Evidence for the Resurrection: The “Minimal Facts” Approach

Note: This article is inspired by a lecture given by Dr. Gary Habermas at the 2012 EPS Apologetics Conference. Dr. Habermas is a historian and philosopher, and is one of the world’s leading experts on the resurrection. 

Dr. Gary Habermas

When presenting a historical case for the resurrection of Christ, it is often useful to build an argument using only the “minimal facts” accepted by mainstream secular critics. This entails setting aside any book of the New Testament that is NOT currently regarded by critical scholars as being authoritative.

Although the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have gained a great deal of renewed academic credibility in recent years, there remain a number of critics who only accept Paul as a reliable author. Furthermore, of the fourteen books traditionally attributed to Paul, only seven are generally classified as “undisputed” among secular historians: Romans, I Corinthians, II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians, and Philemon.

Dr. Habermas presents a case for the resurrection that relies exclusively on these seven books. Only dates that are widely accepted by secular critics will be used.

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Our starting point:

“Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures…” (I Corinthians 15:1-3, KJV)

The key point here, for our purposes, is that Paul is transmitting a testimony that he himself received. So the message of the resurrection must have been alive and well before Paul wrote this passage in ~55 AD. (In verse eleven, Paul also alludes to there being additional witnesses preaching the news of the resurrection.)

“The Resurrection of Christ” (Peter Paul Rubens)

This in itself is remarkable, since historians place the date of the crucifixion at either 30 AD or 33 AD. It actually predates the four canonical gospels, which were written between 70 AD and 95 AD.

We also know that Paul’s radical conversion experience took place during his trip to Damascus two or three years after the crucifixion. Following his conversion, Paul spent three years in Arabia and Damascus before returning to Jerusalem (Galatians 1:17). While in Jerusalem, Paul spent more than two weeks visiting with James and Peter (Galatians 1:18-19).

“The Conversion of Saint Paul” (Caravaggio)

So within six years of the crucifixion, Paul (a guy who claims to have encountered the risen Jesus en route to Damascus) was comparing notes with James and Peter (two guys who had known Jesus personally).

Then, in Galatians 2, we learn that Paul returned to Jerusalem in 48 AD:

I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. (Galatians 2:2, NIV)

As for those who were held in high esteem – whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism – they added nothing to my message. (Galatians 2:6, NIV)

This is critically important. It tells us that the essential facts of the gospel message – Jesus’ deity, death, and resurrection – were agreed upon by early Christian leaders up through 48 AD.

But how long did it take for this message to develop in the immediate wake of the crucifixion?

Well-known agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman concludes that “high Christology” (the belief in the divinity of Jesus) appeared within one or two years of the cross. Other, less skeptical historians believe that local Jews were worshiping Jesus within six months of his execution.

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These are the “minimal facts” that are virtually undisputed by secular historians. Regardless of whether or not one actually accepts the resurrection, the historical implications of these facts seem inescapable.

Of course, there are a number of even more compelling arguments for the resurrection that rely on the accounts of the canonical gospels. These arguments are beyond the scope of this post…but William Lane Craig outlines a few of them in his 2006 debate with Ehrman.

Additional Reading:

Minimal Facts Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

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9 thoughts on “Evidence for the Resurrection: The “Minimal Facts” Approach

  1. I understand why you have used a “minimal facts” approach in you argument here. But should we let atheists and agnostics determine the basis of debate or presentation of Truth of Jesus Christ? The Christian message is a message of “Faith” If historians in the future “narrow the areas of acceptance” we could end up with no “ground” to argue from if we only persue a “minnimal facts” approach.

    • I think you raise a good point about allowing atheists and agnostics to define the rules when it comes to the historicity of the resurrection. In fact, most secular critics deny the resurrection precisely *because* they have defined the rules in their own terms. (Ehrman, for example, has claimed that historical documents cannot be used as evidence for supernatural events.)

      Still, I think this kind of argument can be useful in two types of situations:

      1. When talking with those who believe that Jesus himself is a mythical figure. This is a fringe claim, historically speaking…but it’s fairly widespread thanks to propaganda films such as “Zeitgeist”.

      2. When talking with open-minded skeptics who are willing to give Christianity a fair shake, but who insist on using sources that are unanimously accepted by the academic community. If they don’t share our Faith to begin with, I think it’s sometimes useful to provide “reasons to believe” that are based in science, history, philosophy, etc. (But again, you raise a great point about the potential for the academic community to “narrow the areas of acceptance”.)

  2. To my mind, if you need to “scientifically prove” anything mentioned in the Bible you do not really understand what the Bible is about and you simply lack faith. The Bible, or the New Testament rather, was never intended as a correct history of Jesus’ life, but as an outline of, and instruction in, Christian faith. There is a difference between “knowing” and “believing”, and “belief” = trust and faith in God’s words is what makes someone truly religious.
    Best regards,
    Pit

    • Pit,
      While I understand, and agree, that Christianity is based on faith, the point of Matt’s post was not to convince those who believe on faith. As I’m sure you’ve found, there are those in the world who cannot be reached by the “faith” argument. When trying to convince non-Christians that Christianity is to be believed, it helps to have historical evidence to back-up the claims of Christianity. Thus, apologetics, or the defense of the faith. I would also have to disagree on another point. I believe that at least parts of the Bible were intended to document the life of Jesus accurately, as that is part of the teachings of Christianity. Paul was a historian, and much of his work is largely accepted as historically accurate because of that. The dates match dates found in other historical texts and therefore serve to help disciple followers to Christ through scientific and historically accurate arguments. Otherwise, what reason do non-believers have to think Christianity is any better than any other religion out there? For those not raised as believers, it would be difficult to choose which religion was the best if there was not such a drastic difference in how Christianity can be “proved” through history and science, unlike other religions which do not have the historical accuracy to have that type of proof. Yes, truly becoming a Christian involves believing faithfully, but first, someone has to be willing to even listen to why they should believe the Christian teachings. I think God intended for Christians to be able to use the Bible, its teachings and its history, as a means to disciple non-believers.

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  4. Actually the only thing that the Pauline material accomplishes is to demonstrate that certain beliefs were begun early. It says nothing about their actual or imagined “truth claims”. I fail to see how this argument convinces anyone of anything regarding the truth of the claims. Thanks.

    • If that’s the case, then you really have very little of ancient history that you can believe at all. We know that ruins of an ancient city exist in what we now call Rome, but any of the claims made in ancient texts about that city are suspect for the same reasons you doubt the Pauline material. If that’s what you think, okay, but you need to be consistent.

    • Levi,

      Thanks for the response, I had forgotten about responding on this site.

      Your point is exactly the problem with the story of the Resurrection. You want people to believe this particular story about a supernatural event judged on the basis or methodology that you bring to every other event in history when none of the other history that you mention matters whether we get it right or not. On the other hand your supernatural event is said to have eternal consequences. This seems rather convenient. especially when we have as much historical circumstantial facts that argue against this claim. Does history matter? In what sense does it matter? Does it matter if we get the date right about when Lee surrendered to Grant? It matters not, as is the case with most history. It’s done, finished, over. The Resurrection claim, however, matters or so it is claimed by those who believe. You’ll have to come up with something more than the fact that a belief was started early in order to lay out a substantial claim to such an event. thanks..

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