Tag Archives: Historical Jesus

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.”

There is an interesting parallel to Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 15:3-8 in the works of Josephus. Josephus says the following about the Pharisees.

“I want to explain here that the Pharisees passed on to the people certain ordinances from a succession of fathers, which are not written down in the law of Moses. For this reason the party of the Sadducees dismisses these ordinances, averaging that one need only recognize the written ordinances, whereas those from the tradition of the fathers need not be observed.” (6)

As Richard Bauckham notes, “the important point for our purposes is that Josephus uses the language of “passing on” tradition for the transmission from one teacher to another and also for the transmission from the Pharisees to the people.”(7)

Bauckham notes in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony that the Greek word for “eyewitness” (autoptai), does not have forensic meaning, and in that sense the English word “eyewitnesses” with its suggestion of a metaphor from the law courts, is a little misleading. The autoptai are simply firsthand observers of those events. Bauckham has followed the work of Samuel Byrskog in arguing that while the Gospels though in some ways are a very distinctive form of historiography, they share broadly in the attitude to eyewitness testimony that was common among historians in the Greco-Roman period. These historians valued above all reports of firsthand experience of the events they recounted.

Best of all was for the historian to have been himself a participant in the events (direct autopsy). Failing that (and no historian was present at all the events he need to recount, not least because some would be simultaneous), they sought informants who could speak from firsthand knowledge and whom they could interview (indirect autopsy).” In other words, Byrskog defines “autopsy,” as a visual means of gathering data about a certain object and can include means that are either direct (being an eyewitness) or indirect (access to eyewitnesses).

Byrskog also claims that such autopsy is arguably used by Paul (1 Cor.9:1; 15:5–8; Gal. 1:16), Luke (Acts 1:21–22; 10:39–41) and John (19:35; 21:24; 1 John 1:1–4).

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.


(1) Contemporary critical scholars agree that the apostle Paul is the primary witness to the early resurrection experiences. A former opponent (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13-14; Phil. 3:4-7), Paul states that the risen Jesus appeared personally to him (1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8; Gal. 1:16). The scholarly consensus here is attested by atheist Michael Martin, who avers: “However, we have only one contemporary eyewitness account of a postresurrection appearance of Jesus, namely Paul’s.”[3]

(2) In addition to Paul’s own experience, few conclusions are more widely recognized than that, in 1 Corinthians 15:3ff., Paul records an ancient oral tradition(s). This pre-Pauline report summarizes the early Gospel content, that Christ died for human sin, was buried, rose from the dead, and then appeared to many witnesses, both individuals and groups.

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!

Bible study: Was the resurrection body of Jesus spiritual or physical?

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are going to take a look at the data
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are going to take a look at the data

So, everyone from left to right accepts the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 being dated to 1-3 years after the death of Jesus, even atheists like Crossley, Ludemann and Crossan. The thing is, some people are not sure that the appearances of Jesus to individuals, groups, and skeptics really were physical appearances. They say “well, Paul’s appearance was non-physical, so the other ones must have been, too”.

Let’s take a look.

Here’s a paragraph from my friend Eric Chabot, from his blog Think Apologetics. He explains why Paul’s use of the word “resurrection” to describe what the other witnesses saw means bodily resurrection.

He writes:

If Paul did have a vision then the term “vision” is vague and must be defined. As Licona points out, visions are either objective (i.e., something that is seen without the use of our natural senses) or subjective (i.e., a  product of our minds). The real  problem is with the vision hypothesis is that it doesn’t explain Paul’s use of resurrection to explain what had happened to Jesus.  The two words are used for resurrection in the New Testament “anastasis” (rising up) and “egersis” (waking up), both imply a physical body. Furthermore, the use of the word “opethe” (the Greek word for appeared) shows the Gospel writers did believe that Jesus appeared physically. “There you will see (opethe) him” (Matt. 28:7); “The Lord has risen and has appeared (opethe) to Simon” (Luke 24:24). When they used “opethe” here, it means that He appeared physically to them.

So when Paul gives his list of appearances in 1 Cor. 15, the issues becomes whether the appearance to him is the same as it was to the disciples. There is no doubt the post resurrection body of Jesus (after the ascension) had to be somewhat different than the body the disciples saw. Also, whenever the New Testament mentions the word body, in the context of referring to an individual human being, the Greek word “soma” always refers to a literal, physical body.Greek specialist Robert Gundry says “the consistent and exclusive use of soma for the physical body in anthropological contexts resists dematerialization of the resurrection, whether by idealism or by existentialism.” [9] Furthermore, in N.T. Wright’s  The Resurrection of the Son of God shows that the Greek word for resurrection which is “anastasis” was used by ancient Jews, pagans, and Christians as bodily in nature.

Now, I think my view on this, and I’m not sure if Eric would correct me, is that Paul got an objective but non-physical vision of Jesus. There was something there that everyone else could see and hear, in my view. But in my view Paul’s “veridical” vision was post-ascension, and so non-physical. Paul uses the word resurrection to describe what the other eyewitnesses saw (and he met them at least twice, according to Gal 1 and Gal 2), and that means physical resurrected body.

Eric Chabot writes this in another place:

Acts 9- Paul’s Damascus Road Experience

Here we see whatever happened,  this was after the ascension. Hence, to say Paul saw the exact same Jesus before he ascended is hard to infer from the text. There simply isn’t enough information here.  The Bible says, “they heard” the same voice Paul did ” (Acts 9: 7). But they “did not see anyone ” (Acts 9: 7). Notice  Paul was physically blinded by the brightness of the light.  One way or the other, the experience involved something that was external to Paul. It wasn’t something that was the same thing as a vision that Paul talks about in 2 Cor. 12:1.  Furthermore, the phrase “he let himself be seen’” (ōphthē , aorist passive, ), is the word Paul uses  in 1 Cor. 15:7 to describe of his own resurrection appearance as the other ones in the creed. As Paul Barnett says:

“It is sometimes claimed that the word appeared (ōphthē) means a mystical seeing, as of a vision, and that since this was what Paul “saw” it was what the other apostles “saw.” In other words, after death, Jesus was taken directly to heaven whence he “appeared” to various people, mystically, as it were. This however, is not all the meaning of Paul’s words. First, the word ōphthē, “appeared” is not limited to visionary seeing it is also used for physical seeing. Moreover, the verb raise used in the phrase ‘raised on the third day” is used elsewhere in combination with the words “from the dead” which literally means “from among the corpses.” Thus raised preceding  appeared gives the latter a physical not a mystical meaning. Christ, as “raised from the dead” ….appeared.”  Furthermore, when Paul asks “ Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”(1 Cor. 9: 1), he is using the ordinary word horan, “to see” for physical sight. If “seeing” the Lord “raised from the dead” qualified others to be apostles, then Paul is, indeed, an apostle. It was no mere subjective vision that arrested Paul en route to Damascus. (8) .

In the end, word studies can’t entirely resolve this issue. We need to remember the etymological fallacy as well. We  would have to look at all the texts that speak of resurrection (including the entire 1 Cor. 15 chapter in their entire context as well as the anthropology of the New Testament. We also need to study the resurrection in light of the Second Temple Jewish period. See our reading list here for some resources that may help.

But conservative ancient historian Gary Habermas seems to think that Paul got the physical body as well.

He says:

Now, I said before in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul could have chosen to only use the word pneuma. He doesn’t. He does say “spiritual,” but he’s got an adjective there. He also says, soma, “body.” What did Paul mean?

Philippians Chapter 3. It’s a short chapter. There are 21 verses, but Paul says three things in one chapter that indicate he’s talking about a physical resurrection. In the opening verses he says, “I was a Hebrew of the Hebrews” and “as touching the law,” he says, “I was a Pharisee.” Now, it’s very well known that the Pharisee believed in a bodily resurrection. In fact, according to Acts 23, as Paul was being taken captive by the Romans to prevent his being killed, he shouted out to the group of people and said, “Why are you taking me? Because I believe in the resurrec­tion of the dead?” He meant a literal resurrection.
When the Pharisees heard that, they said there’s nothing wrong with this guy. But the Sadducees [who didn’t believe in the Resurrection] didn’t like it. So as a Pharisee, he’s agreeing with the Pharisees.
So, the first evidence is from Philippians 3. As a Pharisee, Paul believes in a physical resur­rection.
Secondly, in verse 11 he says, “That I may attain the resurrection of the dead.” Now, the normal Greek word for resurrection is anastasis, but in this passage, Philippians 3:11, he puts a prefix on there, ek anastasis. Ekanastasis, according to all Greek scholars that I know of, is translated in this passage: “The out resurrection from among the dead.” Paul said, “I want to attain the out resurrection.”
Now, to a Jew, “out resurrection” means “what goes down is what comes up.” You come out from death. And then just a few verses later, Philippians 3:20,21, he said, “From Heaven, we look for Jesus who will change our vile soma (body) to be like unto His glorious soma (or body),” when he should have said pneuma, according to this other view.
So he’s a Pharisee who believes in a physical resurrection. Ek anastasis—“resurrection from out among the dead ones.”
Thirdly, Paul says, “He Jesus will change my body to be like His body.”

So right there in Philippians 3 alone, I think the picture of Jesus being some wispy spirit that appeared to him on the road to Damascus doesn’t fit Paul’s own data.

Yes, that’s why Philippians is my favorite book. You can get so much useful theology out of it. Something about the resurrection in Phil 3, something about Jesus’ divinity in Phil 2, and loads of practical advice on stewardship, charity, fellowship, endurance and practical love for others throughout. Some of it takes a little digging, but that’s what commentaries are for, am I right? But I digress.

If you want to read something a little more challenging, I found a paper from the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) from their journal, where it talks more about soma and anastasis. If you want a bit of a challenge, download the PDF and read it. It’s by Kirk R. MacGregor and the title is “1 Corinthians 15:3B–6A, 7 And The Bodily Resurrection Of Jesus”.

William Lane Craig lectures on the evidence for the resurrection of 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

Here is Dr. William Lane Craig giving a long-form argument for the historical event of the resurrection of Jesus, and taking questions from the audience.

The speaker introduction goes for 6 minutes, then Dr. Craig speaks for 35 minutes, then it’s a period of questions and answers with the audience. The total length is 93 minutes, so quite a long period of Q&A. The questions in the Q&A period are quite good.


  • Many people who are willing to accept God’s existence are not willing to accept the God of Christianity
  • Christians need to be ready to show that Jesus rose from the dead as a historical event
  • Private faith is fine for individuals, but when dealing with the public you have to have evidence
  • When making the case, you cannot assume that your audience accepts the Bible as inerrant
  • You must use the New Testament like any other ancient historical document
  • Most historians, Christian and not, accept the basic minimal facts supporting the resurrection of Jesus

Fact #1: the burial of Jesus following his crucifixion

  • Fact #1 is supported by the early creed found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15)
  • Fact #1 is supported by the early Passion narrative which was a source for Mark’s gospel
  • Fact #1 passes the criterion of enemy attestation, since it praises one of the Sanhedrin
  • Fact #1 is not opposed by any competing burial narratives

Fact #2: on the Sunday following his crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by some women

  • Fact #2 is supported by the early Passion narrative which was a source for Mark’s gospel
  • Fact #2 is implied by the early creed found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15)
  • Fact #2 is simple and lacks legendary embellishment, which argues for an early dating
  • Fact #2 passes the criterion of embarrassment, because it has female, not male, witnesses
  • Fact #2 passes the criterion of enemy attestation, since it is reported by the Jewish leaders

Fact #3: Jesus appeared to various people in various circumstances after his death

  • Fact #3 is supported by the early creed found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15)
  • Fact #3 is supported by multiple, independent reports of the events from all four gospels
  • Fact #3 explains other historical facts, like the conversion of Jesus’ skeptical brother James

Fact #4: the earliest Christians proclaimed their belief in the resurrection of Jesus

  • Fact #4 explains why the earliest Christians continued to identify Jesus as the Messiah
  • Fact #4 explains why the earliest Christians were suddenly so unconcerned about being killed

Dr. Craig then asks which hypothesis explains all four of these facts. He surveys a number of naturalistic hypotheses, such as the hallucination theory or various conspiracy theories. All of these theories deny one or more of the minimal facts that have been established and accepted by the broad spectrum of historians. In order to reject the resurrection hypothesis, a skeptic would have to deny one of the four facts or propose an explanation that explains those facts better than the resurrection hypothesis.

I listened to the Q&A period while doing housekeeping and I heard lots of good questions. Dr. Craig gives very long answers to the questions. One person asked why we should trust the claim that the Jewish leaders really did say that the disciples stole the body. Another one asked why we should take the resurrection as proof that Jesus was divine. Another asks about the earthquake in Matthewand whether it is intended to be historical or apocalyptic imagery. Dr. Craig is also asked about the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes, and how many of the minimal facts he accepts. Another questioner asked about the ascension.

If you are looking for a good book to read on this topic, the best introductory book on the resurrection is “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus” and the best comprehensive book is “The Resurrection of Jesus“.

Gary Habermas and James Crossley discuss the minimal facts case for the resurrection

Two ninjas face off at sundown
Two ninjas face off at sundown

James Crossley is my favorite atheist ancient historian, such a straight shooter. He’s on the skeptical left, but he has a no-baloney way of talking that I really like. I was so excited to summarize this, and there’s not a speck of snark in this summary. Crossley dates the gospel of Mark 37-43 A.D., far earlier than most scholars. Justin Brierley does a great job as moderator. Gary Habermas is OK, but he is not familiar with any useful arguments for God’s existence, (kalam, fine-tuning, origin of life, Cambrian explosion, etc.), and that is a problem in this debate.

Here are the details of the debate:

Christian Bible scholar Gary Habermas and agnostic New Testament scholar James Crossley return to answer questions sent in by Unbelievable? listeners.

They answer your questions on the Jewishness of Jesus, the dating of the New Testament documents and much more!

Note: this is the first of two shows they are doing together!!

The MP3 file is here. (If this disappears, tell me, I have a copy)

This non-snarky summary starts at 10:52.


  • Habermas: the minimal facts are the facts that even the majority of skeptical scholars will accept

Habermas list of minimal facts: (near universal acceptance)

  1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion
  2. After his death, his disciples had experiences that they believed were appearances of the risen Jesus
  3. The disciples were transformed by their experiences and proclaimed his resurrection and were willing to die for their belief in the resurrection
  4. The proclamation of his resurrection was early
  5. James was converted by a post-mortem experience
  6. Paul was converted by a post-mortem experience

Habermas list of widely-accepted facts:

  1. Burial for Jesus in a private tomb
  2. The private tomb found empty
  3. The disciples despaired after Jesus was crucified
  4. The proclamation of the resurrection started in Jerusalem
  5. Changing the worship day from Saturday to Sunday

Crossley’s views on the minimal and widely-accepted facts:

  • Crossley: I am in broad agreement with what Gary said
  • Crossley: “the resurrection appearances are some of the hardest, best evidence we have” because it’s in early 1 Cor 15:3-8 creed
  • Crossley: people were convinced that they had seen the risen Christ

The burial in a private tomb:

  • Crossley: I have my doubts about the private tomb burial and the empty tomb
  • Crossley: Mark’s gospel has the burial in a private tomb by Joseph of Arimethea, and Mark is the earliest gospel
  • Crossley: I don’t have a doubt, it’s just that there are other possible alternatives, and then the tradition was invented later – but that’s just a possibility
  • Crossley: there is not enough evidence to make a decision either way on the burial

The empty tomb:

  • Habermas: there are multiple lines of evidence for the empty tomb
  • Habermas: the reason it’s not one of my minimal facts is because a quarter to a third of skeptical scholars reject it

The transformation of the followers of Jesus:

  • Crossley: “yes, clearly, I don’t think you can argue with that, it’s fairly obvious”

The conversions of James and Paul:

  • Crossley: “yes, because it’s based on 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, that report, that was handed on to him”

Where Habermas and Crossley agree:

  • Habermas: you agree with the 6 facts in the minimal facts list, and you have problems with 2 of 5 facts from the widely accepted list
  • Crossley: Yes

The empty tomb:

  • Crossley: Two problems: first, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 doesn’t mention it, but it “probably assumes the idea that Jesus left behind an empty tomb when resurrected, I am convinced by some of the conservative arguments on that one, but it’s not hard evidence for there actually being an empty tomb”
  • Crossley: Second, “the other early source we have ends with no resurrection appearances”, it makes him a bit skeptical of the empty tomb
  • Habermas: the empty tomb is not a minimal fact, I want 90% agreement by skeptical scholars for it to be a minimal fact
  • Habermas: I have never included the empty tomb in my list of minimal facts
  • Brierley: William Lane Craig puts it in his list of minimal facts
  • Habermas: It is very well attested, so if that’s what you mean, then it’s a minimal fact, but it doesn’t have the 90% agreement like the other minimal facts
  • Habermas: I have 21 arguments for the empty tomb, and none of them require early dating of sources or traditional authorship of the gospels, e.g. – the women discovered the empty tomb, the pre-Markan source, the implications of 1 Cor 15 has some force, the sermons summary in Acts 13 which Bart Ehrman dates to 31 or 32 A.D. has putting a body down and a body coming up without being corrupted

Why is 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 more respected as a source than the gospels?

  • Habermas: There is a unanimous New Testament conclusion, across the board, from conservative to liberal, that in 1 Cor 15:3-8 Paul is presenting creedal data, Richard Bauckham says that this goes back to the early 30s A.D., Paul got this from the eyewitnesses he mentions in Galatians 1 and 2
  • Crossley: [reads 1 Corinthians:3-8 out loud], now that’s a tradition that’s handed on, this is Paul, we know this is Paul, writing mid-50s, this is kind of gold, this is the evidence I wish we had across the board

Why doesn’t James accept the resurrection:

  • Crossley: Historians should not conclude that the supernatural is real, concluding the supernatural is outside of history
  • Crossley: I am more interested in what people believed at that time
  • Brierley: as a historian, are you required to give an explanation of the commonly-accepted facts
  • Crossley: yes, historians must give their explanation for the facts
  • Crossley: we know people have visions, and how the cultural context determines the content of visions, e.g. – the background of martyrdom
  • Brierley: so you would go for the hallucination hypothesis?
  • Crossley: yes, but I prefer not to use that word

Should historians rule out the supernatural?

  • Habermas: let’s not ask what caused the event, let’s just see if the disciples thought they saw him before he died, that he died on the cross, and then believed they saw him after he died, like you might see someone in the supermarket
  • Habermas: I’m not asking whether a miracle occurred, I just want to know whether Jesus was seen after he died on the cross
  • Crossley: that sounds like the angle I’m coming at this from
  • Crossley: the problem is that there is a supernatural element to some of the appearances, so it’s not a supermarket appearances
  • Brierley: it’s not angels and hallelujah in the sky
  • Habermas: nothing like that, no light in the early accounts, fairly mundane

Does James agree that people believed they saw Jesus after his death?

  • Crossley: yes,I think that’s fairly clear that we do
  • Crossley: but historians cannot prove claims that what happened to Jesus was supernatural
  • Brierley: your view is so far from what I see on Internet atheists sites, where they say it’s all legendary accumulation, fairy tales
  • Crossley: I’m perfect comfortable with the idea – and I think it happened – that people created stories, invented stories
  • Crossley: there are too many cases where people are sincerely professing that they thought they saw Jesus after his death

Would you expect the disciples to have visions of a resurrected Jesus if nothing happened to him?

  • Habermas: the dividing line is: did something happen to Jesus, or did something happen to his disciples?
  • Habermas: the view that people were seeing a kind of ghostly Jesus (non-bodily) – a Jedi Jesus – after his death is a resurrection view, but I hold to a bodily resurrection view
  • Brierley: N.T. Wright says a resurrected Jesus was contrary to expectations – should we expect the disciples to have a vision of Jesus as resurrected?
  • Crossley: Wright generalizes too much thinking that there was a single view of the resurrection (the general resurrection at the end of the age), there are a variety of views, some are contradictory
  • Crossley: Herod Antipas thought that Jesus might be John the Baptist returned from the dead, and he knew Jesus was flesh and blood, there is the story of the dead rising in the earthquake in Matthew, there are stories of the resurrection in Maccabees, and this would influence what people expected
  • Habermas: the earliest Christian view was *bodily* resurrection
  • Crossley: yes, I think that’s right
  • Crossley: In Mark 6, they thought Jesus was a ghost, so there is room for disagreement

Why should a historian not rule out a supernatural explanation?

  • Habermas: to get to supernatural, you have to go to philosophy – it’s a worldview problem
  • Habermas: he predicted his own death and resurrection
  • Habermas: one factor is the uniqueness of Jesus
  • Habermas: the early church had belief in the bodily resurrection, and a high Christology out of the gate
  • Habermas: you might look at evidence for corroborated near-death experiences that raise the possibility of an afterlife
  • Crossley: I’m content to leave it at the level of what people believe and not draw any larger conclusions
  • Crossley: regarding the predicting his own death, the gospels are written after, so it’s not clear that these predictions predate Jesus’ death
  • Crossley: it’s not surprising that Jesus would have predicted his own death, and that he might have foreseen God vindicating him

If you admit to the possibility of miracles, is the data sufficient to conclude that the best explanation of the facts is resurrection?

  • Crossley: If we assume that God exists, and that God intervenes in history, and that this was obvious to everyone, then “of course”
  • Brierley: Are you committed to a naturalistic view of history?
  • Crossley: Not quite, broadly, yes, I am saying this all I can do
  • Brierley: should James be open to a supernatural explanation?
  • Habermas: if you adopt methodological naturalism,it colors how look at the data is seen, just like supernaturalism does

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.


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)

– 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

– 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

– 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

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

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

– 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

– 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

– name one prominent scholar who denies the group appearances

– 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

– 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

– this early dating presumably rules out legend

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

– 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

– 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

– 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

– 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

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

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

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

– 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

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

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

– where is the apocalyptic part?

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

– what about the differences between the gospels?

* 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!

– 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

– 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

– 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

* 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

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

– 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

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

– 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!

– you really think so?

– you name one non-Christian in the SBL

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

* 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!

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

– 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

– 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

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

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

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

– 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

– 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?

* 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!

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

– 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

– 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?

– 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

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

– 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

– 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