Assessing The Minimal Facts Approach of Habermas, Licona, and Craig

Christian apologists Gary Habermas and Michael Licona have proposed a "minimal facts approach" to the resurrection of Jesus. Along with William Lane Craig in his debates, they want to stress that which most scholars agree on as facts and then seek the best hypothesis that explains all of these agreed upon facts. They do not want “to be saddled with the task of first showing that the Gospels are, in general, historically reliable,” writes Craig.[20] Instead, Craig wants to establish “that the Gospel accounts of the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb can be shown to be historically reliable without first showing that the Gospels are, in general, historically trustworthy.”[21] Habermas and Licona tell us about their own “minimal facts approach” in these words: “This approach considers only those data that are strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones…We present our case using the ‘lowest common denominator’ of agreed-upon facts. This keeps attention on the central issue, instead of sidetracking into matters that are irrelevant.”[22]

What is irrelevant according to them? The trustworthiness and inspiration of the Bible: “One of the strengths of this approach is that it avoids the debate over the inspiration of the Bible. Too often the objection raised frequently against the Resurrection is, ‘Well, the Bible has errors, so we can’t believe Jesus rose.’ We can quickly push this to the side. ‘I am not arguing at this time for the inspiration of the Bible or even its general trustworthiness. Believer and skeptic alike accept the facts I’m using because they are strongly supported. These facts must be addressed.’” To them these topics are “separate issues.”[23]

What is wrong with this approach of theirs should be obvious, since Habermas and Licona had previously quoted from Annette-Gordon-Reed, a law professor of New York Law School, when she said of historical and legal cases, “The evidence must be considered as a whole before a realistic and fair assessment of the possible truth of [any] story can be made.”[24] But since Christian scholars do not agree with the skeptics, Habermas, Licona and Craig simply set our objections to the total data available aside when dealing with the resurrection. They want to isolate and treat separately the claims of Jesus’ resurrection from the general trustworthiness of the Bible, just as Licona wants to isolate and then treat separately the claim Jesus arose apart from other miracle claims in the ancient world. That’s a lot of isolating going on! It’s not a fair way to approach the data, to say the least. By virtue of any disagreements it’s not fair for their side to take off the table any “facts” the other side objects to. That is special pleading, pure and simple, in favor of Christian scholarship. So what they offer us is “minimal facts, not all the facts” as Steven Carr has quipped. What they need to do is present an argument for why they can arbitrarily exclude certain things from the discussion. Only if both sides can agree to this can Habermas and Licona go ahead and make their case. But we don’t.

What are these so-called agreed upon facts? That 1) Jesus died by crucifixion, 2) his disciples believed he arose and appeared to them, 3) that the church persecutor Paul was suddenly converted, 4) James, the brother of Jesus, who was formerly a skeptic converted, and that 5) the tomb of Jesus was empty.[25] The first thing to note is that not everyone agrees with all of their “facts.” Muslims, over one billion of them, along with skeptics Hugh J. Schonfield (in The Passover Plot, 1965) and Robert Price disagree with the first one.[26] It is also not agreed that James was a skeptic at the time Jesus died, or that he was converted as the result of Jesus appearing to him (there actually is no evidence of either). The empty tomb has a number of scholars on both sides that doubt it, including Dale Allison and many liberal Christian scholars, something Habermas and Licona admit and yet they include it anyway, thus betraying this is not a minimal facts approach at all.[27] They feel justified to include it because Habermas discovered “roughly 75% of scholars on the subject accept the empty tomb as historical fact.”[28] So what? This is merely an argument from consensus that includes many evangelical tomes written on the subject because they’re more interested in it than others. Did Habermas include Muslim scholars in his survey? Can he even read modern Arabic?

Craig, Habermas and Licona are looking for the best explanation of their isolated minimal facts. They look at what non-believers have proposed as alternatives and find them all improbable, thus declaring their faith in Jesus’ resurrection to be a better explanation than what non-believers offer. What escapes them is that they fail to realize non-believers do not have to propose an explanation of these isolated facts at all. We’re first and foremost arguing that the New Testament is so riddled with discrepancies and evolving layers of religious tradition coming from a superstitious era that it leaves a great deal of room for doubt—that it’s much more likely no one can know what happened if we take the New Testament at face value—which means Christians cannot believe Jesus rose from the grave either. That’s what we’re saying. The rest is conjecture and speculation since we don’t have any of the evidence we really need (as even Licona admits). Our speculation only comes after arguing that reasonable people must doubt a straightforward reading of the tales in these texts.

Habermas and Licona ignore the fact that a miraculous resurrection is always going to be more improbable than any improbable speculation about what may have happened instead. Improbable things happen all the time. People get struck by lightning. People win contests against overwhelming odds. So non-miraculous explanations of the resurrection might all be improbable, and yet better explain the evidence, since a miracle can still be far less likely to be true than those other improbable explanations. Unless they can show that our “improbable” explanations are more improbable than a miracle (and they never do), their argument can’t even get off the ground.

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20. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008), p. 11.
21. Ibid., p. 12.
22. Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p. 44.
23. Ibid., pp. 44-45.
24. Ibid., p. 32.
25. Ibid., pp. 48-77, and Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, pp. 302-464.
26. Robert Price, “Explaining the Resurrection without Recourse to Miracle,” in The End of Christianity.
27. Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p. 69-70.
28. Ibid., p. 70.

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