A Defense of the Minimal Facts

Have the minimal facts been knocked down? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

I was recently sent an article by Matthew Ferguson of Adversus Apologetica where he attempts to knock down the minimal facts approach. Looking through the article, I am largely unimpressed. For those interested, it can be found here.

The minimal facts approach is the one offered by Gary Habermas and Mike Licona. The idea is to take facts that even liberal scholarship will acknowledge that are attested to early and argue from there that the best conclusion that can be reached from what we know is that Jesus rose from the dead.

Much of this is done to avoid going to the gospels. As Habermas has said in many talks, the gospels are by liberal standards 40-70 years afterwards. You can go that route, but it’s much more difficult. It’s also done this way to just avoid “The Bible says it happened, therefore it did,” approach, as Habermas and Licona take facts that have been held by non-Christian scholars in the field.

So looking at Ferguson, I have a problem right off with this sentence.

“When investigating virtually every other past event outside of the origins of Christianity, historians operate under the principle of methodological naturalism.”

He goes on to say that

“If they did not responsibly limit the historical method to a purely secular epistemology, as I have discussed before, supernatural events such as witchcraft at Salem in the late 17th century would be fair game for being considered “historical” and we would have far greater evidence to support such miracles than the resurrection of Jesus. We can all see the absurdity of the former example and yet apologists (who exercise the same skepticism towards supernatural events outside of their religion) consider it an unfair bias to bracket Jesus’ resurrection as a religious, rather than historical, matter.”

Actually, no. I don’t see the absurdity of the former. I happen to know people who have been involved in the occult and have no reason to discount a number of claims that I hear from them. Also, even if we had greater evidence for Salem, so what? That means the evidence for the resurrection is not reliable? Does any historical claim become false if we have more evidence for another claim along the same lines? If we have more evidence for Hitler, does that mean that Napoleon is a myth? If we have more evidence for Napoleon, does that mean Alexander the Great is a myth?

Ferguson also has this idea that we’re all anathema to miracles in other religions. Licona himself asked me about this once in discussing miracles and said “What about miracles outside of Christianity like Apollonius and Vespasian?” My reply was “What about them?” If these people did miracles, so what. Questions need to be asked.

“Is there any particular religious message that is to be conveyed if the miracle is true?”
“What is the evidence for the claim?”
“Who reports the claim?”
“How close to the time is it?”

Personally, I would in fact welcome a strong case for Vespasian or Apollonius doing miracles. Why? Because doing miracles is not anathema to my worldview but is so to a worldview that is rooted in naturalistic thinking. That just opens up even more the possibility that Jesus rose from the dead since we can say “We have clear evidence of a miracle in this case. Why not the other?”

Of course, there is also the fact that Craig Keener has written a massive tour de force demonstrating miracle claims going on today. These have eyewitness testimony and have often medical reports backing them. In the volume, Keener also includes numerous arguments against the position of Hume.

So if we have miracle claims going on today, why should we ipso facto disregard all of them? Let’s open them up. While most atheists tell me about how we shouldn’t let bias deal with the data, if any side will have bias here, it will be the atheistic side. If all of Keener’s miracles were shown to be false I’d think it was a shame, but it would not disprove either his argument against Hume or the resurrection of Jesus. If just one of the hundreds of miracles Keener writes about is an accurate account, then atheism needs to come up with a better explanation.

So at the start, I do not see a good reason to accept methodological naturalism. When I look at history, I want to know what really happened and I cannot do that if I rule out explanations that I disagree with right at the start. If a miraculous event happened in history, the only way we can know that is if we allow ourselves to be open to it, and if we are not open to it when a miracle had in fact occurred, then we can never know true history.

Ferguson goes on to say

“I have, on the other hand, met several apologists who converted for personal reasons and later sought rational and evidential justifications when they were trying to convert other people who do not share such personal experience.”

Of course, some people come to Christianity for various reasons and then when looking into their belief system, find there are rational reasons for believing it. There are many of us who would prefer that apologists not use personal experience as an argument. I cringe every time Bill Craig uses his fifth way for instance. It’s way too much like Mormonism.

On the other hand, there are some people who start out critical and investigate the evidence and come away Christians. Lee Strobel, J. Warner Wallace, and Frank Morison come to mind. What really matters is the evidence that each side presents. If one comes to Christianity first and finds the reasons later, they cannot help that. Their arguments should not be discounted for that reason.

Going on we are told

“Such apologists, seeking to hijack the field of ancient history, are desperate to slap the label “historical” onto the resurrection. This goal is derived in no sense whatsoever from legitimate academic concerns, but instead is one born purely out of the desire to evangelize. Once Jesus’ resurrection is considered “historical,” you just have to accept it and apologists can cram their religion down people’s throats. It was to avoid such non-academic agendas that historians bracketed such religious questions in the first place. I myself was originally content with letting the resurrection be a religious, rather than historical question, but apologists have fired the first shot in attempting to invade the field of ancient history. Since they are now targeting a lay audience with a variety of oversimplified slogans aimed at converting the public rather than seriously engaging historical issues, my duty here on Κέλσος is to correct their misconceptions.”

It is a wonder how Ferguson has this great insight into the mind of everyone who has written on the resurrection from an evangelical perspective. I, for instance, have no desire to shove religion down someone’s throat. Do I wish to share my view? Of course! Who doesn’t? Can I force someone to accept the resurrection? Not at all! I can present the evidence that I see and let them decide and if they disagree, let them disagree with me on historical grounds.

When one considers the last sentence, I hope that Ferguson in turn is going after the new atheists who are targeting the lay audience with simplified slogans and even worse, not doing real research into philosophy and theology at all! This is evidenced by P.Z. Myers’s “Courtier’s Reply.”

Furthermore, I do not see how he could look at a work like Licona’s “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach” which is actually Licona’s PH.D. with a few updates and say that that it has oversimplified slogans and does not seriously engage historical issues. Could he say the same about a work like N.T. Wright’s “The Resurrection of the Son of God”?

To be fair, I will not dispute that there is much out there that is garbage. There are works by Christian apologists that I myself have taken to task for being so light and fluffy. One such work even had Wikipedia cited in the back.

Moving on we read

“One such slogan is the so-called “minimal facts” apologetic, spawned by the likes of Gary Habermas and William Craig.”

Right here, I can tell the study has not been done on this. Craig’s approach is not the minimal facts approach of Habermas. In fact, Habermas himself says that some of Craig’s material are not facts that he would use. Craig’s material relies on the gospels. Habermas’s (And Licona’s in turn) does not. Thus, I will be spending this work defending the real minimal facts approach. If something is not part of the minimal facts, I will not waste time with it.

Ferguson continues,

“This “minimal facts” apologetic attempts to provide a minimal case for believing in just one of Jesus’ miracles: the resurrection. First, I find it to be completely disingenuous for apologists to pretend that they are trying to convince you of “only one” miracle. What if I believed in the resurrection, but thought Jesus did it through sorcery or simply left open-ended the question of its religious significance?”

That’s fine. Go ahead. Habermas has even said in public talks that at the start, he’s not saying God raised Jesus from the dead. He’s saying that Jesus rose. You come up with your explanation. You want to say it was sorcery. Fine. Say it was sorcery. Just give a reason why you think it was and why you think my explanation that it was God who raised Him is lacking. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?

“Apologists would not accept this and would obviously want to convince me that Elohim had raised their Messiah. What apologists don’t tell you is that in the fine print of the “minimal facts” apologetic there is a clause stating that by accepting the free trial of the resurrection miracle, you are signing yourself up for a lifetime subscription to a fundamentalist, conservative Christian worldview.”

No you’re not. There. An assertion made without an argument can be dismissed just the same way. All you have to do is get that Jesus rose. Don’t want to believe the Bible is Inerrant? Sure. Go ahead. There are some Christian scholars who hold to the bodily resurrection and don’t think the Bible is inerrant. Want to believe in theistic evolution? Sure. Go ahead. There are some like that as well. There are Christians of all stripes who believe Jesus rose from the dead and do not hold to a “conservative and fundamentalist approach.”

Besides, if a fear of accepting such an approach is behind Ferguson, then could it not be said that his worldview is shaping his looking at the evidence instead of the other way around?

“But furthermore, the “minimal facts” apologetic is not rooted in facts to begin with, and when stated honestly boils down to the argument: “If you accept the Bible as factual, how can you deny the fact of Jesus’ resurrection?”

This is not the minimal facts argument. In fact, the minimal facts argument is done to AVOID such a statement. One can take a quite liberal approach to the Bible and still accept the minimal facts. This is simply a straw man on Fergusons’s part. Of course, if the facts are wrong, then they are wrong and that is problematic, but we will see if they are.

“This apologetic takes a variety of forms, but is most commonly represented in the following manner. Apologists claim that there are “four facts” about Jesus’ resurrection:

After his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.
On the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.
On different occasions and under various circumstances different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.
The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.”

This is Craig’s list. It is not the approach of Habermas and Licona. For instance, Habermas and Licona do not use Joseph of Arimathea at all. In fact, they don’t even get to the gospels. Therefore, I will not be wasting my time dealing with any arguments concerning Joseph or the reliability of the gospels or anything along those lines.

“Apologists love to use the term “facts,” so that these issues are treated as non-negotiable [1]. Of course, where do we learn of the details of these “facts”? From ancient secular sources disinterested in proving a resurrection? Nope, from the New Testament, in the works of authors who had a religious agenda to spread belief in Jesus’ resurrection. I won’t dismiss the argument on the grounds of bias alone, however, and will further demonstrate how the first two “facts” are not facts at all, the third is poorly worded, and the fourth exaggerates and oversimplifies the early belief in the resurrection.”

The NT which is also in fact said to be the best source for the life of Jesus, even according to skeptics like Bart Ehrman. An exception to this could be found perhaps in John Dominic Crossan who uses sources like the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas or in other scholars in the Jesus Seminar who give much weight to Q, which would in reality be found in the NT anyway, but even these would not dispute that the NT contains historical information.

Also, did these people have a bias? Yep. You bet. So did everyone else who wrote anything historical. There was no such thing as uninterested historical writing. Writing was not done just because someone wanted to write something. Ferguson writes about this because he cares about it. I write in response because I care about the topic.

Ferguson also says the first is not a fact. Again, so what? Even if it isn’t, the minimal facts approach is untouched. He also says the second is not a fact, which is interesting as well since this is the one minimal fact that Habermas himself says is not as well attested as the others. What about the third and fourth? Well we’ll see when we get there.

So let’s move on to the empty tomb. Ferguson thinks that dispatching with the claim about Joseph of Arimathea’s burial of Jesus deals with the empty tomb. No. It would just mean one account of the burial was wrong. It would not mean that there was no burial and thus no empty tomb.

Ferguson writes about the women being at the tomb and how the argument is they were not allowed to testify in a court of law and due to the criterion of embarrassment, the gospel writers would not make up such an account. The problem is that this is irrelevant to the minimal facts approach. The minimal facts approach does not deal with women coming to the tomb. It simply deals with the reality of the tomb. We could come here for extra evidence if need be, but it is not necessary.

Therefore, after giving an explanation for why he thinks the writers would use women based largely on MacDonald’s thesis of Mark basing his work on Homer, Ferguson thinks he’s disproven the empty tomb. Not at all. The basis for the empty tomb in the minimal facts approach is 1 Cor. 15. There, we find that Christ was buried and that Christ was raised. The raising would mean that there was an empty tomb left behind. A Jew would not accept the fact of a resurrection that left behind a body. Resurrection was bodily.

So therefore, I do not see fact two dealt with according to the methodology of the minimal facts approach. Let’s look at what he says about point three, the appearances.

““Fact three” of this apologetic is poorly worded, but this one does have a kernel of historical truth. I don’t think any skeptic denies that the early Christians claimed to have experiences of Jesus risen from the dead.”

Ferguson claims that we have such stories today and there were claims of post-mortem appearances in the ancient world. Fair enough. In fact, I could grant some of them, but do we have any claims of other people in the ancient world being raised to life, especially in the Greco-Roman culture where they were clear that resurrection did not happen?

Ferguson goes on to say that

“Do we have anything better? Well, we do have the apostle Paul, who wasn’t an eye-witness of Jesus, but who claims to have had a vision of him. Paul (2 Corinthians 12:2-4) elsewhere claims that he was once raptured up to “third heaven” in a experience that is very similar to the ones told by crazed street preacher, Clarence “Bro” Cope, who likewise claims to have been raptured to heaven twice and to have had Jesus appear to him. Are we to trust the testimony of people who for all purposes appear to be schizophrenic?”

It is hardly a fair comparison to compare Paul to Clarence “Bro” Cope, and the link that Ferguson has is in a post loaded with argument from outrage. Even if this had been a hallucination on Paul’s part, that does not equate to him being schizophrenic. Ferguson should leave such psychological judgments to those who do study history.

Should we trust Paul as well? NT critics seem to think so! Paul is quite well accepted. I don’t know any NT scholar who looks at what Paul says and says “Paul was crazy! Therefore we don’t need to deal with what he says.” Paul shows himself to be a learned man, a scholar of his day, and someone we should take seriously. Is Ferguson also allowing his bias (What he condemns in others) to interpret the facts to say that this did not happen? Note that in 1 Cor. 15, this is not described as a vision but put alongside appearances to Peter, James, the twelve, and five hundred.

What Ferguson wants us to think then is that all these people conveniently had the same hallucinations, that a rare event like a mass hallucination (Something Licona and Habermas have both dealt with) happened (It can even be disputed that one has happened), that it was a resurrection they thought they saw and that they did not instead see Jesus in Abraham’s bosom vindicated, and this still would not answer the question of where the body was anyway!

Ferguson continues,

“Paul’s testimony is useful, however, since Paul is writing only a couple decades after Jesus and he claims to have known Peter and other eye-witnesses of Jesus. What does Paul relate in 1 Corinthians 15? Nothing about an empty tomb being discovered by women. It is not even clear that Paul believed Jesus had physically resurrected in the same body rather than a spiritual one [4]. Paul instead reports that Jesus ὤφθη (“appeared to him”). This is the passive form of the verb ὁράω (“to see”), which very often means “to be seen in visions.”

To begin with, even Dale Martin in “The Corinthian Body” argues that the body Paul speaks of was physical. The idea that spiritual was opposed to physical was put to the test best by Licona who examined the word translated as physical by translations such as the RSV. He looked at every instance of the word from the 8th century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D. Not once was it translated “physical.” Spiritual would in fact mean something along the lines of “animated by the spirit.”

Furthermore, Licona says about ὤφθη in its Pauline usage in “The Resurrection of Jesus” that there are 29 usages of it by Paul in the NT. 16 refer to physical sight, 12 have the meaning of behold, understand, etc. Only one refers to a vision. However, this is still a problem in that the creed is not Pauline language really but language Paul got from elsewhere.

Where can we go to see? We can consider Luke. Luke uses the word to describe Jesus’s body appearing and Jesus eating food. One could say that this did not happen, but Luke believes that it did and Luke believes in a bodily resurrection. He uses the language of something that can be seen with the eyes. If Paul also agrees that resurrection is what happens to a corpse, then it’s reasonable to say that he thinks these appearances were of a body that had been a corpse and resurrected and thus, physical. One can say Paul is wrong, but let us be clear on what he means.

“Paul, who describes his own visions of Jesus in no physical terms at all (e.g. Galatians 1:15-16) likewise uses the same vocabulary to describe the early disciples’ visions of Jesus. Accordingly, the early post-mortem sightings of Jesus could have been little more than hallucinations and visionary experiences, perfectly explicable in natural terms. This would not at all be surprising for an early apocalyptic cult, in light of of the psychological conditions we observe of cult members today.”

The translation of Galatians 1 this way might be appealing to some in the Carrier type school of thought, but it is problematic still. For one thing, the wording in Galatians is highly ambiguous and most likely will be driven by one’s view of the resurrection. It is not wise to build a case on an ambiguous passage.

These could have been hallucinations? Okay. I need to see evidence of that. Why would the apostles have come up with this? It would have been the most easily disprovable theory and ended up costing them everything, especially in the society of the time where they would have received ostracism and of course, be going against the covenant of YHWH which means they would face His judgment. Paul himself would be in no position to have such an experience. He was a persecutor of the church and the conversion accounts in Acts include objective phenomena which means that this was not something that just took place in Paul’s mind.

It will not work to just say “This case is a cult that has hallucinations, therefore another case is like that.” We need to examine what makes the groups different. In Christianity, the differences are vast in comparison to other movements.

“Stories, of course, change over time, which is why the later Gospel accounts describe the post-mortem appearances in more physical terms. Consider a diachronic analaysis of how the resurrection stories developed over time:

Paul, the earliest source, has no empty tomb and just “appearances” of Jesus.
Mark, half a century later, then has an empty tomb.
Matthew, after him, then has guards at the tomb to confirm it was empty.
Luke then has a Jesus who can teleport and is at first not recognizable to his followers.
Finally, John has Thomas be able to touch Jesus’ wounds.
If you go later into the Gospel of Peter, Jesus emerges as a giant from the tomb with giant angels accompanying him.”

As has been argued earlier, for Paul to have buried and then resurrection would mean that there was an empty tomb left behind. If that is the case, one could then say Mark downplayed what happened with Paul as he left out the appearances! Furthermore, a writer like Hurtado has written showing the earliest view of Jesus would have been him seen as the Lord. Hard to go up from that one!

Now we move on to the fourth fact.

“First off, the ancient Jews and the people around the wider Mediterranean did not have carbon copy beliefs. There were all sorts of strange religions and new beliefs floating around the region at the time. Often times new religions are started by deviating from previous expectations towards new and radical ones. This certainly has a higher probability for explaining the origins of Christianity than a magical resurrection.”

Ferguson is writing against the idea that Christians would have a crucified messiah as their savior. To be sure, there were new beliefs floating around. How having a more radical belief is more probable than a resurrection has not been shown. The term magical is just a bit of well poisoning on Ferguson’s part. Magic in the ancient world does not correspond to what we have in the resurrection.

“But belief in the resurrection need not even be unlikely. Kris Komarnitksy has written an excellent article about how “Cognitive Dissonance Theory” can explain the early Christian belief in the resurrection. This theory observes that among religious groups and cults, when something occurs that violates the adherents’ previous expectations and beliefs, rather than abandon their cherished religious beliefs, they instead invent new and radical ad hoc assumptions to rationalize the alarming information. Just look at liberal Christians today who are “evolution-friendly” and think that Christianity is compatible with Darwin’s theory, after thousands of years of Christianity teaching Six Day Creation and a century and a half of Christians battling evolutionary science. Rather than drop their warm and comforting beliefs about their religion, they merely invent new stories to explain away how utterly discredited it has been.”

Let’s look at the first part. Why should I be held accountable for what Christians did for a century and a half. I am not a theistic evolutionist, but I have no problem with evolution. I just leave it to the sciences. I could not argue for it. I could not argue against it. Furthermore, Ferguson does not realize that there have been a wide variety of accounts of the age of the Earth in church history. This was the case even before the rise of the information we have today.

In fact, if this is what counts for a liberal Christian, then Ferguson has discounted his own theory that believing in the minimal facts requires you be a conservative fundamentalist since I believe in the minimal facts and I have no problem with evolution and hold to an old Earth.

Cognitive dissonance does occur, but should I think it has here? In every single case in ancient history that I know of, when the would-be Messiah died, the movement died. Why was Jesus’s case different? Why again did they go the hard way with a physical resurrection? Why not just divine vindication? Why would Paul and James have converted? Paul was a persecutor. James was a skeptic. What would it take to make you convinced your dead brother was really the Messiah?

“So the early Christians, when their Messiah was crucified, instead of abandoning their faith, rationalized the story through ad hoc assumptions. “Perhaps Jesus had only temporarily died!” “Maybe he will return soon from Heaven and avenge his death!” Such rationalizations could have easily triggered some of the mentally unstable cult members to start having hallucinations and visionary experiences of Jesus. They could tell others, who would then have a prior expectation that triggers similar visions or who would simply delude themselves through placebo effects, and suddenly a new rumor starts circulating that Jesus has been raised from the dead as the “first fruits of the resurrection.” The cult regains its confidence with a new expectation: “Soon all the saints will resurrect!” “Soon Jesus will return in this very generation!” (cf. Mark 13:28-30; 1 John 2:18) tick tock tick tock … “Okay, well maybe we have to wait for a couple new signs, but then he will return!” (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4) tick tock tick tock … And so every generation of Christians has had its expectations reversed and yet believers just keep inventing new ad hoc assumptions to rationalize a worldview that has consistently and repeatedly failed to deliver.”

This part is quite amusing for me since, as an orthodox Preterist, I do hold that Jesus’s coming did take place within a generation! Jesus was right on time! Yet Ferguson’s account relies on possibility after possibility and doesn’t explain more likely options nor does it explain what really happened to the body. Was it eaten by dogs as Crossan says? We’d need an argument for that. Why would Paul and James go for this placebo effect? What did they have to gain from it? This relies on simply psychological history, something that is laden with problems. It’s hard enough to do psychoanalysis when you have the patient right there and can ask him questions. It’s even harder to do it for ancient people.

“Furthermore, thinking that their Messiah had only temporarily suffered, but would soon return in an apocalypse is not even that odd of a new development. Historical Jesus studies have found that Jesus was most likely an apocalyptic prophet teaching that a new “Kingdom of God” would soon come about through divine intervention, but that the righteous for the present would have to endure hardships and wait for their future reward. Sure, if Jesus had been a military Messiah, then faith in him probably would have dissipated following his crucifixion. But Jesus was talking about suffering followed by divine intervention in the first place. Is it really that hard to create an ad hoc assumption that Jesus had only been crucified because of temporary suffering, but that he would be returning soon as the agent carrying out the divine intervention they were awaiting? Not at all. Of course, the divine intervention never happened, but it does explain how belief in the resurrection could emerge through cognitive dissonance, visions, and hallucinations, followed by later legendary developments of a physically resurrected Messiah interacting with his followers.”

Once again, as a Preterist, I say that yes, the divine intervention did happen and is in fact happening. Ferguson reads the Olivet Discourse I suspect the way that a conservative fundamentalist does. You remember them? Those are the people that were condemned earlier. Again, why would this belief have been invented? If anything, it would have most likely been a belief that Jesus would judge Rome as Israel hoped. It would not be that Jesus would judge Jerusalem, the holy city!

And of course, the apostles had nothing to gain from this! They received ostracism and were social pariahs. Paul describes what he had to gain from all of this in 2 Cor. 11. James we know was put to death for what he believed.

In his conclusion, Ferguson says

“The ironic thing about apologetic attempts to “prove” the resurrection is that if god really existed, we would not have to rely on such a fantastical historical quest to prove it. God could just provide miracles today making it clear that he exists and he could tell us that Christianity is the correct religion.”

This is more along the lines of “God must do my work for me.” If Keener is right, God is doing miracles today. Furthermore, much of this has been dealt with in my writing recently on the argument from locality, an argument I find full of problems. See here.

Looking at this from Ferguson, again the question is “Is Ferguson’s worldview shaping the evidence or is the evidence shaping his worldview?” This is an indication that it is the former that is taking place.

Of course, it is not surprising since Ferguson did not even get Habermas’s approach correct. Perhaps he will do better next time.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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