The minimal facts argument contends that the following facts are almost universally agreed by scholars, and even though none of them prove the resurrection of Christ, the best explanation of them is that Jesus was raised from the dead. It does not even need to treat the Bible as inspired or the word of God.
From Gary Habermas:
In the “Minimal Facts Approach,” I will only be using ‘facts’ from the New Testament that can satisfy the following two criteria: 1) they are strongly evidenced and 2) they must be acknowledged by a vast majority of scholars (atheist through conservative).
By strongly evidenced, I mean that they satisfy some or all of the criteria used in textual criticism to establish historical probability. Examples of these criteria are:
1. multiple, independent sources
2. enemy attestation
3. principle of embarrassment
4. eyewitness testimony
5. early testimony
What I am not saying is that these facts prove the resurrection of Jesus historically. What I am saying is that the best explanation of these facts, when combined, is a resurrection of Jesus. 1
Gary Habermas contends that the minimal facts as follows:
- that Jesus died by crucifixion;
- that very soon afterwards, his followers had real experiences that they thought were actual appearances of the risen Jesus;
- that their lives were transformed as a result, even to the point of being willing to die specifically for their faith in the resurrection message;
- that these things were taught very early, soon after the crucifixion;
- that James, Jesus’ unbelieving brother, became a Christian due to his own experience that he thought was the resurrected Christ; and
- that the Christian persecutor Paul (formerly Saul of Tarsus) also became a believer after a similar experience.2
1. That Jesus died by crucifixion
In addition to the New Testament accounts (all four gospels), multiple writers outside the Bible confirmed this fact such as the Roman historian Tacitus around 116 AD:
Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, and the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.3
Bart Ehrman who is well known for his criticisms of the New Testament’s reliability said:
One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate 4
2. That very soon afterwards, his followers had real experiences that they thought were actual appearances of the risen Jesus
From Gary Habermas:
The disciples made the claim that Jesus rose from the dead and that he had appeared to them. The sources of this claim fall into three separate categories. The first is the testimony of Paul and the disciples. The second source is the oral tradition of the early church. The third and last source is the written works of the early church. These three sources are able to historically establish these claims as reliable historical fact. 5
3. That their lives were transformed as a result, even to the point of being willing to die specifically for their faith in the resurrection message
The Jews had no previous belief in a dying or rising Messiah and their beliefs about the afterlife did not include anyone rising from the dead before the general resurrection at the end of the world. Despite this, the disciples did believe in Jesus’ resurrection and died for that new and unprecedented belief. A kind of powerful and transformative experience was necessary to cause such as change.
The Jewish historian Josephus said:
And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him [for he appeared to them alive again at the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him]. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this date. 6
The Roman historian Eusebius of Caesarea said of the quick rise of Christianity:
Thus, then under a celestial influence and co-operation, the doctrine of the Savior, like the rays of the sun, quickly irradiated the whole world. Presently, in accordance with divine prophecy, the sound of His inspired evangelists and apostles had gone throughout the earth, and their words to the ends of the world. Throughout every city and village, like a replenished barn door, churches were rapidly abounding and filled with members from every people 7
Johann Lorenz Mosheim said on the same topic:
When we consider the rapid progress of Christianity among the Gentile nations, and the poor and feeble instruments by which this great and amazing event was immediately effected, we naturally have recourse to an omnipotent and invisible hand, as its true and proper cause. For, unless we suppose here a divine interposition, how was it possible that men, destitue of all human aid, without credit or riches, learning or eloquence, could, in so short a time, persuade a considerable part of mankind to abandon the religion of their ancestors? How was it possible that an handful of apostles, who as fishermen and publicans, must have been contemned by their own nation, and as Jews must have been odious to all others, could engage the learned and mighty, as well as the simple and those of low degree, to forsake their favorite prejudices, and to embrace a new religion which was an enemy to their corrupt passions? 8
4. That these things were taught very early, soon after the crucifixion
It is generally accepted that the following books were genuinely written by Paul:
- 1 and 2 Corinthians
- 1 Thessalonians
Within this list is 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 which says:
3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:
5 And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve:
1 Corinthians is believed to have been written around 55 AD as Paul had visited the Corinthians earlier in 51 AD. The things he “received” from the apostles was the early creed that predates Paul’s conversion. The consensus is that Paul received the story from Peter and the apostles around 35 AD when he was with them in Jerusalem, just a few years after the death of Christ.
5. That James, Jesus’ unbelieving brother, became a Christian due to his own experience that he thought was the resurrected Christ
John 7:5 says: For neither did his brethren believe in him
James, one of Jesus’ brothers is believed to be among the non-believers until he was converted after the appearance of Jesus.
Continuing with 1 Corinthians 15:6-7
6 After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.
7 After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles.
James’s martyrdom is recorded by Josephus, Hegesippus, and Clement (Habermas and Licona 2004, 59).
6. That the Christian persecutor Paul (formerly Saul of Tarsus) also became a believer after a similar experience.
The story of Paul is recorded in the Book of Acts and there are several clues that help establish that the book was written, along with the gospels, within a few decades of Jesus’s death while the apostles were still alive:
- The Book of Acts finishes with Paul under house arrest rather than with his death. Paul is believed to have been killed in AD 64 implying the Book of Acts was completed before AD 64. There is also no mention of Peter’s death in AD 65.
- There is also no mention of the destruction of the temple (AD. 70) in any of the gospels or Acts, even though the prophecy is mentioned in three of the gospels
- The Book of Acts was written after the Gospel of Luke (as mentioned in Acts) – this means that the date of Luke is much earlier than AD 64
- The Book of Luke relies on the content of the Gospel of Mark – meaning that Mark was written even earlier
Interestingly this should be contrasted against the historiography of Alexander the Great, which is quite poor in comparison. 9
The reliability of the New Testament gospels and epistles are greatly contested however, there are certain facts that are generally agreed by New Testament scholars. These facts above are best explained by the hypothesis that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead as opposed to alternative theories to account for these facts.
- Habermas, Gary. Mike Licona. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Kregel Publications: 2004. pg.47.
- Gary Habermas. 2018. Minimal Facts on the Resurrection that Even Skeptics Accept. [ONLINE] Available at: https://ses.edu/minimal-facts-on-the-resurrection-that-even-skeptics-accept. [Accessed 26 February 2018].
- The Annals, XV: 44, written around 116 AD
- Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford University Press: 2011), pp. 261-2.
- Habermas and Licona 2004, 51
- Antiquities 17.3.3., written 81-96 AD
- Eusebius, Eccles. Hist., Book 1, ch. 3
- Mosheim, “Ecclesiastical History,” Cent. 1, Part 1, ch. 4: 8.