When the Jews got mad at Jesus for referring Himself as God, He told them:
“Put aside for a moment what you hear me say about myself and just take the evidence of the actions that are right before your eyes” (John 10:38, Msg).
In effect, He was asking them to put their worldviews on the shelf and look at the facts plainly.
Each year at this time, TV specials and magazine covers come out throwing sideways glances at the resurrection. Some, like the article by Jay Parini on Salon entitled, “What Really Happened?” settle for a more mystical conclusion. There was a resurrection, he believes, but it wasn’t the full, bodily deal the Gospels mention.
Others, like Robert M. Price of the Jesus Seminar, go in the complete opposite direction and cull out all of the miraculous. (Thomas Jefferson was of this stripe 200 years ago when he literally cut out the portions of the Gospels that referenced the supernatural.)
But, as is often the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
The Resurrection is Central to Our Hope
Paul once made an argument for Christianity, and he put Jesus’ bodily resurrection as the central pin, pointing out that if Jesus didn’t rise bodily from the grave, then “we are of all people are most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).
He puts the resurrection at the heart of his message, because, from it all of our hope springs. Jesus paid the way for us on the cross and then paved the way with His resurrection.
The resurrection is not a side issue, or even a secondary issue. It’s a central issue. And so Paul told the Corinthians, go and verify it.
So what happens if we do that today? What will we find if we treat the resurrection like any other historical event? Is it as well-attested as Paul says? Or is it some combination of legend and mysticism?
Gary Habermas, the noted theologian and scholar on the resurrection, along with Mike Licona (associate professor of theology at Houston Baptist University), in their book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, have compiled what they call the minimal facts method to answer this question. By taking only the criteria virtually all scholars who have studied the resurrection agree on, they’ve been able to show that the resurrection not only happened, but that it’s the most likely explanation of the data.
Historical Investigation: the 5 Rules
History, by definition, is gone. We cannot reproduce it. So there are certain guidelines historians follow to determine whether something really happened or not.
The minimum facts method takes these rules into effect.
First, it needs to be reported by multiple sources. A single source could be faking it. But multiple sources give us a better indication something really happened.
Second, it helps when an enemy says it. Your Mom will always tell you you did a good job. But when you hear it from an enemy, it carries a different weight. It’s the same with history.
Third, similar to the second, if it’s embarrassing, it’s easier to believe you’re not making it up. This was a key in the Gospel reports. The news was first reported by women. At the time, in both Jewish and Roman culture, the word of a woman was equivalent to the word of a thief. If they were making up the story, they likely wouldn’t have put it in the mouths of women.
Fourth, eyewitness is better than second-hand. This is kind of obvious. Did you talk to the person who saw the wreck? Or did you see the wreck yourself?
Fifth, in time, the earlier the better. I can tell you what I had for breakfast this morning, but not so much last week this time. And definitely not a year ago. Big, significant events are the same way. Details fade over time.
Not Ignoring the Spirit
Some are uncomfortable with ignoring divine inspiration as a proof or testament. This method is not meant to remove God and His work, but rather to show the skeptic–or any of us, really, who are so far removed from the events–that history bears out the resurrection. It’s meant to show that we can, in fact, rest on this event in the same way that Paul did in 1 Corinthians 15.
The Minimum Facts Method (4+1)
The first four facts virtually all scholars of the resurrection–both Christian and non-Christian–agree on. The last is attested by an impressive majority (3 out of 4). Together they make up the minimum facts method.
Fact 1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion
The certainty that Jesus lived and died by Roman crucifixion is well-attested in historical literature. Josephus, a Jew who defected to Rome, wrote about it. Tacitus, the Roman senator, wrote “[Christ], 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 Pilatus” (Annuls 15.44).
Lucian (a greek writer), Mara Bar-Serapion (a Syriac philosopher), and the Talmud (a collection of Jewish teachings), all mention Jesus’ death.
Fact 2. Jesus’ followers truly believed in the resurrection
Habermas and Licona note “nine early and independent sources” that claim Jesus rose from the dead. Nine might not seem like a lot, but when we consider that there are entire Roman emperors who do not even have that many primary sources (Trajan, to name one, who reigned almost 20 years in the first century), then nine is an abundance.
Beyond claiming it, the followers of Jesus lived it out. And died for it. Habermas and Licona write:
The skeptics might object, “Followers of other religions and causes have willingly suffered and died for their beliefs. Even atheists have willingly died for the cause of communism. This does not mean that their beliefs were true or worthy.” Agreed, but this misses the point: The disciples’ willingness to suffer and die for their beliefs indicates that they certainly regarded those beliefs as true. The case is strong that they did not willfully lie about the appearances of the risen Jesus. Liars make poor martyrs.
Fact 3. Paul’s 180: from persecutor to believer
Paul, the former persecutor of the church, did an about-face. He went from being a workaholic (on the persecution front), to defending (and ultimately becoming a martyr for) the cause he used to hunt down.
What’s most interesting here is his reason for doing it: because he had a personal experience with the risen Jesus.
Fact 4. James, Jesus’ brother: skeptic turned martyr
Like Paul, James was a life-long skeptic. But unlike Paul, James grew up in the same house with Jesus (he was His younger brother). He knew Him all of his life. Yet, it wasn’t until after he saw His resurrected body that he became a believer.
While his conversion is not as dramatic as Paul’s, James rose to become the leader of the Jerusalem church. When Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem to get a ruling on their missionary approach, it was James who gave the final verdict (Acts 15:1-29).
James eventually died a martyr.
Fact 5. the tomb was empty
This point gets a lot of airtime, but its case is really quite solid.
When the disciples began spreading word that Jesus had resurrected, it would have been simple for the Jewish leaders to dig up the body if it were still there. What did they do instead? They made up a story about it being stolen, because the body wasn’t there.
But say He didn’t rise. As I mentioned above, each Christian account mention women first discovering the empty tomb. This called the principle of embarrassment. If they’re lying to get a movements started, this is the exact opposite tact they should have taken. The testimony of women–according to Josephus (Antiquities 4.8.15)–was not even admissible in a court of law. If they’re making up a far-fetched story, it had better be credible.
If, on the other hand, they were reporting–at no hyperbole–the greatest miracle in history, then does it really matter who broke the news?
Pulling it all Together
Taking all this together, we have an extremely strong historical case that Jesus died on a roman cross, and that after He was buried, His body disappeared. But only for a short while.
After a few days, a consistent (and widely attested) set of stories began cropping up: He’s not dead, I’ve seen Him. For all their frustration, His enemies couldn’t disprove the story that was spreading. If they could only get their hands on the body, all would be squelched.
And to add insult to injury, many of those loyal to the Jewish leadership began now claiming they too had seen the resurrected Jesus.
A couple decades later, the argument Paul used on the other side of the Mediterranean was that this resurrection can be verified. Hundred of the originals who saw Him are still alive.
How to Use this Method
This article has been about the secular (or non-inspired) evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. That’s not because inspired Scripture is any less valuable–God’s Word is one of the primary guiding lights for the Christians walk.
Instead, the point of the minimum facts method is to help non-Christians digest one bit at a time. If the resurrection happened, then, perhaps, there’s more that’s true in the Bible.
As the authors of The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus note, when talking about something as central to Christianity as the resurrection, it’s easy to diverge into other issues, like: I don’t trust the Gospels because they are full of errors. This is why the minimum facts method exists.
But, that leaves a pretty important question lingering. Namely, are the Gospels full of errors?
In my next article, I look at that question.
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