Is believing in the resurrection of Jesus as foolish as falling for somebody’s tall-tale about teleportation? Recently James East brought to my attention his short article where he calls into question the “minimal facts” approach to arguing for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. How well does his objection fare? Not especially well, as it turns out.
As I explained some time ago in Episode 42 – and as numerous others have as well (in much more detail than I have) – the “minimal facts” argument starts by setting out only those facts that are widely accepted as historically reliable by a wide range of New Testament critics including many sceptics who themselves certainly do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Those facts typically include Jesus’s execution, his burial, the discovery of the empty tomb, and the sudden and sincere conviction on the part of his disciples that they had seen him alive again and that he had risen from the dead. Facts that are obviously in dispute such as the fact that Jesus did rise from the dead, or that the Bible is inspired – things of that nature that Christians believe but sceptics generally do not – are not brought in as facts to be granted in the argument. The argument provides evidence for those facts.
After covering evidence for those facts, the argument then moves on to a consideration of possible explanatory hypotheses of the facts. The old candidates among New Testament critics typically include: That Jesus merely passed out but did not die, that many of the disciples had a hallucinatory experience in which they saw Jesus alive again, or that the disciples forgot (or did not know) where Jesus was buried.1 As I have offered a defence of the minimal facts argument, I won’t repeat that here. Let’s look at James’s argument now.
James begins with a thought experiment in which he makes a claim about Bob teleporting:
[W]hat if I told you that I saw Bob sitting on a bench at exactly noon (my watch beeped to tell me it had just ticked over to midday), and then the very next second (just after looking up from my beeping watch) I saw him standing on a balcony a full hundred feet away from the bench? That’s right, I say: I saw Bob teleport!
However, James then claims that even if he had simply fabricated this story, the minimal facts approach would lead us to gullibly believe it anyway:
But what if we applied the Minimal Facts approach to the teleportation story? The story involves some supernatural elements (the claimed teleportation), but also some natural ones. You could go and locate the bench and the balcony in question – they’re real places. You can check the distances involved – yep, about a hundred feet apart. There’s no way someone could cover that distance in a second. I also claimed to have seen Bob at the bench, a person I know very well – there’s nothing wrong with my eyes, so I wouldn’t have mistaken his identity, and there’s no reason I’d just make up a story about seeing a guy I see all the time. There’s absolutely no reason to suspect I’d lie about such a mundane matter. The same goes for the claim of seeing Bob on the balcony. I certainly know how to tell the time from a watch, and I gave some pretty clear reasons why I happen to know what the time was to such a degree of accuracy. You even interview some people – a few people confirm they saw Bob at the bench and balcony at around noon (although perhaps nobody could confirm precisely how many seconds before or after noon it was).
So, after this considered thought, you decide to believe me that I saw Bob at the bench and then, only one second later, on a balcony a full hundred feet away. Given these “firmly established facts”, what are you to make of the situation? It’s obvious, right? Bob must have teleported. Even though your presuppositions about physics might cause you initially to be skeptical about the possibility, the evidence compels you to believe. Now, is that a sensible way to approach the situation? I doubt anyone would really think so.
It’s a silly approach, says James, because if he had decided to trick us – to just fabricate the whole story, then of course he would have fabricated the details too. He would have made up a back story, described the situation with sufficient detail to make it sound believable and so on. He wouldn’t just say “I saw Bob teleport!” That wouldn’t fool anyone.
The same is true of the resurrection, says James. Supposing that the resurrection story is the fabrication that he takes it to be, we would expect all the fabricated details to be included in the story – those details that apologists naively call the “minimal facts.”
This is where things started to break down somewhat. In clarifying his position in our discussion about his claims, James said to me that “If the story is a fabrication then we should expect that the minimal facts would be there – whether they are concocted themselves or not.” We should expect that the minimal facts would be there even if the whole story was untrue (and how an actual fact could also be concocted is far from obvious)? This is surely false. If Jesus did not rise from the dead then there is no reason at all why we should expect, say, the empty tomb, or the post-resurrection appearances. Indeed, this statement is the opposite of the central thesis of his article, which claims that “The natural elements of the stories of Jesus’ resurrection are exactly the kinds of natural elements that would have to be fabricated if the resurrection itself was fabricated.” I will act here on the supposition that the article probably represents his more thought-out position, while the comments in conversation likely represent muddled remarks that one can sometimes make when being challenged, where one might often say things that, on reflection, were not really what one meant to say.
Just how good is the above argument? Strikingly poor! Compare the two scenarios: In the teleportation scenario, you have the word of one person supplying literally all of the details. Other witnesses are later brought in to confirm some details – but those details are not at all adequate to support the claim of the one person making the teleportation claim. They saw Bob in one place. They later saw him in another, but they’re not sure of the time lapse (which is, after all, the crucial factor here, since people see people in one place and then in another place all the time). If the minimal facts case supporting the resurrection was like this, it would go something as follows: Jesus was crucified. One person reports that he was buried, and the same person reports that he was alive later, and this person assured his friends that if they were to visit the tomb (although nobody knew where it was so they couldn’t visit it), they would find it empty, and they should take his word that although he never saw fit to reveal himself alive again to anybody but him, and even though there’s no reason why Jewish believers (like all the disciples he’s trying to win over) should have thought that their Messiah would die and rise again, he’s really telling the truth, Jesus is alive again, somewhere, and he’s the Messiah, and the disciples should all go out and start telling everyone, and they shouldn’t back away from the story, even if they’re thrown in prison or threatened with death!
Clearly it is ludicrous to compare these two defences. One of the strengths of the minimal facts argument is the fact of multiple attestation. In his article James comments, apparently negatively, on the fact that the minimal facts are recorded in the Gospels themselves, but this betrays a failure to recognise what the biblical literature is. It is not just one source, like James as an alleged witness to teleportation. In the synoptic Gospels we have at least two sources (depending on which view one takes about the order in which they were written and the sources from which they were drawn). John we have a third source, and in Paul we have an earlier source (and Paul himself reproduces a much earlier formalised statement of belief on this used by other disciples). James does try to avoid this major difference between the two cases by introducing witnesses, but here too it is clear that the analogy breaks down. His few witnesses only claim that they saw Bob before and after, and they are unable to say with certainty whether or not there was enough time for Bob to get to the new location by other means. This hardly compares well to witnesses who genuinely believed (on pain of punishment or even death) that they had seen Jesus alive again after they had seen him publicly executed. Just how many seconds or minutes have passed is an easy thing to forget. Perhaps they weren’t paying attention. However, not remembering that your close friend has just been publicly crucified the next time you see him is another matter altogether! It is important to appreciate that James’s teleportation parallel only works (or rather, he only thinks it works) because James considers the minimal facts to be equally well established in both cases: The immediate reappearance of a man who just disappeared on the one hand, and the minimal facts surrounding the resurrection on the other.
Suggesting in passing that the minimal facts are not well established (as James does in his article by noting the source of these claims) simply fails to interact with the case for the minimal facts, and as such does not need to be addressed. If James thinks that the arguments for the minimal facts fails somewhere, then he is welcome to make his case. That is where the argument should be focused.
James’s argument as a whole is a case of putting the cart before the horse. The minimal facts argument is roughly as follows:
1) These facts are agreed on as our starting point.
2) There is a variety of explanations of these facts, including the explanation that Jesus rose from the dead.
3) All of these explanations fail to have the explanatory scope or power for all of the facts, apart from the explanation that Jesus rose from the dead.
4) There is no compelling reason to exclude the explanation that Jesus rose from the dead.
5) Therefore (probably) Jesus rose from the dead.
The truth is, there is no reason to expect these facts to obtain if Jesus did not rise from the dead, and indeed if the above argument works, then all of the facts would not have obtained had Jesus not risen from the dead. This is implied by the minimal facts argument itself. In extremely simplified form, the argument is:
1) If the minimal facts, then Jesus rose from the dead.
2) The minimal facts
3) Therefore Jesus rose from the dead
(I know, I said it was extremely simplified.) This is the logical form known as modus ponens (If A then B. A, therefore B). But of course, premise 1) logically entails the following, if we start with the claim that Jesus did not rise from the dead. This is a modus tollens argument (If A then B. Not B, therefore not A):
1) If the minimal facts, then Jesus rose from the dead.
5) Jesus did not rise from the dead
6) Therefore – not the minimal facts
And this, if spelled out clearly, is James’ position. If the resurrection story is false, he says, then “The natural elements of the stories of Jesus’ resurrection are exactly the kinds of natural elements that would have to be fabricated.” Indeed they would, for if genuine, they are adequate evidence for the resurrection. It is simply not available for James to give himself a back door at the end of his article, tacking on “I’m not claiming to know that these details were fabrications.” If he is not here denying any facts or offering any reason to think that they should not be explained via the resurrection, then all he has left is this rather mundane claim:
Any complete version of the resurrection story would include claims about the minimal facts, regardless of whether the story is true or not
But clearly this claim is compatible with the minimal facts argument for the resurrection, including its conclusion, so how could it serve as a criticism of the argument? I give James more credit than to suppose that he would offer something like that as a critique of the minimal facts argument, for it is not a critique at all. Obviously James does deny that Jesus rose from the dead, so he is logically committed, by this argument, to claiming that at least some of the minimal facts are missing. They are not facts, period. If he wishes to resist this, he can only do so by rejecting 1), namely the claim that the minimal facts provide adequate grounds to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. And without that, he does not yet have an argument. He does allude to a denial of the burial, and to the hallucination hypothesis, but never defends either claim (each of which have been dealt fairly heavy blows in the past), so I cannot analyse his defence of those theories.
The problem with the argument 1-4-6, however, is that the minimal facts argument includes a defence of the minimal facts themselves. This gives us grounds to reject 6), which in turn calls 5), “Jesus did not rise from the dead,” into question.
There is just no getting around it. In order for James’s argument to have any force at all against the minimal facts argument, we must think that the resurrection story is false, thus giving us grounds for insisting that the minimal facts do not obtain after all. But since it is the minimal facts themselves that are defended in the minimal facts argument, the only real options are to argue either 1) that the minimal facts do not obtain, or else 2) they do obtain, but they do not give us a good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. James promises to offer an argument for the latter in the future. Until that happens, the case he has presented offers no challenge at all to the minimal facts argument for the resurrection, for this is an argument that trades entirely on arguments that haven’t yet been offered.
I await the argument with interest.
- Episode 042: The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection
- The death of the Apostles: Why would you?
- A theological pet peeve
- “God of the Living” – William Tyndale and the Resurrection
- "Most of whom are still alive" – The Apostle Paul on witnesses to the resurrection
- Tom Wright: Wrong about Soul Sleep
- The thesis that Jesus’ body was simply lost and not buried is not a candidate at all, since it does not grant one of the minimal facts, namely the burial of Jesus. [↩]