The Best Schools interviews historian Mike Licona

This is a long interview with one of our top resurrection scholars. (LINK FIXED!)


TBS: You have also been a prominent public apologist for the veracity of the New Testament. For example, you have engaged in public debates with such well-known atheists as Dan Barker and Richard Carrier, as well as with such revisionist New Testament scholars as Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, and Stephen Patterson. Describe some of the high points in these debates. What are some key things that persons of faith should bear in mind as they face skeptics of the New Testament like this? What made you want to get involved in public controversy and debate? Looking back on your career on the debating platform, would you say, overall, it has been time well spent? If so, why?

ML: Sometime in the mid-1990s, I purchased audio-cassette tapes of William Lane Craig debating Frank Zindler and John Dominic Crossan. I was very impressed when I heard Dr. Craig pick apart their arguments in an intellectually sound manner. I have never enjoyed heated discussions. But there was something about confronting bad philosophy and arguments and being able to present a sound case for the truth of Christianity that was very appealing to me. I never imagined I would participate in a debate. At that point, Dr. Craig had two doctorates while I had not even completed my master’s thesis and had no intention of doing so. So, engaging in public debate in the type of forum he was doing was not even on my radar.

In the spring of 2003, Gary Habermas was invited to debate Dan Barker (left). He didn’t like debating and asked me if I would be interested in debating Dan. He said that if I ever wanted to get involved in debate, this would be a good first one for me, since Dan is not a scholar. So, I accepted an invitation to debate Dan and loved the experience. The next year, Gary turned down two more debates and referred them to me, which I accepted. Later Bill Craig passed along a few to me. And that’s how I got started.

Some items others should keep in mind if they decide to engage in debate or dialogue with nonbelievers is that your opponents are not your enemies. I don’t regard anyone I have debated as an enemy. In fact, I now consider some of them as friends. Hopefully, we’re all after truth. If Christianity is true, my opponents will have to answer to God some day. That’s between them and God. Since Jesus taught for us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, there is no reason for us to act in a nasty way toward those with whom we have a disagreement. I’d also suggest that if you’re going to get in the ring with some major scholars like Bart Ehrman and Stephen Patterson, you better be willing to do your homework and prepare diligently. Debate is not easy. It takes a lot of work and it can be very emotionally draining. It’s not for everyone. But if you have the personality for it and are willing to put in the effort, there will be plenty of opportunities to engage in public debate and we need more Christians who will join us. I love the challenge and doing something that I think has a lot of value.

Being engaged in public debate has been time well spent and there have been positive results. I’ve seen some who were on an authentic quest for truth become followers of Jesus after attending or viewing one of my debates, while others have returned to faith in Christ. Some have expressed that their faith was significantly strengthened after attending one of my debates, while others devoted their lives to full-time Christian ministry. Hey, I don’t give an altar call. I just present truth and answer objections as best and as honestly as I can. Students are hungry for truth. They want a foundation on which to base their lives that’s based on truth rather than wishful thinking.

TBS: In 2010, you published your doctoral dissertation as The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2010). [Hereafter referred to as “Resurrection.”] It is an extremely impressive piece of work, which has now set the standard for historiographical work on the historicity of Jesus and the Resurrection. Just the list of endorsers reads like a Who’s Who of New Testament scholarship. What was the research path that led to your magnum opus?

ML: Gary Habermas and I were working on our bookThe Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Kregel Publications, 2004). I regard Habermas (right) to be the world’s leading expert on the topic. For several years he had been compiling a bibliography on academic sources written on Jesus’ resurrection and had more than 2,000 sources at that time. Today, that bibliography has expanded to around 3,400! Habermas had read the major works and catalogued where scholars stood on more than 100 topics related to Jesus’ resurrection. So, I asked him to which discipline the majority of scholars writing on the subject belong. He said the overwhelming bulk of them are biblical scholars and a small percentage are philosophers. I asked him if any professional historians outside the community of biblical scholars had published on the subject and he said he recalled seeing perhaps a handful of journal articles and one short book. At that point I decided that I wanted to conduct a thorough investigation of Jesus’ resurrection as a historian. I wanted to know how historians conduct their investigations and how those investigations differ from those conducted by biblical scholars and philosophers.

After being accepted into the doctoral program at the University of Pretoria, I immersed myself in literature written by philosophers of history and professional historians on the nature of historical knowledge and the various methods of discovering the past. It didn’t take me long to discover that I had a serious challenge before me: Historians are virtually unanimous in admitting that the completely objective historian does not exist and that we are all persons of bias. I realized that I had my own biases. After all, I wanted to show that the resurrection of Jesus was an historical event. So, I put together a list of recommended steps for managing my bias and did my best to follow them. Did I obtain complete objectivity? No one can and I wasn’t an exception. I discovered that I could get pretty close to my goal of complete objectivity if I genuinely wanted to be there and engaged in a serious effort to get there. However, I found that unless I took deliberate and sustained efforts toward remaining there, I would go back to my default position. It was a continuous struggle.

I became obsessed with my research. I agonized over my biases and attempts to suspend judgment while my investigation proceeded. I was intentional in debating some of the finest and toughest minds taking a contrary view. I wanted to put my method and conclusions before them in order to see what they had to say and to learn from the process.

My completed dissertation ended up being around four times the size of the average one. It was a long and laborious process. But it yielded priceless knowledge to me. So, I was thrilled when IVP decided to publish it.

TBSResurrection is a 700-page work dense with scholarly annotation. Nevertheless, would you be able to summarize the main conclusions you reach in this work for our readers? What does this book add to conservative New Testament scholarship about the Resurrection? What’s new here? How does it differ from other magisterial work in this area, such as that of Gary Habermas and N.T. Wright?

ML: I think there are three major differences between my new book and where others have previously gone. First, I discuss issues pertaining to the philosophy of history and historical method with a depth that exceeds by far what other scholars have offered pertaining to the question of Jesus’ resurrection. Second, I interact with the debate over whether historians are within their professional rights to investigate miracle claims to a far greater degree than has been previously offered. Third, I subject a variety of hypotheses to strictly controlled historical method in a more comprehensive manner than has been previously offered. There are other contributions the book makes to the discussion, such as a discussion pertaining to the historicity of Jesus’ predictions pertaining to his imminent death and resurrection, as well as the meaning of two Greek terms upon which an important discussion hinges. But the above three are the major ones.

Worth the read. It sounds from the interview that things are going better for Dr. Licona.

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