Michael Licona on the Historiography of the Resurrection
Date: March 20th, 2016

With Easter just a week away, we examine how one historian and theologian examines the empirical case for Jesus’s death and resurrection.  Prof. Michael Licona, an associate professor of theology at Houston Baptist University and author of several books on early Christian historiography, shares how he came to study this topic, discusses the difficulties in using documentary and other evidence from so long ago, and then reviews some of the counter-arguments given by skeptics of the Resurrection.

At the outset of our podcast, Dr. Licona reveals that he has been a Christian since the age of ten, but as he grew older he realized that accepting the doctrines of Christianity by faith alone was not merely enough.  His quest to understand the empirical history of Jesus was anchored in his realization that this was consistent with the actions of the Christian disciples as laid out in the Gospels and the Book of Acts.  He talks about the case of “doubting Thomas” and John the Baptist as examples of individuals who saw the need to interrogate their beliefs and develop an “informed faith.”  We then discuss what potential difficulties might arise when examining historical events that occurred nearly two thousand years ago.  Archaeological evidence is hard to come by, but Mike notes that there is documentary evidence from a number of different sources that can be used to triangulate various stories.  He also talks about the importance of thinking about what interests the authors of these documents would have in telling the truth or in deceiving readers.  Mike reviews various Christian and non-Christian writers (e.g., Josephus) who provided accounts of Jesus’s life and death.

We then start our historiographic exploration with the events leading up to the crucifixion of Christ.  Tony asks about potential evidence for the various trials that Jesus had to endure.  Mike notes that while officials such as Pontius Pilate probably would have kept records of their actions and decisions, much of this documentation has been lost or destroyed. As such, the New Testament provides our best and most available account of those specific events.  This brings up a brief discussion about the potential biases of the authors of the Gospels.  Following this, we discuss the Crucifixion itself, talking a bit about how such punishment was carried out and whether this was consistent with the accounts of the Gospel authors Mark and John, as well as writers who were not sympathetic with the Christian cause such as Josephus and Tacitus.

While the accounts of Jesus’s trials and crucifixion would be relatively standard fare for events of that day, the Resurrection moves us into the world of the miraculous and highly contested arguments over what really happened.  Mike notes that we are dealing with the same sort of evidence as with the earlier parts of Jesus’s life.  (Note: There is a short 1 minute 15 second segment that some electronic noise occurs.  This does pass.)  At this point we examine a number of counter-hypotheses to the Gospel versions of the Resurrection, noting that the scientific method relies upon examining counter-hypotheses and determining if they are better explanations than the main hypothesis proffered.  We work our way through several common arguments against the miraculous nature of the Resurrection including: the discrepancies within Gospel accounts; whether this was a retelling of pagan resurrections myths; whether there was a conspiracy to give a fraudulent account; different accounts contained in the “lost gospels;” and the possibility of pranksters and mass hallucinations.  Along the way, Tony asks about the historical reason for why anybody would revisit a tomb to see whether it was empty or not, and Mike fills us in on some of the burial traditions of that time noting that it would not have been at all unusual for people to see if the body was still there.  Mike also fills us in on some of the details of Paul’s conversion to Christianity and how this factors in to the historical evidence.

The interview concludes with Prof. Licona’s personal thoughts on his investigative journey and whether this process has had a transformative effect on his life.  He responds that it wasn’t “transformative” per se in that he was already a believer, but it did certainly help him work through and resolve doubts that he had, noting that it is not unusual to have doubt.  Mike also provides some thoughts on the role of objectivity in historical research, noting that it is impossible to fully attain, but we need to make deliberate efforts to interrogate our own beliefs.  Recorded: February 26, 2016.


Prof. Michael Licona’s bio at Houston Baptist University and his personal website Risen Jesus.

The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, by Michael R. Licona.

The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, by Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona.

Paul Meets Muhammad: A Christian-Muslim Debate on the Resurrection, by Michael R. Licona.

Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science, by William A. Dembski and Michael R. Licona.


J. Warner Wallace on Cold-Case Christianity and Christmas.

Jim Papandrea on the Church Fathers and Patristic Exegesis.

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