Here we offer a brief introduction to the so-called “Minimal Facts” approach to the resurrection of Jesus Christ often employed by apologists to demonstrate the truth of the Christian religion. We will note what is meant by Minimal Facts and why Christian apologists argue that the resurrection hypothesis, which is that God supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead, explains these facts best, especially when compared to other naturalistic theories.
Presenting evidence for the Christian faith (1 Peter 3:15) is important for a Christian living in a secular culture. In such a culture, he finds himself having to provide evidence and arguments demonstrating his faith to be credible. It is important to advertise one’s religious perspective as reasonable in a highly contentious pluralistic marketplace of worldviews and ideologies. It cannot just be assumed that others will accept a particular faith or belief. To market his faith as reasonable, the Christian argues that the resurrection hypothesis, which posits that God raised Jesus supernaturally from the dead, is convincing on historical and evidential grounds.
Historical Evidence and the Minimal Facts Approach
When historians wish to learn about the historical Jesus they turn mostly to the New Testament sources. This, explains the agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman, “is not for religious or theological reasons… It is for historical reasons, pure and simple” (1). When the historian examines these documents, he does not assume that they have been inspired by God or any supernatural being. Instead, history is a secular discipline and the historian studies texts on secular grounds. He approaches the New Testament as a large compilation of historical documents and vets them through stringent historical criteria as he would any other ancient text from history.
The academic consensus is that, if we are speaking in a very reductionist manner, four facts concerning the historical Jesus are beyond a reasonable doubt. Scholar Gary Habermas has studied more than 3000 academic articles on the historical Jesus and found several facts that “are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar… even the rather skeptical ones” (2). These are the so-called Minimal Facts (MA):
Fact 1: Jesus’ death by Roman crucifixion.
Fact 2: Jesus’ burial in a tomb.
Fact 3: That the tomb in which Jesus was buried was found empty.
Fact 4: That Jesus’ disciples, skeptical brother, and the church persecutor Saul had experiences in which they believed Jesus has appeared to them after his death.
Let us briefly outline each fact.
Fact 1, explains Professor James Dunn, “command[s] almost universal assent” (3) while according to Gerd Lüdemann the “crucifixion is indisputable” (4). It is attested to in no less than eleven independent sources. It is important to underscore this point regarding independent attestation. The more sources the historian has concerning a supposed historical event (or saying of some historical figure), the more probable it is that it occurred. Historians are content to have just two independent sources for such events to deem them historical (5). Certainly, the sources for the crucifixion of Jesus surpass this standard.
Fact 2 is regarding Jesus’ burial, which is also attested in important sources. The historian finds it attested in early sources (the creed in 1 Cor. 15 and the Pre-Markan narrative). It is also independently attested in M (the Gospel of Matthew’s unique material) and L (the Gospel of Luke’s unique material), and John. Five sources therefore attest to the burial. According to John Robinson, the burial is one of “the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus” (6).
Fact 3 concerns the empty tomb. Unlike these other facts which command universal consensus, the empty tomb is accepted by roughly 75% or three-quarters of historians. This makes it the exception in the MA approach concerning where skepticism is to be found. However, most historians still accept the empty tomb as historical on evidential grounds. For example, the burial is independently attested in the early pre-Pauline creed (1 Cor. 15:1-11), the Pre-Markan Passion Narrative, and in all four gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John). According to Habermas, that “at least three, if not four, of these Gospel sources” attest to the empty tomb and is why it is “taken so seriously by contemporary critical scholars” (7).
Concerning fact 4, the historical consensus is that James (Jesus’ skeptical brother), Saul (the early persecutor and enemy of the Church who after his conversion took on the name Paul), and the disciples experienced resurrection appearances of Jesus after he had already been put to death. Historian Lüdemann, who is an atheist, states that “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ” (8). According to E. P. Sanders “we know that after his death his followers experienced what they described as the ‘resurrection’: the appearance of a living but transformed person who had actually died. They believed this, they lived it, and they died for it” (9). Historian Ehrman writes that “We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that… he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead” (10).
We are on good historical grounds to accept these four facts as historical. What is important then is what best explains the four facts.
Naturalistic Hypotheses Cannot Explain the Minimal Facts
Many critics try to explain the resurrection appearances of Jesus away as hallucinations. But the evidence is stacked against this explanation.
Paul, James, and the disciples constitute no less than thirteen individuals who believed they witnessed Jesus appearing to them. Paul also tells us that Jesus appeared to a group of 500 people (1 Corinthians 15:6, which is the early creed we have already mentioned. This creed is the earliest information we have for the historical Jesus dating to within five years to a few months of his crucifixion and cannot be the result of legendary development). It is incredibly unlikely that such a large number of individuals and groups had the exact same hallucination, especially since we know that hallucinations are subjectively unique to individuals and are extremely unlikely to be shared by more than one person.
Second, the apologist argues that the hallucination hypothesis cannot explain the empty tomb. The early claim by Jesus’ followers was that he was raised from the dead after he had been put to death. If that had not happened, his body would still quite obviously have been in the tomb. Some early critics strongly opposed early Christian claims of the resurrection (see Matthew 28:11-15, Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, 108. Tertullian’s On Spectacles, 30) and, to prove their point, would have only needed to check the tomb in which Jesus was buried and produce his body for all to see. This would have destroyed the claims made by Jesus’ early followers that Jesus had been raised from the dead. The Christian faith would not have gotten off the ground at the very beginning. This view is supported by historian and scholar N. T. Wright who explains that this is the very reason “why, as a historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him” (11).
Several other difficulties face the hallucination hypotheses. Notable is that the hypothesis cannot account for gospel details suggesting the physicality of Jesus’ resurrection body. The resurrected Jesus ate fish (Luke 24:42), offered the disciples an opportunity to touch his resurrection body (Luke 24:39, John 20:27), had some grab hold of his feet in worship (Matt. 28:9), and the disciple Thomas allegedly put his finger and hand into the place where the nails had been in Jesus’ body (John 20:27). As far as we know, hallucinations are not physical.
Other naturalistic hypotheses have also tried to explain away the Minimal Facts. The Swoon hypothesis claims that the crucified Jesus never died on the cross but was later revived. Of course, this is wild based on what we know about Roman crucifixion in history and the many victims of crucifixion, as well as the independent sources we have attesting to Jesus’ death. The swoon hypothesis also fails to explain Minimal Fact 4 because a severely injured Jesus (who supposedly would have survived intense flogging before his crucifixion, a great loss of blood, and having been pinned on a cross with nails; let us also notice that Jesus, on the swoon theory, would have had to escape his tomb in a sorry state by somehow rolling a massive stone away from its entrance only to then travel a distance to meet his disciples) would never have convinced the earliest disciples of his bodily resurrection.
Since this article is an introduction, we will leave our criticisms of skeptical hypotheses here. Let us then turn to the resurrection hypothesis.
The Resurrection Hypothesis Explains the Facts
The apologist argues that the actual historical bodily resurrection of Jesus best explains Minimal Facts 3 and 4 and is therefore richer in explanatory scope. If Jesus had not been raised from the dead then it seems highly unlikely that we would have Minimal Facts 3 and 4 in the first place, namely that Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty and that Jesus’ disciples, skeptical brother, the church persecutor Saul, and a large group of 500 people had experiences in which they believed Jesus has appeared to them after his death. Few would doubt that facts 3 and 4 are at least compatible with a resurrection. Apologists argue that they can only be sufficiently explained by a resurrection.
In the absence of satisfactory naturalistic explanations for Minimal Facts 3 and 4, the apologist argues that we should accept the resurrection hypothesis, namely that Jesus was supernaturally raised from the dead. According to William Lane Craig: “These three great facts–the resurrection appearances, the empty tomb, and the origin of the Christian faith–all point unavoidably to one conclusion: The resurrection of Jesus” (12).
- Ehrman, Bart. 2000. The New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 229
- Habermas, G. & Licona, M. 2004. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications. p. 44.
- Dunn, J. 2003. Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making. Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing. p. 339.
- Ludemann, G. 2004. The Resurrection of Christ. New York: Prometheus Book. p. 50
- Craig, W. 2009. Independent Sources for Jesus’ Burial and Empty Tomb. Available.
- Robinson, J. 1973. The Human Face of God. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 131.
- Habermas, G. 2005. Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels. Available.
- Ludemann, G. 1995. What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 80.
- Sanders, E. 1993. The Historical Figure of Jesus. London: Penguin Books.
- Ehrman, B. 1999. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 230-231
- Wright, N. 1993. “The New Unimproved Jesus” in Christianity Today. p. 26.
- Craig, W. Jesus’ Resurrection. Available.