here and here.
So what is the data that we have about Jesus' resurrection?
Various scholars use what has been called a "Minimal Facts" approach to answering this question. The idea is that from the primary historical documents assembled in the New Testament1 and the various (though less important) extra-Biblical sources that mention Jesus, we can glean a list of facts about what actually happened. The list is generally pretty short, since to qualify, the fact has to be extremely well-evidenced and also (usually) agreed to by the vast majority of Biblical scholars, whether they be liberal or conservative. These requirements ensure that only the most certain bits of information about Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity will be used as the base 'data,' which will then be interpreted according to some proposed hypothesis. These hypotheses will then, in turn, be evaluated based on the criteria listed in Part 2 (linked above).
The process by which these facts are judged to be 'well-evidenced' is outside the scope of this post, though I will be writing on it soon when we discuss the authenticity of the gospel accounts. In many ways, this is a prior discussion to the current one, but I hope that it will suffice here to say that there are various criteria which historians use to evaluate the likely veracity of some particular claim in an ancient text. The more of these criteria that are satisfied by the claim, the more likely that the claim is true and the event actually happened. The important point for now is that all of the "Minimal Facts" that we'll be considering satisfy enough of these criteria that most (and in many cases, nearly all) serious Biblical scholars consider them to be facts of history.
The list of facts itself varies a bit from scholar to scholar, but these are probably the most prominent ones:
1. Jesus' death by crucifixion.
2. Jesus' burial by Joseph of Arimathea.
3. The empty tomb.
4. The appearances of Jesus after His death.
5. The start and growth of the Christian church.
6. The conversion of Paul, a former persecutor of the "Way."
7. The conversion of James, Jesus' brother, a former skeptic.
8. The various doctrinal shifts within Judaism after Jesus' death.2
That should do.We will not discuss all of them, but it should be reiterated that all of the points on this list (and a few others I've left out) are virtually uncontested by the overwhelming majority of critical scholars. Of course, we have not yet established that the Christian interpretation of these 'facts' is the correct one. But we have at the very least ruled out the possibility that Jesus was merely a legendary figure, at least by the standards of historical scholarship.
Next time, we'll begin to review the most prominent explanations for these facts. Stay tuned!
1 For the moment, let's try not to think of them as inspired Scripture or even as books of the Bible. For our purposes here, they are simply the best historical texts we possess for studying the life of Christ.
2 The facts on this list are defended variously by such scholars as William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, and N.T. Wright, among others.