But there are actually three established facts recognized by the majority of New Testament historians today which I believe are best explained by the resurrection of Jesus.
– William Lane Craig
One can imagine the impact on an untutored mind of a phrase as commanding as “established facts’ or the idea that to challenge these facts is to challenge the consensus of historians; one would have to be crazy to go against the mainstream findings of an academic discipline, setting aside Creationism for a moment. Unlike many of the arguments for the existence of God, which are essentially matters of pure philosophy and therefore, while I would prefer to preserve them for the experts, we are all on some level capable to engaging them, the Argument for the Existence of God from the Historicity of the Resurrection requires some skill as an historian to refute and one must have access to substantial library. Offering the Argument for the Existence of God from the Historicity of the Resurrection, however, requires almost no skill as an historian, which is not to suggest that only the unskilled offer it; I am reminded that nonsense is the one of the few things that is harder to destroy than it is to create.
I stopped into a library to see if I could put my hands on a book about the historicity of Jesus, his life, times, death, the near effects of this death, and possibly his resurrection, ‘possibly’ because I can predict that a certain level of skepticism might reject the proposition that history is capable of establishing the existence of a miracle. Charmingly, because it feels like it’s becoming antiquated, the library utilized the Dewey Decimal Classification (it’s no longer a system, as I remember being taught in elementary school) and I made my way to the 232s, putting my finger on The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders. Libraries, I have long believed, are sacred places, mausoleums, on the one hand, and full of life, on the other; it is here, after all, that we store the longest lasting effects of our species’ best minds, and here, inevitably, where we go to better our own. This particular library pleases me: it is small, which means the librarian has to take considerably more care in selected which books which fill the shelves, and, on a personal level, I sat on the committee which hired our current librarian.
To be clear, The Historical Figure of Jesus was the only book in 232s and I took this to mean that it was fairly representative of the consensus to which William Lane Craig referred to in his phrase: “established fact.’ The Preface to The Historical Figure of Jesus begins:
Most scholars who write about the ancient world feel obliged to warn their readers that our knowledge can be at best partial and that certainty is seldom attained. A book about a first-century Jew who lived in a rather unimportant part of the Roman empire must be prefaced by such a warning.
Sanders then proceeds to provide a few brief examples which are expounded upon in greater detail through the course of his books. Some are hard to dispute, such as the unavailability of maps to the New Testament authors, but surely there is a fact of the matter. Others are the stuff of contention, such as Sanders point that the availability of, “very little information about [Jesus] apart from the works written to glorify him.’ Sanders alludes to bias in the New Testament, bias which I can accept is present in virtually all writing – probably even this sentence can be found to have some – but where bias meets the reporting of true facts, historians and the religious find themselves in unpleasant uncertainty. This particular uncertainty is, however, always disputed by the religious – and I would say, thus, proving the point – thus deepening the question and making the fact of matter, perhaps tenable, but certainly more difficult to establish and far from established by the “majority of New Testament historians.’
The “majority’ as William Lane Craig explains (and as I have commented in section XL of this chapter) is about authority and the authority which establishes fact as fact. I respect the idea of a cannon and the idea of expertise. After concluding his summary of the limitations which intrude upon certainty, Sanders writes: “These limitations, which were common in the ancient world, result in a good deal of uncertainty,’ and one wonders whether Sanders is in the majority that William Lane Craig so depends upon – my librarian thought Sanders was representative, at least.
William Lane Craig’s website, reasonablefaith.org or Reasonable Faith with William Lane Craig, offers a variety of ways for individuals to interact with each other, discuss William Lane Craig, his book, and his arguments, and receive content about or from William Lane Craig. Its own mission statement is: “to provide in the public arena an intelligent, articulate, and uncompromising yet gracious Christian perspective on the most important issues concerning the truth of the Christian faith today.’ There is a weekly Q & A feature which allows individuals the opportunity to ask, often at great length, questions of William Lane Craig, one of which he answers each week. I would like to focus on Question 98: “Historical Facts pertinent to Jesus’ Resurrection.’ It was asked with great but expected and acceptable sycophancy by a person named Francis. He askes:
So my question is: what do you mean by the words “historical fact”?
What I’ve surmised so far, is that in your eyes, a “historical fact” is that which is generally accepted by most of the scholars in that field. Like a general or majority consensus among Biblical scholars.
William Lane Craig’s response is astute. He writes:
I disagree with Carl Becker’s claim that historical facts are the historian’s statements about events. So I don’t take a historical fact to be “that which is generally accepted by most of the scholars in that field.’ I write, “Rather a historical fact is either the historical event itself or a piece of accurate information about that event’ (p. 231)
Thus, William Lane Craig maintains that fact is fact and there are facts of the matter. This would suggest that fact does not rely upon or emanate from opinion, majority opinion, or consensus. But, William Lane Craig also writes:
Sometimes I’ll call these “established’ facts to draw attention to the fact that these events enjoy the affirmation of the wide majority of New Testament scholarship today. […] Indeed, it came as something of a shock to me when in the course of my doctoral work on the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection I realized that there was not merely a good case to be made that these events really occurred, that is to say, that they are facts, but that the majority of New Testament scholars who have written on this subject agree that they are facts!
Thus, William Lane Craig seems to be stating that while facts are facts, some facts are widely agreed upon. What does this agreement do to the fact? or, to the viewer of the fact? I’m not sure. While we ought not confuse majority opinion with fact, we are perhaps more convinced by majority opinions. Consider how William Lane Craig advances his claim about the facts that New Testament scholars agree upon:
In a bibliographical survey of over 2,200 publications on the resurrection in English, French, and German since 1975, Gary Habermas found that 75% of scholars accept the historicity of the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb and that there is near universal agreement on the post-mortem appearances.
Such a study sounds compelling and I can think of no other way to establish consensus than to systematically survey literally thousands of books and articles from several nations’ worth of academia and measure them systematically as data. One wonders if that’s what Gary Habermas did.
Gary Habermas is the Distinguished Professor of Apologetics and Philosophy (a professorship one cannot find at most universities) and chairmen of the department of philosophy and theology (a department which one cannot find at most universities) at Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971. I certainly haven’t established that Habermas’ affiliation with Liberty University is sufficient until itself to impeach Habermas’ academic credibility – a study can be done by anyone and, more importantly, anyone can do a study well. William Lane Craig, in his answer to Francis in the reasonablefaith.org Q & A, references a 2006 article in Dialog, a journal published in affiliation with the Lutheran Church. The article, incidentally, is not the first in which Habermas references his extensive study. He mentions it in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. In both, however, Habermas merely claims that the study has been done, that the data exists, and then offers his conclusions. Unto itself, this is peculiar and while the actual data of a study is often times not itself published, it is always available for scholars to examine and certainly scrutinized as part of the peer review process. In this day and age, I would expect a webpage of Habermas’ website with a list of the 2,200 books and articles. There could be a giant table with some sort of notation system and intricate commentary. Instead, searching through his entire website, garyhabermas.com, we find this comment, also in a Q & A section:
Question: In one of your books you mentioned that 75 % of scholars accept the empty tomb tradition in the gospels as historically true. Do you have the source for that?
Answer: I have not documented the list of scholars yet, although I have mentioned the study in a few places. Partially, this is because new studies are regularly coming out and I want to be as complete as I can. I am presently hoping to go back and update that study and see if any of the statistics have changed. But I do mention the statistics in a recently -published article, “Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?” It was published in The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus (Vol. 3, 2005).
It has been five years since the study, apparently, and those statistics have yet to be supported with data. I have not discovered similar studies, compelling though they would be. At this point, I would suggest that William Lane Craig is not right to hang his hat on a study which cannot be examined, but I would like to compound this comment.
In Dialog in 2006 in an article entitled “Experiences of the Risen Jesus: The Foundational Historical Issue in the Early Proclamation of the Resurrection,’ Habermas attempts to sketch those historical facts which constitute the content of historical consensus. He writes: “For a variety of reasons, contemporary scholars widely conclude that after his death, Jesus’ followers at least thought that they had seen appearances of the risen Jesus.’ But, “Do the disciples’ beliefs that they had witnessed resurrection appearances provide any clues as to what may really have occurred?’ Again, there is a reference to scholars who “widely conclude.’ Who are these scholars?
One which Habermas discusses, I was pleasantly pleased to discover, was E.P. Sanders. Habermas writes:
The substantially unanimous verdict of contemporary critical scholars is that Jesus’ disciples at least believed that Jesus was alive, resurrected from the dead. Reginald Fuller refers to the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection as “one of the indisputable facts of history.” Upon what was their claim based? Fuller continues that it is clear that the disciples had real experiences, characterized as appearances or visions of the risen Jesus. Whether these are explained naturally or supernaturally, this experience “is a fact upon which both believer and unbeliever may agree.”
In recent studies of the historical Jesus, this aspect has enjoyed the support of a broad scholarly consensus. E.P Sanders declares that the “equally secure facts” indicate that Jesus’ disciples “saw him (in what sense is not certain) after his death . . . . Thereafter his followers saw him.”
The issue becomes complicated very quickly, but I think this is the essence of honest scholarship. Reginald Fuller may have commented that the disciples had real experiences, a book on Christology would doubtlessly make this claim and within theology, as opposed to history, it seems acceptable, necessary, and proper. To say that these experiences may have had a natural origin, as opposed to the supernatural origin of Jesus’ actual divinity, however, is to confuse what we mean by “real’ when affixed to “experience.’ An hallucination of a burning bush, for example, is not a “real’ experience when compared to the sober witness of an actual burning bush. Likewise, Sanders’ point that “Jesus’ disciples ‘saw him (in what sense is not certain) after this death” is not a conclusion about Jesus, but about the report from his disciples. What is agreed upon is that we are not confused about the order events: in the New Testament, the crucifixion occurred before the resurrection and there are stories about Jesus that occur after the resurrection. It’s worth noting as well that E.P. Sanders comment about the disciples seeing Jesus after his death appears in Chapter 2 and it is a sketch of the undisputed, basic chronology of his life – the rest of the book, however, is about how this outline is hard to establish. Moreover, this basic chronology does make the reported events “real.’ The realness of those facts may be something which we can arrive through some careful and cautious inferences or through faith, but, considering what we do not know and what we cannot know, those “facts’ are a matter of certainty, as E.P. Sanders also wrote. And, finally, it’s also worth pointing out that E.P. Sanders dedicates his epilogue to the Resurrection, a epilogue which one would image Habermas might have turned to for a more precise quotation on Sander’s determinations about some of the questions at hand. Sanders comments on the divergent narrations, the different descriptions of Jesus’ physical appearance, and the context of Paul’s comments on the resurrection. He comments: “Faced with accounts of this nature – sharply diverging stories of where and to whom Jesus appeared, lack of agreement and clarity on what he was like (except agreement on negatives) – we cannot reconstruct really happened. ‘ It seems contrary to Sanders’ actual words to include him with those scholars who hold the facts of Jesus’ life, particularly those facts that are supernatural in nature, as certain and it seems wrong to exclude him from a consensus of historians.
Habermas also writes:
Contemporary critical scholars agree that the apostle Paul is the primary witness to the early resurrection experiences. A former opponent (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13-14; Phil. 3:4-7), Paul states that the risen Jesus appeared personally to him (1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8; Gal. 1:16). The scholarly consensus here is attested by atheist Michael Martin, who avers: “However, we have only one contemporary eyewitness account of a postresurrection appearance of Jesus, namely Paul’s. ‘
Again, something is being pocketed here. From what I can tell, “contemporary critical scholars agree that the apostle Paul is the primary witness to the early resurrection experiences’ because this is precisely what the New Testament depicts; in other words, we can all agree on what the report says. But, what actually happened? Does Habermas think Martin thinks that Paul actually saw the resurrected Jesus or just that the report clearly reports this? Does Habermas allow his reader to suppose the former but not the latter? As it turns out, the latter is by far closer to Martin’s intent. In fact, in context, it seems ridiculous to depict Martin as anything but extraordinarily critical. And on the mere fact that Paul was an eyewitness, Martin, I think, does not agree. Martin writes:
What about Paul’s own account of the appearance of Jesus? Written many years after the event, it gives not description of the resurrected Jesus. After mentioning other alleged appearances of Jesus, Paul says: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me’ (1 Cor. 15.8). It is unclear from this if Paul’s experience was that of an embodied Jesus and, if it was an experience of a body, if other people would have had a similar experience if they had been similarly situated. (It is worth noting that the description of Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus in Acts 22:6-8 is merely of a light and a voice, not of a body.) Thus, we have no good reason to suppose that Paul’s experience was not a hallucination.
This has been a rather lengthy examination of a very small thing. To recap, William Lane Craig has commented that, “There are actually three established facts recognized by the majority of New Testament historians today which I believe are best explained by the resurrection of Jesus.’ We can question what constitute a “fact,’ an “historical fact,’ and “established fact.’ William Lane Craig, however, on some level, will point to consensus and, when he has in the past, has pointed to Gary Habermas and a study which no one has seen. Habermas seems, however, to dramatically misinterpret those scholars who he reads. If Habermas’ tendency to misinterpret and remove quotations from their intended context is evident to me, it should be evident to William Lane Craig and I am concerned that Craig relies on Habermas.