The “minimal facts approach” to the resurrection question is an approach that focuses on the lowest common denominator of agreed upon facts. For the most part, all facts presented within this approach meet two criteria: “they are well evidenced and nearly every scholar accepts them” (Habermas & Licona, 2004, p. 44). This approach only considers strongly attested historical data. So strongly in fact, that they are almost universally granted by nearly every scholar, both the skeptical and believing. The basic premise of this approach follows the presentation of five facts.
Acceptance is almost universal for the first four facts whereas the fifth fact, although it has a preponderance of evidence in its favor, does not enjoy the same consensus. The first fact is that Jesus died by crucifixion. Josephus, a Jewish historian; Tacitus, a Roman historian; Lucian, a Greek satirist; Mara Bar-Serapion, a Syrian philosopher; and the Jewish Talmud attest to it historically. All of these sources are non-Christian and should be viewed with a higher degree of authenticity because they are unbiased (Habermas & Licona, 2004). The second fact is that Jesus’ disciples believed that He rose and appeared to them.
What could transform a group of “fearful, cowering individuals who denied and abandoned Him [Jesus] at His arrest and execution into bold proclaimers of the gospel of the risen Lord” (Habermas & Licona, 2004, p. 50)? These men had nothing to gain from their claims. In fact, they remained consistent with their beliefs even in the face of beatings, torture, imprisonment, and their own martyrdom. Nine early and independent sources confirm that the disciples claimed the resurrection. These fall into three categories: the testimony of Paul about the disciples, the early church’s oral tradition, and the written works of the early church.
Succinctly put, even when merely viewing the New Testament as an ancient collection of writings, there is strong evidence to assert that the disciples claimed the resurrection of Jesus. The third fact is that the former church persecutor Paul was suddenly and radically changed. What caused this once stanch defender of Judaism to transform suddenly into Christianity’s biggest proponent? As a Pharisee, he would have hated anything that disrupted or disputed the traditions of the Jewish people (Strobel, 1998). Yet, Paul develops into the most important person in the Christian world outside of Jesus Himself.
Paul believed that Jesus rose from the dead. Paul writes in Galatians that he had an encounter with the risen Lord, Jesus Christ. This was what changed him forever. Paul was eventually executed for his belief in and proclamation of Jesus. The fourth fact is that James, Jesus’ brother, was also changed from being a skeptic to a believer. In the gospels, James is described as an unbeliever. He was too preoccupied with thinking of Jesus as an earthly brother to fully comprehend what was happening around him with regard to the coming of the Messiah.
Once James believes that he has seen the risen Jesus, his life is transformed. James the unbeliever becomes James the Just; one whose knees became hard like those of a camel from the many hours spent praying. James was later martyred for his faith in Jesus (Habermas & Licona, 2004). As mentioned before, the vast majority of critical scholars hardly dispute all of the first four facts. The fifth fact, while not able to necessarily meet the “minimal facts approach,” still has a strong amount of evidence for it. The fifth fact is that the tomb was empty. There are three key points one must consider about this fifth fact.
The first is that Jesus was publically executed in Jerusalem. A major and probable fatal blow would have been dealt to Christianity’s claim that Jesus had risen from the dead had Jewish or Roman authorities exhumed the body in a public showing. However, there are no ancient records of this happening in Christian, Jewish, or Roman writings. Another point about the fifth fact is that even the enemies of Jesus enemies admitted, although indirectly (Habermas & Licona, 2004). His enemies circulated a rumor that the disciples had stolen the body. Biblical and non-biblical sources attest to this fact.
If the story was invented that Jesus’ body was stolen then the actual body had to be missing. Otherwise, what is the point of spreading the rumor? Simply, show the body and crush the movement for this so-called “Messiah”. However, that is not what happened. The only early opposing theory was that the disciples had stolen the body, which implies the tomb was empty. The final point about the fifth fact is through the testimony of women. Women’s testimonies in first century were considered on par with robbers according to the Talmud (Habermas & Licona, 2004).
Their testimonies carried as much weight as someone caught stealing who would naturally lie to avoid trouble if the opportunity presented itself. The New Testament highlights this fact because the disciples did not believe the women’s story that Jesus rose from the dead. So, if the empty tomb was made up, why would the disciples invent women to be the first witnesses of the Resurrection? It does not make sense. It would have been easier to have men find the tomb empty if the authors were trying to appeal to the masses as opposed to simply writing the truth.
The author of this essay agrees with the approach of the minimal facts theory. In utilizing this approach, refuters of the resurrection must come up with plausible defenses of their criticisms without being able to simply dismiss the biblical version a priori because they believe the Bible to not be authoritative in nature. References Habermas, G. R. & Licona, M. R. (2004). The case for the resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications. Strobel, L. (1998). The case for Christ: A journalist’s personal investigation of the evidence of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.