Revisiting the Minimal Facts Argument: A Hypothetical Discussion Between a Skeptic and a Christian

The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by [Habermas, Gary R., Licona, Michael R.]

This is a hypothetical discussion based on a discussion of the Minimal Facts argument that has been put forward in the book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Michael Licona and Gary Habermas.

Please note I have already discussed this topic a bit in a post called The Metaphysical Hurdle and The Minimal Facts Argument.

A Hypothetical Discussion:

Professing Christian: “Do you agree that if God wants humanity to know his plans and purposes for them, it makes sense He would communicate to us somewhere within the context human history?”

Skeptic: “Yes, I think that does make sense. But where in history has he done this?”

Professing Christian:  “He has communicated to us through the work of Jesus of Nazareth. Our central claim is that he rose from the dead to confirm He is the full revelation of God to humanity.”

Skeptic: “What’s your evidence Jesus rose from the dead?”

Professing Christian: “Have you ever considered what is called the “Minimal Facts Argument”

Skeptic: “No, I’ve never heard of it.”

Professing Christian:  “There are certain aspects of the resurrection of Jesus that many critical scholars agree on. This includes atheists and historians who are not Orthodox Christians etc.”

Skeptic: “Are you saying just because a bunch of scholars agree on these things, that I should just accept it. That seems like an appeal to an authority.”

Professing Christian: “Do you think that majority of scientists accept the Neo-Darwinian model is an appeal to an authority?”

Skeptic: “Well, I guess not. The reason they accept it is because there is strong evidence for the Neo-Darwinian model.”

Professing Christian: “Okay, well we can debate the evidence for the Neo-Darwinian model another time. But for now, may I show you the evidence for the minimal facts argument.”

Skeptic: “Okay, I am willing to listen.”

Professing Christian: “Okay, here are the minimal facts”

Minimal Fact #1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion

“One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate.” Bart Ehrman (Agnostic)  [1]

“Jesus’s death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be. For if no follower of Yeshua had written anything for one hundred years after his crucifixion we would still know about him from two authors not among his supporters. Their names are Flavius Josephus and Cornelius Tacitus.” John Dominic Crossan [2]

“The fact of the death of Jesus as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable, despite hypotheses of a pseudo-death or a deception which are sometimes put forward. It need not be discussed further here.” Gerd  Lüdemann (Atheist) [3]

Skeptic: “Okay, so I see agnostic scholars think Jesuswas crucified. But why are they so sure of their position?”

Professing Christian:  “Historians like numerous and early sources to be extensive in scope. In an ideal situation, the various sources that discuss a figure or an event should corroborate what each other’s had to say, at least on the major points if not all the details. Let’s look at the sources for the crucifixion of Jesus.”

  1. All four Gospels (written before the first century) say Jesus was crucified under the authority of Pontius Pilate. The gospels are not always independent of each other. Matthew and Luke, for example, are likely dependent on Mark. To see evidence for the Gospels, see here: To see evidence for the Pilate Inscription, click here: 
  2. Paul’s Letters (written from AD 48 to AD 64) speaks of the death of Jesus  and that He was crucified (1 Corinthians 1:13, 23, 2:2, 8, 2 Corinthians 13:4, Galatians 3:1, Philippians 2:8 Romans 5:6, 8, 106:3, 5, 9-10, 8:34, 14:9 15, 1 Corinthians 8:11, 11: 26, 15:3; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, Galatians 2:21 Philippians 2:8, 3:10, Colossians 1:22, 1 Thessalonians 4:14, 5:10). There is little doubt that Paul authored Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon—the “undisputed” epistles. To see evidence for the reliability of Paul’s Letters, see the section with the heading Paul and the Earliest Records for the Jesus Story
  3. The Book of Acts (dated 62-65 AD): Jesus  was crucified according to the plan of God (Acts 2:23) and that He was raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples (Acts 2:24; 31-32; 3:15-26;10:40-41;17:31;26:2). To see materials on the reliability of Acts, see the heading,  Reliability of the Gospels: Canon Issue/The Book of Acts.
  4. Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian who was employed by the Romans and wrote during the time of Christ. He would write, “When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified . . .” (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.63–64. 10.). To see common objections to Josephus, click here: 
  5. Tacitus, who is generally regarded as the greatest of the Roman historians. He was the proconsul of Asia from AD 112 to 113. His last work, The Annals, was written circa AD 116–117 and included, “Nero fastened the guilt [of the burning of Rome] and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.” (Tacitus, Annals, 15.44). To see common objections to Tacitus, click here: 
  6. Roman source Lucian: He was a second-century playwright who wrote, “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account.” (Lucian of Samosata, The Works of Lucian of Samosata, trans. H. W. Fowler (Digireads.com), 472.
  7. The collection of Jewish teaching known as the Talmud reports that “on the eve of the Passover, Yeshua was hanged.” Yeshua is “Joshua” in Hebrew (translated “Yeshua” in Greek). Being hung on a tree was used to describe crucifixion in antiquity. ( Jacob Neusner, trans. The Talmud of Babylonia: Sanhedrin).
  8. The apologetic work called Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (2nd century): Justin Martyr, the Palestinian Christian debates Trypho the Jew. Trypho is not persuaded Jesus is the Messiah. In one part of this work, He replies:“It has indeed been proved sufficiently by your Scriptural quotations that it was predicted in the Scriptures that Christ should suffer. . . . But what we want you to prove to us is that he was to be crucified and be subjected to so disgraceful and shameful a death. . . . We find it impossible to think this could be so.” [4]

NOTE: For an evaluation for sources for Jesus outside the NT, see R. V. Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Studying the Historical Jesus) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000); F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament ( London: Hodder & Stoughton Religious, 1984); G.A. Boyd and P. R. Eddy, The Jesus Legend: A Case for The Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007).

Minimal Fact #2 “The birth of the early Christian/Jesus movement wouldn’t exist without the resurrection of Jesus.”

Professing Christian: “You know it is highly improbable that any Jewish person would have kept following Jesus and spread his message if Jesus had only died by Roman crucifixion.”

Skeptic: “What do you mean?”

Professing Christian: “Jewish people knew from their own writings that anyone what was crucified and left hanging on a Roman crucifixion stake was considered to be cursed by God. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 gives specific instructions concerning one who has been executed on account of a capital offense:

“If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance.”

In the context of the covenant of Israel, the Near Eastern pattern was of both blessing and curse.  The blessing was for those who obeyed the stipulations of the covenant:

“Now it shall be, if you diligently obey the LORD your God, being careful to do all His commandments which I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you if you obey the LORD your God” (Deut. 28:1-2).

For a Jewish person, to be blessed was to be in the presence of God, enjoying His presence and all the benefits it entailed. The blessing was to experience God’s shalom in one’s life. In contrast to blessing, the curse was upon those who violated the stipulations of the covenant. So, for them, for Jesus to be crucified was not something that would motivate them to follow him.

Furthermore, it has been documented that Jewish people who led messianic revolts such as Judas the Galilean, Simon, Athronges, Eleazar ben Deinaus and Alexander, Menahem, Simon bar Giora, and bar-Kochba were all defeated. [5] Faced with the defeat of their leader, followers of such figures would either be rounded up as well or melt away into the undergrowth. So if Jesus  only died, why would any Jewish person in the first century continue to follow him?” N.T. Wright says the following:

If your Messiah is killed, you conclude that he was not the Messiah. Some of those movements continued to exist; where they did, they took a new leader from the same family (But note: Nobody ever said that James, the brother of Yeshua, was the Messiah.) Such groups did not go around saying that their Messiah had been raised from the dead. What is more, I cannot make sense of the whole picture, historically or theologically, unless they were telling the truth. [6]

Minimal Fact #3: “Very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus  had been resurrected and had appeared to them.”

Let’s observe the list of appearances:

  1. Jesus  appears to Mary Magdalene (Matthew 28:1-10; John 20:14-18)
  2. Jesus appears to several female disciples (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-11)
  3.  Jesus  appears to Simon Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5; John 21:1-24)
  4. Jesus appears to James, John, Thomas, Nathaniel, and two others (John 21:1-24)
  5. Jesus  appears to the eleven disciples as a group (Matthew 28:16-20; John 20:19-29)
  6. Jesus  appears to Cleopas and one unnamed disciple (Luke 24:13-35)
  7. Jesus appears to more than five hundred “brothers” at once (1 Corinthians 15:6)
  8. Jesus appears to James (a.k.a. “the Lord’s brother”) (1 Corinthians 15:7; compare Galatians 2:19)
  9. Jesus  appears to Saul of Tarsus (a.k.a. Paul) (1 Corinthians 15:8).

Let’s look at what moderate and even agnostic scholars say about the resurrection appearances:

That Jesus’s followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know. “I do not regard deliberate fraud as a worthwhile explanation. Many of the people in these lists were to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming that they had seen the risen Lord, and several of them would die for their cause. [7] —E.P. Sanders, New Testament Scholar and Former Arts and Sciences Professor of Religion at Duke University

It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death.  Thus, for the historian, Christianity begins after the death of Jesus , not with the resurrection itself, but with the belief in the resurrection.[8] — Bart Ehrman, New Testament Scholar and James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Ehrman goes onto say:

We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that . . . he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.[9]

Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’s resurrection, since this is a matter of public record.[10]

Why, then, did some of the disciples claim to see Jesus alive after his crucifixion? I don’t doubt at all that some disciples claimed this.[11]

It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ. It seems to be historically certain that Mary Magdalene experienced an appearance of the risen Jesus. The only thing we can certainly say to be historical is that there were resurrection appearances in Galilee (and in Jerusalem) soon after Jesus’ death. These appearances cannot be denied. But did the Risen Jesus in fact reveal himself in them? [12] —Atheist Gerd Lüdemann, Chair of History and Literature of Early Christianity at University of Göttingen

I know in their own terms, what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say, and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attests to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Yeshua. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know as an historian, that they must have seen something. The disciples’ conviction that they had seen the risen Christ, their relocation to Jerusalem, their principled inclusion of Gentiles as Gentiles – all these are historical bedrock, facts known past doubting about the earliest community after Jesus’ death.[13] —Paula Fredrickson, Historian and Scholar of Religious Studies, William Goodwin Aurelio Chair Emerita of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University

The disciples thought that they had witnessed Jesus’ appearances, which, however they are explained, “is a fact upon which both believer and unbeliever may agree. [14] Even the most skeptical historian” must do one more thing: “postulate some other event” that is not the disciples’ faith, but the reason for their faith, in order to account for their experiences.  Of course, both natural and supernatural options have been proposed. [15] –— Reginald Fuller, Former Biblical Scholar and Professor Emeritus at Virginia Theological Seminary

 Skeptic: “Okay, so a lot of scholars agree the disciples had experiences that they perceived as the risen Jesus. But why do they all believe this? Do they believe this just because it is recorded in the NT?”

Professing Christian:  “Well, first, it is recorded very early. 1 Cor 15:3-8 contains a creed that is probably one of the earliest records we have of the resurrection appearances.

Here it is:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also (1 Cor. 15:3-8).

Paul says the information about the resurrection was something he “received.”  While the word “received” can also be used in the New Testament of receiving a message or body of instruction or doctrine, it also means “to receive from another.” One of the clues as to where Paul got his information, is that, within the creed, he calls Peter by his Aramaic name, Cephas. Hence, it seems likely that he received this information in either Galilee or Judea, one of the two places where people spoke Aramaic. Therefore, Paul possibly received the oral history of 1 Cor. 15:3-7 during his visit to Jerusalem.

In Galatians 1:18 Paul says, “Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days.1 Cor 15: 3-8 is dated 50-55 A.D. But Paul received this information at an earlier date.” To see more about the early creed, see here: 

“Second, the reason these scholars think the disciples all had these experiences that they perceived as the resurrected Jesus  is because they proclaimed it and were at least willing to be martyred for it. People lie for three reasons: 1) Money, 2) Sex, 3) Power. Do you see any evidence that the disciples, or apostles were motivated to lie for these three reasons?

Third, remember, historians want to know not only what happened, but what caused it to happen. In other words, historians look for cause and effect. In this case, they look for the cause of the early Christian movement in the first century. We already discussed the challenge of a crucified messiah. The resurrection appearances help explain why the disciples/Apostles continued to follow Jesus after he died.

 Minimal Fact #4 “Saul of Tarsus, also known as Paul, was a harsh opponent of the early Jesus movement. But he was transformed into a defender of the faith after he believed he encountered the risen Jesus.”

 “There is no doubt that [Paul] believed that he saw Jesus’ real but glorified body raised from the dead.” – Bart Ehrman, (see The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, pgs, 301)

  1.   Paul saw a blinding light (Acts 9:3; 22:6; 26:13; cf. 2 Cor 4:6), but equally he saw the just One and heard the voice from his mouth (Acts 22:14; cf. 1 Cor 9:1); “the Lord Jesus … appeared to [Paul] on the road” (Acts 9:17; cf. 1 Cor 15:8).
  2. There was no greater enemy to the young movement than him. For Paul, the crucified Jesus  was “accursed” (by God). When Paul knew of the messianic claims the disciples were making about Jesus, he must have immediately reached an opposite conclusion, that he was a false messiah. Imagine someone like Richard Dawkins coming to faith and becoming a champion for Jesus.
  3. Paul interacts with eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus and pass their testimonies on to us (1 Corinthians 15, Galatians 1 and 2). He described how he met James, the brother of Jesus – John; and Peter, where “I presented to them the gospel that I preach” (Galatians 2:2)
  4. Paul was willing to suffer and die for the movement he had previously persecuted. He was martyred by Nero in AD 64. Imagine Saul, a Roman citizen, willfully submitting to forgo an advantage that status gave him and volunteering to suffer the ultimate punishment of the death penalty all because he refused to deny that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead and, therefore, the promised Messiah. “This point is well documented, reported by Paul himself, as well as Luke, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Tertullian, Dionysius of Corinth, and Origen. Also, see the post, “What did Paul See?” 


    Skeptic: “Wait a minute. So what’s the big deal about Paul?  Don’t people change their beliefs all the time?”

Christian: “Yes, people do switch beliefs. But Paul became a follower of Jesus based on his own testimony of encountering the risen Jesus. Two passages in 1 Corinthians are connected and are to be read together. “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? (1 Cor. 9:1) and “Last of all, as to one untimely born he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God (1 Cor 15:8-9).  Paul implies a sequence of events: first he persecuted the church of God; then he saw the risen Lord; then he became and is the apostle who, along with other apostles, preaches the crucified, buried, and raised-up Christ (cf. 15:11). Also, see the article, The Resurrection of Jesus: a Clinical Review of Psychiatric Hypotheses for the Biblical Story of Easter Joseph W. Bergeron, M.D. and Gary R. Habermas, Ph.D.

What is the Best Explanation for these Minimal Facts?

Skeptic: Okay, well these minimal facts seem to be strong. But none of us were there. Hence, we can’t be sure about what really happened.”

Christian: “Do you know the difference between direct and circumstantial or indirect evidence?”

  1. Direct evidence: Evidence that is simply unavailable to those of us who are studying historical events in the Bible: This is called “direct evidence.” We were not present to directly witness the events in the Bible.
  2. Almost all of historical evidence, science, as well as cold case investigations are built on “circumstantial or indirect evidence.”

Also, we must utilize what is called “Inference to the most reasonable explanation” (Abduction)

  1. Inference refers to the process of collecting data and then drawing conclusions on the basis of this evidence.
  2. We compare the evidence to the potential explanations and determined which explanation was, in fact, the most reasonable inference in light of the evidence.
  3. The best explanation will cover all the data.

 Potential Explanations other than the Resurrection Explanation:

  1. Remember, whatever someone proposes as an alternative explanation, it has to be able to adequately explain all the minimal facts (i.e., the death of Jesus the birth of the Jesus movement, the experiences of the disciples with the risen Jesus, Paul coming to faith, etc).
  2. Explanations can’t be ad hoc: People make up explanations, despite the fact that we have no real evidence for what they are making up. Remember, an assertion is the act of asserting something without evidence. Evidence is facts or observations presented in support of an assertion.
  3. Examples of assertions: “Aliens raised Jesus  from the dead.” “Maybe the disciples ate some bad mushrooms and freaked out.”

    To see some of the common naturalistic objections to these minimal facts, see out post,  Answering 15 Objections to the Resurrection of Jesus.

    Sources: 

[1]. B. Ehrman, The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford: 2008), 261-262

[2].  John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper Collins. 1991), 145

[3].  Gerd Lüdemann,, The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: A Historical Inquiry (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2004), 50.

[4]. S. J. Martyr, The Fathers of the Church, trans. Thomas B. Falls (New York: Christian Heritage, Inc., 1949), 208, 291.

[5]. N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 110. An extensive consideration of all these figures is given in. Wright’s book The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 1992), 1:170-81

[6]. Robert  B.Stewart, The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue (Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2006), 71.

[7].  E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books. 1993), 279-280.

[8]. B. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford University. 1999), 231.

[9]. Ibid, 230.

[10]. Ibid.

[11]. B. Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted, Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2009), 177.

[12]. G. Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus?: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection, trans. John Bowden (Louisville, Kent: Westminster John Knox. 1995), 8.

[13]. Fredriksen’s comments came during an interview with the late ABC journalist Peter Jennings for his documentary The Search for Yeshua, which first aired in July 2000. Emphasis added.

[14]. R. Fuller, The Foundations of New Testament Christology (New York: Scribner’s, 1965), 142

[15]. R. Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives (New York: Macmillan. 1980), 181.

 

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