Defending the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus: Historical Methodology (Part 1 of 8)

1.0 Historical Methodology

There is no denying the fact that the vast majority of people—Christian and non-Christian alike—would say that belief in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is just something you have to take on faith. For it’s an event, they’d say, that is separated from us by twenty centuries; and thus it cannot possibly be evinced by any real evidence. That response, however, is demonstrably false in light of the tools of historiography. These tools make it so that we can in fact construct a solid historical case for the Resurrection and, in so doing, produce real evidence.

1.1 Argument Structure

The structure of such an argument will contain two key steps: (1) establish the facts which will serve as the historical data that will need to be explained; and (2) argue that the Resurrection hypothesis is the best explanation of those facts. An argument employing this type of reasoning is known as an argument to the best explanation (i.e., abductive reasoning). When assessing an argument of this type, historians rely on an objective criterion for meeting the requirements of (1). Once that step is complete, they will then make inferences and weigh hypotheses according to specific criteria in order to accomplish (2). In the end, the hypothesis that best meets the criteria is the one that is to be preferred.

1.1.1 Criterion for Authenticity

In order to accomplish (1), scholars have enunciated a number of so-called criteria for detecting historically authentic features of Jesus. These criteria focus on the effect certain types of evidence have upon the probability that a particular saying or event is historical. Stated in more formal terms: for some saying or event \(S\), evidence of a certain type \(E\), and our general background knowledge \(B\), the criteria would state that, all things being equal, $$P(S\,|\,E + B) > P(S\,|\,B).$$ That is to say that the probability of some event or saying is greater if it is evidenced by certain criteria, than it would have been without it. The following are some of the criteria which might serve the role of \(E\) in increasing the probability of a particular saying or event \(S\) being authentic:

  1. Independent, early attestation: \(S\) appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which \(S\) is alleged to have occurred, and which depend neither upon each other nor upon a common source;
  2. Historical congruence: \(S\) fits in with known historical facts concerning the context in which \(S\) is said to have occurred;
  3. Embarrassment: \(S\) is awkward or counterproductive for the persons who serve as the source of information for \(S\);
  4. Dissimilarity: \(S\) is unlike antecedent Jewish thought-forms and/or unlike subsequent Christian thought-forms;
  5. Semitisms: traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebraic linguistic forms;
  6. Coherence: \(S\) is consistent with already established facts about Jesus.
  7. Enemy attestation: \(S\) is mentioned by a hostile or unsympathetic source.

To highlight a very important point, notice that these criteria don’t at all presuppose the general reliability of the Gospels. Instead, they merely focus on a particular saying or event and give evidence for thinking that specific event to be historical; the general reliability of the document in which the particular saying or event is reported has no bearing. Again, we are only trying to discern whether or not a single event within the document is historical, not whether the entire document itself is historically reliable.

1.1.2 Inference to the Best Explanation

After successfully completing the first step of the argument, one can then proceed to (2) and ask, What is the best explanation of the facts established by (1)? In other words, from the pool of all live options, we want to know which hypothesis, if true, best explains this data. In his book Justifying Historical Descriptions , C. Behan McCullagh lists the factors which historians typically weigh in testing a historical hypothesis:

  1. The hypothesis, together with other true statements, must imply further statements describing present, observable data.
  2. The hypothesis must have greater explanatory scope. This criterion looks at the quantity of facts accounted for by a hypothesis. The hypothesis that accounts for the most of the relevant data has the greatest explanatory scope.
  3. The hypothesis must have greater explanatory power (i.e., make the observable data more probable) than rival hypotheses. Stated in different terms, the greater the explanatory power, the more likely we should expect to see the relevant evidence that we do in fact have. To give an illustration: Suppose a forensic science technician is investigating a potential crime scene at which a body lies at the base of a skyscraper. Suppose further that the body, in addition to having the appearance of having fallen from one of the higher floors, also has a suicide note in the shirt pocket. In assessing the explanatory power of the Suicide Hypothesis, the technician would be asking the question, How likely is it that we should have the specific evidence of the crushed body and note at the base of the building, if the person actually committed suicide by jumping? The answer being, very likely; the crushed body is exactly what we should expect to find! On the other hand, if one were to assess the explanatory power of the competing hypothesis that the person was the unfortunate victim of an unprovoked fit of rage courtesy of Sasquatch, then that hypothesis would be said to have weak explanatory power due to the presence of the suicide note—given Sasquatch’s known illiteracy. If Sasquatch were, in fact, to actually go ape (pun intended) on the person, then it would still be very unlikely that we should have the note. Seeing how the suicide hypothesis makes it far more likely that we should have the specific evidence in question, it can be said to possess much greater explanatory power than the Sasquatch Hypothesis.
  4. The hypothesis must be more plausible (i.e., be implied by a greater variety of accepted truths, and its negation implied by fewer accepted truths) than rival hypotheses. All else being equal, a hypothesis that is implausible is inferior to one that is neutral in its plausibility (i.e., neither plausible nor implausible) and a hypothesis that scores above neutral in plausibility is superior to both.
  5. The hypothesis must be less ad hoc (i.e., include fewer new suppositions about the past not already implied by existing knowledge) than rival hypotheses. A hypothesis becomes ad hoc when it enlists non-evidenced assumptions. On some occasions where we find multiple hypotheses which seem to be equal, historians may employ a greater amount of imagination in order to account for the available data. For instance: in the hypothetical crime scene example mentioned above, the proponent of the Sasquatch Hypothesis might attempt to save his theory by positing the assumption that perhaps Sasquatch has recently purchased a copy of Hooked on Phonics in order to rid himself of illiteracy and, therefore, had the potential to forge the suicide note in order to mask his heinous crime. Unless the proponent could produce some form of positive evidence for such a purchase, the hypothesis would now be said to be ad hoc. As the illustration should make clear, the purpose of this criterion is to flag hypotheses containing elements posited for the sole purpose of saving an otherwise impotente hypothesis.
  6. The hypothesis must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs. When conjoined with accepted truths, these truths must imply fewer false statements than rival hypotheses.
  7. The hypothesis must so exceed its rivals in fulfilling conditions (2)–(6) that there is little chance of a rival hypothesis, after further investigation, exceeding it in meeting these conditions.

It’s worth mentioning that not all criteria have equal weight. McCullagh lists plausibility as the most important criteria followed by explanatory scope and power, followed by less ad hoc. Historians using arguments to the best explanation weigh each hypothesis according to how well it meets these seven criteria. The hypothesis fulfilling the most criteria—especially those having greater weight—is to be preferred. The more a hypothesis exceeds competing hypotheses in fulfilling the criteria, the greater likelihood it has of representing what actually occurred.

1.2 Examples from the Natural Sciences

There is one final point regarding the nature of abductive reasoning that deserves mentioning. Much too often we will hear someone make the assertion that historical “knowledge” is vastly inferior to the deliverances of the natural sciences—sometimes they will even go so far as to embrace the position of strong scientism (i.e., that science and science alone is the source of all knowledge). Unfortunately this assertion betrays an ignorance of the methodology employed by the natural sciences. Worse, it can also be rather cringeworthy for the asserter when he is provided with the following inconvenient truth: in all five branches of the natural sciences, often we will find that the same type of reasoning that is utilized to produce the historical knowledge that the asserter deems is inferior, is also being employed to produce the scientific knowledge that he claims is superior! Indeed, here are a few examples:

  • Astronomy: An example from astrophysics—the branch of astronomy that deals with the physics of the universe—is found in the theory of cosmic inflation. Dr. Alan Guth formulated the inflation hypothesis while investigating the magnetic-monopole problem. Not only did his hypothesis adequately explain the data relevant to that particular problem, it also solved the flatness and horizon problems as well. So Dr. Guth was faced with a body of data to be explained (i.e., flatness, horizon, and MM problems). He then proceeded to assess and weigh his hypothesis against the others to see which one, if true, best explained the data. This is no different from the reasoning employed by the historian.
  • Chemistry: Our example here comes from the valence bond theory. Some of the outstanding problems to be solved by quantum chemistry were: (1) The “saturation” of chemical forces: If attractive forces hold atoms together to form molecules, why is there a limit on how many atoms can stick together (generally only two of the same kind)? (2) Stereochemistry: The three-dimensional structure of molecules, in particular the spatial directionality of bonds as in the tetrahedral carbon atom. (3) Bond length: There seems to be a well-defined equilibrium distance between atoms in a molecule that can be determined accurately by experiment. (4) Why some atoms (e.g., helium) normally form no bonds with other atoms, while others form one or more. (These are the empirical rules of valence.) In 1927 Walter Heitler and Fritz London offered the valence bond theory as the remedy to these problems. In order to explain a body of data (i.e., problems 1-4), Heitler and Fritz formulated the valence bond theory. They then proceeded to assess and weigh this hypothesis against the others to see which one, if true, best explained the data. This is no different from the reasoning employed by the historian.
  • Biology: This example comes from the branch of molecular biology in the form of Francis Crick’s sequence hypothesis. While working on the problem of protein synthesis, Francis Crick proposed the sequence hypothesis suggesting that the specificity of amino acids in proteins derives from the specific arrangement of chemical constituents encoded in DNA. Crick was faced with a body of data to be explained (i.e., the synthesis of proteins). He then proceeded to assess and weigh his hypothesis against the others to see which one, if true, best explained the data. This is no different than the reasoning employed by the historian.
  • Earth sciences: In the branch of geology we find the theory of plate tectonics. This theory arose from two separate geological observations: seafloor spreading and continental drift. Once again, we have a body of data to be explained (i.e., seafloor spreading and continental drift). Then we have the assessing and weighing of hypotheses to see which one, if true, best explains the data. This is no different than the reasoning employed by the historian.
  • Physics: The final example comes from perhaps the most famous scientific theory of all time—the general theory of relativity. In an attempt to unify Newton’s law of universal gravitation with special relativity, Einstein’s general theory was formed. Observation of the data produced by the three classical tests of general relativity—the perihelion precession of Mercury’s orbit, the deflection of light by the Sun, and the gravitational redshift of light—made GTR the prefered explanation of the phenomenon of gravitation. One last time: when faced with a body of data to be explained (i.e., the confirmatory results of the tests regarding the perihelion precession of Mercury’s orbit, the deflection of light by the Sun, and the gravitational redshift of light), many physicists concluded that, from the pool containing all of the live explanatory options, GTR is the explanation that best accounts for data. Once again, no different from the reasoning employed by the historian.




References Cited

Posted in Historiography, Resurrection.

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