What is the minimum set of facts that need to be true for Christians?

Owen here….

Rex and I spend a lot of time engaging with Christian apologists who like to argue that any reasonable person really should accept the historicity of the resurrection as attested to by the gospel authors. I enjoy pointing out that the gospels all conflict with each other in meaningful ways, and in reply recently I encountered a Christian who made use of an argument proposed in a book written about 15 years ago by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona entitled The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. What Habermas and Licona did was boil the gospels down to a set of minimum facts upon which all four accounts agree in order to focus on whether those facts are true or not. And then they argued that since these four “minimum” facts are true that the resurrection narratives can be relied upon and that the differences and conflicts between the narratives become irrelevant.

Here are the four “minimum” facts:

1. Jesus died on the cross and was buried.

2. Jesus’s tomb was empty and no one ever produced His body.

3. Jesus’s disciples believed that they saw Jesus resurrected from the dead.

4. Jesus’s disciples were transformed following their alleged resurrection observations.

Setting aside the slight of hand required to simply dismiss the differences between the four gospels while maintaining that all four constitute historically reliable documents, I want to begin by pointing out that what we have here is a request on the part of apologists to deploy a historical methodology in order to evaluate what they postulate is a miracle that occurred at some time in the past. The unfortunate fact, for apologists, is that a historical methodology can only help us to determine what is most likely to have happened in history and any honest use of a historical method therefore necessarily has to rule out miracles. Why? Because any mundane event will always be more likely than a miraculous one. As an atheist, then, I am coming to the apologists and meeting the apologists on their own turf in order to consider the facts you propose, but only an unreasonable person could ever argue that a miracle is more likely than a mundane event…because that’s kinda what miracle means. With that said, what can we say about the four so-called facts that are postulated here?

I’d like to unpack them one at a time:

1. Jesus died on the cross and was buried.

The dying on a cross part is perfectly in line with everything else we know about the Romans during this period. On the other hand I find the entire story about Joseph of Arimathea to be improbable, and there are some interesting literary clues that point to him being made up. Not the least of which is the Greek meaning of his name, and the lack of any such place being known to historians. Moreover, the idea that executed criminals would be permitted a burial is directly in contradiction to everything else we know about the history of the period. It doesn’t make it impossible, but it certainly makes it improbable.

2. Jesus’s tomb was empty and no one ever produced His body.

No, I don’t think we know that with any certainty. First, I don’t think its well established that he was removed from the cross at all, let alone that he was buried in a tomb. Second, the fact that the Romans treated grave robbing as a capital offense and that Luke the “historian” (yes I admit there is at least a small amount of sarcasm there) does not record any investigation by the Romans or any questioning or even execution of Jospeh of Arimathea must jump out at any honest observer. If the Romans caught wind of the absence of a body they would have pursued that relentlessly – nobody could be allowed to escape the punishment ordered by the authorities. And even if the body was absent there are far more probable reasons for it than a resurrection.

3. Jesus’s disciples believed that they saw Jesus resurrected from the dead.

We have the “Corinthian Creed” from Paul in 1 Cor 15, so I don’t doubt that there were people who would have believed they saw Jesus. But I would note that Paul himself never saw Jesus in person and he’s using the same verb for his own vision as he does for everyone else. There is no reason for us to conclude that an apparition was corporeal. I will add that seeing visions of a deceased loved one is perfectly plausible, and is in no way indicative of a physical resurrection.

4. Jesus’s disciples were transformed following their alleged resurrection observations.

Actually we don’t know that. All we “know” is what the gospels and what Acts record. The gospels give us almost nothing beyond the resurrection narratives (and they don’t all match – be honest about that), and Luke/Acts looks very much like a complete fabrication (which would not be at all unusual in a pseudo-historical document of it’s time). Consider several problems. First, in the Gospel component of Luke’s account we have nearly 70 percent of Mark’s Gospel but we are never told anything about whom Luke is using as a source or why Luke finds that source to be credible. Second, when Luke diverges from what we have in Mark, Luke doesn’t tell us why he’s diverging or changing the story. Other “historians” of the period were not only telling us who their sources were but were also telling us why the historian accepted one account over another – Josephus, both Plinny’s, etc… Third, when we look at Acts we see a divergence between what Paul is telling us in his own words vs. what we see recorded in Acts. To me it reads like a post-facto attempt to transition the authority of the early church away from Peter and toward Paul, and it’s apparent that an author writing on the Pauline side would have a clear motive to do just that. And let’s make no bones about it, Acts is absolutely about preserving the authority of Paul.

Here’s a lecture that can give you some good background on the scholarship on the question of the historicity of Acts: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=B5MUUP4l6l4

When we boil this down we can see how flimsy this evidence actually is. Matthew and Luke copy from Mark so we couldn’t honestly consider those to be independent accounts even if we wanted to (and fundamentalists want to). We also see that Mark, the first of the gospels, ends with an empty tomb and no resurrection. We also know that many later Christians were making up stuff about Jesus out of whole cloth – see the entire catalog of known early Christian gospels that are non-canonical. Why would we conclude anything different about Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John?

So we’re left with the open question: does the fact that the four gospel narratives contain a minimal thread of four things in common lend them enough credibility to accept those four things as true? I find that the answer will vary from person to person and that it always depends on whether you want the gospels to be true or not. And if that’s the case then we can’t really agree that this argument is proof of anything other than that apologists are willing to rely on bad arguments…because for them it’s not the argument they find persuasive. The “argument” is nothing more than an excuse offered by the apologist for why she or he believed to begin with. The belief didn’t start with any of these arguments, the belief was there and now these arguments are being offered to defend it.

And so what have we done, here? What have we determined? Have historical methods been used to validate any kind of miracle at all? The answer is, no, absolutely not. At every single turn we have identified far more likely explanations that must be disregarded over and over and over again so that the miraculous claim can still be asserted. Let none of us pretend even for an instant that such a thing is anywhere close to conducting respectable history.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s