“My conclusions were both more sanguine and restricted than I had anticipated. I was surprised by the actual strength of the resurrection hypothesis.”
Over my short years of reading large texts on different subjects and in different genres, I’ve started to notice somewhat of a pattern or correlation: authors and scholars with humility tend to produce not only good books, but long books as well. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (RoJ) by Dr. Michael Licona exemplifies both of these attributes very well and goes a long way in confirming this correlation.
The humility within–and length of–this book is enough to merit a more thorough and better quality review than what you are about to read, but this is what a layman with a stunted attention span and limited vocabulary can give you, so you’ll have to deal with it.
With no worries of ‘spoiling’ a work of nonfiction, it should not be a deterrent for future potential readers of RoJ to be informed here that Licona’s conclusion ends up being that there is a very good historical case to be made for the resurrection of the Jesus of Christianity. That might be what the whole book is working toward discovering and unpacking, but that is not exactly the reason why one should or should not read this book.
It is, of course–to me–of utmost importance that each individual consider the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend every skeptic or agnostic immediately purchase this book and only this book to ‘convince’ them. This is not at all due to anything the book lacks or anything related to Licona or his work. For such an audience this book is just so… MUCH.
If there were such a thing as one-word reviews (something I could never restrict myself to actually do), this book would warrant the word ‘thorough’ and there would be no question about it. The length of RoJ (~640 pages of ‘actual’ content) isn’t necessarily due to Licona’s pen running away from him or any kind of inane babbling–there is just SO MUCH that he covers, and it’s all good and pertinent. Granted, parts of it are more relevant to the primary question of the book than others, but some of these rabbit trails have to be explored a little bit along the way–rabbits are wiley, and historical questions even more so.
Maybe it would be helpful for the reader to know what the primary question of the book actually is. Essentially, it’s: ‘Did Jesus rise from the dead or not?’ Licona may be a little more elegant and articulate in the way he would pose the central objective of his work, but that’s really what it comes down to.
Along the way, Licona builds an incredible foundation for the interested historian to take a legitimate crack at this goal. Everything from the philosophy of history, the methods of historical research, and the accessibility of miraculous historiography, to the potential sources of information about the historical Jesus, and the consideration of what is and is not part of our ‘historical bedrock’ for discussing his potential resurrection. I wouldn’t say every stone is turned over, as that would require a library of books, but the most useful and pertinent stones are flipped–some are flipped over a few times.
The last chapter is a culmination of all of this build-up and foundation-laying in which Licona closely and meticulously examines six prominent and representative hypotheses about the fate of Jesus and the intriguing details surrounding his death. The sixth and final one–the resurrection hypothesis–comes out on top, and seemingly by a wide margin.
I give this book a perfect score (5 stars) not because I agree with the author’s conclusion, although that’s true–Licona would be proud of my confessing my biases, I’m sure. Licona has earned every star on his own merits as a historian and an author. Not only does the information and research of RoJ come across as extremely in-depth and comprehensive, but it’s also presented in such a way that a largely uneducated reader of this kind of material (like myself) can easily swim through it and come out on the other side with both more knowledge and better questions. The length of the book is intimidating but, other than the literal act of holding the bulk of the volume in my hands, I honestly did not balk at the length as I was actually reading it.
Every item is in its proper place. Every chapter serves its particular function very well, and every subsection and sub-subsection feels warranted and interesting. I honestly can’t recall wondering why a particular section was being inserted where it was or questioning why Licona bothered covering this or that sub-topic. Although a bad analogy–his argument/case is stronger than this–reading through RoJ feels a little like building a house of cards: all the pieces of the bottom layer should be in their proper place before attempting to lay the next level on top. Licona never seems to get ahead of himself, and yet also doesn’t seem to let himself get bogged down in the mire of all the tempting little details (and there are numerous temptations for a historian here, I’m sure).
Licona himself would readily admit that no historical argument or case is ever airtight, and that’s not what we’ve been given in RoJ. There is room for disagreement, pushback, and even correction, surely. But those spaces and cracks seem to be tiny with a work like this. Licona has explored the vast, open landscape of literature and research on the historical study of Jesus and returned to present some of his best sketches and experiences. In an area of study as broad and variegated and controversial as the historical Jesus, it’s no surprise that a book even attempting a fraction of what ‘exhaustive’ would look like would necessarily need to ‘major on the majors’ and leave the peripherals to the side. But even leaving the peripherals to side still yields over 640 pages!
In the end, Licona’s RoJ comes out as the premier book on the resurrection of Jesus (that at least I’ve read).
I might not blanketly recommend this book to every skeptic who ‘dares stand against the knowledge of God’ due to its length and depth (and the consideration that there are other, more accessible and abbreviated works on the subject for the more casual reader). However, RoJ is absolutely a recommendation from me for those who are serious in studying a thorough, positive case for the resurrection of Jesus in light of real historical research. I’ll also add here, in support of my implying Licona is humble and authentic, that this is not your run-of-the-mill ‘conservative Christian scholar’ who affirms and defends every ounce of biblical doctrine in every work he ever writes. Licona is very meticulous and deliberate in his methodology: the Gospel accounts are not given any kind of special treatment as sources; not everything attributed to Pauline authorship is unqualifiedly accepted; not every miracle claim in the biblical writings is defended whole-cloth. This isn’t to say Licona doesn’t personally believe some (or all) of these things, but I want to emphasize the fact that he goes to great pains to reduce his own biases and work as objectively as possible. This not only is beneficial for his own beliefs, but also adds a tremendous amount of value and credibility to his work as an academic resource. All of this goes a long way to not only making Licona out to be a terrific defender of the Christian worldview, but also an outstanding historian, without qualification.
Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus is incredibly valuable and I’m sure will end up being one of the works he is best known for in the years to come, both among academics and the rest. Either way, it’s not a book to be taken lightly (seeing as how it weighs over 2 pounds!).