Tag Archives: History

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

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. 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:

  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. 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.

William Lane Craig lectures on the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus

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

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

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

Introduction:

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  • You must use the New Testament like any other ancient historical document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

Fact #1: the burial of Jesus following his crucifixion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can see this evidence used in an actual debate, against a historian who disagrees with Dr. Craig. That post contains a point by point summary of the debate that I wrote while listening to it.

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

Is the acceleration of the universe’s expansion compatible with Hinduism?

Christianity and the progress of science
Christianity and the progress of science

First, a news story – and then we’ll see how the accelerating universe relates to the existence of God.

Excerpt:

Three astrophysicists who discovered that the universe’s expansion is accelerating rather than decelerating, as had been expected, win the Nobel Prize in physics.

Adam Riess was sure he’d spotted a blatant error in his results. It was 1997, and the young post-doc’s measurements of distant, exploding stars implied that the universe was expanding at a faster and faster rate, instead of slowing down, as he had expected.

It wasn’t an error at all. Instead, what was at fault were some basic assumptions about the workings of the universe.

On Tuesday, the Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist received the Nobel Prize in physics for the revolutionary discovery and its implications, along with team leader Brian Schmidt of Australian National University and astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter of UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who had reached the same conclusion independently.

At the time of their work, astrophysicists believed that the rate of expansion of the universe — set in motion by the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago — would be slowing down as matter was pulled together by gravity. The goal at the time was to figure out how rapid the deceleration was.

What the two teams found instead was that the expansion of the universe was accelerating — an observation that could best be explained by the existence of a mysterious “dark energy” that pushes matter farther and farther apart.

Many scientists had thought that, just as the universe started with the Big Bang, it would end with a Big Crunch — with gravity pulling all the matter in the universe inward.

Does anyone remember that week that I wrote those posts about “Why I am not a… <insert some religion here>”? I explained why I was not all kinds of different religions and denominations, including Roman Catholicism, Calvinism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, etc. Everyone was offended and we fought about it. Ah, I remember it well.

Now let’s apply science to the Hindu religion and see if they go together, especially this new discovery about the expansion of the universe.

Why I am not a Hindu

  1. Hindu cosmology teaches that the universe cycles between creation and destruction, through infinite time.
  2. The closest cosmological model conforming to Hindu Scriptures is the eternally “oscillating” model of the universe.
  3. The “oscillating” model requires that the universe exist eternally into the past.
  4. But the evidence today shows the the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the big bang.
  5. The “oscillating” model requires that the expansion of the universe reverse into a collapse, (= crunch).
  6. In 1998, the discovery of the year was that the universe would expand forever. There will be no crunch.
  7. Therefore, the oscillating model is disconfirmed by observations.
  8. The oscillating model also faces theoretical problems with the “bounce” mechanism.

So that’s one reason why I am not a Hindu. And now we have more scientific confirmation that there is no cycle of universes coming into being and going out of being.

The absolute origin of the universe out of nothing is also incompatible with Buddhism and Mormonism and maybe other religions. They also require an eternally existing universe.

And modern cosmology disagrees with atheism, too

I think it’s important for all of you to be familiar with the scientific evidence for the Big Bang. It will help you with your cosmological argument, and it will help you to refute many, many other religions that require eternal universes, including atheism.

I wrote about how the Big Bang cosmology falsifies atheism before.

Excerpt:

According to the Secular Humanist Manifesto, atheism is committed to an eternally existing universe, (See the first item: “Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.”). If something non-material brought all existing matter into being, that would be a supernatural cause, and atheists deny that anything supernatural exists. The standard Big Bang theory requires that all the matter in the universe come into being out of nothing. The Big Bang has been confirmed by experimental evidence such as redshift measurements, light element abundances and the cosmic microwave background radiation. This falsifies eternal models of the universe, which are required by atheist Scriptures.

The experimental evidence that confirms the Big Bang creation out of nothing falsifies many worldviews. Those who care about evidence will have to choose some other religion that is compatible with what we know from science today.