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.

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.

3 thoughts on “What criteria do historians use to get to the minimal facts about the historical Jesus?”

  1. (I was actually in attendance at the Craig-Ehrman debate at Holy Cross.)

    As a Christian, it is important to know where the attacks on Christianity are coming from and what the arguments are (and then how to combat them effectively). You deal with a number of these on your blog.

    Let’s start off with the most extreme:
    1. Jesus-Mythers: some (Robert Price, Jerry Coyne, P. Z. Myers, Richard Carrier, Raphael Lataster, David Fitzgerald, etc.) believe that Jesus is merely a myth.

    There are more complex Jesus-Mythers and less complex ones. Less complex ones make bad analogies like “I find no more evidence for Jesus than I do for the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, unicorns,” etc.

    More complex ones might use big words or big concepts (like “Bayes Theorem”) but don’t be fooled.

    Amusingly, Habermas and Michael Licona did debate Richard Carrier (and Reginald Finley)

    and a review:

    Habermas does focus on the resurrection of Christ, not only because it is the cornerstone of our faith (1Cor. 15), but also because it is also the most falsifiable claim about Christianity — and there is significant quality and quantity of evidence about this detail.

    Amusingly, atheist historian Tim O’Neill runs a blog, “History for [New] Atheists”, exposing how Jesus-Mythers get history wrong:

    2. There are some [naturalist/anti-supernatural] historians who want to separate out the Jesus of History and the Jesus of Faith.

    Yeah, the whole Rudolf Bultmann/Historical Search for Jesus/Albert Schweitzer/The Jesus Seminar/etc. enterprise. They might even admit there is a historical figure named Jesus, BUT they quickly say that that genie-like character in the Bible who walks on water and multiplies loaves and fishes and so on is some addition due to overzealous Christians — i.e., a later embellishment. Some of these people might even try to vote on (based on their opinion) “What are [likely] the true words of Jesus.”

    Some of them definitely have an anti-supernatural bias: for instance, in the Craig-Ehrman debate, you see:
    “What are miracles? Miracles are not impossible. I won’t say they’re impossible. You might think they are impossible and, if you do think so, then you’re going to agree with my argument even more than I’m going to agree with my argument. I’m just going to say that miracles are so highly improbable that they’re the least possible occurrence in any given instance. They violate the way nature naturally works. They are so highly improbable, their probability is infinitesimally remote, that we call them miracles. No one on the face of this Earth can walk on lukewarm water. What are the chances that one of us could do it? Well, none of us can, so let’s say the chances are one in ten billion. Well, suppose somebody can. Well, given the chances are one in ten billion, but, in fact, none of us can.”

    “What about the resurrection of Jesus? I’m not saying it didn’t happen; but if it did happen, it would be a miracle. The resurrection claims are claims that not only that Jesus’ body came back alive; it came back alive never to die again. That’s a violation of what naturally happens, every day, time after time, millions of times a year. What are the chances of that happening? Well, it’d be a miracle. In other words, it’d be so highly improbable that we can’t account for it by natural means.”

    “I wish we could establish miracles, but we can’t. It’s no one’s fault. It’s simply that the canons of historical research do not allow for the possibility of establishing as probable the least probable of all occurrences.”

    “This is a highly unlikely scenario, but you can’t object that it’s impossible to have happened because it’s not. People did raid tombs. Soldiers did kill civilians on the least pretext. People were buried in common graves, left to rot. It’s not likely, but it’s more likely than a miracle, which is so unlikely, that you have to appeal to supernatural intervention to make it work. This alternative explanation I’ve given you—which again is not one that I believe—is at least plausible, and it’s historical, as opposed to Bill’s explanation, which is not a historical explanation. Bill’s explanation is a theological explanation.”

    Ehrman of course mentioned in his blog as well as his book (Did Jesus Exist, The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, HarperOne, 2012) that he does believe in a historical Jesus. (Our friend Eric Chabot also mentioned this book: https://chab123.wordpress.com/2012/09/01/bart-ehrman-on-why-there-are-jesus-mythers/ )

    I was talking with a good friend of mine (electrical engineer), who graduated a year before I finished at seminary. As you may have guessed, I keep abreast of technology. Highly advanced technology looks near miraculous. 50-60 years ago, super-computers were the size of rooms or large fridges. We have more computational power in smart phones than the Apple II, which was only around 40 years ago. There are Artificial Intelligences that regularly beat the best human players (like AlphaGo). This would be unimaginable 150, 200, 500 years ago (I’m avoiding some of the predictions by Nikola Tesla).

    So let’s say I develop nanotech shoes that increase the local surface tension of water and in combination, distribute my weight, it is possible that I could walk on water. My friend finished my thought: given that 2000 years ago, nobody had such nanotechnology, it SHOULD point out that Jesus is in fact, extremely unusual. Furthermore, if he did not have such nanotechnology but walked on water without any such devices, it should point to that he has inherent/intrinsic super powers — a point that the Gospel writers are trying to impress upon us.

    I don’t think it’s reasonable to rule out such “miracles.”

    If we go back to the Resurrection, sure — people in general do not return back from the dead (people tend to remain dead) — this should also point to something remarkable.

    I might add one more minor footnote to your historical facts, and this is from Biblical Archaeology Review — the Nazareth Inscription:



    1. I don’t think it’s permissible to rule out miracles given the scientific evidence for an origin of the universe and fine tuning for intelligent life. Science is what falsifies naturalism and makes the resurrection explanation possible.


      1. A miracle is only a momentary interruption of the natural order by a powerful God to bring about a result. They may seem unlikely to a naturalist but they aren’t unlikely on a scale of abiogenisis unlikely. Compared to the odds of life spontaously starting a miracle incredibly likely.

        But atheists only see the sliver in a theist argument and misses the stack of lumber that is against their view


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s