The Four (plus one) Facts
These “facts” were determined by Gary Habermas. Habermas researched some 1,400 scholarly articles from 1975 forward. In these articles (mostly written in German, French and English), Habermas finds that there are four historical facts that receive nearly unanimous support from liberal and conservative scholars; the fifth fact has a very high level of acceptance, but it does not have the near unanimous support that the other four receive.
My own mentor, Dr. Robert Morey, has listed twelve facts in his work The Encyclopedia of Practical Christianity. I was very pleased to see these four (plus) one minimal facts of Dr. Habermas to be in the list of Dr. Morey “many infallible proofs.” For the sake of brevity, however, I will stick with Habermas' five facts.
Now what I am not saying is that just because there is scholarly agreement on these facts that the resurrection of Jesus happened. To the contrary, I am saying that based on these facts we have to come up with the best conclusion that fits the facts. Any conclusion must take into account these five facts. Any conclusion that does not account for these five facts is lacking in explanatory power and scope and must be rejected as a valid conclusion.
So what are the four (plus one) minimal facts? One, that Jesus actually died by crucifixion. Second, that Jesus’ disciples actually believed that they experienced the risen Jesus. The third fact; is the conversion of the church persecutor, Saul of Tarsus. The fourth fact is the conversion of the skeptic James. The final fact is the empty tomb. Now I want to examine these facts a bit more closely. There is quite a lot of information that I wish to share on these five points. Therefore I will be breaking this summation of the five evidences into two parts. Part one will consist of a discussion of Jesus’ death, and the belief of the disciples that Jesus resurrected form the dead. In part two, I will discuss the conversions of Paul and James, and the empty tomb.
Jesus’ Death by Crucifixion
First, this fact is reported in all four gospels. So the skeptic cannot, as some have, claim that the crucifixion was a later addition to the gospel narrative. Skeptics have done this with the resurrection account as no detailed account occurs in Mark’s Gospel. The skeptic may claim, however, that it is circular for a Christian to use the bible to prove a claim in the bible. I believe that this objection has no merit because I do not rely solely on the biblical record, but I also use sources outside the Bible.
The Ancient Jewish historian Josephus said, “When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, he had condemned him to be crucified….” (Ant. 18:3). The Roman Senator and historian Tacitus said, “Nero fastened the guilt [of the burning of Rome] and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus” (Annals 15:44). The Assyrian historian and satirist, Lucian of Samosata in The Death of Peregrine said, “The Christians, you know, worship this man to this day the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account” (11-13). In a letter residing in the British Museum we find this writing from the ancient Syrian Stoic philosopher Mara Bar Serapion, “Or [what advantage came to] the Jews by the murder of their Wise King, seeing that from that very time their kingdom was driven away from them?” There are even references to this event in Jewish religious literature as found in the Jewish Talmud, “on the eve of Passover Yeshu was hanged” (Sanhedrin 43a). Lastly, even John Dominic Crossan of the liberal Jesus Seminar stated, “That he [Jesus] was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be” (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991], 145; see also 154, 196, 201).
It is interesting to note that there are a group of fringe atheists that are stating that Jesus never existed. Based on the internal and external evidence however, it is no surprise that the mainstream of New Testament scholarship be they liberal or conservative; believe that Jesus’ death is a fact of history. These “Jesus myth” proponents are either not familiar with the evidence, or they are “cherry picking” evidence that fits their preconceptions. I will address these objections more fully at a later date.
The Disciples’ Belief That Jesus Rose from the Dead
This belief that Jesus rose from the dead was the central point of their preaching and writing. Paul stated that the disciples claimed that Jesus rose from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:9-11; Galatians 2:1-10). Paul claimed the he had an encounter with the risen Jesus (2 Cor. 10:8; 11:5; 13:10; 1 Thess. 2:6; 4:2; 2 Thess. 3:4; Philem. 1:21). This Pauline claim was acknowledged by the Apostolic Fathers (Clement of Rome [1 Clem. 5:3-5], Polycarp [Pol. Phil. 3:2; 12:1], Ignatius [Ign. Rom. 4:3]).
Further, New Testament research has discovered that the resurrection of Jesus was part of the early oral tradition of the church. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is a primitive early Christian creed that was used in the early Christian church:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
There are some very important elements about this creed. First, it is an early testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. Secondly, it is very probably testimony from eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. Thirdly, it contains multiple testimonies to Jesus’ resurrection; Cephas/Peter, the 12, more than 500 at one time, James, all the apostles, and Paul. Lastly, it records the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to the 12, the 500-plus, and all the apostles.
Scholars have determined that this statement is a creed based on the use of the words “delivered” and “received”. Paul is clearly communicating to the Corinthian Christians that he was giving them something he had received through oral tradition. Further, there are indications of Aramaic in this verse. The first is the use of the Greek word hoti, which was common in creeds of the day. Second the use of the Aramiac name Cephas instead of the Greek Peter since Paul was writing in Greek. Thirdly, the text is highly stylized in its use of parallelisms. Lastly, there are terms in this passage that are only found in this passage and no where else in any Pauline letters.
This creed is also dated very early by New Testament scholars. Most scholars place the date of this creed to within five years of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus died around AD 30. Paul’s conversion is generally placed between AD 31 and 33. After his conversion, Paul spent three years away from Jerusalem, and after this time away, Paul then visits Peter and James in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:18-19). It is generally believed that Paul received the creed at this time.
There is another option for when Paul received this creed. It could be that he received it directly after his conversion while in Damascus. Either way Paul received this creed within two to five years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and from someone whom Paul deemed as a trustworthy source.
The very latest date that scholars place on this creed is AD 51. Paul is writes that he received this and that he delivered this to them while he was in Corinth (1 Corinthians 15:3). This visit is dated around AD 51. Therefore Paul had the creedal information prior to his visit to Corinth and from a source he deemed trustworthy. Many skeptics will claim that the inclusion of this creed is circular since we are “quoting the bible in order to prove a claim of the bible.” Paul has a history of quoting from non-Christian sources in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 15:33; Titus 1:12; Acts 17:28), this does not, however, make them New Testament sources. The evidence presented above demonstrates that this creed did not have its origin in Paul. Therefore this creed can be claimed as a non-New Testament source.
We also have the sermon summaries found in the book of Acts (chapters 1-5, 10, 13 & 17). These sermons can be dated to within twenty years of the resurrection. There are points that are seen in these summaries. First, that there was early testimony to Jesus’ resurrection. Second, that these were possible eyewitness testimony to Jesus’ resurrection. Lastly, that these are testimonies of the group appearances (Acts 10 and 13).
Lastly, we have written tradition. All four gospels testify to Jesus’ death and resurrection. These gospels contain the multiple claims by the disciples that were written down within seventy years of the event that is central to these books.
We also have the testimony of the Apostolic Fathers, namely Clement of Rome (A.D. 95, 1 Clem. 42:3) and Polycarp (A.D. 110, Pol. Phil 9:2).
The fact that the disciples actually believed that Jesus rose from the dead is clear from a number of historical facts. These men documented their denial and abandonment of Jesus at his arrest. They were cowering in fear at the death of their leader. Something happened, however, that transformed these quivering cowards into fearless public preachers of a resurrected Jesus, even to the point of death. Luke, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Dionysius of Corinth (cited by Eusebius), Tertullian, and Origen speak of disciples that fearlessly faced suffering and gruesome deaths based on the belief that Jesus rose from the dead.
I do not want to oversell this point. The willingness of the apostles to suffer and die for their testimony of the resurrected Jesus is evidence of their sincerity. These disciples truly believed that Jesus rose from the dead. Nor do I imply that their sincerity verifies the truth of their belief. There are many people that have suffered and been willing to die for various religions and causes. What their willingness to suffer, however, does demonstrate that they were not liars. Liars make poor martyrs. Since Jesus’ followers sincerely believed that he rose from the dead and appeared to them, then assertions of legends and lies do not account for the appearances of Jesus because the original apostles both claimed and believed that the risen Jesus had appeared to them.
In my next post on the Jude3blog I will discuss the conversions of Paul and James, and the empty tomb.