New paper from Michael Licona on historical methods and miracle claims

I hope that all my readers know who Michael Licona is!

The PDF of his new paper is here. It published in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus.

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 prioriexclude 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’.14 Ontological naturalism  similarly guides James Tabor. He writes:

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.15

Not so obvious is Geza Vermes in his 2008 volume The Resurrection: History and Myth.16 With hardly a comment, Vermes simply dismisses both ‘the out-ofh-and 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’.17

I thought these were interesting because Ludemann gives you the post-mortem “visions” of Jesus, and Vermes gives you the empty tomb – yet both are naturalists. Notwithstanding that, it’s pretty clear that these guys are not open to miracles a priori, and yet they probably think they are good historians, and able to get at the truth. Even though they rule out some explanations before even looking at the evidence.

So what would you call a detective who ruled out some causes of death but not others, before looking at the evidence?

More:

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.19

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.20

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. You should download the PDF just for the footnotes, to see what else he is reading that you might want to read too. What I like to see is lots of science and lots of debates and lots of different points of view. He reads across disciplines, 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 slaves 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.

4 thoughts on “New paper from Michael Licona on historical methods and miracle claims”

  1. the underlying stubbornness against even a hint of a possibility of a supernatural explanation keeps these historians from being objective. It’s really sad that I think the majority of them can’t even see this in themselves.

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  2. I remember attending an Evangelical Philosophical Society meeting where the speaker delivered a paper suggesting that history should abandon methodological naturalism in exchange for methodological agnosticism, and for the very reasons suggested in this paper.

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