Minimal Facts Indeed: A Reply to Gary Habermas Regarding Jesus’s Resurrection
The following is a guest post by author Andrew Livingston.
Let me start with a confession: I sometimes have trouble telling what counts as a cliché and what doesn’t. I think I’m hardly alone in this. The internet age has kind of scrambled our circuits. A joke or argument or meme that makes you bury your face in your hands thinking, “You know, if I wasn’t impressed the first 493 times I heard someone say that…” might sound fascinating and refreshing to the friend sitting at your side. And nowhere am I more confused about these things than when it comes to these matters of interfaith debate. Right now, for instance, I’m going to respond to the “minimal facts argument”; do you know what that is? I honestly can’t tell whether nine hundred and fifty out of a thousand people will think I’m beating a dead horse or if the entire subject is some obscure nerdy thing only people like myself who have way too much time on their hands could possibly feel over-immersed in.
Let me put it this way: how often have you seen a Christian bring up the following Bible passage during an argument with you?
I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. (1 Corinthians 15:3-11) 
If to you that’s a familiar situation, chances are you were indeed hearing the so-called “minimal facts” argument for Jesus’s resurrection, whether the actual phrase “minimal facts” itself came up or not.
If you haven’t heard any of this before, though, it’s all laid out in the following video from the Veritas Forum’s Youtube page, “The Resurrection Argument That Changed a Generation of Scholars—Gary Habermas at UCSB”. It is this video in particular I’ll be replying to.
Given that I can’t very well transcribe an hour and a half of speech (much of which can easily be skipped over without seriously damaging the flow of Habermas’s argumentation) I encourage you to watch the video first, in its entirety, and then continue reading.
Let me make it clear right off the bat that I have little interest in bickering over who has the academic consensus on his side—in this debate or any other—despite Habermas’s constant obsessing over said topic. I know that a lot of other Christian apologists will tell you the same thing: “We’re only iterating what a majority of scholars already agree on.” But the only poll to that effect any of them ever seem to cite was conducted by Habermas himself! Alan Segal, on the other hand, said that “rather than there being a consensus, there is actually a small group of scholars made up entirely of the faithful trying to impose their faith in the form of an academic argument on the general academic community.”  Is Segal right? Is he close? Could it matter? I have caught a fair amount of flak from other Muslims by saying this but truth is not determined by majority vote—even from the very most learned people. In the end all I care about is whether or not something makes sense; the rest is fluff and strutting. And so I will focus entirely on the reasoning Habermas employs, and why it will never add up no matter how many other people have made the same mistakes as he.
Here, without further ado, is Habermas’s attempt at historical proof for Jesus’s resurrection, interspersed with my commentary and rebuttal:
What if the skeptics are right [and The Bible is] neither inspired nor reliable? And it’s a book of ancient literature, on the level with Homer or Plato?…My argument is [that] we [still] have enough data…to argue that Jesus was raised from the dead…[To show that] The New Testament…fulfills the criteria for historiography…I’m going to be doing my Minimal Facts Argument. I’m going to be citing only data probably ninety-five percent will be accepted across the critical spectrum from conservative scholars to atheist scholars who study these disciplines…
I want you to take note of what Habermas just said: he is going to treat The Bible just like he would an unimportant secular ancient document, and not make any assumptions about its factuality beyond the points he specifically argues. Remember this pledge of his: fix it firmly in your mind. Because believe you me, it’s going to be an issue more than once before we’re done.
[Paul said to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 15:3,] “I gave you what I was given, as of first importance. We’re talking about the heart of Christianity right now,” he says, “and I’m telling you what I was told.” Okay…here’s the question: when and from whom did he receive this material? Do we have a clue?…Richard Bauckham [of] Cambridge University says that [it] is a consensus position amongst scholarship [that] Paul received this material about 35 A.D…How in the world would they know that? Let’s do the math…When did Paul have his Damascus road experience? Or for skeptics, when did Paul think Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus?
You guys caught that, right? If not, I’m going to explain later what he just did.
Paul says, [in] Galatians 1:16, “I met Jesus.” And then he said, “I didn’t go running up to Jerusalem to meet those who were apostles before me. I went out into Arabia by myself…and then I went up to Jerusalem…I spent fifteen days with Peter, the head apostle…I saw…no other apostles except James the brother of Jesus…” Now, what were they discussing during that time? Well, the theme of the short book called Galatians is the nature of the gospel…“Here’s the gospel, get it right. Don’t change it. If you change it you’re anathema. Preach the right thing; don’t try to get there some other way. It’s by grace through faith.” All right, you got it? “Don’t mess up the gospel.” That’s the bottom line. So when [Paul] goes to Jerusalem…five or…six [years after the crucifixion], if they weren’t talking about the gospel centrally, [it] at least had to come up.”
In case it isn’t already clear, what Habermas is trying to prove is that the things Paul taught or believed he must have either learned from, or first cleared with, Peter (who would definitely know what was true due to his connection to Jesus). Yet in the process of arguing this point Habermas refers to the opening paragraphs of Galatians, in which Paul expresses a very different attitude:
Even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! (Chapter 1, verse 8)
So here is my first question: if Paul wouldn’t have believed an angel who told him he was wrong, why then would he have been so interested in what Peter thought? Must we avoid the obvious reading here: that the reason Paul so emphatically asserted what little contact he’d had with the original disciples was to make the point that he didn’t learn much from them?
“I know what I would ask Peter and James first. This’d be my first question to them if I’m the apostle Paul: ‘I’ll tell you what I saw on the way to Damascus if you tell me what you saw a few days after the crucifixion. How did [Jesus] look? Come on, guys, give it to me…” And I might say this if I’m Paul—depending on how bold Paul is—and you know Paul is pretty bold from his epistles: “Guys, the three of us have something in common here. I’m not trying to dog you guys, but you know, we all have a point in our life when we weren’t exactly exemplary followers of the Lord. I was on my way to kill or imprison men, women, and children [here the audio is briefly imperceptible in the Youtube recording] in the name of Christ. I’m not proud of that. James, you grew up in a house with the Messiah and you were an unbeliever. Somebody told me you used to think your brother was insane.” (That’s what Mark 3 says. That [Jesus’s] family thought he was beside himself.) And James might’ve hung his head and say, “I didn’t know any better.” [Paul might here continue:] “Peter, you have an exalted position as the head apostle: I’m not trying to dog you but you denied your Lord three times…”
I told you to remember Habermas’s assurance that he wasn’t going to be treating The Bible as even generally reliable, let alone taking it for granted that anything is true simply because The Bible says so. And already, so soon into his argument, he’s gone against that pledge on three occasions. First off, we don’t actually know whether Paul’s conversion happened within the same time zone as any Damascus road: indeed, if we don’t assume that the book of Acts is reliable then we have no actual story surrounding this event at all. Paul’s few-and-far-between references in his own letters to what he thinks happened to him are always intriguingly vague—most of all the one from the opening of Galatians:
God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me… (Chapter 1, verses 15-16; a footnote here allows that “in me” and “to me” are equally possible translations of the original Greek)
As if that wasn’t enough Habermas then goes and treats both the rejection of Jesus by James and the denial of Jesus by Peter as historical facts without one single word of explanation as to why I should believe in either. I thought we were supposed to be taking a minimalist approach here? Watch for this kind of thing, guys: every time a Christian apologist tells you his arguments won’t be relying on biblical inerrancy you need to listen carefully because within ten minutes at the most he’ll go back on his word and not realize he’s done it. Fundamentalists of any stripe tend to be psychologically incapable of discarding their views even purely for the sake of argument. They might try to but sooner or later the supposedly discarded assumptions will slip back in. I don’t think they can help themselves. It’s like a reflex.
Come to think of it, let me amend my advice a little bit: the next time a Christian apologist tells you that his arguments won’t be relying on biblical inerrancy, interrupt him right then and there and ask him why on earth they shouldn’t rely on it. Is that a matter you should trivialize?
There’s a little Greek word…It’s in Galatians chapter 1, verse 18. The Greek word is historesai…The English translations usually slaughter it. I know two or three word studies on this, done by non-Evangelicals. It’s a very interesting word. It means ‘to interview so as to acquire truth’. Probably the closest word we have today to depict this…[is] “eyewitness news”. The word historesai means “check it out”…
And Paul says, “I went back…five or six [years after Jesus’s crucifixion] because I wanted to investigate.” Then, as we go from the end of Galatians 1 to Galatians 2—no chapter break—he says…“I went back up, after fourteen years, to see the other apostles and to set before them the gospel I was preaching, to see if I was running, or had run, in vain…I went back up to Jerusalem to make sure that we were all on the same page, to make sure we were all presenting the same gospel.”…And just a few verses later, in Galatians 2:6, these five words in English: “They added nothing to me…” [And then in] 1 Corinthians 15:11 [Paul]…gives a list of the appearances [of the risen Jesus to various followers] and then he says this: “Whether it is I or they”—who are “they”? “They” are the other apostles, he says so in the context—“this is what we preach and this is what you believe…”
I have so very, very many questions.
First off, I’m willing to bet some of you people have had an experience in your lives that you would compare, in however small a way, to Paul’s own. A sudden conversion. There could indeed be someone reading this article right now who believes that he’s met Jesus. And if not, some of you have likely known a person who’s had a sudden conversion. I want you to put yourself in that person’s shoes. You’ve just spent the first twenty or thirty years of your life either completely uninterested in religion or even holding Christianity peculiarly in some sort of contempt. And then something happens and you become a devout convert practically overnight.
Let me ask you something about the person who’s had that experience: is this the guy you’d expect to approach Christian belief as if he’s some sort of investigative journalist?! “Excuse me, sir, I don’t mean to trouble you but I just saw Jesus come down from heaven in a burst of beautiful light and announce to me in a booming voice, ‘I AM THE SON OF GOD. YOU ARE NOW MY MESSENGER.’ Would you mind, Dr. McGrath, if I ask you a few questions about early Christian history? You see, I’d like to convert but I also really want to make sure I’ve got all of the facts in before I do anything too hasty.”
Well, it could happen. But even if this was indeed Paul’s attitude why on earth would he wait fourteen years to double check that he hadn’t misunderstood anything Peter told him? Why would he need to double check at all? You can’t have it both ways, Habermas: either Paul’s two-week encounter with Peter and James must naturally have confirmed that their beliefs and his were the same, or they needed to talk it over again at a later time. Which is it already?
Which brings me to another question: since when did Paul ever have the attitude of an investigative journalist—at whatever point in his life, and whatever Greek verbs he may technically have used during a hasty rant? Take a look at this verse from chapter 1 of the very same letter Habermas is building his case around, 1 Corinthians:
Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness.
“Jews asks for signs…but we preach something that’s a stumbling block to this.” Does that sound to you like the words of a man who’s determined to base his beliefs in sound empirical proof? Scholar though he may have been Paul was a fideist through and through, and proud of it.  I’m not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing, only that it must be acknowledged as the worldview he had. Saying, “This is what we preach and this is what you believe,” is not the same as saying, “This is what we’ve proved through careful fact-checking, and as a result all educated parties have come to a consensus on the matter.” (Besides which he was talking there about the idea that the dead could be resurrected—that is to say, he was talking about the belief in Judgment Day. Jesus was his counter-example to the denying of this doctrine he’d seen from some of the Corinthians. For more detail on that see my response to N.T. Wright.)
You may now ask, what exactly was it then that Paul and Peter were talking about during those fifteen days in Jerusalem? Well, frankly, your guess is as good as mine. It’s kind of silly to speak of what must surely have happened during a conversation two thousand years ago that no one recorded. If I had to guess, though, I might side with Gerd Ludemann on this (a man Christian apologists always quote when they talk about the resurrection yet never quote more than one sentence from). Perhaps James and Peter were more or less humoring Paul, because they didn’t want conflict and because they knew that the donation he gave might help a lot of suffering people. As Ludemann put it:
The Christians of Jerusalem probably adopted an ambivalent attitude towards Paul [and his mission to Gentiles]: on the one hand his action was obviously inadequate, since those who had been converted by him did not observe the Torah. Indeed, it was even dangerous, since their example constantly prompted Jews to transgress the law. On the other hand, it was better than nothing, since Christ was being preached (cf. Phil 1:18) and centers were being founded in which the work could be continued—and perhaps corrected by delegates from Jerusalem.
Assuming that these reflections are accurate, the generous gesture [of a donation] on Paul’s part was perhaps what won them over, all the more so since from the gift they might infer certain legal requirements. Certainly Paul is restrained in describing this aspect of the conference when he asserts, “Those who were of repute added nothing to me” (Gal 2:6). But then follows another clause, “only they would have us remember the poor, which was the very thing I made it my business to do” (Gal 2:10). Therefore the most important resolution of the conference was the least apparent: the pledge of a collection for the Jerusalem community; and Paul’s further efforts for this collection were among the most important of his activity. 
Again, it’s all guesswork. But that’s exactly the problem: when we read Paul’s account of the Jerusalem meeting we’re hearing only one side of the story regarding an incident that ended with a heated argument (Galatians 2:11-14). Is that actually such a solid foundation for historical knowledge? Would you be so confident even settling a minor argument between two of your own friends under similar circumstances?
So far I’ve been focusing on…five to six years after the cross. But I’m going to assert that we can get back all the way to the cross. We can close this gap…Why does Bart Ehrman say we can get this message back to one to two years after the cross?…
Because he thinks the disciples of Jesus came up with an adoptionist (not Trinitarian) view of Jesus as a coping mechanism due to his tragic death, and that the resurrection belief was tied to all of that. The man wrote an entire book explaining this!
[He says that] because of this creedal argument [I’m about to give you]. They can tell that this was early preaching. This [creed] was what the earliest apostles preached coming out of the gate…Peter and James gave it to Paul: they had it before he had it.
Now, when I say an early creed, one of the reasons they know it’s an early creed is because in the Greek it reads stylistically. 1 Corinthians 15:3 and following reads like this in the Greek: ‘DAH-dah-DAH-dah-DAH-dah-DAH, DAH-dah-DAH-dah-DAH-dah-DAH!’ Two stanzas, with data…[expressed in] a way that’s easily memorizable. Why? Because most New Testament scholars today believe that the vast majority of Jesus’s audiences—contrary to other things you may have heard—were illiterate. Up to ninety percent. What do you do when you teach somebody who’s illiterate but you want them to teach somebody else? You tell stories that they’ll remember—ah! Parables! And you give them short, pithy statements that they will memorize: ‘Turn the other cheek.’ ‘Walk the extra mile.’ ‘Do unto others.’ And when you codify things into a ‘DAH-dah-DAH-dah-DAH-dah-DAH, DAH-dah-DAH-dah-DAH-dah-DAH!’ [structure]—especially if there’s an Aramaic original, which is the language Jesus speaks—now we know you’re really going back in the church, because somebody had to put this together.”
To take the mere fact that a Bible verse contains a creedal statement originating from oral tradition and treat it as if you’ve found some sort of smoking gun proving that verse’s factuality is beyond absurd. The “Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship” lists eighty-five different examples of New Testament “passages that may be hymnic or creedal”.
Thirty-three of those eighty-five creedal formulas come from letters traditionally ascribed to Saint Paul (and that’s if you leave out the book of Hebrews).
Eighteen of those thirty-three are from the seven undisputed letters of Paul (that is to say, the seven letters practically no scholar ever declares to be forged or misidentified: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philemon, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians).
A full one third of that number—six out of eighteen—can be found in 1 Corinthians alone. 
Now let me ask you this: how many out of those eighty-five creedal passages have you ever heard anyone claim to confidently trace the origin of? One, and one only: that supposedly all-important passage about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.  What makes it so special? Why do we so definitely know that Paul learned this creed from Peter as opposed to, say, Romans 11:33-36 or Colossians 2:8? Or did Paul indeed learn those 17-32 other creeds from Peter as well? Or did he sit down with him and go through a checklist after hearing the creeds somewhere else? Why is 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 treated so uniquely? The answer is plain and simple: confirmation bias, nothing more. The passage can be traced to Peter simply because the people of Christian scholarship—a profession where even the distinct minority of members who don’t self-identify as Christian are still hugely influenced by people who do—want to be able to trace it to Peter. They’re forcing the conclusion.
But let’s go ahead and say that every single thing Habermas told us is absolutely correct. We’ll say that Peter taught Paul the 1 Corinthians 15 creed himself, face to face. We’ll even go so far as to say Peter that personally formulated that creed, and that he did so within months after that first Easter Sunday, and that Paul was determined to learn the creed and understand it correctly, and that he succeeded at doing so. What exactly does any of this prove? That the founders of a religion believed in it and therefore must have been correct? Where, for example, did Peter learn about the appearance of the risen Jesus to those five hundred brethren? How sure can we be that he didn’t simply hear a rumor of such a thing and credulously accept it without doing enough historecai of his own? What do we know?
In fact, let’s go so far as to say the resurrection did in fact happen. What am I supposed to infer about the meaning of it without dragging in other passages from a Bible that doesn’t have to be treated as even generally reliable? If the mere fact of a wondrous act were enough to confirm a theological belief all by itself then Moses’s contest with Pharaoh’s sorcerers would’ve been over the moment they turned their staffs into snakes. Ancient Jews knew that people didn’t come back from the dead every other day but all the same the idea of somebody doing so was still old news to them (see 2 Kings 13:20-21 for just one example). The Gospels themselves claim that there was a rumor going around during Jesus’s own time that John the Baptist had returned from the dead (Mark 6:14, 8:27-28). Did the people who spread that rumor think that John had opened the door to God’s salvation for them?
You see? Even in the best case scenario you need to cram in forty unsupported assumptions for Habermas’s speech to be of any use. This is what happens when someone uses an academic argument simply to disprove pesky skeptics or liberals, instead of doing it to advance our academic knowledge of the subject in question. Their reasoning won’t merely be poor, it’ll suffer from that particular kind of sloppiness you always get when someone’s heart isn’t in the task.
Am I imagining things or could it be that the whole reason Christian apologists so often feign these minimalistic techniques with their arguments is that they won’t feel comfortable if they do have to defend biblical inerrancy? Because they know very well (at least on some level) that’s a lost cause?
There doesn’t seem to be a fitting place in the article proper to work in such a long quotation as this so I’ll just put it here:
[Here are some] peculiar difficulties [which] surround the mention of the appearance [of the risen Jesus] to “more than five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until now, but some are fallen asleep.” No note of place is given, and it is only hinted that the manifestation occurred after the first appearance to the Twelve and before the appearance to James. It is astonishing that the tradition has left no mark on any of the four gospels. It may have appeared in the lost ending of Mark, but there seems to be no positive reason for supposing that it did, and in any case one would have expected the remembrance of a fact of which there were more than five hundred witnesses to have survived independently of the fate of a single MS.
This is a serious objection to the acceptance of St. Paul’s statement, and other considerations do not increase our confidence. Who were the five hundred? and [sic] why were they gathered together? They were not Judeans; that is certain, for the Church at Jerusalem before Pentecost did not number five hundred. Are we to suppose that after the disaster of the crucifixion even Galilee contained five hundred brethren willing to leave their occupations and gather together in some remote place in the name of the defeated Master? If the story is historical, some summons must have been issued, and a place and date appointed. It is not impossible (Mark xvi. V 7), but it seems unlikely that tradition would have lost sight of a mass meeting such as this.
The suggestion has been made that the story of the first gospel which does embody a tradition of an appearance in Galilee (Matt. Xxviii. 16 ff.) is a description of this manifestation to the five hundred brethren. No such impression is given by the narrative as it stands. ‘The eleven disciples went into Galilee unto the mountain where Jesus had appointed them; and when they saw him, they worshiped him.’ Who would suppose that a crowd of five hundred was present? Nor is the commission which follows suitable for a general body of brethren.
We have no evidence on which to form a certain conclusion, but the balance of probability seems to incline towards the view that St. Paul has accepted a story which was not generally known in the Church, which contained intrinsic improbabilities, and which did not represent with any degree of accuracy an historical occurrence… [Footnote: Or could this be St. Paul’s version of Pentecost?] Once the faith in the resurrection had been established, a misunderstood phrase in conversation, a fanciful interpretation of prophecy, or the pure spirit of romance, might be enough to send a story on its way. It is often impossible to trace the rise of a legend, but that legends do arise is not open to question. (Percival Gardner-Smith) 
 All Bible verses in this article (or at least those that aren’t part of a quotation by somebody else) come from the New American Standard Bible, as accessed through biblegateway.com.
 “The Resurrection: Faith or History?” by Alan F. Segal. Found in “The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright in Dialogue”, page 135. Edited by Robert B. Stewart. Fortress Press, Minneapolis. Copyright 2006 Augsburg Fortress.
 For further examples of Paul’s fideism see 1 Corinthians 2:9-13 and 13:8-12. You’ll notice that these examples likewise come from the same letter which supposedly contains in its fifteenth chapter an all-important proof of Christianity’s unique foundations in empirical historical fact.
 “The Collection for the Saints as a Polite Bribe: An Effort to Humanize Paul,” by Gerd Ludemann. Accessed via bibleinterp.com on Monday, August 13th, 2018.
 This is kind of embarrassing but for once I can’t tell you the page number or edition of the book I’m citing. I’ve had a snapshot of the relevant page on my phone for a long time now and for some odd reason it doesn’t accompany further pictures showing me the title page and what not, as with the case of every single other book I’ve ever cited this way in my articles so far. The good news is that this is after all an encyclopedia we’re talking about and therefore it couldn’t be very hard for you to locate the passage yourself. Probably the info is listed under an entry called “creed”. I can at least tell you that the first line of the page I’m citing from reads:
“1:15-20). Some have binary parallel structures (e.g. 1 Cor 8:6), and some have ternary parallel structures (e.g. Eph 5:14).”
 All right, every now and then someone will say something similar about Philippians 2:5-11—which hardly seems like any less of a hasty generalization to me, and which still leaves you with a ratio of eighty-three to two.
 “The Narratives of the Resurrection: A Critical Study” by P. Gardner-Smith, M.A., dean and fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, pages 18-20. Methuen & Co. Ltd. First published in 1926. I’m reading from a red-brown hardback.