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The Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus:
Historiographical Considerations in the Light of Recent Debates


Michael R. Licona

submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the
degree Philosophiae Doctor
in the Faculty of Theology

Department of New Testament Studies
University of Pretoria

Supervisor: Prof JG van der Watt

August 2008

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Dale Allison refers to the historical question pertaining to Jesus’ resurrection as “the
prize puzzle of New Testament research.” More than 2,500 journal articles and books
have been written on the subject since 1975. In this dissertation, I investigate the
question while providing unprecedented interaction with the literature of professional
historians outside of the community of biblical scholars on both hermeneutical and
methodological considerations. Chapter one is devoted to discussions pertaining to the
philosophy of history and historical method, such as the extent to which the past is
knowable, how historians gain a knowledge of it, the impact biases have on
investigations and steps that may assist historians in minimizing their biases, the role
a consensus should or should not play in historical investigations, who shoulders the
burden of proof, and the point at which a historian is warranted in declaring that a
historical question has been solved. I seek to determine how historians outside of the
community of biblical scholars generally proceed in their investigations involving
non-religious matters and establish a similar approach for proceeding in my
investigation of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. In chapter two, I address
objections to the investigation of miracle-claims by historians from a number of
prominent scholars. My conclusion is that their objections warrant that extra caution
should be taken by historians investigating miracle claims but are ill-founded in terms
of prohibiting a historical investigation of Jesus’ resurrection. Historians must identify
the relevant sources from which they will mine data for their investigations. In chapter
three, I survey the primary literature relevant to our investigation and rate them
according to their value to an investigation pertaining to Jesus’ resurrection. I limit
this survey to sources that mention the death and resurrection of Jesus and that were
written within two hundred years of Jesus’ death. I then rate each according to the
likelihood that it contains data pertaining to Jesus’ death and resurrection that go back
to the earliest Christians, and identify the sources most promising for the present
investigation. In chapter four, I mine through this most promising material and form a
collection of relevant facts that are so strongly evidenced that they enjoy a
heterogeneous and nearly universal consensus granting them. These comprise our
historical bedrock upon which all hypotheses pertaining to Jesus’ fate must be built.
In chapter five, I apply the methodological considerations discussed in chapter one
and weigh six hypotheses largely representative of those being offered in the
beginning of the twenty-first century pertaining to the question of the resurrection of
Jesus. I conclude that the hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead is not only the best
explanation of the relevant historical bedrock, it outdistances its competitors by a
significant margin and meets the criteria for awarding historicity. Of course, this
conclusion is provisional, since future discoveries may require its revision or
abandonment. It also makes no assertions pertaining to the nature of Jesus’
resurrection body nor claims to address the question of the cause of Jesus’

Key Terms: Jesus, Resurrection, Historiography, Historical Method, Crucifixion,
Appearances, Paul, Hallucination, Social Sciences, Miracles.

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When the disciples heard the news they replied that they already knew Jesus had risen
from the dead because he had earlier appeared to Peter. At that moment Jesus
appeared before them in the room and they were frightened, thinking they were seeing
a ghost. Jesus told them not to be afraid and showed them his hands and feet. It is at
this point that Luke makes the following comment in 24:41a:

e;ti de. avpistou,ntwn auvtw/n avpo. th/j cara/j kai. qaumazo,ntwn ei=pen auvtoi/j\
e;cete, ti brw,simon evnqa,deÈ

And [while they were] still unbelieving from joy and astonishment, he said to
them, “Do you have any food to eat here?”

Notice why they were in disbelief: from joy and amazement. I have a friend who
once asked me about this passage. His mother had died only two years prior. I
answered, “What if while we are talking your mother walked into the room? She
smiles and says, ‘Hi, Son.’ You are overcome with joy and quickly rise up and hug
her. You kiss her head and realize that she has the same smell and touch as before. It
is definitely her. But then you remember seeing her in a casket and burying her. This
cannot be—or can it?” Is this not a description of what the disciples were
experiencing? They were there when Jesus was arrested and knew he had been
crucified just a few days earlier. But with open mouths and wide eyes that are filled
with tears they now see him standing before them in perfect health. Does this not
describe how they were “unbelieving from joy and astonishment”? I think this
passage sheds light on Matthew 28:17 where upon seeing Jesus they worshiped him
while some doubted or had two thoughts simultaneously.

This is a far more plausible interpretation of the doubt passages than the claim that
Matthew and Luke were trying to answer those contending that the appearances were
ethereal in nature. Had that been the case, the empty tomb was sufficient to
accomplish the task and to mention doubts and unbelief would have been
counterproductive to such a purpose.


Before moving along, I would like to address an interesting counter-explanation by
Carnley. He asserts that Matthew had a need to include a passage where the disciples
doubted. He contends that at the Great Commission, all authority in heaven and on
earth had been given to Jesus. He is already exalted and yet there is no suggestion
that this has already taken place.

The only indication in this pericope that Jesus was understood to have
appeared as a material or physical body walking on this earth (as in a
Christepiphany), rather than more elusively ‘from heaven’ (as in a
Christophany), are the words “Jesus came near and said” in verse 18. But this
phrase is a typical Matthean one which is found some thirty times in
Matthew's gospel but nowhere else in the New Testament. It is clearly an
editorial comment which Matthew elsewhere adds to his source material and it
seems likely he has added it here also, to an original resurrection tradition
which, without it, unequivocally implied that Jesus appeared “from


See Catchpole (2002), 67.

Carnley (1987), 237. Sympathetic to Carnley is Dunn (2003), 858.

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I was able to identify 33 references in Matthew where someone came near and said

So, Carnley is correct on this point. However, although typical for

Matthew, the phrase is found elsewhere in the New Testament contrary to Carnley,
appearing twice in Mark, seven times in Luke/Acts, and once in John.

Below is a

list of every Matthean occurrence of the phrase “coming to and saying” (prose,rcomai,
lale,w or le,gw) with its parallels in the other canonical Gospels:

1. Matt 8:2/Mark 1:40/Luke 5:12
2. Matt 8:19/Luke 9:57
3. Matt 8:25/Mark 4:38/Luke 8:24
4. Matt 9:14/Mark 2:18/Luke 5:33
5. Matt 13:10/Mark 4:10/Luke 8:9
6. Matt 13:27 (no parallel)
7. Matt 13:36 (no parallel)
8. Matt 14:15/Mark 6:35/Luke 9:12
9. Matt 15:1-2/Mark 7:1-5/Luke 11:37-38 (In this pericope, Matthew is closer to

Mark who provides more information and Luke differs from both)
10. Matt 15:12/Mark 7:17
11. Matt 15:23/Mark 7:24-30 (In this pericope, Matthew provides a statement by

the disciples not reported by Mark)
12. Matt 17:6-7/Mark 9:2-10/Luke 9:28-36 (In this pericope, Matthew provides a

statement by Jesus not reported by Mark and Luke)
13. Matt 17:19/Mark 9:28/Luke 9:37-43a (In this pericope, Matthew and Mark are

very close whereas the disciples’ question is not reported by Luke although
Jesus’ reply is)

14. Matt 17:24 (no parallel)
15. Matt 18:1/Mark 9:33-37/Luke 9:46-48 (In this pericope, Matthew portrays the

disciples asking the question “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
whereas in Mark and Luke the disciples debate the question among themselves
and Jesus knew what was in their hearts. Thus, the Markan and Lukan Jesus is
a little more Christologically charged than the Matthean Jesus.)

16. Matt 18:21-22/Luke 17:4 (In this pericope, Matthew reports Jesus answering a
question asked by his disciples, whereas Luke reports Jesus’ words as
teaching. It is possible that these are two different occasions.)

17. Matt 19:3/Mark 10:2
18. Matt 19:16/Mark 10:17/Luke 18:18
19. Matt 21:23/Mark 11:27-28/Luke 20:1-2
20. Matt 21:28, 30 (no parallel)
21. Matt 22:23-24/Mark 12:18/Luke 20:27-28
22. Matt 24:3/Mark 13:3/Luke 21:7 (Matthew and Mark are close.)
23. Matt 25:20, 22, 24/Luke 19:16, 18, 20
24. Matt 26:17/Mark 14:12/Luke 22:7-9 (Matthew and Mark are close while Luke

first adds a question by Jesus to which their question is a reply.)
25. Matt 26:49/Mark 14:45/Luke 22:47-48/John 18:3-4 (Matthew and Mark report

that Judas came to Jesus and said “Rabbi!” In Luke, Judas comes near and it

Matt. 4:3; 8:2, 19, 25; 9:14, 27ff.; 13:10, 27, 36; 14:15; 15:1, 12, 23; 17:7, 19, 24; 18:1, 21; 19:3, 16;

21:23, 28, 30; 22:23; 24:3; 25:20, 22, 24; 26:17, 49, 69, 73; 28:18.

Mark 6:35; 14:45; Luke 7:14; 8:24; 9:12; 13:31; John 12:21; Acts 22:26, 27; 23:14.

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