Tag Archives: Bart Ehrman

Mike Licona debates Bart Ehrman on the reliability of the gospels

Two horses fight it out, may the best horse win!
Two horses fight it out, may the best horse win!

From the Unbelievable radio show, a debate featuring one of my favorite New Testament scholars, whose most recent book on gospel differences was published by Oxford University Press, the most prestigious academic press in the world.

Details:

Bart Ehrman is well known as a US New Testament Scholar who lost his Christian faith and now questions many core precepts of Christianity, including the Resurrection of Jesus.  When Mike Licona had doubts he devoted himself to investigating the evidence and became convinced that Jesus resurrection is the only rational explanation for the facts.

They debate key historical facts about the resurrection – are the letters of Paul that report the resurrection and the Gospel accounts trustworthy or theologised and changed with time?  What about apparent contradictions between the Gospels? Does the consensus of scholars count as evidence, or is there a Christian bias?  Can a miracle count as an explanation for historical data?

The MP3 file is here. (Note: this link works)

Snarky summary of the radio debate: (items with * are my made-up paraphrases/clarifications)

Ehrman:
– Bart’s new book is about forgeries in the ancient world
– some books were falsely attributed to prominent Christian figures
– there are mistakes in the Bible
– there are mistakes in the resurrection narratives
– the defeat of inerrancy led to his conversion to liberal Christianity
– the problem of evil and suffering caused him to become a non-Christian

Licona:
– there are minimal facts that are agreed to by a broad spectrum of scholars
– the minimal facts are accepted because they pass standard historical criteria
– Fact 1: Jesus died by crucifixion
– Fact 2: Individuals and groups had visions of Jesus after his death
– Fact 3: Paul, a skeptic and an enemy, had an appearance of Jesus that converted him
– these facts are agreed to atheist scholars, liberal scholars, etc.
– virtually 100% of scholars agree with these three facts
– there is no naturalistic explanation of these three facts
– therefore, the best explanation of these three facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead

Ehrman:
– all historians would accept these three facts, except for maybe the group appearances
– the death of Jesus is irrelevant to the resurrection
– the second and third point can be collapsed together
– so really there is only one fact

Moderator:
– the crucifixion is relevant because Muslims don’t admit that fact
– the crucifixion important because it establishes a resurrection, not a resuscitation

Ehrman:
– well, if the point is that he died, then yes, this does require a resurrection

Licona:
– the crucifixion refutes Muslims who deny that Jesus died
– the crucifixion refutes the apparent death theory (swoon theory)
– the death is required for a bodily resurrection
– it’s important to know what facts most scholars, regardless of worldview, agree on
– it’s important to emphasize that Licona is working from historical bedrock facts
– the resurrection is the best explanation for the historical bedrock facts

Ehrman:
– you are trying to list 3 things, but really it is just one thing – the appearances
– and not ALL scholars agree that the group visions occurred

Licona:
– name one prominent scholar who denies the group appearances

Ehrman:
– the radically leftist atheist nutcase John Dominic Crossan denies the group appearances
* Crossan is so far on the left that I look like a nutcase for even citing him
* Crossan believes in the Secret Gospel of Mark, which is a hoax – but I still cite Crossan
* Crossan believes that the synoptics are LATER than gnostic forged gospels – but I still cite Crossan
* Crossan presupposes atheism, so he cannot admit to miracle stories as a pre-supposition – but I still cite Crossan
* Crossan pre-supposes religious pluralism, so he cannot allow any exclusive claims Christians make – but I still cite Crossan
* Crossan is a good historian, it’s just that he is so far to the left that no one – NO ONE – agrees with his all of crazy theories
* I think it is a good idea to cite historians who pre-suppose atheism and political correctness before they sit down to do history

Licona:
– let me explain why most scholars accept the individual and group post-mortem appearances
– the best source for the appearances is the early creed recorded by Paul in 1 Cor 15:3-8
– Paul himself had an appearance of Jesus after Jesus’ death
– Paul received this material from a source very soon after the appearances – within 1-3 years
– we know that Paul met with Jesus disciples multiple times prior to writing
– Paul probably received it from Peter and James, who were themselves eyewitnesses

Moderator:
– this early dating presumably rules out legend

Licona:
– well legends CAN start quickly
– it does show that Paul was an eyewitness
– it does show that Paul was in contact with reliable eyewitnesses

Ehrman:
– 1 Corinthians is written around 55 AD, twenty-five years after Jesus died
– it is not implausible that Paul got the creed from the disciples, who were eyewitnesses
– but you don’t need a long time for legends to emerge, so that is a possibility

Licona:
– only about 3% of people could read and write back them
– instead, people had enormous capacity for memorization
– the Pharisees were particularly good at memorization
– Jews were very serious about passing along traditions accurately
– Paul, a prominent Pharisee, would have been capable of passing on early creeds accurately
– Paul, in 1 Cor 7, shows that he is willing to separate his opinions from authentic tradition
– Paul had an opportunity in 1 Cor 7 to put words into Jesus’ mouth, but he wouldn’t do it

Ehrman:
– cultural anthropologists show that things do get changed in some oral cultures
– in these oral cultures, it is assumed that the story teller will change the story
– only in written cultures are they careful to avoid changing the story
– in the New Testament, you can compare the same story in two different gospels, there are differences

Licona:
– Ehrman is right that the gospel writers pick and choose things from the oral tradition that they want to include in their gospels
– different oral tradition transmission schemes have more or less embellishment
– african tribes embellish more, rabbinic teaching embellishes less
* Jesus’ followers would have viewed him as a rabbi, and been careful about adding to his teachings
– Paul, an eyewitness, probably received the creed in 1 Cor 15 from other eyewitnesses
– Paul speaks about going twice to Jerusalem in Galatians
– he is meeting with Peter and James to check his facts

Ehrman:
– when you look at Mark and John, there are lots of differences in the narrative

Licona:
– I agree that the gospels have differences, but the oral tradition is likely fixed

Ehrman:
– but Mark and John have different sayings
– why doesn’t Mark have the same explicit high Christology that John has?

Licona:
– first, John is trying to weave the oral tradition into a compelling story
– and second, when you look in Mark, the high Christology is there in the Son of Man sayings
– the apocalyptic Son of Man is in Mark, and everywhere in the New Testament

Ehrman:
– the “apocalyptic Son of Man” isn’t in John

Licona:
– what about in John 9 with the man who was born blind

Ehrman:
– where is the apocalyptic part?

Licona:
– the healed man worships Jesus because he is the Son of Man
– that links to the apocalypic passages in the Old Testament

Moderator:
– what about the differences between the gospels?

Ehrman:
* well, now is the time for me to set up an inerrantist straw man and then knock it down!
* who was at the empty tomb: one angel or two angels? we don’t know, so the whole Bible is false!
* I used to be an inerrantist, so one minor difference is enough for me to dump the whole Bible
* I’ll kill you, you stupid straw man! I hate you, Moody Bible Institute! You lied to me!

Licona:
– many of these problems can be solved by realizing that the gospel writers compress time
– the stories don’t have to list ALL the characters in every scene
– you don’t have to force the Bible to meet some sort of wooden chronology
– the main thing is that the events happened, not that the descriptions match word for word across sources

Ehrman:
– you can’t infer a miracle from history, David Hume says so
* extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, David Hume says so
* no I don’t know what begging the question is, I’m not a philosopher
* no I don’t remember when Bill Craig kicked my ass on this Hume objection in our debate
– the New Testament gospels contradict each other at every point, they are not reliable at all!
* they cannot even agree what Jesus’ name is! There are 1 trillion variants of Jesus’ name!
* “one angel vs two angels” proves that the gospels contradict each other at every point
* my expansive list of FOUR theologically insignificant variants proves that the gospels contradict each other at every point

Licona:
– um, the gospels agree on the central narrative and disagree on the peripherals
– and they agree on the minimal facts I presented, even if they disagree about the number of angels

Ehrman:
* they have to agree on everything and be inerrant! The Moody Straw Man Bible Institute says so!
* I really really really need to have the number of angels be the same, or Jesus didn’t die on the cross

Licona:
– but you don’t deny any of the three minimal facts I presented (crucifixion, appearances, Paul)

Ehrman:
– well, I don’t know if the group appearances occurred – maybe they did
– i think Jesus died on the cross, and I think that people said they saw him alive afterward

Licona:
– if you deny the minimal facts, then you are outside the majority of scholars

Ehrman:
– the majority of scholars who agree to the minimal facts you presented are Christians
* Gerd Ludemann is an atheist Christian
* James Crossley is an atheist Christian
* Hector Avalos is an atheist Christian
* the majority of the atheist scholars are all Christians!
– VIRTUALLY EVERYBODY IN THE SOCIETY OF BIBLICAL LITERATURE IS A CHRISTIAN!!! (Yes, he said that)

Licona:
– you really think so?

Ehrman
– you name one non-Christian in the SBL

Licona:
– (incredulous) um, John Dominic Crossan is an atheist

Ehrman:
– but he CLAIMS TO BE A CHRISTIAN so that means HE IS A CHRISTIAN
* all you have to do to be a Christian is claim to be one
* you can even deny the existence of God and the divinity of Christ and still be one, you bigot!

Licona:
– would Jesus or the apostles recognize a Christian as being someone who doubts God’s existence

Ehrman:
– my view is that Jesus and the apostles would not recognize evangelical Christians as Christians
* a non-theist can be a Christian just by claiming to be one, but evangelical Christians are not Christians even if they claim to be Christians
– Christians can’t record accurate history about the resurrection because they are biased

Licona:
– on your view, if a person is a Christian then he can’t write about the evidence for the resurrection
– so then similarly, you would not allow Jews to write about the historicity of the Holocaust
– because you think that if people have an interest in what they are recording then they can’t be objective
– but you have to consider the evidence we have, taking the biases of the sources into account

Ehrman:
– but the only people who believe in the resurrection are Christians!

Licona:
– well, people can consider the evidence for the resurrection as non-Christians
– and then if they accept it they can become Christians

Moderator:
– what about your bias? you don’t believe in God – doesn’t that pre-supposition affect how you do history?

Ehrman:
– well, I presuppose naturalism, so I can’t admit to anything in history that implicates supernatural causes
* no I have never heard of the arguments for the Big Bang, fine-tuning, origin of life, Cambrian explosion, irreducible complexity, limits on mutations creating information, habitability and so on – I never heard about that stuff from my atheist university professors and even if I had I would have been expelled for talking about it because that would make people feel bad about their sinning

Licona:
– so it’s not bias you are concerned about, it’s that you don’t want history to contradict your untested religion of naturalism?
– why not just do the history without pre-suppositions to gather the minimal facts and then see what the best explanation is?

Ehrman:
* well God is out of bounds as an explanation because I could not have got my PhD if I mentioned God
* I really needed my smart atheist professors to like me and give me good grades so God is RIGHT OUT
* ideas like a real God and moral laws and Hell makes my atheist professors uncomfortable and that means low grades for me
* I’m not really interested in butting heads with professors – it’s easier to just agree with them and move on to selling books to the gullible
* My books are much more sensational than Dan Brown books, so please buy lots of them!

Licona:
– what if the historical evidence is good enough to show that Jesus rose from the dead?

Ehrman:
– well I would not call someone rising from the dead a miracle – I would call it weird
* I also think that the Big Bang is “weird” but that doesn’t prove that God created the universe out of nothing
* if it’s a miracle then I’m going to have to not sin, and maybe even go to Hell, and we can’t have that

Licona:
– well, you accept the three minimal facts
– what if we try all the naturalistic explanations for those three facts and there are problems with all of them?
– what if the resurrection is the best explanation for the three minimal facts?

Ehrman:
– but I want to arbitrarily rule God put because I want to pre-suppose naturalism
– there is not historical reason I have to rule put supernatural explanations a priori

Licona:
– I think you are struggling with the theological implications of a historical conclusion

Ehrman:
– well when you do theology, you have to avoid grounding your theology on science or history
– theology has to be completely made up or it’s not good theology

Licona:
– I think you are letting your dislike of the implications of the resurrection determine your historical conclusions
– you have to use historical methods to gather the minimal facts that every scholar accepts, regardless of worldview
– then you weigh ALL the hypotheses, natural and supernatural, that could account for these minimal facts
– then you choose the hypothesis that best explains the minimal facts

Why does atheist historian Gerd Ludemann accept the post-mortem experiences of the risen Jesus?

A conflict of worldviews
A conflict of worldviews

William Lane Craig explains why even atheist historians like Gerd Ludemann accept that the earliest followers of Jesus had experiences in which Jesus appeared to them as resurrected Lord.

Excerpt:

Fact #3: On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead. This is a fact which is almost universally acknowledged among New Testament scholars, for the following reasons:

1. The list of eyewitnesses to Jesus’s resurrection appearances which is quoted by Paul in I Cor. 15. 5-7 guarantees that such appearances occurred.

2. The appearance traditions in the gospels provide multiple, independent attestation of such appearances.

With respect to the first supporting line of evidence, it is universally accepted on the basis of the early date of Paul’s tradition as well as the apostle’s personal acquaintance with many of the people listed that the disciples did experience postmortem appearances of Christ. Among the witnesses of the resurrection appearances were Peter, the immediate circle of the disciples known as “the Twelve,” a gathering of 500 Christian believers (many of whom Paul evidently knew, since he was aware that some had died by the time of his writing), Jesus’s younger brother James, and a wider group of apostles. “Finally,” says Paul, “as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (I Cor. 15.8).

The second supporting line of evidence appeals again to the criterion of multiple attestation. The Gospels independently attest to postmortem appearances of Jesus, even to some of the same appearances found in Paul’s list. Wolfgang Trilling explains,

From the list in I Cor. 15 the particular reports of the Gospels are now to be interpreted. Here may be of help what we said about Jesus’s miracles. It is impossible to ‘prove’ historically a particular miracle. But the totality of the miracle reports permits no reasonable doubt that Jesus in fact performed ‘miracles.’ That holds analogously for the appearance reports. It is not possible to secure historically the particular event. But the totality of the appearance reports permits no reasonable doubt that Jesus in fact bore witness to himself in such a way.38

The appearance to Peter is independently attested by Paul and Luke (I Cor. 15.5; Lk. 24.34), the appearance to the Twelve by Paul, Luke, and John (I Cor. 15.5; Lk. 24:36-43; Jn. 20.19-20), the appearance to the women disciples by Matthew and John (Mt. 28.9-10; Jn. 20.11-17), and appearances to the disciples in Galilee by Mark, Matthew, and John (Mk. 16.7; Mt. 28. 16-17; Jn. 21). Taken sequentially, the appearances follow the pattern of Jerusalem-Galilee-Jerusalem, matching the festival pilgrimages of the disciples as they returned to Galilee following the Passover/Feast of Unleavened Bread and traveled again to Jerusalem two months later for Pentecost.

Lüdemann himself concludes, “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.”39 Thus, we are in basic agreement that following Jesus’s crucifixion various individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Christ alive from the dead. The real bone of contention will be how these experiences are best to be explained.

Triablogue notes that most historians accept these post-mortem experiences of the risen Jesus:

In their 2004 book, Gary Habermas and Michael Licona mention five facts accepted by the large majority of scholars:

1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
2. Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them.
3. The church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed.
4. The skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed.
5. The tomb was empty.

Habermas and Licona write:

“On the state of Resurrection studies today, I (Habermas) recently completed an overview of more than 1,400 sources on the resurrection of Jesus published since 1975. I studied and catalogued about 650 of these texts in English, German, and French. Some of the results of this study are certainly intriguing. For example, perhaps no fact is more widely recognized than that early Christian believers had real experiences that they thought were appearances of the risen Jesus. A critic may claim that what they saw were hallucinations or visions, but he does not deny that they actually experienced something….roughly 75 percent of scholars on the subject accept the empty tomb as a historical fact.” (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2004], pp. 60, 70)

Habermas and Licona explain that even “the majority of nonbelieving scholars” (p. 149) accept such facts, not just Christian scholars. And even many professing Christian scholars are Christian in name, but reject much of what Christians have traditionally believed. Skeptics sometimes suggest that a scholarly consensus on facts related to Jesus’ resurrection isn’t of much significance, because so many of the scholars are Christians, but traditional Christians make up only a small percentage of scholarship.

When talking about the appearances, the challenge is always to make the move from “through they saw” to “they actually saw”. In chapter 6 of their introductory book on the resurrection of Jesus, “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus“, Mike Licona and Gary Habermas give some reasons why the post-mortem appearances of Jesus were not hallucinations. First, they argue that hallucinations are had by individuals, not groups. Second, they argue that the hallucination hypothesis leaves the empty tomb unexplained. It also doesn’t explain the appearances to skeptical James and antagonistic Paul. Finally, the appearance narratives are too varied to be hallucinations, i.e. – individuals, groups, friends, enemies, different times and different places.

If you want to read a scholarly response to the hallucination hypothesis, it’s right in the article by Dr. Craig that I was quoting from above. He assesses the hallucination hypothesis as put forward by atheist scholar Gerd Ludemann against the standard criteria for judging multiple competing historical explanations. It’s too much to quote here, but click through and read it when you can. If you want to see a good summary of the arguments for the empty tomb, go right here.

See it used in a debate

You can see the arguments made and defended from criticism in this debate with the atheist scholar James Crossley.

This my favorite resurrection debate.

Peter J. Williams debates Bart Ehrman on his book “Misquoting Jesus”

The audio for this Unbelievable radio show debate is available from Apologetics 315.

Bart Ehrman actually posted the audio on YouTube, as well:

Details:

Bart Ehrman is the US author of the bestselling book “Misquoting Jesus” (In the UK “Whose word is it?”).  He calls into question the authority of the New Testament as scribal changes over time have changed the documents.

So can we trust the scripture? Bible scholar Peter Williams believes in the reliability of the New Testament and that Bart’s prognosis is far too pessimistic.

This post is a re-post from 2011. I have been listening to this lecture by Peter J. Williams on “Misquoting Jesus” this week, and it reminded me to re-post this debate.

Summary of the Williams-Ehrman debate:

Note: this summary is snarky. If you want an accurate view of the debate, then listen to it. My summary is meant to be humorous.

Ehrman:

  • I had a mystical experience in childhood and became an evangelical Christian
  • I went to Moody Bible Institute, and they told me that the Bible was inerrant
  • For a while, I was committed to the view that there are no mistakes in the Bible
  • At Princeton, I was taught and graded by professors who did not accept inerrancy
  • By a strange coincidence, I began to see that the Bible did have errors after all!
  • We don’t have the original documents written by the original authors, we only have thousands of copies
  • if the words of the Bible are not completely inerrant, then none of it is historical
  • if all of the words in all the copies of the Bible are not identical, then none of it is historical

Williams:

  • I would say the New and Old testaments are the Word of God
  • We don’t need to have the original Greek writings in order to believe in the authority of the Bible
  • I believe in inerrancy, but doesn’t mean there are no problems
  • the doctrine of inerrancy has always referred to the original Greek copies, not the translations

Moderator:

  • what are the main points of Misquoting Jesus?

Ehrman:

  • we don’t have the originals of any of the books of the New Testament
  • we have copies that are much later, sometimes even centuries later!!1!
  • the copies we have all differ from one another – they were changed by scribes!!1!
  • we have 5000 manuscripts in the original Greek language
  • there are hundreds of thousands of differences!!1!
  • most of the differences don’t matter
  • some differences are significant for meaning or doctrine
  • errors are propagated because the next scribe inherits the mistake of their source copy
  • a large gap between the time of writing and the first extant copy means more errors have crept in

Williams:

  • the reason we have so many variants is because the number of manuscripts is large

Angry Jesus or compassionate Jesus in Mark

Ehrman:

  • most manuscripts say that Jesus was compassionate when healing a leper, but one says he was angry
  • it makes a huge huge huge really really big difference if Jesus is compassionate or angry
  • the whole Bible needs to be thrown out because of this one word between different in one manuscript

Williams:

  • this variant is important for understanding the passage, but it has no great meaning
  • the change is probably just an accident – the two words are very similar visually in Greek
  • it’s just an accident – it emerged in one manuscript, and it impacted a few more
  • the tiny number of manuscripts that have the error are geographically isolated
  • I’m pretty sure that WK prefers the angry Jesus anyway – so who cares?

Ehrman:

  • no! someone changed it deliberately! it’s a conspiracy! you should buy my book! it’s a *big deal*!!!!!1!!1!one!!eleventy-one!

The woman caught in adultery in John

Ehrman:

  • it is isn’t in any of the earliest manuscripts
  • this is an apocryphical story that some scribe deliberately inserted into the text
  • most people don’t even know about this! it’s a cover-up! you need to buy my scandalous book!

Williams:

  • that’s right, it’s a late addition by some overzealous scribe
  • and it’s clearly marked as such in every modern Bible translation
  • the only people who don’t know about this are people who don’t read footnotes in their Bible
  • and in any case, this isn’t a loss of the original words of the New Testament – it’s an addition

Grace of God or apart from God in Hebrews

Ehrman:

  • well this is just a one word difference, but it makes a huge huge really really big difference!
  • the words are very similar, so it’s could be an accident I guess
  • but it wasn’t! this was a deliberate change! it’s a conspiracy! it’s a cover-up! scandal!
  • buy my book! It’s almost as good as Dan Brown!

Moderator:

  • hmmmn…. I kind of like “apart from God” – why is this such a big scandal again?

Ehrman:

  • you don’t care? how can you not care? it has to be inerrant! or the whole thing is false!
  • Moody Bible Institute says!

Williams:

  • yeah Bart is always saying that every change is deliberate but it’s just an accident
  • the words are very similar, just a few letters are different, this is clearly an accident
  • I have no problem with apart from God, or by the Grace of God
  • please move on and stop screaming and running around and knocking things over

Moderator:

  • but what if pastors try to use this passage in a sermon?

Williams:

  • well, one word doesn’t make a big different, the meaning that appears is fine for preaching
  • it’s only a problem for people who treat the Bible as a magic book with magical incantations
  • they get mad because if one word is out of place then the whole thing doesn’t work for their spell
  • then they try to cast happiness spells but the spells don’t work and they experience suffering
  • the suffering surprises them since they think that fundamentalism should guarantee them happiness
  • then they become apostates and get on TV where they look wide-eyed and talk crazy

Ehrman:

  • hey! are you talking about me? a lot of people buy my books! i am a big success!
  • it is very important that people don’t feel bad about their sinning you know!

Is Misquoting Jesus an attack?

Williams:

  • it’s rhetorically imbalanced and misleading
  • it tries to highlight change and instability and ignore the majority of the text that is stable
  • he makes a big deal out of 5 or so verses that are different from the mainstream text
  • he says that scribes deliberately changed the scriptures, but he doesn’t prove that
  • it’s just as likely that the differences are just scribal errors made by accident

Ehrman:

  • well, maybe the variants aren’t a big deal, but what about one angel vs. two angels?
  • that’s a significant issue! significant enough for me to become an apostate – a rich apostate
  • if one word is different because of an accident, then the whole Bible cannot be trusted
  • it has to be completely inerrant, so a one word difference means the whole thing is unreliable
  • we don’t even know if Jesus was even named Jesus, because of one angel vs two angels!!!1!
  • buy my book! you don’t have to read it, just put it on your shelf, then you’ll feel better about not having a relationships with God – because who’s to say what God really wants from you? Not the Bible!

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.

Excerpt:

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.

What are the historical arguments for the empty tomb narrative?

Investigation in progress
Investigation in progress

I wanted to go over this article by William Lane Craig which includes a discussion of the empty tomb, along with the other minimal facts that support the resurrection.

The word resurrection means bodily resurrection

The concept of resurrection in use among the first converts to Christianity was a Jewish concept of resurrection. And that concept of resurrection is unequivocally in favor of a bodily resurrection. The body (soma) that went into the grave is the body (soma) that came out.

Craig explains what this means with respect to the fast start of Christian belief:

For a first century Jew the idea that a man might be raised from the dead while his body remained in the tomb was simply a contradiction in terms. In the words of E. E. Ellis, “It is very unlikely that the earliest Palestinian Christians could conceive of any distinction between resurrection and physical, ‘grave emptying’ resurrection. To them an anastasis without an empty grave would have been about as meaningful as a square circle.”

And:

Even if the disciples had believed in the resurrection of Jesus, it is doubtful they would have generated any following. So long as the body was interred in the tomb, a Christian movement founded on belief in the resurrection of the dead man would have been an impossible folly.

It’s significant that the belief in the resurrection started off in the city where the tomb was located. Anyone, such as the Romans or Jewish high priests, who wanted to nip the movement in the bud could easily have produced the body to end it all. They did not do so, because they could not do so, although they had every reason to do so.

There are multiple early, eyewitness sources for the empty tomb

Paul’s early creed from 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, dated to within 5 years of the crucifixion, implies the empty tomb.

Craig writes:

In the formula cited by Paul the expression “he was raised” following the phrase “he was buried” implies the empty tomb. A first century Jew could not think otherwise. As E. L. Bode observes, the notion of the occurrence of a spiritual resurrection while the body remained in the tomb is a peculiarity of modern theology. For the Jews it was the remains of the man in the tomb which were raised; hence, they carefully preserved the bones of the dead in ossuaries until the eschatological resurrection. There can be no doubt that both Paul and the early Christian formula he cites pre-suppose the existence of the empty tomb.

The dating of the resurrection as having occurred “on the third day” implies the empty tomb. The date specified for the resurrection would have been the date that the tomb was discovered to be empty.

The phrase “on the third day” probably points to the discovery of the empty tomb. Very briefly summarized, the point is that since no one actually witnessed the resurrection of Jesus, how did Christians come to date it “on the third day?” The most probable answer is that they did so because this was the day of the discovery of the empty tomb by Jesus’ women followers. Hence, the resurrection itself came to be dated on that day. Thus, in the old Christian formula quoted by Paul we have extremely early evidence for the existence of Jesus’ empty tomb.

A few quotes from atheist historians not from Dr. Craig’s article: (thanks to Eric of Ratio Christi OSU)

Michael Goulder (Atheist NT Prof. at Birmingham) “…it goes back at least to what Paul was taught when he was converted, a couple of years after the crucifixion.” [“The Baseless Fabric of a Vision,” in Gavin D’Costa, editor, Resurrection Reconsidered (Oxford, 1996), 48.]

Gerd Lüdemann (Atheist Prof of NT at Göttingen): “…the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus…not later than three years… the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in I Cor.15.3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 CE.” [The Resurrection of Jesus, trans. by Bowden (Fortress, 1994), 171-72.]

Robert Funk (Non-Christian scholar, founder of the Jesus Seminar): “…The conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead had already taken root by the time Paul was converted about 33 C.E. On the assumption that Jesus died about 30 C.E., the time for development was thus two or three years at most.” [Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus, 466.]

The early pre-Markan burial narrative mentions the empty tomb. This source pre-dates Mark, the earliest gospel. The source has been dated by some scholars to the 40s. For example, the atheist scholar James Crossley dates Mark some time in the 40s. (See the debate below)

The empty tomb story is part of the pre-Markan passion story and is therefore very old. The empty tomb story was probably the end of Mark’s passion source. As Mark is the earliest of our gospels, this source is therefore itself quite old. In fact the commentator R. Pesch contends that it is an incredibly early source. He produces two lines of evidence for this conclusion:

(a) Paul’s account of the Last Supper in 1 Cor. 11:23-5 presupposes the Markan account. Since Paul’s own traditions are themselves very old, the Markan source must be yet older.

(b) The pre-Markan passion story never refers to the high priest by name. It is as when I say “The President is hosting a dinner at the White House” and everyone knows whom I am speaking of because it is the man currently in office. Similarly the pre-Markan passion story refers to the “high priest” as if he were still in power. Since Caiaphas held office from AD 18-37, this means at the latest the pre-Markan source must come from within seven years after Jesus’ death. This source thus goes back to within the first few years of the Jerusalem fellowship and is therefore an ancient and reliable source of historical information.

So we are dealing with very early sources for the empty tomb.

Lack of legendary embellishments

The empty tomb narrative in the gospels lacks legendary embellishments, unlike later 2nd century forgeries that originated outside of Jerusalem.

The eyewitness testimony of the women

This is the evidence that has been the most convincing to skeptics, and to me as well.

The tomb was probably discovered empty by women. To understand this point one has to recall two facts about the role of women in Jewish society.

(a) Woman occupied a low rung on the Jewish social ladder. This is evident in such rabbinic expressions as “Sooner let the words of the law be burnt than delivered to women” and “Happy is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female.”

(b) The testimony of women was regarded as so worthless that they were not even permitted to serve as legal witnesses in a court of law. In light of these facts, how remarkable must it seem that it is women who are the discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb. Any later legend would certainly have made the male disciples to discover the empty tomb. The fact that women, whose testimony was worthless, rather than men, are the chief witnesses to the empty tomb is most plausibly accounted for by the fact that, like it or not, they were the discoverers of the empty tomb and the gospels accurately record this.

The earliest response from the Jewish high priests assumes the empty tomb

This report from Matthew 28 fulfills the criteria of enemy attestation, although Matthew is not the earliest source we have. Oh, well.

In Matthew 28, we find the Christian attempt to refute the earliest Jewish polemic against the resurrection. That polemic asserted that the disciples stole away the body. The Christians responded to this by reciting the story of the guard at the tomb, and the polemic in turn charged that the guard fell asleep. Now the noteworthy feature of this whole dispute is not the historicity of the guards but rather the presupposition of both parties that the body was missing. The earliest Jewish response to the proclamation of the resurrection was an attempt to explain away the empty tomb. Thus, the evidence of the adversaries of the disciples provides evidence in support of the empty tomb.

Note how careful Craig is not to imply that the guard tradition is historical, because we can’t prove the guard as a “minimal fact”, since it doesn’t pass the standard historical criteria.

See it used in a debate

You can see the arguments made and defended from criticism in this debate with the atheist scholar James Crossley.

This my favorite resurrection debate.