Dr. Michael Licona – September 2011


Did Jesus Rise Physically From the Dead? A Debate Review

The recent debate between Dr. Abel Pienaar (www.spiritualiteit.co.za) and Dr. Mike Licona (www.risenjesus.com) in the Sanlam Auditorium at the University of Pretoria was a good-natured and instructive exchange of different views on the question of whether Jesus rose physically from the dead. (Despite one reviewer’s asinine remarks about how Licona started off with “shenanigans”, attempts to “butter” the audience and “establish some initial advantage and favour” (see http://www.nuwe-hervorming.org.za/forum/hitch-without-bark-much-stronger-bite [link broken]), I personally really appreciated to see Licona showing up wearing a Springbok jersey in solidarity with South African supporters during the Rugby World Cup.)

Pienaar and Licona approached the question of Jesus’ resurrection from two very different perspectives (as was expected). Licona approached the purported events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus as any responsible historian would when examining any ancient documents to determine its historical authenticity. He first pointed to four historical facts derived from the letters written by the apostle Paul and about which there exists scholarly consensus (which would include those of a sceptical and liberal bent), and then also adding a fifth, which some scholars might have reason to doubt. He then showed, by applying historical method, how these facts lead to an inference of the best explanation, that is, why any reasonable person can accept the bodily resurrection of Jesus as a real historical event. The implication was that all competing and naturalistic hypotheses have thus far failed to account for all the relevant and uncontested historical facts derived from, in this case, Paul’s letters (which seem not to suffer from some of the same difficulties that sceptical scholars find with the Gospel accounts, such as dating, authorship, bias, etc.).

Pienaar presented his case in a very capable manner (despite his self-deprecating misgivings prior to the debate – see http://blogs.litnet.co.za/abelpienaar) and it seemed to be well-received by the audience. One of Pienaar’s main arguments for denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus, seemed to be that Christians accept the Bible as God’s Word and that they merely derive their belief in the resurrection of Jesus based on the specious authority of the Bible as God’s Word. In other words, Christians are accused of blindly accepting the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection as it is written in the Bible without concern for its historical reliability (on his blog, Pienaar seems to think that Christians suffer from a naive bumper sticker mentality: “The Bible says it, I believe it and that’s that!”) . I was therefore not surprised to find that Pienaar could not get to grips with Licona’s historical approach in examining ancient literature which emphatically denies explicit and prior faith assumptions (especially such notions as Biblical inerrancy and divine inspiration) when studying the New Testament documents (see in this regard Licona’s acclaimed, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach). From Pienaar’s disengaging responses to Licona’s repeated references to the facts and methods of historical study, it very quickly became clear to me that Pienaar was out of his depth when it comes to the nature of historical research and argumentation (for example, when Pienaar mentioned experimental method where one is dealing with historical questions, one couldn’t help but cringe ever so slightly).

Another argument that Pienaar used was the idea that the Bible is full of mythological events such as “donkeys talking, people walking on water, virgin births and gods who could rise from the dead and live in the heavens.” He believes these references originated in a pre-scientific worldview where, presumably, people were simply so superstitious, ignorant and gullible that they thought and wrote as they understood reality from their pre-scientific point of view. Pienaar also thinks that one can find parallels to Jesus’ life in mythological figures such as Dionysus, Osiris, Hercules and even Thor, which casts further doubt on the historical reliability of the reported miraculous events surrounding Jesus’ life and resurrection. Licona challenged him on this widely held assumption about the validity of such parallelism and what it would signify, for when examined closely it does not find support among most serious scholars of history.

It was interesting to me that Pienaar expressed reservations in his pre-debate comments (http://blogs.litnet.co.za/abelpienaar) about the value of this specific debate. But, he said, he hoped that the debate would encourage open discussion, dialogue and honest seeking. But apparently Pienaar thinks this will only happen when South Africans grow and start discussing “better topics, topics that can enrich us on our spiritual journey”. It struck me that for a postmodern agnostic, Pienaar seemed awfully sure about what our spiritual journey should look like and what would enrich it. Doesn’t this sound rather presumptuous and dismissive of others who do not share his views, possibly even slightly arrogant? Does this attitude really foster open discussion, dialogue and honest seeking? I cannot help but wonder whether Pienaar might have fallen here for the very same thing that he seems to accuse, for example, fundamentalist American theologians of doing.

Well, let’s give Pienaar the benefit of the doubt, for we all have our biases and shortcomings. And that is why I strongly suspect that when Percy Shelley asks (as Pienaar quoted him on his blog as well as in the debate), “If God has spoken, why is the world not convinced?”, that the problem is not with the God who might have spoken, but simply with persons like me and you in this world who often do not really care to listen.

– Udo Karsten


1 Comment

  1. Very good review. I enjoyed the debate and thought it was very well conducted and very well argued by both parties.

    While I agree with the analysis in this review, one thing is for sure, I would have failed miserably if I was in Licona’s shoes on the night. Pienaar’s arguments were well presented and it is only the amazing preparation and keen knowledge on the topic that allowed Licona to refute Pienaar’s arguments so convincingly and with such apparent ease.

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