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2009 Debate With Mike Licona: Can Historians Prove the Resurrection of Jesus?

I’ve decided to take a day or so off from my discussions of Reza Aslan’s Zealot, both for my sanity and yours.  Here, for a bit of variety, is a video of a debate that I had a few years ago with Mike Licona on the topic or whether historians can *prove* that Jesus was raised from the dead.  Mike thinks the answer is “yes”; I think the answer is “no way.”  It’s important to note: the debate was *not* about whether Jesus was raised from the dead.  The debate was about whether historians can *prove* that he did (if he did).

Mike Licona has burst onto the scene as a conservative Christian apologist.   He did a master’s degree at Liberty University (that’s Jerry Falwell’s place) and then a PhD in New Testament at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.  Someone may be able to correct me on this, but I *think* that is the kind of degree where instead of taking PhD seminars and so on, as at an American university, it involves finding a faculty member willing to work with you, and writing a dissertation on a topic of your choice.  If it passes muster, so do you.  Mike now is an Associate Professor at Houston Baptist University, which I know nothing about except, well, that it is in Houston, is Baptist, and is a university.

Mike’s major area of interest — by far — is with the resurrection of Jesus.  He thinks that it can be proven to have happened, historically.  His dissertation was on that topic, and I believe that this was what was revised (slightly?) in his 2010 book The Resurrection of Jesus.  It’s a monster — over 700 pages.  In it he talks about how historians do their work, and then spends the bulk of his time showing that on purely historical grounds, one can demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus was physically raised from the dead on the third day. He is also the co-author of The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus.

As you might imagine, there is very little in the book that I agree with.  Mike and I have had several debates.  The video here is of a debate we had at Southern Evangelical Seminary in 2009.  I enjoyed the debate — Mike is one those people I have debated over the years whom I think is a really nice guy (I absolutely cannot and will not say that about everyone I debate!).   I did not enjoy the aftermath.  After we were finished with our back and forth we were taken out of the auditorium — I *thought* (as I had been told) that it was to sign books.  But we just sat around for a half hour or forty minutes.  Later I was told why.  The seminary had arranged that immediately after our debate faculty members from the school would get up for ten minutes each to explain to the audience why I was wrong in everything I had just said — in my absence!!  Ai yai yai.   I don’t know what it is about these evangelical schools, but sometimes they drive me crazy.  Anyway, it wasn’t Mike’s fault.

Here’s the debate on whether Historians can “prove” that Jesus was raised from the dead.

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  1. Avatar
    timber84  December 29, 2013

    I finished watching your debate with Mike Licona. Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians that Jesus appeared to Peter and then the 12 disciples. (I wonder if Paul was aware of a betrayal by Judas. I don’t think he mentions it.).
    We don’t really know do we, what these 12 disciples saw or heard. Licona mentions this point in his debate, since Jesus appeared to all 12 disciples the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation since a mass hallucination could not have occurred.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2013

      Yet he believes that mass hallucinations happen all the time! (unless he thinks that the blessed Virgin Mary really does appear to crowds of adoring followers)

  2. Avatar
    Eric Rodvan  December 29, 2013

    I am reading Mike’s book and I think he makes some great points about the resurrection. As far as the best explanation of the “facts”, I do think it is plausible, but I wouldn’t go any further than that. I myself think it is perfectly reasonable to believe in Christ if one believes in God. However, due to my views on history, I don’t think we can establish miracles in the work of history. I think that belongs to the theological and philosophical implications of the evidence, but again I think a reasonable person can arrive at the Resurrection through the evidence.

    My question to you Bart is: What do you think of N.T Wright, and have you read his volumes on “The New Testament and the People of God”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2013

      Wright is a very well-known, erudite, and articulate scholar, with an international reputation. And I don’t agree with him on very many things. 🙂 I’ve read a number of his books, but not all of them cover to cover.

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    Steefen  December 29, 2013

    Given Jesus’ mistakes (1. overstating the change of the Age of Aries into the Age of Pisces a Jewish, ethnocentric, apocalyptic event for the Jewish Son of Man; 2. stating he would have anyone who did not want him to be king of the world brought before him to be killed, which would include Herod Antipas, Caiaphas, and Pilate) , a global god, or a god of the solar system, or a god of the galaxy would not have elected only him as the only person worthy of resurrection, as described explicitly in the New Testament, in the 120,000 years of human existence (existence of Homo sapiens sapiens).

    Let’s say Simon bar Kokhba was worthy of resurrection. Let’s say Socrates was worthy of resurrection. Let’s say Hypatia of Alexandria was worthy of resurrection. God, at whatever magnification (Earth, Solar System, or Galaxy) found only one human being to resurrect?

    We cannot say only an Ancient Hebrew God’s son could be resurrected, while no other God identified by another ethnic group can have a son or daughter worthy of resurrection. Tut-ankh-amun, the young king, was not worthy of resurrection? Pericles, not worthy of resurrection? Deified Julius Caesar was not worthy of resurrection? Alexander the Great, the young king or his lover was not worthy of resurrection?

    We cannot even prove Jesus was God’s only begotten son because that is tainted by the likelihood that is a reference for the reader to see the connection of Jesus to Queen Helena and King Monobaz’s “only begotten son”–King Monobaz called Prince Izates his only begotten son. Prince Izates would have been born about the same year as the biblical Jesus. Second, we cannot say Jesus was taken down from the cross by Joseph of Arimethea because that, in all likelihood, is a reference for the reader to see Joseph [Latinized to Josephus] took down a crucified man who also survived crucifixion.

    While there are Near Death Experiences, buried alive cases (especially before the 20th century), the Lazarus Syndrome, and reincarnation, the Jesus biblical case of resurrection cannot be proven by Science or History given current available information. Besides, the biblical case of resurrection is trumpeted by St. Paul who had trouble telling the truth and being known for telling the truth. St. Paul cannot even write autobiographical episodes without it reading like he stole it from Flavius Josephus.

  4. Avatar
    nichael  December 29, 2013

    I found particularly interesting your point about the fundamental theological nature of the argument for the physical Resurrection; i.e. setting aside Dr Licona’s red herring (there’s that term again…) about aliens, what other mechanism can one propose *other* than divine intervention?

    But I’m afraid Dr Licona showed his hand at other points in the debate, most notably in reference to any religion other than fundamentalist Christianity. To simplify a bit, Dr Licona seems to be repeatedly insisting that if Christianity makes a claim, even if we do not accept it outright we should at least take it seriously. On the other hand if another religion –say Islam– makes the same assertion we can dismiss it without another thought.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 29, 2013

      Yes, it’s odd, or amusing, depending on your perspective, that Christian apologists cite “evidence” for their views that can be cited just as easily for religions they oppose (the Blessed Virgin Mary appears to groups of people all the time!)

      • Avatar
        Eric Rodvan  December 30, 2013

        This may be a bit off topic, but recently some people have been arguing that 1 Corinthians 3:15-11 is a interpolation, and I was wondering what do you think about it. They argue that there seems to be a direct contradiction between the gospel Paul preached to the Galatians, and the gospel Paul preached to Corinthian church. Paul says he received his gospel from no man, but yet scholars argue that 1 Corinthians 3:15-5 is passed from oral tradition. If this passage is interpolated, then Christian apologetics is dead?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  December 31, 2013

          Do you mean 1 Corinthians 15:3-11? I’m always suspicious of people who argue for an interpolation that happens to go against their point of view!

  5. Avatar
    TubaMike  January 14, 2014

    Interesting debate. I have to admit that I had trouble starting to view it as I did not see the point in sitting for two hours listening to something when I knew in the end my views would not be altered (I’m biased). However, I have never seen you debate and decided to view it. I am glad I did. The one (to me) glaring flaw in Mike’s agrument (and one I was surprised you did not point out) was his three”facts” in proving the Ressurection Hypothesis. I thought it interesting that his closing remarks stated that he proved that this hypothesis still stands. Still stands? When did it stand to begin with? In order to prove it he would have to actually have “facts” and the only thing he produced that (100% … his words) scholars agree on is that Jesus was crucified. The other two are not facts. It is a fact that they are mentioned in the bible. It is a fact that many people believe them to be true, to be facts, to have actually happened. But, they are not facts. They have not been proven and his methods did not show them to be facts. He simply said “we have three facts” and they pass my “method” test. In closing, I raised an eyebrow when he commented on the Titanic and how “eyewitnessess” had different recollections of what happened. An excellent point and en excellent way to shoot himself in the foot. Yes, we had eyewitness and they could not agree on what exactly they saw. So, how are we to expect to take, as evidence, the conflicting stories in the gospels when we don’t even have eyewitness accounts to go on. Anyway, as I stated, I am biased. I have my beliefs but that doesn’t mean I cannot be swayed. Mike gave me nothing on which to even consider an alternative way of viewing the question “can historians prove that Jesus was raised from the dead”. Good job, Dr. Ehrman.

    • Avatar
      webattorney  January 28, 2014

      As far as I am concerned, people who want to show existence of God has to prove that first. If the existence of God is proven, then go further and prove that it’s Christian God. I, like you, already know that these things cannot be proven, but have heard from many sincere Christians that I lack the Holy Ghost to see the true light. When I feel the Holy Ghost, I will make sure I post here, so you guys can see that I have finally seen the light.

  6. TracyCramer
    TracyCramer  January 29, 2014

    Regarding the post below on “many kinds of electric and biological activities still going on in the brain and body”, some of you may be interested on how some people interpret those “activities” in the below link from CNN on near death experiences:

    Author: webattorney
    These people who have “died” and came back to life don’t prove that souls or soul-like state exist after death. There are probably many kinds of electric and biological activities still going on in the brain and body even after the death (some time after), so I never thought these near-death experiences of white lights proved existence of higher being.

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