Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Argument from Special Revelation: Jesus Christ (Part 3)

Note: see Parts one and two 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 The idea is that from the primary historical documents assembled in the New Testament1 and the various (though less important) extra-Biblical sources that mention Jesus, we can glean a list of facts about what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.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Font Issues...

It has been brought to my attention that the font color of the text in my posts is nearly unreadable if you are receiving the posts in your email inbox. I believe this is because the background on the actual site is black, so I use a white/gray font. I will attempt to resolve this issue, but in the meantime, if you receive my posts in your inbox, simply click the title of the post and it will take you to the site, and you can read the post there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Argument from Special Revelation: Jesus Christ (Part 2)

So I've obviously taken something of a hiatus from the Arguments For God series that I was working on a while back. I managed to get through most of the major ones that I find compelling, including two versions of the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the moral argument, and the ontological argument. The last one we covered was Part 1 of the final argument in the series, the Argument from Special Revelation. All of these arguments can be found here. I encourage you to have another look at them, including the comments sections.

In that last post I explained what I mean by "Special Revelation." Basically, this is the argument for Jesus' resurrection. It is the last argument in my series, and it is the most important. It is far less cerebral than some of the others, and many find it more relevant. It is certainly more easily used in conversation. And more important than all this, it reveals the most to us about who God is. It is the very basis and reason for everything that Christianity teaches and everything that Christians are supposed to do. For this reason, it is far more personal than the other arguments (even the Moral). If the conclusion that I am going to draw here is correct, then I have a meaningful and joyous reason for existence, and death has truly been defeated. If it is incorrect, then "we are of all people most to be pitied,"1 and I see no hope whatsoever for the meaningfulness of our most beloved ideals: love, goodness, beauty, transcendence, justice, hope itself.

That said, the argument:

The way we establish the authenticity of a historical event like the resurrection of Jesus occurs in two stages: first, we see what evidence is available to us. This is the raw data, and in this case, it comes primarily in the form of certain claims recorded in the documents now assembled into the New Testament.

The second stage is what I will call the explanatory stage. This is where we evaluate the data from stage one. This works in much the same way as the scientific method we all learned in middle school: form a hypothesis, test the hypothesis. We then use certain established criteria to determine the success of the hypothesis (e.g. repeatability, controls, etc.). In evaluating the authenticity of a historical event, we do the same thing: we lay out the competing explanations for the event (the 'hypotheses'), and we evaluate those explanations using criteria that historians have established for just that purpose.

In the end, the explanation that makes the most sense of the most data, and follows all of the criteria the most effectively, is the explanation that is most likely to be true.

Here, I'll just lay out what these criteria are. In the next few posts, we'll examine what the historical data is concerning Jesus' resurrection, look at the most influential explanations for it, and evaluate these competing explanations with the following criteria. In the end, I think you will agree that the hypothesis that "God raised Jesus from the dead," as the church has always held, fares far better than any other explanation.

The criteria:

1. The hypothesis, together with other true statements, must imply further statements describing present, observable data.
2. The hypothesis must have greater explanatory scope (that is, imply a greater variety of observable data) than rival hypotheses.
3. The hypothesis must have greater explanatory power (that is, make the observable data more probable) than rival hypotheses.
4. The hypothesis must be more plausible (that is, be implied by a greater variety of accepted truths, and its negation implied by fewer accepted truths) than rival hypotheses.
5. The hypothesis must be less ad hoc (that is, include fewer new suppositions about the past not already implied by existing knowledge) than rival hypotheses.
6. The hypothesis must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs (that is, when conjoined with accepted truths, imply fewer false statements) than rival hypotheses.
7. The hypothesis must so exceed its rivals in fulfilling conditions 2-6 that there is little chance of a rival hypothesis, after further investigation, exceeding it in meeting these conditions.2

2 From C. Behan McCullagh, Justifying Historical Descriptions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 19. Quoted in William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008), 233.