Thursday, August 6, 2015

Gary Habermas Shows Why the 'Minimal Facts' of Jesus' Death Can't Establish the Resurrection

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.