How Is a Fact Deemed Historical

In our previous article “Introducing the Structure of the Historical Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus” we briefly saw the minimal facts from which historians start to discuss what happened to Jesus after his death and how these same historians try to provide viable explanations in light of these facts.

Lets now see what are the historical criteria by which a fact is determined to be historical or not.

Scholar William Lane Craig at chapter 8 of his popular book “On Guard” provides these six criteria by which a fact is judged to be historical:

1) Historical fit: the reported fact results to be coherent with other well known and attested facts pertaining to the time and place of the context of the event.

2) Independent, early and multiple sources: if a fact is reported by more sources which are independent, that is they arrived independently in attesting the historicity of the fact reported, and if such sources are regarded to have been produced in a proximate time from the fact described, there is a high probability that the fact described is historical

3) Embarrassment: the fact described is something that goes against the overall case of the author reporting the fact. This criterion points to the authenticity of the fact because the only reason why an author would report an embarrassing fact would be that it’s true.

4) Dissimilarity: the reported fact differs from prior Jewish ideas and differs from subsequent Christian ideas.

5) Semitism: the reported fact is expressed through remnants and traces of the Hebrew and Aramaic language.

6) Coherence: the reported fact results to be coherent with other well known and attested facts pertaining to Jesus.

I would like to make two considerations regarding these criteria

1) these criteria are sufficient and not necessary in nature. That is to say that the presence of these criteria can prove the historicity of an event or document, but the absence of these cannot discredit the historicity of what is being examined. For example, the fact that a text doesn’t contain embarrassing details doesn’t mean that such document isn’t historical (it might well be that there weren’t true embarrassing details to report); but if embarrassing details are present we have a reason to assess historicity.
This obviously holds if you have an impartial view of the document examined; if you presuppose the document to be false, these criteria would gain the character of necessity. We assume a person will approach with neutrality a certain document in absence of reasons to do the contrary.

2) These criteria can be used in two ways:

a) They can be used to prove the historicity of a document. For example, they can show the general reliability of the New Testament documents. See for example how N. Geisler and F. Turek in their book “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist” used these criteria to prove the general reliability of the New Testament documents. I am of the idea that if the authorship of a document is established (like it can be done for the NT documents), these criteria, which apply to specific portions of the document (like specific verses), can prove the reliability of the entire document. If, for example, let’s say, Luke was honest enough to report embarrassing details in one instance, we have reason to trust even other parts of the documents which do not contain these embarrassing details (given the fact that the author should have motives of credibility in other instances).

b) They can be used to prove the historicity of a fact. In this case, these criteria are used to prove solely the verses in which they are applied. That is to say that, for example, a specific fact is proved to be historical if found in multiple and independent documents. This approach is used to construct the minimal facts used to prove the Resurrection.
The strength of this approach is that historical elements can be proven in documents which are not necessarily reliable in their entirety.

To conclude, there are other useful and more general devices utilized to verify historicity, reliability and authenticity. Very often these principles are used by popular apologists to prove the general reliability of the New Testament.

7) complementary testimony: a fact unintentionally provides explanations for another event. This proves the historicity of both facts. This reciprocal fittingness of two different reported events is even called an “undesigned coincidence”. See the book “Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts” by Lydia McGrew for more information.

8) demanding testimony: the facts reported are likely to be true given the inconvenience they create. This criterion is used to show how Jesus’ moral teachings are not a creation of the authors of the NT.

9) scrupulous testimony. That is, the testimony is majorly concerned in being accurate in reporting who said what. The best explanation of this attitude is the intention of historical trustworthiness.

10) divergent testimony: When two accounts agree with the central core of what they describe, but differ in the details, we have an indication of independence and hence historical reliability.

11) impartial testimony: He who reports the facts isn’t found with sufficient motives to lie.

12) suffered testimony: he who reports facts endures challenges in reporting them. If they were a fabrication there wouldn’t be an explanation of the persistently claimed true testimony.

13) easily falsifiable reported details: The best explanation of why such details would be included is if they were true.

14) simple, unembellished language in reporting the facts.

Amedeo Da Pra

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