If you are a Christian who is waiting for the day when most historical scholars, both Christian and non-Christian, affirm that the evidence does indeed indicate that Jesus was resurrected, I’m afraid you’ll be waiting until the Second Coming, when there will be no doubt. Why is that? If, as we say on this blog, the historical evidence for the resurrection is so strong, then shouldn’t every scholar be lining up behind it?
Historical scholar Mike Licona addresses this issue in his book The Resurrection of Jesus:
“Given the prominent role of horizons [i.e., worldview] in every historical inquiry, we can anticipate that consensus opinions will often elude historians.... Unfortunately, rather than an objective and careful weighing of the data, the subjective horizons of historians, especially historians writing on religious, philosophical, political and moral topics, exert the most influence in their final judgments. Moreover, many members of the audience to whom historians present their research are no less biased. Accordingly, what is judged as sound and persuasive research to one group may be viewed as inadequate and overly biased by another.”
Licona’s point is straightforward: worldviews (or horizons) of historians exert a strong influence on their interpretations of data. There may be some historians who can limit that influence, but there are just as many who cannot. He continues:
“A consensus opinion can be valuable for recognizing objectivity when the group is composed of scholars from all interested camps with the exception of some fringe positions. Tucker cites agreement among historians of the Holocaust: Jewish and Gentile, German and British, right-wing and left-wing historians agree that there was a Holocaust.”
Here is another important point. If you have agreement on historical facts from a full spectrum of worldviews, then this is valuable for recognizing objectivity. However, just because a historical interpretation does not garner assent from a broad spectrum does not indicate that it is not objective. In other words, consensus across a broad spectrum is a good positive test, but not a good negative test.
With regard to historical biblical studies, Licona offers the following analysis:
“A group exhibiting greater heterogeneity is the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). Annual SBL meetings are attended by members of many theological and philosophical persuasions: liberals, conservatives, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists, all from numerous countries and ethnic groups from all over the world. If a consensus opinion is going to be of any value for historians, it must come from such a group.
However, a consensus from even this group is valuable only when all of its members opining on a subject have personally researched that particular subject. For example, a consensus opinion of all SBL members on a matter pertaining to a recent archaeological find has little value if less than five percent of all SBL members have a significant knowledge of that find and expertise in the field. Similarly, little if any value should be assigned to those scholars opining on the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus who have not engaged in serious research on the matter.”
Licona argues that consensus opinion on the historical Jesus can be valuable coming from a group such as the SBL because of its heterogeneity. However, he warns that only scholars who have actually studied the subject in depth should be counted toward the consensus.
Given the challenges of historical consensus, especially with regard to the historical Jesus, what should we expect in the future? According to Licona:
“It is highly unlikely that a consensus will ever exist pertaining to the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. While strong agreement exists regarding a number of “facts” often used as evidence to support the resurrection hypothesis, no consensus will ever exist for the conclusion that the resurrection hypothesis is an accurate description of what actually occurred.
After all, how likely is it that historians who are Muslims and atheists will confess that the resurrection hypothesis is the best explanation or that Christian historians will confess that the resurrection hypothesis is not the best explanation? Yet, either Jesus rose from the dead or he did not; and historians holding one of these positions are more correct than those holding the other.
Because of the uncertainty of historical knowledge, many historical descriptions will never receive a stamp of approval from the consensus of the relevant scholars. This should not restrain the historian from stating that his or her hypothesis is probably true.”
Licona concludes that a consensus that Jesus was resurrected will elude us for the foreseeable future. This fact does not mean that Jesus did not rise from the dead, only that consensus across a broad spectrum of scholars is impossible given the major influence of worldviews. After all, an admission that Jesus rose from the dead would usually entail a radical realignment of the worldview of a non-Christian scholar. Although this may happen from time to time, it is highly unlikely to happen at a high enough rate to create a consensus.
As Christians, where does this leave us? I think it means that we are free to point out where there is a positive consensus about the historical facts about Jesus, but we must realize that those facts will only give us a minimal list of true facts. Beyond the minimal consensus facts, we may argue for additional facts using solid historical criteria, but we should not expect non-Christian scholars to always agree with our arguments.
We also now have an idea why there are such divergent views on the historical Jesus. Although scholars may agree on a short list of facts, many of them feel free to argue for additional “facts” that suit their worldview. As lay people reading books written by historical Jesus scholars, we must always be on guard for the author’s worldview nosing its way into the book.
Another implication is that reading historical Jesus works from one side of the philosophical or theological spectrum will never be enough to get a reasonable view of the historical evidence. Readers must force themselves to pick up works from the other side of the spectrum as well.
A friend of mine once told me he no longer believed in the historical Jesus of Christian tradition after reading a book by a liberal Jesus scholar. When I asked if he read works by believing Christians or conservatives, he answered “no.” He just assumed that the scholar he read had the final word. As Licona has shown, no scholar has the final word. We must all engage the evidence for ourselves.