Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Christian Author Mike Licona Responds to Williams

Sam Shamoun

Here is Christian apologist Mike Licona’s reply to Paul Bilal Williams’ selective citations from Licona’s massive tome on the historical evidence for the physical, bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus titled, “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach,” and other scholarly sources such as Richard Burridge’s “What are the Gospels?”.

The Muslim named Paul is correct when writing in his blog that Richard Burridge’s book “What are the Gospels?” is the definitive work on the subject of Gospel genre. Craig Keener has also written on the subject and is an authority. See his recent book “The Historical Jesus of the Gospels” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010, pp. 71-84) for an abbreviated treatment. Burridge and Keener are correct that ancient biography allowed great flexibility. Thus, I stand by my statement that the Gospels could contain legend. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that they do or that the Gospels are historically unreliable as sources about Jesus. For ancient biographers took liberties to varying degrees. For example, Aristobolus invented stories about Alexander the Great and was chided for doing so. On the other hand, the Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus are more careful and provide far more accurate reports of their subjects. Plutarch, who wrote very close to the time the Gospels were written, is noticeably more accurate when he writes about subjects who lived closer to his own time. This is because he had better sources.

The canonical Gospels were written within 35-65 years of the events they purport to describe. This is very close compared to what we have for others of that period. For example, Caesar Augustus is regarded as the greatest of the Roman emperors and was reigning when Jesus was born. Historians rely on six primary sources for the life of Augustus. One is a short funerary inscription written at the time of Augustus’ death. The other five were written 90-200 years later. Thus, when we consider that this is what historians have to work with for the greatest of the Roman emperors, four biographies of Jesus written within 35-65 years of Jesus’ life is excellent by historical standards!

How much liberty did the Gospel authors take with their stories about Jesus? This is something I’ve been studying over the past three years. I have much more work to do. But I can say that we can actually measure them to an extent by how they retell stories reported by Mark, (possibly) Q, and, Paul in a few instances. Although they take some liberties, they are minor. They do not appear to invent stories; at least it cannot be demonstrated they did. Keener has been studying this a lot longer than I. He says the Gospel authors appear to be among the more accurate of ancient historians (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume One, Peabody, MA, 2003, pp. 31-32).

Given our restrained assessments based on what can be demonstrated pertaining to the historical reliability of the Gospels, what then may be said about early Muslim sources and the historical Muhammad? The Qur’an says precious little about him. This leaves us with the extant sira and hadith, all of which were penned more than 100 years after Muhammad’s death! This places the canonical Gospels in a position that should be envied by any reasonable Muslim. A Muslim may answer that the sira and hadith contain traditions that were carefully passed down by others. But the same is said and can often be demonstrated pertaining to the Gospels. The difference is that only 35-65 years are involved with the Gospels whereas we’re looking at over 100 years when it comes to the traditions about Muhammad. Thus, Muslims’ should be careful about attacking the Gospels based on restrained statements by scholars such as myself. For this is a clear example of throwing rocks at a fortress (i.e., the Gospels) when they live in a glass house!

Now instead of trying to attack the Gospels, Williams needs to busy himself with addressing Muhammad Asad's candid admission that the Quran contains myths and fairy-tales, especially when this is the very scholar whose translation Williams swears by!