Tag Archives: Early Attestation

1 Corinthians 15: the earliest source for the basic facts about the life of Jesus

The Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us
The Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us

First, the creed – which is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:

3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,

4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,

5and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.

6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.

7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,

8and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

Almost all historians accept this creed as dating back to within 5 years of the death of Jesus. But why?

Here’s a great article from Eric Chabot, director of Ratio Christi Apologetics Alliance, The Ohio State University to explain why.


The late Orthodox Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide was so impressed by the creed of 1 Cor. 15, that he concluded that this “formula of faith may be considered as a statement of eyewitnesses.” (5)

Paul’s usage of the rabbinic terminology “passed on” and “received” is seen in the creed of 1 Cor. 15:3-8:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

[…]While the word “received” (a rabbinical term) can also be used in the New Testament of receiving a message or body of instruction or doctrine (1 Cor.11:23; 15:1, 3; Gal. 1:9, 12 [2x], Col 2:6; 1 Thess 2:13; 4:1; 2 Thess 3:6), it also means means “to receive from another.” This entails that Paul received this information from someone else at an even earlier date. 1 Corinthians is dated 50-55 A.D. Since Jesus was crucified in 30-33 A.D. the letter is only 20-25 years after the death of Jesus. But the actual creed here in 1 Cor. 15 was received by Paul much earlier than 55 A.D.

[…]Even the co-founder Jesus Seminar member John Dominic Crossan, writes:

“Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus in the early 50s C.E. But he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “I handed on to you as of first importance which I in turn received.” The most likely source and time for his reception of that tradition would have been Jerusalem in the early 30s when, according to Galatians 1:18, he “went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days” (11).

This comment by Crossan makes sense because within the creed Paul calls Peter by his Aramic name, Cephas. Hence, if this tradition originated in the Aramaic language, the two locations that people spoke Aramaic were Galilee and Judea. (12) The Greek term “historeo” is translated as “to visit” or “to interview.” (13) Hence, Paul’s purpose of the trip was probably designed to affirm the resurrection story with Peter who had been an actual eyewitness to the resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 15:5).

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “Hey WK, isn’t John Dominic Crossan that wacky liberal atheist who is on the far-left fringe of historical Jesus scholarship? So wacky, that he actually thought that Secret Gospel of Mark was real, instead of just being a hoax?” Yes, that’s the nutty John Dominic Crossan I mean. The very one.

Here’s a bit more about this early creed from Gary Habermas.


Paul is clear that this material was not his own but that he had passed on to others what he had received earlier, as the center of his message (15:3). There are many textual indications that the material pre-dates Paul. Most directly, the apostle employs paredoka and parelabon, the equivalent Greek terms for delivering and receiving rabbinic tradition (cf. 1 Cor. 11:23). Indirect indications of a traditional text(s) include the sentence structure and verbal parallelism, diction, and the triple sequence of kai hoti Further, several non-Pauline words, the proper names of Cephas (cf. Lk. 24:34) and James, and the possibility of an Aramaic original are all significant. Fuller attests to the unanimity of scholarship here: “It is almost universally agreed today that Paul is here citing tradition.”[4] Critical scholars agree that Paul received the material well before this book was written.[5]

The most popular view is that Paul received this material during his trip to Jerusalem just three years after his conversion, to visit Peter and James, the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:18-19), both of whose names appear in the appearance list (1 Cor. 15:5; 7). An important hint here is Paul’s use of the verb historesai (1:18), a term that indicates the investigation of a topic.[6] The immediate context both before and after reveals this subject matter: Paul was inquiring concerning the nature of the Gospel proclamation (Gal. 1:11-2:10), of which Jesus’ resurrection was the center (1 Cor. 15:3-4, 14, 17; Gal. 1:11, 16).

Critical scholars generally agree that this pre-Pauline creed(s) may be the earliest in the New Testament. Ulrich Wilckens asserts that it “indubitably goes back to the oldest phase of all in the history of primitive Christianity.”[7] Joachim Jeremias agrees that it is, “the earliest tradition of all.”[8] Perhaps a bit too optimistically, Walter Kasper even thinks that it was possibly even “in use by the end of 30 AD . . . .”[9]

Indicating the wide approval on this subject, even more skeptical scholars frequently agree. Gerd Ludemann maintains that “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. . . .”[10] Similarly, Michael Goulder thinks that it “goes back at least to what Paul was taught when he was converted, a couple of years after the crucifixion.”[11] Thomas Sheehan agrees that this tradition “probably goes back to at least 32-34 C.E., that is, to within two to four years of the crucifixion.”[12] Others clearly consent.[13]

Overall, my recent overview of critical sources mentioned above indicates that those who provide a date generally opt for Paul’s reception of this report relatively soon after Jesus’ death, by the early to mid-30s A.D.[14] This provides an additional source that appears just a half step removed from eyewitness testimony.

(3) Paul was so careful to assure the content of his Gospel message, that he made a second trip to Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1-10) specifically to be absolutely sure that he had not been mistaken (2:2). The first time he met with Peter and James (Gal. 1:18-20). On this occasion, the same two men were there, plus the apostle John (2:9). Paul was clearly doing his research by seeking out the chief apostles. As Martin Hengel notes, “Evidently the tradition of I Cor. 15.3 had been subjected to many tests” by Paul.[15]

These four apostles were the chief authorities in the early church, and each is represented in the list of those who had seen the resurrected Jesus (1 Cor. 15:5-7). So their confirmation of Paul’s Gospel preaching (Gal. 2:9), especially given the apostolic concern to insure doctrinal truth in the early church, is certainly significant. On Paul’s word, we are again just a short distance from a firsthand report.

(4) Not only do we have Paul’s account that the other major apostles confirmed his Gospel message, but he provides the reverse testimony, too. After listing Jesus’ resurrection appearances, Paul tells us he also knew what the other apostles were preaching regarding Jesus’ appearances, and it was the same as his own teaching on this subject (1 Cor. 15:11). As one, they proclaimed that Jesus was raised from the dead (15:12, 15). So Paul narrates both the more indirect confirmation of his Gospel message by the apostolic leaders, plus his firsthand, direct approval of their resurrection message.

That’s how solid this early creed is – even atheists like Crossan and Ludemann accept it as historically reliable. It’s historical bedrock, as Michael Licona likes to say. This is the stuff that everyone accepts – across the ideological spectrum. How do you account for this evidence in your worldview, especially given that Paul never recanted his preaching about Jesus?

William Lane Craig debates James Crossley on the resurrection of Jesus

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

This is my favorite debate on the resurrection.

You can watch the debate here:

The MP3 file can be obtained from Apologetics 315.

There is not much snark in this summary, because Crossley is a solid scholar, and very fair with the evidence.


William Lane Craig’s opening speech

Two contentions:

  • There are four minimal facts that are accepted by most historians
  • The best explanation of the four minimal facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead

Contention 1 of 2:

Fact 1: The burial

  • The burial is multiply attested
    • The burial is based on the early source material that Mark used for his gospel
    • Scholars date this Markan source to within 10 years of the crucifixion
    • The burial is also in the early passage in 1 Cor 15:3-8
    • So you have 5 sources, some of which are very early
  • The burial is credited to a member of the Sanhedrin
    • the burial is probable because shows an enemy of the church doing right
    • this makes it unlikely to to be an invention

Fact 2: The empty tomb

  • The burial story supports the empty tomb
    • the site of Jesus’ grave was known
    • the disciples could not proclaim a resurrection if the body were still in it
    • the antagonists to the early Christians could have produced the body
  • The empty tomb is multiple attested
    • it’s mentioned explicitly in Mark
    • it’s in the separate sources used by Matthew and John
    • it’s in the early sermons documented in Acts
    • it’s implied by 1 Cor 15:3-8, because resurrection requires that the body is missing
  • The empty tomb was discovered by women
    • the testimony of women of women was not normally allowed in courts of law
    • if this story was being made up, they would have chosen male disciples
  • The empty tomb discover lacks legendary embellishment
    • there is no theological or apologetical reflection on the meaning of the tomb
  • The early Jewish response implies that the tomb was empty
    • the response was that the disciples stole the body
    • that requires that the tomb was found empty

Fact 3: The appearances to individuals and groups, some of the them hostile

  • The list of appearances is in 1 Cor 15:3-8
    • this material is extremely early, withing 1-3 years after the cross
    • James, the brother of Jesus, was not a believer when he got his appearance
    • Paul was hostile to the early church when he got his appearance
  • Specific appearances are multiply attested
    • Peter: attested by Luke and Paul
    • The twelve: attested by Luke, John and Paul
    • The women: attested by Matthew and John

Fact 4: The early belief in the resurrection emerged in a hostile environment

  • There was no background belief in a dying Messiah
  • There was no background belief in a single person resurrecting before the general resurrection of all of the righteous at the end of the age
  • The disciples were willing to die for their belief in the resurrection of Jesus
  • The resurrection is the best explanation for the transformation of the disciples from frightened to reckless of death

Contention 2 of 2:

  • The resurrection is the best explanation because it passes C.B. McCullough’s six tests for historical explanations
  • None of the naturalistic explanations accounts for the minimal facts as well as the resurrection

James Crossley’s opening speech

Appeals to the majority of scholars doesn’t prove anything

  • the majority of people in the west are Christians so of course there are a majority of scholars that support the resurrection
  • there are Christian schools where denial of the resurrection can result in termination

The best early sources (1 Cor 15:3-8 and Mark) are not that good

1 Cor 15:3-8 doesn’t support the empty tomb

  • verse 4 probably does imply a bodily resurrection
  • the passage does have eyewitnesses to appearances of Jesus
  • but there are no eyewitnesses to the empty tomb in this source
  • appearances occur in other cultures in different times and places
  • Jesus viewed himself as a martyr
  • his followers may have had hallucinations

Mark 16:1-8

  • Mark is dated to the late 30s and early 40s
  • The women who discover the tomb tell no one about the empty tomb

The gospels show signs of having things added to them

  • Jewish story telling practices allowed the teller to make things up to enhance their hero
  • one example of this would be the story of the earthquake and the people coming out of their graves
  • that story isn’t in Mark, nor any external sources like Josephus
  • if there really was a mass resurrection, where are these people today?
  • so this passage in Matthew clearly shows that at least some parts of the New Testament could involve
  • what about the contradiction between the women tell NO ONE and yet other people show up at the empty tomb
  • the story about Jesus commissioning the early church to evangelize Gentiles was probably added
  • there are also discrepancies in the timing of events and appearances
  • why are there explicit statements of high Christology in John, but not in the earlier sources?

William Lane Craig’s first rebuttal

Crossley’s response to the burial: he accepts it

Crossley’s response to the empty tomb: he thinks it was made up

  • rabbinical stories are not comparable to the gospel accounts
  • the rabbinical stories are just anecdotal creative story-telling
  • the gospels are ancient biographies – the genre is completely different
  • the rabbinic miracle stories are recorded much later than the gospels
  • the rabbi’s legal and moral ideas were written down right away
  • the miracle stories were written down a century or two later
  • in contrast, the miracle stories about Jesus are in the earliest sources, like Mark
  • the rabbinical stories are intended as entertainment, not history
  • the gospels are intended as biography
  • just because there are some legendary/apocalyptic elements in Matthew, it doesn’t undermine things like the crucfixion that are historically accurate

Crossley’s response to the evidence for the empty tomb:

  • no response to the burial
  • the empty tomb cannot be made up, it was implied by Paul early on
  • the women wouldn’t have said nothing forever – they eventually talked after they arrived to where the disciples were
  • no response to the lack of embellishment
  • no response to the early Jewish polemic

Crossley’s response to the appearances

  • he agrees that the first followers of Jesus had experiences where they thought Jesus was still alive

Crossley’s response to the early belief in the bodily resurrection:

  • no response about how this belief in a resurrection could have emerged in the absence of background belief in the death of the Messiah and the resurrection of one man before the general resurrection of all the righteous at the end of the age

What about Crossley’s hallucination theory?

  • Crossley says that the followers of Jesus had visions, and they interpreted these visions against the story of the Maccabean martyrs who looked forward to their own resurrections
  • but the hallucination hypothesis doesn’t account for the empty tomb
  • and the Maccabean martyrs were not expecting the resurrection of one man, and certainly not the Messiah – so that story doesn’t provide the right background belief for a hallucination of a single resurrected person prior to the end of the age
  • if the appearances were non-physical, the disciples would not have applied the word resurrection – it would just have been a vision
  • the visions could easily be reconciled with the idea that somehow God was pleased with Jesus and that he had some glorified/vindicated non-corporeal existence – but not resurrection
  • not only that, the hallucination hypothesis doesn’t even explain the visions, because there were visions to groups, to skeptics and to enemies in several places

What about the argument that only Christians accept the resurrection?

  • it’s an ad hominem attack that avoids the arguments

James Crossley’s first rebuttal

Regarding the burial:

  • I could be persuaded of that the burial account is accurate

Regarding the non-expectation of a suffering/dying Messiah:

  • Jesus thought he was going to die
  • this thinking he was going to die overturned all previous Messianic expectations that the Messiah wouldn’t suffer or die
  • the early Jews could easily reconcile the idea of a suffering, dead man killed by the Romans with the power of the all-powerful Messiah who supposed to reign forever
  • no actually bodily resurrection would have to happen to get them to continue to identify an executed corpse with the role of Messiah

Regarding the belief in the bodily resurrection:

  • it would be natural for Jews, who believed in a general resurrection of all the rigtheous dead at the end of the age, to interpret a non-physical vision of one man after he died as a bodily resurrection, even though no Jew had ever considered the resurrection of one man before the general resurrection before Jesus

Regarding the testimony of the women:

  • Just because women were not able to testify in courts of law (unless there were no male witnesses), the early church might still invent a story where the women are the first witnesses
  • first, the disciples had fled the scene, so only the women were left
  • and it would have been a good idea for the early church to invent women as the first witnesses – the fact that they could not testify in court makes them ideal witnesses and very persuasive
  • also, it’s a good idea to invent women as witnesses, because the Romans had a rule that said that they never killed women, so they wouldn’t have killed these women – Romans only ever kill men
  • in any case, the first witness to the empty tomb is angel, so as long as people could talk to the angel as being the first witness, that’s the best story to invent

Regarding the consensus of Christian scholars:

  • I am not saying that Craig’s facts are wrong, just that appealing to consensus is not legitimate
  • he has to appeal to the evidence, not the consensus

Regarding my naturalistic bias:

  • I don’t know or care if naturalism is true, let’s look at the evidence

Regarding the genre of the gospels:

  • the creative story-telling is common in all genres, it’s not a genre in itself
  • stuff about Roman emperors also has creative story-telling

Regarding the legendary nature of the empty tomb in Mark:

  • First, Christians interpreted the visions as a bodily resurrection
  • Second, they invented the story of the empty tomb to go with that interpretation
  • Third, they died for their invention

William Lane Craig’s second rebuttal

The burial:

  • Bill’s case doesn’t need to know the specifics of the burial, only that the location was known
  • the location is important because it supports the empty tomb
  • to proclaim a resurrection, the tomb would have to be empty
  • a tomb with a known location is easier to check

The empty tomb:

  • creative story telling was common in Judaism: retelling OT stories (midrash), romances/novels, rabbinical anecdotes
  • but the gospels are none of these genres – the gospels are ancient biographies
  • Craig also gave five arguments as to why the tomb was empty
  • the burial story supports the empty tomb
  • there is multiple independent attestation, then it cannot be a creative fiction invented in Mark alone
  • the witnesses were in Jerusalem, so they were in a position to know
  • regarding the women, even though Jesus respected the women, their testimony would not be convincing to others, so why invent a story where they are the witnesses
  • the male disciples did not flee the scene, for example, Peter was there to deny Jesus three times
  • if the story is made up, who cares what the male disciples did, just invent them on the scene anyway
  • the angel is not authoritative, because the angel cannot be questioned, but the women can be questioned
  • there was no response on the lack of embellishment
  • there was no response to the earliest Jewish response implying that the tomb was empty

The appearances:

  • we agree on the appearances

The early belief in the resurrection:

  • he says that Jesus predicted his own death
  • yes, but that would only cause people to think that he was a martyr, not that he was the messiah – something else is needed for them to keep their believe that he was the Messiah even after he died, because the Messiah wasn’t supposed to die
  • and of course, there was no expectation of a single person rising from the dead before the general resurrection, and certainly not the Messiah

The consensus of scholars:

  • Jewish scholars like Geza Vermes and Pinchas Lapide accept these minimal facts like the empty tomb, it’s not just Christian scholars

Against Crossley’s hallucination hypothesis:

  • it doesn’t explain the empty the tomb
  • it doesn’t explain the early belief in the resurrection
  • hallucinations would only lead to the idea that God had exalted/glorified Jesus, not that he was bodily raised from the dead
  • the hallucination theory cannot accommodate all of the different kinds of appearances; individual, group, skeptic, enemy, etc.

The pre-supposition of naturalism:

  • if Crossley is not committed to naturalism, then he should be open to the minimal facts and to the best explanation of those facts
  • the hallucination hypothesis has too many problems
  • the resurrection hypothesis explains everything, and well

James Crossley’s second rebuttal

Religious pluralism:

  • well, there are lots of other religious books
  • those other religious books have late sources, and are filled with legends and myths, and no eyewitness testimony
  • so why should we trust 1 Cor 15 and the early source for Mark and the other early eyewitness testimony in the New Testament?
  • if other religious books can be rejected for historical reasons, then surely the New Testament can be rejected for historical reasons


  • the genre of ancient biography can incorporate and commonly incorporates invented legendaryt story-telling
  • this is common in Roman, Greek and Jewish literature and everyone accepts that

Empty tomb: multiple attestation

  • ok, so maybe the empty tomb is multiply attested, but that just gets back to a belief, not to a fact
  • multiple attestation is not the only criteria, and Craig needs to use the other criteria to make his case stronger

Empty tomb: invented

  • if there is a belief in the resurrection caused by the visions, then the empty tomb would have to be invented
  • why aren’t there more reliable stories of people visiting the empty tomb in more sources?

Empty tomb: role of the women

  • there are women who have an important role in the Bible, like Judith and Esther
  • Mark’s passage may have used women who then kept silent in order to explain why no one knew where the empty tomb was
  • if the fleeing of the men is plausible to explain the women, then why not use that? why appeal to the supernatural?
  • we should prefer any explanation that is naturalistic even if it is not as good as the supernatural explanation at explaining everything

Empty tomb: embellishment

  • well there is an angel there, that’s an embellishment
  • anyway, when you say there is no embellishment, what are you comparing it to that makes you say that?

Appearances: anthropology

  • I’ve read anthropology literature that has some cases where people have hallucinations as groups

Appearances: theology

  • the hallucinations would not be interpreted against the background theological beliefs that ruled out the resurrection of one man before then general resurrection of all the righteous dead
  • these hallucinations could have been so compelling that they made the earliest Christians, and skeptics like James, and enemies like the Pharisee Paul abandon all of their previous background beliefs, proclaim the new doctrine of a crucified and resurrected Messiah which no one had ever expected, and then gone on to die for that belief
  • the hallucinations could have changed all of their theology and reversed all of their beliefs about the what the word resurrection meant

William Lane Craig’s conclusion


  • None of the four facts are supernatural, they are natural, and ascertained by historians using normal historical methods
  • the supernatural part only comes in after we decide on the facts when we are deciding which explanation is the best
  • a tomb being found empty is not a miraculous fact


  • the gospels are not analagous to these rabbinical stories, the purpose and dating is different

Empty tomb:

  • what multiple attestation shows is that it was not made-up by Mark
  • and the argument was augmented with other criteria, like the criterion of embarrassment and the criterion of dissimilarity
  • Judith and Esther are very rare exceptions, normally women were not viewed as reliable witnesses
  • if the story was invented, whatever purpose the inventors had would have been better served by inventing male witnesses
  • Craig grants that the angel may be an embellishment for the sake of argument, but there are no other embellishments
  • the real embellishments occur in forged gnostic gospels in the second and third centuries, where there are theological motifs added to the bare fact of the empty tomb (e.g. – the talking cross in the Gospel of Peter)
  • he had no response to the earliest jewish response which implied an empty tomb

Belief in the resurrection:

  • there was no way for Jewish people to interpret an appearance as a bodily resurrection before the end of the world, they did not expect that
  • they could have imagined exaltation, but not a bodily resurrection

James Crossley’s conclusion

Supernatural explanation:

  • as long as there is any other other possible naturalistic explanation, we should prefer that, no matter how unlikely

Creative stories:

  • some of these creative stories appear within the lifetimes of the people connected to the events (none mentioned)


  • you should compare to earlier stories when looking for embellishments, not later
  • and we don’t have any earlier sources, so we just don’t know the extent of the embellishment

Jewish response:

  • they probably just heard about the empty tomb, and didn’t check on it, then invented the stole-the-body explanation without ever checking to see if the tomb was empty or not

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.


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.

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.

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.”


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.