The Fact of the Resurrection and the Faith of Historians

by David Glass

Ehrman, Crossley and the Resurrection

Recently I’ve been reading some material on the resurrection of Jesus by two biblical scholars, James Crossley and Bart Ehrman.[i] Both are sceptics and make many similar points in their attempts to argue that there are no good grounds for belief in the resurrection. They both look at various pieces of evidence that are often put forward as part of a case for the resurrection and attempt to explain it away as evidence for a miracle by providing naturalistic explanations. My impression is that these attempts are unconvincing, but I’ll set that aside for now. Here I want to concentrate on another approach also adopted by both authors which they seem to think deals a killer blow. It might be called the ‘I’m a historian objection’ to the resurrection.

Neither Crossley nor Ehrman claim to be able to demonstrate that the resurrection definitely did not happen. Rather, they claim that from the perspective of the historian there are no good reasons to believe in the resurrection. Essentially, they are claiming that historians as historians cannot seriously entertain the possibility that a miracle might have occurred. Ehrman claims that “it is not appropriate for a historian to presuppose a perspective or worldview that is not generally held”. The problem with miracles then is that they require theological beliefs and “since historians cannot assume these beliefs, they cannot demonstrate historically that such miracles happened.”

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In terms of assessing the case for the resurrection, Crossley asks:

do we want to find whatever naturalistic causes are possible in historical explanation, leaving questions of the divine completely to one side, or do we want to take the pseudo-scientific route of Intelligent Design or Creationism and say that the supernatural can be shown to be directly intervening in historical change in the study of history?”

His clear suggestion, and Ehrman is in complete agreement, is that when it comes to history, we should indeed leave questions of the divine to one side. In other words, historical investigation requires what is called methodological naturalism, the idea that only naturalistic explanations should be considered. Even Christians or other religious believers should set aside their religious beliefs for the purposes of doing history. So if we are going to carry out a historical investigation of the evidence relating to the aftermath of Jesus’ death, we should rule out the resurrection since proper historical methodology precludes it. This doesn’t mean that the resurrection definitely didn’t happen, just that there can be no historical evidence for it.

What should we make of this approach? Crossley makes an interesting comparison with debates between mainstream science and Intelligent Design or Creationism. I’m not going to try sort out this debate here, but let’s suppose that Crossley is right and that science should only consider natural explanations…

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The Fact of the Resurrection and the Faith of Historians – Saints and Sceptics