A Q&A with Gary Habermas

Gary Habermas (Ph.D., Michigan State University) is the author, co-author, or editor of more than 40 books, of which over 20 concern various aspects of Jesus’ resurrection. Other subjects include near-death experiences, religious doubt, and personal suffering. He has also contributed more than 70 chapters or articles to additional books, plus well over 100 articles and reviews to journals and other publications. He has been a Visiting or Adjunct Professor at some 15 different graduate schools and seminaries in the US and abroad, having taught dozens of graduate courses in those venues. Currently, he is Distinguished Research Professor, teaching in the Ph.D. program at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Liberty University, where he has taught since 1981.

Q: In the book you coauthored with Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, you mention that the “Minimal Facts” approach does not require a defense of the reliability of the New Testament text, but rather only rests on “those data that are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones.” What characterizes the “Minimal Facts” approach?

A: Before I answer your question, I would like to clarify that these “strongly attested” historical facts may come from the New Testament, but only if they are individually well-established and then allowed by critical scholars, not because critics think that the NT is generally thought to be reliable or inspired.

Now, the Minimal Facts Argument is an approach, or a method; it is not a theology or a system. It is a method to use with a system. And the point of the Minimal Facts method is that, when making a case for the Resurrection of Jesus, you use only those facts that have two characteristics: 1) most importantly, each fact that is used is attested by multiple evidences (in other words, there are many reasons that argue for the facticity of each one), and 2) as a result, almost all critical scholars, say some 90% or more, will grant the facticity of those historical claims.

Many skeptics who have encountered our approach have accused Mike and me of committing the fallacy from authority. This simply is not true— it happens to be a useful side benefit that the well-evidenced facts we use enjoy very widespread scholarly support. Still, we do not argue that since these claims enjoy such support, they are therefore true. The Minimal Facts approach has been somewhat successful in that critics have, as one scholar said, fewer and fewer boulders to hide behind. So even if many critics were to stop granting the facticity of these data, what remains are the good arguments in favor of each fact that I use. If critics decide later that they no longer want to grant these facts, they are still going to have to explain the evidences that support them, and that will be very difficult for them. That is why they are currently accepted as historical facts.

Q: Are certain New Testament scholars really shifting away from granting facts that they previously granted?

A: In only a few cases now, some critics seem to be pulling back a little, as if they were getting too close to the resurrection itself. For years I have told my Ph.D. students that I think we are going to see more of this, with critics starting to grow “iffy” about facts that they previously had been on record as having accepted. If they do not like where the data are heading, what else can they do? Perhaps they feel that they are losing the debate. It’s hard to say.

Q: Given those two criteria that you mentioned earlier, what historical claims about Jesus’ final days would qualify as minimal facts?

A: I sometimes use slightly different numbers of facts, like five to seven, depending on those with whom I am conversing, because critical scholars actually affirm more than just my short list. If I were to choose six facts, I would generally take these:

(1) Jesus died due to the rigors of crucifixion.

(2) Afterwards the disciples had experiences that they believed were appearances of the risen Jesus. There is hardly a critical scholar out there who will not concede these initial two facts: the crucifixion and the fact that the disciples had some kind of real experience are as widely admitted as are any New Testament facts.

(3) As a result, the disciples proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus at a very early date. If Jesus was crucified in 30 A.D., then this material began to be preached almost immediately. James D. G. Dunn, as influential as any New Testament scholar today, states that it didn’t take any longer than a few months after the crucifixion for the proclamation of the risen Christ to be formalized into a creedal tradition. Larry Hurtado, another exceptionally well-known scholar, states that the resurrection preaching began just days after the crucifixion.

(4) The disciples’ lives were turned upside-down: they were transformed. While many people’s lives are transformed by religious beliefs, and a lot of people die for teachings that are actually false, though they think they are true, we will have to look hard throughout history for anybody who dies willingly for what they know to be a lie. You can find numerous examples of people dying for what they believed to be true, but not for what they know to be false. So someone could ask, “Ok, what’s the difference between the disciples and everyone else who died for their faith?” The difference is that the disciples are the only ones on earth to know whether or not they most likely saw the risen Jesus. The disciples are the only ones who know best what the original experiences were, and they were so sure that it was actually the risen Jesus that, as far as we know, none of them recanted and they all were willing to die for their faith. Of the “big four”—Peter, John, James the brother of Jesus, and Paul—we have first century martyrdom accounts for three of the four.

(5) Saul of Tarsus, alias Paul the former persecutor, came to believe in Jesus Christ as his Lord because he also thought he had witnessed an appearance of the risen Jesus.

(6) James, the brother of Jesus, another previous unbeliever, came to Christ after he also experienced what he thought was an appearance of the risen Christ.

Q: In The Case for the Resurrection, you separated the claim regarding whether Jesus’ tomb was empty or not from the other minimal facts. So what sort of positive evidence for the historicity of the empty tomb would you put forth if talking to a skeptic?

A: Let me make a clarification as to why in that book Mike Licona and I kept the empty tomb in the discussion, without actually counting it as one of the minimal facts. Our reason for this is that the empty tomb is certainly well-enough evidenced to be a minimal fact (which is our first rule), but it does not meet the threshold of, say, 90% acceptance by scholars. The acceptance figure for the empty tomb is more like 75% of recent critical scholars.

However, it is possible that there are as many or more evidences for the empty tomb than there are for any of the minimal facts. First of all, the reason that is most-recently cited by most critical scholars as the strongest is the fact that the first witnesses to the empty tomb were women. The reason that really strikes home with critics is this: the four Gospel authors, writing in far different locations around the Mediterranean, all mentioned that the women were the first witnesses to the empty tomb.

Now, if I am trying to convince you a generation later that the tomb was empty why would I say, “The women did it?” Carolyn Osiek, an authority on Greco- Roman culture, states that given the attitude of the entire Mediterranean world, female testimony was not well-received in legal situations, especially if male testimony was available. So, if you have a choice, take the male testimony.

So why did all four authors attest that the female testimony came first? The answer is that they reported the truth: the women were indeed the initial witnesses. So it is almost impossible to imagine the same story being told in roughly four different geographical areas if the women were not the first who went to the tomb and found it empty. Critics find this very compelling.

Another argument that is probably just as good is what Licona and I call “the Jerusalem Factor.” The basic idea here is that because Jesus was buried in Jerusalem, and that this is also where the apostolic preaching began, critics would simply need to walk over to the tomb to determine whether it was empty, or whether it contained the corpse of a crucifixion victim. If they wanted to destroy the Christian message, they simply needed to exhume a corpse.

Now critics sometimes make an intriguing comeback. They will say, “Well according to your own book, Acts, the disciples didn’t even preach the resurrection for 50 days at Pentecost; and in 50 days, the body wouldn’t be recognizable.” Well, Mike and I have both talked to pathologists, the ones who examine dead bodies, and they have said that the corpse would still be recognizable after 50 days, even in a Middle Eastern Spring climate. Furthermore, note that the New Testament proclaims that Jesus’ tomb was empty. So if someone found any body in the tomb, the Christians lose. You don’t have to prove it is Jesus: any body in the tomb refutes the disciples’ message.

So those are the two best reasons. A third would be that we have multiple independent sources for the empty tomb. As ancient historian Paul Maier of Western Michigan University states, many things in the ancient world are based on one source—a single source. Christians have several independent sources for the empty tomb, as well as the sermon summary in Acts 13—that’s four to five sources the way critical scholars count. Then if Paul implied it in the pre- Pauline creed in First Corinthians 15:3-4, that makes at least five sources.

Q: How would you respond to those who maintain that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source?

A: I personally have no problem with that. So let’s say that Matthew and Luke often got their material from Mark—then on those occasions, that would count as just one source. John counts as a second one. The Acts 13 sermon summary, which Bart Ehrman dates to about a year or two after the crucifixion—would then be a third source for the empty tomb. Ehrman and others count the Gospel of Peter as another source for the historical Jesus, and hence for the empty tomb. So if Paul implies the empty tomb in his chief pre- Pauline creed—that makes five. So even if Matthew and Luke drew from Mark, we have at least four or five sources. But on the empty tomb, many critical scholars count either two or even three sources from the Synoptic Gospels, since in this case there appears to be some deviation from Mark, in which case there could be between six and seven independent sources for the empty tomb reports.

Q: How do the six minimal facts you mentioned, plus the empty tomb, cohere to provide evidence for the Christian Resurrection narrative?

A: If we used the historical facts that confirm the six Minimal Facts plus the empty tomb, these data alone can establish the heart of the historical Christian Gospel message, refute the major naturalistic theories that come against this message, and thirdly, do all of this with what we might term the lowest common denominator (or minimal number) of evidences.

What fascinates me is that some of the best-known atheist and agnostic New Testament scholars will grant all or almost all these data. The vast majority of these specialists will usually grant at least the six Minimal Facts, while some also admit all six plus the empty tomb. In fact, until recently, Bart Ehrman granted all of these facts, but he has since pulled back from the additional fact of the empty tomb. He still states in one of his latest books that while Jesus’ resurrection cannot be proven historically, neither can it be disproven historically, either!

Q: When seeking to explain, say, the disciples’ belief that they had witnessed the resurrected Jesus, the literature I have read suggests that skeptics are not in accord with each other about which naturalistic explanation is most plausible. Is there some truth to that?

A: Yes, that is certainly the case. For example, Ehrman, if I am not mistaken, used to hold the hallucination hypothesis, whereas in his latest books, he indicates that he no longer holds that position. He writes that he is not going to pick a naturalist theory at all. It is incredible that he is not going in that direction, if the evidence for an alternative view is more likely, as he also states. Of course, other critical scholars do prefer natural theories.

In a dialogue with an atheist college professor a long time ago, I remarked, “Well, I’m a supernaturalist, and I think God raised Jesus from the dead. You are the atheist, so why don’t you tell me what you think happened?” The professor responded that he was not going to answer that question. He continued with something quite revealing, like: “If I pick a natural theory, you are going to train your guns on that point and I am going to be in a corner.” When I pushed, though, he did pick a theory—one of the very worst, I may add. After noting problems with his view, I responded, “If you cannot pick a theory that doesn’t leave you without a way out, who’s got the best case here?” He finally said, “As far as I am concerned, we’re done. This dialogue is over right now!” This is not usually the way these dialogues go, but responses like this seem to point out that the naturalistic arguments that seek to explain the Minimal Facts plus the empty tomb can be in trouble.

Q: How do near-death experiences come to bear on questions of supernaturalism versus naturalism? Can naturalism explain such experiences?

A: If I were a naturalist, near-death experiences— NDEs—would really bother me. They are one of the best ways to argue for supernaturalism. There are now over 300 published NDE reports that present evidence that the person experiencing the NDE presented truthful reports that he or she witnessed within the operating room or even from many miles away. Also, in over 30 of these cases, the individual has no measureable brain or heart activity, and yet can report things sometimes immediately, which are then confirmed. The existence of such experiences is powerful evidence for an initial look into supernatural realities. However, they are not miraculous, since NDEs seem to be what normally happens to humans at the end of life.

Q: Are there some examples of NDEs that stand out to you?

A: Here are some evidential categories for NDEs that I have mentioned recently. Some skeptics want cases that present strong evidence for NDEs from inside the operating room—information on machine dials or properly reading a number near the ceiling. There are dozens of these cases. Many of the best-evidenced NDE cases come from evidential reports from outside the room, anywhere from down the hall to many miles away. There are cases of NDEs from blind persons, even the congenitally blind, who properly report something that they experienced. Some NDErs claim to have seen deceased relatives or friends who have been dead for years, concerning which various sorts of confirmed information was learned. There are NDE reports that are apparently witnessed by more than one person, where healthy people not close to death (perhaps inside the room with the NDEr), apparently witness the same supernatural events that the NDEr claims to have seen.

Once I had a dialogue with a prominent skeptical scholar who refused to discuss this topic, apparently because it was potentially troublesome for his naturalistic view. This is the sort of data I mentioned above that would make me very uneasy if I were a naturalist today.

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