Tag Archives: New Testament

Is the text of the Bible we have today different from the originals?

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

I thought it might be a good idea to write something about whether the Bible is generally reliable as a historical document. Lots of people like to nitpick about things that are difficult to verify, but the strange thing is that even skeptical historians accept many of the core narratives found in the Bible. Let’s start with a Christian historian, then go to a non-Christian one.

First, let’s introduce New Testament scholar Daniel B. Wallace:

Daniel B. Wallace
Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies

BA, Biola University, 1975; ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1979; PhD, 1995.

Dr. Wallace… is a member of the Society of New Testament Studies, the Institute for Biblical Research, the Society of Biblical Literature, the American Society of Papyrologists, and the Evangelical Theological Society (of which he was president in 2016). He has been a consultant for several Bible translations. He has written, edited, or contributed to more than three dozen books, and has published articles in New Testament Studies, Novum Testamentum, Biblica, Westminster Theological Journal, Bulletin of Biblical Review, the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and several other peer-reviewed journals. His Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament is the standard intermediate Greek grammar and has been translated into more than a half-dozen languages.

Here is an article by Dr. Wallace that corrects misconceptions about the transmission and translation of the Testament.

He lists five in particular:

  • Myth 1: The Bible has been translated so many times we can’t possibly get back to the original.
  • Myth 2: Words in red indicate the exact words spoken by Jesus of Nazareth.
  • Myth 3: Heretics have severely corrupted the text.
  • Myth 4: Orthodox scribes have severely corrupted the text.
  • Myth 5: The deity of Christ was invented by emperor Constantine.

Let’s look at #4 in particular, where the argument is that the text of the New Testament is so riddled with errors that we can’t get back to the original text.

It says:

Myth 4: Orthodox scribes have severely corrupted the text.

This is the opposite of myth #3. It finds its most scholarly affirmation in the writings of Dr. Bart Ehrman, chiefly The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture and Misquoting Jesus. Others have followed in his train, but they have gone far beyond what even he claims. For example, a very popular book among British Muslims (The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation: a Comparative Study with the Old and New Testaments by M. M. Al-Azami) makes this claim:

The Orthodox Church, being the sect which eventually established supremacy over all the others, stood in fervent opposition to various ideas ([a.k.a.] ‘heresies’) which were in circulation. These included Adoptionism (the notion that Jesus was not God, but a man); Docetism (the opposite view, that he was God and not man); and Separationism (that the divine and human elements of Jesus Christ were two separate beings). In each case this sect, the one that would rise to become the Orthodox Church, deliberately corrupted the Scriptures so as to reflect its own theological visions of Christ, while demolishing that of all rival sects.”

This is a gross misrepresentation of the facts. Even Ehrman admitted in the appendix to Misquoting Jesus, “Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.” The extent to which, the reasons for which, and the nature of which the orthodox scribes corrupted the New Testament has been overblown. And the fact that such readings can be detected by comparison with the readings of other ancient manuscripts indicates that the fingerprints of the original text are still to be seen in the extant manuscripts.

Here is the full quote from the appendix of Misquoting Jesus:

“Bruce Metzger is one of the great scholars of modern times, and I dedicated the book to him because he was both my inspiration for going into textual criticism and the person who trained me in the field. I have nothing but respect and admiration for him. And even though we may disagree on important religious questions – he is a firmly committed Christian and I am not – we are in complete agreement on a number of very important historical and textual questions. If he and I were put in a room and asked to hammer out a consensus statement on what we think the original text of the New Testament probably looked like, there would be very few points of disagreement – maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands. The position I argue for in ‘Misquoting Jesus’ does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.”

Finally, I think that the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls shows us that religious texts don’t change as much as we think they do over time.

Look:

The Dead Sea Scrolls play a crucial role in assessing the accurate preservation of the Old Testament. With its hundreds of manuscripts from every book except Esther, detailed comparisons can be made with more recent texts.

The Old Testament that we use today is translated from what is called the Masoretic Text. The Masoretes were Jewish scholars who between A.D. 500 and 950 gave the Old Testament the form that we use today. Until the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947, the oldest Hebrew text of the Old Testament was the Masoretic Aleppo Codex which dates to A.D. 935.{5}

With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we now had manuscripts that predated the Masoretic Text by about one thousand years. Scholars were anxious to see how the Dead Sea documents would match up with the Masoretic Text. If a significant amount of differences were found, we could conclude that our Old Testament Text had not been well preserved. Critics, along with religious groups such as Muslims and Mormons, often make the claim that the present day Old Testament has been corrupted and is not well preserved. According to these religious groups, this would explain the contradictions between the Old Testament and their religious teachings.

After years of careful study, it has been concluded that the Dead Sea Scrolls give substantial confirmation that our Old Testament has been accurately preserved. The scrolls were found to be almost identical with the Masoretic text. Hebrew Scholar Millar Burrows writes, “It is a matter of wonder that through something like one thousand years the text underwent so little alteration. As I said in my first article on the scroll, ‘Herein lies its chief importance, supporting the fidelity of the Masoretic tradition.'”{6}

A significant comparison study was conducted with the Isaiah Scroll written around 100 B.C. that was found among the Dead Sea documents and the book of Isaiah found in the Masoretic text. After much research, scholars found that the two texts were practically identical. Most variants were minor spelling differences, and none affected the meaning of the text.

One of the most respected Old Testament scholars, the late Gleason Archer, examined the two Isaiah scrolls found in Cave 1 and wrote, “Even though the two copies of Isaiah discovered in Qumran Cave 1 near the Dead Sea in 1947 were a thousand years earlier than the oldest dated manuscript previously known (A.D. 980), they proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The five percent of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling.”{7}

Despite the thousand year gap, scholars found the Masoretic Text and Dead Sea Scrolls to be nearly identical. The Dead Sea Scrolls provide valuable evidence that the Old Testament had been accurately and carefully preserved.

I hope that this post will help those who think that we can’t get back to the text of the original New Testament documents.

William Lane Craig debates James Crossley on the resurrection of Jesus

Two horses fight it out, may the best horse win!
Two horses fight it out, may the best horse win!

This is my favorite debate on the resurrection.

You can watch the debate here:

There is not much snark in this summary, because Crossley is a solid scholar, and very fair with the evidence.

SUMMARY

William Lane Craig’s opening speech

Two contentions:

  • There are four minimal facts that are accepted by most historians
  • The best explanation of the four minimal facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead

Contention 1 of 2:

Fact 1: The burial

  • The burial is multiply attested
    • The burial is based on the early source material that Mark used for his gospel
    • Scholars date this Markan source to within 10 years of the crucifixion
    • The burial is also in the early passage in 1 Cor 15:3-8
    • So you have 5 sources, some of which are very early
  • The burial is credited to a member of the Sanhedrin
    • the burial is probable because shows an enemy of the church doing right
    • this makes it unlikely to to be an invention

Fact 2: The empty tomb

  • The burial story supports the empty tomb
    • the site of Jesus’ grave was known
    • the disciples could not proclaim a resurrection if the body were still in it
    • the antagonists to the early Christians could have produced the body
  • The empty tomb is multiple attested
    • it’s mentioned explicitly in Mark
    • it’s in the separate sources used by Matthew and John
    • it’s in the early sermons documented in Acts
    • it’s implied by 1 Cor 15:3-8, because resurrection requires that the body is missing
  • The empty tomb was discovered by women
    • the testimony of women of women was not normally allowed in courts of law
    • if this story was being made up, they would have chosen male disciples
  • The empty tomb discover lacks legendary embellishment
    • there is no theological or apologetical reflection on the meaning of the tomb
  • The early Jewish response implies that the tomb was empty
    • the response was that the disciples stole the body
    • that requires that the tomb was found empty

Fact 3: The appearances to individuals and groups, some of the them hostile

  • The list of appearances is in 1 Cor 15:3-8
    • this material is extremely early, withing 1-3 years after the cross
    • James, the brother of Jesus, was not a believer when he got his appearance
    • Paul was hostile to the early church when he got his appearance
  • Specific appearances are multiply attested
    • Peter: attested by Luke and Paul
    • The twelve: attested by Luke, John and Paul
    • The women: attested by Matthew and John

Fact 4: The early belief in the resurrection emerged in a hostile environment

  • There was no background belief in a dying Messiah
  • There was no background belief in a single person resurrecting before the general resurrection of all of the righteous at the end of the age
  • The disciples were willing to die for their belief in the resurrection of Jesus
  • The resurrection is the best explanation for the transformation of the disciples from frightened to reckless of death

Contention 2 of 2:

  • The resurrection is the best explanation because it passes C.B. McCullough’s six tests for historical explanations
  • None of the naturalistic explanations accounts for the minimal facts as well as the resurrection

James Crossley’s opening speech

Appeals to the majority of scholars doesn’t prove anything

  • the majority of people in the west are Christians so of course there are a majority of scholars that support the resurrection
  • there are Christian schools where denial of the resurrection can result in termination

The best early sources (1 Cor 15:3-8 and Mark) are not that good

1 Cor 15:3-8 doesn’t support the empty tomb

  • verse 4 probably does imply a bodily resurrection
  • the passage does have eyewitnesses to appearances of Jesus
  • but there are no eyewitnesses to the empty tomb in this source
  • appearances occur in other cultures in different times and places
  • Jesus viewed himself as a martyr
  • his followers may have had hallucinations

Mark 16:1-8

  • Mark is dated to the late 30s and early 40s
  • The women who discover the tomb tell no one about the empty tomb

The gospels show signs of having things added to them

  • Jewish story telling practices allowed the teller to make things up to enhance their hero
  • one example of this would be the story of the earthquake and the people coming out of their graves
  • that story isn’t in Mark, nor any external sources like Josephus
  • if there really was a mass resurrection, where are these people today?
  • so this passage in Matthew clearly shows that at least some parts of the New Testament could involve
  • what about the contradiction between the women tell NO ONE and yet other people show up at the empty tomb
  • the story about Jesus commissioning the early church to evangelize Gentiles was probably added
  • there are also discrepancies in the timing of events and appearances
  • why are there explicit statements of high Christology in John, but not in the earlier sources?

William Lane Craig’s first rebuttal

Crossley’s response to the burial: he accepts it

Crossley’s response to the empty tomb: he thinks it was made up

  • rabbinical stories are not comparable to the gospel accounts
  • the rabbinical stories are just anecdotal creative story-telling
  • the gospels are ancient biographies – the genre is completely different
  • the rabbinic miracle stories are recorded much later than the gospels
  • the rabbi’s legal and moral ideas were written down right away
  • the miracle stories were written down a century or two later
  • in contrast, the miracle stories about Jesus are in the earliest sources, like Mark
  • the rabbinical stories are intended as entertainment, not history
  • the gospels are intended as biography
  • just because there are some legendary/apocalyptic elements in Matthew, it doesn’t undermine things like the crucfixion that are historically accurate

Crossley’s response to the evidence for the empty tomb:

  • no response to the burial
  • the empty tomb cannot be made up, it was implied by Paul early on
  • the women wouldn’t have said nothing forever – they eventually talked after they arrived to where the disciples were
  • no response to the lack of embellishment
  • no response to the early Jewish polemic

Crossley’s response to the appearances

  • he agrees that the first followers of Jesus had experiences where they thought Jesus was still alive

Crossley’s response to the early belief in the bodily resurrection:

  • no response about how this belief in a resurrection could have emerged in the absence of background belief in the death of the Messiah and the resurrection of one man before the general resurrection of all the righteous at the end of the age

What about Crossley’s hallucination theory?

  • Crossley says that the followers of Jesus had visions, and they interpreted these visions against the story of the Maccabean martyrs who looked forward to their own resurrections
  • but the hallucination hypothesis doesn’t account for the empty tomb
  • and the Maccabean martyrs were not expecting the resurrection of one man, and certainly not the Messiah – so that story doesn’t provide the right background belief for a hallucination of a single resurrected person prior to the end of the age
  • if the appearances were non-physical, the disciples would not have applied the word resurrection – it would just have been a vision
  • the visions could easily be reconciled with the idea that somehow God was pleased with Jesus and that he had some glorified/vindicated non-corporeal existence – but not resurrection
  • not only that, the hallucination hypothesis doesn’t even explain the visions, because there were visions to groups, to skeptics and to enemies in several places

What about the argument that only Christians accept the resurrection?

  • it’s an ad hominem attack that avoids the arguments

James Crossley’s first rebuttal

Regarding the burial:

  • I could be persuaded of that the burial account is accurate

Regarding the non-expectation of a suffering/dying Messiah:

  • Jesus thought he was going to die
  • this thinking he was going to die overturned all previous Messianic expectations that the Messiah wouldn’t suffer or die
  • the early Jews could easily reconcile the idea of a suffering, dead man killed by the Romans with the power of the all-powerful Messiah who supposed to reign forever
  • no actually bodily resurrection would have to happen to get them to continue to identify an executed corpse with the role of Messiah

Regarding the belief in the bodily resurrection:

  • it would be natural for Jews, who believed in a general resurrection of all the rigtheous dead at the end of the age, to interpret a non-physical vision of one man after he died as a bodily resurrection, even though no Jew had ever considered the resurrection of one man before the general resurrection before Jesus

Regarding the testimony of the women:

  • Just because women were not able to testify in courts of law (unless there were no male witnesses), the early church might still invent a story where the women are the first witnesses
  • first, the disciples had fled the scene, so only the women were left
  • and it would have been a good idea for the early church to invent women as the first witnesses – the fact that they could not testify in court makes them ideal witnesses and very persuasive
  • also, it’s a good idea to invent women as witnesses, because the Romans had a rule that said that they never killed women, so they wouldn’t have killed these women – Romans only ever kill men
  • in any case, the first witness to the empty tomb is angel, so as long as people could talk to the angel as being the first witness, that’s the best story to invent

Regarding the consensus of Christian scholars:

  • I am not saying that Craig’s facts are wrong, just that appealing to consensus is not legitimate
  • he has to appeal to the evidence, not the consensus

Regarding my naturalistic bias:

  • I don’t know or care if naturalism is true, let’s look at the evidence

Regarding the genre of the gospels:

  • the creative story-telling is common in all genres, it’s not a genre in itself
  • stuff about Roman emperors also has creative story-telling

Regarding the legendary nature of the empty tomb in Mark:

  • First, Christians interpreted the visions as a bodily resurrection
  • Second, they invented the story of the empty tomb to go with that interpretation
  • Third, they died for their invention

William Lane Craig’s second rebuttal

The burial:

  • Bill’s case doesn’t need to know the specifics of the burial, only that the location was known
  • the location is important because it supports the empty tomb
  • to proclaim a resurrection, the tomb would have to be empty
  • a tomb with a known location is easier to check

The empty tomb:

  • creative story telling was common in Judaism: retelling OT stories (midrash), romances/novels, rabbinical anecdotes
  • but the gospels are none of these genres – the gospels are ancient biographies
  • Craig also gave five arguments as to why the tomb was empty
  • the burial story supports the empty tomb
  • there is multiple independent attestation, then it cannot be a creative fiction invented in Mark alone
  • the witnesses were in Jerusalem, so they were in a position to know
  • regarding the women, even though Jesus respected the women, their testimony would not be convincing to others, so why invent a story where they are the witnesses
  • the male disciples did not flee the scene, for example, Peter was there to deny Jesus three times
  • if the story is made up, who cares what the male disciples did, just invent them on the scene anyway
  • the angel is not authoritative, because the angel cannot be questioned, but the women can be questioned
  • there was no response on the lack of embellishment
  • there was no response to the earliest Jewish response implying that the tomb was empty

The appearances:

  • we agree on the appearances

The early belief in the resurrection:

  • he says that Jesus predicted his own death
  • yes, but that would only cause people to think that he was a martyr, not that he was the messiah – something else is needed for them to keep their believe that he was the Messiah even after he died, because the Messiah wasn’t supposed to die
  • and of course, there was no expectation of a single person rising from the dead before the general resurrection, and certainly not the Messiah

The consensus of scholars:

  • Jewish scholars like Geza Vermes and Pinchas Lapide accept these minimal facts like the empty tomb, it’s not just Christian scholars

Against Crossley’s hallucination hypothesis:

  • it doesn’t explain the empty the tomb
  • it doesn’t explain the early belief in the resurrection
  • hallucinations would only lead to the idea that God had exalted/glorified Jesus, not that he was bodily raised from the dead
  • the hallucination theory cannot accommodate all of the different kinds of appearances; individual, group, skeptic, enemy, etc.

The pre-supposition of naturalism:

  • if Crossley is not committed to naturalism, then he should be open to the minimal facts and to the best explanation of those facts
  • the hallucination hypothesis has too many problems
  • the resurrection hypothesis explains everything, and well

James Crossley’s second rebuttal

Religious pluralism:

  • well, there are lots of other religious books
  • those other religious books have late sources, and are filled with legends and myths, and no eyewitness testimony
  • so why should we trust 1 Cor 15 and the early source for Mark and the other early eyewitness testimony in the New Testament?
  • if other religious books can be rejected for historical reasons, then surely the New Testament can be rejected for historical reasons

Genre:

  • the genre of ancient biography can incorporate and commonly incorporates invented legendaryt story-telling
  • this is common in Roman, Greek and Jewish literature and everyone accepts that

Empty tomb: multiple attestation

  • ok, so maybe the empty tomb is multiply attested, but that just gets back to a belief, not to a fact
  • multiple attestation is not the only criteria, and Craig needs to use the other criteria to make his case stronger

Empty tomb: invented

  • if there is a belief in the resurrection caused by the visions, then the empty tomb would have to be invented
  • why aren’t there more reliable stories of people visiting the empty tomb in more sources?

Empty tomb: role of the women

  • there are women who have an important role in the Bible, like Judith and Esther
  • Mark’s passage may have used women who then kept silent in order to explain why no one knew where the empty tomb was
  • if the fleeing of the men is plausible to explain the women, then why not use that? why appeal to the supernatural?
  • we should prefer any explanation that is naturalistic even if it is not as good as the supernatural explanation at explaining everything

Empty tomb: embellishment

  • well there is an angel there, that’s an embellishment
  • anyway, when you say there is no embellishment, what are you comparing it to that makes you say that?

Appearances: anthropology

  • I’ve read anthropology literature that has some cases where people have hallucinations as groups

Appearances: theology

  • the hallucinations would not be interpreted against the background theological beliefs that ruled out the resurrection of one man before then general resurrection of all the righteous dead
  • these hallucinations could have been so compelling that they made the earliest Christians, and skeptics like James, and enemies like the Pharisee Paul abandon all of their previous background beliefs, proclaim the new doctrine of a crucified and resurrected Messiah which no one had ever expected, and then gone on to die for that belief
  • the hallucinations could have changed all of their theology and reversed all of their beliefs about the what the word resurrection meant

William Lane Craig’s conclusion

Supernaturalism:

  • None of the four facts are supernatural, they are natural, and ascertained by historians using normal historical methods
  • the supernatural part only comes in after we decide on the facts when we are deciding which explanation is the best
  • a tomb being found empty is not a miraculous fact

Genre:

  • the gospels are not analagous to these rabbinical stories, the purpose and dating is different

Empty tomb:

  • what multiple attestation shows is that it was not made-up by Mark
  • and the argument was augmented with other criteria, like the criterion of embarrassment and the criterion of dissimilarity
  • Judith and Esther are very rare exceptions, normally women were not viewed as reliable witnesses
  • if the story was invented, whatever purpose the inventors had would have been better served by inventing male witnesses
  • Craig grants that the angel may be an embellishment for the sake of argument, but there are no other embellishments
  • the real embellishments occur in forged gnostic gospels in the second and third centuries, where there are theological motifs added to the bare fact of the empty tomb (e.g. – the talking cross in the Gospel of Peter)
  • he had no response to the earliest jewish response which implied an empty tomb

Belief in the resurrection:

  • there was no way for Jewish people to interpret an appearance as a bodily resurrection before the end of the world, they did not expect that
  • they could have imagined exaltation, but not a bodily resurrection

James Crossley’s conclusion

Supernatural explanation:

  • as long as there is any other other possible naturalistic explanation, we should prefer that, no matter how unlikely

Creative stories:

  • some of these creative stories appear within the lifetimes of the people connected to the events (none mentioned)

Embellishment:

  • you should compare to earlier stories when looking for embellishments, not later
  • and we don’t have any earlier sources, so we just don’t know the extent of the embellishment

Jewish response:

  • they probably just heard about the empty tomb, and didn’t check on it, then invented the stole-the-body explanation without ever checking to see if the tomb was empty or not

How can the four gospels be independent sources?

Investigation in progress
Investigation in progress

Previously, I blogged about the historical criteria that historians use to evaluate documents. One of the criteria is “multiple independent sources”. If a story is reported in multiple independent sources, then historians are more likely to evaluate it as historically accurate. But how about the four gospels? Are they independent sources? The answer might not be what you expect.

Here’s how the question was put to Dr. Craig:

The latest video, “Did Jesus Rise From the Dead,” is especially compelling, but I had a question about it. In the part one video, you cite as evidence, the Gospels plus Acts and First Corinthians and you refer to them as “independent” and “unconnected” sources. But this isn’t exactly true, is it? After all, two of these books were written by the same author, Luke, and so Luke and Acts are connected by authorship. Furthermore, isn’t it true that much information relayed in Matthew and Luke were taken from Mark? This two facts would make it untrue to call the Gospels “independent” and “unconnected” would they not?

Here’s the video he’s talking about:

Dr. Craig answers the question in a recent question of the week. I think this answer is important for those who aren’t aware of how the gospels are organized.

He writes:

The objection is based on a simple misunderstanding. It assumes that the sources I’m referring to are the books of the New Testament.  But that’s not what I’m talking about.

New Testament critics have identified a number of sources behind the New Testament, sources on which the New Testament authors drew. For example, Matthew and Luke drew not only upon Mark as a source but also upon a source which scholars designate “Q,” which appears to have been a source containing Jesus’ sayings or teachings. Thus, if you could show that a saying in Matthew or Luke appears in both Mark and Q, that would count as multiple, independent attestation.

What does this mean? It means that although there is overlap between Matthew and Luke, called “Q”, there are actually three independent sources there: Matthew’s source, called M. Luke’s source, called L. And the material common to Matthew and Luke, which therefore PRE-DATES Matthew and Luke, called Q.

Dr. Craig lists out several independent sources in his full reply:

  1. the pre-Markan Passion story used by Mark
  2. the rest of the gospel of Mark has a source
  3. Matthew’s source (M)
  4. Luke’s source (L)
  5. John’s gospel which is very different from Mark, Luke and Matthew
  6. the sermons in Acts have a source
  7. the early creed found in Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15

So if you are trying to lay out something from the New Testament, and you can find it in two of these sources, and at least one of them is very early, you’re in pretty good shape.

Although the questioner and the other critics might question the “minimal facts” that pass the historical tests, many of these facts are not questioned by even atheistic scholars.

Here’s a useful tip for non-professionals who want to disagree with Dr. Craig. Dr. Craig publishes his arguments in academic presses like Oxford University Press, not to mention scholarly peer-reviewed journals. He’s also debated his ideas against famous atheist historians like Gerd Ludemann, Marcus Borg, James Crossley, Bart Ehrman, etc. So it’s probably a good idea for people who want to disagree with him to first read some academic literature, or at least ask a professional. Before you post your YouTube video. You could even just ask a professional atheist historian. They will tell you what’s wrong with an argument like your “the sources are not independent” argument. Just check yourself before you post something in public. A lot of people who are still puzzling out these questions will look at a mistake like this, and immediately dismiss atheism as a sloppy, anti-intellectual worldview.

You can watch more of Dr. Craig’s videos in his playlist, here. These are especially useful for people who want to get the overall scope of the battlefield before deciding where to focus in study. Everybody should know about all of these arguments regardless of where you choose to specialize.

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

Policeman investigates crime scene for evidence
Policeman investigates crime scene for evidence

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.

The authors of the gospels of Mark and Luke knew eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus

Lets take a closer look at a puzzle
Lets take a closer look at a puzzle

Were the authors of the gospels of Mark and Luke connected to eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus? Well, it turns out that there are good reasons to think that Mark was linked to the eyewitness Peter, and Luke was linked to Paul, who had a post-mortem appearance of Jesus in 1 Cor 15:8, and who met with Peter and James in Galatians 1 and again in Galatians 2.

There is a list of evidence for Peter’s influence on Mark on the Cold Case Christianity blog.

Here’s my favorite one from the list:

Peter’s Embarrassments Have Been Omitted

There are many details in the Gospel of Mark consistent with Peter’s special input and influence,including omissions related to events involving Peter. How can Mark be a memoir of Peter if, in fact, the book contains so many omissions of events involving Peter specifically? It’s important to evaluate the entire catalogue of omissions pertaining to Peter to understand the answer here. The vast majority of these omissions involve incidents in which Peter did or said something rash or embarrassing. It’s not surprising these details were omitted by the author who wanted to protect Peter’s standing in the Christian community. Mark was quite discreet in his retelling of the narrative (other Gospel writers who were present at the time do, however, provide details of Peters ‘indiscretions’ in their own accounts. See Cold-Case Christianity for a more detailed explanation).

It makes me laugh to imagine Peter looking over Mark’s shoulder and saying “no, don’t put that in it” and “no, don’t tell them I did that”. Funny! But also very good evidence. The rest of Wallace’s list makes it even more clear.

And what about the gospel of Luke? Well, did you know that the author of Luke’s gospel knew Paul? If you read it carefully, you’ll see that Luke switches from describing history from an “I” perspective to describing things from a “we” perspective in the book of Acts (which he also wrote). Who is the “we” he is talking about?

Here’s famous Christian scholar William Lane Craig to explain:

Now who was this author we call Luke? He was clearly not an eyewitness to Jesus’s life. But we discover an important fact about him from the book of Acts. Beginning in the sixteenth chapter of Acts, when Paul reaches Troas in modern-day Turkey, the author suddenly starts using the first-person plural: “we set sail from Troas to Samothrace,” “we remained in Philippi some days,” “as we were going to the place of prayer,” etc. The most obvious explanation is that the author had joined Paul on his evangelistic tour of the Mediterranean cities. In chapter 21 he accompanies Paul back to Palestine and finally to Jerusalem. What this means is that the author of Luke-Acts was in fact in first hand contact with the eyewitnesses of Jesus’s life and ministry in Jerusalem.

[…]There is no avoiding the conclusion that Luke-Acts was written by a traveling companion of Paul who had the opportunity to interview eyewitnesses to Jesus’s life while in Jerusalem. Who were some of these eyewitnesses? Perhaps we can get some clue by subtracting from the Gospel of Luke everything found in the other gospels and seeing what is peculiar to Luke. What you discover is that many of Luke’s peculiar narratives are connected to women who followed Jesus: people like Joanna and Susanna, and significantly, Mary, Jesus’s mother.

Was the author reliable in getting the facts straight? The book of Acts enables us to answer that question decisively. The book of Acts overlaps significantly with secular history of the ancient world, and the historical accuracy of Acts is indisputable.

This has recently been demonstrated anew by Colin Hemer, a classical scholar who turned to New Testament studies, in his book The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. [5] Hemer goes through the book of Acts with a fine-toothed comb, pulling out a wealth of historical knowledge, ranging from what would have been common knowledge down to details which only a local person would know. Again and again Luke’s accuracy is demonstrated: from the sailings of the Alexandrian corn fleet to the coastal terrain of the Mediterranean islands to the peculiar titles of local officials, Luke gets it right.

I know a lot of people (like my Dad) read the Bible devotionally, looking for feelings or trying to “get right with God” so they get blessings. But I think it’s helpful to look at things from an evidential point of view – how am I going to make a case for this? When you look at things from that perspective, the Bible gets a whole lot more interesting. And you can talk about it with non-Christians when you know about these interesting details.