To begin evaluating the Minimal Facts approach to arguing for the resurrection of Jesus, we should look at the evidence that counts as "minimal", meaning, facts that all historians agree with. In this episode, we look at the historical fact of the crucifixion, and the fact that the disciples at the very least "believed" that Jesus had risen from the dead.
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Last time on the Ultimate Questions podcast, we took a look at the method of argumentation referred to as, the Minimal Facts Approach, which is argued by Gary Habermas, who has been the source of some powerful argumentation in favor of the resurrection. This “Minimal Facts Approach” style of argumentation shows that the best explanation of the historical data we have is that Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead. The real important part of this method is that it only relies on facts and premises that basically everyone can agree upon. When surveying the relevant academics that study the history of the first century, there’s a few facts that they nearly universally agree upon. There may be disagreement about many things, but they will all agree that Jesus was a real historical person who died by crucifixion, that Jesus’ disciples at least “believed” that He rose from the dead and appeared to them, that Paul went from persecuting the Christians to being one of the leaders of the Church after an experience of some kind, and that James, the brother of Jesus, went from being a skeptic, to believing his own brother was actually God, and had died for his sins. These facts I just mentioned aren’t really up for debate in the academic circles that study these matters, with the non-Christians, and even those that would be seen as antagonistic against Christianity, still holding that these facts are quite obviously true. A last fact to be mentioned is the empty tomb, which roughly three quarters of historians agree with. This fact doesn’t technically “make the list”, because not all historians agree, but it is still worth bringing up and evaluating.
In that list of facts I just gave you, it might be a little surprising that even non-Christian historians admit these things as being not only true, but not really up for debate. I realize that the more skeptical among us might not be willing to simply grant these facts, so I thought it would be helpful to take a look at the reasons we have for believing them. First of all, let’s evaluate the historical fact of Jesus’ death by crucifixion. Obviously the New Testament makes this claim, however, what’s important about that is we have numerous authors within the New Testament that say Jesus died by crucifixion. As I’m sure most are aware, the Bible, and even the New Testament, isn’t just a single big book; it’s a series of smaller books and letters, written by different people, over a stretch of time. To appreciate this point, imagine a court case. In the same way that a judge wouldn’t treat every witness as the same testimony, so too should the New Testament documents be appreciated for the fact that they are different accounts by different people. While many skeptics write off the Bible, without even considering the evidence found within, at the very least, every skeptic should treat the books of the Bible in the same way they would treat other ancient documents. Even if the Bible isn’t the Word of God, it’s still an ancient piece of literature, written during the first century, that makes many historical claims. While during this podcast I’ve given many reasons the think the New Testament is reliable, even if the skeptic doesn’t believe it’s reliable, we still have to appreciate that the books of the New Testament make historical claims, and count as premises in the greater argument.
To start, Mathew and John were disciples of Jesus, and both of them give an account of Jesus’ death by crucifixion. The Gospel of Mark was likely written by Peter, who used Mark as a scribe to write down his testimony. Peter was also an eyewitness to these events, a disciple of Jesus, and gave his own testimony of the execution. Luke, while not being a disciple or an eye witness, did go around collecting data from various people, in order to create a fourth account. Even if the skeptic doesn’t grant that these four books were written by their namesakes, it is still the case that these four books were written by different people, from different places, and each gives their own documentation of the crucifixion of Jesus, thus we have four pieces of evidence for that claim. Furthermore, Paul, who wrote shortly after the events of Jesus’ life and death, and who knew those closest to Jesus, also attests to the crucifixion of Jesus in his letters. We also find a reference to it in the book of Hebrews, where the author is not known. So, even if we don’t merely take what they say for granted, we do still have at least six different authors all confirming the crucifixion of Jesus.
We can also get evidence of the crucifixion from those immediately following the New Testament authors. Ignatius of Antioch mentions the crucifixion of Jesus, when he wrote around 107ad. We actually find him mentioning this in two of his letters, the Letter to the Ephesians, and his Letter to the Trallians. The Epistle of Barnabas, written about 100ad, give or take a few decades, was quite highly respected, and also refers to Jesus’ death by crucifixion. Then there’s Justin Martyr in about 150ad, who confirmed this fact, and then also Irenaeus who wrote in the 180s ad, who is yet another source of the death of Jesus by crucifixion.
To go further into this claim, we can look at non-Christian accounts. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, also writes that Jesus was crucified. While his account is subject to criticisms, we dealt with that in a previous episode on non-Christian sources. Another non-Christian writer is Tacitus, who also refers to the one called “Christus” who was the originator of the religion of Christianity, and Tacitus writes that this person – who is clearly Jesus – was given the “extreme penalty”, which in Rome during the first century, could only have been crucifixion. Lucian of Samosata was a Greek writer who also mentioned that the one Christians worship, who he doesn’t name, but who is obviously Jesus, was crucified. Mara bar Serparion also says that the “Wise King of the Jews” was killed; while he doesn’t mention Jesus by name, or crucifixion as the method, it would still count as partial evidence. Lastly, the Talmud mentions that “on the eve of the Passover, Yeshu was hanged”. We discussed this before as well, but Yeshu is, in a sense, the Hebrew equivalent to the Greek name “Jesus”. And while it doesn’t use the word “crucifixion”, being hung on a tree was a way to describe crucifixion during those times, so again, it would work as partial evidence.
With this wealth of source material, from both Christians and non-Christians, all very early, and some even likely being eyewitnesses, there’s no wonder that historians that study these things agree that it is an undeniable fact of history that there was a man named Jesus in the first century who died by crucifixion, and that this is the origination of Christianity. There’s just so much data on this point, and nothing contradicting it, that it would take a completely unreasonable conspiracy theory to try and deny this historical fact.
Our second fact to look at is that the disciples of Jesus at the very least claimed they saw Jesus Christ risen from the dead. The reason I word it that way is that we’re not assuming Jesus actually did rise, after all, that’s the point of this whole argument! All non-Christian historians would say that Jesus did not actually bodily rise from the dead, but, they will all admit that the disciples “claimed” He did. The point we’re looking at is the historical truth that the disciples of Jesus watched Him die, they scattered out of fear and cowardice, but then shortly after they were roaming the whole world proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead. This point is very well attested, which is why even the most skeptical historians admit it. But even though we have that on our side as an appeal to authority, it’s obviously still good for us to look at the evidence, to see why this historical fact is so universally agreed upon.
First of all, we do have the writings of the disciples, found in the New Testament, where they state that they witnessed the risen Christ. However, the skeptic will say they don’t necessarily believe that these documents were actually written by the disciples, and that the names on the books are wrongly attributed. Even if we don’t grant the authorship of the books, we still have historical accounts written in the first century that tell us the disciples were proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus to everyone. But we can go multiple steps further.
Next, Paul was not present for the events of the crucifixion and resurrection, but, he did know the disciples of Jesus very well, and he does comment that the disciples believed Jesus had risen from the dead, and that they were proclaiming that to the world. He tells us this in 1 Corinthians 15:11, which is universally understood to have actually been written by Paul. Even if you disbelieve the Bible as being the inspired Word of God, again, remember that we’re only treating the New Testament like we would any other historical book. You still need to account for the fact that Paul knew the disciples, and here in his letter of 1 Corinthians, he is telling you that they preached Jesus had risen, and thus, it counts as evidence that the disciples really did go around preaching that Jesus rose.
Another piece of evidence that shows us the disciples were proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus comes from a creed that circulated very early in the history of the Church. This creed also comes from 1 Corinthians, but it’s quite a unique situation. In one sense I could completely understand why a skeptic might say, “you’ve already used Paul, and even his book 1 Corinthians, so it only counts as one source!” In most cases, this would be quite correct. If a single document by a single author makes a claim multiple times, it still only counts as one source. As an example of this, if I’m trying to convince you of something, and you don’t believe me, merely repeating myself over and over doesn’t strengthen my argument. However, there’s a difference with this specific passage in 1 Corinthians, because Paul is referring to a creed that existed outside of his letter. In 1 Corinthians 15, he refers to a creed that had been passed down to him, and which he had then given to the church in Corinth. He was repeating the creed for them, once again, so that they can remember it, and keep it central to their beliefs. The creed includes that Jesus died for the sins of humanity, that He was raised, that these events were prophesied in the Old Testament, and that He appeared to the disciples, and then to over 500 other people as well.
Now again, we should treat this with some skepticism, rather than just granting everything I just said. How do we know this was a creed that was passed around very early? When Paul begins this portion of his letter, he writes this, “I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received”. Here, we see that the creed he’s about the recite has already been given to them before, by Paul. How strange would it have been to write to a group of people saying, “now I’m going to remind you of what I already said”, when you had never told them these things before! Because he had given the creed to them before he wrote this letter, then the creed must be older than the letter. But we can show it’s even older than that. He also says, “for what I received I passed on to you as of first importance”. In other words, Paul is not only saying he’s giving them this creed, but that he had “received” it, which means he had also been given the creed by someone else. This is actually the way religious leaders would speak of creeds. Being given a word and passing it on to others describes the passing on of creeds, which are doctrinal statements that get passed around orally among the adherents. They will also continually proclaim the creed in public services, so that they remind themselves of what they believe. So here, Paul is acknowledging the passing on of this creed to the Corinthians, which he had received from someone else prior that this moment. Additionally, in the original Greek the passage has a creedal format, with a type of cadence to it, which would have made it easy to remember and say out loud. These points show that this creed dates back even further than when he originally gave it to the church in Corinth. So the question then becomes, when did Paul receive this creed? Just how early did this creed exist?
The letter of 1 Corinthians is quite agreed upon by scholars to have been written about 54ad, so it can’t be pushed any later than that. This means Paul wrote this letter about 21 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. However, this was an orally recited creed prior to the writing of this letter, which is evidenced by the fact that Paul explicitly says that he had given the people of Corinth this creed before, which pushes the date back further. But we can go even earlier than that, because Paul also says that he was given this creed by someone else, before he had even given it to the people of Corinth. Interestingly, we quite likely have a record of when Paul received this creed. We see details of much of Paul’s life and journeys in the book of Acts, but we also get an account of some specific events of his journeys from his letter to the Galatians. Specifically, in Galatians 1, Paul writes about his dramatic Damascus road conversion, and he says that immediately after this, he went to Arabia, and then came back to Damascus. After these three years, he then went up to Jerusalem to meet Peter, and that he also met James, the brother of Jesus, while he was there. Paul again touches on this meeting in Galatians 2 when he talks about meeting with Peter and James, and that they recognized that Paul had really been converted, and that he really understood the Gospel. It even seems as though they compared notes, in a sense, and Paul says that they were on the same page. The exact way he words it is that the other disciples “added nothing” to his account. Meaning, Paul had direct contact with Peter and James, who made sure that Paul correctly understood the Gospel. This is understood to probably be when he was introduced to the creed we find in 1 Corinthians. So, if we piece together the chronology here, Jesus was crucified, and then three years later Paul converted, and then three years after that Paul met with Peter and James, where they gave him this creed. That might seem like a bit of guess work, but realistically, who else could have taught Paul on theological matters, other than the authorities of Christianity? It also seems entirely appropriate that this would happen when Paul was a new convert. We also have here in Galatians a clear reference to Paul meeting with Peter and James when he was a new convert, where they discussed the nature of the Gospel. Paul also explicitly says he was given the creed by someone else. Who else would it be, other than these sorts of authorities? All those things put together make it seem not just possible, but quite likely that this meeting was when Paul received the creed from Peter and James.
In other words, the creed we find in 1 Corinthians 15 was likely received by Paul about six years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Even further, the creed had already been in circulation at that time, which is why Peter and James were able to give it to Paul. So, at the very least, the creed dates within only a few years of the cross of Jesus, and it was proclaimed by the leaders of the Early Church, which included the disciples.
Richard Carrier is arguably the most skeptical scholar of the history regarding early Christianity in the world. There are times where he argues points that literally no other historian in the world is willing to argue, and yet, even Richard Carrier admits the strength of the arguments for this creed in 1 Corinthians being extremely early.
Personally, I find this to be a great piece of evidence that works against the common anti-Christian rhetoric that Christianity was a myth that developed many years after the events. From this creed alone we can see that that can’t possibly be the case. People were proclaiming a creed which gave the fundamentals of Christianity, only a few years after the events they describe. For our purposes right now, it is clear and obvious that this creed shows us the disciples were proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead.
We can also go beyond what we find in the New Testament to see this point. For example, Clement knew the disciples, and in particular Peter, and he wrote, “having received order and complete certainty caused by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and believing in the Word of God, they went with the Holy Spirit’s certainty, preaching the good news that the kingdom of God is about to come.” In other words, Clement knew the disciples, and says that they strongly believed Jesus had risen, and went out preaching that message. We also have record that Polycarp was close with the disciples, especially John, and was taught by them. Polycarp mentions the resurrection of Jesus numerous times in his writings.
So at this point we have the eyewitnesses themselves claiming they believed Jesus rose from the dead and then proclaimed it, and even if you don’t believe they’re eyewitnesses, you still have documented evidence that “whoever” wrote the Gospels and Acts claims the disciples believed Jesus rose, and they then proclaimed that to the world. We also have Paul writing that the disciples believed and proclaimed the resurrection, and we have early oral traditions saying the same thing, and we have the Apostolic Fathers, who knew the disciples, saying that the disciples believed and proclaimed the resurrection.
At this point, even if you grant that the disciples claimed Jesus rose from the dead, you might say something like, “just because they said it doesn’t mean they believed it”. We’ll go further into this in a future episode where we look at the possibility that the disciples were lying, but for now, think of it as a possibility, and see where the logic of it takes you. Suppose you have Peter and John running around telling everyone that Jesus rose from the dead, and suppose that they don’t actually believe this is true, and they instead believe Jesus is still dead. First of all, why are they proclaiming that Jesus rose? What’s the point? What do they gain? They lived lives of poverty where their Roman government and fellow Jews harassed them to the point of torture and death. But maybe it’s because they still wanted to advance the theological cause! Again, what’s the point? If Jesus is still dead, then clearly He wasn’t really the messiah, and they know the cause is finished, false, and not worth advancing. There’s no reason to try and make everyone believe it’s true, if they know it’s actually false. Still further, if the disciples end up being dead, then they haven’t gained anything from this advancement of a lie, because they’re dead. The only thing that would make sense is if they accomplished something greater than themselves in their death, but again, if they didn’t believe Jesus had risen, then they would know it’s all false, so what would they be accomplishing? Really the argument comes down to this: We know the disciples proclaimed that Jesus was risen, and we know they were tortured and killed for it. That shows us that the disciples really believed what they were preaching.
Today we’ve looked at the first two pieces of evidence, which are the crucifixion of Jesus, and that the disciples believed and proclaimed Jesus had risen. Firstly, nearly every single scholar in this field agrees with these points, and secondly, today we have looked at the evidence for these historical facts, and seen that it’s quite a strong case. While skeptics don’t agree Jesus actually rose from the dead, as we start piecing together the things that are recognized as historical facts, it becomes increasingly difficult to not agree with the Christian conclusion. Jordan Peterson is quoted as saying that the resurrection of Jesus Christ might be the most important thing he’s ever considered. While he’s not a believer, he does recognize, not only the monumental importance of the claim, but also the evidence in its favour as well.
For the next episode of the podcast, we’ll be evaluating the next bit of evidence regarded as “minimal facts” that basically all scholars agree upon, which is the dramatic conversion of non-believers. So I hope you’ll join me next time as we continue this topic, on the Ultimate Questions Podcast.