The Minimal Facts Case For Jesus’ Resurrection PART 1





What historical evidence is there for the resurrection of Jesus? I think there is an abundance of historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. First off, let me briefly explain the approach I’m going to take so that the viewers will understand what I’m doing. I’m going to be using what’s called a Minimal Facts approach. The Minimal Facts are only using data that have a lot of evidence for them, and nearly universally accepted by scholars who study the subject, even skeptical non-Christian scholars.

Secondly, while I will be appealing to some of the New Testament documents in my argument for the resurrection, I’m not quoting from The Bible to prove The Bible. I want to make that absolutely clear. I am not quoting from The Bible to prove The Bible. Instead, I’m merely treating the New Testament documents are merely a set of ancient documents that claim to be able to tell us things about Jesus. I will think appeal various “Tests Of Authenticity” to the text. These historical “Tests” are what historians use when examining secular, non-biblical documents. Like the principle of multiple attestation, the principle of embarrassment, the principle of enemy attestation, the principle of dissimilarity etc. etc. In fact, skeptical non-Christians scholars use these principles when examining the New Testament documents and have come to the same conclusions I’m about to argue for. So before you say that I'm appealing to The Bible to prove The Bible, let me just say that I am not. I’m not arguing that “It’s in The Bible so it must be true!” No, no.  I am not appealing to the New Testament Gospels and epistles as a divinely inspired scripture. Rather, I'm taking the documents of the New Testament and are applying the same historical principles of testing that historians use in examining other, non-biblical documents. It should be said though I will look at extra biblical evidence in addition to the New Testament documents.

Now, onto the evidence. What are the minimal facts that need to be explained?

Number 1: Jesus Died By Crucifixion.
Number 2: His Tomb Was Found Empty The Following Sunday Morning
Number 3 : His 12 Disciples believed they saw Him alive after Jesus’ Death
Number 4: The Church Persecutor Paul Converted Based On What He Believed Was An Appearance Of The Risen Jesus.
Number 5: The Skeptic James Converted Based On What He Believed Was An Appearance Of The Risen Jesus.

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First, How Do We Know Jesus Died By Crucifixion?

We know this fact is true because it is mentioned in the writings of Josephus, Tacitus, Mara Bar Sarapion, Lucian Of Samosata’s writings, Paul’s epistles, and the 4 gospels. Because it’s mentioned in all of these sources which don’t rely upon one another. It is therefore multiply attested. Josephus tells us in his “Antiquities Of The Jews” that Jesus died by crucifixion at the hands of Pontius Pilate because the Sanhedrin pestered him to do so. Tacitus writes “Christus…was put to death by Pontius Pilate; procurator of Judea during the reign of Tiberius”. Mara Bar Sarapian, writing to his son from prison states “What did the Jews gain from murdering their wise king? It was after that that their kingdom was abolished.” Lucian was a second century Greek satirist. In one of his works, he wrote of the early Christians as follows: “The Christians . . . worship a man to this day--the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. . .”

So Jesus’ death by crucifixion is multiply attested in a minimum of 7 sources. 4 of them secular in nature. Why is this important? Because when historians are examining historical documents and are trying to figure out whether what they say is true, one of the principles they employ is called the principle of multiple attestation. What that means is that the more independent sources you find an event mentioned in, the more and more likely it is to be historical. So if you find an event mentioned in two independent sources, it’s likely to be historical. If you find it in 3 independent documents. It’s very likely to be historical. If it’s found in 4 independent sources, it’s very, very, very likely to be historical. The logic behind this is that the more sources an event is mentioned in, the less and less likely it becomes that ALL of these people independently fabricated the same fiction. With the crucifixion of Jesus, we have His death mentioned in 7 independent sources. What are the odds that all of these people would write the same fiction and treat is as history.

So, Jesus’ death by crucifixion is a historical fact. In fact, John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar said “That Jesus died  by crucifixion is as historical as anything can be.”

How Do We Know Jesus’ Tomb Was Empty?

1: THE JERUSALEM FACTOR

If the religious leaders who had Jesus killed, and the Romans, or anybody really wanted to stomp out the Christian movement, all they would have had to do was go town to Jesus’ tomb, pluck the body out of the tomb and parade it down the streets for all to see. Everyone who gazed upon the body of Jesus as they were parading it down the street would have been persuaded that Christianity was false. If they did that, Christianity would have died out before it even got off the ground. In other words, we would not be here having this debate.

However, Christianity is still alive today. It’s still a dominate religion in the United States. Therefore, I conclude that the enemies of Christitanity (such as the Pharisees, The Romans, etc.) did not take Jesus’ body out of the tomb and show it to everyone. Why? Very likely because Jesus’ body wasn’t even there to be taken out.

If Jesus’ body were still in the tomb, they definitely would have paraded Jesus’ body down the street to disprove the resurrection. But even if they didn’t, anyone even the slightest bit skeptical of the disciples’ claims could have gone down to the tomb, rolled back the stone with the help of a few other buddies…in order to see whether Jesus’ body was still there. And those who know me know how I hate blind faith. If I were in Jerusalem in the first century, and a bunch of guys came to me and told me that a guy had risen from the dead, that’s the first thing I would have done. 

2: WOMEN AS WITNESSES

Another piece of evidence for the empty tomb is that all four gospel accounts feature women who discovered the tomb empty. In patriarchal Jewish society the testimony of women was considered as practically worthless! In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus says that women weren’t even permitted to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court of law. Now in light of this fact, how remarkable it is that it is women who are the discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb. If the writers felt free to play loose with the facts, they would certainly have made male disciples like Peter and John discover the empty tomb. The fact that it is women, rather than men, who are the discoverers of the empty tomb is best explained by the fact that, like or not, they WERE the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb, and the Gospel writers faithfully recorded what was, for them, a rather awkward and embarrassing fact.

Thus, we have certainty that the tomb of Jesus was empty by the principle of embarrassment. The principle of embarrassment says that if something is mentioned in history that is either embarrassing to the author or has potential for hurting the case they’re trying to make, we have more certainty that it’s historical than we would have without it. The logic behind this comes from the fact that people don’t usually make up embarrassing details about themselves, and usually don’t admit them even if they’re true! People also don’t make up details about a lie that appear implausible if they’re trying to make that lie seem believable. Due to the fact that women were regarded as worthless witnesses, the disciples would likely make themselves seem less credible by adding this tidbit about the women if they were just making up the resurrection story. That would be to put words in the mouths of witnesses who would not likely be believed.

3: THE ENEMIES OF CHRISTIANITY TRIED TO EXPLAIN AWAY THE EMPTY TOMB

The third piece of evidence for empty tomb is that even the enemies of Christianity admitted it, albeit implicitly. What was the earliest Jewish polemic against the resurrection? That “these men are full of new wine”? That “Jesus’ body still lay in the tomb”? No. They said that “the disciples came and stole away his body”. Now think about that for a moment. “The disciples came and stole away his body”. This is mentioned near the end of Matthews Gospel (chapter 28) and is an implicit admission that the tomb of Jesus was empty. This is powerful evidence due to a historian’s principle known as The Principle Of Enemy Attestation.

Now, you might be wondering why we should view this a good evidence for the empty tomb, since it’s comes from Matthew’s gospel and not directly from the Jewish leadership themselves. It’s not like it’s coming out of a book written by Caiaphas where he writes “The tomb was empty because the disciples took his body” or anything. Couldn’t Matthew have made this up simply to make the empty tomb story seem more credible? Well, no. I don’t think so. Why is that?

First, Matthew reports that the Jewish leadership were spreading around this story “TO THIS DAY”. “To this day”. (Matthew 28:15). Now what does “to this day” mean? Matthew means that the Jews were spreading the Stolen Body Theory around the community even during the very time period that Matthew was writing his gospel! If the Jewish leadership were not spreading this story around, Matthew would open himself up to ridicule and discredit. People could easily point out Matthew as being a liar in this particular point of his story. Especially since it involves the Jewish Leadership, if they weren’t spreading a Stolen Body Theory around, they could point Matthew out as being a liar. It’s unlikely Matthew would open himself up to such easy falsifiability. Therefore, it’s likely that they really were spreading this story around.

Moreover, what motive would Matthew have to make up this story anyway? Matthew is essentially bringing up an objection to the resurrection in his text. If nobody was claiming that they stole the body, why would Matthew say that they were? This would be answering an accusation that nobody made. If you one day discovered that your car was missing from your front yard, and you said outloud “Oh no! My car is gone! What happened to it!?” And your friend answered by saying “I don’t know what happened to your car. But it’s not like I stole it or anything!” That, in itself, would make your friend look very suspicious…since he’d be answering an accusation nobody made of him. You’d look at him funny and say “Uhh…I never said you stole my car. Wait, is there something you’re not telling me?” Likewise, for Matthew to try to say “The body of Jesus is gone! But it’s not like we stole it or anything!” would make himself look suspicious since he’d be answering an accusation nobody brought up. So it makes more sense to think they really were saying this.

Finally, the most powerful evidence for this is that it’s multiply attested. For not only does Matthew say that the Jews were saying this, but Justin Martyr in the second century says that the Jews were saying this in his “Dialogue With Trypho”, and Tertullian says the Jews were saying this in the third century. Therefore, it’s multiply attested. Evidentally, this was the earliest response to the proclamation “He Is Risen” and it persisted throughout the second and third centuries.

How Do We Know The Disciples Saw Jesus Alive After His Death?

Now, onto the most important evidence for the resurrection. It’s the most important because an empty tomb by itself proves little. The most powerful evidence for the resurrection is the postmortem appearances of Jesus.

Our best evidence comes from an early creed mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, recited by the Apostle Paul. Paul writes “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

Most scholars (even the non-Christian ones) date this creed to within 5 years of Jesus’ death. But, how do we know it’s a creed? We know it’s a creed for at least 4 reasons.

1: Paul Alerts Us That He’s Not Writing In His Own Hand. Paul alerts us that he’s not writing in his own hand here. He writes “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance” Paul says essentially “I received this information from someone else, now I’m going to pass it onto you.” So he’s outright telling us that the information he’s about to cite is information that he himself received and is about to pass on to his readers. Moreover, “received” and “passed on” was typical technical rabbinic language. Whenever a rabbi was passing on this tradition, he would use these terms.

2: The Language In verses 3-7 are Non-Pauline. According to most scholars, the language Paul uses here in this portion of the text is not characteristic of Paul. The grammatical style and word usage is unique here.

3: Paralellism Is Apparent In The Text. Paralellism is a type of writing that was found in ancient Greek poetry and other oral traditions. The style goes that the first line would be very long, followed by a short line. The third sentence would be very long (just like the first one), and then the next verse would be very short. We see this in 1 Corinthians 15.

Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,” (long)
“and that He was buried” (short)
and that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (long)
and that He appeared…” (short)

4: Repeated use of the phrase “and that”.

So clearly, this is an ancient creed used by the early church. It predates Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church (which most scholars date to about A.D 55). Now the question is, how much earlier? Well, Paul says “For what I received, I DELIVERED to you…” He says “I delivered to you”. He’s using the past tense. In other words, Paul is saying that the information he’s about to give the Corinthians is information he’s already given them. So Paul recited this creed to them during his first visit. But I think we can date it even earlier. In fact, to within 5 years of Jesus’ death. How so? Because in Galatians 1, Paul is describing his conversion from skepticism. He describes how he persecuted the church (verses 13-14) that God revealed his son to him (verses 15-16), and then he went away into Arabia and then went to Damascus (verse 17). Paul then writes “Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days.I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.” A good many non-Christian scholars think that this is probably when Paul received this creed. Three years after his conversion.

Notice then, that the resurrection claims can be traced to the eyewitnesses themselves. Paul conversed with Peter and James who in turned gave them this creed that included themselves as the risen Jesus. Moreover, this creed is so early that the resurrection cannot be written off as a mere legend. This is absolutely within the lifetimes of all of the eyewitnesses who could have come forward if this creed included false information about them. Peter, or James, or any of the 12 disciples, could have called Paul out as a liar if they didn’t think they saw Jesus. But they probably wouldn’t if they’re the ones who gave Paul the creed to begin with (as the evidence seems to suggest).

These people must have seen Jesus. Why? Because if the people who originated this creed were simply making up these appearances, then the church to whom Paul is writing to could go question these witnesses, and if they really hadn’t seen Jesus, then Paul would have been seen as a liar. In fact, they argue that this is precisely why he says that "Many of whom are still alive, but some have fallen asleep". It’s almost as if Paul is challenging his readers to go to these people he just listed…in order to interview them. He’s like “Don’t believe me? Go check it out for yourselves!”

The appearances to the disciples is also multiply attested. Mentioned not only in this early creedal tradition, but also mentioned in all 4 gospels.

Even atheist scholar Gerd Ludemann has said “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which he appeared to them as the risen Christ” -- For a historian, and skeptic, no less, to say that something is historically certain speaks volumes about the evidence for that aspect of history. 

“That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.” (atheist E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, pg 280)

“That the experiences did occur, even if they are explained in purely natural terms, is a fact upon which both believer and unbeliever can agree.” (atheist Reginald H. Fuller, Foundations of New Testament Christology, 142)

The Conversion Of The Church Persecutor Paul

Probably one of the more profound of the appearances is that of Paul. We have excellent historical evidence that Paul was a persecutor of the early Christian church, but became a Christian evangelist who suffered greatly and on an ongoing basis because of his Christian faith, and ended up being martyred for the sake of the gospel.

How do we know Paul was a persecutor? We know this based on two of the historians principles; the principle of embarrassment, and the principle of multiple attestation.

First off, Paul mentions in his letter to the Corinthian church, his letter to the Galatian church, and his letter to the Philippian church, that he was a persecutor of the Christian church. From Paul’s own pen he tells us that he killed some Christians and had others imprisoned. We know Paul is telling the truth based on the principle of embarrassment. If you’re writing a letter to someone, are you just going to conjure up lies about how you killed innocent people? I don’t think so. Even if you did kill innocent people, you most likely wouldn’t own up to it. But you especially wouldn’t mention it if it were not true. There’s just no way that Paul would say something so shameful and disturbing about himself if it were not true. No one makes up the fact that they killed innocent people. In fact, people often times don’t admit that even if it’s true. But they especially don’t mention it if it’s not true. Based on the principle of embarrassment, I’m highly inclined to believe that Paul was telling the truth when he said that he was a persecutor of the church.

We also know he persecuted the church based on the principle of multiple attestation. Not only does Paul say he was an enemy of Christians, but Luke mentions it as well in the book of Acts. Paul and Luke are independent sources of one another, and therefore, there is multiple attestation of it.

So we’ve established using the historian’s craft that Paul was a persecutor of the church. We know also that Paul became a Christian evangelist and suffered horribly for the gospel, and eventually was killed for it. Paul himself lists some of his sufferings for the sake of the gospels, but Luke records some of Paul’s sufferings as well in the book of Acts. Again, Paul and Luke are independent of one another, and therefore, there is multiple attestation.

Paul’s martyrdom is mentioned by several of the early church fathers. Tertullian, who wrote just before A.D 200, reports the martyred deaths of Peter and Paul. Clement of Rome also reports the martyred deaths of Peter and Paul. Polycarp mentions Paul’s martyrdom. Origen also mentions the martyrdom of Paul, and so does Dionysis of Corthinth. In all, we have 7 independent sources that attest to the suffering and martyrdom of Paul. Therefore, Paul’s suffering and martyrdom is multiply attested, and therefore, very, very likely to be a historical fact.

Now, given that we’ve established that Paul was a persecutor based on the historian’s principle of embarrassment and the principle of multiple attestation, and we’ve established based on multiple attestation that Paul converted to Christianity and suffered and died because of it, how do we account for his? How do we account for Paul’s radical, sudden change from Christian Destroyer to Christian Leader? From someone who caused martyrs deaths to someone who died a martyr’s death himself? I can think of no other explanation than the one Paul himself gave, “Then he appeared to me also, as to one untimely born.” (1 Corinthians 15:8)

The Conversion Of The Skeptic James

The Gospels tell us that Jesus had several siblings. Jesus’ siblings included James, Jude, Simon, plus some sisters whose names are never given. James and his other brothers, we are told, were not believers during Jesus’ lifetime.

How do we know this? How can the historical “tests of authenticity” or “historical principles” help us out here? We know that Jesus’ brother James was a skeptic based on the principle of embarrassment. It was embarrassing for a rabbi’s family to not accept him back in those days. It was embarrassing for a rabbi’s family to be opposed to him in some way or another back in those days. So this isn’t very flattering for Jesus. But it gets worse! Jesus’ family thinks he’s crazy! In fact, in one instance, they come to cease him and take him home! This doesn’t paint Jesus or His family in a very good light, given the stigmatism back then. Therefore, it’s highly unlikely that the gospel writers would have invented skepticism on the part of Jesus’ brother James.

In fact, we have one fairly vicious story where the brothers of Jesus try to goad Him into a death trap by showing himself publicly at a feast when they knew that the Jewish leaders were trying to persecute and kill him (this is in John 7).

Moreover, we can affirm that James was a skeptic on the basis of multiple attestation. For not only does Mark mention it (chapter 3), but John mentions it as well (chapter 7). Mark and John are independent sources and therefore, James’ skepticism is multiply attested. So, we’ve established that James was a skeptic.

Yet we know also that later in the early church James; the brother of Jesus emerges as one of the pillars of the New Testament church and one of the leaders of the church. This is mentioned in both the book of Acts as well as by Paul in his letter to the Galatians. Again, Paul and Luke are independently reporting about this. Thus, We know James became a leader in the early church based on the principle of multiple attestation.

In spite of Jame’s skepticism, we have the testimony of Flavius Josephus, Hegesippus, and Clement Of Alexandria that James was martyred for his belief in his brother as the risen Christ. Now, how is this to be explained? 1 Corinthians 15 tells us that Jesus appeared to him or at least that James had some kind of experience that made James think that Jesus appeared to him. I think this is the best explanation for why James would be skeptical of his brother initially and then became a follower soon after his death.

Reginald H. Fuller who was a fairly liberal New Testament critic says “Even if there were not an appearance to James mentioned by Paul, we should have to invent one to explain the transformation that occurred in James between the time of his unbelieving days when Jesus was alive and his time of leadership in the early church”

Most of us have brothers. What would it take to make you believe that your brother is The Lord such that you would be willing to go to your death for this belief as James did when he was martyred by the Jewish Sanhedrin for his belief that Jesus was in fact the risen Lord? James’ martyrdom is multiply attested by Flavius Josephus, Hegesippus, and Clement Of Alexandria.


What Can We Draw From This?
In summary, we have 5 facts surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus.

In his book “Justifying Historical Descriptions”, CB McCullagh lists six steps which historians use for giving historical facts. They are explanatory scope, explanatory power, plausibility, not being ad hoc/contrived, being in accord of accepted beliefs, and outstripping its’ rival theories. The hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead passes all of these tests.

Explanatory Scope: It explains why the tomb was empty, why hundreds of people had experiences of seeing Jesus alive after His death, and it also explains the conversion of the church persecutor Saul Of Tarsus (i.e Paul). It also explains the conversion of the skeptic James.

Explanatory Power: It explains why the body of Jesus was gone, why people repeatedly saw Jesus alive, despite his earlier death on a Roman cross.

Plausibility: Given the historical context of Jesus’ life and claims, the resurrection is a confirmation of those claims.

Ad Hoc: For a theory to be ad hoc means that it requires the creation of several other theories to save itself from being falsified. Someone who is caught in a lie and then fabricates new lies to preserve the original lie is acting in an ad hoc manner. But the resurrection hypothesis is not that kind of explanation. It only requires the following statement to be true: it is possible that God exists. In fact, I think the resurrection hypothesis is evidence for God’s existence in itself.

In accord with accepted beliefs: I can hear the voice of the skeptic now screaming “People who die stay dead, stupid! Science has proven that dead people don’t come back to life!” But this is not a valid objection. The hypothesis isn’t that Jesus rose from the dead by natural causes, but that God raised Jesus from the dead via a miracle. This in no way conflicts with the accepted belief that people cannot and do not rise from the dead, naturally.

Outstripping Rival Theories: Through history, various rival hypothesis have arisen, for example, The Stolen Body Theory, The Swoon Theory, The Hallucination Theory, etc. etc. etc. Such hypotheses are refuted in this blog post here. All of the so-called naturalistic theories fail to address all 5 of the above historical facts. Only the resurrection hypothesis succeeds in explanatory power and scope, and should therefore be preferred.