People feel so skeptical these days. We eye science, medicine, and even history with suspicion. “History is written by the victors,” as they say. It is true that sometimes our great institutions of knowledge let us down. But how much skepticism is warranted, and in which cases?
Evolutionary science is, in part, one based on historical evidence. One of the chief misconceptions people have about evolution is that, if it is true, then there should be way more fossil evidence of transitional species. People don’t realize that the formation of a fossil is incredibly rare. The conditions must be exactly right. So, finding any transitional fossils at all is quite remarkable. You should recognize this fact regardless of your feelings about the theory of evolution.
I mention this because it helps us understand standards of evidence as they relate to historical theories. Before we evaluate any evidence, we must be clear on what the standards are. Here’s a non-scientific, non-evidential example of varying standards. If I told you that it took me 10 hours to climb Mount Wycheproof, would you think that was pretty good? You might think, “that sounds pretty good for climbing a mountain.” Or you might answer, “I have no idea, because I don’t know how long it usually takes someone to climb Mount Wycheproof.” The truth is, Mount Wycheproof’s peak is less that 500 feet above sea level. That’s small. So, now what do you think of my 10 hours? Given a standard climbing rate of 30 minutes, you would judge my ascent unreasonably slow.
The Right Stuff
So when it comes to history (and just about anything, really), we must establish what the standard of evidence is for a claim. For evolution, finding any fossils at all is quite amazing, so the fact that we have as many as we do says that the evidence is quite strong. (This doesn’t “prove” anything–it just means there is a strong inductive case for the theory.) But what about other kinds of historical events, like resurrections? What kind and how much evidence is “the right stuff?”
I often hear people object to the claim that Jesus rose from the dead, and the most common argument is that the evidence is inadequate to support belief. Well, what is the standard of evidence for ancient events? We don’t expect video or audio recordings, or photographic evidence. The best evidence available is written testimony, preferably from those very close to the event. If you say, “Well, that isn’t good enough,” then are you prepared to toss out all historical knowledge prior to recording technology? Most reasonable people would not. Most scholars believe that we have sufficient evidence to know things about history, and this evidence typically comes either in written or archaeological form. The available evidence for the resurrection of Jesus seems to be the right sort and in the right amount, relative to other well-established historical events.
Pants On Fire?
Some will still object that the evidence we have can’t be trusted. The primary writers had an agenda they were pushing, and so they had reason to fabricate the story. This is a debate for another post, but I would simply ask, “how do you know this?” And any reply would be based completely on the exact same body of evidence in question, plus 2,000-years distant psychoanalysis. The evidence should be evaluated on the same basis as other contemporary historical documents, and without a presupposition against the supernatural. Such a presupposition results in circular reasoning.
This week at the University of Missouri, Dr. Mike Licona is presenting historical evidence for the resurrection. I look forward to hearing his arguments, as well as how he handles the most serious objections. Here’s a sample of his work. And here’s his debate with noted scholar Bart Ehrman: