Part 5 Five historical facts

In constructing a case for Jesus’ resurrection, it’s important to distinguish between the evidence and the best explanation of that evidence. This distinction is crucial because in this case the evidence is relatively uncontroversial; it’s agreed to by most scholars. On the other hand, the explanation of that evidence is controversial. My conclusion, that the resurrection is the best explanation, certainly is at the heart of the controversy.

However, first I would like to make my case by stating 5 historical facts accepted by the majority of scholars; both liberal and conservative scholars. To establish the facts I will use as many relevant resources as I can.  I will use the Bible, the writings of Roman historians, and some of the writings of the early church fathers.  I will give the greatest historical weight to reports that are early, eyewitnesses, enemy, embarrassing, and corroborated by others.

When I say embarrassing I mean if the account was fictional, the writers would have never included such an event.  An example of embarrassment is to make a fool out of Peter, the brave leader of the disciples.  In the Gospels we read that under pressure and fearing for his life, during the trial of Jesus just before he was crucified, Peter denied knowing who Jesus was; in fact he did it 3 times.  Peter, the powerful disciple of Jesus, is shown to be a coward at the time of Jesus’ arrest and greatest need.  Peter later redeems himself, lives a courageous life, and eventually is crucified upside down for his belief in Jesus.  However, the Bible doesn’t pull any punches in showing at the trial of Jesus, Peter was a coward!  There are many embarrassing moments in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts so many so, that historians say this is evidence for the historical accuracy of the Bible or at least these books.

Some have accused the Biblical writers of being biased in their reporting.  The truth is all writers have some sort of bias when they write.  What skeptics are really saying, when them make this accusation, is anyone who is biased cannot write an accurate historical account.  Does that mean a holocaust survivor cannot write an accurate account of the mistreatment of the Jews?  The answer of course is NO!  What has to happen is the writer has to minimize their bias because he or she cannot eliminate them.  To guard against biased accounts, two things need to happen; first, the facts must have strong historical evidence to support them and second, the vast majority of today’s scholars on the subject, including skeptical ones, need to accept them as historical facts.

A Dr. Gary Habermas compiled a list of more than 2,200 sources in French, German, and English in which experts have written on the resurrection from 1975 to now.  He has identified minimal facts that are strongly evidenced and which are regarded as historical by the large majority of scholars, including skeptics[1].

Here are the 5 minimal facts from the writings of Dr. Gary Habermas:

  • Fact #1: Jesus was killed by crucifixion
  • Fact #2: Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them
  • Fact #3: The conversion of the church persecutor Paul
  • Fact #4: The conversion of the skeptic James, Jesus’ half-brother
  • Fact # 5: Jesus’ tomb was empty

We will look at each fact and examine why the majority of scholars accept them.  Remember, first we need to look at the evidence.  Given most scholars accept these facts there won’t be much controversy here.  Then secondly, we will examine the explanations for the evidence and try to see which is the best.  Here is where we will have some major disagreements.

Go to part 6 here


[1] Strobel, Lee, “The Case for the Real Jesus,” Zondervan, 2007 p. 112

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Vinny January 27, 2010, 10:45 am

    During my life, I have heard a number of people give their testimonies. Invariably, they were wretched, vile creatures prior to coming to faith in Jesus whereupon they were transformed by his saving grace. I have heard some testimonies more than once and it seemed to me that the person’s pre-Christian life became more wretched each time they told the story.

    The idea that the apostle’s foibles were embarrassing to the evangelists strikes me as absurd. Their shortcomings are a vital part of the narrative. Just as every witnessing Christian wants to make his life when unsaved sound as bad as possible, the gospel authors needed to make the apostles look bad prior to the resurrection sound as bad as possible. You cannot sell the transformative power of the gospel without a transformation.

  • Steve January 27, 2010, 11:36 pm

    Vinny,

    By questioning the “principle of embarrassment,” are you saying historians are wrong when they use this principle to validate the historical accuracy of ancient documents? Here are the words of another critical scholar, a famous historian, who validates the use of the “principle of embarrassment.” Will Durant has stated, “Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many incidents that mere inventors would have concealed—the competition of the apostles for high places in the Kingdom, their flight after Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s denial, the failure of Christ to work 1miracles in Galilee, the references of some auditors to his possible insanity, his early uncertainty as to his mission, his confessions of ignorance as to the future, his moments of bitterness, his despairing cry on the cross; no one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them.”[18] Were the gospels purely imaginative, these and other issues in the life of Christ (e.g. His association in Mark and elsewhere with Nazareth instead of Bethlehem) likely wouldn’t exist, the creative narratives merely presenting Jesus in conformity with preexisting messianic expectations. The fact that the New Testament documents record otherwise embarrassing elements thus strongly indicates their rootedness in historical events.[26] (Wikipedia) Interesting Durant said recording of embarrassing moments “…strongly indicates their rootedness in historical events.” Will Durant clearly disagrees with you.

    I am saying the principle of embarrassment is just one of many tools in the hands of historians as they attempt to establish the historical core of ancient documents. I didn’t invent this tool. If you have a complaint, send it to historians and argue with them. I realize Will Durant is no longer alive but there are plenty of others you can disagree with.

    Steve

  • Vinny January 28, 2010, 11:03 am

    I do not deny the criteria of embarrassment. I question its application in this case. I think there are very good reasons why the evangelists would portray the apostles as bumbling failures prior to the resurrection. It would not in fact be embarrassing to their message; it would strengthen it.

    I do disagree with Will Durant on this point, just as I suspect you would disagree with what he wrote in the paragraph immediately preceding the one you quoted. “In summary, it is clear that there are many contradictions between one gospel and another, many dubious statements of history, many suspicious resemblances to the legends told of pagan gods, many incidents apparently designed to prove fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, many passages possibly aiming to establish a historical basis for some later doctrine or ritual of the church. The evangelists shared with Cicero, Sallust, and Tacitus the conception of history as a vehicle for moral ideas. And presumably the conversations and speeches reported in the Gospels were subject to the frailties of illiterate memories, and the errors and emendations of copyists.” Caesar and Christ, p. 557.

  • Steve February 14, 2010, 1:03 pm

    Vinny
    As far as my opinion of Will Durant and his attacks on Christianity, it depends on how he supports his assertions. In the quote you gave me I don’t see evidence for his opinions. I always ask why a person comes to the conclusion he or she does and then argue against those reasons. I am sure if I read the reference you provided I would find his arguments and have to deal with them, but that wasn’t my point. My using a critic of Christianity for support of the principal of embarrassment was to demonstrate even liberal scholars can strengthen my case for historical reliability. I don’t have to support everything Durant says to make my point. I know he is not friendly to the writings of the Bible.

    Bottom line, I just don’t share you skepticism of the Biblical writers. What is your evidence the writers of the Bible would intentionally provide embarrassing information to fool people and strengthen their case?

    Steve

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