Tag Archives: Jesus

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.


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.

Why do so many atheist historians think that 1 Corinthians 15 is reliable history?

Investigation in progress
Investigation in progress

Which passage of the Bible is the favorite of Christians who like to defend the Christian worldview? I don’t mean which one is most inspirational… I mean “which one is the most useful for winning arguments?” Well, when it comes to the historical Jesus, the most important passage has to be 1 Corinthians 15:3-7.

The tradition in 1 Corinthians 15 is an early creed that was received from the eyewitnesses Peter and John when Paul visited them several times in Jerusalem, as documented in Galatians 1 and 2, where Paul meets the eyewitnesses. And of course, Paul records his own eyewitness experience, documented in 1 Cor 15:8.

So, is this passage accepted as historically reliable by all ancient historians? Or only by the Bible-believing ones?

Here’s something posted by Dr. William Lane Craig about the 1 Corinthians 15 passage:

The evidence that Paul is not writing in his own hand in I Cor. 15.3-5 is so powerful that all New Testament scholars recognize that Paul is here passing on a prior tradition. In addition to the fact that Paul explicitly says as much, the passage is replete with non-Pauline characteristics, including, in order of appearance: (i) the phrase “for our sins” using the genitive case and plural noun is unusual for Paul; (ii) the phrase “according to the Scriptures” is unparalleled in Paul, who introduces Scriptural citations by “as it is written”; (iii) the perfect passive verb “has been raised” appears only in this chapter and in a pre-Pauline confessional formula in II Tim. 2.8; (iv) the phrase “on the third day” with its ordinal number following the noun in Greek is non-Pauline; (v) the word “appeared” is found only here and in the confessional formula in I Tim. 3.16; and (vi) “the Twelve” is not Paul’s nomenclature, for he always speaks of the twelve disciples as “the apostles.”

Now the visit during which Paul may have received this tradition is the visit you mention three years after his conversion on the road to Damascus (Gal. 1.18). This puts the tradition back to within the first five years after Jesus’ death in AD 30. So there’s not even an apparent inconsistency with Paul’s appropriating the language of the formula to encapsulate the Gospel he was already preaching during those first three years in Damascus.

Ancient historian Gary Habermas loves to read non-Christian scholars… and then he writes about what THEY think about Jesus in peer-reviewed articles, published in academic journals. Let’s look at this one: Dialog: A Journal of Theology, Vol. 45; No. 3 (Fall, 2006), pp. 288-297; published by Blackwell Publishing, UK.

He writes:

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

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

Paul is clear that this material was not his own but that he had passed on to others what he had received earlier, as the center of his message (15:3). There are many textual indications that the material pre-dates Paul. Most directly, the apostle employs paredoka and parelabon, the equivalent Greek terms for delivering and receiving rabbinic tradition (cf. 1 Cor. 11:23). Indirect indications of a traditional text(s) include the sentence structure and verbal parallelism, diction, and the triple sequence of kai hoti Further, several non-Pauline words, the proper names of Cephas (cf. Lk. 24:34) and James, and the possibility of an Aramaic original are all significant. Fuller attests to the unanimity of scholarship here: “It is almost universally agreed today that Paul is here citing tradition.”[4] Critical scholars agree that Paul received the material well before this book was written.[5]

This is important:

The most popular view is that Paul received this material during his trip to Jerusalem just three years after his conversion, to visit Peter and James, the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:18-19), both of whose names appear in the appearance list (1 Cor. 15:5; 7). An important hint here is Paul’s use of the verb historesai (1:18), a term that indicates the investigation of a topic.[6] The immediate context both before and after reveals this subject matter: Paul was inquiring concerning the nature of the Gospel proclamation (Gal. 1:11-2:10), of which Jesus’ resurrection was the center (1 Cor. 15:3-4, 14, 17; Gal. 1:11, 16).

He’s an eyewitness (verse 8), and he met with the other eyewitnesses, James and Peter. 1 Corinthians is early. Galatians is early. The creed is extremely early – right after the events occurred. There was no time for legends to develop.

And atheistic / critical historians agree, the creed is reliable:

Critical scholars generally agree that this pre-Pauline creed(s) may be the earliest in the New Testament. Ulrich Wilckens asserts that it “indubitably goes back to the oldest phase of all in the history of primitive Christianity.”[7] Joachim Jeremias agrees that it is, “the earliest tradition of all.”[8] Perhaps a bit too optimistically, Walter Kasper even thinks that it was possibly even “in use by the end of 30 AD . . . .”[9]

Indicating the wide approval on this subject, even more skeptical scholars frequently agree. Gerd Ludemann maintains that “the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus. . . . not later than three years. . . . the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in I Cor.15.3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 CE. . . .”[10] Similarly, Michael Goulder thinks that it “goes back at least to what Paul was taught when he was converted, a couple of years after the crucifixion.”[11] Thomas Sheehan agrees that this tradition “probably goes back to at least 32-34 C.E., that is, to within two to four years of the crucifixion.”[12] Others clearly consent.[13]

Overall, my recent overview of critical sources mentioned above indicates that those who provide a date generally opt for Paul’s reception of this report relatively soon after Jesus’ death, by the early to mid-30s A.D.[14] This provides an additional source that appears just a half step removed from eyewitness testimony.

(3) Paul was so careful to assure the content of his Gospel message, that he made a second trip to Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1-10) specifically to be absolutely sure that he had not been mistaken (2:2). The first time he met with Peter and James (Gal. 1:18-20). On this occasion, the same two men were there, plus the apostle John (2:9). Paul was clearly doing his research by seeking out the chief apostles. As Martin Hengel notes, “Evidently the tradition of I Cor. 15.3 had been subjected to many tests” by Paul.[15]

These four apostles were the chief authorities in the early church, and each is represented in the list of those who had seen the resurrected Jesus (1 Cor. 15:5-7). So their confirmation of Paul’s Gospel preaching (Gal. 2:9), especially given the apostolic concern to insure doctrinal truth in the early church, is certainly significant. On Paul’s word, we are again just a short distance from a firsthand report.

(4) Not only do we have Paul’s account that the other major apostles confirmed his Gospel message, but he provides the reverse testimony, too. After listing Jesus’ resurrection appearances, Paul tells us he also knew what the other apostles were preaching regarding Jesus’ appearances, and it was the same as his own teaching on this subject (1 Cor. 15:11). As one, they proclaimed that Jesus was raised from the dead (15:12, 15). So Paul narrates both the more indirect confirmation of his Gospel message by the apostolic leaders, plus his firsthand, direct approval of their resurrection message.

Now, some of the people he lists are really biased against the supernatural, and they really hate the idea that the claims of Christianity exclude other religions. And yet they don’t deny the historical reliability of 1 Corinthians 15, or that it is based on eyewitness testimony.

That’s why when you watch debates about the historical Jesus, you see skeptical historians like Bart Ehrman, Gerd Ludemann, James Crossley, Michael Goulder, etc. accepting that the disciples thought they saw Jesus after his death. They’re not just being nice to Dr. Craig when they give him that. They are forced to accept it, because it passes the historical tests. Every Christian ought to be aware of which passages of the New Testament are seen by the broad spectrum of ancient historians as “historical”, regardless of their various biases. You can believe everything in the Bible. But when you debate non-Christians, you have to use the historical core of Christianity which successfully passes historical analysis.

You can see the creed used as evidence in the debate between James Crossley and William Lane Craig.

Dr. William Lane Craig answers questions about Jesus in the New York Times

William Lane Craig lecturing to university students
William Lane Craig lecturing to university students at Purdue University

Nicholas Kristof, a secular leftist writer for the New York Times, is interested in Jesus, but he doesn’t want a Jesus who can perform miracles. He decided to ask the best living philosphical theologian, Dr. William Lane Craig, some questions. As you’ll see, Dr. Craig’s answers to his questions are perfect for the secular left audience of the New York Times.

Before we start looking at the questions and answers, I want to mention one important point. When discussing Christianity, it’s very important that Christians not allow the atheist to nitpick about minor details of Christian history or Christian theology. The Christian needs to ALWAYS redirect the discussion to the question of God’s existence. There, we are strongly supported by mainstream science. Only when the skeptic accepts a Creator and Designer can we allow ourselves to be moved on to specific points of theology or history.

Like this:

  • Skeptic: was Jesus born of a virgin?
  • Christian: do you accept a Creator and Designer of the universe?
  • Skeptic: no
  • Christian: then let’s discuss the scientific evidence for that first

And again:

  • Skeptic: am I going to Hell?
  • Christian: do you accept a Creator and Designer of the universe?
  • Skeptic: no
  • Christian: then let’s discuss the scientific evidence for that first

Why is this important? It’s important because most skeptics are fundamentalists. They think that if they can refute Christianity on an edge case issue, then the core crumbles. It’s very important to frame the discussion so that the skeptic understands that there are core claims of Christianity which are important and strongly evidenced, and there are less important claims, and also claims that are not well evidenced. The goal of any discussion with a skeptic is to get them to accept the important core claims which are strongly evidenced. If they accept the core, that’s enough to get them out of atheism, and into a relationship with God, where they can continue to grow.

I wrote a whole post about this that you can read later, but let’s get to the interview with Dr. Craig.

Let’s start with the first question and answer:

Kristof: Merry Christmas, Dr. Craig! I must confess that for all my admiration for Jesus, I’m skeptical about some of the narrative we’ve inherited. Are you actually confident that Jesus was born to a virgin?

Craig: Merry Christmas to you, too, Nick! I’m reasonably confident. When I was a non-Christian, I used to struggle with this, too. But then it occurred to me that for a God who could create the entire universe, making a woman pregnant wasn’t that big a deal! Given the existence of a Creator and Designer of the universe (for which we have good evidence), an occasional miracle is child’s play. Historically speaking, the story of Jesus’ virginal conception is independently attested by Matthew and Luke and is utterly unlike anything in pagan mythology or Judaism. So what’s the problem?

Did you notice what Dr. Craig did there? Regarding the evidence from science, Dr. Craig has defended that in two separate academic books, both with Oxford University Press. (Theism, Atheism and Big Bang Cosmology and God? A Debate Between A Christian and An Atheist)

Here it is again:

Kristof: How do you account for the many contradictions within the New Testament? For example, Matthew says Judas hanged himself, while Acts says that he “burst open.” They can’t both be right, so why insist on inerrancy of Scripture?

Craig: I don’t insist on the inerrancy of Scripture. Rather, what I insist on is what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity,” that is to say, the core doctrines of Christianity. Harmonizing perceived contradictions in the Bible is a matter of in-house discussion amongst Christians. What really matters are questions like: Does God exist? Are there objective moral values? Was Jesus truly God and truly man? How did his death on a Roman cross serve to overcome our moral wrongdoing and estrangement from God? These are, as one philosopher puts it, the “questions that matter,” not how Judas died.

For those who are concerned by this answer, you should know Dr. Craig is the former president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, and they do indeed sign a statement of faith that includes inerrancy. But again, an interview in the New York Times is not the place to focus on defending inerrancy. This is the place to have secular left elites contend with the core claims of Christianity.

In the next question and answer, notice how Dr. Craig refuses to yield that the skeptic is rational and evidence-driven. You should never let atheists assume that atheism is the “default” view of people who are reasonable and evidence-driven. Atheism is NOT the default view for reasonable people who are evidence-driven. Atheism is a furious retreat away from reason and evidence. In particular, it’s a refusal to bound your worldview with science and history.

More Dr. Craig:

Kristof: Over time, people have had faith in Zeus, in Shiva and Krishna, in the Chinese kitchen god, in countless other deities. We’re skeptical of all those faith traditions, so should we suspend our emphasis on science and rationality when we encounter miracles in our own tradition?

Craig: I don’t follow. Why should we suspend our emphasis on science and rationality just because of weakly evidenced, false claims in other religions? I champion a “reasonable faith” that seeks to provide a comprehensive worldview that takes into account the best evidence of the sciences, history, philosophy, logic and mathematics. Some of the arguments for God’s existence that I’ve defended, such as the arguments from the origin of the universe and the fine-tuning of the universe, appeal to the best evidence of contemporary science. I get the impression, Nick, that you think science is somehow incompatible with belief in miracles. If so, you need to give an argument for that conclusion. David Hume’s famous argument against miracles is today recognized, in the words of philosopher of science John Earman, as “an abject failure.” No one has been able to do any better.

This is the book he’s alluding to, there. Oxford University Press.

Please read the whole interview.

If you have non-Christian friends who think that all the “smart people” reject Christianity, and you don’t now how to talk to them, why not send them this article from the New York Times? There are also resources that you can use to train yourself to answer questions like he did.

Some people reading may not like Dr. Craig’s approach. That might be because you’re only able to talk about Christianity to people by quoting the Bible to them. Maybe you think that quoting the Bible to a non-Christian will cause them to become a Christian. This approach, (I call it the “magic words” approach), is popular in many churches. It will work on people who are already Christians, but it won’t work on non-Christians, since they don’t accept the Bible. It’s also not how anyone in the New Testament talked about spiritual things. (See Acts 17 for an example, or read what Jesus does to prove his claims to skeptics in the gospel of John). If you want to discuss Christianity outside the church, then I recommend Dr. Craig’s approach.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

Did the early church invent the divinity of Jesus over a long period of time?

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity

How early is the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus?

When I answer this question, I only want to use the earliest, most reliable sources – so I can defend them on historical grounds using the standard rules of historiography.

The 4 sources that I would use are as follows:

  • The early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, and 1 Corinthians 1
  • A passage in Philippians 2
  • Two passages from Mark, the earliest gospel
  • A passage from Q, which is an early source of Matthew and Luke

So let’s see the passages.

1 Corinthians

I’ve written before about the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, which skeptical scholars date to 1-3 years after the death of Jesus, for a variety of reasons I covered in the previous post. Here’s the creed which definitely makes Jesus out to be more than an ordinary man. Ordinary men don’t get resurrection bodies after they die.

Here’s the passage: (1 Cor 15:3-8)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additionally, 1 Corinthians 1:21-25 talks about Jesus being “the power of God and the wisdom of God”. Paul is identifying Jesus with the divine.

21For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom,

23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,

24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.

But it gets even stronger! You all probably already know that the most important passages in the Old Testament for Jews is the famous “Shema“, which is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. The Shema is a strong statement of Jewish monotheism.

Here’s the passage:

4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.

5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.

7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.

8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.

9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

So how does Paul fit Jesus in with this strong statement of Jewish monotheism?

Paul alludes to the Shema in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6.

4So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one.

5For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”),

6yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

Holy mackerel! How did that get in there? Paul is splitting the roles of God in the the Shema and identifying Jesus in one of the divine roles! Jesus is not an ordinary man. That passage “through whom all things came” foreshadows John identifying Jesus as “the Word of God”, which “became flesh and dwelt among us”. Holy snark – did you guys know that was all in here so early?

The date for 1 Corinthians is 55 AD. It should be noted that skeptical scholars like James Crossley accept these passages, and you can check it out in the debate audio yourself.


Check out Philippians 2:5-11.

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

6Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,

7but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

8And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!

9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,

10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The date for Philippians is 60-61 AD. Still within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses, and written by an eyewitness who was in contact with the other eyewitnesses, like Peter and James, whom Paul spoke with numerous times on his journeys to Jerusalem.

Mark’s gospel

Mark’s gospel is the earliest and atheists like James Crossley date it to less than 40 AD, which is 10 years after the death of Jesus at most. When you read the gospel of Mark, you are getting the earliest and best information available about the historical Jesus, along with Paul’s epistles. So what does Mark say about Jesus? Is Jesus just a man, or is he something more?

Check out Mark 12:1-9:

1He then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey.

2At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard.

3But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed.

4Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully.

5He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.

6“He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’

7“But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’

8So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.

9“What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.

And Mark 13:32, talking about the date of the final judgment.

32“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

And again, this passage is establishing a hierarchy such that Jesus is being exalted above all men and the angels, too. And the passage is embarrassing to the early church, because it makes Jesus look ignorant of something, so they would not have made this passage up. Jesus is not an ordinary man, he is above the angels – God’s unique Son.

The “Q” source for Matthew and Luke

Here’s Matthew 11:27, which is echoed in Luke 10:22:

27“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

22“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Since this passage is in both of Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark, scholars believe that it is in the earlier “Q” source used by both Matthew and Luke. Q predates both Matthew and Luke, and so it is also fairly early (maybe 67-68), although not as early as Mark and Paul. Bill Craig writes that this passage is also embarrassing because it says that no one knows Jesus.

Video, audio and summary of William Lane Craig vs Peter Millican debate

British Spitfire and German Messerschmitt Me 109 locked in a dogfight
British Spitfire and German Messerschmitt Me 109 locked in a dogfight

Here’s a debate with a well-qualified atheist and Dr. Craig.



Description from the Youtube upload:

This debate on “Does God Exist?” took place in front of a capacity audience at the Great Hall, University of Birmingham. It was recorded on Friday 21st October 2011 as part of the UK Reasonable Faith Tour with William Lane Craig.

William Lane Craig is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, La Mirada, California and a leading philosopher of religion. Peter Millican is Gilbert Ryle Professor of Philosophy at Hertford College, University of Oxford and a noted scholar in studies of Hume.

The debate was hosted by the University of Birmingham Student Philosophy Society, and the debate was moderated by Professor Carl Chinn.

Dr. Millican proved to be an amazing debater, and that allowed Dr. Craig to show the full range of his talents in a way that he has never done before. This was a great debate – right up there with Craig’s two debates against Austin Dacey and Paul Draper. Dr. Millican is excellent at analytical philosophy, had studied cosmology and physics, and he came prepared to answer Craig’s arguments. There is NO SNARK in my debate summary below, out of respect for Dr. Millican. However, I haven’t proof-read it, so please do point out any errors. There is about 30 minutes of Q&A time at the end.

Dr. Craig’s opening speech:

There are good reasons to believe that God exists.

There are no good reasons to believe that God does not exist.

A1) The origin of the universe

  1. The universe began to exist
  2. If the universe began to exist, then the universe has a transcendent cause.
  3. The universe has a transcendent cause.

The origin of the universe is confirmed by philosophical arguments and scientific evidence.

There cannot be an actual infinite number of past events, because mathematical operations like subtraction and division cannot be applied to actual infinities.

The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin (BGV) proof shows that every universe that expands must have a space-time boundary in the past. That means that no expanding universe, no matter what the model, cannot be eternal into the past.

Even speculative alternative cosmologies do not escape the need for a beginning.

The cause of the universe must be transcendent and supernatural. It must be uncaused, because there cannot be an infinite regress of causes. It must be eternal, because it created time. It must be non-physical, because it created space. There are only two possibilities for such a cause. It could be an abstract object or an agent. Abstract objects cannot cause effects. Therefore, the cause is an agent.

A2) The fine-tuning of the universe

  1. The fine-tuning of the universe is either due to law, chance or design.
  2. It is not due to law or chance.
  3. Therefore, it is due to design.

The progress of science has revealed that the Big Bang was fine-tuned to allow for the existence of intelligent life.

Type 1: Constants like the gravitational constant are finely-tuned, and are not dependent on the laws of physics.

Type 2: Quantities like the amount of entropy in the universe, are not dependent on the laws of physics.

The range of life-permitting values is incredibly small compared to the possible values of the constants and quantities. (Like having a lottery with a million black balls and one white ball, and you pick the white ball. Even though each individual ball has the same tiny chance of being picked, but the odds are overwhelming that the whichever ball you pick will be black, and not white).

Not only are the numbers not due to laws, but they are not due to chance either. It’s not just that the settings are unlikely, it’s that they are unlikely and they conform to an independent pattern – namely, the ability to support complex life.

A3) The moral argument

  1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
  2. Objective morality does exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Objective moral values are values that exist independently of whether any humans believe them or not.

Michael Ruse, an atheist philosopher agrees that if God does not exist, then there is only a “herd morality” that is determined by biological evolution and social evolution. There no objective moral standard, just different customs and conventions that vary by time and place. Anyone who acts against the herd morality is merely being unfashionable and unconventional. On the atheistic view, there is nothing objective and binding about this evolved “herd morality”. However, people do experience objective moral values, and these cannot be grounded on atheism.

Furthermore, God must exist in order to argue that there is evil in the world. In order to be able to make a distinction between good and evil that is objective, there has to be a God to determine a standard of good and evil that is binding regardless of the varying customs and conventions of different people groups. Even when a person argues against God’s existence by pointing to the “evil” in the world, they must assume objective moral values, and a God who grounds those objective moral values.

A4) The resurrection of Jesus.

  1. There are certain minimal facts that are admitted by the majority of historians, across the ideological spectrum: the empty tomb, the appearances and the early belief in the resurrection.
  2. Naturalistic attempts to explain these minimal facts fail.
  3. The best explanation of these facts is that Jesus rose from the dead.

A5) Religious experience

People can know that God exists through experience. In the absence of defeaters for these experiences, these experiences constitute evidence for God’s existence.

Dr. Millican’s opening speech:

Dr. Craig has the burden of proof because he claims that God exists.

The Christian God hypothesis:

  1. An omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God created the universe.
  2. This God cares about humans.
  3. This God has acted in history though the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

This is a factual claim, and we are discussing the evidence for whether these claims are true or false. We are not interested in religious practice, or the consolation of religious belief, nor any other religions.

A1) Religious pluralism and epistemology

Human beings are purpose-finding creatures – we are prone to prefer explanations that involve purpose.

Human beings are pattern-finding animals – we tend to find designs in states of affairs.

Human beings have an interest in maintaining religious hierarchies because of the power it gives them.

Religious beliefs are not determined by rational considerations, but are determined by geographic location.

The same non-scientific method of generating religious beliefs (purpose-finding, pattern-finding, geographic location, parental teaching, charismatic speakers, praise songs and worship, religious education, ancient holy books) is being used in several religions, and it leads to different, contradictory truth claims. So at least some of those conflicting claims are false. And if the method is generating some false claims, then it’s not a good method, and it undermines all the religions that use those methods.

A2) Absence of evidence is evidence of absence

There is no scientific evidence for God.

A3) Mental processes depend on physical systems

There is no scientific evidence for a disembodied intelligence.

Our universal human experience is that intelligence and mental operations require a physical brain.

The quality of our thinking depends on physical conditions, like being tired or on drugs.

But Christian theists believe that mental processes can exist independently of an underlying physical reality, unimpaired by the death of the physical body and the brain.

R.A1) The origin of the universe

1. There is no evidence that whatever begins to exist requires a cause. All the evidence we have of things beginning to exist are when something is created from rearrangements of other things that already existed.

The closest analog we have to something coming into being from nothing is quantum particles coming into being from nothing, and that causation is random.

There is no evidence that thoughts can bring about physical effects, and Bill is arguing for a mental cause to the origin of the universe.

Even if things that begin to exist IN the universe have causes, it doesn’t hold for the universe as a whole. Bill is committing the fallacy of composition.

Time begins with the universe, but our experience of causation is that it is a temporal process. So if there is no time “prior to” the universe’s beginning, then how can there be a cause to the universe?

It’s possible that there could be something outside our universe that is eternal.

It’s also possible that the Big Bang could be wrong, and this universe could oscillate eternally and not require a beginning.

2. There are cosmological theories that avoid the beginning of the universe by positing a prior period of contraction prior to the Big Bang.

The beginning of this universe depends on general relativity, and that theory breaks down at the level of quantum mechanics.

3. There is no evidence that minds can exist without an underlying physical system. So even if there is a cause of the universe, then it is neither an abstract object nor a mind. It would have to be something else, and not something we are familiar with – we are just not in a position to speculate of what it could be.

R.A3) The moral argument

Atheists do believe in a standard of morality that is not based on what groups of humans believe.

Utilitarians think there is a standard of moral values that is objective, because the measure of human happiness (for the greatest number) is objective, even if people are mistaken about what promotes that happiness.

Kantians have a rational process for determining which moral imperatives should be universalized.

Humeans have a system that is rooted in natural human sentiment.

Dr. Craig’s first rebuttal:

I do not have the only burden of proof. The topic is “Does God Exist?”. If Dr. Millican answers “no” then he has a burden of proof, otherwise we are left with agnosticism.

R.A1) Religious pluralism and epistemology

First, there is no single common method of adopting a religion.

Second, MY method this evening is logic and evidence and personal experience – which is the same as his method. So his comments about how people in different religions adopt their religion through parents, church, singing, etc. have no bearing on the arguments I will be making.

R.A2) Absence of evidence is evidence of absence

Absence of evidence is only evidence of absence if we can reasonably expect that there should be some evidence that is not present. He would have to show that there should be more evidence for God’s existence that the 5 arguments that I already presented – something that we should expect to see that we don’t see.

R.A3) Mental processes depend on physical systems

No response by Dr. Craig. (but see below)

A1) The origin of the universe

1. He says that there are speculative cosmologies like the multiverse that escape the need for a beginning, but that’s false, the BGV proof applies to them, and they do need a beginning.

He says that you can escape BGV by positing a contraction prior to the expansion. However Vilenkin says that any contraction phase is unstable and would introduce additional singularities that would hamper any later expansion phase.

He  says that we need a theory of quantum gravity in order to describe the early universe. But Vilenkin says that the BGV proof is independent of gravity as defined by general relativity.

He did not respond to the philosophical arguments for a beginning of the universe.

2. He says that we don’t have experience of things coming into being except from material causes. However, it would be even more difficult to explain the universe coming into being on atheism since you can’t appeal to a material cause nor to an efficient cause. Even Hume recognizes that things can’t pop into being without causes.

He talks about how in quantum physics virtual particles appear out of nothing. But that’s false, because the quantum vacuum in which virtual particles appear is not nothing, it is a sea of subatomic particles and energy. Quantum physics is not an exception to the idea that things that come into being require a cause.

He mentions the fallacy of composition. But I am not saying that everything in the universe has a cause, therefore the universe as a whole has a cause. I am saying that non-being has no capacity to bring something into being. Non-Being doesn’t even have the potential to bring something into being.

3. He says that there are no unembodied minds, so the cause of the universe can’t be an unembodied mind. But the argument concludes that there is a non-material cause, and it can’t be an abstract object, so it would have to be a mind.

In addition, we ourselves are unembodied minds.  This is because physical objects cannot have the properties that minds have, like the property of having feelings.

Material conceptions of mind don’t explain identity over time.

Material conceptions of mind don’t explain free will.

Material conceptions of mind don’t explain intentional states (thinking about something).

Material conceptions of mind don’t explain mental causation.

The best explanation for our own first person experience of the mental realm is a substance dualism. We are non-material minds, and we can cause effects in the physical world. And God does the same thing. He is a mind, and he causes physical effects.

A2) He gave no response.

A3) He says that there are atheistic theories of morality that don’t depend on the opinions of groups. But these theories all depend on the idea that human beings have instrinsic value – that they are the sorts of things to which moral considerations apply. Naturalism cannot ground this moral value – human beings are no more valuable any other animal.

Also, there are no objective moral obligations in naturalist systems of morality, because there is no one in authority to command them. Moral prescriptions require moral prescribers.

A4) He gave no response.

A5) He gave no response.

Dr. Millican’s first rebuttal:

R.A2) The fine-tuning argument

We have to be careful not to judge what counts as finely-tuned through our intuitions.

We have to be careful about reasoning for a sample size of this one observable universe.

We don’t really know about the full range of possibilities for these constants and quantities.

There might be other universes that we can’t observe that aren’t fine-tuned, and we just happen to be in the one that is fine-tuned.

The fine-tuning might be solved by future discoveries, like the inflationary cosmology removed some of the fine-tuning.

There might be a multiverse that we don’t have evidence for right now.

We need to be careful about using science to prove God because science might change in the future.

The universe is very big and mysterious.

This argument doesn’t prove that God is good. He could be evil = anti-God.

God created the universe inefficiently if his goal was to produce life.

God created the universe too big.

God created the universe too old.

God created too many galaxies and stars that are not hospitable to life.

If the universe were fine-tuned for life, then there should be more aliens.

If the universe were fine-tuned for life, then there are probably lots of alien civilizations. But then Jesus would have to appear to all of the aliens too.

R.A1) The origin of the universe

2. It’s not a big deal that you can get multiple solutions to equations involving subtraction of actual infinities. For example, the equation 0 x y = 0 has many solutions for y, but that doesn’t mean that multiplication doesn’t work in the real world.

A2) Absence of evidence is evidence of absence

I would expect that there would be more evidence than there is.

R.A1) The origin of the universe

2. The BVG proof might be overturned by future scientific discoveries. We have no reason to be confident in current physics.

I agree that the quantum vacuum is something and not nothing, but it’s similar to nothing.

We don’t have any reason to believe that things that come into being require causes – except for our universal experience that this is always the case.

3. As to the cause of the universe coming into being, you said that it could only be an abstract object or a mind, and it can’t be an abstract object because they don’t cause effects, so it must be a mind. But there are all sorts of things we’ve never thought of that it could be other than a mind.

I agree that mental properties are not physical properties and that epiphenomenalism is incorrect. Physical objects can have “algorithmic properties” as well as physical properties, it doesn’t mean that computers have minds.

Dr. Craig’s second rebuttal:

R.A2) Absence of evidence is evidence of absence

He expressed his personal opinion that there should be more evidence, but that’s not an argument.

God knows how people will respond to getting more evidence or less evidence and he has to be careful not to take away their free will to disbelieve by piling them up with coercive evidence. God’s goal is not just to convince people that he exists. God’s goal is to have people respond to him and pursue him.

A1) The origin of the universe

2. He said that multiple answers to equations are no problem. But the problem is that you can’t translate multiple answers into a real world context.

The problem is that you are subtracting an identical number from an identical number and getting contradictory results, and that cannot be translated into the real world, where subtraction always gives a definite single result.

He talks about how you can get multiple answers with multiplication by 0. But 0 is not a real quantity, it is just the absence of something, and that cannot translate into the real world, because it has no being.

He says that I am only using evidence from current physics. But that is the point – the evidence of current physics and cosmology supports the beginning of the universe.

3. He said that an umembodied mind can’t be the cause, but we are minds and we cause effects on our physical bodies.

In addition, the design argument supports the idea that the cause of the universe is intelligent.

A2) The fine-tuning of the universe

He says we should be cautious. Of course.

He says the probabilities can’t be assessed. But you can just take the current value and perturb it and see that the resulting universe loses its ability to support life, and you can test an entire range around the current value to see that that vast majority of values in the range don’t permit life.

He says that the current physics is not well-established, but there are so many examples of fine-tuning across so many different areas of science that it is not likely that all of them will be overturned, and the number of finely-tuned constants and quantities has been growing, not shrinking.

He says it doesn’t prove that God is good, and he’s right – that’s what the moral argument is for.

He says that God isn’t efficient enough, but efficiency is only important for those who have limited time and/or limited resources. But God has unlimited time and resources.

He says that the universe is too old, but the large age of the universe is a requirement to support intelligent life – (i.e. – you need third generation stars to provide a stable source of energy to planets, and those stars require that two generations of stars are born and die).

He said what about aliens, and theists are open to that, and God can certainly provide for the salvation of those beings, if they have fallen into sin.

Dr. Millican’s second rebuttal:

R.A1) The origin of the universe

3. Just because epiphenominalism is false, it doesn’t mean that substance dualism is true.

The majority of philosophers of mind do not accept substance dualism.

R.A3) The moral argument

The majority of philosophers are moral realists, but a minority of philosophers are theists. So that means that there must be some way of justifying morality on atheism, which I will not describe right now.

Atheists can express their opinion that humans have intrinsic moral value.

He grants that atheists can perceive moral values. But if atheists can perceive moral values, then why is God needed to enable that?

Atheists can express their opinion that humans are special. We can be rational, and that makes us special.

Atheists can express their opinion that it is good to care about other humans because they are of the same species.

R.A4) The resurrection of Jesus

We don’t have any reasons to believe i the supernatural.

The gospels are written late for the purposes of evangelism.

The gospels are not independent, e.g. Matthew and Luke depend on Q.

John is the latest gospel, and the Christology of John is the highest of all.

The four gospels agree because the early church rejected other (unnamed) gospels that didn’t agree.

Matthew 27 – the earthquake and the raised saints – is not recorded in any other contemporary non-Christian source.

Dr. Craig’s final rebuttal:

A3) The moral argument

He says that human beings are rational, and that gives them value. But atheists like Sam Harris prefer the flourishing of sentient life. He includes non-rational animals as having moral value. So without God, we see that the choice of who or what has moral value is arbitrary. And where would objective moral duties come from if there is no moral lawgiver?

The fact that most atheists accept objective moral values doesn’t mean that they can rationally ground those values on their atheistic worldview. You can’t provide a basis for moral values on atheism by counting the number of atheists who accept objective morality. It’s not surprising that atheists can perceive objective moral values IF they are living in auniverse created by God who grounds these objective moral values and duties that atheists perceive.

A4) The resurrection of Jesus

He cites Geza Vermes and Bart Ehrman as authorities on the historical Jesus, but both of them accept all three of the facts that I presented as minimal facts. Ehrman doesn’t accept the resurrection of Jesus because he presupposes naturalism. He rejects the resurrection on philosophical grounds, not historical grounds.

Dr. Millican’s final rebuttal:

R.A5) Religious experience

Religious experience is an unreliable way to test the claims of a religion, because lots of religions have them and they make contradictory truth claims. In the future, we may discover naturalistic ways of explaining religious experience.

R.A4) The resurrection of Jesus

Even if you can make a case for the resurrection based on these3  minimal facts, there are other stories in the New Testament like Matthew 27 that are quite weird and they undermine the 3 minimal facts that even Geza Vermes and Bart Ehrman accept.

R.A1) The origin of the universe

Bill hasn’t shown that there is any reason for thinking that things don’t come into being, uncaused, out of nothing.

A4) The problem of evil

Theists can’t explain what God’s specific morally sufficient reasons are for permitting the apparently gratuitous evil that we see.