bookmark_borderGary Habermas Shows Why the ‘Minimal Facts’ of Jesus’ Death Can’t Establish the Resurrection

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Taylor Carr republished on The Secular Outpost with permission. The original post may be found on his blog, The Godless Skeptic.

Gary Habermas is a New Testament scholar and philosopher of religion at Liberty University who has devoted much of his career to defending a historical case for the resurrection of Jesus. For over 30 years now, Habermas has collected and analyzed scholarly materials published on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, distilling them down to a core set of trends. His work has been cited by numerous Christian apologists, perhaps most notably in The Case for Christ and the debates and writings of William Lane Craig.
Recently, Dr. Habermas appeared on the Unbelievable radio show and podcast in dialogue with James Crossley on whether the “minimal facts” surrounding Jesus’ death support the resurrection. Crossley is an agnostic New Testament scholar at the University of Sheffield and the author of a book called Jesus and the Chaos of History. The minimal facts are intended to be general points of agreement acceptable even to skeptics, and the two criteria Habermas gives are that they be facts with multiple lines of argument supporting them, and they share in a consensus made up of the “vast majority” of New Testament scholars.
Habermas identifies 6 minimal facts in the show, which are as follows:
1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.
2. The disciples had experiences they believed to be of the risen Jesus.
3. Some among the disciples died for their belief.
4. James, a skeptic, was converted.
5. Paul, a skeptic and persecutor of Christians, was converted.
6. The earliness of the proclamation of the risen Jesus.
One immediately noteworthy thing missing from this list is the empty tomb. To his credit, Gary concedes that the empty tomb is not a minimal fact because of the many biblical historians who dispute it. As the host, Justin, remarks, this seems contrary to what some apologists, like William Lane Craig, have attempted to cull from Dr. Habermas’ work. In his book God? A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist, co-written with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Professor Craig writes: “There are at least four facts about the fate of the historical Jesus that are widely accepted by New Testament historians today.” (p. 22, italics mine) Dr. Craig then goes on to articulate some of the reasons that “most scholars” accept the empty tomb.
Of course, it could be contended that this is just another way of saying that the majority of scholars favor the empty tomb as a historical fact. However, 1/3 to 1/4 of experts dissenting from a given viewpoint is not a negligible difference. Things get even sketchier when you look at the methodology behind Dr. Habermas’2005 study and discover how that figure is calculated. The survey is not a comprehensive one of thousands of New Testament scholars, it’s a survey of select literature published in German, French and English since 1975. While Gary’s work offers important insights, he also has not released his data, despite requests for it, and the closest we get to an idea of how many sources he’s surveyed is “more than 1400” in that 2005 study of his. Break that down over 30 years and that’s a ballpark average of 46.7 studies examined per year. It’s hardly a robust amount of data from which to assess the opinions of New Testament scholarship on the whole.
This methodological problem has implications beyond the empty tomb, too, for all of the six minimal facts mentioned above, as well as any other facts that could be conjured up on the same basis. So whether Dr. Habermas wants to single out 4 facts, 6 facts, 12 facts, or his exceedingly generous 21 facts, the fatal flaw remains present in all cases. Statistical analysis is only as good as your data and the method you use to analyze that data, and a study like the one published by Dr. Habermas in a religious studies journal would not pass in an introductory level Stats class (I say this from experience). Granted, it was probably not Gary’s intent to do a rigorous statistical analysis, but the limitations of this research need to be noted when attempts are made at extrapolating certain trends from it. For more on this specific concern, see Richard Carrier’s article, Innumeracy: A Fault to Fix.
But what real use is a list of even roughly calculated minimal facts when it requires another list of supplementary philosophical assumptions in order to support the resurrection? Near the end of the discussion on the podcast, Habermas explains that the way he sees of moving from the death of Jesus and the reports of his postmortem appearances to the involvement of the supernatural is by bringing in “worldview aspects.” This is, in fact, something he notes early on in the show. Among these assumptions are conclusions about the character and identity of Jesus, and the continuation of life after death, though I would argue there are additional assumptions about the existence and nature of god. In a chapter from The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, Robert Greg Cavin outlines still more hidden assumptions in the standard resurrection story of Jesus, which is not just revivification, but has to do with Jesus being raised as a living supernatural body sometime after his death.
At one point in the episode, Dr. Habermas refers to the resurrection allegedly supported by the minimal facts as “mundane,” saying that the gospels depict the postmortem appearances as if seeing a dead friend at the supermarket, acting as normal. Yet the point by Cavin above reveals this to be naive. A mundane resurrection in that sense would be as easily dismissed as any incident of a grieving loved one hallucinating their dearly departed. There is nothing especially impressive about it. The minimal facts are where many apologists say that the resurrection differs from other allegations of resuscitation or revivification of a corpse. If the transformation of the disciples is a stand out feature of the resurrection story, it would seem to play a part in discounting the mundane nature of events as Habermas portrays it. After all, we’re often told, people might see the dead after they’re gone, but they generally don’t go to be martyred for them. If this famous image of the disciples valiantly accepting death having seen the risen lord is as true as apologists claim it is, then the resurrection simply can’t be a mundane occurrence by their own reasoning.
Does this not also say something about the exceptional kind of assumptions that are required to make a minimal facts case for the resurrection function at all? We are not talking about spotting someone in the supermarket, alive and apparently well when they’d been dead the day before. We are talking about something much less “mundane,” and it’s the reason why the case for the resurrection has been turned into an argument for the existence of god by an apologist like William Lane Craig. There is an element of the supernatural, a “worldview aspect,” as Habermas called it. It isn’t simply that Jesus appeared again to his followers, like in a daydream, it’s that he miraculously rose from the dead, in a way that his followers took as a vindication of their ideas about his teachings and his identity. It meant, for them, that god not only existed, but that he was the god represented by Jesus, and Jesus was the sort of person god not only had the power to raise back to life, but wanted to raise, did raise, and had the power and will to raise into something more than just a reanimated earthly form.
The miracle of the resurrection is the saving grace of many Christians. To Paul it gave hope for a life beyond death and for a righting of the wrongs faced in this life. Entertaining the historicity of the resurrection without the supernatural and metaphysical assumptions behind it is practically unimaginable, not only for atheists and skeptics but for believing Christians, too. This brings us to the awkward position of either asking each other to buy into our philosophical presuppositions, or leaving things at a set of bare minimal facts that is by itself incapable of showing anything except what it already contains. The minimal facts are, one might say, minimally interesting. Even if we put aside the troubling concerns with the methodology that undergirds them, they aren’t what’s really doing the work in winning minds. Rather than minimizing background assumptions and asking us to buy into some ample facts, the apologetic case for the resurrection minimizes the facts and asks us to buy into some ample assumptions.

bookmark_borderGeisler & Turek Rebuttal: Chapter 9 (Part 2)

Chapter 9. Do We Have Early Eyewitness Testimony about Jesus?

By Matthew Wade Ferguson and Jeffery Jay Lowder
(This post continues where part 1 left off.)
(ii) New Testament Textual Accuracy: “Textual accuracy” measures the degree to which copies of a document match that of the original document. Although none of the original New Testament documents have survived, Geisler and Turek argue that the textual accuracy of the New Testament documents is superior to that of other ancient documents. In their words:

In fact, the New Testament documents have more manuscripts, earlier manuscripts, and more abundantly supported manuscripts than the best ten pieces of classical literature combined. (225)

We agree with Geisler and Turek. If someone were to fallaciously claim that the New Testament can’t be trusted, as a whole, because it has been textually corrupted, then Geisler and Turek would be correct to object that this is false, because we have (mostly) reliable manuscripts.
By the same token, however, the New Testament’s textual accuracy does not improve its historical accuracy. Accurate textual transmission can preserve the historical accuracy of a work that was originally historically reliable, but it can do nothing to improve or save the historical accuracy of a work that was originally based on ahistorical legends. With that in mind, let us turn now to the question of historical accuracy.
(iii) New Testament Historical Accuracy: In this section, Geisler and Turek attempt to do three things: (a) propose seven historical criteria or tests to “determine whether or not to believe a given historical document” (230); (b) refute common objections to the reliability of the New Testament; and (c) argue that the NT documents are early.
Regarding (a) the historical tests, Geisler and Turek list the following seven tests: (1) do we have early testimony; (2) eyewitness testimony; (3) multiple, independent eyewitness sources; (4) trustworthiness; (5) corroborating evidence from archaeology or other writers; (6) enemy attestation; and (7) embarrassing details. According to them, “documents that meet most or all of these historical tests are considered trustworthy beyond a reasonable doubt” (231).
Let’s “zoom out” for a moment from the topic of the NT’s historical reliability and instead look at how this argument fits into Geisler’s and Turek’s “Twelve Points that Show Christianity Is True.” Geisler and Turek seek to defend the following inference:

6. The New Testament is historically reliable.
7. The New Testament says Jesus claimed to be God.
8. Jesus’ claim to be God was miraculously confirmed by
a. His fulfillment of many prophecies about himself;
b. His sinless life and miraculous deeds;
c. His prediction and accomplishment of his resurrection.  (28)

Geisler’s and Turek’s statement about historical tests, as well as points 6-8 of their twelve-point case for Christianity, suggests a previously unnamed version of an existing inductive argument form, which we shall call the “argument from general reliability.” Before we can introduce that argument form, however, we first need to review its “parent” argument known, the statistical syllogism. Statistical syllogisms have the following logical structure or form.

(1) Z percent of F are G.
(2) x is F.

(3) [Z% probable] Therefore, x is G.

One “child” version of the statistical syllogism is the argument from authority, which we discussed in chapter six. The simple version of the argument from general reliability is another “child” version of the statistical syllogism. It has the following structure.

(4) Source S is generally reliable.
(5) S reports that event E occurred.

(6) [probable] E occurred.

With this schema in place, let’s return to Geisler’s and Turek’s statement, “documents that meet most or all of these historical tests are considered trustworthy beyond a reasonable doubt.” If we replace S with “The New Testament documents” and E with “E1, …, En” (to represent the events reported by the New Testament documents), then Geisler’s and Turek’s simple argument from general historical reliability may be summarized as follows.

(4’) The New Testament documents are generally historically reliable.
(5’) The New Testament documents report that E1, …, En occurred.

(6’) [probable] E1, …, En occurred.

What Geisler and Turek fail to realize, however, is that general historical reliability alone does not suffice to make it probable, much less probable “beyond a reasonable doubt,” that event E1, …, En occurred. Although simple arguments from reliability are statistical syllogisms, simple arguments from reliability are logically incorrect because they violate the inductive Total Evidence Requirement. Such arguments ignore information about the base rates of events like E1, …, En and instead consider only information about the reliability of the historical source which reports E1, …, En. Statisticians call this error the base rate fallacy.
In order to fully appreciate the force of this objection, let’s turn to a non-theological example, one which is actually quite famous in the academic literature about reasoning under uncertainty. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann, the authors of this example, describe it as follows.[1]

A cab was involved in a hit-and-run accident at night. Two cab companies, the Green and the Blue, operate in the city. You are given the following data:
(a) 85% of the cabs in the city are Green and 15% are Blue.
(b) A witness identified the cab as Blue. The court tested the reliability of the witness under the same circumstances that existed on the night of the accident and concluded that the witness correctly identified each one of the two colors 80% of the time and failed 20% of the time.
What is the probability that the cab involved in the accident was Blue rather than Green?

If you answered “There is an 80% probability the cab was blue,” you are in good company. Most people who consider this example say that the answer is “blue” because they are impressed by the witness’s 80% reliability. They seem to be implicitly appealing to the following simple version of the argument from general reliability.

(7) 80% of cab identifications made by witness W under conditions similar to those at the time of the hit-and-run accident are correct.
(8) W’s identification of the cab involved in the hit-and-run accident as a blue cab is a cab identification made by W under similar conditions.

(9) [80% probable] W’s identification of the cab involved in the hit-and-run accident as a blue cab is correct, i.e., a blue cab was involved in the hit-and-run accident.

The correct answer, however, is “There is a 59% probability the cab was green.” The argument in (7)-(9) is logically incorrect because its reference class (“cab identifications made by witness W under conditions similar to those at the time of the hit-and-run accident”) violates the requirement of total evidence. It does this by ignoring what we know about the base rates of green and blue cabs, i.e., the proportion of cabs that are green (85%) is much greater than the proportion of cabs that are blue (15%). Therefore, despite W’s 80% reliability, the most likely explanation (probability=59%) is that W is mistaken and he actually saw a green cab.
Still not convinced? Imagine that the town has exactly 1,000 cabs, so that 85%=850 and 15%=150. Then the breakdown in cabs can be shown by the diagram in Figure 2.


Figure 2

Since W is 80% accurate, when he testifies about the 850 green cabs, he will correctly testify that 80% of those 850 cabs (=680) were green and he will incorrectly testify that 20% of those 850 cabs (=170) were blue. This is shown below in Figure 3.


Figure 3

Similarly, when W testifies about the 150 blue cabs, he will correctly testify that 80% of those 150 blue cabs (=120) were blue and he will incorrectly testify that 20% of those 150 blue cabs (=30) were green. This is shown in Figure 4.


Figure 4

Let’s now return to our question: if an 80% reliable witness testifies the cab was blue, is it more likely that the cab was blue or green? The diagram in Figure 4 makes it easy to correctly calculate the probability, without having to remember the probability theorem known as Bayes’s Theorem. If we want to calculate the probability that the cab was blue, we take the number of times W correctly testified that the cab was blue (120) and divide it by the total number of times W testified that the cab was blue (170+120=290). In probability notation:


Similarly, if we want to calculate the probability that the cab was green, we take the number of times W incorrectly testified that the cab was blue (170) and divide it by the total number of times W testified that the cab was blue (170+120=290). In probability notation:


Although an 80% reliable witness testified the cab was blue, it is more likely that the cab was green because there are so many more green cabs than blue cabs. Our specific information about W’s reliability has been outweighed by our general information about the base rates of green and blue cabs. In the words of Tversky and Kahnemann, “In spite of the witness’s report, therefore, the hit-and-run cab is more likely to be Green than Blue, because the base rate is more extreme than the witness is credible.”[2]
Thus, instead of the statistical syllogism in (7)-(9), we should instead use a modified version, which we may call the complex version of the argument from general reliability.

(7’) 59% of all blue cab identifications made by W under similar conditions are incorrect.
(8’) W’s identification of the cab involved in the hit-and-run accident as a blue cab is a blue cab identification made by W under similar conditions.
(10) The percentage stated in (7’) correctly incorporates the available information about the base rates of blue cabs.

(9’) [59% probable] W’s identification of the cab involved in the hit-and-run accident as a blue cab is incorrect.

We have shown that simple versions of arguments from reliability to the historicity of an event are logically incorrect by ignoring information about the base rate of events of that type and, consequently, by using a reference class which fails to embody the total available evidence.
This, in turn, entails that Geisler’s and Turek’s twelve-point case for Christianity is, at best, incomplete. In order to show that the New Testament’s historical claims—such as the claim that Jesus was crucified, died, was buried, and so forth—are probably true, Geisler and Turek must do more than defend the general historical reliability of the New Testament. They must also show that this general historical reliability is not outweighed by the base rates of those events.

Rebuttal to Geisler’s and Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”
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[1] Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann, “Evidential Impact of Base Rates,” Judgment under Uncertainty: Heurists and Biases (ed. Daniel Kahnemann, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 156-57.
[2] Tversky and Kahnemann 1982, 157.