Though Michael Licona became a Christian at a young age, he experienced strong doubts while working on a master’s degree in religious studies at Liberty University. That led him to explore the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus in his PhD work, and to engage in public debates with leading skeptics and atheists. Driven by a desire to follow the evidence wherever it led, Licona understood that journey might lead him away from Christianity.
In 2010, Licona released his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, which showed that the evidence for the historical resurrection of Jesus is much stronger than any competing explanations, such as the idea that Jesus’ body was stolen by his followers or by his enemies, or that the disciples simply experienced hallucinations of the resurrected Jesus.
Licona, formerly apologetics coordinator at the North American Missions Board, is now teaching at Houston Baptist University and has founded RisenJesus.com. He recently released a new book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (Oxford University Press).
What was your upbringing like? Did you grow up as a Christian?
My parents were Catholic and split up when I was five. My mom remarried and we started attending a Presbyterian church. When I was very young, I was obsessed with getting to heaven. I was always asking, “How do I get to heaven, Mom?” And she said, “You just have to do more good than bad.” So, I was constantly thinking, Where am I on that scale?
When I was ten years old, the Presbyterian church had a combined youth group event and they brought this Christian magician in. He did magic to illustrate the message of the gospel. He focused on what God had done, not what I was supposed to do. And for the first time I understood the gospel: It wasn’t what I did; it was what Christ did. They gave an invitation to come forward and make a profession of faith. I went forward to become a Christian; it was what I’d been looking for.
How did you become interested in apologetics?
Toward the end of my graduate studies, I started doubting my Christian faith. I believed I had a relationship with the Lord, that the Bible was true. But what if I was wrong? Don’t people from other religions say the same thing? How could I know that I’m not a Christian because that’s what I learned from my parents?
These questions bothered me. I knew it could mean the eternal destiny of my soul if I got it wrong. So I was determined to be open-minded and seek truth. That led me into apologetics, which I had no interest in before. But even that wasn’t enough. I quickly realized that I was just seeking the answers I wanted to find, which led to further doubts and more investigation. I was studying the Resurrection for my PhD at the time, initially just wanting to find another way to prove it. But I became interested in approaching the Resurrection differently, as a historian. If we subjected the resurrection of Jesus to strictly controlled scrutiny using the historical method, what would it look like? What would it yield for us? My goal was to answer these questions.
Is this what led to the public debates you’ve had with prominent skeptics like Bart Ehrman and Evan Fales?
I intentionally got involved with debates with the leading skeptics out there because I knew that someone like Bart [Ehrman], who’s more intelligent than me, who’d been doing this a whole lot longer than me, would be likely to find any weaknesses in my arguments. I had to cross every t, dot every i, and be very careful not to overstate my conclusions, because he was going to challenge everything I said. It was all meant to test my ideas, to find the truth.
I prayed before each debate. I did believe God existed. But I prayed, “If Christianity is false, I want to know. Please show me. Even if you have to humiliate me, show me it’s false and I’ll follow you wherever it leads me.”
After each debate, I would go back, consider their objections, and see what legitimate things they had to say. If my case needed adjustment, I adjusted it. If a portion needed to be abandoned, I would abandon it. If I had concluded that the evidence pointed against the resurrection of Jesus, I would have left Christianity.
Where did that lead? Were your doubts ever settled?
I had studied the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection enough to know that it’s pretty good. But I didn’t know at the time how good it really was. I did my best to bracket my desired outcome while my investigation proceeded, which took deliberate and sustained effort. I wasn’t surprised that the Resurrection came out on top, but I was surprised at how much it outdistanced other theories. So, yes, it settled many of my doubts.
Is the evidence as good for the bodily Resurrection as it is for the disciples’ experiences of the Resurrection?
One thing that virtually all scholars agree on is that Jesus’ disciples had experiences that they sincerely interpreted as the risen Jesus appearing to them. So, I weighed the hypothesis that Jesus’ actual resurrection is the explanation for those experiences against competing explanations, and the resurrection hypothesis came out way ahead. And after looking into it, I believe the evidence is actually incontrovertible that they claimed Jesus was raised bodily. Not only is this crystal clear in the Gospels, but we get this even in Paul.
Since Gospel harmonization is not exactly a new field, what makes your new book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, different?
If we want to understand the Gospels properly, it’s best to understand the genre in which they were written. For nearly two decades now, the majority of New Testament scholars have agreed that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography, or at least they share a lot in common with it.
Most scholars admit that ancient biographers had a flexible way of reporting events. In my book, I explore some of those flexibilities to see if they can explain the differences in the gospel accounts. This differs from harmonization efforts, which sometimes subject the Gospels to a sort of hermeneutical waterboarding until they tell the harmonizer what he wants to hear.
I think whatever view of the Scriptures we choose to have should be in concert with what we observe in Scripture. I like the way Mark Strauss describes it, reading Scripture “from the bottom up.” We read Scripture and we base our view of Scripture on what we observe. In contrast, a “top down” approach begins with a certain view of Scripture, then reads Scripture with that assumed view in mind. I take the “bottom up” approach, because I think if I am truly to have a high view of Scripture, then I must submit to Scripture, love Scripture, and accept Scripture as God has given it to us rather than forcing it into a mold. If I fail to do this, I deceive myself, claiming to have a high view of Scripture when in reality I would have a high view of my view of Scripture.
What my book does is look at how one of the most highly regarded biographers of antiquity—Plutarch—reported the same events differently. By looking at those different accounts, I can identify patterns in those differences, infer compositional devices from those patterns, and then read the Gospels with those devices in mind. It’s truly amazing to see the Gospel authors using many of the same compositional devices employed by Plutarch!
Can you give me an example?
Here’s one that I didn’t find mentioned by classicists. I call it literary spotlighting. Imagine you’re viewing a theatrical performance. You’ve got multiple actors on the stage. All of a sudden the lights go out and a spotlight shines on one of the actors, who starts to give a monologue. You know other actors are there on stage but you can’t see them because the spotlight is focused on that one character. Literary spotlighting is when an author mentions only one person performing an action, even when he is aware of several characters who are involved.
In 63 BC there was a Roman senator named Lucius Sergius Catilina who was planning a rebellion. Letters describing the plot reached a famous general, Crassus. So Crassus, with two other prominent Roman senators, went to Cicero’s home that night and delivered the letters. Cicero was the most powerful person in Rome that year, serving as lead consul. The following morning, Cicero called the senate together and alerted them to the conspiracy. That is what is reported in Plutarch’s Life of Cicero. But when you read Plutarch’s Life of Crassus, he shines a spotlight on his main character, Crassus, and there is no mention of the two senators who accompanied Crassus to the home of Cicero.
So this same sort of “spotlighting” appears in the Gospels as well?
Yes. Take, for example, the Resurrection narratives. In Matthew and Mark, there is one angel who is mentioned at the tomb. In Luke and John, you have two. Could it be that Mark, followed by Matthew, is shining his literary spotlight on the angel who’s announcing that Jesus has been raised, even though they know of another angel who was present? Some scholars would say that Luke and John embellished the story by adding a second angel. But embellishment is certainly not a tendency of Luke. Spotlighting was a common practice and explains the difference better, in my opinion.
We can see probable literary spotlighting several more times in the Resurrection narratives, with the number of women who went to the tomb and how many disciples went to confirm what the women had seen.
Every book and letter of the Bible was written within various genres that were contemporary to the authors. We can either think that God departed from the rest of Scripture and had the Gospels written in a genre unique to Scripture, or we can think that the Gospel authors were writing biographies of Jesus. If you view the Gospels as biographies, then understanding the biographical genre of that era becomes important.
Does this affect the historical reliability of the Gospels?
My book doesn’t argue one way or the other about the historical reliability of the Gospels. I was looking to gain a deeper understanding of the biographical genre of the Gospels, so that we can read them closer to how their authors intended us to.
That said, those who want to argue against the historical reliability of the Gospels on account of contradictions in them are going to find that is no longer a legitimate argument—if it ever was. Most ancient biographers were trying to be accurate. I disagree with the claim that the Gospel authors did not intend to report historical events accurately. Although ancient biographers did not have the same commitment of reporting with the precision we expect in modern biography, most of them were committed to preserving accurate portraits of their main character.
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