Monday, April 24, 2017

Problems with the "Minimal Facts" Approach to the Resurrection

Gary Habermas, whom I respect and count as a friend, has made a mark on scholarship in part by his exhaustive cataloguing of views which scholars have taken towards various facets of the Jesus story, and what can be made of what facts scholars generally concede.  (The oft-cited internet crank Richard Carrier implies that Habermas may not be accurately representing this data base, but I think that tells us more about Carrier than it does about Habermas.)  Habermas explains:

"For more than 35 years, I have argued that, surrounding the end of Jesus’ life, there is a significant body of data that scholars of almost every religious and philosophical persuasion recognize as being historical.  The historicity of each “fact” on the list is attested and supported by a variety of historical and other considerations. This motif began as the central tenet of my PhD dissertation.  This theme has continued in virtually all of my other dozens of publications on this subject since that time."

Habermas' work is of great value, and I certainly agree with him that evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is strong.  I am not entirely satisfied with the argument that is commonly snapped together from the pieces of evidence Habermas induces, however. 

In this post, I will explain some of my initial qualms.  Note that I haven't studied this argument in detail, and am open to being corrected if I have misrepresented or misunderstood it in some ways.

William Lane Craig has made effective public use of what has come to be called the "Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus."  Craig has debated numerous leading New Testament scholars on the resurrection, even giving some atheists the impression that he has won.  (And I think he has indeed won most or all of those debates I have watched or read.)  He sometimes uses this approach.  In debate with the Muslim Shabir Ally, for instance, he outlined the argument he was preparing to make as follows:

"In tonight’s debate, I am going to defend two basic contentions:

I. The New Testament documents establish five facts concerning Jesus:

1) His crucifixion
2) His burial in a tomb
3) The discovery that his tomb was empty
4) His post-mortem appearances
5) The origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection

II. The best explanation of these facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead."

That, in sum, is the Minimal Facts Argument.  Five simple facts, added together to one dramatic conclusion.

Craig complemented his initial argument with a more complex concluding set of arguments:

"In his book Justifying Historical Descriptions, historian C. B. McCullagh lists six tests which historians use in determining what is the best explanation for given historical facts.[25] The hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead” passes all six of these tests.

1. It has great explanatory scope.
It explains why the tomb was found empty, why the disciples saw post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and why the Christian faith came into being.

2. It has great explanatory power.
It explains why the body of Jesus was gone, why people repeatedly saw Jesus alive despite his earlier public execution, and so forth.

3. It is plausible.
Given the historical context of Jesus’ own unparalleled life and claims, the resurrection serves as divine vindication of those claims.

4. It is not ad hoc or contrived.
It requires only one additional hypothesis – that God exists. And even that need not be an additional hypothesis if you already believe in God’s existence as Shabir and I do.

5. It is in accord with accepted beliefs.
The hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead” does not in any way conflict with the accepted belief that people don’t rise naturally from the dead. The Christian accepts that belief as wholeheartedly as he accepts the belief that “God raised Jesus from the dead.”

6. It far outstrips any of its rival hypotheses in meeting conditions 1 to 5.
Down through history, various alternative explanations of the facts have been offered, for example, the conspiracy theory, the apparent death theory, the hallucination theory, and so forth. Such hypotheses have been almost universally rejected by contemporary scholarship. No naturalistic hypothesis has attracted a great number of scholars. So on this basis, it seems to me that we should conclude that the best explanation of the evidence is the one that the original disciples themselves gave; namely, God raised Jesus from the dead."

This broader scheme seems to suggest that Craig may find MF more a useful and succinct introduction to the historical arguments for the Resurrection, useful on stage in a brief debate, than a full argument.

In any case, I see several problems with the "minimal facts" approach:

(a) The most common rejoinder seems to be, "What do you expect from Christian or post-Christian scholars?"  Since Habermas has not (it seems) made his full list available, and since many scholars who work in New Testament studies are Christians, or began as Christians and no doubt continue to hold some Christian assumptions, it may seem plausible that if you only count those who were not ideologically inclined to admit some of these "minimal facts," then you would no longer get a majority of scholars in favor.

This is not a claim, it is only a gap in the argument so far as I understand it.  And it is, potentially, an ad hominem critique.  But since the argument itself is an appeal to authority, it seems somewhat susceptible to complaints about the bias or purported bias of the authorities appealed to.

(b) For some of the "facts," Habermas can only cite three quarters or less agreement.  But that would hardly constitute a consensus, even if Habermas is counting accurately and thoroughly.

(c) If all five facts, or say three of them, are required to constitute a given argument for the resurrection, then even if the probability of each is greater than 50-50, it may be that the probability of all five, or of four or three which are required, is less than 50-50.  So if it turns out that 70% of scholars agree on the empty tomb and 70% on Jesus' burial in a tomb, and if we crudely (of course this is silly) say that probability of each fact is the same as the percent of scholars accepting it, then the probability that both these two facts are true would seem to be only 49%. 

(d) Whatever percent you get, it is bound to be low for a doctrine that lies at the heart of Christian faith.  A large cathedral needs a solid foundation.  70% consensus seems to me like building a house on, if not sand, at least on a rock less solid than granite.

(e) Furthermore, one has to add in (or multiply) the background probability of a state of the cosmos which would make Jesus' resurrection plausible.  If one has strong reasons to deny God's existence, for instance, then even if the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection were 90%, it would be trivially easy to conclude, "There has to be some other explanation," and rationally bet on the 10%.

If the claim were only that Peter had caught a big fish that day, a 60% probability might do.  But not that his boss died and came back from the dead. 

(f) Certainly the probability of resurrection would not impress a skeptic who holds to the maxim, "Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence."

 So far I've been listing considerations which undermine Minimal Facts from what might be described as a "skeptical" point of view.  But other facts, I think, undermine it from a more biblical point of view. 

(g) In Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, I described twelve errors which eminent skeptical Jesus scholars habitually make, and which undermine the value of their scholarship.  They assume that miracles cannot happen, which is inconvenient as well as unphilosophical, because they do.  They also tend to confuse past and future, rely on poor logic and shaky sources, neglect contrary arguments, prefer far-fetched skeptical theories over orthodox truisms, and rely on post-modern assumptions that cloud up minds that admit them, among other errors.

More recently, in Jesus is No Myth, I described numerous elementary errors committed by, among others, Bart Ehrman, the most famous and influential liberal New Testament scholar in America today.  He is not a stupid man, but some of these are really bone-headed mistakes -- like completely misrepresenting the actual text of Life of Apollonius of Tyana on most of the traits which he pretends mark Apollonius as a viable Jesus-double.  Not one or two, but MOST of those traits.

If we recognize these broad patterns of error -- and you are welcome to try to disprove the critical points that I make, if you like -- why should we appeal to such biased and error-prone scholars?  Citing scholars with such a record as the premise in a scholarly argument, would be like citing a known drunk who suffers from hallucinations as a murder witness.

(h) There is a more direct approach to arguing for the resurrection of Jesus:

(1) The gospels are works of enormous historical credibility which, furthermore, support one another on the fact of the resurrection.  (Jesus is No Myth.)

(2) Highly credible works should generally be believed about facts on which they agree, especially which are central to the narratives they tell.

(3) So the Resurrection can be affirmed with high confidence just on Gospel testimony.

(4) I. Corinthians 15 and other early evidence, including for the explosive growth of the Church based on eyewitness testimony for the Resurrection, strengthens that case, as can MF.

(i) Prior Probability and background assumptions about the nature of life, and therefore the plausibility of Jesus' resurrection, must also be considered.  Craig alludes to this realm of evidences and arguments.  I offer a case here that Prior Probability is much higher than generally supposed.  This also addresses the popular skeptical argument that arguing for the Resurrection is somehow "ad hoc" or that only vast evidence for a miracle can possibly challenge skepticism.  (Though I think the evidence for Jesus' Resurrection is indeed extremely powerful, vastly more powerful than even many historical claims that are pretty much universally accepted.)

So those are my initial qualms about the MF argument.  It is an Argument From Authority, which are often good arguments, but limited when the authorities are particularly biased, as they almost all are in this case.  It cannot yield so strong a historical conclusion as we must desire in this case.  But a more direct argument which includes the gospels does, in my opinion, yield far stronger certainty, than any argument that largely bypasses the gospels and their rich evidential resources and proven historical authority.

But as I said, these are initial qualms.  I haven't studied the argument in great detail -- I'm thinking out-loud, not trying to nail down a certain conclusion yet.  Next, I'll see what Lydia McGrew and Matthew Ferguson say about the argument, and how what they say may augment my own intuitions and gut reactions.


  1. David, if you are interested in my post on the minimal facts apologetic, I'll have you know that I made a few updates on it recently (particularly in the opening sections). In case you had looked at an earlier version, here is the updated version:

  2. Most of the changes are to clarify the distinctions I draw about "existing knowledge," ad hoc assumptions, and the paranormal, since I think the wording was a little less clear in the earlier version. These are issues that I am assuming you would have interest in.

  3. Thanks. Yes, that will be the focus of my post. Since I'm not a huge fan of the MF approach, and since it's a long article, I will concentrate on the philosophical issues, which apply to more general apologetics for the Resurrection.

  4. You mentioned the "explosive growth of Christianity," but even according to Rodney Stark and some other historians I have read, it involved a relatively small percentage of growth over centuries. I believe such historians mentioned Mormonism's growth being as explosive if not moreso. And what about the truly explosive growth of Islam and also communism in so far as mass movements go? Islam even took over the former Christian Roman stronghold of North Africa, the abode of church fathers like Augustine.

    You also mentioned that "The gospels are works of enormous historical credibility." Enormous? The Gospels certainly don't appear to be equal to elite and historiographical biographies of the Roman era. Per Matthew Fergusson the latter "are much more prone to cite their sources, include discussion of eyewitness experiences, use direct speech and dramatic dialogue sparingly, utilize far more subordinating as opposed to coordinating conjunctions, apply more diegetic as opposed to mimetic narrative techniques, and exercise more authorial control in not borrowing large amounts material from earlier texts (as do the Synoptic Gospels), than what is seen in the canonical Gospels. In contrast, popular-novelistic biographies, seldom discuss their literary or historical sources, contain little overt discussion of eyewitness experiences, are replete with direct speech and dramatic dialogues, utilize parataxis and coordinating conjunctions far more often, apply more mimetic as opposed to diegetic narrative techniques, and are written highly anonymously in borrowing large amounts of material from earlier narratives, as ‘open texts.’ As such, on the broad spectrum of ancient biography, I think that the Gospels far more resemble popular and novelistic biographies than they do elite and historiographical biographies."

    My own post on questions raised by NT stories can be found here:

  5. Ed: These are all issues I've addressed long ago. Stark calculated those figures before he became a Christian himself, and I brought them up when I interviewed him. His arguments in the Rise of Christianity were addressed to the claim that the growth of the Church over the first few centuries need be miraculous, because it was so rapid -- not my point here. I agree that that argument would be mistaken. Islam and Communism (and the Tai Ping movement in China) grew through aggressive warfare, which is not how Christianity spread in those early centuries, anyway -- so those analogies would be of marginal relevance even if I had been speaking of such a broader period.

    I analyzed Ferguson's arguments on this site long ago, pointing out what I see as the weaknesses of the few points Ferguson cites in favor of so-called "elite biographies" (you mention 5, some of which I discuss). I then describe 30 factors (in Jesus is No Myth, and other places) which I argue render the gospels extraordinarily credible compared to works often compared to them, including by Ehrman, Carrier, the Jesus Seminar, Fredriksen, Thomas Jefferson, and yes, Mr. Ferguson. Didn't you know I just wrote a book making such a case?

    Before you visit someone's web site and rehash such old talking points, wouldn't it be wise to find out first what that someone has already said, in public in articles, interviews, lectures, and a book, about those very issues?

    Just a suggestion. All the best.

  6. When asked for evidence to support the foundational claim of Christianity—the bodily resurrection of Jesus—conservative Christian apologists will frequently point to The Twelve Minimal Facts Argument formulated by evangelical Christian theologian Gary Habermas.
    Are these “facts” convincing?
    I don’t think so, but maybe I’m biased.

    Let’s use the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF) to see if these facts really are strong evidence for a bodily resurrection, or, do only Christians find these facts convincing simply because these facts are about the founder of their religion. What will happen if we substitute the name of the founder of a different world religion in the place of Jesus’ name in these “facts”? Let’s see how many Christians will find these “facts” convincing for the supernatural claim of a bodily resurrection when the facts involve some other religion’s founder. We could substitute “Mohammad” or “Joseph Smith” for this exercise but let’s use the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise known as, the Buddha.

    1. The Buddha died by crucifixion.
    2. The Buddha was buried.
    3. The Buddha’s death caused his disciples to despair and lose hope.
    4. The Buddha’s tomb was found empty.
    5. The Buddha’s disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Buddha.
    6. The Buddha’s disciples were transformed from doubters to bold proclaimers.
    7. The resurrection of the Buddha was the central message of this new religious belief system.
    8. The disciples of the Buddha preached the message of the Buddha’s resurrection in the largest city in India.
    9. Buddhism was born and grew.
    10. Devout Vedics (the dominant religion in India at that time) changed their primary day of worship.
    11. The brother of the Buddha converted to Buddhism when he saw the resurrected Buddha (The brother was a family skeptic).
    12. A Jewish scribe and elder converted to Buddhism. (He was an outsider skeptic).

    Dear Christian: Would these facts convince you that a man living in India thousands of years ago really did come back from the dead? I doubt it. So why do you believe the same weak claims about Jesus of Nazareth??

    Abandon ancient superstitions. Embrace reason and science!

  7. Gary: You seemed to post your comments without bothering to observe that the post above DISAGREES WITH Minimal Facts.

    And none of those "facts" are true about Buddha, of course, so that's one heck of a silly exercise. Also, the author of this site wrote a book, How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test, showing that in three ways, Christianity is uniquely supported by the evidence of other faiths, including Buddhism.

    Nor are the 30 lines of evidence I describe in Jesus is No Myth that render the gospels highly credible historical works, useful for proving any Buddhist literature that I am aware of.

    Abandon modern stupidities! Embrace reason, indeed! Begin by reading the arguments you want to disprove.


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