This article from Biblical Archaeology covers all the non-Christian historical sources that discuss Jesus.
About the author:
Lawrence Mykytiuk is associate professor of library science and the history librarian at Purdue University. He holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Semitic Studies and is the author of the book Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200–539 B.C.E. (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004).
Here are the major sections:
Roman historian Tacitus
Jewish historian Josephus
Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata
Platonist philosopher Celsus
Roman governor Pliny the Younger
Roman historian Suetonius
Roman prisoner Mara bar Serapion
And this useful excerpt captures the broad facts about Jesus that we get from just the first two sources:
We can learn quite a bit about Jesus from Tacitus and Josephus, two famous historians who were not Christian. Almost all the following statements about Jesus, which are asserted in the New Testament, are corroborated or confirmed by the relevant passages in Tacitus and Josephus. These independent historical sources—one a non-Christian Roman and the other Jewish—confirm what we are told in the Gospels:31
1. He existed as a man. The historian Josephus grew up in a priestly family in first-century Palestine and wrote only decades after Jesus’ death. Jesus’ known associates, such as Jesus’ brother James, were his contemporaries. The historical and cultural context was second nature to Josephus. “If any Jewish writer were ever in a position to know about the non-existence of Jesus, it would have been Josephus. His implicit affirmation of the existence of Jesus has been, and still is, the most significant obstacle for those who argue that the extra-Biblical evidence is not probative on this point,” Robert Van Voorst observes.32 And Tacitus was careful enough not to report real executions of nonexistent people.
2. His personal name was Jesus, as Josephus informs us.
3. He was called Christos in Greek, which is a translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, both of which mean “anointed” or “(the) anointed one,” as Josephus states and Tacitus implies, unaware, by reporting, as Romans thought, that his name was Christus.
4. He had a brother named James (Jacob), as Josephus reports.
5. He won over both Jews and “Greeks” (i.e., Gentiles of Hellenistic culture), according to Josephus, although it is anachronistic to say that they were “many” at the end of his life. Large growth
in the number of Jesus’ actual followers came only after his death.
6. Jewish leaders of the day expressed unfavorable opinions about him, at least according to some versions of the Testimonium Flavianum.
7. Pilate rendered the decision that he should be executed, as both Tacitus and Josephus state.
8. His execution was specifically by crucifixion, according to Josephus.
9. He was executed during Pontius Pilate’s governorship over Judea (26–36 C.E.), as Josephus implies and Tacitus states, adding that it was during Tiberius’s reign.
Some of Jesus’ followers did not abandon their personal loyalty to him even after his crucifixion but submitted to his teaching. They believed that Jesus later appeared to them alive in accordance with prophecies, most likely those found in the Hebrew Bible. A well-attested link between Jesus and Christians is that Christ, as a term used to identify Jesus, became the basis of the term used to identify his followers: Christians. The Christian movement began in Judea, according to Tacitus. Josephus observes that it continued during the first century. Tacitus deplores the fact that during the second century it had spread as far as Rome.
From this report we can learn several facts, both explicit and implicit, concerning Christ and the Christians who lived in Rome in the 60s A.D. Chronologically, we may ascertain the following information.
(1) Christians were named for their founder, Christus (from the Latin), (2) who was put to death by the Roman procurator Pontius Pilatus (also Latin), (3) during the reign of emperor Tiberius (14 37 A.D.). (4) His death ended the “superstition” for a short time, (5) but it broke out again, (6) especially in Judaea, where the teaching had its origin.
(7) His followers carried his doctrine to Rome. (8) When the great fire destroyed a large part of the city during the reign of Nero (54 68 A.D.), the emperor placed the blame on the Christians who lived in Rome. (9) Tacitus reports that this group was hated for their abominations. (10) These Christians were arrested after pleading guilty, (11) and many were convicted for “hatred for mankind.” (12) They were mocked and (13) then tortured, including being “nailed to crosses” or burnt to death. (14) Because of these actions, the people had compassion on the Christians. (15) Tacitus therefore concluded that such punishments were not for the public good but were simply “to glut one man’s cruelty.”
And from Josephus he gets this:
(1) Jesus was known as a wise and virtuous man, one recognized for his good conduct. (2) He had many disciples, both Jews and Gentiles. (3) Pilate condemned him to die, (4) with crucifixion explicitly being mentioned as the mode. (5) The disciples reported that Jesus had risen from the dead and (6) that he had appeared to them on the third day after his crucifixion. (7) Consequently, the disciples continued to proclaim his teachings. (8) Perhaps Jesus was the Messiah concerning whom the Old Testament prophets spoke and predicted wonders. We would add here two facts from Josephus’ earlier quotation as well. (9) Jesus was the brother of James and (10) was called the messiah by some.
So when you are reading the New Testament, these facts are the framework that you read within. It’s a good starting point when dealing with people who have never looked into who Jesus was and what he taught and what his followers believed about him, right from the start.
The verdict seems unanimous. From presidential speeches to role-playing games, the crusades are depicted as a deplorably violent episode in which thuggish Westerners trundled off, unprovoked, to murder and pillage peace-loving, sophisticated Muslims, laying down patterns of outrageous oppression that would be repeated throughout subsequent history. In many corners of the Western world today, this view is too commonplace and apparently obvious even to be challenged.
But unanimity is not a guarantee of accuracy. What everyone “knows” about the crusades may not, in fact, be true. From the many popular notions about the crusades, let us pick four and see if they bear close examination.
The four myths:
Myth #1: The crusades represented an unprovoked attack by Western Christians on the Muslim world.
Myth #2: Western Christians went on crusade because their greed led them to plunder Muslims in order to get rich.
Myth #3: Crusaders were a cynical lot who did not really believe their own religious propaganda; rather, they had ulterior, materialistic motives.
Myth #4: The crusades taught Muslims to hate and attack Christians.
Here’s the most obvious thing you should know. The Crusades were defensive actions:
In a.d. 632, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, North Africa, Spain, France, Italy, and the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica were all Christian territories. Inside the boundaries of the Roman Empire, which was still fully functional in the eastern Mediterranean, orthodox Christianity was the official, and overwhelmingly majority, religion. Outside those boundaries were other large Christian communities—not necessarily orthodox and Catholic, but still Christian. Most of the Christian population of Persia, for example, was Nestorian. Certainly there were many Christian communities in Arabia.
By a.d. 732, a century later, Christians had lost Egypt, Palestine, Syria, North Africa, Spain, most of Asia Minor, and southern France. Italy and her associated islands were under threat, and the islands would come under Muslim rule in the next century. The Christian communities of Arabia were entirely destroyed in or shortly after 633, when Jews and Christians alike were expelled from the peninsula.6 Those in Persia were under severe pressure. Two-thirds of the formerly Roman Christian world was now ruled by Muslims.
What had happened? Most people actually know the answer, if pressed—though for some reason they do not usually connect the answer with the crusades. The answer is the rise of Islam. Every one of the listed regions was taken, within the space of a hundred years, from Christian control by violence, in the course of military campaigns deliberately designed to expand Muslim territory at the expense of Islam’s neighbors. Nor did this conclude Islam’s program of conquest. The attacks continued, punctuated from time to time by Christian attempts to push back. Charlemagne blocked the Muslim advance in far western Europe in about a.d. 800, but Islamic forces simply shifted their focus and began to island-hop across from North Africa toward Italy and the French coast, attacking the Italian mainland by 837. A confused struggle for control of southern and central Italy continued for the rest of the ninth century and into the tenth. In the hundred years between 850 and 950, Benedictine monks were driven out of ancient monasteries, the Papal States were overrun, and Muslim pirate bases were established along the coast of northern Italy and southern France, from which attacks on the deep inland were launched. Desperate to protect victimized Christians, popes became involved in the tenth and early eleventh centuries in directing the defense of the territory around them.
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
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 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
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
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
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?
I’ve read anthropology literature that has some cases where people have hallucinations as groups
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
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
as long as there is any other other possible naturalistic explanation, we should prefer that, no matter how unlikely
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
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
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.
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?
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 PerspectivesI, 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. You want to look at it as a historical book, and use historical criteria to get to some facts that critical historians would accept. From that, it’s possible to make a case for the resurrection, which is the guarantee that the words of Jesus are authoritative. Including the words of Jesus where he describes the Bible as a whole as God’s revelation of Himself to his creatures.
Here is the approach I use when talking to non-Christian co-workers:
Explain the criteria that historians use to get their lists of minimal facts
Explain your list of minimal facts
Defend your list of minimal facts using the criteria
Cite skeptics who admit to each of your minimal facts, to show that they are widely accepted
List some parts of the Bible that don’t pass the criteria (e.g. – guard at the tomb, Matthew earthquake)
Explain why those parts don’t pass the criteria, and explain that they are not part of your case
Challenge your opponent to either deny some or all the facts, or propose a naturalistic alternative that explains the facts better than the resurrection
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. That passages is universally accepted as early, eyewitness testimony from Paul, and represents the core of early Christian beliefs about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Everyone who takes evidence seriously has to account for that early creed, which passes the historical tests I outlined above.
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.