I’ve written several articles on Jesus’ resurrection, and I debated a guy named Nathan Reese on The Therefore God Exists Podcast on the topic. You can click here to watch the debate. One problem with the apologetic for Jesus’ resurrection is that there are some misconceptions that believer and unbeliever alike tend to have. I used to have one of these misconceptions myself (i.e the second one). They seem to think certain things need to be established before a meaningful historical investigation can even be done regarding Jesus. Here are the things you don’t need to prove in order to prove Jesus’ resurrection.
You Do Not Need To Prove That The Bible is divinely inspired.
I already pointed this out in “The Minimal Facts Case For Jesus’ Resurrection PART 1” but since this is a so widely held misconception, it’s worth repeating here. When I argue for the 5 minimal facts, I do not quote The Bible in order to prove The Bible. This is something many non-Christians accuse me and other Christian apologists of doing. If I say something like “Jesus’ tomb was most likely empty the following Sunday morning because all 4 gospels describe women as being witnesses of the empty tomb, and therefore it’s likely true given that a woman’s testimony was deemed worthless and inadmissible in a court of law back then. Why would the gospel authors make this up?” the unbeliever often responds “but this is in The Bible. I don’t believe The Bible. Your argument begs the question.”
What they don’t realize is that I’m not appealing to The New Testament as divinely inspired scripture to argue that Jesus’ tomb was empty or the postmortem appearances, what I’m doing is taking the documents of the New Testament and are applying the same “criteria of authenticity” to them to see what historical facts we can affirm about the historical Jesus. Historians use these “criteria of authenticity” all the time in examining historical documents. These tests of authenticity would include things like the principle of embarrassment, the principle of multiple attestation, enemy attestation, early attestation, and so on. When I argue for Jesus’ empty tomb, or for the postmortem appearances, I DO NOT quote the New Testament as scripture and declare that since it’s in The Bible, it must be true. Rather, I presuppose that The New Testament documents are purely human documents for the sake of the argument, I apply the same principles or criteria of authenticity to the text, and when one does that one comes up with certain pieces of data which I think can only make sense in light of the hypothesis: God raised Jesus from the dead.
These pieces of data include (1) Jesus’ death by crucifixion, (2) Jesus’ tomb was empty the following Sunday morning, (3) Jesus’ disciples strongly believed they saw Him alive shortly after His death, (4) James, the brother of Jesus and hardened skeptic of Christianity, converted on the basis of what he perceived as the risen Jesus appearing to him, and (4) the church persecutor Saul Of Tarsus converted to Christianity on the basis of what he perceived as an appearance of the risen Christ.
If you want to know how these principles or criteria of authenticity can establish the 5 facts listed above, go read my blog post titled “The Minimal Facts Case For Jesus’ Resurrection PART 1” in my blog post “The Minimal Facts Case For Jesus’ Resurrection PART 1”, I go into detail how the principles of authenticity show the 5 aforementioned facts to be true. After you read that, if you’re curious to know why I think that only The Resurrection Hypothesis can explain those 5 facts, read “The Minimal Facts Case For Jesus’ Resurrection PART 2”
You Do Not Need To Prove that The Gospels Are Historically Reliable.
Another misconception that people have is that they think that the gospels must be shown to be generally reliable before we can believe what it says about Jesus’ resurrection. Now, don’t get me wrong. I think showing the gospel’s historical reliability is a worth while pursuit, and I certainly think that the gospels (and the book of Acts) are remarkably accurate in the things they describe about the first century Roman-Judeo world, so much so that I can’t bring myself to believe that they weren’t eyewitnesses to the things they’re reporting about. If you want to delve into this subject, some good books to check out would be “The Historical Reliability Of The Gospels” by Craig Blomberg, “The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel” by Craig Blomberg, “The Book Of Acts In The Setting Of Helenistic History” by Colin Hemer, and “I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist” by Frank Turek and Norman Geisler.
However, even though I think it’s a worthwhile pursuit to show that the gospels are historically reliable, I do not think it is required in order to show that Jesus thought that He was God, and that He died on a cross and rose from the dead. The beautiful thing about the criteria of authenticity is that they allow you to extract certain “nuggets” of information about a person or event…even in generally UNreliable documents. Even if a historical document is generally unreliable, you can still extract certain nuggets or kernels of historical information from them by applying the criteria of authenticity.
For example, you could argue “Well, even if Historian-X gets a lot of things wrong elsewhere, we still have good reason to believe he’s telling the truth when he reports on historical event Y because historical event Y is multiply attested in a variety of independent sources, and it’s also embarrassing to Historian-X to even admit such a thing. So by the principle of multiple attestation as well as the principle of embarrassment, we have good reason to believe historical event Y is true.”
As Dr. William Lane Craig writes "Notice that these “criteria” do not presuppose the general reliability of the Gospels. Rather they focus on a particular saying or event and give evidence for thinking that specific element of Jesus’ life to be historical, regardless of the general reliability of the document in which the particular saying or event is reported. These same “criteria” are thus applicable to reports of Jesus found in the apocryphal Gospels, or rabbinical writings, or even the Qur’an. Of course, if the Gospels can be shown to be generally reliable documents, so much the better! But the “criteria” do not depend on any such presupposition. They serve to help spot historical kernels even in the midst of historical chaff. Thus we need not concern ourselves with defending the Gospels’ every claim attributed to Jesus in the gospels; the question will be whether we can establish enough about Jesus to make faith in him reasonable."
What he means by that is that I don’t have to argue “Look, they got this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this correct, so they must be historically reliable. Whew! Now that that’s out of way, let’s talk about the evidence for Jesus’ empty tomb and postmortem appearances, shall we?”
You Do Not Need Prove The Traditional Authorship Of The Gospels
For some reason, every time I try to argue for the 5 minimal facts, the unbeliever always attacks the authorship of the gospels. I mean, like 9 out of 10 times!
As I explain in “The Minimal Facts Case For Jesus’ Resurrection PART 1”, A minimal facts case is using 1: data that have a lot of evidence in favor of them, and 2: They are nearly universally accepted by scholars on the subject, even the skeptical non-Christian scholars. While I believe the traditional authorship meets number 1, it does not meet number 2. That’s okay, it’s irrelevant in proving or disproving the resurrection anyway. Even if the documents were written by other followers of Jesus, or even by some people in the early church, we can still establish the 5 facts necessary for inferring The Resurrection Hypothesis.
For example, we can still know that the original disciples claimed Jesus rose. In Paul's letters, he says they had access to the original disciples and had fellowshipped with them. And I'm sure Peter told Paul whether or not he had seen Jesus when he visited them in Galatians 1:18-19 (which is probably when he received this early creed). And of course, the creedal tradition dates to within 5 years after the death of Jesus, well within the lifetimes of the 12 disciples who could have corrected this oral tradition if He really hadn't appeared to them. Moreover, the early church fathers Tertullian and Irenaeus attest that that the church fathers Polycarp and Clement were students of the apostle John and that they knew several other apostles as well. This is significant because Polycarp and Clement say that the original disciples were claiming that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them. Since they knew and fellowshipped with Jesus’ 12 disciples, they would certainly be in the position to know what the disciples believed.
In all, we have 9 ancient sources that attest to the original disciple's claims to have seen Jesus. And with the 7 independent sources that attest to their martyrdom, we can conclude that they didn’t just merely *claim* that Jesus appeared to them, they really believed it.
Moreover, we can still appeal to the gospels even if their authors are unknown. I can still argue, for example, that the tomb of Jesus was likely empty because a woman’s testimony was worthless, not admissible in a court of law, and this is not something a first century Jew would make up given that it would be putting words in the mouths of witnesses who would not be believed, so that the empty tomb is established on the principle of embarrassment.
So the authorship is just a non-issue when it comes to establishing the minimal facts surrounding Jesus’ resurrection. The authorship of the gospels can be left an open question for later inquiry.