Tag Archives: History

What do skeptical ancient historians think of the earliest Christian creed?

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 a post from my friend Eric Chabot. He writes about the earliest historical source for the minimal facts about the resurrection, which is the early creed recorded by Paul in 1 Corinthians: 3-7.

1 Cor 15:3-7:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just in case you didn’t know, Cephas is Peter, one of Jesus’ closest followers.

The general consensus among scholars is the that creed goes back to within 1-3 years after the death if Jesus, when almost all the eyewitnesses were still around.

The creed

In Eric’s post, he quotes very well-known skeptical historians who affirm each part of the creed.

First, the creed as a whole is respected, even by atheist scholars like John Dominic Crossan:

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” (3).

And atheist scholar Robert Funk:

The conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead had already taken root by the time Paul was converted about 33 C.E. On the assumption that Jesus died about 30 C.E., the time for development was thus two or three years at most.” — Robert Funk co-founder of the Jesus Seminar.(5)

Let’s take a look at one of the parts of the creed that is respected by skeptical historians… namely, the early belief that Jesus was resurrected shortly after his death.

The early belief in the resurrection

Skeptical scholar E.P. Sanders:

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. (14)

Skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman:

Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record. (17)

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). (18)

You know, if all you did was give someone his post, I think that would be enough to show people that a more complete investigation of the historical Jesus was certainly a reasonable thing to do. It’s amazing to me that people who grow up at this time when access to the data is so easy do not take the opportunity to look into Christianity.

List of virtually undeniable facts

Finally, below is a list of facts about the historical Jesus that are accepted by ancient historians – Christian, non-Christian, atheist.

These are compiled by non-Christian scholar E.P. Sanders:

From his book “Jesus and Judaism” (1985):

  • Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
  • Jesus called disciples and spoke of there being twelve.
  • Jesus confined his activity to Israel.
  • Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.
  • Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple.
  • Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities.
  • After his death, his followers continued as an identifiable movement.
  • At least some Jews persecuted at least parts of the new movement.

From his book “The Historical Figure of Jesus” (1993):

  • Jesus was born c.4 BCE, near the time of the death of Herod the Great;
  • He spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village;
  • He was baptized by John the Baptist;
  • He called disciples;
  • He taught in the towns, villages, and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities);
  • He preached “the kingdom of God”;
  • Around the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover;
  • He created a disturbance in the temple area;
  • He had a final meal with the disciples;
  • He was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest;
  • He was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate;
  • His disciples at first fled;
  • They saw him (in what sense is uncertain) after his death;
  • As a consequence they believed he would return to found the kingdom;
  • They formed a community to await his return and sought to win others to faith in him as God’s Messiah.

The way the resurrection of Jesus is presented on TV, you would think that mythical stories about Jesus emerged decades and even centuries after the fact in other parts of the world from where the events happened. But the trouble is that no ancient historian thinks that. Only Hollywood TV producers and movie makers think that. Now, if you are getting your view of the historical accuracy of basic Christian beliefs from television and movies, then don’t be surprised if you are wrong. No one is saying that you have to go to Christian pastors and preachers for the facts, but you should go to the historians. They at least know the minimal facts.

The best way for a skeptic to tackle these issues is, I think, to watch a decent debate on the resurrection of Jesus between two respected scholars. My favorite debate on the resurrection is William Lane Craig versus atheist historian James Crossley. I have a video and a summary already ready made just waiting for you to check it out. Don’t worry, no one will be looking over your shoulder making you change everything your life should you be convinced. Just watch the debate and decide what you are going to do with it on your own. You don’t have to change your whole life overnight. Becoming a Christian is instantaneous and easy to do. Living like a Christian is a process, and it’s between you and God how fast you go. So just see what the facts are to start with and then take it from there.

Is the presuppositionalist approach to apologetics Biblical?

Bible study that hits the spot
Bible study that hits the spot

Here’s J.W. Wartick’s take from Always Have a Reason blog.

Excerpt:

Cornelius Van Til pioneered the field of “presuppositional apologetics” primarily through his works Christian Apologetics and The Defense of the Faith. His arguments are easily misunderstood as question begging or viciously circular. Herein, I have presented a brief outline and analysis which reveals that while the presuppositional approach may indeed have some logical faults, the overall system has a certain power to it and can be integrated into a total-apologetic system.

[…]The key to understand here is that Van Til does not accept that there is a neutral reason “out there” by which Christians and non-Christians can arbitrate the truth of Christianity; his point is that there is no neutral ground and that one’s presuppositions will determine one’s end point. Again, he writes, “this [apologetic method] implies a refusal to grant that any area or aspect of reality, any fact or any law of nature or of history, can be correctly interpreted except it be seen in the light of the main doctrines of Christianity” (Christian Apologetics, 124).

However, Van Til takes it even further and argues that one must presuppose the truth of Christianity in order to make sense of reality: ” What is the content of this presupposition, then? It is this: “I take what the Bible says about God and his relation to the universe as unquestionably true on its own authority” (The Defense of the Faith, 253); again, “The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything” (Christian Apologetics, 19). Thus, Van Til’s apologetic does not make Christianity the conclusion of an argument; rather, Christianity is the starting presupposition.

The presuppositional approach here cannot be stressed enough. For Van Til, one simply cannot grant to the non-Christian any epistemic point. “We cannot avoid coming to a clear-cut decision with respect to the question as to whose knowledge, man’s or God’s, shall be made the standard of the other. …[O]ne must be determinative and the other subordinate” (The Defense of the Faith 62-63).

What place is had for evidences in Van Til? At some points, he seems to be very skeptical of the use of Christian evidences. In particular, the fact that he argues there is no neutral evaluation grounds between the Christian and non-Christian seems to imply that  there can be no real evaluation of such arguments apart from Christianity. One of Van Til’s most famous illustrations of the use of evidences can be found in The Defense of the Faith pages 332 and following. He uses three persons, Mr. Black (non-Christian), Mr. Grey (Christian non-presuppositionalist), and Mr. White (presuppositional/reformed apologist):

Mr. Grey… says that, of course, the “rational man” has a perfect right to test the credibility of Scripture by logic… by experience… [Mr. Grey then takes Mr. Black a number of places to show him various theistic evidences. Mr. Black responds:] “you first use intellectual argument upon principles that presuppose the justice of my unbelieving position. Then when it it is pointed out to you that such is the case, you turn to witnessing [subjectively].

…At last it dawned upon Mr. White that first to admit that the principles of Mr. Black, the unbeliever, are right and then to seek to win him to the acceptance of the existence of God the Creator… is like first admitting that the United States had historically been a province of the Soviet Union but ought at the same time to be recognized as an independent and all-controlling power… If one reasons for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity on the assumptions that Mr. Black’s principles of explanation are valid, then one must witness on the same assumption [which makes witnessing wholly subjective.] (p. 332-339)

It can be seen here that even evidences for Van Til must be based within a presupposition. There is no way to look at evidences in the abstract. One can either offer them within the presuppositions of Christianity or outside of Christianity. For Van Til, once one has agreed to offer evidences outside of Christianity, one has granted the presuppositions of the non-believer, and therefore is doomed to fail.

This would include using arguments like the cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, arguments from miracles, etc. – including the resurrection. That seems to be Van Til’s view. No evidence allowed – you have to presuppose Christianity is true in order to make sense of the world.

Now, I think we need to make a distinction between using questioning the pre-suppositions of our opponents, as with William Lane’s Craig’s moral argument, Plantinga’s epistemological argument for reason and Menuge’s ontological argument for reason. There are arguments for theism that question the pre-suppositions of an atheist. Certainly, non-theists cannot ground things like morality, free will, consciousness and rationality on atheism. But that’s not what Van Til is saying. He says that an atheist cannot be swayed by evidence unless he first becomes a Christian. I.e. – he is saying that atheist Anthony Flew is lying when he says that evidence caused him to turn to believe in God. On Van Til’s view, that’s impossible.

My view of presuppositional apologetics is that is as a system, it is circular reasoning. It assumes Christianity in order to prove Christianity. But there is an even worse problem with it. It’s not a Biblical way of doing apologetics. It’s man’s way of doing apologetics, not God’s. I think that the best way to understand Van Til’s apologetics is by saying that it really just a sermon disguised as apologetics. The problem is that Van Til’s sermon has no basis in the Bible. Wherever he is getting his view from, it’s not from the Bible. When I look the Bible, I don’t see any Biblical support for the view that pre-suppositional apologetics is the only approved way of defending the faith. Instead, the standard method seems to be evidentialism.

In Romans 1, Paul writes that people can learn about God’s existence from the natural world.

Romans 1:18-23:

18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness,

19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.

20For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.

22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools

23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

And in Acts, Peter appeals to eyewitness testimony for the resurrection, and Jesus’ miracles.

Acts 2:22-24, and 36:

22“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.

23This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.

24But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.

And finally from the same chapter:

36“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

Professor Clay Jones of Biola University makes the case that the use of evidence when preaching the gospel was standard operating procedure in the early church. (H/T Apologetics 315)

Intro:

In 1993 I started working for Simon Greenleaf University (now Trinity Law School) which offered an M.A. in Christian apologetics (Craig Hazen was the director). Much of my job was to promote the school and although I had studied Christian apologetics since my sophomore year in high school, I decided I needed to see whether an apologetic witness had strong Biblical precedence.

It does.

As I poured through the Scripture I found that Jesus and the apostles preached the resurrection of Christ as the sign of the truth of Christianity.

What follows are some of the passages which support the resurrection witness.

Here is my favorite verse from his massive list list of verses in favor of the evidential approach to Christian apologetics:

Mat. 12:39-40: A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Jesus is saying that the resurrection was deliberately given as a sign to unbelievers to convince them. (“The Sign of Jonah” = the resurrection)

So, I see that God uses nature and miracles to persuade, which can be assessed using scientific and historical methods. Can anyone find me a clear statement in the Bible that states that only pre-suppositional arguments should be used? I could be wrong, and I am willing to be proven wrong. I think we should use the Biblical method of apologetics, not the fallen man’s method of apologetics.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

Was Stalin an atheist? Is atheism or communism responsible for mass murders?

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

Let’s take a look at what Josef Stalin did during his rule of Russia in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Library of Congress offers this in their “Soviet Archives exhibit”:

The Soviet Union was the first state to have as an ideological objective the elimination of religion. Toward that end, the Communist regime confiscated church property, ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and propagated atheism in the schools. Actions toward particular religions, however, were determined by State interests, and most organized religions were never outlawed.

The main target of the anti-religious campaign in the 1920s and 1930s was the Russian Orthodox Church, which had the largest number of faithful. Nearly all of its clergy, and many of its believers, were shot or sent to labor camps. Theological schools were closed, and church publications were prohibited. By 1939 only about 500 of over 50,000 churches remained open.

Let’s see more from a peer-reviewed journal article authored by Crispin Paine of the University College, London:

Atheist propaganda and the struggle against religion began immediately after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. While social change would, under Marxist theory, bring religion to disappear, Leninists argued that the Party should actively help to eradicate religion as a vital step in creating ‘New Soviet Man’. The energy with which the Party struggled against religion, though, varied considerably from time to time and from place to place, as did its hostility to particular faith groups. The 1920s saw the closure of innumerable churches and synagogues (and to a lesser extent mosques) and the active persecution of clergy and harassment of believers. From 1930, though, Stalin introduced a less aggressive approach, and wartime support for the government earned for the Russian Orthodox Church, at least, a level of toleration which lasted until Stalin’s death. Under Khrushchev antireligious efforts resumed, if spasmodically, and they lasted until the end of the Soviet Union.

An article from the pro-communism Marxist.com web site says this about Stalin:

During the ultra-left period of forcible collectivisation and the Five Year Plan in Four an attempt was made to liquidate the Church and its influence by government decree. Starting in 1929 churches were forcibly closed and priests arrested and exiled all over the Soviet Union. The celebrated Shrine of the Iberian Virgin in Moscow – esteemed by believers to be the “holiest” in all Russia was demolished – Stalin and his Government were not afraid of strengthening religious fanaticism by wounding the feelings of believers as Lenin and Trotsky had been! Religion, they believed, could be liquidated, like the kulak, by a stroke of the pen. The Society of Militant Atheists, under Stalin’s orders, issued on May 15th 1932, the “Five Year Plan of Atheism” – by May 1st 1937, such as the “Plan”, “not a single house of prayer shall remain in the territory of the USSR, and the very concept of God must be banished from the Soviet Union as a survival of the Middle Ages and an instrument for the oppression of the working masses.”!

Now, if all you read were atheist web sites, you’d think that Stalin loved religion and wasn’t opposed to Christianity at all. An atheist I know told me that Stalin was a Christian because that’s what he was as a child at one point. Funny sort of way to carry out your Christian faith, isn’t it? If you read atheist web sites, you’d expect Stalin to have had the career of a William Lane Craig or a J.P. Moreland. And yet in the fever swamp of atheist web sites, this is what they tell themselves. They believe it because they want to believe it. They have to believe it, in order to keep God at bay.

Now, if you were going to pick a hero of the Christian faith, you’d probably pick a real fundamentalist like William Wilberforce, who freed the slaves – because of his evangelical Christian convictions. Wilberforce took Christianity seriously – he believed every verse of the Bible, he tried to convert people to his faith, and he pushed his faith on others by passing laws. He was the worst nightmare of atheism – a politically active Evangelical Christian.

But who is a great atheist who was politically active? When I think of a great atheist, someone who really did the most to oppose the “lie” of God’s existence, I think of Josef Stalin. So what kind of morality can we expect from someone who takes the message of Richard Dawkins and Dan Barker seriously and has the political power to really do something about it?

The Ukraine Famine

Take a look at this UK Daily Mail article about a great achievement of the atheist Josef Stalin, which occurred in 1932-1933.

Excerpt:

Now, 75 years after one of the great forgotten crimes of modern times, Stalin’s man-made famine of 1932/3, the former Soviet republic of Ukraine is asking the world to classify it as a genocide.

The Ukrainians call it the Holodomor – the Hunger.

Millions starved as Soviet troops and secret policemen raided their villages, stole the harvest and all the food in villagers’ homes.

They dropped dead in the streets, lay dying and rotting in their houses, and some women became so desperate for food that they ate their own children.

If they managed to fend off starvation, they were deported and shot in their hundreds of thousands.

So terrible was the famine that Igor Yukhnovsky, director of the Institute of National Memory, the Ukrainian institution researching the Holodomor, believes as many as nine million may have died.

[…]Between four and five million died in Ukraine, a million died in Kazakhstan and another million in the north Caucasus and the Volga.

By 1933, 5.7 million households – somewhere between ten million and 15 million people – had vanished. They had been deported, shot or died of starvation.

This is what follows when you believe that the universe is an accident, that there is no objective good and evil, that human beings are just animals, that no God will hold us accountable, and that human beings are not made in the image of God for the purpose of freely choosing to come into a relationship with him. The Ukrainian famine is an action that came from a man whose worldview was passionate atheism.

Atheism today

You might think that today’s atheists are much different than Josef Stalin, but understand that according to a recent survey of atheists conducted by atheists, 97% of atheists are pro-abortion. How many people have been killed by abortion? 56 million in the United States alone. Atheists in a society like ours, founded on Judeo-Christian values, are obviously going to live a lot better than Stalin. For one thing, they don’t have the power that Stalin had to eradicate theism, although you can see Stalinism in the anti-Christian activities of groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation. But take away the Judeo-Christian foundations of this society, and what would you see atheists doing?

Remember the words of Richard Dawkins:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

(“God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American, November, 1995, p. 85)

Now, having said that, I readily admit that many atheists adopt Judeo-Christian values if their society is saturated with them, but they are acting better than their worldview requires. They are acting inconsistently with what atheism really teaches. It’s good for us that they do, but for how long?

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.

Summary:

  • 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

What criteria do historians use to get to the minimal facts about the historical Jesus?

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let's take a look at the facts
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let’s take a look at the facts

Have you ever heard Gary Habermas, Michael Licona or William Lane Craig defend the resurrection of Jesus in a debate by saying that the resurrection is the best explanation for the “minimal facts” about Jesus? The lists of minimal facts that they use are typically agreed to by their opponents during the debates. Minimal facts are the parts of the New Testament that meet a set of strict historical criteria. These are the facts that skeptical historians agree with, totally apart from any religious beliefs.

So what are the criteria that skeptical historians use to derive a list of minimal facts about Jesus?

Dr. Craig explains them in this article.

Excerpt:

The other way, more influential in contemporary New Testament scholarship, is to establish specific facts about Jesus without assuming the general reliability of the Gospels. The key here are the so-called “Criteria of Authenticity” which enable us to establish specific sayings or events in Jesus’ life as historical. Scholars involved in the quest of the historical Jesus have enunciated a number of these critieria for detecting historically authentic features of Jesus, such as dissimilarity to Christian teaching, multiple attestation, linguistic semitisms, traces of Palestinian milieu, retention of embarrassing material, coherence with other authentic material, and so forth.

It is somewhat misleading to call these “criteria,” for they aim at stating sufficient, not necessary, conditions of historicity. This is easy to see: suppose a saying is multiply attested and dissimilar but not embarrassing. If embarrassment were a necessary condition of authenticity, then the saying would have to be deemed inauthentic, which is wrong-headed, since its multiple attestation and dissimilarity are sufficient for authenticity. Of course, the criteria are defeasible, meaning that they are not infallible guides to authenticity. They might be better called “Indications of Authenticity” or “Signs of Credibility.”

In point of fact, what the criteria really amount to are statements about the effect of certain types of evidence upon the probability of various sayings or events in Jesus’ life. For some saying or event S and evidence of a certain type E, the criteria would state that, all things being equal, the probability of S given E is greater than the probability of S on our background knowledge alone. So, for example, all else being equal, the probability of some event or saying is greater given its multiple attestation than it would have been without it.

What are some of the factors that might serve the role of E in increasing the probability of some saying or event S? The following are some of the most important:

(1) Historical congruence: S fits in with known historical facts concerning the context in which S is said to have occurred.

(2) Independent, early attestation: S appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which S is alleged to have occurred and which depend neither upon each other nor a common source.

(3) Embarrassment: S is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S.

(4) Dissimilarity: S is unlike antecedent Jewish thought-forms and/or unlike subsequent Christian thought-forms.

(5) Semitisms: traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebrew linguistic forms.

(6) Coherence: S is consistent with already established facts about Jesus.

For a good discussion of these factors see Robert Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” in Gospel Perspectives I, ed. R. T. France and David Wenham (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1980), pp. 225-63.

Notice that these “criteria” do not presuppose the general reliability of the Gospels. Rather they focus on a particular saying or event and give evidence for thinking that specific element of Jesus’ life to be historical, regardless of the general reliability of the document in which the particular saying or event is reported. These same “criteria” are thus applicable to reports of Jesus found in the apocryphal Gospels, or rabbinical writings, or even the Qur’an. Of course, if the Gospels can be shown to be generally reliable documents, so much the better! But the “criteria” do not depend on any such presupposition. They serve to help spot historical kernels even in the midst of historical chaff. Thus we need not concern ourselves with defending the Gospels’ every claim attributed to Jesus in the gospels; the question will be whether we can establish enough about Jesus to make faith in him reasonable.

And you can see Dr. Craig using these criteria to defend minimal facts in his debates. For example, in his debate with Ehrman, he alludes to the criteria when making his case for the empty tomb.

Here, he uses multiple attestation and the criteria of embarrassment:

Among the reasons which have led most scholars to this conclusion are the following:

1. The empty tomb is also multiply attested by independent, early sources.

Mark’s source didn’t end with the burial, but with the story of the empty tomb, which is tied to the burial story verbally and grammatically. Moreover, Matthew and John have independent sources about the empty tomb; it’s also mentioned in the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles (2.29; 13.36); and it’s implied by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian church (I Cor. 15.4). Thus, we have again multiple, early, independent attestation of the fact of the empty tomb.

2. The tomb was discovered empty by women.

In patriarchal Jewish society the testimony of women was not highly regarded. In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus says that women weren’t even permitted to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court of law. Now in light of this fact, how remarkable it is that it is women who are the discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb. Any later legendary account would certainly have made male disciples like Peter and John discover the empty tomb. The fact that it is women, rather than men, who are the discoverers of the empty tomb is best explained by the fact that they were the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb, and the Gospel writers faithfully record what, for them, was an awkward and embarrassing fact.

There are actually a few more reasons for believing in the empty tomb that he doesn’t go into in the debate, but you can find them in his written work. For example, in his essay on Gerd Ludemann’s “vision” hypothesis. That essay covers the reasons for all four of his minimal facts.

So, if you are going to talk about the resurrection with a skeptic, you don’t want to invoke the Bible as some sort of inerrant/inspired Holy Book.

Try this approach instead:

  1. Explain the criteria that historians use to get their lists of minimal facts
  2. Explain your list of minimal facts
  3. Defend your list of minimal facts using the criteria
  4. Cite skeptics who admit to each of your minimal facts, to show that they are widely accepted
  5. List some parts of the Bible that don’t pass the criteria (e.g. – guard at the tomb, Matthew earthquake)
  6. Explain why those parts don’t pass the criteria, and explain that they are not part of your case
  7. Challenge your opponent to either deny some or all the facts, or propose a naturalistic alternative that explains the facts better than the resurrection
  8. Don’t let your opponent attack any of your minimal facts by attacking other parts of the Bible (e.g. – the number of angels being one or two, etc.)

And remember that there is no good case for the resurrection that does not make heavy use of the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.

The best essay on the minimal facts criteria that I’ve read is the one by Robert H. Stein in “Contending with Christianity’s Critics“. It’s a good short essay that goes over all the historical criteria that are used to derive the short list of facts from which we infer the conclusion “God raised Jesus from the dead”. That whole book is really very, very good.