Tag Archives: New Testament

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.

What historical evidence is there to support the post-mortem appearances of Jesus?

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are going to take a look at the data
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are going to take a look at the data

Eric Chabot of Ratio Christi Ohio State University has a great post up about the post-mortem appearances of Jesus.

The post contains:

  • a list of the post-mortem resurrection appearances
  • quotations by skeptical historians about those appearances
  • alternative naturalistic explanations of the appearances
  • responses to those naturalistic explanations

Although there is a lot of research that went into the post, it’s not very long to read. The majority of scholars accept the appearances, because they appear in so many different sources and because some of those sources are very early, especially Paul’s statement of the early Christian creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, which is from about 1-3 years after Jesus was executed by the Romans. Eric’s post lists out some of the skeptical scholars who the appearances, and you can see how they allude to the historical criteria that they are using. (If you want to sort of double-check the details, I blogged about how historians investigate ancient sources before)

Let’s take a look at some of the names you might recognize:

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.”[1]

Bart Ehrman:

It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death. Thus, for the historian, Christianity begins after the death of Jesus, not with the resurrection itself, but with the belief in the resurrection.[2]

Ehrman also says:

We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that . . . he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.[3]

 Ehrman also goes onto say:  

Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record.[4]

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).[5]

Marcus Borg

The historical ground of Easter is very simple: the followers of Jesus, both then and now, continued to experience Jesus as a living reality after his death. In the early Christian community, these experiences included visions or apparitions of Jesus. [8]

The references to Paul are because of the early creed he records in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, and his conversations with the other eyewitnesses in Galatians. Eric has another post where he goes over that early creed, and it is something that every Christian should know about. It’s really kind of surprising that you never hear a sermon on that early creed in church, where they generally sort of assume that you believe everything in the Bible on faith. But skeptical historians don’t believe in the post-mortem appearances by faith – they believe it (in part) because of 1 Corinthians 15:3-7.

If you want to see a Christian scholar make the case for the resurrection appearances in a debate, then here is a post I wrote with the video, audio and summary of the William Lane Craig vs James Crossley debate on the resurrection.

Mike Licona explains the As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Es of New Testament reliability

Mike Licona is one of my favorite Christian apologists, and here is an excellent lecture to show you why.

In the lecture, he explains why the four biographies in the New Testament should be accepted as historically accurate: (55 minutes)


  • What a Baltimore Ravens helmet teaches us about the importance of truth
  • What happens to Christians when they go off to university?
  • The 2007 study on attitudes of American professors to evangelical Christians
  • Authors: Who wrote the gospels?
  • Bias: Did the bias of the authors cause them to distort history?
  • Contradictions: What about the different descriptions of events in the gospels?
  • Dating: When were the gospels written?
  • Eyewitnesses: Do the gospel accounts go back to eyewitness testimony?

This is basic training for Christians. It would be nice if every Christian was equipped in church to be able to make a case like this.

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.


  • 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 Matthewand whether it is intended to be historical or 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.

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“.

Kenosis and the doctrine of the Incarnation in Philippians 2:5-11

The Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us
The Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us

It’s Christmas, so it’s time to see what the Bible says about who Jesus was and what it tells us about the character of God.

Here are the relevant verses in Phil 2:5-11 [NASB]:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,

who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,

but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.

Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name,

10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

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

Here’s respected New Testament scholar Ben Witherington to help us make sense of it:

Incarnation refers to the choices and acts of a pre-existent divine being, namely the Son of God, that the Son took in order to become a human being. He took on flesh, and became fully, truly human without ceasing to be fully, truly divine. Divinity is not something Jesus acquired later in life, or even after his death and resurrection. According to the theology of Incarnation he had always been the divine Son of God, even before he became Jesus, a human being. Strictly speaking the name Jesus only applies to a human being. It is the name the Son of God acquired once he became a human being in the womb of Mary, a name which he maintains to this day as he continues to be a human being.

[…]When I try and explain the incarnation to my students I deliberately choose to use the phrase divine condescension. What do I mean by this? Put another way, if there is going to be a corporate merger between a divine being and a human nature, then the divine side of the equation must necessarily limit itself, take on certain limitations, in order to be truly and fully human. The next question is…. what does it mean to be fully human? It means to have limitations of time and space and knowledge and power, and of course being mortal. Jesus exhibited all these traits. He was even tempted like us in every respect, but he avoided sin. What we should deduce from this is sinning is not a necessary part of being truly human. Yes, it is a trait of all fallen humans, but no, it is not how God made us in the first place. It is not necessary to sin in order to be truly or fully human.

[…]While the hymn is clear that the Son was ‘in very nature God’ at the same time he chose before he became human not to take advantage of his divine prerogatives. What were those? I call them the omnis– omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence.

[…]And here I think is what Paul is driving at when he says ‘have this mind in yourselves that was also in Christ Jesus’. It says that he ‘humbled himself’. Now contrary to what the world may think humility has nothing to do with feelings of low self-esteem. It has nothing to do with feelings of low self-worth. If Jesus is the model of true humility, it can’t have anything to do with those things, because Jesus surely was the one person who walked this earth who did not have such feelings, did not have an identity crisis, and so on. Humility is the posture of a strong person who steps down to serve others, as Jesus did.

This IVP commentary on Bible Gateway talks more about what this “divine condescension” means to us, using that passage from Philippians:

Christ’s selflessness for the sake of others expressed itself in his emptying himself by taking the “form” of a slave. Historically, far too much has been made of the verb “emptied himself,” as though in becoming incarnate he literally “emptied himself” of something. However, just asharpagmos requires no object for Christ to “seize” but rather points to what is the opposite of God’s character, so Christ did not empty himself of anything; he simply “emptied himself,” poured himself out, as it were. In keeping with Paul’s ordinary usage, this is metaphor, pure and simple. What modifies it is expressed in the phrase that follows; he “poured himself out by taking on the ‘form’ of a slave.”

Elsewhere this verb regularly means to become powerless or to be emptied of significance (hence the NIV’s made himself nothing; cf. KJV, “made himself of no reputation”). Here it stands in direct antithesis to the “empty glory” of verse 3 and functions in the same way as the metaphorical “he became poor” in 2 Corinthians 8:9. Thus, as in the “not” side of this clause (v. 6b), we are still dealing with the character of God as revealed in the mindset and resulting activity of the Son of God. The concern is with divine selflessness: God is not an acquisitive being, grasping and seizing, but self-giving for the sake of others.

I think it’s important to be clear that Jesus didn’t give up anything of his divine attributes by becoming a man. Rather, he added a human nature to his divine nature. The humility is because he came to serve  others.

You can see a nice quick video of this doctrine being defended by famous philosophical theologian William Lane Craig:

I think that it is important for us to emphasize the doctrine of the Incarnation at Christmas, in order to correct the grasping and seizing that is so widespread. The really interesting thing about Christmas is the Incarnation, and what it tells us about God and us. It tells us that we have value, because Jesus loved us. But it also says that following Jesus means being humble and being a servant to others. It means pouring yourself out to others in order to serve them. And these obligations are not metaphorical – they are rooted in the historical facts. This is the way the world is as a matter of fact, although certainly we have freedom to rebel against it.

For those looking for defenses to the doctrine of the Incarnation, you can find a chapter on it by Paul Copan in the book “Contending With Christianity’s Critics“. That’s for intermediate readers. For advanced readers you can look for a chapter in “The Cambridge Companion to Christian Philosophical Theology“, edited by Charles Taliaferro and Chad Meister, and published by Cambridge University Press.