Previously, I blogged about the historical criteria that historians use to evaluate documents. One of the criteria is “multiple independent sources”. If a story is reported in multiple independent sources, then historians are more likely to evaluate it as historically accurate. But how about the four gospels? Are they independent sources? The answer might not be what you expect.
Here’s how the question was put to Dr. Craig:
The latest video, “Did Jesus Rise From the Dead,” is especially compelling, but I had a question about it. In the part one video, you cite as evidence, the Gospels plus Acts and First Corinthians and you refer to them as “independent” and “unconnected” sources. But this isn’t exactly true, is it? After all, two of these books were written by the same author, Luke, and so Luke and Acts are connected by authorship. Furthermore, isn’t it true that much information relayed in Matthew and Luke were taken from Mark? This two facts would make it untrue to call the Gospels “independent” and “unconnected” would they not?
Here’s the video he’s talking about:
Dr. Craig answers the question in a recent question of the week. I think this answer is important for those who aren’t aware of how the gospels are organized.
The objection is based on a simple misunderstanding. It assumes that the sources I’m referring to are the books of the New Testament. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
New Testament critics have identified a number of sources behind the New Testament, sources on which the New Testament authors drew. For example, Matthew and Luke drew not only upon Mark as a source but also upon a source which scholars designate “Q,” which appears to have been a source containing Jesus’ sayings or teachings. Thus, if you could show that a saying in Matthew or Luke appears in both Mark and Q, that would count as multiple, independent attestation.
What does this mean? It means that although there is overlap between Matthew and Luke, called “Q”, there are actually three independent sources there: Matthew’s source, called M. Luke’s source, called L. And the material common to Matthew and Luke, which therefore PRE-DATES Matthew and Luke, called Q.
Dr. Craig lists out several independent sources in his full reply:
the pre-Markan Passion story used by Mark
the rest of the gospel of Mark has a source
Matthew’s source (M)
Luke’s source (L)
John’s gospel which is very different from Mark, Luke and Matthew
the sermons in Acts have a source
the early creed found in Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15
So if you are trying to lay out something from the New Testament, and you can find it in two of these sources, and at least one of them is very early, you’re in pretty good shape.
Although the questioner and the other critics might question the “minimal facts” that pass the historical tests, many of these facts are not questioned by even atheistic scholars.
Here’s a useful tip for non-professionals who want to disagree with Dr. Craig. Dr. Craig publishes his arguments in academic presses like Oxford University Press, not to mention scholarly peer-reviewed journals. He’s also debated his ideas against famous atheist historians like Gerd Ludemann, Marcus Borg, James Crossley, Bart Ehrman, etc. So it’s probably a good idea for people who want to disagree with him to first read some academic literature, or at least ask a professional. Before you post your YouTube video. You could even just ask a professional atheist historian. They will tell you what’s wrong with an argument like your “the sources are not independent” argument. Just check yourself before you post something in public. A lot of people who are still puzzling out these questions will look at a mistake like this, and immediately dismiss atheism as a sloppy, anti-intellectual worldview.
You can watch more of Dr. Craig’s videos in his playlist, here. These are especially useful for people who want to get the overall scope of the battlefield before deciding where to focus in study. Everybody should know about all of these arguments regardless of where you choose to specialize.
a list of the post-mortem resurrection appearances
quotations by skeptical historians about those appearances
alternative naturalistic explanations of the appearances
responses to those naturalistic explanations
Although there is a lot of research that went into the post, it’s not very long to read. The majority of scholars accept the appearances, because they appear in so many different sources and because some of those sources are very early, especially Paul’s statement of the early Christian creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, which is from about 1-3 years after Jesus was executed by the Romans. Eric’s post lists out some of the skeptical scholars who the appearances, and you can see how they allude to the historical criteria that they are using. (If you want to sort of double-check the details, I blogged about how historians investigate ancient sources before)
Let’s take a look at some of the names you might recognize:
That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know. “I do not regard deliberate fraud as a worthwhile explanation. Many of the people in these lists were to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming that they had seen the risen Lord, and several of them would die for their cause. Moreover, a calculated deception should have produced great unanimity. Instead, there seem to have been competitors: ‘I saw him first!’ ‘No! I did.’ Paul’s tradition that 500 people saw Jesus at the same time has led some people to suggest that Jesus’ followers suffered mass hysteria. But mass hysteria does not explain the other traditions.” “Finally we know that after his death his followers experienced what they described as the ‘resurrection’: the appearance of a living but transformed person who had actually died. They believed this, they lived it, and they died for it.”
It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death. Thus, for the historian, Christianity begins after the death of Jesus, not with the resurrection itself, but with the belief in the resurrection.
Ehrman also says:
We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that . . . he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.
Ehrman also goes onto say:
Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record.
Why, then, did some of the disciples claim to see Jesus alive after his crucifixion? I don’t doubt at all that some disciples claimed this. We don’t have any of their written testimony, but Paul, writing about twenty-five years later, indicates that this is what they claimed, and I don’t think he is making it up. And he knew are least a couple of them, whom he met just three years after the event (Galatians 1:18-19).
The historical ground of Easter is very simple: the followers of Jesus, both then and now, continued to experience Jesus as a living reality after his death. In the early Christian community, these experiences included visions or apparitions of Jesus. 
The references to Paul are because of the early creed he records in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, and his conversations with the other eyewitnesses in Galatians. Eric has another post where he goes over that early creed, and it is something that every Christian should know about. It’s really kind of surprising that you never hear a sermon on that early creed in church, where they generally sort of assume that you believe everything in the Bible on faith. But skeptical historians don’t believe in the post-mortem appearances by faith – they believe it (in part) because of 1 Corinthians 15:3-7.
If you want to see a Christian scholar make the case for the resurrection appearances in a debate, then here is a post I wrote with the video, audio and summary of the William Lane Craig vs James Crossley debate on the resurrection.
Which passage of the Bible is the favorite of Christians who like to defend the Christian worldview? I don’t mean which one is most inspirational… I mean “which one is the most useful for winning arguments?” Well, when it comes to the historical Jesus, the most important passage has to be 1 Corinthians 15:3-7.
The tradition in 1 Corinthians 15 is an early creed that was received from the eyewitnesses Peter and John when Paul visited them several times in Jerusalem, as documented in Galatians 1 and 2, where Paul meets the eyewitnesses. And of course, Paul records his own eyewitness experience, documented in 1 Cor 15:8.
So, is this passage accepted as historically reliable by all ancient historians? Or only by the Bible-believing ones?
The evidence that Paul is not writing in his own hand in I Cor. 15.3-5 is so powerful that all New Testament scholars recognize that Paul is here passing on a prior tradition. In addition to the fact that Paul explicitly says as much, the passage is replete with non-Pauline characteristics, including, in order of appearance: (i) the phrase “for our sins” using the genitive case and plural noun is unusual for Paul; (ii) the phrase “according to the Scriptures” is unparalleled in Paul, who introduces Scriptural citations by “as it is written”; (iii) the perfect passive verb “has been raised” appears only in this chapter and in a pre-Pauline confessional formula in II Tim. 2.8; (iv) the phrase “on the third day” with its ordinal number following the noun in Greek is non-Pauline; (v) the word “appeared” is found only here and in the confessional formula in I Tim. 3.16; and (vi) “the Twelve” is not Paul’s nomenclature, for he always speaks of the twelve disciples as “the apostles.”
Now the visit during which Paul may have received this tradition is the visit you mention three years after his conversion on the road to Damascus (Gal. 1.18). This puts the tradition back to within the first five years after Jesus’ death in AD 30. So there’s not even an apparent inconsistency with Paul’s appropriating the language of the formula to encapsulate the Gospel he was already preaching during those first three years in Damascus.
Ancient historian Gary Habermas loves to read non-Christian scholars… and then he writes about what THEY think about Jesus in peer-reviewed articles, published in academic journals. Let’s look at this one: Dialog: A Journal of Theology, Vol. 45; No. 3 (Fall, 2006), pp. 288-297; published by Blackwell Publishing, UK.
(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.”
(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.” Critical scholars agree that Paul received the material well before this book was written.
This is important:
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. 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).
He’s an eyewitness (verse 8), and he met with the other eyewitnesses, James and Peter. 1 Corinthians is early. Galatians is early. The creed is extremely early – right after the events occurred. There was no time for legends to develop.
And atheistic / critical historians agree, the creed is reliable:
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.” Joachim Jeremias agrees that it is, “the earliest tradition of all.” Perhaps a bit too optimistically, Walter Kasper even thinks that it was possibly even “in use by the end of 30 AD . . . .”
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. . . .” 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.” 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.” Others clearly consent.
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. 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.
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.
Now, some of the people he lists are really biased against the supernatural, and they really hate the idea that the claims of Christianity exclude other religions. And yet they don’t deny the historical reliability of 1 Corinthians 15, or that it is based on eyewitness testimony.
That’s why when you watch debates about the historical Jesus, you see skeptical historians like Bart Ehrman, Gerd Ludemann, James Crossley, Michael Goulder, etc. accepting that the disciples thought they saw Jesus after his death. They’re not just being nice to Dr. Craig when they give him that. They are forced to accept it, because it passes the historical tests. Every Christian ought to be aware of which passages of the New Testament are seen by the broad spectrum of ancient historians as “historical”, regardless of their various biases. You can believe everything in the Bible. But when you debate non-Christians, you have to use the historical core of Christianity which successfully passes historical analysis.