The minimal facts approach is a method of proving the resurrection of Christ using only the minimal historical facts. These minimal facts must meet two criteria:
- They are well evidenced
- Nearly every scholar accepts them (even the skeptical ones)
The idea is to build a case without having to argue from the inerrancy of Scripture. After all, it would be foolish to expect unbelievers to accept the Bible as inspired and inerrant. Though there is much more evidence available, the minimal facts approach uses only what is accepted by even the skeptical scholars, thus moving the argument away from the evidence itself and onto forming the conclusion that best fits the agreed upon data. These minimal, agreed upon data are:
- Jesus died by crucifixion
- Jesus’ disciples believed that He rose and appeared to them
- Paul the persecutor was suddenly changed
- James, the skeptical brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed
- The tomb was empty1
It should be noted that the Bible is a collection of historical documents. Thus, it can be examined and scrutinized just as any other historical document, and its claims can be evaluated. Some sections of Scripture can be referred to on the grounds of the historical merit as accepted by nearly all scholars.
Jesus Died by Crucifixion
The crucifixion is recorded in all four gospels. Non-Christian sources report the fact, as well.
When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified….Josephus, Antiquities 18.64 (, 49)
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 Pilate.Tacitus, Annals 15.44 (, 49)
The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day–the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account.Lucian of Samosata, The Death of Peregrine 11-13 (, 49)
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?Mara Bar-Serapion, letter to son from prison (, 49)
On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged.2Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a (, 49)
Even a highly critical scholar from the Jesus Seminar said:
That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, 145 (see also 154, 196, 201) (, 49)
1 The empty tomb does not meet the second criteria for being a “minimal fact” (that nearly all scholars accept it). However, Gary Habermas has discovered that about 75 percent of scholars do accept the empty tomb (Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p70). For this reason, the empty tomb will be included in this discussion, though I will not argue with a skeptic who chooses to discard the evidence for the purpose of examining only the absolute minimal historical facts.
2 Crucifixion was referred to as being hung on a tree, as in Luke 23:39 and Galatians 3:13.
Jesus’ disciples believed that He rose and appeared to them
This fact is recorded outside the Gospels in other historical sources.
The disciples claimed that Jesus appeared to them
Paul records that, more than his own experiences (addressed later), the apostles agreed with his teaching that Christ rose, having appeared to them and to others.
Oral traditions tie the resurrection and appearances back to the early church. Written documents had to be made and copied by hand, which was tedious and could only reach a few people (since most people could not read), so oral traditions were passed down to teach others. When an oral tradition is recorded, it proves that the oral tradition existed before they were written down. Keep this in mind.
One type of oral tradition is a creed. Creeds were meant to pass along important information in a manner that would make the information easy to memorize. One of the earliest and most important Christian creeds is recorded in a letter Paul wrote around AD 55:
3 For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.1 Corinthians 15:3-5
The phrase, “I passed on to you…what I also received” was a way of indicating oral tradition. Since the first Christians were Jews, we would expect to find creeds to appear in their primary spoken language of Aramaic. The four-fold use of the Greek word hoti (“that”) was common in Aramaic narration, and the name Cephas is Aramaic for “Peter”. The text uses parallelism. Lastly, the creed includes non-Pauline terms, indicating that it did indeed originate from someone else, as Paul claimed (Habermas and Licona, 259-260). Most scholars believe that Paul received the creed from the disciples Peter and James no more than 3 years after his conversion, putting the origin of this creed at no more than 5 years after the death of Christ.
Another type of oral tradition is sermon summaries. Most scholars believe that the sermons recorded in Acts are short summaries of the actual sermons given. They also believe that, at minimum, the sermons were preached during the time of the apostles, attributed to the apostles, and in agreement with the teachings of the apostles. That the apostles believed the resurrected Christ appeared to them is recorded in the Gospels and Acts (the sequel to Luke’s gospel). Even critical scholars agree that these works were completed by the end of the first century, dating the records at no more than 70 years after the death of Christ.
The testimony of the early church fathers agrees that the apostles claimed to have seen the resurrected Christ. In many cases, these early church fathers knew the apostles themselves, or knew someone close to the apostles. In Philippians 4:3, Paul refers to a Christian named Clement. This may be Clement, bishop of Rome. Around AD 95, Clement wrote a letter to the church in Corinth.
Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing, and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone, for there were many still remaining who had received instructions frmo the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among theb rothers at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians.Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.3 ~AD 185 (, 54)
For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter.Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics 32 (, 54)
Therefore, having received orders and complete certainty caused by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and believing in the Word of God, they went with the Holy Spirit’s certainty, preaching the good news that the kingdom of God is about to come.First Clement, 42:3 (, 54)
So Clement knew the apostles, especially Peter, and was in a great position to pass on their teachings. He tells us that the apostles did indeed believe in the resurrection.
But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering mrtyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles.Iranaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.4 (, 54)
When I was still a boy I saw you in Lower Asia with Polycarp, when you had high status at the imperial court and wanted to gain his favor. I remember events from those days more clearly than those that happened recently…so that I can even picture the place where the blessed Polycarp sat and conversed, his comings and goings, his character, his personal appearance, his discourses to the crowds, and how he reported his discussions with John and others who had seen the Lord. He recalled their very words, what they reported about the Loard and his miracles and his teaching–things that Polycarp had heard directly from eyewitnesses of the Word of life and reported in full harmony with Scripture.Irenaeus, To Florinus (, 54-55)
So Polycarp, appointed by the apostle John (according to Tertullian), affirms the apostles’ belief in the resurrection as well.
The disciples believed so strongly that Christ had appeared to them alive that they were instantly changed from cowards who ran from death, and men who doubted Christ, to men completely sold out for Christ, willing to live, suffer, and die for the Gospel of the Christ who they believed appeared to them after His death.
Paul the persecutor was converted suddenly
Paul was a powerful and infamous persecutor of the very early church. Yet, he was suddenly converted to Christianity. In fact, within 3 years of his conversion, even those Paul had never met had heard of his amazing conversion:
22 But I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They were only hearing, “The one who once persecuted us is now proclaiming the good news of the faith he once tried to destroy.”Galatians 1:22-23
Paul was converted not as a neutral observer, but as an enemy of Christ. What’s more, his conversion was not the result of his friends trying their best to convince him of Christianity, but of what he believed to be a personal encounter with the risen Christ.
James, Jesus’ skeptical brother, was converted suddenly
Josephus mentions “the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, whose name was James” (Antiquities 20:200). Skeptics often argue that Josephus’ writings have been proven to be fraudulent. While some of his supposed writings (especially Testimonium Flavianum) have been shown to be altered texts, this particular writing is considered by nearly all scholars to be authentic, and thus is included in the list of minimal facts. Needless to say, there is much other evidence, both from secular and Christian sources, telling us about James the brother of Christ.
James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles. He has been called the Just by all from the time of our Savior to the present day; for there were many that bore the name of James. He was holy from his mother’s womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh. No razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, and he did not use the [public] bath. He alone was permitted to enter into the holy place; for he wore not woolen but linen garments. And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people. Because of his exceeding great justice he was called the Just, and Oblias, which signifies the Greek, “Bulwark of the people” and “Justice,” in accordance with what the prophets declare concerning him.Hegesippus (, 67-68)
James was a pious Jew, skeptical of Christ, along with Jesus’ other brothers. He is listed in the ancient creed in 1 Corinthians 15:2-7 as having witnessed the resurrected Christ, and it is after the resurrection event is supposed to have happened that James is found to be a leader at the church in Jerusalem. He was so convinced of his experience that he was willing to die as a martyr, a fact which is noted by even secular historians, recorded by Josephus, Clement, and Hegesippus (through Eusebius). Reginald Fuller noted in The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives that, even had we no historical records of James’ encounter with the risen Christ, “we should have to invent” one in order to explain both his conversion and his rise to such a position in the Jerusalem church.
The tomb was empty
As noted previously, this fact does not fall under the “minimal facts,” because not “nearly all” scholars agree with it. However, the majority of scholars do (roughly 75%) and it is well evidenced.
That the tomb was empty is admitted even by enemies of Christianity. Matthew records that the Jews paid some to say that the disciples had stolen the body (28:12-13). Justin Martyr and Tertullian record the same claim. If the tomb were not empty, this would be needless. However, in their attempts to disprove the resurrection, the enemies of Christianity actually argued for the empty tomb.
Location in Jerusalem
Jerusalem is the place where Jesus was publicly executed on the Roman cross. It is there that He was buried, and there that His resurrection was first proclaimed. If the resurrection were false, surely there would be some evidence for this–the body being presented, perhaps, and records of this being done. The early church exploded to life in Jerusalem. If someone wanted to see if Christ were really resurrected, they could simply visit the tomb which was supposed to be empty. Yet there is no evidence that anyone found reason to doubt the resurrection of Jesus.
The fact that the Christian fellowship, founded on belief in Jesus’ resurrection, could come into existence and flourish in the very city where he was executed and buried seems to be compelling evidence for the historicity of the empty tomb.
It would have been impossible for the disciples to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem had the tomb not been empty.William Lane Craig
Testimony of women
The first witnesses of the empty tomb were women, as recorded in all four Gospels (the men are only mentioned in two). Were the resurrection a hoax, it is unlikely the made-up testimony would have included women, and certainly not as the primary witnesses to the empty tomb, since women were looked down upon in the cultures of that time.
Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women.Talmud, Sotah 19a (, 72)
The world cannot exist without males and without females–happy is he whose children are males, and woe to him whose children are females.Talmud, Kiddushin 82b (, 72)
Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid (to offer), also they are not valid to offer. This is equivalent to saying that one who is Rabbinically accounted a robber is qualified to give the same evidence as a woman.Talmud, Rosh Hashannah 1.8 (, 72)
But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex, nor let servants be admitted to give testimony on account of the ignobility of their soul; since it is probably that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment.Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.15 (, 72)
Even the disciples didn’t believe the women:
But these words seemed like pure nonsense to them, and they did not believe them.Luke 24:11
Notice that even the Christian writer Luke did not try to make the disciples look good, as he would be expected to do were the resurrection narrative a hoax. He faithfully recorded that even the disciples did not believe the resurrection at first. He also did not appeal to Joseph of Arimathea or any other more respected person to make the account more credible. There seems to be no reason to invent an account involving women as witnesses. Rather, the testimony of the women argues in favor of a true, historical account.
The minimal facts, as accepted by nearly all scholars, include the following facts and evidences:
- Jesus died by crucifixion
- Mara Bar-Serapion
- Jesus’ disciples believed that He rose and appeared to them
- Paul’s accounts
- Oral tradition (creeds and sermon summaries)
- Written tradition (both Biblical and extra-Biblical)
- Willingness to live, suffer, and die for their convictions regarding the risen Christ
- Paul the persecutor was converted suddenly
- His conversion records
- His suffering and martyrdom (recorded in both Christian and non-Christian sources)
- James, Jesus’ skeptical brother, was converted suddenly
- His conversion (gospels, early creeds, Paul, and Acts)
- His martyrdom (Josephus, Clement, and Hegesippus through Eusebius)
- The tomb was empty
- Enemy attestation
- The Jerusalem location
- Testimony of women
Though nearly 2000 years have passed, not a single naturalistic explanation has been given that can account for the minimal facts.