By DOUG SHAVER
August 6, 2010
It rarely happens that we skeptics are criticized for not believing some proposition that almost nobody believes. Nobody accuses us of pigheadedness for denying that the earth is flat or for saying that the old Germanic gods are not real. The accusations come instead when we doubt things that many people do believe, especially when the many happen to be a majority. We're never told exactly why this is a problem, but the implicit argument might run along these lines. Assuming that most people are rational, we may infer that their beliefs are rational, and it is therefore irrational to reject those beliefs. Alternatively, if we skeptics reject the assumption that most people are rational, we are guilty of unwarranted presumptions of superiority. I'm going to stipulate that no ideological group is justified in thinking itself intellectually superior to humanity in general. We'll be concerned, then, with the rationality of dissent from majority opinion, using one particular popular opinion as an example.
In particular, we look at a recently developed apologetic strategy called the "minimal facts method" championed by Gary Habermas. His views can be found on several Web sites, but we'll be quoting from just one: http://www.garyhabermas.com/articles/crj_recentperspectives/crj_recentperspectives.htm.
There is a near consensus among epistemologists that, at least in general, any belief can be justified even if it happens to be wrong. For some beliefs, justification might be very hard to come by, but the possibility cannot be nonexistent. We can and do argue all day about what constitutes justification, but in no case may we say "p is false, therefore belief in p can never be justified." I say "at least in general" advisedly. There could be a few exceptions. It is one thing to argue that some preposterous hypothesis is not provably false, but it could be contingently the case that no sane person could justifiably believe that it is true.
It is difficult to exhaustively characterize, in any objective way, such presumptively unjustifiable beliefs. It's usually a case of "We know them when we see them." But we cannot, without begging a great many questions, so classify any belief held by any significant number of people who are not otherwise classifiable as mentally or intellectually defective. Thus, people can be justified in holding just about any currently popular religious belief, even if it happens to be the case that there is no truth in any religious dogma.
This is not to say that all religious people are in fact justified, only that they can be. Justification is possible, not automatic. The same holds for any true belief. No belief is justified merely because it happens to be correct. Doxastic justification—whatever it takes to establish intellectual entitlement to a belief—is something the believer has to earn; the earning might be difficult or it might by trivially easy, but it has to be done. The justification in any case is relative to the believer, not to anyone else. I can concede your justification without supposing that whatever is justified for you must also be justified for me. That is, I remain free to reject the criteria by which you justify your beliefs. I may regard them as inadequate or even senseless, but I cannot fault you for using them if they make sense to you. But I may also be entirely within my own intellectual rights to try to convince you to change your criteria.
Which brings us to evangelical apologetics. The brighter lights among apologists have labored mightily to make their beliefs intellectually respectable. For a very long time, non-religious intellectuals have dismissed Christianity in general, and evangelicalism in particular, as beyond the pale of rational thought. Evangelicals think this is a bum rap, and I agree up to a point. That is the point where skeptics say, "No rational person can believe X," where X is some Christian dogma such as the resurrection of Jesus. So, if an evangelical says, "I'm justified in believing that Jesus rose from the dead because A, B, C, etc.," then I might say, "OK, you're justified." Another skeptic might then say to me, "No, you Quisling, no way is he justified." At that point, my argument is no longer with the apologist but with the skeptic. But I might yet have another argument with the apologist, if he says that my unbelief is unjustifiable. And they have to say this, if they're going to say that we skeptics all deserve to burn in hell for our unbelief. If that is what will happen to us, then there must be something inexcusable about our believing that Christians are mistaken.
There is of course more to Christianity than the resurrection. It takes more than simply saying and honestly believing "Jesus rose from the dead" to make anyone a Christian. But we're going to let it stand in for the whole package. For most of the past 2,000 years, the resurrection was the least that anyone had to believe in, in order to be a Christian, and the evidence for it is approximately the same evidence that supports everything else Christians are required to believe.
A majority of the world's people do not believe Jesus rose from the dead, and so prima facie, disbelief is not unjustifiable. But how much intellectual perversity does it take to deny the resurrection? Is it more like denying that Kennedy was assassinated, or more like denying that Oswald did it, or more like denying that the CIA put Oswald up to doing it? Well, what justification do Christians offer for their belief? Just this: The gospels say it happened, and their reliability is of such a nature that from their saying it happened, we justifiably infer that it did happen. Let us call this the secular argument for Christianity. It is a secular argument insofar as it ostensibly depends on no belief, principle, or presupposition of a religious nature. According to apologists, it relies solely on the same kinds of arguments, the same kinds of assumptions, used by historians when they study the assassination of Kennedy or of Julius Caesar.
A problem comes up right away: Most historians don't believe in the resurrection. The apologist replies: Ah, but most of them do believe his tomb was found empty. OK. We'll return later to the question of whether it is unreasonable to deny the resurrection while accepting the empty tomb. For now, it should be apparent that if it is reasonable to doubt the empty tomb, then it is at least equally reasonable to doubt the resurrection. And so the question at the moment is: Is it reasonable to think nobody found any empty tomb?
We may observe that Christian scholars have habitually brought to their work a presupposition that the NT is historically reliable. They have looked for evidence confirming that presupposition while seeking, and usually finding, explanations for apparently contrary evidence. "Explanation" in this context means any hypothesis consistent with Christian orthodoxy. Any hypothesis contradicting orthodoxy is not regarded as an explanation but rather as an excuse for disbelief.
Habermas's article leads to a conclusion presenting his "minimal facts thesis"—a method of evaluating historical claims:
Each event or saying must be (1) exceptionally well-attested on multiple grounds, which might be indicated, for example, by authenticity criteria such as those which we have listed here. Further, (2) the event or saying must be recognized as historical by the vast majority of scholars who treat this subject, especially when they oppose the conclusion that they think is nonetheless warranted.
This means, if both believers and skeptics, among the relevant authorities, agree that A, B, and C are facts, then anything reasonably inferred from the conjunction of A, B, and C is a justified belief, even if the skeptical authorities reject it.
The pertinent question is: Should we believe something just because we have some documents that say it is so? This is to ask about their reliability. A source is reliable if we can trust it, if we are justified in supposing that if it says X, then X is true. But strictly speaking, no document is itself a source. The source is whoever produced the document. Rhetorical convenience is unobjectionable so long as we never forget the real distinction between "this document says X" and "whoever wrote this document says X" or "Whoever wrote the document of which this document is a copy says X, assuming that this is an accurate copy of whatever the original author wrote."
Is the New Testament reliable? That is a good question. A better question is: How reliable is it? We are not assuming anything that only Christians assume, and so we're not expecting any source to be infallible. Secular historians don't do that, and we're looking for a secular argument. That means we cannot look for an inference to inerrancy, because that never happens in secular historiography. A historian might infer, regarding a particular document, that its author did not, as a matter of contingent fact, make any mistakes when he wrote it. But no evidence will lead him to infer that the author could not have made my mistakes. This is not an anti-religious assumption. The only assumption at work here is the assumption that nobody is perfect.
Now the question, "Should we believe this author when he says X?" is pointless if the author never actually said X, and so one of the first things we'd like to know is whether the extant NT manuscripts are accurate copies of the autographs—the autographs being whatever the original authors wrote. This is an entirely separate issue from their reliability. A perfect copy of a work of fiction is still a work of fiction. Apologists have a very hard time keeping these issues separate. Habermas admits that the "extraordinary quantity and quality of the available texts does not tell us if the New Testament writings are historically reliable," but he says this just after claiming, "Older strategies that support the historical reliability of the New Testament often begin their case by pointing out that the New Testament documents enjoy superior manuscript evidence." And so they do. We have many more copies, and much earlier copies, of NT writings than any other ancient writing, and so it is reasonable to suppose that they match the autographs pretty closely. Countless apologists have argued that the New Testament must be considered reliable precisely because we can so sure that the surviving manuscripts reproduce the autographs almost perfectly. But the accuracy of scribal transmission goes not to reliability but to authenticity. Are the surviving copies of, for instance, Mark's gospel authentically Mark's gospel, i.e. are they actually a reproduction of what he wrote? Once we have a defensible affirmative answer to that question, then and only then we can ask whether we ought to believe what Mark wrote.
So, what about authenticity? The argument is: We have lots of copies, and these copies were made very soon after the originals were written, and they show hardly any variations in the text. Therefore, they must be very nearly identical to the autographs. And there is always one more premise: Extant manuscripts of other ancient documents are many centuries removed from their originals, and there are way fewer of them, usually less than half a dozen and in many instances only one, whereas in the case the NT the time between autograph and extant copy can be measured in decades and we have hundreds of copies.
Why the comparison? We have two specific claims here, related, for sure, but still needing separate consideration. One is proximity to the autographs. The other is multiplicity of extant copies.
It is very difficult for even the most conscientious scribe to make a perfect copy of even one page of text. It is virtually impossible to perfectly duplicate an entire book. The variants will multiply as copies are made of the copies, and copies are made of those copies, and so forth. Our current oldest copies of Plato might not contain a single entire sentence that Plato himself actually wrote. But obviously, the closer we get to the autographs, the less time for variants to accumulate, and so the better the odds of our having something close to the author's actual words. But how close do we have to get for the odds to become practically a sure thing? The comparison of the New Testament with other ancient documents shows that authenticity is more probable, but that might be like saying it's safer to drink water with only 1 ppm of a contaminant than water with 1,000 ppm of that contaminant. It's contaminated either way. Knowing that 1,000 ppm is dangerous doesn't mean 1 ppm is not dangerous. You need to find out specifically whether 1 ppm is safe.
How close is close enough? That depends. A conscientious scribe will make some mistakes; but, were all the scribes copying the NT documents conscientious? And how do we even know? This is where the multiplicity of manuscripts helps us out a lot. Certain kinds of variants are incontrovertibly attributable to simple human error. Other kinds are incontrovertibly not so attributable: There are certain kinds of changes that we know don't happen just by accident. If there were none of the latter in all the hundreds of extant copies, that would be compelling evidence for supposing that Christian scribes were uniformly concerned about doing their best to keep the texts as close to the originals as it was humanly possible to keep them. What we actually observe, though, makes it perfectly clear that this was not the case.
But this doesn't mean that we can have no idea what was in the autographs. There are ways of working back from we have now to what the early Christian communities probably started with, but they're not easy to apply. One reason for the difficulty is that the applicable methodologies are highly sensitive to prior assumptions about Christianity's origins. Since we're supposed to learn those origins from the documents themselves, the potential for question-begging is obvious. And, nobody has the option of assuming nothing at all. There is no such thing as paradigm-independent historiography. The best we can hope for is a parsimonious historiography, where a set of minimal facts is exactly what we're looking for, but there is no uncontroversial metric for parsimony, either. None of this has to send us into postmodernist obscurantism. There are plenty of things people can reasonably believe about was what the original authors actually wrote. They just can't all be true. On this point, some people's reasonable beliefs are going to be wrong. One scholar says Mark said P, Q, and R, while another says Mark said only P and Q, and still another says Mark said only R. They can't all be right. They could all be wrong. But even if wrong, they could also all be justified. It is not the case that for all X, if it is rational to believe X, then it is irrational to believe not-X.
Habermas assures the reader: "So we have excellent pointers that we have essentially what the various authors originally wrote." According to quite a few scholars, that actually depends on which of the NT authors we're talking about. Most liberal scholars seem to pretty much agree with conservatives that the gospels as we have them are by and large pretty close to the autographs, although there are a few dissenters. There is considerably more disagreement about the authenticity of the Pauline corpus, and it is probably no coincidence that the time lag between autograph and oldest extant copies is greatest for those documents.
So maybe there are grounds for reasonable doubt about the gospels' authenticity. For the sake of argument, though, let's go ahead and stipulate authenticity. We'll suppose that the gospels, as we now have them, are approximately what the original authors actually wrote. In that case, should we believe that they contain reliable history? That depends among other things on who those authors were. Some people well qualified to have an opinion say that the traditional attributions are correct: Matthew and John, two of Jesus' disciples, and Mark and Luke, two friends of some of the disciples. But a majority of qualified scholars disagree. The majority believe that the authors are, to us, unknown but probably not disciples nor anyone acquainted with any disciple. They were anonymous—not in the sense that they tried to hide their identities, but in the sense that we just have no idea who they were and probably, at this point in history, no way of finding out.
Anonymous authors are of course not necessarily unreliable authors. They could have been eyewitnesses to what they wrote about, or they could have had sources who were eyewitnesses. But we cannot know that if we don't know who they were. And, the skeptic is not obliged to prove unreliability. Reliability is what needs proving. This is not an argument for assuming unreliability. It is a argument for withholding judgment in the absence of evidence. A presupposition either for or against reliability is indefensible. If any answer ought to be presupposed, that answer is "Nobody knows," and then let those who think they know make their cases.
I am claiming, then, that it is reasonable to think we do not know who wrote the gospels, and that since we do not know, we cannot judge them prima facie to be reliable. To judge them reliable, we need evidence for their reliability. We shall shortly consider whether we have such evidence, but first a further look at the credence we should give to the traditional authorship.
What reasons do we think we have for supposing that the gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? "Christians have always believed so" is not much of a reason except for Christians themselves. Remember we're stipulating that Christian belief is, or can be, reasonable, and all we're arguing about now is whether we skeptics are being unreasonable. So, are there any undisputed facts to support the tradition? What kind of logic, if any, must we defy if we say that those facts don't prove anything about who wrote the gospels?
The only incontrovertible fact bearing on the issue is that Irenaeus said so, sometime probably in the late second century. Most scholars of relevant expertise date his work to around 180 CE. He might have relied on Papias for two of his attributions, although he doesn't say so. In any case, we cannot confirm what Papias wrote because no copy of his writing has survived. What we have instead is a quotation by Eusebius, in the early fourth century, as follows:
And the presbyter would say this: Mark, who had indeed been Peter's interpreter, accurately wrote as much as he remembered, yet not in order, about that which was either said or did by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but later, as I said, Peter, who would make the teachings anecdotally but not exactly an arrangement of the Lord's reports, so that Mark did not fail by writing certain things as he recalled. For he had one purpose, not to omit what he heard or falsify them.
http://www.mindspring.com/~scarlson/synopt/ext/papias.htm (Link broken.)
Papias also wrote, according to Eusebius,
Now Matthew compiled the reports in a Hebrew manner of speech, but each interpreted them as he could.
And where did Papias get his information? Here is Eusebius quoting him again:
But I will not hesitate to supplement at any time for you too the interpretations with whatever I learned thoroughly and remembered thoroughly from the presbyters, since I am confident in the truth on their account. For unlike many I was not delighted with those who say many things but with those who teach the truth, or with those who remember not the commandments of others but those given by the Lord to the faith and derived from truth itself.
But whenever someone who had followed the presbyters came along, I would carefully ask about the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or what Peter had said or what Philip or what Thomas or James or what John or Matthew or any other of the disciples of the Lord, and which Aristion and the presbyter John, disciples of the Lord say too. For I did not assume that whatever comes from books is as helpful to me as what comes from a living and lasting voice.
For those who already believe, this is all very reassuring. Papias, who is usually thought to have produced his work around 130 CE, says he knew some people who knew some of Jesus' disciples, and since he was a Christian bishop, we can trust him. If he said so, then it must be so. These people told him that Matthew and Mark wrote stuff about Jesus, and only a few decades later we find there are books purporting to be about the life of Jesus according to Matthew and Mark. And so, Matthew and Mark must actually have been the authors. I don't fault Christians for making that inference. I fault them for thinking that there has to be something wrong with anyone who does not make it.
To begin with, Papias does not claim even to have seen the books, so he does not know for a fact that they even exist. All he knows is that someone told him of their existence. And how did those people know? Papias doesn't say straight out. He says he talked with some people whom he does not identify, and he says some of them had talked with some apostles. How does he know that? Presumably because that is what they told him. And so he believed them. But should we? Papias thought his sources were reliable. Should we take his word for it that they were? Why? Was he reliable?
Irenaeus thought so. Should we take his word for it? Why? Was Irenaeus reliable? Christians are well within their epistemic rights to believe whatever Irenaeus said, and so to believe whatever Papias said and so to believe whatever those those nameless men told Papias. We non-Christians, until we see better evidence than that, are well within our own epistemic rights to think we have no good reason to think Matthew or Mark had anything to do with writing the books that ended up with their names on them.
And the evidence for Luke and John is not even that good. Irenaeus's own attestation is the earliest on record, and he does not so much as hint how he got that idea. I don't think he just made it up. I'm supposing he heard it from someone he thought he could trust. But since we have no idea who those people were or why he thought he could trust them, we're left with no basis on which to evaluate their reliability, and so all we have here is "Irenaeus said so." Very well. Could he have been mistaken? Just how improbable would that have been? "Highly improbable" says the Christian, and justifiably so. But I'm not justified in agreeing. All things considered, I have reason to think Irenaeus probably had nothing remotely like good evidence for his claim. I could be mistaken, but here is a fact: No matter whether he had any evidence, we have no reason to believe he had it, and even if he did have evidence, we have no clue as to the nature of that evidence. Just because his evidence, whatever it was, convinced him doesn't mean we ought to find it equally convincing. If we are to believe him, we must believe on blind faith, not because we have any reason to believe. Blind faith might work for Christians, but that doesn't mean it has to work for anyone else.
So, Irenaeus is our earliest direct source of information about who wrote the gospels, and we can reasonably doubt that his testimony is reliable because we don't know what his testimony was based on. That leaves us not knowing who the authors were. But even if we don't know who they were, some indication that they had good sources would help. Eyewitness sources are of course ideal (not because they're perfect, but just because they're the best we can get), and many Christians will insist that the gospels, if not written by eyewitnesses, at least contain the testimony of eyewitnesses. This can only be another article of faith, though. To contain eyewitness testimony, they would have to have been written during the witnesses' lifetimes, and evidence for this does not exist. This does not rule out the possibility. They could, for all we know with perfect certainty, have been written within living memory of Jesus. But there is no evidence that they were, and without evidence, doubt is reasonable.
We have thus established the following minimal facts so far. We have some stories about a man called Jesus of Nazareth, written not later than the mid-second century and possibly during the late first century, by unknown authors relying on unknown sources if any. At this point, the notion that the man never even existed becomes a live option, but we don't need to go there now. We are assuming for the sake of discussion that the authors were not writing fiction. We'll assume that Jesus really existed and the gospel authors believed they were writing some kind of history about him. How much can we reasonably suppose they must have gotten right—given, that is, that we cannot simply assume that they got their information from directly from any witnesses?
If their source was not eyewitnesses testimony, then it had to have been oral tradition. There were witnesses in the beginning. If Jesus was real, then somebody saw what he did and heard what he said. They told others what they had seen and heard, and their listeners told others, those people told still others, and so on for several generations until the gospel authors put down in writing whatever versions of the story came to them. That is one possibility. Here is another, widely accepted by professional scholars. In the decades immediately following Jesus' death, some Christians composed a document recording his teachings. That document, now called Q, contained little or no biographical data about Jesus. During or soon after the First Jewish War, around 70 CE, Mark wrote his gospel based on some stories that he was familiar with. Over the next two decades, Luke and Matthew wrote their gospels, based on Mark and adding material from Q. Sometime between 90 and 100, John wrote his gospel, probably amalgamating the earlier gospels with some traditions unique to his community. That is the scholarly consensus. Even conservative Christians, in general, accept the chronology, though many of them dispute Matthew's and Luke's dependence on Mark and John's dependence on any of the others. Evangelicals believe the four all wrote independently of each other. But this presupposes that the later authors either were unaware of the earlier authors' work or, being aware, wrote in a state of mind uninfluenced by what they knew about their predecessors' work.
For the time being, I'm going to go ahead and stipulate their independence. We have four versions of Jesus' story, as that story was being told within various Christian communities during the decades between 70 and 100 CE. Back finally to Habermas. He claims that "many details from Jesus’ life and teachings as found in the Gospels" are corroborated by "non Christian, extra-biblical sources." He mentions no specific instances, but the non-biblical testimony to Jesus is exhaustively covered by Robert E. Van Voorst in Jesus Outside the New Testament (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI, 2000). We can affirm, without disputing one word that Van Voorst has to say on the matter, that the extrabiblical sources confirm there were people from the late first century and afterward who believed some of the stories that the gospel authors recorded. There is no sense in which those sources corroborate any of the stories. Repetition is not corrobration. To report that some people believe a story is not to affirm that the story is true.
But then we may suppose that these people, being hostile to Christianity, would have expressed some doubt about anything they had reason to doubt. At the very least, they would not say "Jesus was X" but instead say "Christians believe that Jesus was X." If we regard that as a sort of confirmation, then how much of the gospel stories do they confirm? They confirm that Christianity was founded by a man named either Jesus or Christ, and this man was executed by Pontius Pilate. And that is all. Not another detail is corroborated by any non-Christian winter of the first or second century. Saying "Christians believe X" is not corroborating X.
So our minimal facts now are (1) Jesus really existed and (2) Jesus was executed by Pilate. Do we have any more? It is time now to look at Habermas's criteria for historiography. Today's biblical scholars, he assures us, use methods "borrowed from the approach to ancient texts regularly employed by secular historians." He follows with a list of eight principles. Whether he thinks secular historians would endorse all eight, he does not make clear. But let's look them over.
(1) Early evidence is strongly preferred above later contributions.
As a generality, this is uncontroversial, provided it is not construed to imply any particular correlation between early and reliable. Even a same-day report from an eyewitness can be plain wrong.
(2) Whenever these early sources are also derived from eyewitnesses who actually participated in some of the events, this provides one of the strongest evidences possible.
Again, not much argument, except that eyewitness sourcing has to demonstrated, not assumed.
(3) Independent attestation of a report by more than one source is another chief indication that a particular claim may be factual.
This is surprisingly understated, considering the source. Apologists more typically treat multiple independent attestation as if it entailed something close to infallibility. Still, this is another point well taken. It is true that, at least for mundane reports, independent corroboration practically clinches an inference of factuality. We need to be clear on what independence means, though. "Independence" is not equivalent to "not in conspiracy." Two sources are independent if we can be reasonably sure that (1) the later source did not get the information from the earlier source or (2) they did not both rely on a common third source.
Acquaintance alone does not necessarily refute independence. Either Matthew or Luke could be treated as independent of Mark, even if they were familiar with Mark, provided he used at least one source that Mark knew nothing about. But it cannot be assumed that either of them had such a source. It has to be demonstrated with evidence, and until it is, their obvious familiarity with Mark's gospel means that among the three of them, we have only one independent source. Similar arguments apply to John's gospel, and so we do not have four independent sources. Until proven otherwise, we have only one.
The remaining criteria on Habermas's list seem to apply particularly to New Testament studies rather than to historiography in general.
(4) A rather skeptical criterion of authenticity is termed dissimilarity or discontinuity. Although it is frequently criticized, it continues to be a very popular tool for determining the historicity of some of Jesus’ teachings. Here it is thought that a particular saying can be attributed to someone only if it cannot be plausibly accounted for as the words or teaching of other contemporary sources. For Jesus, it must be determined if one of the Gospel teachings can be attributed to either Jewish thought or to the exhortations of the early church.
In other words, apparently, Jesus must have said it if no one else was likely to have said it. We're not concerned in this essay with Jesus' teachings, so this can pass without further comment.
(5) Another criterion applied to Gospel studies is the presence of Aramaic words, substrata, environment, or other indications of a Palestinian origin.
This, too, has no bearing on the point of this essay.
(6) Coherence is a more general criterion. If a purported event or teaching fits well with what is already known concerning other surrounding occurrences and teachings of Jesus, it may be said to have a basis in history.
Obviously, a story loses historical credibility if it reports events of a kind that we antecedently know were not happening in that place at that time. Absent such incoherence, though, what we get is not necessarily fact. What we get is verisimilitude.
(7) The principle of embarrassment, negative report, or surprise is indicated by the presence of disparaging remarks made by the author about him/herself, another individual, or event concerning which the author is friendly and has a vested interest.
The presupposition at work here is that we antecedently know what the authors would have regarded as an embarrassment to themselves or whatever cause they wished to promote, but there seems to be no way to determine that without presupposing that (a) the gospels are historically accurate and (b) Christians of the first century believed essentially the same things that orthodox Christianity has been teaching ever since Constantine's time. Once again, while Christians may be justified in accepting those presuppositions, non-Christians are under no intellectual obligation to share them. (I address the criterion of embarrassment at greater length in "What embarrassment?")
(8) The criterion of enemy attestation is satisfied when an antagonistic source expresses agreement regarding a person or event when it is contrary to their best interests to do so.
Enemy attestation means an attestation made by an enemy, not an attestation attributed to the enemy by friendly forces. This criterion could be very useful in the present context if we had some documents, written by some of Christianity's adversaries, saying something that Christians have always said about Jesus. It is of no use whatever if all we have are some Christian documents claiming that Jesus' adversaries were saying those things about him. And, the relevant point for this essay is that there exists no enemy attestation to Jesus, favorable or otherwise, by anybody who was in a position to have any firsthand knowledge of him. The earliest alleged non-Christian reference, favorable or otherwise, to Jesus' existence was Josephus's, and he was not alive during Jesus' lifetime. Before that, all we have is what Christians were claiming that Jesus' enemies said about him.
Having listed his criteria, Habermas then proposes his minimal facts method. In the referenced article, he does not give a particular exemple of the method in actual use. But William Lane Craig has used it implicitly for years. He claims (http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-resurrection-of-jesus) that the following facts, among others, are not only uncontested by secular historians but also multiply and independently attested.
According to Craig, these four facts are "agreed upon by the majority of scholars," but majority acceptance does not suffice to make them minimal facts if the majority and the minority are characterized by different biases. Minimal facts according to Habermas are just those facts that are accepted by relevant authorities regardless of their bias. But let us not be distracted by that for now. Let us assume that skeptics are well represented in that majority that Craig appeals to. If those facts are as well attested by multiple independent sources as Craig and Habermas say they are, then we can disregard the authorities and make up our own minds about how reasonable it is to doubt that they are actual facts.
We have five candidate sources: Paul and the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The first question is whether any of them witnessed any of the events they wrote about. We're going to discuss Paul separately, so for now we'll move on to the gospels. Aside from church dogmas there is no evidence that any gospel author witnessed anything he wrote about or that he talked to anybody who had witnessed anything. Luke, though he claims that there were witnesses, does not say that he actually spoke with any of them. As noted earlier, we cannot prove even that any gospel was written within the lifetime of any possible witness. That doesn't mean we know they weren't, just that we cannot know that they were. Christians can justifiably believe they were, but skeptics can, with equal justification, believe they were not. We can go with the majority academic view and suppose they were all written between 70 and 100 CE, and in that case it's possible the authors could have talked with some witnesses, but it's only a possibility. None of them says he did. We can be reasonably confident, that, at most, they were recording oral traditions circulating within their respective communities.
What they could have been witnessing, then, was their communities' belief. We can trust what they said about what Christians of the late first century believed about how their religion got started. But they do not tell us what reasons they had for believing it or whether they had any reasons at all other than "This is what we were told." And, we cannot simply assume that each community's tradition evolved independently of the others. It could have happened, but we cannot assume that it did. We have to consider it possible that John's community got their traditions from Luke's, and Luke's got their traditions from Matthew's, or that all three of them got their traditions from Mark's community. Most contemporary scholars do not think that the four authors wrote independently of one another, but even if they did, it does not follow that they were reporting from independent traditions. The four communities could all have gotten their traditions from a single common source.
Let's compare this to a nearly ideal scenario. Suppose we had four documents all reliably dated to around 40 CE, written by four people who, as best we can tell, had no contact with one another and exhibited no apparent sympathy for Christianity. If these writers all claimed that some Christians had told them, "We saw Jesus buried, we saw his tomb empty three days later, he then appeared to us and we're now certain that he was resurrected," then we would probably be irrational in believing that no Christians were saying any of those things. Why? What would make such evidence so compelling? It would be compelling evidence because of the extreme improbability of four people independently claiming that Christians were saying those things if Christians were not really saying those things.
That is what the concept of evidence is all about. A fact is evidence for some event if, had the event not occurred, it would not be a fact. So we have to ask: If Jesus was never actually buried, or if nobody had actually found his tomb empty, is it really so hard to believe that, forty or more years later a lot people could believe some stories about him being buried and somebody finding his tomb empty? For Christians, maybe that is impossible to believe. For the rest of us, it's not even an oddity. There are countless cases of large numbers of people believing, without the slightest doubt in their minds, that certain things happened even though nothing of the sort actually did happen.
These are the minimal facts, then—not Jesus' burial, not the discovery of the empty tomb, not the appearances, and not the disciples' belief in his resurrection. The minimal facts are that during the late first century, starting perhaps sometime during or after the First Jewish War, Christians were telling each other—and believing—stories about Jesus' burial, about some women finding his tomb empty, etc. There is nothing the least bit improbable about the conjunction of that fact with the nonoccurrence of the resurrection.
This does not presuppose that there is anything improbable about the resurrection itself. Even if it were a common occurrence for dead people to return to life, it would still be reasonable to say that the gospels fail to prove that it happened on this particular occasion. Just because some Christians forty years later believed it happened does not mean that it must have happened, not even if there is no argument about the possibility of its happening.
What about Paul, who apparently was writing only twenty years later? Well, nothing in his epistles is a minimal fact, because there is nothing in them that we can be certain he himself actually wrote.
I need to be careful here. I'm not suggesting, as a handful of people do, that Paul never existed or that he didn't write any of the documents attributed to him. I regard it as essentially certain that he did exist, that he wrote up to half a dozen of the letters with his name on them, and that he wrote them several years before the First Jewish War. The problem is, it's also pretty certain that he did not write everything that is in the extant copies. There is much debate over how much was added, but almost no one except inerrantists think nothing was added. And it is not the case that everything in a document must be presumed authentic excepting only those particular passages that are provably inauthentic. If we are reasonably convinced that any part of a document is an interpolation, then the entire document loses its presumption of authenticity. We have no grounds for simply assuming that no other part of it is an interpolation. (Robert Price develops this notion more fully in his essay Apocryphal Apparitions.) The most we can suppose is that most of it is probably, but not certainly, authentic.
Now, one part of the Pauline corpus that practically nobody has any doubt about is in Galatians (1:11-12) where Paul says that he got his gospel from no man. But back in I Corinthians 15, he claims to be passing on a creed that was handed down to him. So, exactly what is Paul witnessing to in Corinthians? He says Christ was buried. Did he witness that? No, he did not. Christ rose on the third day. Did Paul witness that? No, he did not. Christ appeared to many people, but Paul could not have witnessed those appearances. Last of all, Christ appeared to Paul. That, he could have witnessed.
This passage is usually called a creedal formula. Apologists insist on calling it that, because then they can carry on about how it has to have predated Paul and thus constitutes an earlier witness than Paul himself. But a creed is not a witness to anything. A creed is a statement or set of statements that members of a religion are required to affirm their belief in. There is nothing about any creed, nothing in the way it is used, that entails its being true. Paul is saying in effect, "Let me remind you people, I told you like it was told to me, we have to believe these things or else we're not real Christians." But Paul's apparent claim that he was told these things contradicts his claim that he was told nothing of the gospel by any man. However, let's go with the apologists who say there is no real contradiction. We'll assume that the Corinthians passage is authentically Pauline. Even so, he is not claiming to have witnessed the death, burial, or resurrection of Christ. He is claiming, at most, to know some people who told him that these things happened. Somebody told him that Christ died, was buried, rose again the third day, and appeared to several people. Who told him these things? Paul does not say who told him. His sources are unknown to us. We have only Paul's word for it, if we even have that, that anyone besides himself saw the risen Christ.
And so what is the most that Paul can be a witness to? He witnesses that before he was himself converted, some Christians believed in a Christ who died and was buried, and who rose again the third day, and that Cephas, James, and several others were claiming to have seen him afterward. Beyond that, we have nothing from Paul himself. It apparently was enough to convince Paul that Christ actually did rise from the dead. It does not follow that it has to be enough to convince us. We have no reason to presume that Paul was incapable of poor judgment or that he was not just plain gullible. We can stipulate, if we must, that Paul actually wrote every word of it and sincerely believed every word of it. Even at that, we can still believe that there was no resurrection without believing anything that is the least bit improbable. There is no fact that Paul claims to have witnessed that is inconsistent with the resurrection's never having happened.
To sum up, then, the minimal facts are not what Habermas and other apologists say they are. The minimal facts do not include Jesus' burial, or the discovery of the empty tomb, or any appearances to any of his followers, or even any belief among his disciples that he had risen. We do not hear about these things from anybody who we know saw any of them happen. Even were it the case that nearly all scholars agree that they did happen, it is reasonable to think that this is one instance where the scholarly consensus is simply mistaken.
Habermas, Gary. "Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels." Christian Research Journal, vol. 28, 2005. Reprinted at http://www.garyhabermas.com/articles/crj_recentperspectives/crj_recentperspectives.htm. Accessed July 15, 2010.
(This essay last updated on March 20, 2017.)