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

In this series of blog posts, we are discussing the objections of some scholars to the historical investigation of the resurrection of Jesus, as discussed by NT Wright in his book, “The Resurrection of the Son of God.” In the first post, we discussed Willi Marxsen’s claim that because we do not have direct access to the resurrection event, we cannot speak of it historically.

In this post, I wanted to discuss a second objection, associated with Ernst Troeltsch: that historians may only speak or write about things that have some analogy in our own experience. Since we do not have experiences of resurrection, we cannot, as historians, speak of the resurrection. This does not mean that the resurrection did not actually occur as an event, or that people have not tried to write things about it; however, it is illegitimate for modern historians to try to write about it as history.

This seems to be an odd objection on its face, because it is not difficult to think of a historical event in which something new occurred. Wright brings up the example of the first space flight, commenting that we did not have to wait for the second space flight before we could talk, as historians, about the first space flight. One might object that the first space flight was not completely new, but had partial analogies in the flight of airplanes and birds. However, Wright responds that when it comes to the resurrection, partial anticipations and analogies could also be found within the first-century Jewish worldview in the divine acts of liberation on behalf of Israel and in the resuscitations and remarkable healings of the Old Testament.

Wright also points out that if we take Troeltsch’s objection seriously, we would not be able to say anything as historians about the rise of the early church – “a movement which began as a quasi-messianic group within Judaism was transformed into the sort of movement which Christianity quickly became.” There was no precedent for such a movement, nor has there been any subsequent example of this anomalous movement, which to pagan and Jewish observers, Wright states, was not like any religion known at the time, having no garlanded priests, no oracles, no images, and no sacrifices. It seems that Troeltsch’s analogy requirement is inappropriate for historians because it would remove from historical inquiry a number of unprecedented events that historians have studied and continue to study to this day.

Even if we grant Troeltsch’s objection that we may only speak or write about things that have some analogy in our own existence, Wolfhart Pannenberg argued that we will have ultimate verification of the resurrection of Jesus provided to us in the final resurrection of those who are in Christ. In other words, the final resurrection would provide the required analogy for the resurrection of Jesus. While this argument makes sense in its own right, Wright wonders if Pannenberg gives too much away by granting the validity of Troeltsch’s analogy requirement. From an apologetics standpoint, to offer Pannenberg’s argument to a non-believer who does not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, let alone the final resurrection of believers, may be a difficult argument to land. It seems better to challenge the analogy requirement in the first place and show that it is inappropriate for historiography.