Introduction to the Structure of the Historical Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus

So, how is the issue of Jesus’ resurrection approached by modern Christian apologists?

The argument for the Resurrection as normally presented stands on several historical facts that are so well historically attested to be considered by the majority of historians to have occurred beyond a reasonable doubt[1].

These facts are certain episodes concerning Jesus and his followers, like the death of Jesus, his empty tomb and the origin of the Christian belief.
Every serious historian starts with these same facts. To make it simple, every historian concerned with the issue says: “well, having these facts, what is the best interpretation able to explain such events?”.
It is like arriving at a crime scene and trying to elaborate the best theory of what happened using the circumstantial evidence present at the crime scene[2].

So what are these facts which are considered by the majority of historians to have happened beyond a reasonable doubt?
The historian Gary Habermas identifies at least 12 indisputable historical facts regarding Jesus in his book “The Historical Jesus, Ancient Evidence for the life of Jesus”.
But, for the sake of simplicity, the list is often simplified and boiled down to 4 or 5 facts.

New Testament scholar William Lane Craig, for example, uses the following four historical facts to prove the resurrection[3]:

1) Jesus’ burial

2) The discovery of the empty tomb

3) Jesus’ postmortem appearances

4) the origin of the disciples belief in the resurrection.

Biblical scholars Mike Licona and Gary Habermas, in their book “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus” use a similar list of historical facts[4]:

1) Jesus’ crucifixion

2) The empty tomb

3) Jesus’ postmortem appearances

4) The conversion of James

5) The conversion of Paul

Given these facts, what theory can explain these facts? Surely, if Jesus really resurrected the fact that the tomb was empty and that the disciples believed to have seen Jesus is easily explained. But what about theories like: the disciples stole the body, or, somebody similar to Jesus appeared to the disciples, or again, Jesus didn’t die on the cross and escaped from the empty tomb to then fake himself risen etc.
All these theories start form the same data, these 4 or 5 facts which cannot be ignored and have to be explained. The work of the apologist is to show that the Resurrection theory is, among all, the hypothesis that best explains the historical data available.

This way of proving the resurrection of Jesus is called the “minimal fact approach”.
As the expression says, the resurrection is proven through the interpretation of minimal facts, that is the facts that are a) best attested historically and b) that are accepted by the greatest amount of scholars.
We could put it this way: “we Christians are able to prove the resurrection of Jesus even with the historical facts that even the most hardcore atheist historian has to accept!”
As just said, the minimal fact approach selects these minimal facts with two criteria: the most rigorous applications of the criteria of historicity and the large consensus of scholars towards the historicity of these facts.

What has to be said is that truth doesn’t necessarily coincide with consensus, therefore several Christian apologists, like Mike Licona and N.T. Wright in their respective books “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach” and “The Resurrecting Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God”, prove the historicity of multiple other facts which do not necessarily receive a quasi-universal consensus but are shown to fall anyway under events that happened beyond a reasonable doubt. These other facts, which complement the minimal fact approach contribute in proving how the miraculous Resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of the data we have.

To conclude, in this brief article we briefly saw two things: 1) the minimal historical facts concerning Jesus and 2) how scholars try to explain these facts.

In the proximate future articles we will see a) the criteria of historicity used to determine what fact can be considered to have occurred beyond a reasonable doubt and b) the criteria to evaluate the strength of an hypothesis that tries to explain a defined set of facts.

Amedeo Da Pra

[1] Historian Gary Habermas gathered the position of thousands of scholars to identify historical facts which are considered to be virtually unanimously true. To see how he conducted this research view his website http://www.garyhabermas.com/.

 

[2] I advise reading the book “Cold Case Christianity” by W. Wallace, for whoever was interested in studiyng the evidence of Christianity under the approach of a cold case investigator.

 

[3] https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/jesus-of-nazareth/the-resurrection-of-jesus/

Craig uses this same list in both his book “Reasonable Faith” and “On Guard”.

 

[4] See chapter 3 and 4 of the book “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus” by G.Habermas and M. Licona.

 

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