Continuing to chase down threads engendered by the Hume’s argument against miracles thread, I listened to the lengthy episode #2 of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot, a podcast run by Luke Muehlahuser, proprietor of commonsenseatheism.com. This is an interview with Mike Licona, who describes himself on the podcast as a historian who’s extensively studied the philosophy of history and has made an extremely thorough examination–with an honest attempt to put aside his preconceptions and get at truth–of the historical evidence for Jesus’s resurrection. His titles, however, according to wikipedia, are “Apologetics Coordinator at the North American Mission Board (Southern Baptist Convention) and Research Professor of New Testament at Southern Evangelical Seminary,” and listening to the discussion, I’m struck by the contrast between Licona’s sober and skeptical tone and the stories of the supernatural (along the lines of demons raging in the third world) he seems willing to entertain.
Repeatedly, Licona tells us we need to look at the evidence and use the best hypothesis; he’s very willing to discount numerous Biblical details as being products of legend. The evidence in question for the resurrection seems to boil down to:
Paul of Tarsus “received oral tradition,” only a couple years after Jesus’s death (as he relates in certain letters he wrote reproduced in the Bible) that Jesus was crucified and afterwords appeared bodily multiple times to groups of individuals. Licona is convinced that Paul is passing on this tradition faithfully, and that the tradition itself reflected actual statements of witnesses to these appearances, due to the strong respect for unalterable tradition among the particular Jewish sect that was the source of the tradition and Paul’s distinguishing clearly in his speech between what he’s received and what new ideas he’s putting forward.
Luke the host comes back at him with Hume’s argument against miracles, and Licona replies that we have no basis for positing prior probabilities for the miraculous based on observations of non-miraculous nature. The argument then gets very repetitive and frustrating; Licona does not have a response for how then, having thrown out Hume’s claim that we’re epistemologically bound to discard highly implausible explanations (i.e. we don’t have the grounding for saying that they’re implausible) we can disclaim the many other miracle claims. Licona is ready to grant, instead, that contemporary miracle reports may in many cases be legitimate and insists that this historical evidence for the resurrection is stronger than that for other alleged miracles. To their credit, both Licona and Luke have enough interest in this that they have numerous alleged miracle examples on hand for consideration, but really, given that Licona has a 67 page bibliography in his dissertation on sources considering the resurrection miracle, Luke is not going to have the resources to effectively counter Licona’s claims.
The whole discussion makes me very curious about the philosophy of history, i.e. how much evidence do respected historians require before they grant that some event occurs. A great deal of Licona’s argument rests on this threshold being extremely low, and that having Paul’s testimony is apparently sufficient to meet this threshold.
I take Licona at his word that he made a good faith effort to put aside his biases, but I think I need a second opinion or three before I find any of his comments even about “the consensus of historians” on his point convincing. If anything, this reinforces the common conviction expressed in some moments on our episode that folks with different temperaments are going to interpret the same evidence differently. I’m generally optimistic about our ability to overcome such bias, but without looking at all of Licona’s evidence and maybe doing some sort of psychological evaluation of him (and me) if what he’s seeing doesn’t look at all like what I see, I can’t say anything more definite here.
All in all, this is a great discussion, and Luke is a sensitive and engaged interviewer on topics like this. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the discussion (and per usual with many of these things, listening to it on double speed is a handy way to make it go by more quickly, if you have an iPhone or some other way to make that happen).