Saturday, February 03, 2018

The Resurrection and the 'Minimal Facts' approach.

James, brother of someone.
I've recently read "The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus" by Gary Habermas and Mike Licona, and discussed that book on a weekly basis with one or two Christians for a few weeks in November last year. The case presented in this book seems to be the best case that Evangelical Christianity has that the resurrection of Jesus was a true, historical event.

I've touched on this subject before (in these blog posts from 2012: 1, 2, 3, & 4), but that was over 5 years ago and I have read much more on the subject since, so it may be worth revisiting my thoughts on the subject now.

The case rests squarely on the shoulders of four or five 'minimal facts', and the discussion goes from there. I guess we need to start by asking what 'facts' are. defines fact as:
  1. something that actually exists; reality; truth
  2. something known to exist or to have happened
  3. a truth known by actual experience or observation
  4. something said to be true or supposed to have happened
This doesn't help us much as the final definition of 'fact' includes the possibility that a fact may, in fact, not be true. To claim that something is a fact, is not necessarily to demonstrate that it is true!

The astounding thing about the 'minimal facts' presented in this argument, is that Habermas and Licona do not, at any point in this book, set out to prove that the minimal facts are, in fact, true facts. There are layers of reasoning and explanation and 'proof' for various things in this book, but they are all based on the assumption that the four (or five) minimal facts are true.

The argument goes like this, if these four (or five) facts are true, then the resurrection appears to be more probable than the alternatives. For the most part I agree with this argument. Where it falls down, of course, are the four (or five) alleged facts.

So what are these 'facts'? Well they are:
  1. Jesus died by crucifixion
  2. After this, his disciples believed that they saw him alive again
  3. Paul, the persecutor of the church, became a Christian following what he believed to be an encounter with the risen Christ
  4. James, the skeptic brother of Jesus, became a Christian following what he believed to be an encounter with the risen Christ
  5. Jesus's tomb was found empty
The last of these is put out of sequence, because this is the least attested 'fact' in there and is not relied upon in the book. Habermas & Licona's case is made using the first four 'facts' and the fifth is simply used as the icing on the cake, as it were.

For Habermas & Licona, these are established as 'facts' because the majority of biblical scholars hold them to be true, irrespective of their personal beliefs. That is, even skeptical and non-believing scholars hold these to be true.

I think that there is a huge selection bias in this. What sort of person becomes a biblical scholar? Only someone raised in a Christian context, who probably began their studies as some flavour of believer. Even if they then abandoned their faith, they most likely started their study of the bible with presumptions that some (at least) of the biblical stories were true and historical.

If you took a thousand Islamic scholars and asked them if Mohammed encountered the angel Gabriel in a cave, I'll bet that the majority think this is historical fact. Just because a majority believe something does not establish it as fact. 

I'll bet if you took all the religious leaders in Judea in 40AD and asked them if Jesus was the son of God, the overwhelming majority would say no he was not. Would that establish the truth? No. So why should a headcount establish historical truth here?

The 'minimal facts' argument is only a valid argument if you can defend the four (or five) facts without an appeal to authority or majority. Habermas and Licona do not do this, so their case is still unproven.

So why don't I believe these supposed facts? Lets take them one by one, starting with the last.

The Empty Tomb

What evidence have we for the empty tomb? Only the gospel accounts, or later texts which are derivative of them. So the empty tomb can only be considered a historical fact if we can accept that the gospels contain historical information. Habermas & Licona don't even attempt to prove that the gospels contain historical information. They simply assume it, noting that some biblical details can be verified from secular historical sources. Then they go further in suggesting that if there is a historical claim in any book in the bible that cannot be verified from secular sources, we should give the bible the benefit of the doubt and take it on trust that the biblical facts are true. Huh? What kind of historian does this? "The Bible" is a collection of 66 books by multiple authors, many of whom are unknown to us. Even if some of those authors included reliable historical facts in their books, this tells us nothing about the reliability of the authors of the other books. If the book of 2 Kings contains historical information, does this imply that the book of Jonah does? Of course not.

So do the gospels contain historical information? Well, certainly there are characters in the gospels who are known to secular history - two Herods, Pilate, and John the Baptist, but that's about it. Aside from the census, recorded only in Luke, there are no historical events in the gospels that can be confirmed using independent sources. Not even the death of Jesus, as we'll see below. So we really have no way of knowing if most of the stories on the gospels have any connection to real historical events.

However, the main problem with the empty tomb is that we would never have heard of it had it not been part of the larger story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is not independent data. Given that, we can't use this as evidence for the 'historical' resurrection of Jesus as it only exists as part of a story that makes this claim. Trying to argue from the empty tomb to the resurrection is like trying to prove that the exhaust ports on the Death Star were badly designed, using the evidence that Luke Skywalker destroyed the Death Star by firing a torpedo into it. The two 'facts' are part of the same story and you can't have one without the other. If one of them is questionable, the other must also be questionable.

There is also no case to be made for multiple attestation within the gospels here, as a couple of centuries of textual criticism have convincingly demonstrated that the account of the crucifixion in Mark is dependent on the Psalms, the accounts in Matthew and Luke are dependent on Mark, and that the account in John is probably dependent on Luke. The crucifixion looks like a literary construct, and the empty tomb forms part of the same (fictive?) story.

It doesn't matter if a whole heap of biblical scholars believe this to be history, I'm not convinced.

The death of Jesus by crucifixion

Let's jump to the first (and least contested) of the minimal facts next; Jesus death by crucifixion. Pretty much everyone accepts this as true, right? Indeed, but it suffers from the same problems as the empty tomb - there are no stories of the death of Jesus that don't go on to involve the resurrection. All accounts of the death of Jesus are followed by major miracle claims, and claims that Jesus is or was divine. You really can't separate one from the other. If the stories of Jesus dying on the cross are taken as facts written by reliable historians, then the resurrection is also a fact written by a reliable historian! You can't assume one to be a fact of history, and the other to be questionable. If the resurrection is questionable, then Jesus death by crucifixion is just as questionable. If one is fact, the other should be assumed to be fact. We have no independent data about one that does not also concern the other!

All secular references to the death of Jesus are entirely dependent on the stories told by believing Christians. And as far as we can tell, the earliest believers believed that he was raised just as much as they believed that he died. If they were wrong about one, they could equally be wrong about the other. The observation that one story is miraculous and the other non-miraculous is irrelevant here. In a story containing many unbelievable and impossible events, we can't simply take all the mundane and possible events as probably true.

To establish that Jesus died by crucifixion we would need an account of his life and death that did not feature miracles and did not feature any resurrection claims. As far as I know, no such evidence exists. Literally everything we know about the life and death of Jesus comes to us from the accounts of those who fundamentally believed that he had triumphed over death and had risen. If they were wrong about that, what else were they wrong about?

The conversion of James

I'm even less convinced by this claim than by the empty tomb, even though more biblical scholars are apparently convinced by it. The problem with this 'fact' is that it is not part of the biblical story, even if it is apparently derived from there. I wrote so much on this 'fact' that I decided to make it a separate blog post in its own right, which you can read here. Suffice it to say that I very much doubt the 'fact' of the conversion of James from skeptic to church leader.

The conversion of Paul

This is probably the strongest of the five minimal facts. Most people, even those who doubt the existence of Jesus, believe that there was a guy called Paul in the 1st century, who wrote epistles. That guy claimed, in those letters, to have been a persecutor of the early Christians, and that he had a transformative experience of the risen Christ, becoming an apostle and firm believer in the resurrection.

I read Hermann Detering's book "The Fabricated Paul" a few years ago (indeed, I have an unpublished, half written blog post about it, which may surface eventually, although considering it has been half written since 2013, it may never see the light of day). In this book, Detering makes the case that none of the epistles attributed to Paul were actually written by anyone called Paul. While I'm not entirely convinced by Detering's argument (he makes an excellent case that several of the epistles were written by different authors from each other, but can't really prove that none of them was authentic), I do accept that some of the other epistles were definitely not written by the guy who wrote 1 Corinthians. I'm currently working through Robert M. Price's "The amazing colossal apostle", which makes much the same case, but goes one step further than Detering in claiming that there was no Paul at all. I'll possibly offer some thoughts on that once I get to the end of it.

While both the above books possibly go further than I am willing to go, I am convinced that some of the epistles by 'Paul' were written by others (later) in the name of Paul. That is, some of the epistles are forgeries and pseudepigraphal. That probably entails that some of the historical or biographical 'facts' in some of the epistles are fictional or, certainly, were related by persons who were not there and did not witness any of the events claimed.

Given that, it is tricky to piece together a coherent picture of what the 'real' Paul did, said, experienced, wrote, etc. Even if we take the epistles as all being authentic, it is quite hard to piece together a biography of the letter writer. In what way did he persecute the church? This is unclear. When did he do this? Also unclear. What made his stop the persecution? Fairly unclear. To iron out the uncertainties in the life of Paul, most folk turn to the Acts of the Apostles and find his story there. But there are good reasons not to take Acts as a reliable history. For one thing, it actually contradicts things said in the name of Paul in the epistles. For another thing, it presents Paul and Peter as basically having parallel lives - for every miracle Paul experiences, Peter has an identical experience; their preaching is virtually indistinguishable from each other; they say the same things and do the same things. This is not history, this is someone trying to level the playing-field by demonstrating that these two characters are equal. The Acts seminar's primary conclusion was that the book of Acts was a 2nd century fiction, containing virtually no historical data. If they're right about that, then we really know nothing about Paul's 'pre-conversion' life and persecution of the church, and we hardly know anything about his 'conversion' or 'post-conversion' life either.

Was Paul transformed from anti-Christian-persecutor to believing-Christian-apostle through a visionary experience? Maybe. Is there any link we can make between this experience and the real historical Jesus guy who may have died on a cross a few years earlier? Nope.

So what we are left with is a claim of the conversion of someone from one religion to another. That happens all the time, and in no way provides evidence for the truth of the religion that the person ends up believing in.

The resurrection appearances

Finally we get to this one. I find that this is where Habermas and Licona, and others using this argument completely over-state their case to the point of absurdity. The claim is that all the disciples experienced resurrection appearances.

Really? Well, the gospels and Acts chapter 1 have the disciples encountering the risen Jesus. But none of these writings are first-person claims. As far as I know, we have no writings from Andrew, or Thomas, or James son of Alphaeus, or Thaddeus, or Phillip, or whoever relating their alleged experiences. Of course, Paul does, but he never saw Jesus during his lifetime, so he has nothing to confirm that his vision in any way relates to the real Jesus.

We have a few letters claiming to be written by Peter. None of them relate any post-resurrection experiences. They are far more concerned to claim that the author saw Jesus when he was alive the first time. So that doesn't help us. And of course, the authenticity of these letters is debated, so we really have no data supporting the claim that the author of these letters actually had a post-resurrection experience of Jesus.

Once again, the 'fact' of the resurrection appearances really turns out to be simply an unverifiable claim of early Christians which has been repeated many, many times over the past two thousand years.

We don't know what the 'original' disciples experienced, because they did not tell us. And the stories relating what they apparently did experience (and the stories of their subsequent lives, ministries and martyrdoms) are at best second or third had accounts, and quite possibly works of fiction.

In conclusion

So there you have it, for me, none of the five 'minimal facts' stands up to scrutiny. They are all just unverifiable claims, most of which rely on a particularly orthodox reading of the source documents. I'm not sure any of the "facts" approach the standard of 'balance of probability' let alone 'beyond reasonable doubt', so these claims do not prove that the resurrection happened.

Christianity, to be proven true, needs better evidence. I've been looking for it for years and still can't find it.


Edward T. Babinski said...

We ask many of the same questions

Ron Price said...

From a historian's point of view the claim that Jesus was crucified is quite different from the claim that he rose from the dead. The former is entirely plausible. The latter, taken literally, is utterly implausible.

The crucifixion of Jesus, first attested in 1 Corinthians, is one of those entirely plausible events. Paul appreciated that it was a hindrance to his preaching (1 Cor 1:23). No one who wanted to be at peace with the Roman authorities (c.f. Rom 13:1-7) would invent a hero who suffered martyrdom at the hands of those authorities. Paul had stayed for a couple of weeks with Peter (Gal 1:18), who was one of the original followers of Jesus. Therefore Paul would have found out the truth about the crucifixion.

Ricky Carvel said...

The writings of Paul are another source in which the crucifixion of Jesus is really only discussed as part of the preamble to the resurrection. Had Paul not believed in the resurrection, he would never have written about the crucifixion.

I can't accept any methodology that takes an ancient writing and says events A, B and C in here are historically plausible, so unless further information presents itself we will assume that these events happened, whilst at the same time looking at events D, E and F, and saying these are historically implausible, so unless further evidence presents itself, we will assume these events probably didn't happen. Especially when the plausible events A, B and C are then used as 'evidence' to demonstrate the plausibility of D, E and F. Why not use the obvious unreality of D, E and F to 'prove' the unreliability of A, B and C?

Having read Richard Carrier's magnum opus on this, I am convinced that it is at least plausible that Paul only wrote and preached about a heavenly crucifixion of Christ, and a heavenly resurrection. We don't have any information about what Paul and Peter talked about during that meeting in Jerusalem, but if both believed only in a heavenly Christ, then that probably was what they discussed, you cant infer what Paul 'found out' from Peter on the basis of the information we have.

Jacob Yule said...

On the subject of questionable facts, you state, "there are no stories of the death of Jesus that don't go on to involve the resurrection." I don't believe this to be true. There are a number of references in the first two centuries to Jesus's crucifixion, most notably Tacitus. I accept the possibility, indeed very strong probability, that some of these documents were subject to later Christian interpolation, but others have strong consensus from scholars as to their integrity. Of course, your Saint Richard (Carrier) places himself outside this consensus, but that doesn't make your 'fact' more than an assertion. And that strikes me as a bit ironic in the context.

Ricky Carvel said...

Jacob, with apologies for the very delayed publishing and commenting on your comment...

I stand by my earlier statement. Tacitus says "Christus, 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". This tells us nothing about the death of Jesus which is independent of the stories told by Christians. There is no story of Jesus here, other than that he started a group who went on to be a hated minority.

Unlike Carrier (not a saint), I see no reason to suspect that this is an interpolation. This is a garbled version of the story that would be told by Christians themselves, a generation or two after the alleged time of Jesus, and also half a world away, geographically.