Here is a summary of the “minimal facts” approach: Nearly 100% of historical scholars from 1975 – present agree with the following statements:
- Jesus really lived and was killed on a Roman cross.
- Jesus’ disciples believed He appeared to them.
- Jesus’ brother, James, went from being a pre-crucifixion skeptic to a post-crucifixion church leader.
- The Apostle Paul believed Jesus appeared to him and he wrote most of the books attributed to him, including Romans, I & II Corinthians, Philemon and others.
75% of the same scholars agree that the tomb was empty.
I submit that the physical resurrection of Jesus best accounts for these facts.
I am confident that we can defend the inspiraton and innerancy claims of the Bible, but the discussions are wide and deep and it is easy for them to get off track.
An interesting approach is to consider what the skeptical historians tend to agree on – that is, what elements of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus do the well educated skeptics concede? You can actually build a very strong case starting with those. If nothing else, it helps annihilate the “blind faith” accusations often lobbed against Christians.
When virtually all historians agree on something – believers and skeptics included, we have a term for those views: Facts.
I readily concede that God used the writing styles and experiences of the humans who wrote the Gospels, but I don’t concede that it didn’t turn out exactly as God wanted it to. He is sovereign over his creation and could easily guide the people and circumstances to achieve what He desired.
I think those doctrines are quite defensible but not necessary to share the Gospel. There are several important facts that even skeptical historians will concede, and we can work from there:
- Jesus really lived and then died on a Roman cross.
- The disciples really believed He rose physically (even if the historians don’t believe He rose physically they agree that the disciples believed that He did).
- The Apostle Paul persecuted Christians then converted after claiming to see the risen Christ and wrote at least Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Philipians, Galatians and Philemon, which record key doctrines and traditions at early dates. Paul was originally hostile to the faith and had no reason to believe.
Mike Licona is a New Testament historian, author, and Christian apologist. He is a PhD candidate in New Testament at the University of Pretoria and has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Liberty University. He has a great web page that addresses these in a very accessible way. Here are a couple excerpts. Go read the whole thing. I also put a link in the apologetics section to the right.
1. Jesus’ disciples believed he appeared to them. (% of scholars from 1975-Present who agree: Nearly 100%)
No less than 9 ancient sources from an eyewitness, very early oral traditions dating within 20 years of Jesus’ crucifixion, and several written sources testify that Jesus’ disciples were claiming that he had risen from the dead and appeared to them.
“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.” -Atheist New Testament Scholar Gerd Lüdemann, 1995
2. A few skeptics believed Jesus appeared to them. (% of scholars from 1975-Present who agree: Nearly 100% for Paul; ~90% for James)
Paul experienced an immediate change from a persecutor of the Church to one of its most aggressive advocates. He said the change was because the risen Jesus had appeared to him, and he willingly suffered and died for that belief. (Sources: Paul, Luke, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Tertullian, Dionysius of Corinth, Origen)
Prior to Jesus’ resurrection, the brother of Jesus named James was a skeptic (Sources: Mark, John). An appearance of the risen Jesus to James is reported within 5 years of Jesus’ crucifixion (Source: 1 Corinthians 15:7). James became a leader of the Church in Jerusalem (Sources: Paul, Luke). James willingly died for his belief that Jesus was the Messiah (Sources: Josephus, Hegesippus, Clement of Alexandria).
3. The original disciples were willing to suffer and die for their belief that Jesus rose and attests to the sincerity of their faith, which strongly rules out lies on their part.
Sources: Luke, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius, Dionysius of Corinth, Tertullian, Origen.
4. “All the strictly historical evidence we have is in favor of [the empty tomb], and those scholars who reject it ought to recognize that they do so on some other ground than that of scientific history.”-William Wand, Oxford University, 1972) (% of scholars from 1975-Present who agree: ~75%)
Since Jesus was publicly executed then buried in Jerusalem, it would have been impossible for Christianity to get off the ground there had the body still been in the tomb. His enemies in the Jewish leadership and Roman government would only have had to exhume the corpse and publicly display it for the hoax to have been shattered.
Rather than point to an occupied tomb, the Jewish leadership who had Jesus crucified accused His disciples of stealing the body. This move seems to have been an attempt to account for a missing body, since it is highly unlikely that this claim would have been made if the body had still been in the tomb. (Sources: Matthew, Justin, Tertullian).
When we come to the account of the empty tomb, women are listed as the primary witnesses. This would be an odd invention, since in both Jewish and Roman cultures woman were not esteemed and their testimony was regarded as questionable; certainly not as credible as a man’s. Given the low view of women that existed in the first century, it seems unlikely that the Gospel authors would invent testimonies, place them in the mouths of those who would not be believed by many, and then make them the primary witnesses to the empty tomb. If the Gospel writers had invented the story about the empty tomb, it seems that they would most likely have depicted men discovering its vacancy and being the first to see the risen Jesus.
a. A number of people claimed to have seen Jesus alive after his execution. These were friends and skeptics, individuals and groups.
b. Jesus’ tomb was empty
c. Since these facts are well established historically and are accepted by the majority of scholars, any theory of what happened has to account for all of the facts.
d. Jesus’ resurrection certainly accounts for all of the historical facts. But can any natural explanation (opposed to a supernatural one) explain these facts too?
Psychological phenomena, fraud, legend. [see the web site for refutations of these theories]
The New Testament wasn’t first compiled into a single volume until the middle of the second century. Thus, we have no less than 9 New Testament authors who write about Jesus in the first century. Furthermore, 11 additional early Christian authors, 4 heretical writings, and 7 non-Christian sources make explicit mention of Jesus in their writings within 150 years of his life. This amounts to a minimum of 31 authors, 7 who are non-Christian, who explicitly mention Jesus within 150 years of his life.