since 1975, has kept track of over 3,400 academic works from scholars of various stripes on the Resurrection in English, German, and French. From this research, Dr. Habermas has shown that there are 12 facts accepted by the vast majority of scholars. He has reduced this to six best attested details in what he calls the “minimal facts” approach. Each of these facts are discussed, but Dr. Licona narrows this down to three facts that nearly all scholars agree upon: 1) Jesus died by crucifixion, 2) the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had risen from the dead, and 3) Paul converted to Christianity after experiencing what he believed to be a post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus. There’s also a lengthy discussion on what “resurrection” meant to Jewish and Christian audiences in the first century.

The information contained in this chapter is often completely ignored by agnostics, atheists, Muslims, and others who do not want to even consider the Resurrection as a possibility. I have had many discussions with skeptics who display naivete when they claim that there is no evidence to support the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. It’s one thing to disbelieve in the event, but it’s an entirely different thing to completely ignore or to willingly remain ignorant of the historical bedrock pertaining to the fate of Jesus.

The fifth and final chapter of the book examines six different hypotheses that attempt to explain what happened to Jesus after being crucified. Along with the traditional Christian understanding of the Resurrection, the views promoted by Vermes, Goulder, Ludemann, Crossen, and Craffert are weighed in terms of their explanatory scope, explanatory power, plausibility, the amount of ad hoc elements, and illumination for solving problems associated with the subject. An appendix also examines Dale Allison’s work on the Resurrection according to the same criteria. The traditional Resurrection hypothesis is the only view that fulfills all five criteria, and it outdistances the other views by a wide margin. Critics can claim that Licona merely concluded what he hoped to prove, but they must be able to point out flaws in his methodology, since his conclusion most certainly follows from the data when historiographical principles are applied.

My biggest concern with the book is found in the fifth chapter. While discussing the strange events described in Matthew 27:51–53, Licona suggested that the passage was not describing historical events but employing apocalyptic language to show that a significant person had died. Such descriptions were not uncommon in the ancient world when describing the death of important people. This comment has set off a wave of criticism from conservative Christian scholars like Norman Geisler and Al Mohler. I disagree with Licona’s statement and share some of the same concerns as Geisler and Mohler. But when I consider the context and methodology being used in the book, I don’t find it to be quite as grievous an error as some have claimed.

Skeptics will undoubtedly continue to dismiss the Resurrection of Christ, but they must deal with the research in this book or they simply are not interacting with the latest scholarship.

Dr. Licona’s work raises the bar when it comes to the most important subject we could ever study: the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in this subject who is up to the task of reading an academic work. I have studied the subject for years, but I still learned a lot and will treasure this book as an extremely valuable resource.

About Tim Chaffey

I am the founder of Midwest Apologetics and work as the Content Manager with the Attractions Division of Answers in Genesis. I have written (or co-authored) several books, including In Defense of Easter, God and Cancer, The Sons of God and the Nephilim, and The Truth Chronicles Series (see the publications page for more details). Please note: the opinions expressed on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Answers in Genesis.


Book Review—The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach — 11 Comments

  1. Without ever visiting the actual empty tomb I have been compelled by the spirit to believe in the Resurrection without seeing it; by faith. We can continue to break down the archaeological and physical truths for the very STONES SHALL CRY OUT THE GLORY OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST; or, we can simply believe with our hearts and minds that He is RISEN. There will continue to be unbelief by those living in this world unto the very end then He will return again touching down on the Mount of Olives to set up His earthly KINGDOM. I would like to read the eye witness accounts of the legions of roman soldiers who were struck down as dead men when the angel appeared to roll away the stone…but, there again I believe without seeing the Risen Savior Jesus and that is proof enough.

  2. Oh yes, the Roman soldiers were so efficient that they didn’t even know what Jesus looked like, according to your Old Book.

    They got a member of the gang to ‘identify’ who was the ringleader. How do they know it was Jesus they executed and not some sap whom sacrificed his life for his friends?

    • Steven,
      Perhaps you can inform me where the Bible ever indicates that Roman soldiers “got a member of the gang” to identify the ringleader. Jesus was not arrested by Roman soldiers. He was arrested by a group of officers and troops that were sent by the chief priests and Pharisees (John 18:3). So the soldiers that arrested Him were part of the Temple guard. He was turned over to the Romans early the next morning, and they are the ones who put Him to death.

      • Matthew 26
        48 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.

        According to your Old Book, Judas had to identify Jesus. Perhaps he did. Perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps Judas never existed, as there is no evidence he did.

        • Matthew 26:47 speaks of the soldiers as coming from the chief priests and elders of the people. So once again we see that they were temple guards–not Roman soldiers as you claimed.
          You claim that there is no evidence that Judas ever existed. We have documents written by four authors (at least two of them knew him personally), and they tell us a good deal about the man. When it comes to historiography, having four early sources talking about the same guy is pretty solid evidence for his existence.
          Also, you can continue calling it an “Old Book,” but the last time I checked, truth wasn’t determined by the age of something. You are committing the fallacy of chronological snobbery. I could just claim that your post is “old” and dismiss it because it isn’t as new (and therefore “enlightened””) as my latest response. Your bias against Scripture shows through so clearly, and your misunderstanding of what you attempt to mock makes me wonder if you are even willing to attempt a rational argument against Scripture.

  3. Tim,

    It strikes me that Licona’s three “facts” that comprise the historical bedrock upon which he bases the Resurrection Hypothesis are all subject to a level of scrutiny that calls them into question, as “facts” to establish the certainty of the Resurrection claim.

    The first, that Jesus died by crucifixion, seems reasonably suspect. Lacking any actual forensic evidence to support this “fact”, it is more correct to claim this as a “belief” rather than an actual historical “fact”. The correct “fact” is that one Jesus was cruci

    fied. We even have non-bibilical references to this. However, these additional references can supply us with nothing concerning the actual death of one Jesus because they cannot. And the statements in the NT are simply statements of what was believed. Paul’s listing in I Cor. 15 is a good example. He apparently cites an early creed, but he cannot provide us with anything to support the belief that one Jesus died. I’m not saying that he didn’t die, only pointing out that there is a significant difference between a “fact” and a “belief”. We have nothing forensically to support this belief. In fact, what we do have and what we do know about crucifixions suggests that there is a reasonable chance that Jesus did not die. Let me elaborate.

    Three scenarios. One person is crucified, one person is stoned, and one person is beheaded. Which of these needs nothing added to it to substantiate the claim that the victim was killed? The answer should be obvious. To say that someone was crucified or that someone was stoned is to say nothing more than that a process was begun. And how might either of these execution forms end? They both might end in either a death or something short of a death. The account of Paul’s stoning in Acts 14 is a good example. Paul was stoned, thought to be dead, and dragged out of the city. Not only was he not dead, but the next day he traveled with Barnabbas to another city and began preaching again. Could the same mistake have been made with Jesus? Apparently so, as the process of crucifixion was interrupted. By process I mean that the victim was not left up for days and scavenger animals then tore the body to pieces. The element of Time, so vital apparently to a crucifixion was not followed with the crucifixion of Jesus. And how did it come to be believed that he died then? Simple. A guard who probably had never been asked to pronounce a victim as dead, proclaimed him to be dead. Could this guard with no prior experience or training have been simply wrong? Like the people in Acts 14, it seems quite possible.

    LIcona and others are too quick to establish as “facts” things that can be reasonably argued. His first bedrock “fact” is not actually a fact at all, but rather something that was believed. The two are distincly different.

    Fact #2–“The disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had risen from the dead.” Once again Licona is guilty of overstating the case and misrepresenting what even the documents are telling us. What we actually find in the documents are stories about appearances and just one or two of the disciples are claiming actual appearances. LIcona and others make it appear that these appearances are being claimed by all of the disciples. NOthing could be farther from the truth. We have nothing from Andrew, Nathaniel, Simon the Zealot, Jedas Thaddues or most of the others with regard to what they were claiming, if, in fact, they were claiming anything at all. What we do know is that they were going along with the story that Peter was offering. However, we have nothing concerning what these other disciples were acutally claiming. Once again, Licona because of bias or tendenz is offering as bedrock fact something that simply isn’t. That a group of followers is going alog with a story being offered by a leader is nothing unusual. It is wrong, however, for Licona to misrepresent what was actually taking place or what people were all claiming. Especially is this true when we find and have nothing from these others.

    Out to dinner, so I have to end here.


    • Thom,
      Thanks for your thoughts. Each of your concerns are addressed in Licona’s book so I would encourage you to read it prior to making these claims (or reread it if you have read it once already). He spends a great deal of space early on dealing with historiography and how he arrives at the conclusion that these “facts” are part of the historical bedrock. I won’t repeat all of his material here. However, the suggestion that Jesus may not have died on the Cross has been handled time and time again by forensic experts, medical doctors, theologians, etc. The fact of the matter is that there are multiple early sources that acknowledge His death. Twenty centuries later we can sit back and say, “Well, I didn’t see it and I don’t have in my possession a certificate of death from a respected coroner.” But that standard can’t be applied to people who lived 2,000 years ago. To suggest that the Roman soldiers got it wrong is really off the mark. Yes, people make mistakes, but this was their job and they were lethally efficient. We would have to assume that all of the soldiers at the Cross were wrong, and that somehow Jesus was able to ignore a sharp spear being pierced through His side (otherwise He would have given away the fact that He wasn’t quite dead yet). I’ve written a lengthy article on this very subject here:
      Licona is not “quick” at all in establishing facts. He spends well over 100 pages with extensive notation in detailing these facts and how he arrived at them.

  4. ‘ Over 2/3 of scholars agree the tomb was empty, and that doesn’t even include those who rely on naturalistic explanations, so the number is actually much higher.’

    SO it is not a fact.

    If 1/3 of scholars disagree, it is a highly contentious statement, hence Licona has had to abandon it.

    Does Licona know that you claim his book says that 1 Cor. 15:45 contains the word ‘pneumatikon’…..?

    He will be furious! He has certain standards of accuracy, you know….

    • As mentioned before, I am not going to spend my time rewriting his book, so I won’t spend much time refuting your claims since I don’t have the time to deal with people who want to resort to smugness and deriding sarcasm instead of having a respectful discussion. Also, the book does a much more thorough job of refuting your claims.
      Perhaps you missed that the empty tomb and appearance to James are listed as second-level “facts.” So yes, they are facts, but he did not include them in the historical bedrock. This actually makes it even more difficult for those who deny the Resurrection of Christ, since the Resurrection can be established as historic through only three bedrock facts.
      Also, I did not state that 1 Cor. 15:45 contains the word “pneumatikon” nor did I claim that it had “psuchikon” in it. I said that in refuting your claim about 1 Cor. 15:45, Licona examined how the ancients used these two terms in contrast. Why would he examine those words? Because they each appear twice in their adjectival form in the preceding verse (15:44) and then in their substantival form (pneuma and psuchen) in v. 45. I could have been a little clearer in how I stated this originally, so I can see why someone would wrongly infer that I made that claim, but you should read carefully and learn to give the benefit of the doubt to a writer before mocking him and attempting to correct something that needs no correction.

  5. I see Licona has abandoned trying to show that it was a fact that there was an empty tomb.

    And is reduced to saying that Paul saw something.

    Well, Paul also said he went to the third Heaven. That convinces nobody.

    The New Testament also says Paul saw a man from Macedonia in a ‘vision’ – and thought it was a real person from Macedonia.

    The Book of Revelation also has a vision of Jesus himself, reported as though it really was Jesus.

    It is a fact agreed upon by absolutely everyone that the New Testament writers thought that what happened in visions and dreams was real, and that real people (or angels) could appear to you in a vision or a dream.

    Newsflash. Visions don’t count as reality, even if people believe that what they are seeing is real.

    It is a fact agreed upon by absolutely everyone, that Paul was writing to recent Christian converts in Corinth who openly mocked the idea of their god choosing to raise corpses.


    Obviously because the process of conversion had not involved any stories of Jesus rising from the grave.

    Paul, of course, is unable to produce a single eyewitness detail of what a resurrected body is like. He works entirely from first principles and theological reflections, just like all other Jewish writers Licona quotes who wrote on the nature of a resurrected body.

    Paul says flat-out that ‘the last Adam became a life-giving spirit’.

    • Actually, Licona did not abandon trying to show the empty tomb as fact. He assigned it and the appearance to James as second-order facts rather than part of the historical bedrock. Over 2/3 of scholars agree the tomb was empty, and that doesn’t even include those who rely on naturalistic explanations, so the number is actually much higher.
      You’ve also misrepresented Paul’s view. Licona spent nearly 40 pages examining six Pauline passages (Romans 8:11; 6:5; 1 Cor. 6:14; 15:12-23; 2 Cor. 4:14; 1 Thess. 4:14) and each of the relevant Greek terms (e.g., psuchikon, pneumatikon, sarkikos, etc.) to show that Paul clearly believed that a resurrection is something that happens to a corpse. In other words, when he speaks of resurrection, he is not implying something that is only spiritual.
      As for your claim about 1 Cor. 15:45 (“life-giving spirit”), Licona addresses that too. In fact, he showed that no known Greek writer from the 8th century BC to the 3rd century AD ever contrasted psuchikon (natural) and pneumatikon (spiritual) to mean material and immaterial. The following verses in 1 Cor. 15 provide the proper context for what Paul is talking about. The contrast is between earthly and heavenly (both with physical bodies), and not between material and immaterial.
      Obviously, each of these subject are treated in much more detail in the book, and I’m not going to spend my time rewriting it. I would encourage those interested in my statements or those from Steven (above) to read the book for yourself and see if he successfully makes the case.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *