UPDATE: Welcome, visitors from Free Canuckistan! Did you know that Binks is a web elf? It’s true!
UPDATE: Western Experience has video of Gary Habermas in action here.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.