Considering Michael Licona’s Historiographical Approach

Considering Michael Licona’s Historiographical Approach

by Christopher Cone, Th.D, Ph.D
April 2012

[This article is reproduced and abridged here with permission.   Click here to read the full article on Dr. Cone’s blog and leave comments.]

In arguing for the historicity of the resurrection, Michael Licona attempts to compare five naturalistic theories of the resurrection (offering non-supernatural explanations for what happened to Jesus) with the theory that the resurrection was in fact historic.… However, I would argue that in his work there is a significant methodological flaw that undermines his case…. Licona does some excellent work here, and I hope his efforts serve as a springboard for other Biblical scholars to fill in the gaps left by his work. As an overall project – as a scholarly and objective presentation of the arguments for and against the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, this work is worthy. Nonetheless, the methodological flaw is perhaps fatal to his case, and at least undermines the authority of his primary sources (the canonical Gospels). Further, it is worth noting that this methodological device assumed and employed by Licona is gaining in popularity and influence….

It is evident at this point that there will be some friction between Licona’s historiography and the idea of inerrancy. Whereas Licona’s historical method demands only a provisional understanding of truth, it would seem his Biblical theology would demand a very different approach. Where these two concepts collide, there is a decision to be made as to what interpretation of the data is to be preferred. This subtle tension has not –so- subtle results as Licona explains his interpretation of the Gospel data, and as he underscores his rationalistic preference for historiography over theology….

I don’t mention these passages to suggest doubt on his part; rather I think they are important as they betray a preference for historiography over and against the Biblical data as inspired. In other words, if I understand Licona’s case correctly, it seems he values first determining historicity, and then appreciating its doctrinal value. This order of priority has significant hermeneutic consequences, as we will see. The question arises: What if historicity cannot be determined beyond the immediate claims of a particular text? How this question is answered in Licona’s work underscores what I believe is the fundamental flaw in the method employed.

One such passage, described as “a strange little text,” for which there is no external historical verification is Matthew 27:52-53. This passage describes the bodily resurrection and post-resurrection ministries of saints in Jerusalem at the time of Christ’s death. Licona explains (away) this passage as follows: “Given the presence of phenomenological language used in a symbolic manner in both Jewish and Roman literature related to a major event such as the death of an emperor or the end of a reigning king or even a kingdom, the presence of ambiguity in the relevant text of Ignatius, and that so very little can be known about Thallus’s comment on the darkness…it seems to me that an understanding of the language of Matthew 27:52-53 as “special effects” with eschatological Jewish texts and thought in mind is most plausible.

Special effects. Since the events in these verses are historically unverifiable, their literal interpretation (as historical fact) is implausible, and consequently redefined as special effects. How does Licona arrive at this conclusion? … Very early on, he inserts a very pivotal statement: “There is somewhat of a consensus among contemporary scholars that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography (bios).  Bioi offered the ancient biographer great flexibility for rearranging material and inventing speeches in order to communicate the teachings, philosophy, and political beliefs of the subject, and they often included legend. Because bios was a flexible genre, it is often difficult to determining where history ends and legend begins. And there it is.Bios is flexible. Some of it can be historical, other aspects can be mere special effects…..

To his credit Licona anticipates the question this begs. He notes, “If some or all of the phenomena reported at Jesus’ death are poetic devices, we may rightly ask whether Jesus’ resurrection is not more of the same.” He offers two brief arguments against that conclusion (no indication of early poetic interpretations, and no known early opponents of Christianity critiqued on the basis of misunderstanding poetry as history). Despite these two points, I believe the damage has been done. Burridge uses the Bios classification in the same way Philo utilized allegorical interpretation – to redeem the Scriptures from rationalistic critiques. By adopting the Bios theory, Licona is participating in genre override, which allows for explaining away difficult passages, via a menu approach to historicity in the Gospel events.

Admittedly, for a historian who adopts Licona’s historiographical presuppositions, Matthew 27:52-5 is problematic because (1) it sounds implausible, and (2) there is no external historical verification. To resolve the difficulty by changing a genre classification creates a far greater problem, precisely due to the hermeneutic implications Burridge identified. Such a hermeneutic move is useful for resolving isolated difficulties, but it is also useful for undermining the authority of the entire text. If it is implausible that people could be resurrected at the death of Christ, then it would seem equally implausible that Jesus should be the Son of God – even God Himself – and should be raised from the dead. As Licona admits, if any of the text is legend, it becomes difficult to know where the legend ends and the history begins. What he may view as history, I may view as legend, and he has made the case for my understanding-as-legend to be legitimate. And if the Gospel writers had the flexibility of inventing speeches, how can I have any certainty about what Jesus said? Sometimes “useful” can be the enemy of truth (e.g., Gen 3:6).
Why not view the Gospels not as Bios, which is so nebulous as to defy definition and certainty, and instead view them simply as historical narrative – which even Burridge admits is possible (at least if only by implication). After all, should Matthew be viewed as a totally different genre than Luke, who described his work as “the exact truth?” (asphaleia –certainty, Lk 1:4)? Why not take the writers at face value? Granted if we do so, we are stuck with these pesky resurrection narratives that we can’t historically verify – and which still look foolish to skeptics no matter our historiographical method.

At the time this article was written, Dr. Cone was serving as the President of Tyndale Theological Seminary & Biblical Institute and as pastor of Tyndale Bible Church.  His areas of focus are Bible exegesis and exposition, systematic theology, hermeneutics and theological method, epistemology, philosophy, apologetics and worldview, environmental ethics, conference speaking and classroom pedagogy, pastoral leadership, and executive leadership. For more on Dr. Cone click here. Cone-Pics1_021