Surprising Scholarly Agreement on Facts That Support Jesus’ Resurrection
A "Minimal Historical Facts" Argument for Jesus' Resurrection
Here’s something you might not have known about contemporary scholarship. It might actually surprise you, unless you’ve been keeping up with these things: virtually all researchers, whether they are skeptical, liberal, moderate or conservative in their approach and beliefs, agree in recognizing a small but definite core of historical facts from the end of Jesus’ life. And this core of facts reveals a lot about the reality of the resurrection.
About 40 years ago, I began writing about what I have called the Minimal Facts Argument. I wouldn’t want you to think it’s a “minimally-sized” argument in any way, or that only a few facts from the day are available. Rather it’s an argument for the resurrection of Jesus based on that small, “minimal” core of facts that all academically credible researchers agree on. Using between three and seven historical events that are recognized by these scholars, it builds on what we may learn from these data.
Not too long ago I listed six of these events in a dialogue with an agnostic New Testament scholar. I used the historical facts that 1) Jesus died by crucifixion, 2) his early followers had experiences a short time later that they thought were appearances of Jesus, 3) and as a result, they were transformed to the point of being willing to die for this message. Further, two former unbelievers 4) James the brother of Jesus and 5) Saul of Tarsus (later the apostle Paul) both similarly thought that they had seen the risen Jesus, as well; and 6) This Gospel message of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ began to be taught very soon after these events.
Some might be surprised to hear that the agnostic scholar with whom I was dialoguing not only agreed with the historical nature of these six events, without exceptions, but he even added that each one was very well-recognized.
How Is this Scholarly Agreement Established?
Why are these and other historical facts held in common among scholars who do not even share the same background views? On what grounds could liberals and conservatives agree on these matters?
Perhaps the chief reason for the widespread agreement comes from recent critical recognition that the New Testament contains dozens of brief snippets of information from the earliest church teaching — preserved from the first 20 years before the first canonical books were written. Scholars call these “creedal texts” or traditions. The best known of them is 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 which scholars agree originated no later than the early to mid-30s AD, or within just five years of the life of Christ. There is also 1 Corinthians 8:6 and 11:23-25, Romans 1:3-4, 10:9, and Philippians 2:6-11. That’s not all of them. Among the many others are Luke 24:34 and the Acts sermon summaries. These texts actually predate by many years the works in which they appear.
Another avenue comes from the regular use of different tools and rules used by historians and others to recognize the occurrence of past historical facts. These are often called the criteria of authenticity. Here are six of these that help explain how scholars come to this kind of agreement:
- Some events are established by the reliable testimonies from people who were close to or who even participated in the events.
- Sometimes the witnesses reported these things very soon afterwards, rather than waiting years to do so.
- On other occasions, these events are attested by two or even more independent sources.
- Sometimes, enemies who actually oppose the occurrences and would have preferred that they had not happened, might agree that they nonetheless did so.
- Or the accounts may be told in a way that is so embarrassing to those telling it, or to their loved ones or their cause, that the best explanation for them saying it is simply that it’s the truth.
- Another test preferred by some scholars is the result of an event fitting well with or exhibiting similarities to other occurrences that are known to have occurred (coherence).
There are other historical tools and rules as well, but these are among the best-known ones. Often, two or even several of these additional reasons are present and endorse the same event from different angles. Once in a while, the list of confirmatory reasons can get quite lengthy. In such cases, it becomes more and more difficult to deny the factual nature of the reports. So actually, agreement among dissimilar scholars can be fairly common.
How Do We Move from the Minimal Historical Facts to Jesus’ Resurrection Appearances?
Using only the six facts about Jesus and his disciples listed above, backed up by the evidences that confirm them, we have a scenario that points very strongly to Jesus’ appearing to his disciples after he died by crucifixion. Actually, we can boil the case down to those two ingredients. Did Jesus actually die on the cross? Then was he seen afterwards, having conversations with friends just like any of us might do? If Jesus was walking around and talking, seen by groups of witnesses (such as reported in the most scholarly-tested text, 1 Corinthians 15:3-7), then His appearances are solid!
Some might question whether historians can use the New Testament texts at all. Do critical scholars allow that? Actually, they cite these passages as often as conservative Christians do. The difference is that critical scholars generally only make use of those accredited citations that satisfy their reasons, such as those that we just mentioned.
The result of it all is that we have six solid, agreed facts, backed up with good historical reasoning. Rather incredibly, these six facts are enough to argue strongly against all of the major non-supernatural alternative hypotheses to Jesus’ resurrection. This is the primary reason why only a minority of critical scholars today still even attempt to argue these natural suppositions. Incidentally, they were popular primarily in the Nineteenth Century.
But these six facts are also the strongest affirmative reasons for believing that Jesus appeared to His followers both individually and in groups after His death. That so many eyewitnesses reported these experiences is admitted by virtually all critical scholars. You would have to look hard to find very many dissenters.
Jesus’ disciples were so sure of this fact that they were willing to die for this message, since it was the center of the Gospel proclamation (as in Romans 10:9-10). True, many people down through the centuries have died willingly for a cause that they believed to be true as well as crucially important. But they are not willing to die for a view that they think is false
However, there was something different about Jesus’ disciples. Christianity is the only major world religion whose early disciples were willing to die for their belief that their religion’s founder had been resurrected. Moreover, His resurrection was the very center of their message! No event of this nature is found anywhere in the other major religions, and certainly not when one asks for good evidence that it happened.
While this does not prove that the resurrection happened, it does indicate that the disciples thought that it had occurred. Further, these believers were the only ones in position to know whether or not they had seen Jesus alive after His death. That they were willing to die for these experiences is certainly significant in that it shows that they were utterly convinced of these facts. That goes a long way towards providing the best explanation of what actually happened.
Not only that, but we still have the conversions of the skeptics James the brother of Jesus and Paul. What changed them so radically? They were also willing to die for their new faith that they, too, had seen the risen Jesus. Both of them, among others, actually did die for their belief in Jesus’ resurrection.
Lastly, the consensus view of even critical scholarship today is that the early resurrection message was preached right after the crucifixion by those who were involved in the experiences. Far from taking years or even decades to evolve and develop, the message burst forth from Jerusalem just a short time later and spread around the Mediterranean world.
The recent research trends on the topic of Jesus’ resurrection show the positive direction of these developments over the last few decades. This new outlook reflects the growing recognition of creedal or traditional texts which date much earlier than the New Testament writings in which they appear, as well as the us of critical criteria from the field of history to larger portions of the texts. The overall result has been an expansion of what we know about both the times in which Jesus lived, and details from His own life. Hence, scholars have been pushed by the available evidence.
The resulting is to show that the resurrection is a unique teaching in the history of religion. Those of us who believe that Jesus died and rose again are on solid ground, indeed!
Editor’s note: This piece was originally published at The Stream on March 27, 2016.