The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus

 

In another article, What Makes Christianity Different? The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, I discussed a minimal facts approach in presenting evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.  This article is an attempt to shorten that, not because 5000 words is particularly long when compared to other articles I have read, but because one of the strengths of a minimal facts approach is the ease in which it can be employed for sharing your faith.  In that interest, I will try to present the case for the resurrection as concise, and yet precise, as possible.  If at the end of reading this you feel you would like to see these ideas developed further with more information and explanation given, you can refer to the above mentioned article.  If you still desire to learn more, I would suggest purchasing The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, which is the main source for the facts I will present.

What is a minimal facts approach?

There are many facts that surround the life of Jesus and early Christianity from the New Testament, other Christian writers, non-Christian writers, and archaeology, but not all of them are universally accepted as historical fact.  What a minimal facts approach considers as historical evidence, therefore, is data that are both strongly evidenced and accepted by almost all scholars who study the subject, even the rather skeptical ones.  It says nothing about whether the person using this approach considers the New Testament to be the inspired word of God or not, but it simply treats the New Testament as any other historical document, so that those who do not consider it to be the word of God must still account the evidence presented.  This approach allows for a comprehensive case for the resurrection, for not only can it be used to show Jesus’ resurrection to be the best explanation of the known historical facts, it is also sufficient to refute the opposing theories as to what happened on Easter Sunday.  There are 4 facts that are strongly evidenced and granted by virtually all scholars on the subject (In the high 90’s in percentage) and 1 fact that is not as well accepted, but that still enjoys acceptance among 75% of such scholars.  These facts, which we will look at one at a time, are: Jesus’ death by crucifixion, the belief among Jesus’ disciples that He rose from the dead and appeared to them, the church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed, the skeptic James was suddenly changed, and the slightly less accepted fact, the tomb of Jesus was empty.

Jesus died by crucifixion

Crucifixion was a shameful, not to mention horrendously torturous, death.  Since Jesus was supposed to be a King, the Messiah, if a story were to be made up about Him, it would not involve a cross.  In addition to that, such a crucifixion story would not end up in secular accounts of what happened to Jesus, but that is in fact what history tells us.  However, it is not enough to say that Jesus was only put on the cross and leave it there, for crucifixion was something that allowed the executioners ease in determining the death of the victim.  Those crucified would die of asphyxiation, which means not being able to exhale, being killed by their own air.  Victims would have to push up to breathe, so the guy hanging in a downward position would not last long.  To speed up such a process, the legs of the victims could be broken, so they could not push up.  As if this was not enough, a spear could be thrust into victims to see if they were dead, and this is reported to have been the case with Jesus, confirming His death.  Speaking of Jesus’ resurrection presupposes that He was in fact dead, so establishing this point is a good start.

Jesus’ disciples believed that He rose from the dead and appeared to them

This is perhaps the most widely accepted fact and for good reason.  First of all, the disciples claimed it themselves and 9 ancient sources document this within the first 100 years of Christianity.  However, some of these sources are early oral traditions that date to within a few years of when the resurrection is said to have happened.  Perhaps the best example is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 where Paul records what he “delivered” to the Corinthian church was what he “received”.  The reason I use those quotation marks is that these are technical terms for passing on tradition, and in addition, other words in this passage are non-Pauline (not normal words that Paul uses).  If a skeptic says that they do not believe the New Testament and thus cannot believe this, it might do a lot to say that even virtually all critical scholars accept that this is an early Christian, pre-Pauline creed.  People in the first century did not hand on information in the same way we do, so they used creeds, hymns, story summaries, and poetry, and that’s what can be seen in 1 Corinthians 15.  It lists appearances to the disciples, James, Paul, and 500 brethren, most of whom were still alive, and by implication, could be asked about what they saw.  Second of all, they believed it, evidenced by their willingness to suffer and die for the message they claimed, as described by 7 sources for both Paul and the disciples, with 3 sources testifying to this resolve in James.  It may be said that many people die for their beliefs, but a key point is primary evidence versus secondary evidence.  When people die for their beliefs in a holy book or sacred teaching of some major religion like Islam or Buddhism today, they are essentially dying for what they have been told by someone else; hence secondary evidence.  The disciples, Paul, and James were dying for what they had seen and thus knew to be either true or false; hence primary evidence.  Today we can believe what they tell us on secondary evidence because of the strong attestation for their primary evidence.  Thirdly, the disciples were transformed from a group of cowards hiding from the authorities to a group of bold preachers that no persecution could silence.  The strength of their conviction does not prove the truth of their beliefs, but since they were in such a position to make their transformation almost inexplicable by anything short of the resurrection of their Messiah, the point certainly holds a lot of weight.  Whatever people might say about the disciples, they were not liars.

The church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed

Paul testified himself to the transformation in his life from being vehemently against the church to bringing that zeal for the Lord to turn and follow Christ.  Critical scholars contest the authorship of some of the letters with Paul’s name on them, but fortunately for this minimal facts approach, this personal testimony can be found in 3 undisputed Pauline letters, as well as 3 times in the book of Acts, emphasizing the importance of it.  Indeed it is significant, because Paul had no reason to be sympathetic to the cause of Christianity, seeing it as a heretical sect and Jesus as the false prophet.  No fancy preaching or theological appeals would sway this hardened persecutor intent on the destruction of the movement.  Anything short of an appearance of the glorious risen Jesus Christ leaves the conversion of Paul quite unexplained.  Then, as mentioned above, this was no mere phase in his life or temporary lapse into deceit, but he held his belief in having seen the Lord alive after His death through suffering and his eventual martyrdom.  Paul believed in this even more than he believed in his own ability to proclaim it, for he says in Galatians 1 that even if he or angel were to proclaim a different gospel, such a one would be accursed.  However, he did not preach a different gospel, and neither did another person in a similar position.

 

The skeptic James was suddenly changed

The Gospels report that Jesus had at least 4 brothers, but interestingly enough, it is also reported that they did not believe in Him.  However, if we fast forward to Acts, one brother in particular, James, becomes a leader in the church, which would of course qualify him as a believer.  A portion of the New Testament gives us insight into what happened, namely 1 Corinthians 15:7 which describes a post-resurrection appearance to James, but it has been said that even without this appearance being mentioned, we should have to invent one to explain how James was transformed and advanced quickly to be a leader in the church.  Other accounts of James from history describe him as just according to the Jewish law, so to think that he would abandon those beliefs he had grown up with to follow the teachings of His dead brother that were considered blasphemous is not consistent with what we know of James.  Fast forwarding even further, we find that he was martyred in Jerusalem, where he was the leader of the church.  So as in the case of Paul, the necessity of an appearance of the resurrected Christ fits the evidence.

The tomb of Jesus was empty

Though this does not fit the full criteria of being a minimal fact, as only about 75% of scholars hold to this as historical fact, there are still good reasons to accept it.  In the case of the tomb being empty, we could look at the where, the who, and the why.  In thinking about where, after Jesus was publicly executed in Jerusalem, he was buried close-by.  However, this is also where the first preaching occurred according to the New Testament and secular history as well.  Taking those points together, it is hard to understand both the reason for the disciples choosing the place where Jesus’ body could be discovered by a 20 or 30 minute walk if it were still in the tomb and for the authorities not presenting the body to stamp out this new movement at the outset.  It is hard to imagine the tomb being ignored in anti-Christian apologetics, especially since it was so close, because the disciples were teaching that David experienced decay, but that Jesus was risen.  If you are going to proclaim that the twin towers are still standing, you do not do it in New York, where it is easy enough to falsify your claim, if it is false.  In the same way, the disciples should not have proclaimed a risen Lord in Jerusalem, unless He was indeed not in the tomb.  In thinking about who, the religious leaders themselves witnessed to the empty tomb, albeit indirectly.  The testimony of 3 ancient sources say that the Jewish response was to say that the disciples stole the body, which is confirmation that the tomb was empty and they had to think up an excuse.  If your mom says you are a courageous person, we might believe her with some reservation, but if someone who hates you says you are courageous, we would tend to hold that testimony as true, since his interest is not in making you look good.  In the same way, if the enemies of the Christians said the tomb was empty, it was empty.  In thinking about why, all 4 Gospel writers say that women were the first to witness the empty tomb.  This may not seem like a big deal, but thinking about the first century when these things are said to have happened, the account makes sense as history, though not as something made up.  The testimony women was considered questionable and certainly not as good as that of a man, so if you were going to make up a story that you wanted people to believe in the first century, you most likely would not use women as your primary witnesses.  If some lawyers wanted to win a court case, they would not choose a known perjurer as their strongest witness.  In the same way, the testimony of men at this time would be considered the most credible, so accepting the historicity of their testimony to the empty tomb is far from unfounded.

In the words of Steven Covey, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”  So, I hope this abbreviated minimal facts version will help you to do that with Jesus’ resurrection.

If you are interested in reading more on the objections to the resurrection of Jesus, click here.

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