Gary Habermas claims that the resurrection is well evidenced because most scholars accept it. That claim crumbles for many reasons (more here), but let’s move on to consider his larger argument, the minimal facts approach to the resurrection as documented in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas and Mike Licona (2004).
I like the idea. Habermas wants to minimize the number of facts necessary to build his foundation and use only claims granted by “virtually all scholars on the subject, even the skeptical ones.” He thinks four such “facts” are sufficient to show that the resurrection actually happened. (Going forward, I’ll use Habermas as a stand-in for the two authors.)
Let’s see if the argument holds up.
Fact 1: Jesus died by crucifixion. Habermas points to the gospels, which are first-century writings that all report a crucifixion. From outside the Bible, he gives Lucian, Mara Bar Serapion, and the Talmud, but these all appear to be second-century writings and don’t add a lot. An earlier non-Christian source is Josephus, but Josephus’s two references to Jesus appear to have been added or modified by later scribes (more here).
Habermas concludes, prematurely, “Clearly, Jesus’ death by crucifixion is a historical fact supported by considerable evidence.” The story does gradually became widespread, though this was long after the time of Jesus. That doesn’t make it “historical fact.”
Fact 2: The disciples believed that Jesus rose and appeared to them. The disciples went from cowards hiding from the authorities to bold proclaimers of the gospels, even to the point of martyrdom.
Yes, that’s what the story says, but let’s be skeptical about stories. We don’t take at face value the story about Merlin being a shape-shifting wizard. We don’t even unskeptically take the very un-supernatural claim that Arthur was king of England. Why then take elements of the supernatural Jesus story as history, even the natural ones?
In the second place, the “Who would die for a lie?” argument (that the disciples’ deaths is strong evidence) also fails. In brief, the historical evidence for apostles’ martyrdom is weak (more here).
Finally, the claim that the gospels document eyewitness history is also suspect when we don’t even know who wrote them (more here).
The gospel mentions emboldened disciples, but until we have good evidence otherwise, this is a story rather than history. Both “But they were eyewitnesses!” and “But they died for their faith!” are poorly evidenced claims.
Habermas gives Paul as one important source. It is rather incredible that Christianity was so strongly shaped by Paul, someone who wasn’t even a disciple of Jesus. Paul claimed to have known Peter, James, and John and claimed apostolic authority, but some random dude is just going to step in and declare that he’s got it all figured out, and he becomes part of the canon? Paul is authoritative just because he was influential, not because of any irrefutable sign from heaven.
Habermas argues that 1 Corinthians 15:3–5 is an early creed and so is very close to the events it claims to document. But a creed is simply a statement that is taken on faith, not evidence or an argument. His argument that these verses look distinct from the rest of Paul’s epistle could just as easily argue that they were added later. Note also that Paul’s Jesus story reads as mythology and is not grounded in history (more here).
Other authorities are church fathers Clement and Polycarp. Habermas argues that they were taught by the apostles, but his evidence comes from 150 years after the death of Jesus.
The innocence of a child
The credulity of Habermas is a little hard to believe. He says:
[The disciples] denied and abandoned [Jesus], then they hid in fear. Afterward, they willingly endangered themselves by publicly proclaiming the risen Christ (p. 56).
It’s just a story, and an untrustworthy one at that since we have a poor view of the original events (more here). Is this history? Show us.
The apostles died for holding to their own testimony that they had personally seen the risen Jesus. Contemporary martyrs die for what they believe to be true. The disciples of Jesus died for what they knew to be either true or false (p. 59).
Habermas says that what we read is consistent with apostles seeing a risen Jesus, but of course that’s begging the question. Habermas assumes what he’s trying to prove. The honest interpretation is that we just have a story about Jesus and his apostles, and the stories of martyrdom developed decades later. Neither is history.
Here’s a common error that Habermas repeats several times.
If the news spread that several of the original disciples had recanted, we would expect that Christianity would have been dealt a severe blow (p. 60).
This is the Naysayer Hypothesis—the idea that a false story would have crumbled after the corrections of naysayers, those people who knew the truth. Here again, Habermas starts with the assumption that the Jesus story is correct and then wonders what would happen in various situations. This is backwards. Instead, start with the documents that we know exist and see where the evidence points.
I list 10 reasons why the Naysayer Hypothesis is flawed. To give just one, ask yourself why anyone who knew that Jesus was not divine would spend his life stamping out the brush fires of Christian belief throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.
And one final quibble: notice the word “recant” above. The only people I’ve heard who suggest that the disciples deliberately invented the story (and had something to recant) are apologists. I presume that the Paul and the gospel authors honestly believed, just like Christians today.
Since the original disciples were making the claim that Jesus rose from the dead, his resurrection was not the result of myth making. His life story was not embellished over time if the facts can be traced to the original witnesses (p. 60).
And again Habermas starts with an assumption, this time that the gospels come from the disciples’ eyewitness accounts. Habermas acts as if he can’t tell a story from history.
Continue with the remaining two “facts” here.
Our objective is to arrive at
the most plausible explanation of the data.
— Habermas and Licona,
The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p. 83
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 02/19/14.)
Image credit: British American