The very title of Greg Koukl’s book (The Story of Reality) makes the claim that we are not talking about a ‘fairy tale’. We are talking about Reality. (If you are new to this series, check out the first post and the intervening posts to put this in context.)
“Here is the question I want you to consider. Do you want the right answers – that is, do you want to get clear on what actually happened that weekend in ancient Palestine – or do you merely want the right kind of answers, answers that fit your own agenda, regardless of evidence to the contrary? I think you can see the problem.
I recommend an open-minded approach. Shall we not let the facts speak for themselves? Remember, our task is uncovering reality. There are plenty of genuine obstacles to address already. Reality is challenging enough. Let us not stumble over obstacles of our own making that we arbitrarily place in our path.” Greg Koukl, The Story of Reality, p 147.
Greg is encouraging us to avoid looking back in history with a premise that supernatural events are off limits. Be open minded and look at the data.
How do we know the past? What method do we use to compile the most reasonable version of past events? Can we even agree that the past is knowable? If not, then arguing for a particular version of history is a waste of time.
Without taking a course in Historiography, it is difficult to get a concise treatment of the topic. I FOUND ONE FOR YOU, however. It was in a podcast interview with Dr. Mike Licona on www.apologetics315.com. I have included excerpts from the interview (with some paraphrasing for brevity) so you can become comfortable with the foundation of our treatment of past events.
Brian Auten (BA) is interviewing Mike Licona (ML) about ML’s book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. In this interview, ML expands upon his historical method. My comments will be identified by DW.
BA: Well, let me ask you then a question about history. People will say, how can we really know what happened historically? Can we have, actually have, any historical certainty?
ML: Professional historians divide themselves pretty much into two camps. They’re either realists, who believe that there is a past that is knowable to some extent, or they’re postmodernists that say all of the past, any reconstruction of the past, is a narrative and its fiction. Towards the end of the 20th Century, like around 1997, you find some of the leading lights of the postmodernist historians, like Keith Jenkins, saying that pretty much, the postmodernists have lost! Now, that doesn’t mean that they’ve become realists, it just means that they concede that the overwhelming majority of professional historians today are realists. Again, this means that they believe that there is a past that can be knowable to some extent.
DW: This is where I stand. The past is knowable. This is where the Biblical authors stood as well. Otherwise, why would they argue for the actual occurrences of past prophecies, miracles, and the resurrection?
“13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is without foundation, and so is your faith.” [1 Corinthians 15:13-14 HCSB]
Paul is arguing for a FACT of history. Christ either rose from the dead or he did not.
Still, this was 2000 years ago. How certain can we be that it ACTUALLY happened? ML continues.
ML: So I like to think, Brian, of a spectrum of historical certainty represented by a staircase with steps labeled:
- Very Probable
- >>Quite Probable <<
- More Probable than Not
- Somewhat Doubtful
- Quite Doubtful
- Very Doubtful
- Certainly Not
Historians aren’t in complete agreement as to where in the steps a hypothesis has to stand before they will award historicity to that hypothesis. But many agree that it is somewhere around the “quite probable” step. A hypothesis is on that step, when it fulfils most of the criteria for the best explanation and it significantly outdistances competing hypotheses. To that extent, we can achieve a degree of historical certainty.
Bedrock Facts of the Resurrection
If you consider only those facts that are granted by virtually 100% of all scholars who have studied the subject, a very strong historical case for Jesus’ resurrection can be made’. Those kind of facts are called ‘bedrock’ because any responsible reconstruction [hypothesis] of the historical Jesus must use these facts as the foundation upon which that reconstruction is built. Otherwise, it’s almost certainly mistaken.
In Chapter One of the book, I [ML] discuss criteria employed by professional historians for weighing the varying hypotheses. These criteria are:
- explanatory scope
- explanatory power
- less ad hoc
A medical example.
Suppose there is a 15-year-old young man who is not feeling well. He goes to see his family physician. He describes his symptoms:
- he is vomiting,
- he has a fever,
- he’s got pain in his lower abdomen.
So the physician asks three medical students what diagnosis they would give.
The first student suggests the flu since a fever is the most common symptom of the flu, but the experienced physician points out that the flu isn’t normally accompanied by vomiting and abdominal pain. So the flu diagnosis in that case would lackexplanatory scope because it can’t account for all of his symptoms.
The second student chimes in and says, ‘Hey, OK, so vomiting and abdominal pain aren’t common symptoms for the flu but it’s still possible, though rare, that they resulted from the flu, couldn’t it be?’ And the physician agrees but, he adds that if another diagnosis is available that more easily accommodates the symptoms, then the flu diagnosis would lack explanatory power because you’d be forcing the symptoms to fit the diagnosis. And then he adds that in all of his years practicing medicine that he has never run into a case of the flu in the professional literature that included the three symptoms possessed by the boy. So the attempt by the second student to salvage the flu diagnosis would also lack plausibility because it’s not in accordance with…in accord with other knowledge that is widely accepted.
So now the third student decides to use her imagination and suggests that the boy has the flu, as indicated by the fever, and since it is the middle of the flu season the plausibility factor would be increased. And then she says that there may be reasons for the other symptoms that are unrelated to the flu. Perhaps the boy is a martial artist and he decided to push through his fever and work out, go to his martial arts work out the prior evening and during a sparring session he got kicked in the lower right side of his abdomen and then after practice he went out with a few other students who were his friends for a bite to eat and he got food poisoning and that would explain the vomiting.
So the physician at that point, the experienced one, says I agree with you – these conditions do a good job of explaining the three symptoms without forcing any of them to fit, or without any ambiguity, but it doesn’t do so without a price. And that price is that it requires a lot of improvisation involving two non-evident assumptions. One, that the boy is a martial artist and that, you know, that he got kicked in the abdomen that bruised him during a sparring session. This is a non-evidenced assumption without that knowledge. Secondly that he got food poisoning from going out – also an non-evidenced assumption. This diagnosis has a lot of improvisation and is therefore ad hoc, based on non-evidenced assumptions.
So the experienced physician then goes on to inform his three students that the symptoms that the boy has described are a classic case of appendicitis and an inflamed appendix would explain all three symptoms without any strain or ambiguity, in fact because it’s a textbook case of appendicitis, it possesses plausibility, and because it doesn’t require any non-evidenced assumptions it avoids any hint of being ad hoc, so appendicitis is clearly the best explanation of the symptoms since it fulfils the criteria far better than any other diagnosis. So based on this the physician will strongly recommend that the boy have his appendix removed.
Now, I’d want to add that it’s very worth noting that none of these other diagnoses can be ruled out as impossible. They’re all possible! But the physician is going to treat the symptoms according to the diagnosis that is most likely correct and that is determined by which diagnosis fits, or fulfills, the important criteria best.
DW: To quote J. Warner Wallace, “Anything is POSSIBLE, but not everything is REASONABLE.”
In the next post, you will find that a historical approach to the minimal facts surrounding Jesus life, death, and subsequent behavior of the apostles makes the miraculous resurrection a most REASONABLE conclusion.