The foundation of Christianity hinges primarily on the truth of one event: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Paul told the Corinthians “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Cor 15:14) How can we be sure this event that means so much is a historical fact? As we look forward to celebrating Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday, this post will examine the historical basis for the Resurrection.
The first thing we must understand is that there is no way to provide 100% proof for any ancient historical event. We provide evidence and determine the likely explanation for the evidence. This holds true with the Resurrection as well. We can provide evidence, but where evidence stops, faith begins.
What Qualifies as Minimal Facts?
Dr. Gary Habermas has developed an apologetic approach, the Minimal Facts, to the historicity of the Resurrection. Habermas’ approach is based on historical facts strongly attested by multiple sources and admitted by nearly all credentialed scholars. The list of scholars that accept these facts has been collected by Habermas and includes scholars in the fields of New Testament, Textual Criticism, History, etc. and includes skeptics as well as believers. So when he says that 98% of scholars accept a minimal fact it isn’t hyperbole, he has the numbers.
The nature of this post doesn’t allow a full exposition of these facts. For more in-depth information read The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona. So, what are the four (+1) Minimal Facts?
1. Jesus Died by Crucifixion on the Cross
The fact of Jesus’ crucifixion is virtually undisputed among scholars. Even skeptics such as Bart Ehrman and John Dominic Crossin accept this fact. The Jewish Talmud mentions the fact that Jesus was crucified, as does numerous First Century extra-biblical sources. We also have numerous accounts of crucifixions by the Romans and not a single account of anyone surviving a full crucifixion.
2. Jesus’ Disciples Had Experiences They Believed to Be Encounters of the Risen Jesus
This fact rests on an important distinction. It states that Jesus’ disciples “believed” they experienced the risen Jesus. This distinction allows skeptics to accept this fact because they can try to disprove these experiences.
The problem for the skeptic is that these experiences are multiply attested, occurred with numerous people (500 at one time), and occurred over a period of about 40 days (Acts 1:3-11, 1 Corinthians 15:3-7). The disciples were also willing to die for their belief that they had seen the risen Jesus. This effectively eliminates skeptical theories of conspiracy, hallucinations, delusions, and grief.
Had Jesus only swooned on the cross, as some claim, He still would have been in severely critical condition as a result of His beating and crucifixion. The disciples would have recognized He hadn’t resurrected, but had somehow miraculously survived the crucifixion.
3. Paul Had an Experience He Believed to Be an Encounter of the Risen Jesus
Just like the disciples, Paul believed he experienced the risen Jesus. What makes his reports different from the disciples is that he didn’t have reasons for hallucinations or delusion based on grief. Paul, by his own admission (1 Corinthians 15:9), and those of other Christians (Galatians 1:22-23), was a vehement persecutor of early Christ followers. He even actively went to the high priest to get permission to pursue and punish Christians (Acts 9:1-2).
Paul also had no motive to invent his report because of his position as a Pharisee. Paul had been trained by Gamaliel and described himself as a “Pharisee, a son of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6). We don’t know how high Paul would have gone in the Pharisaic power structure, but we can assume he had a promising career ahead of him. He gave all this up, became a prominent advocate of Christianity, and was martyred for his beliefs in the risen Christ.
4. James, the brother of Jesus, Had an Experience He Believed to Be an Encounter of the Risen Jesus
Like Paul, James the brother of Jesus was a critic of Jesus’ ministry before His resurrection. In Mark 3:21 we learn that Jesus’ brothers went to take Him home because they thought He was crazy.
We also learn from Hegesippus that James was likely so devout a Jew that he was actually a Nazarite. Hegesippus describes James as being “holy from his mother’s womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh. No razor came upon his head…” This description matches that of the Nazarite group within Judaism.
As a holy man, James would have seen Jesus as a blasphemer and would be unlikely to follow Him. This all changed after James’ experience with the risen Jesus. The change was so significant that we learn in Acts that James became the leader of the Jerusalem church. Josephus, Hegesippus, and Clement of Alexandria all report the martyrdom of James for his belief in the risen Christ.
+1. The Empty Tomb
This +1 Minimal Fact is the least attested and accepted by scholars; it is accepted by “only” 75% of scholars. Even with less attestation, the empty tomb still presents several problems for the critic. Matthew reports that the Jewish leaders paid the soldiers to say the disciples stole Jesus’ body (Matthew 28:11-15). In addition to the fact the disciples wouldn’t have died for something they knew was a lie, the claim itself attest to the fact the tomb was empty.
Additionally, if the tomb wasn’t empty, as the disciples claimed, it would have been easy for the Jewish and Roman leaders to expose the disciples claim as false. Another claim by critics is that the women and the disciples went to the wrong tomb. Again, the correct tomb could have been identified and the body displayed. This would have stopped Christianity in its infancy.
The last problem for critics of the empty tomb is the initial source of it being empty; the women. In that culture women’s testimony was seen as deficient, if not useless. Luke tells us that even the disciples didn’t believe the women initially (Luke 24:10-11). If the disciples intended to create a hoax they wouldn’t have chosen women as the initial witnesses, especially since they were reported to be hiding while the women went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body.
With these facts in mind, the skeptic must account for each with a plausible explanation. Notice we don’t say “possible”; anything is “possible”, but not plausible. All four Minimal Facts, and even the +1, have to be explained by critics or else the Resurrection is the best explanation for the evidences. They also have to explain all of them with a single theory; multiple theories actually weaken their case.
For a more complete examination of Habermas’ Minimal Facts read his book. But, when we examine the Minimal Facts the only plausible conclusion is that Jesus did exactly what He said he would do, raise from the dead. If Resurrection happened, then Christianity is true. If Christianity is true, God exists and He sent His Son to die for our sins. As we celebrate this Easter holiday, we can be assured that our faith in Jesus and His atoning sacrifice for us is based on a historical event. HE IS RISEN!