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.
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.
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.)
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).
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.
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.