I hope that all my readers know who Michael Licona is!
The PDF of his new paper is here. It was just published in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. It talks about how the pre-suppositions of ancient historians can mess with their ability to investigate the past.
Here’s the abstract:
Most biblical scholars and historians hold that the investigation of a miracle report lies outside of the rights of historians acting within their professional capacity. In this essay, I challenge this position and argue to the contrary. A definition of history should not a priori exclude the possibility of investigating miracle claims, since doing so may restrict historians to an inaccurate assessment of the past. Professional historians outside of the community of biblical scholars acknowledge the frequent absence of a consensus; this largely results from conflicting horizons among historians. If this is the present state among professionals engaged in the study of non-religious history, it will be even more so with historians of Jesus. Finally, even if some historians cannot bring themselves to grant divine causation, they, in principle, can render a verdict on the event itself without rendering a verdict on its cause.
Here’s a bit that I found interesting:
It is clear that the horizon of atheist New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann is a driving force behind his historical conclusions when he a priori rules out the historicity of the ascension of Jesus reported in Acts 1.9–11 ‘because there is no such heaven to which Jesus may have been carried’. Ontological naturalism similarly guides James Tabor.
Women do not get pregnant without a male—ever. So Jesus had a human father… Dead bodies don’t rise… So, if the tomb was empty the historical conclusion is simple—Jesus’ body was moved by someone and likely reburied in another location.
Not so obvious is Geza Vermes in his 2008 volume The Resurrection: History and Myth. With hardly a comment, Vermes simply dismisses both ‘the out-of-hand rejection of the inveterate skeptic’ and the hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead since it can only be made from ‘the blind faith of the fundamentalist believer’.
I thought these were interesting because Ludemann and Vermes still agree with some of the minimal facts in a case for the resurrection case, such as Craig, Habermas or Licona might make. Ludemann gives you the post-mortem “visions” of Jesus, and Vermes gives you the empty tomb – yet both are naturalists, as you can see. They both rule out miracle as an explanation of the minimal facts a priori, but they both allow for useful minimal facts because the historical case is there to support them. Isn’t that interesting?
So what would you call a detective who ruled out some causes of death but not others, before looking at the evidence?
Second, methodological naturalism may handicap historians, preventing them in some cases from providing a fuller and more accurate account of the past. Molecular biologist Michael Behe provides a relevant challenge to this approach in his discipline. He writes:
Imagine a room in which a body lies crushed, flat as a pancake. A dozen detectives crawl around, examining the floor with magnifying glasses for any clues to the identity of the perpetrator. In the middle of the room, next to the body, stands a large, grey elephant. The detectives carefully avoid bumping into the pachyderm’s legs as they crawl, and never even glance at it. Over time the detectives get frustrated with their lack of progress but resolutely press on, looking even more closely at the floor. You see, textbooks say detectives must ‘get their man’, so they never consider elephants.
In context, Behe is contending that when scientists limit their considerations exclusively to unguided natural causes they will forever keep themselves from discovering the actual cause if a Designer of some sort was responsible. A similar admonition may be issued to historians who a priori exclude a non-human agent as the cause behind a past event. Those who do so could actually be placing themselves in a position where they cannot appraise history accurately.
The rest of the paper discusses two options for historians who want to resolve this problem.
So, I’m impressed that Mike Licona reads Mike Behe (that quote is from “Darwin’s Black Box”). Pretty cool that he reads across disciplines, and that he reads people who disagree with him. We one-dollar apologists all need to be like that.
Back to his paper. I see this presupposition of naturalism come up in debates on the historical Jesus, where the naturalist will just assume naturalism and then proceed to do history – even at a time where we have so many scientific arguments to undermine naturalism. It’s a bad philosophical view, and we shouldn’t let it influence how we do history.
If you run into these historians who are committed to naturalism, it might be worth it to make them defend it. You ask them – do you believe in naturalism? If they say yes, ask them for scientific evidence for naturalism. And when they finish not giving you any, then you can go on a long monologue on the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning, the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, the habitability (galactic and stellar), and so on. Then tell them to stop bring their blind religious faith into their historical investigations.