Tag Archives: History

Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet? A response to Bart Ehrman

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

Here is the outline page, and the outline points:

  1. Great swaths of agreement
  2. Disagreement #1: Are the gospels generally historically reliable?
  3. Disagreement #2: Did Jesus claim to be divine?
  4. Disagreement #3: Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet?
  5. Disagreement #4: Is the Bible inerrant?

We’ve talked about 1 and 2 before, so let’s look at #3.

Here’s the problem:

In this section, I want to consider a third major point of divergence between Ehrman and evangelicals: the issue of Jesus’ status as an apocalyptic prophet. Christians throughout history have agreed that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet in the sense that he preached about God’s coming judgment and urged people to repent, trusting in God’s love and mercy. Where Christians disagree with Ehrman is over the issue of timing: did Jesus believe and in fact predict that the Final Judgment of the world by the Son of Man would occur within the lifetime of his followers? This difference is important because if Jesus did predict that the end of the world would occur within a generation of his death, this would obviously call into question his claim to be divine.

Ehrman thinks that Jesus was making apocalyptic predictions about events that would occur within a generation of his death. He also thinks that Jesus is talking about the end of the world, rather than using apocalyptic language to refer to some other calamity. So, if Jesus is predicting the end of the world sometime soon after his death and that never happened, then he cannot be God stepping into history. He made a big mistake about something important. So how do we explain Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecies?

Well, most scholars agree that Jesus’ predictions of destruction in Mark 13 (and echoed in Matt 24 and Luke 21) predate the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and Neil thinks that he was referring to that event, and not the end of the world and final judgment.

Shenvi has 3 arguments for his view, let’s look at just one:

First, notice that Jesus’ use in [Mark 13] v. 29-30 of the phrases “these things… all these things” is a deliberate echo of Peter’s question in v. 4 about when “these things” will happen and when “all these things” will be fulfilled (the underlying Greek phrases are also identical). But in v. 4, Peter was asking about the destruction of the temple that Jesus had just predicted in v. 2. While Peter may have had the end of the world also in mind, the text in Mark makes no mention of that fact. Thus, whatever other material Jesus introduced in the Olivet Discourse, his (or Mark’s) repetition of those two particular Greek phrases in his prophecy about ‘this generation’ (v. 30) seems to indicate that his prediction is to be primarily understood as a response to Peter’s question.

As for the ‘cosmic’ predictions in v. 29-30, connecting an imminent, temporal judgment on a single nation with the final judgment on the entire world was a common device in the Old Testament. For example, the book of Zephaniah alternates between oracles of judgment against Judah and its neighbors, which were predicted for the near-future, with prophesies of God’s final judgment and restoration, which would occur at an unspecified future time. Similar motifs can be found in books like Joel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. At this point, it is unimportant whether we see the prophesies in these books as genuine predictions (the evangelical view) or as retrospective explanations of events which had already occurred (a common non-evangelical view). What matters is that, by Jesus’ time, it was understood that temporal judgments could foreshadow a future final judgment. So in transitioning immediately from the impending destruction of Jerusalem to the final judgment, Jesus was repeating a theme which had existed in the Old Testament prophets for centuries.

[…]Third, Jesus does not actually predict in this passage that the Son of Man will return within ‘this generation.’ This observation was astonishing to me, but it’s fairly clear in the text. Look again at the two key verses: “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” (Mark 13:19-30). What Jesus predicts in v. 30 is that “all these things” will take place within “this generation.” Ehrman’s contention is that “all these things” include the coming of the Son of Man as described in v. 26-27. But look again at v. 29. When the disciples see “these things” taking place it will mean that the Son of Man is “near, at the very gates.” In fact, it is nonsensical to say that “these things” include the Son of Man arriving to judge the world. If that were true, then v. 29 would mean “when you see [the Son of man arriving to judge the world], you know that [the Son of Man] is near.” As I’ve argued, it’s far more plausible to see ‘these things’ as referring solely to destruction of Jerusalem. When the disciples see ‘these things’ [the events preceding the destruction of Jerusalem], then they will know that the Son of Man is near, even at the door.

He responds to several objections to his argument and concludes so:

The three independent arguments I’ve given here support the idea that Jesus did not intend to predict the end of the world within one generation in the Olivet Discourse. In my opinion, a better reading is that Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem within the next generation and saw this destruction as a foreshadowing of a final judgment which would occur at an unspecified time “after that tribulation” (v 24).

If this is an objection that you’ve heard before, you can do two things. Read the post, and then bookmark it for later. When the question comes up next time, you’ll be ready, because Dr. Shenvi has done the work for you.

UPDATE: Jason Engwer has a post about this that goes into even more detail at Triablogue.

William Lane Craig debates Peter Atkins: Does God Exist?

Apologetics 315 posted the video of a debate from the Reasonable Faith speaking tour in the UK:

This is a must-see debate. It was extremely fun to watch.


On Wednesday 26th October 2011 William Lane Craig debated Peter Atkins on the topic: Does God Exist? This debate took place at the University of Manchester  as part of the UK Reasonable Faith Tour with William Lane Craig. The debate was chaired by Christopher Whitehead, Head of Chemistry School at the University. Post-debate discussion was moderated by Peter S Williams, Philosopher in Residence at the Damaris Trust, UK.

Dr. William Lane Craig:

William Lane Craig (born August 23, 1949) is an American analytic philosopher, philosophical theologian, and Christian apologist. He is known for his work on the philosophy of time and the philosophy of religion, specifically the existence of God and the defense of Christian theism. He has authored or edited over 30 books including The Kalam Cosmological Argument (1979), Theism, Atheism and Big Bang Cosmology(co-authored with Quentin Smith, 1993), Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time (2001), and Einstein, Relativity and Absolute Simultaneity (co-edited with Quentin Smith, 2007).

Craig received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications from Wheaton College, Illinois, in 1971 and two summa cum laudemaster’s degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, in 1975, in philosophy of religion and ecclesiastical history. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy under John Hick at the University of Birmingham, England in 1977 and a Th.D. underWolfhart Pannenberg at the University of Munich in 1984.

Dr. Peter Atkins:

Peter William Atkins (born 10 August 1940) is a British chemist and former Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Lincoln College. He is a prolific writer of popular chemistry textbooks, including Physical ChemistryInorganic Chemistry, and Molecular Quantum Mechanics. Atkins is also the author of a number of science books for the general public, including Atkins’ Molecules and Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science.

Atkins studied chemistry at the University of Leicester, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and – in 1964 – a PhD for research into electron spin resonance spectroscopy, and other aspects of theoretical chemistry. Atkins then took a postdoctoral position at the UCLA as aHarkness Fellow of the Commonwealth fund. He returned to Oxford in 1965 as fellow and tutor of Lincoln College, and lecturer in physical chemistry (later, professor of physical chemistry).

You can get the audio of the debate here, along with links to their previous debate from 1998. This debate is accessible and understandable to novice-level Christians.

I am happy when debates like this come out. I have friends who are Christians who doubt the importance of apologetics in evangelism, because they don’t think that apologists can prove anything or win arguments. I have friends who are skeptical of using arguments that assume a 14-billion year old universe, because they think that the Big Bang is compatible with atheism (!). I have friends who think that philosophical arguments have no persuasive force. I have friends who think that nothing can be proven from history, beyond a reasonable doubt. I have co-workers who ask me whether anyone wins these debates. I think that this debate answers all of those questions.

This debate clearly shows why Christians should not shy away from studying science, philosophy and history. We will not discover anything that harms Christian theism by thinking logically and by looking at the evidence. To the contrary, it is the atheist who makes war on the progress of science, and who is forced to resist the clear experimental evidence, and to resort to baseless speculations and blind faith. If you want to see a good debate with an intelligent atheist, I recommend watching the debate between William Lane Craig and Peter Millican instead. But if you want to see a really, really overwhelming defeat for atheism, watch this debate. It is very clear at the end of this debate why Richard Dawkins refused to debate William Lane Craig at Oxford.


I only had time to summarize the first two speeches. Keep in mind that Dr. Craig always shines in his rebuttals, and this debate is no different. So you’ll want to watch those rebuttals. Dr. Atkins literally says in this debate in his first rebuttal “There was nothing here originally. There is nothing here now. But it is an interesting form of nothing which seems to be something.” And the audience laughs nervously. This debate is like that. You will see a clear winner and clear loser in this debate. This fight is decided by knockout.

William Lane Craig opening speech:

1. the origin of the universe
2. the moral argument
3. the resurrection of Jesus

Peter Atkins opening speech:

1. Dr. Craig is stupid, lazy and evil:
– Dr. Craig’s arguments are old: from the 11th century! Old arguments can’t be true
– Dr. Craig is just asserting that “God did it” because he is lazy
– Dr. Craig feels pressured to agree with the theistic majority
– Dr. Craig needs a psychological crutch to comfort him
– Dr. Craig is fearful of death
– Dr. Craig is just wishing for an eternal life of bliss
– Dr. Craig is driven by his heart, and not by his head

2. Origin of the universe:
– Maybe the universe is eternal and has no beginning – we don’t know
– Maybe mommy universes can give birth to daughter universes
– It is naive to think that a cause is needed to cause the creation of the universe from nothing
– Science is just about to show how it is possible that something appears out of nothing without cause
– Some scientists have already begun to speculate about about how something can come into being out of nothing
– Maybe nothing is not really nothing, but it is actually something
– It would be admitting defeat to say that God created the universe out of nothing

3. Fine-Tuning:
– It could be the case that the fundamental constants are not variable
– It could be the case that the fine-tuning of the cosmic constants is a happy accident
– It could be the case that there are billions of billions of unobservable universes that are not fine tuned
– It could be the case that the cosmic constants in these billions and billions of unobservable universes are all random so that some are fine-tuned
– Anyone who infers that an intelligence is the best explanation of a finely-tuned set of life-permitting cosmic constants is lazy

4. Purpose:
– Philosophers and theologians are stupid
– I don’t think that there is purpose in the universe
– I think that the universe is more grand if there is no purpose, so there is no purpose

5. Miracles:
– I don’t think that miracles happen
– The resurrection is a fabrication
– It could be the case that Jesus didn’t exist
– It could be the case that Jesus wasn’t really crucified
– It could be the case that Jesus didn’t  really die after being crucified
– It could be the case that the disciples stole his body
– It could be the case that the women went to the wrong hole in the ground
– the gospels are political propaganda written long after the events they are reporting on

6. Theodicy:
– God has no morally sufficient reason for allowing humans to perform actions that result in suffering
– God has no morally sufficient reason for allowing nature to cause suffering

7. Morality:
–  customs and conventions emerges arbitrarily in different times and places based on an awareness of the consequences of actions, as well as various anecdotes and experiences
–  these customs and conventions are decided based on the goal for survival, in much the same way as politeness and manners emerge for decorum and to avoid offense
– it is childish to presume that there is an umpire God who decides moral values and duties

8. Religious believers are stupid, lazy and evil:
– the notion of God has arisen because people are stupid and want to be comforted
– there are no arguments or evidences for belief in God
– people who believe in God do not think, but instead take refuge in incomprehensible nonsense

Neil Shenvi lectures on the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are going to take a look at the data
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are going to take a look at the data

The lecture was given to the Intervarsity group at Duke University.

Speaker bio:

As it says on the main page, my name is Neil Shenvi; I am currently a research scientist with Prof. Weitao Yang at Duke University in the Department of Chemistry. I was born in Santa Cruz, California, but grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. I attended Princeton University as an undergraduate where I worked on high-dimensional function approximation with Professor Herschel Rabitz. I became a Christian in Berkeley, CA where I did my PhD in Theoretical Chemistry at UC – Berkeley with Professor Birgitta Whaley. The subject of my PhD dissertation was quantum computation, including topics in quantum random walks, cavity quantum electrodynamics, spin physics, and the N-representability problem. From 2005-2010, I worked as a postdoctoral associate with Prof. John Tully at Yale where I did research into nonadiabatic dynamics, electron transfer, and surface science.

Here’s the lecture:

The MP3 file of the lecture is here for those who prefer audio.

For those who don’t have the bandwidth to watch or listen to the lecture, here’s a paper that has similar information that Neil wrote.


The earliest followers of Jesus were emphatic about the centrality of the Resurrection to the gospel, the core message of Christianity.  To those in the city of Corinth who were questioning the necessity and perhaps even the factuality of the Resurrection, the apostle Paul wrote: ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins’ (1. Cor. 15:17).  The reason for this connection is clear if we understand the gospel itself.  The gospel of Jesus does not say: “Here are the rules; if you obey them, God will bless you.  Otherwise, God will curse you.”  Rather the gospel says: “You have broken God’s rules and deserve God’s curse.  But Jesus was crucified for your sins and raised to life as a declaration that payment was made in full.  You can now be accepted by God not on the basis of what you have done but on the basis of what Jesus has done for you.”  Without the Resurrection, says Paul, Christians would have no assurance that they are accepted by God or that Jesus has truly paid their debt in full.  Consequently, the factuality of the Resurrection is of utmost importance to Christians.

[…]Before we can examine the evidence, we must first assess the reliability of the New Testament documents since these provide us with the most accurate information we have about the life and ministry of Jesus.  One of the easiest ways to discount the historicity of the Resurrection and of Christianity in general is to claim that the records we have of Jesus’ life are legendary rather than historical.  The main problem with such claims is that they run counter to a massive amount of evidence that we have for the general historical reliability of the New Testament.

[…]Modern critical scholars –such as the participants of the widely known Jesus Seminar- assume that only a small fraction of the New Testament is historical and that the majority of the material is either fictional or only loosely based on historical facts.  To determine what material is historical, they use three major criteria 1) the criterion of multiple attestation 2) the criterion of embarrassment 3) the criterion of dissimilarity.  If a saying or action recorded in the New Testament gospels meets one or more of these criteria, it is considered more likely –though by no means certain- that this material is historical.  Obviously, as an evangelical Christian, I believe that there are serious flaws in the assumptions made by these scholars.  But as we will see below, the Resurrection accounts meet all three of these major criteria of historicity.

[…]Lastly, I think it is very important to consider what alternative, naturalistic explanations have been put forward to explain the Resurrection.  As I mentioned before, many skeptics assume that there must be some plausible, naturalistic explanation for the Resurrection without ever considering the evidence.

Previously, I’ve featured Neil’s defense of objective morality, his lecture on science and religion and his introduction to quantum mechanics, all of which were really popular. These are easy to understand, but substantive, too.

Bible study: Was the resurrection body of Jesus spiritual or physical?

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are going to take a look at the data
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are going to take a look at the data

So, everyone from left to right accepts the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 being dated to 1-3 years after the death of Jesus, even atheists like Crossley, Ludemann and Crossan. The thing is, some people are not sure that the appearances of Jesus to individuals, groups, and skeptics really were physical appearances. They say “well, Paul’s appearance was non-physical, so the other ones must have been, too”.

Let’s take a look.

Here’s a paragraph from my friend Eric Chabot, from his blog Think Apologetics. He explains why Paul’s use of the word “resurrection” to describe what the other witnesses saw means bodily resurrection.

He writes:

If Paul did have a vision then the term “vision” is vague and must be defined. As Licona points out, visions are either objective (i.e., something that is seen without the use of our natural senses) or subjective (i.e., a  product of our minds). The real  problem is with the vision hypothesis is that it doesn’t explain Paul’s use of resurrection to explain what had happened to Jesus.  The two words are used for resurrection in the New Testament “anastasis” (rising up) and “egersis” (waking up), both imply a physical body. Furthermore, the use of the word “opethe” (the Greek word for appeared) shows the Gospel writers did believe that Jesus appeared physically. “There you will see (opethe) him” (Matt. 28:7); “The Lord has risen and has appeared (opethe) to Simon” (Luke 24:24). When they used “opethe” here, it means that He appeared physically to them.

So when Paul gives his list of appearances in 1 Cor. 15, the issues becomes whether the appearance to him is the same as it was to the disciples. There is no doubt the post resurrection body of Jesus (after the ascension) had to be somewhat different than the body the disciples saw. Also, whenever the New Testament mentions the word body, in the context of referring to an individual human being, the Greek word “soma” always refers to a literal, physical body.Greek specialist Robert Gundry says “the consistent and exclusive use of soma for the physical body in anthropological contexts resists dematerialization of the resurrection, whether by idealism or by existentialism.” [9] Furthermore, in N.T. Wright’s  The Resurrection of the Son of God shows that the Greek word for resurrection which is “anastasis” was used by ancient Jews, pagans, and Christians as bodily in nature.

Now, I think my view on this, and I’m not sure if Eric would correct me, is that Paul got an objective but non-physical vision of Jesus. There was something there that everyone else could see and hear, in my view. But in my view Paul’s “veridical” vision was post-ascension, and so non-physical. Paul uses the word resurrection to describe what the other eyewitnesses saw (and he met them at least twice, according to Gal 1 and Gal 2), and that means physical resurrected body.

Eric Chabot writes this in another place:

Acts 9- Paul’s Damascus Road Experience

Here we see whatever happened,  this was after the ascension. Hence, to say Paul saw the exact same Jesus before he ascended is hard to infer from the text. There simply isn’t enough information here.  The Bible says, “they heard” the same voice Paul did ” (Acts 9: 7). But they “did not see anyone ” (Acts 9: 7). Notice  Paul was physically blinded by the brightness of the light.  One way or the other, the experience involved something that was external to Paul. It wasn’t something that was the same thing as a vision that Paul talks about in 2 Cor. 12:1.  Furthermore, the phrase “he let himself be seen’” (ōphthē , aorist passive, ), is the word Paul uses  in 1 Cor. 15:7 to describe of his own resurrection appearance as the other ones in the creed. As Paul Barnett says:

“It is sometimes claimed that the word appeared (ōphthē) means a mystical seeing, as of a vision, and that since this was what Paul “saw” it was what the other apostles “saw.” In other words, after death, Jesus was taken directly to heaven whence he “appeared” to various people, mystically, as it were. This however, is not all the meaning of Paul’s words. First, the word ōphthē, “appeared” is not limited to visionary seeing it is also used for physical seeing. Moreover, the verb raise used in the phrase ‘raised on the third day” is used elsewhere in combination with the words “from the dead” which literally means “from among the corpses.” Thus raised preceding  appeared gives the latter a physical not a mystical meaning. Christ, as “raised from the dead” ….appeared.”  Furthermore, when Paul asks “ Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”(1 Cor. 9: 1), he is using the ordinary word horan, “to see” for physical sight. If “seeing” the Lord “raised from the dead” qualified others to be apostles, then Paul is, indeed, an apostle. It was no mere subjective vision that arrested Paul en route to Damascus. (8) .

In the end, word studies can’t entirely resolve this issue. We need to remember the etymological fallacy as well. We  would have to look at all the texts that speak of resurrection (including the entire 1 Cor. 15 chapter in their entire context as well as the anthropology of the New Testament. We also need to study the resurrection in light of the Second Temple Jewish period. See our reading list here for some resources that may help.

But conservative ancient historian Gary Habermas seems to think that Paul got the physical body as well.

He says:

Now, I said before in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul could have chosen to only use the word pneuma. He doesn’t. He does say “spiritual,” but he’s got an adjective there. He also says, soma, “body.” What did Paul mean?

Philippians Chapter 3. It’s a short chapter. There are 21 verses, but Paul says three things in one chapter that indicate he’s talking about a physical resurrection. In the opening verses he says, “I was a Hebrew of the Hebrews” and “as touching the law,” he says, “I was a Pharisee.” Now, it’s very well known that the Pharisee believed in a bodily resurrection. In fact, according to Acts 23, as Paul was being taken captive by the Romans to prevent his being killed, he shouted out to the group of people and said, “Why are you taking me? Because I believe in the resurrec­tion of the dead?” He meant a literal resurrection.
When the Pharisees heard that, they said there’s nothing wrong with this guy. But the Sadducees [who didn’t believe in the Resurrection] didn’t like it. So as a Pharisee, he’s agreeing with the Pharisees.
So, the first evidence is from Philippians 3. As a Pharisee, Paul believes in a physical resur­rection.
Secondly, in verse 11 he says, “That I may attain the resurrection of the dead.” Now, the normal Greek word for resurrection is anastasis, but in this passage, Philippians 3:11, he puts a prefix on there, ek anastasis. Ekanastasis, according to all Greek scholars that I know of, is translated in this passage: “The out resurrection from among the dead.” Paul said, “I want to attain the out resurrection.”
Now, to a Jew, “out resurrection” means “what goes down is what comes up.” You come out from death. And then just a few verses later, Philippians 3:20,21, he said, “From Heaven, we look for Jesus who will change our vile soma (body) to be like unto His glorious soma (or body),” when he should have said pneuma, according to this other view.
So he’s a Pharisee who believes in a physical resurrection. Ek anastasis—“resurrection from out among the dead ones.”
Thirdly, Paul says, “He Jesus will change my body to be like His body.”

So right there in Philippians 3 alone, I think the picture of Jesus being some wispy spirit that appeared to him on the road to Damascus doesn’t fit Paul’s own data.

Yes, that’s why Philippians is my favorite book. You can get so much useful theology out of it. Something about the resurrection in Phil 3, something about Jesus’ divinity in Phil 2, and loads of practical advice on stewardship, charity, fellowship, endurance and practical love for others throughout. Some of it takes a little digging, but that’s what commentaries are for, am I right? But I digress.

If you want to read something a little more challenging, I found a paper from the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) from their journal, where it talks more about soma and anastasis. If you want a bit of a challenge, download the PDF and read it. It’s by Kirk R. MacGregor and the title is “1 Corinthians 15:3B–6A, 7 And The Bodily Resurrection Of Jesus”.

What criteria do historians use to get to the minimal facts about the historical Jesus?

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let's take a look at the facts
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let’s take a look at the facts

Have you ever heard Gary Habermas, Michael Licona or William Lane Craig defend the resurrection of Jesus in a debate by saying that the resurrection is the best explanation for the “minimal facts” about Jesus? The lists of minimal facts that they use are typically agreed to by their opponents during the debates. Minimal facts are the parts of the New Testament that meet a set of strict historical criteria. These are the facts that skeptical historians agree with, totally apart from any religious beliefs.

So what are the criteria that skeptical historians use to derive a list of minimal facts about Jesus?

Dr. Craig explains them in this article.


The other way, more influential in contemporary New Testament scholarship, is to establish specific facts about Jesus without assuming the general reliability of the Gospels. The key here are the so-called “Criteria of Authenticity” which enable us to establish specific sayings or events in Jesus’ life as historical. Scholars involved in the quest of the historical Jesus have enunciated a number of these critieria for detecting historically authentic features of Jesus, such as dissimilarity to Christian teaching, multiple attestation, linguistic semitisms, traces of Palestinian milieu, retention of embarrassing material, coherence with other authentic material, and so forth.

It is somewhat misleading to call these “criteria,” for they aim at stating sufficient, not necessary, conditions of historicity. This is easy to see: suppose a saying is multiply attested and dissimilar but not embarrassing. If embarrassment were a necessary condition of authenticity, then the saying would have to be deemed inauthentic, which is wrong-headed, since its multiple attestation and dissimilarity are sufficient for authenticity. Of course, the criteria are defeasible, meaning that they are not infallible guides to authenticity. They might be better called “Indications of Authenticity” or “Signs of Credibility.”

In point of fact, what the criteria really amount to are statements about the effect of certain types of evidence upon the probability of various sayings or events in Jesus’ life. For some saying or event S and evidence of a certain type E, the criteria would state that, all things being equal, the probability of S given E is greater than the probability of S on our background knowledge alone. So, for example, all else being equal, the probability of some event or saying is greater given its multiple attestation than it would have been without it.

What are some of the factors that might serve the role of E in increasing the probability of some saying or event S? The following are some of the most important:

(1) Historical congruence: S fits in with known historical facts concerning the context in which S is said to have occurred.

(2) Independent, early attestation: S appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which S is alleged to have occurred and which depend neither upon each other nor a common source.

(3) Embarrassment: S is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S.

(4) Dissimilarity: S is unlike antecedent Jewish thought-forms and/or unlike subsequent Christian thought-forms.

(5) Semitisms: traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebrew linguistic forms.

(6) Coherence: S is consistent with already established facts about Jesus.

For a good discussion of these factors see Robert Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” in Gospel Perspectives I, ed. R. T. France and David Wenham (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1980), pp. 225-63.

Notice that these “criteria” do not presuppose the general reliability of the Gospels. Rather they focus on a particular saying or event and give evidence for thinking that specific element of Jesus’ life to be historical, regardless of the general reliability of the document in which the particular saying or event is reported. These same “criteria” are thus applicable to reports of Jesus found in the apocryphal Gospels, or rabbinical writings, or even the Qur’an. Of course, if the Gospels can be shown to be generally reliable documents, so much the better! But the “criteria” do not depend on any such presupposition. They serve to help spot historical kernels even in the midst of historical chaff. Thus we need not concern ourselves with defending the Gospels’ every claim attributed to Jesus in the gospels; the question will be whether we can establish enough about Jesus to make faith in him reasonable.

And you can see Dr. Craig using these criteria to defend minimal facts in his debates. For example, in his debate with Ehrman, he alludes to the criteria when making his case for the empty tomb.

Here, he uses multiple attestation and the criteria of embarrassment:

Among the reasons which have led most scholars to this conclusion are the following:

1. The empty tomb is also multiply attested by independent, early sources.

Mark’s source didn’t end with the burial, but with the story of the empty tomb, which is tied to the burial story verbally and grammatically. Moreover, Matthew and John have independent sources about the empty tomb; it’s also mentioned in the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles (2.29; 13.36); and it’s implied by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian church (I Cor. 15.4). Thus, we have again multiple, early, independent attestation of the fact of the empty tomb.

2. The tomb was discovered empty by women.

In patriarchal Jewish society the testimony of women was not highly regarded. In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus says that women weren’t even permitted to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court of law. Now in light of this fact, how remarkable it is that it is women who are the discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb. Any later legendary account would certainly have made male disciples like Peter and John discover the empty tomb. The fact that it is women, rather than men, who are the discoverers of the empty tomb is best explained by the fact that they were the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb, and the Gospel writers faithfully record what, for them, was an awkward and embarrassing fact.

There are actually a few more reasons for believing in the empty tomb that he doesn’t go into in the debate, but you can find them in his written work. For example, in his essay on Gerd Ludemann’s “vision” hypothesis. That essay covers the reasons for all four of his minimal facts.

So, if you are going to talk about the resurrection with a skeptic, you don’t want to invoke the Bible as some sort of inerrant/inspired Holy Book.

Try this approach instead:

  1. Explain the criteria that historians use to get their lists of minimal facts
  2. Explain your list of minimal facts
  3. Defend your list of minimal facts using the criteria
  4. Cite skeptics who admit to each of your minimal facts, to show that they are widely accepted
  5. List some parts of the Bible that don’t pass the criteria (e.g. – guard at the tomb, Matthew earthquake)
  6. Explain why those parts don’t pass the criteria, and explain that they are not part of your case
  7. Challenge your opponent to either deny some or all the facts, or propose a naturalistic alternative that explains the facts better than the resurrection
  8. Don’t let your opponent attack any of your minimal facts by attacking other parts of the Bible (e.g. – the number of angels being one or two, etc.)

And remember that there is no good case for the resurrection that does not make heavy use of the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. You have to use that – it’s the law.

Back to the minimal facts criteria. The best essay on the minimal facts criteria that I’ve read is the one by Robert H. Stein in “Contending with Christianity’s Critics“. It’s a good short essay that goes over all the historical criteria that are used to derive the short list of facts from which we infer the conclusion “God raised Jesus from the dead”. That whole book is really very, very good.