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Apologetics: Why Scholars Disagree on the Reliability of the Gospels

Apologetics: Why Scholars Disagree on the Reliability of the Gospels

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How is it that two people of apparently equal intelligence, education, and academic acumen can come to radically different interpretations of the same evidence? Put differently, why does Richard Dawkins−a renowned biologist−interpret modern science as evidence against God, whereas Francis Collins−the former head of the Human Genome Project−interprets the same knowledge as evidence for God?

The same question applies to the way in which New Testament scholars interpret the evidence for the historical reliability of the Gospels−most notably the question of the resurrection of Jesus. Consider these two polar opposite quotes, both by scholars distinguished in their field:

Historical research shows with definite clarity that Jesus was not raised from the dead.[1]

So says atheist scholar Gerd Lüdemann. But does historical research really give us the definite clarity Lüdemann invokes?

New Testament scholar and historian N.T. Wright doesn’t think so.

The proposal that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead possesses unrivalled power to explain the historical data at the heart of Christianity .[2]

Why the gaping canyon in opinion here? Did Wright and Lüdemann read different books? Probably not. Did one of them get his PhD from the bottom of a cereal box? No. They’re both smart, informed, and widely published academics. Something else is going on here.

The Role of Horizon

Michael Licona gets to the heart of the matter in his massive book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. According to Licona, many scholars who investigate the question of Jesus’ resurrection−or any matter of historicity in the New Testament−often do so without a proper understanding of the way historians assess historical data and arrive at certainty about past events.

One factor in historical research that often goes unchecked−even among those who study history according to the best methods−is the role that the historian’s horizon plays in her assessment of the data. Briefly stated, horizon is the lens through which we weigh the evidence. “It is how historians view things as a result of their knowledge, experience, beliefs, education, cultural conditioning, preferences, presuppositions and worldview.”[3] 

Getting Real with our Horizons

So, no one−neither Lüdemann nor Wright, nor you or me−approaches the question of Jesus neutrally. We all interpret the evidence and entertain its implications on the basis of what we want to be true or think is possible.  Nowhere have I seen this more honestly admitted than by the atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel (who, by the way, is a real headache for atheists like Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, etc.).[4] He admits:

I want atheism to be true… it isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God. I don’t want the universe to be like that.[5]

Could Nagel’s honest words be the real reason that scholars like Lüdemann, Ehrman, and Crossan give the impression that the historical reliability of the New Testament is beneath the dignity of supposedly neutral, objective scholarship like their own? I think so. Much more is on the line when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus than, say, the location of Alexander the Great’s tomb, or who built Stonehenge. The resurrection of Jesus assumes a God-centered worldview, and we all have something to gain or something to lose when it comes to the question of God.

I was reminded of the role horizon plays in our scholarly decisions as I read the opening pages of Bart Ehrman’s book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question−Why We Suffer. I appreciate Ehrman’s honesty. As he narrates his departure from the Christian faith, he admits that one factor was the collision between his Fundamentalist upbringing and critical study of the Bible. However, he also locates his doubt in the problem of suffering. He candidly writes, “The problem of suffering became for me the problem of faith.”[6]

Could it be that Ehrman approaches the New Testament with skepticism because he arrived at that skepticism for entirely different reasons? Perhaps. It’s worth noting that others are actually more open to the resurrection because of their sufferings. Gary Habermas comes to mind−a leading expert on the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Habermas lost his wife to a long, painful battle with stomach cancer. And yet, his belief in the resurrection persists.[7] Could it be that Habermas approaches the evidence for the resurrection more favorably because he wants it to be true. Probably. That, in itself, doesn’t prove anything. It just shows that horizon plays a role in the trajectory of Ehrman and Habermas’ scholarship, regardless of which position is correct.

Even Ehrman indirectly admits the role that horizon plays in our perception of the evidence. Reflecting on his wife−a distinguished professor at Duke who does not consider suffering as a hindrance to her Christian faith−he writes, “It’s funny how smart and well-meaning people can see things so differently, even on the most basic and important questions in life.”[8] Very true.

Keeping Horizons in Check

Licona openly admits the role horizon plays in his scholarship, as well as the efforts he has made to approach the evidence for the resurrection as a neutral historian.[9] The first step in keeping our horizons in check is to acknowledge them. One of the strategies he employs is a commitment to only consider the evidence that critical scholars admit as credible. By laying aside the evidence that his Christian horizon would naturally welcome, Licona commits to examining the lowest common denominator of shared historical facts−what he calls “bedrock historical facts.”[10] In doing so, Licona is allowing the horizon of the opposing position to control the evidence to some degree.

What’s fascinating is that Licona doesn’t make blanket scholarly statements about what could or could not have happened in relation to Jesus’ resurrection.[11] Part of the reason his book is so long is that he very carefully considers each of the three historical bedrock facts according to the same methods historians use to arrive at historical certainty. With each he tries to arrive at the best explanation of the facts. He also carefully weights alternate resurrection hypotheses posed by critical scholars according to the same historical criteria.[12]

What’s great about Licona’s method is that regardless of his horizon (which he openly acknowledges for the sake of transparency−a rare luxury in much scholarship), he adds credibility to his final conclusion by patiently walking his readers through the method in a neutral manner rather than assuming the answer or conveniently dismissing evidences that doesn’t fit a predetermined historical thesis. In other words, he doesn’t just invoke his doctorate or pose a plausible scenario supported by a previous horizon. Rather, he demonstrates the historical evidence for the resurrection by doing the historical method out in the open.

Horizons Aside, What Does the Evidence Say?

So, after six hundred pages replete with copious footnotes, what does Licona make of the facts? The resurrection hypothesis wins by a landslide−but only if you accept a world where that kind of event can happen−or rather, only if you accept a God who can do such a thing in a world where such things never happen. He concludes:

The only legitimate reason for rejecting the resurrection hypothesis are philosophical and theological in nature: if supernaturalism is false or a non-Christian religion is exclusively true. However, if one brackets the question of worldview, neither presupposing nor a priori excluding supernaturalism, and examines the data, the historical conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead follows.[13]

In other words, if one approaches the question of Jesus’ resurrection from a neutral stance, it’s clear that Jesus was raised from the dead. That may be unsettling to some, but, as N.T. Wright points out, “Proposing that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead was just as controversial nineteen hundred years ago as it is today.”[14] No wonder Lüdemann and Wright come to such markedly different positions on the matter!

Scholars, as well as those who read their books, may strongly disagree about the resurrection of Jesus. But at the very least we should all be acutely aware of our own presuppositions, what we want or don’t want to be true, and how all these factors color or erase the evidence. None of this is always convenient or comfortable. But if we believe that truth is important, then it’s in no way optional.

Pastor John Rasmussen – Our Savior Lutheran Church – South Windsor, CT

[1] Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry (Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 2004), 190. I owe this quote to Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2010), 465.

[2] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 718.

[3] Licona, 38.

[4] With book titles like Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, Nagel has opened himself up to the criticism of those who see his honesty as outside the accepted boundaries of orthodox atheism.

[5] Nagel, Thomas, The Last Word. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 130. I owe this quote to Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead, 2008), 123.

[6] Bart Ehrman, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question−Why We Suffer (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 3.

[7] See the online article “The Truth−and the Comfort−of the Resurrection,” in which Habermas connects the scholarly evidence for the resurrection with the experience of hope it offers in suffering.

[8] Ehrman, God’s Problem, 4. Elsewhere Ehrman more directly acknowledges the role horizon plays in Jesus scholarship (though he does not use this specific term). For example, he notes the anecdotal tendency for historical Jesus scholars to recreate Jesus in their own image. See Jesus Before the Gospels (New York: HarperCollins, 2016) 21-25.

[9] He writes, “I have written and published three books contending for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus and have defended that position in numerous public debates with opponents such as Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman. Given my familiarity with the arguments for and against the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, I am doubtful that I will conclude that the resurrection of Jesus did not occur. However, I believe myself very open to the possibility that the historical evidence for the event is not strong enough to place the resurrection hypothesis far enough along on my spectrum of historical certainty to warrant a historical conclusion of ‘historical.’” The Resurrection of Jesus, 131.

[10] For Licona’s very detailed examination of what counts as historical bedrock, see The Resurrection of Jesus, 277-464. Licona’s settled list of historical bedrock are: 1. Jesus died by crucifixion, 2. Very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them, and 3.Within a few years of Jesus’ death, Paul converted after what he interpreted as a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to him. Ibid., 463.

[11] Compare the openness of Licona to Lüdemann, who writes, “Anyone who says that he rose from the dead is faced with another problem that I shall address laternamely, if you say that Jesus rose from the dead biologically, you would have to propose that a decaying corpsethat is already cold and without blood in its braincould be made alive again. I think that is nonsense.” Quoted from Licona, 496. Lüdemann seems to forget that Christians also think the idea of a cold, dead corpse being raised is preposterous, which is why the resurrection is viewed as an event only possible by the power of God. However, Lüdemann has no category in his horizon for God, let alone his intervention.

[12] For Licona’s very detailed assessment of the historical bedrock, as well as alternate explanations that account for it, see Ibid,, 465-610.

[13] Ibid., 608.

[14] The Resurrection of the Son of God, 10.

 

On the Reading of Many Books

On the Reading of Many Books

Apologetics: How Do We Account for the Resurrection Stories in the Gospels?

Apologetics: How Do We Account for the Resurrection Stories in the Gospels?