Chapter One Review: The Resurrection of Jesus- A New Historiographical Approach by Mike Licona

It is with great enthusiasm that I begin this chapter-by-chapter review of Mike Licona's latest book. This volume has already earning marked praise from numerous scholars and apologists such as Craig S. Keener of Palmer Theological Seminary who writes:

"This book is the most thorough treatment on the resurrection and historiography to date."


Licona begins by conceding that when scholars have researched the historical account of the resurrection in the past, they have often come to very different conclusions on a number of issues. However, unlike many skeptics and critics, Licona is careful not to jump to the conclusion that no accurate portrait of the historical Christ can be uncovered.

On the contrary, the fact that numerous portraits of the historical Jesus exist only serves to drive Licona to ask more questions.

He writes:

"What approach should be taken for an investigation involving the historicity of the resurrection? When writing on the resurrection of Jesus, biblical scholars are engaged in historical research. Are they doing so without adequate or appropriate training? How many have completed so much as a single undergraduate course pertaining to how to investigate the past? Are biblical scholars conducting their historical investigations differently than professional historians? If professional historians who work outside of the community of biblical scholars were to embark on an investigation of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, what would such an investigation look like?" [p. 19]

And as a result, Licona has written a book on the topic of the resurrection that is fresh and ground-breaking.

Licona writes:

"So how does my research differ from previous treatments? In the pages that follow I will investigate the question of the historicity of Jesus' resurrection while providing unprecedented interaction with the literature of professional historians outside of the community of biblical scholars on both hermeneutical and methodological considerations." [p. 20]

The Introduction concludes with Licona's summarizing the content of each chapter.

Chapter 1- Important Considerations on Historical Inquiry Pertaining to the Truth in Ancient Texts

This chapter begins by the author clarifying some key terms that will be used throughout the remainder of the book.

Most importantly:
  • History- past events that are the object of study [p. 30]
  • Historiography- matters in the philosophy of history and historical method [p. 31]
This reader was very impressed with the scope of topics that Licona was able to address in this first chapter. Anyone who has discussed the resurrection with a skeptic will surely appreciate Licona's points addressing questions such as:
  • Is History Knowable?
  • Isn't History Always Written by Winners?
Further, whenever discussing the problem of the historical resurrection, the topic of pre-suppositions [or "horizons," as Licona calls them] inevitable comes up. Licona's contribution to horizons and how the historian can successfully "transcend" them is invaluable material that this reader will continually reference in the future. In my opinion, this section of the book alone is worth it's price!

With candid transparency, the author acknowledges that the historian is challenged by their horizon. However, Licona proposes "six tools that, when combined, can be effective guides that bring us closer to objectivity."

These tools are:
  • Method
  • The historian's horizon and method should be public.
  • Peer pressure
  • Submitting ideas to unsympathetic experts
  • Account for the relevant historical bedrock
  • Detachment from bias
With these tools in the historian's tool belt, Licona contends that:

"Historians should search for evidence inconsistent with the preferred hypothesis before being willing to assert its truth. They should force themselves to confront data and arguments that are problematic to their preferred hypotheses. Historians must allow themselves to understand and empathize fully with the horizon of the author/agent and, furthermore, allow themselves to be challenged fully by that horizon to the point of conversion. They must achieve full understanding of and empathy for the opposing view. When this is maintained during an investigation, the historian is close to transcending her horizon. While full detachment may be unattainable, temporary detachment is attainable to some degree and provides value." [p. 60-61]

The author is not naive about the impact one's horizons can have on their historical inquiry, but argues persuasively that the historian can transcend their horizons for the sake of an accurate conclusion.

The chapter continues with Licona explaining the role of consensus in historical inquiry. Here, this reviewer appreciated how the author explained when a consensus is valuable, when it is not and the various limits a consensus can have on establishing a respected position.

Postmodern history, and it's main proponents, are then taken to task with professional courtesy. Licona examines "the reasoning and conclusions of the three foremost postmodern historians: Hayden White, Frank Ankersmit and Keith Jenkins." [p. 71] Then continues by revealing the numerous problems with Postmodernist History.

As he writes:

"As postmodern historians have referred to "the death of history," realist historians, which are by far the majority, feel justified in proceeding, though with caution. If history is truly dead, there are no means by which historians can distinguish fact from fiction and no way of weighing the plausibility of numerous hypothesis. Indeed, there are other consequences that are difficult for postmodernists to live with if their view of knowing the past is correct, such as a collapse of the legal system. Moreover, the arguments of postmodern historians are often self-refuting since they involve reasons for why we can know that we cannot know." [p. 126]

Next up is the consideration of "What is Truth?" The author explains that because of the challenges presented by postmodernists, realist historians (the majority) would do well to revisit the foundation of their views which includes the nature of truth itself. Two views of truth are considered here: a) correspondence theory of truth- for our descriptions of the world around us to be true, they must correspond to its conditions b) coherence theory- a proposition is true when all of its components cohere with other propositions believed to be true.

As the chapter progresses, Licona then examines the question, "What is a Historical Fact?" I appreciated the author giving attention to this oft overlooked question and found his definition of a historical fact satisfactory and fair:

"Richard Evans defines a historical fact as something that happened and that historians attempt to "discover" through verification procedures." This is the definition I hold and will use throughout this volume." [p. 93]

As the chapter continues, Licona takes an in-depth look at historians and what they actually do. The author tackles the tough questions of history head-on such as:
  • Who Shoulders the Burden of Proof in Historical Inquiry?
  • Is History a Science?
  • What do Historians Do?
I must admit that this first chapter is simply a delight to read. One gets that the feeling that they are participating in an Ancient History 101 class with a very thorough instructor.

As the chapter nears closing, the author examines to methods historians use in their inquiries: 1) Arguments to the Best Explanation 2) Arguments from Statistical Inference. Here, the author maps out both approaches, explaining both their strengths and weaknesses, then explains for the question of Jesus and His Resurrection from the dead, he will argument to the best explanation.

The chapter ends with an excellent summary and conclusions.

I believe the closing of this first chapter demonstrates another reason why Mike Licona's investigation into the resurrection is unique among his other works on the topic. The author explains that he has done his best to "transcend" his horizons and look at the question of the resurrection as objectively as possible. Further, he admits to going through periods of serious doubt and struggle throughout his investigation. He even goes as far as to admit that for him to conclude that the resurrection did not happen would in fact be "embarrassing."

However, he is determined not to allow these facts to hinder his inquiry:

"Because of the position I have taken in previous work, I would experience a bit of personal embarrassment if I were to arrive at the more modest conclusion of a historical question mark. I would also most likely disappoint two scholars who have not only been very influential in my life but have also become close friends: Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig. Even given all this, I am convinced that my interest in truth supersedes my fear of embarrassment and disappointment. If the resurrection of Jesus could not be confirmed historically, my specifically Christian faith could still survive. But a disconfirmation of the resurrection would lead me to abandon it...all historians of Jesus have something on the line in this discussion. Now that I have reported my experiences and laid bare my hopes, readers may assess the following discussion in terms of my approach and whether it was created, consciously or unconsciously, to achieve the results I desire rather than being a genuine attempt to conduct an objective historical investigation." [p. 132]


The first chapter of Mike Licona's The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach is mind food, plain and simple. This reviewer found Licona's approach transparent, thorough and concise. I can say with confidence that I now better understand just what history can and can not tell us, the job of the historian and what methods are best for historical inquiry.

I enjoyed this first chapter so much that I simply can't wait to being chapter 2 that deals with History and Miracles.

Many thanks to Intervarsity Press for the review copy.

Courage and Godspeed,

Forthcoming: A review of Chapter 2- History and Miracles.