Gary Habermas explains the earliest source of resurrection facts

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UPDATE: Western Experience has video of Gary Habermas in action here.

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Do you just skim right over 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 when you read your Bible? Did you know that this passage is the best passage in the entire Bible when it comes to defending the resurrection? Let’s take a look at a lecture where historian Gary Habermas explains the importance of 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 for defending the bodily resurrection of Jesus as a historical event.

Recall that there are certain criteria for deciding what passages of the New Testament writings are historically reliable. Here is a great article from Gary Habermas that explains all of the criteria. Below, I’ll list some of the criteria from that article.

Early attestation

Early sources include: 1) 7 of the 13 Pauline books that are unanimously accepted as being authored by Paul, 2) the “Q” passages which are shared by Matthew and Luke, but that are not in Mark, and 3) certain short creedal passages from the book of Acts. The 7 reliable Pauline epistles are Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philipians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians and Philemon.

Habermas writes:

With regard to the historical Jesus, any material between 30 and 50 AD would be exemplary, a time period highly preferred by scholars like those in the Jesus Seminar.

Reports from such an early date would actually predate the written Gospels. A famous example is the list of Jesus’ resurrection appearances supplied by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. Most critical scholars think that Paul’s reception of at least the material on which this early creedal statement is based is dated to the 30s AD. Other examples are supplied by the brief creedal statements that many scholars find embedded within the Book of Acts, which Gerald O’Collins dates to the 30s AD. From the so-called “Q” material in the first and third Gospels, another instance is the statement of high Christology found in Matthew 11:27/Luke 10:22. Further, Paul’s earliest epistles date from the 50s AD.

Eyewitness testimony

Habermas writes:

Whenever these early sources are also derived from eyewitnesses who actually participated in some of the events, this provides one of the strongest evidences possible. Historian David Hackett Fischer dubs this “the rule of immediacy” and terms it “the best relevant evidence.” When scholars have ancient sources that are both very early and based on eyewitness testimony, they have a combination that is very difficult to dismiss.

In our previous example, one reason critical scholars take Paul’s testimony so seriously is that his writings provide both a very early date as well as eyewitness testimony to what Paul believed was a resurrection appearance of Jesus. This is even conceded by atheist scholar Michael Martin. Other crucial instances would concern any eyewitness testimony that can be located in the Gospel accounts.

Multiple attestation

Habermas writes:

Independent attestation of a report by more than one source is another chief indication that that a particular claim may be factual. Ancient historian Paul Maier asserts that: “Many facts from antiquity rest on just one ancient source, while two or three sources in agreement generally render the fact unimpeachable.” The Jesus Seminar emphasizes items “attested in two or more independent sources.”

Several important examples might be provided. Of the five sources often recognized in the Gospel accounts, Jesus’ miracles are reported in all five, with some specific occurrences reported in more than one. Jesus’ crucial “Son of Man” sayings are also attested in all five Gospel sources. And the empty tomb is reported in at least three, if not four, of these Gospel sources. This helps to understand why these items are taken so seriously by contemporary critical scholars.

Timeline of New Testament sources

You can only use the data that pass these criteria when you are constructing historical hypotheses in a debate setting. But the passage of 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 is special, because it has the markings on an ancient creed. As Habermas explains, Paul received this creed within five years of the crucifixion. Paul verified this creed twice with eyewitnesses, Peter, John and James, in Galatians 1:11-24 and Galatians 2:1-10.

So, let’s set the date of Jesus’ death as being 30 AD. Then ask the question: what sources are closest to the event? We need to have multiple early sources in order to be able to surface minimal facts that can be used when debating skeptics and atheists. Here’s the timeline, using the absolute latest possible dates for the sources:

  • 30 A.D.: Jesus is crucified. (+0)
  • 31 A.D.: The early creed originates around this time
  • 35 A.D.: Paul receives the early creed from Peter, John and James in Jerusalem
  • 55 A.D.: 1 Corinthians (+25)
  • 70 A.D. Mark (+40)
  • 80 A.D. Matthew (+50)
  • 85 A.D. Luke (+55)
  • 95 A.D. John (+65)

My preferred dates on the gospels are at least 5 years ealier than the skeptical dates. So, your earliest source for minimal facts about the resurrection is 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. I explained before how to leverage the facts in 1 Cor 15, and other minimal facts, into a case for the resurrection.

Personal application

You really need to be able to talk to your friends and co-workers about the resurrection. That is our obligation as Christians. When you talk to non-Christians, you cannot use the entire Bible on faith. Your opponent is not going to allow you to use the entire text as a source because they don’t assume that it is inerrant. You need to argue from minimal facts that pass the standard historical criteria.

So, you need to learn how to explain how scholars extract the minimal facts from the Biblical sources. You need to list the criteria, explain why they are generally accepted, and then apply them. You need to know the dates and authors of the New Testament writings. You need to know which passages are considered to be minimal facts. And then you can make you case on those facts.

I think the most promising strategy is to argue from a supernatural creator and designer, using some recent scientific discoveries, and then go on from there to historical concerns once the existence of a deistic God has been firmly established.

Further study

First, listen to the 30-minute lecture delivered at California Polytechnic State University in 2008 by Gary Habermas, on 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. Then, check out N.T. Wright’s case for the resurrection. Then listen to this lecture delivered at California State University in 2005 by William Lane Craig, on arguing from the minimal facts.

And finally, you can check out some debates on the resurrection. I recommend the debate between William Lane Craig and Roy Hoover. But it is important to read the N.T. Wright’s case for the resurrection first! There is a cross-examination section in the debate, so if you’re into that, as I am, then get your fix here.

11 thoughts on “Gary Habermas explains the earliest source of resurrection facts”

  1. Would you say that the creed formulation found in I Cor 15:3-7 is wrong with regard to the appearances of Jesus or intentionally mistaken so as not to upset the apple cart?


    1. I would say neither. Perhaps you should listen to the debate between William Lane Craig and Internet Infidel Richard Carrier.

      Richard Carrier tried to argue that the courtroom testimony of women was accepted, in his debate with Craig, but Craig showed that this was only possible in two cases: 1) if they were testifying about their status as widows, or 2) if no male witnesses were available, e.g. – they had all been killed. Audio of the debate is here. Carrier’s admission of defeat is here, on his own blog. Craig’s post-debate podcast response to Carrier is here and here.


  2. Craig is right. Carrier is a krank. He wouldn’t know how to win a debate of this nature if his life depended on it. Worse yet, he’s a hack because of his unfamiliarity with Scripture.

    Little wonder why Dr. Lane agrees to debate the likes of Carrier.

    Let me see, if I’ve got this right. You might need to help me. It’s okay for the women to be the only eyewitnesses to the burial, it’s okay for the women to be the discoverers of the empty tomb (even though there are male disciples who will give corroboration to it), but it’s not okay for the women to be the first ones to whom Jesus appears (even though there are male disciples who will give corroboration to it)? And since the context to this is I Cor. 15:3-7 (this creed that Paul is referencing) is it safe to guess that the 500 the creed and Paul refer to is a group of all males? Perhaps it would be a type of first century Promise Keepers gathering?

    I really need for you to delineate your position for me. I’m a little confused. Thanks.


  3. Dear Knight, still waiting the delineation of your position. Carrier, despite his deficiencies, was right about one thing. Christian apologists, like most apologists, are ultimately concerned with defending their position not in a genuine pursuit of the truth and what actually might have happened or taken place. Emerson said it in a similar way. He said that belief inevitably led one to a position of rest, commodity, and reputation, things which are difficult to abandon once enjoyed. Unfortunately, the genuine pursuit of truth came to an end with belief. Still waiting.


    1. 1. The gospels are of the genre of historical biography.
      2. There are standard historical criteria for determining the portions of historical biographies that are historically accurate.
      3. Using these criteria, I can get a set of historical facts that are admitted by people like Bart Ehrman.
      4. There are a set of standard historical criteria for determining the best explanation of a set of historical facts.
      5. The best explanation for the minimal set of historical facts about Jesus is that God raised Jesus from the dead
      6. No known naturalistic hypothesis of these historical facts does a better job of explaining the historical facts.
      7. It is probable that God raised Jesus from the dead.

      Now. I am working off of Habermas’ criteria for historical facts, Bill Craig’s four minimal facts, and C. B. McCullogh’s tests for historical hypotheses. You may deny that the gospels are historical biography. You may deny Habermas’ criteria. You may deny one or more of the minimal facts. You may deny McCullogh’s criteria. You can propose a superior naturalistic explanation of the facts.

      What is it going to be?


  4. By the way I don’t need to deny any of your above mentioned references. They either stand on the rock or fall into the quicksand upon which they stand.

    For the sake of argument, however, I will give this as an example. The change of James, the Lord’s brother. There is absolutely no historical data, proof, or evidence to equate James’ belief in Jesus as the Messiah with a resurrection appearance of Jesus to James. Paul in I Cor. 15: 15:3-7 mentions an appearance of Jesus to James, but we have no data that positions this appearance or so-called appearance with a conversion experience. We have the short reference in John 7:1-5 to his brothers not believing in him, but the actual time of any conversion to belief in him as the Messiah is never mentioned. Apologists like Habermas and Licona take the liberty of leaping to the conclusion that a conversion experience must have taken place at the time of the so-called appearance, because it fits their thesis and bolsters their argument in their own minds. To call this a “fact”, however, is to play fast and loose with the actual facts we have. I’ll even grant them an appearance, even though Paul’s mention of it is the only reference we have to it. Still, it is more than a little disappointing to have some defenders of the faith to so easily arrive at a “fact” without the necessary data. At what point did James come to believe Jesus as the Messiah? We simply do not know. To say otherwise suggests that your tendenz has overwhelmed your scholarship.

    And, by the way, why do you never answer questions? I’m still waiting for your clarification of I Cor. 15:3-7. And I’ve just gotten started on that passage. Wait ’til you see the questions I haven’t asked.


  5. thom, from:

    (5) Critical scholars usually recognize that James, the brother of Jesus, was a rather skeptical unbeliever prior to Jesus’ crucifixion (Mk. 3:21-35; Jn. 7:5). Not long afterwards, James is a leader of the Jerusalem church, where Paul finds him during his two visits (Gal. 1:18-19; 2:1-10; cf. Acts 15:13-21). In-between, the pre-Pauline statement in 1 Corinthians 15:7 states that the risen Jesus appeared to James.

    Scholars find several reasons for believing that James was an unbeliever before this event. John Meier points out that James’ unbelief is multiply attested. Further, the criterion of embarrassment is probably the strongest consideration, since it would be highly unlikely that the early church would otherwise sponsor what would potentially be some “deeply offensive” statements regarding Jesus’ brother, as well as a major leader. To a lesser extent, the criterion of coherence indicates a similarity between Jesus’ frequent call to place God before one’s family, and Jesus’ own example, in that he did the same although some of his own family members were unbelievers.[16]

    Surprisingly, Fuller concludes that even if the New Testament had not referenced the resurrection appearance to James, “we should have to invent” one in order to account for his conversion and his promotion to his lofty position in the Jerusalem church![17] The majority of recent scholars, including many rather skeptical ones, agree that James was converted from unbelief by Jesus’ personal appearance.[18]


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