Historiography and the Resurrection of Jesus: The No-Access Objection

Hi everyone! I hope you are enjoying your winter break back at home. For those of you participating in the Winter Reading Challenge, be sure to keep track of your progress on the Bibliopolis website!

I’ve been taking a class on the Defense of the Resurrection this past quarter at Biola University with Professor Sean McDowell, and in the next three posts, I wanted to share some of the things I’ve been learning through the course and the assigned reading: “The Resurrection of the Son of God,” by NT Wright.

In Wright’s book, before getting into the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, Wright begins by considering the objections of some scholars who claim that historical study of the resurrection cannot be undertaken in the first place. These scholars aim at putting a stop to the historical investigation of the resurrection of Jesus before it can even begin, suggesting that it is not possible to speak of the resurrection of Jesus as an event within history.

The first objection, associated with Willi Marxsen, begins by denying that we have any access, as historians, to the resurrection itself. He argues that because we do not have any written sources that describe the actual awakening of Jesus, the removal of his grave-clothes, and the exit of Jesus from the tomb, we should not call the resurrection “historical.” Because nobody, as far as we know, wrote about the actual transition of Jesus from death to life, Marxsen deduces that nothing can be proved about the resurrection of Jesus and nothing can be said by modern historians about the resurrection of Jesus.

This seems to me to be too stringent and too positivist of a standard to impose on historians, to require direct access to a past event in order to say anything historically about it. If anything, it would appear to allow historians to say very little about anything in the past. Wright points out that the work of a historian actually requires him to conclude, “even if only to avoid total silence, that certain events took place to which we have no direct access but which are the necessary postulates of that to which we do have access.” In other words, historians can and often do conclude that an event to which they have no direct access took place by inferring that event from other events to which they do have direct access.

Wright points out that even scientists are not held to the positivist standard that Marxsen is suggesting. Take, for example, the recent discovery of the Higgs boson. For fifty years, scientists had posited the existence of the Higgs boson as an elementary particle in particle physics. Though it was not directly observed until 2012, physicists using the Standard Model of particle physics had long inferred its existence, because there was a theoretical need for that particle within the Standard Model given the properties and behaviors of the other particles that had already been directly observed.

In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, even though we do not have reliable written reports of Jesus regaining consciousness, removing his grave-clothes, and stepping out of the tomb, we do have reliable written reports regarding Jesus’ death on the cross, the empty tomb, the faith and changed lives of the disciples of Jesus, the rise of the early church, and other events that, as a whole, allow us to conclude as historians the resurrection of Jesus.

When historical events to which we do have direct access offer a strong case for the occurrence of an event to which we do not have direct access, as is the case in the resurrection of Jesus, it seems reasonable, despite Marxsen’s objection, for a historian to conclude that the event occurred.