Latest debate listening

I just finished listening to a 2010 debate between Richard Carrier and Michael Licona on the historical evidence for and against the resurrection. Both are historians, and the debate format, which allowed a larger amount of true discussion than normal, was spectacular. I recommend this debate to anyone interested in the question of the resurrection.

2 Comments

  1. Interested: That’s a very good question. Here’s my take on it. I will be restricting myself in this discussion to the Epistles of Paul, since that was what the debaters restricted themselves to.

    These epistles are, in form at any rate, letters intended to weigh in on church history and doctrine, and are generally accepted to have been written closer in time to the events they supposedly reference than were the gospels. Now, someone claiming in their writing that they are providing a historically-accurate account of something doesn’t immediately lend credence to the notion that the writings are accurate, but it can be instructive to evaluate the implications of the notion that they are accurate. If Carrier had responded to Licona’s claims of historical accuracy for the epistles with a simple, “No they aren’t,” then the conversation wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. Instead, for most of the debate, Carrier was exploring the argument that even if the epistles were accurate representations of what Paul strongly believed had happened, there possible naturalistic explanations that make us seriously doubt the reasonableness of Paul’s claims.

    This is important. Historians don’t typically dismiss ancient artifacts as not worth discussing, and these were two historians debating. No, they try to evaluate the evidence to determine the context in which those artifacts were produced and the likely implications that the existence and content of those artifacts suggest. Even if the epistles of Paul are not trustworthy as literally-correct historical documents, they can be understood in the historical context of the culture in which they were written.

    Let me put this in a slightly different way as well. An argument that the epistle’s accounts of the resurrection be dismissed due to a lack of outside corroboration is essentially an argument that Paul was lying or mistaken. However, arguing that even within the context of Paul accurately reporting his understanding of events, it is more likely that the resurrection didn’t happen than that it did, avoids making claims (for which there is little support) that Paul was lying.

    Here’s the thing. Historians of Lacona’s style don’t typically buy into the, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” notion in quite the same way that we do. They look around themselves and see a world that clearly was designed by God. This means that the resurrection, to them, is not an extraordinary claim, and thus Carrier’s “prior probability” argument doesn’t hold much weight with them. This means that they don’t see the reason to dismiss biblical accounts out-of-hand, and arguing that they should do so simply halts conversation.

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