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Meta problems with minimal facts

I was going to do a post discussing my personal thoughts relating to Habermas and Licona’s “minimal facts” approach, but upon re-reading Martin’s objections to the full list of 12 “minimal facts” Habermas has previously used (the authors only use 4 of those in this book), having agreed with his objections, and having referred you to them, I believe they are sufficient for my purposes here.

What I did want to do is a very basic treatise on, which isn’t mentioned in Martin’s book, are the meta problems I see with the authors “historical” approach to establishing (a) the supernatural, and by extension (b) the resurrection of Jesus via these minimal facts (obviously I’m not addressing all problems related to them, as I’d be going for days, simply those related to the problem below):

Testimony is never sufficient to establish a supernatural event or miracle

Firstly, what are Habermas and Licona’s “minimal facts”?

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion- p48
  2. Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them- 49
  3. The church persecutor Paul, was suddenly changed-64
  4. The skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed-67

The problem with using personal testimony to establish a miracle or supernatural event, lies in the fact that, if we allowed this, as an acceptable standard, we would then be required to accept all kinds of conflicting/contradictory reports, and supernatural claims. If we allow testimonial evidence to be sufficient to establish the above facts, but not the claims of other religious, or cultish sects, we are guilty of special pleading. Logic begs us consider a reliable method of detection.

If we restrict this, for our purposes, simply to religious claims (and not UFO or Elvis sightings which while not necessarily supernatural, are still extraordinary), I believe the first place we need to start, is revelation. Paul’s, James’ and the disciples supposed experiences and testimonies are used as evidence for the resurrection of Jesus (re: Habermas and Licona The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, pp48-67), presumably based on some form of revelation from God or personal experience.

I agree with Kai Nielsen (see Atheism and Philosophy, pp84-5, 2005) and Norman L. Geisler (see Christian Apologetics, p77, 1976 )  that we may not be able to discount someones revelatory experiences (as revelation is necessarily first person), there is however,  no reason for us to accept the exceptional as true, based solely on their word. As Geisler puts it, the experience may be enough to attest to the truth of that experience for that person, however

“truth finds its source in experience, but not its substantiation” (Geisler, Christian Apologetics, p77, 1976)

Habermas and Licona admit that natural explanations are preferable to supernatural explanations (p82), we must then consider Ehrman who has noted that due to the very improbable nature of miracles (by definition they are the least probable explanation), no matter how improbable the natural explanation for a supernatural event it is always more probable than a miraculous one (re: supernatural event) (for more see Ehrman’s book, Jesus, Interrupted, pp-171-9, 2009).  With that in mind, Richard Carrier explains in his book Sense and Goodness without God, that we can generally rely on testimony, but when we come across a single unexamined experience that runs counter to what is scientifically and logically well-proven we have good reason to reject that experience in favour of more trustworthy and analyzed explanations (p55). Habermas and Licona ostensibly agree with Carrier on p137 when they admit that science has indeed demonstrated that people do not rise from the dead:

“what science has shown is that a person does not rise from the dead by natural causes.”

The authors concede that the biblical testimony they offer in their “minimal facts” is counter to what is “scientifically well-proven”, hence making it subject to immediate skepticism, however they add:

“But this does not apply to Jesus’ resurrection since we are not claiming that Jesus came back to life naturally. The writers of the New Testament asserted that it was God who raised Jesus from the dead.” (Habermas & Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p-137, 2004)

Does this objection help them though? Now they’ve entered the realm of circularity, as they have made no effort thus far to demonstrate the existence of a god or god’s, which begs the question: is the resurrection evidence for God, or is God evidence for the resurrection? How can they simple assume the Christian God into the equation, without first, demonstrating the existence of such an entity,  that this being would want to bring about Jesus’ resurrection, and indeed, how it did so?

Carrier offers us a natural explanation for the rise of early Christianity: all we would need,  is the belief that the resurrection occurred:

“There is nothing that an actual resurrection would have caused that could not have been caused by a mere belief in that resurrection.” (Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God, 242, 2005)

A Christian may still claim a naturalistic bias (which would be ad hominem), however we see that even in the historical method, testimony is not considered to be very reliable in setting up any historical claims, natural or otherwise, in the sense that, it is the least reliable piece of evidence we can gather, Carrier outlines categories of evidence:

First, what I call “physical-historical necessity.”
Second, direct physical evidence.
Third, unbiased or counterbiased corroboration.
Fourth, credible critical accounts by known scholars from the period.
Fifth, an eyewitness account.” (Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God, p242, 2005)

As we see, testimony begins at third on this list! Even if we deemed testimony to be worthy of demonstrating the supernatural or the miraculous resurrection of Jesus, Habermas and Licona still have to explain how they’re doing it, with the very worst of evidence! They concede that the historical method is not relevant to their case on p135 when they mention that the historian may not actually be able to detect that the resurrection of Jesus occurred since he is

“unable to detect God’s actions with the tools of his trade.” (Habermas & Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p-135, 2004)

Implying as I’ve stated previously that they must engage in theology/apologetics to discover it, which makes it not a historical search anymore, but rather a confirmation of previously held ideas and beliefs, this may explain why they allow the abundant use of testimony to establish the supernatural.

Continuing, not only is testimony by itself horrible evidence to set up the resurrection, we then have problems with the testimony given in the Bible. For a meta discussion on the Bible’s reliability we turn to Ehrman, again from his book; Jesus, Interrupted (see also Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, ppX-XIV, 1994 for a similar diatribe), who states that we don’t have any autographs of any books of the Bible, only copies written centuries later, all of which have been tampered with and many of them are pseudonymous (e.g written in the name of an Apostle by someone else) (pp12-3). No biblical authors were Jesus contemporaries (the Gospels,were written decades later by unknown authors) (p12), and in the case of Paul, whose testimony is integral to Habermas and Licona’s “minimal facts” effort, did not even meet Jesus in person, only 7 of his 13 letters are considered to be authentic, Acts (the story of the Disciples lives after Jesus execution) is considered to be written around 85-90 C.E, about 25 years after Paul’s death, which makes information about him less than reliable and the Pauline Corpus itself is filled with discrepancies (pp53-6) (for a full elaboration see pp63-70). This is why I charge the authors here with attempting to sneak in inerrancy. They address very few, to none of these concerns within biblical scholarship, they simply assume the Bible as true, or that scholarship is on their side (see Martin’s, The Case Against Christianity, pp88-9, 1991, for more on this).

Christians might chime in that we have corroborating evidence of Paul’s and James’ conversions, and the disciples experiences, which might increase the probability of the resurrection, but it seems to me, confirmation of Paul’s, James and the disciples experiences, via testimony, by the Apostolic fathers and extrabiblical sources (assuming, rather generously their reliability) decades or even hundreds of years later, helps us little, and is circular, given that testimony itself is the very issue at hand.

Finally I want to talk about special pleading, which I believe Habermas and Licona are engaging in, in their defense of the resurrection via testimony. Throughout history there have been other miracle claims by other religions and cultish sects; Apollonius of Tyana, whose miracles, healings, casting out of demons, resurrection (and reappearance to his disciples) are all reported by Philostratus via oral tradition, and Apollonius’ closest disciple Damis in his diary (Price, The Case Against the Case for Christ, pp154-6, 2010). We have the charismatic messiah Sabbatai Sevi, in the 17th century, of whom “contemporary records, rumours and reports survive” (which is all better evidence than that for Jesus’ resurrection). (Price, The Case Against the Case for Christ, p155, 2010). As Price continues, there are also the dying and rising god religions of Baal, Osiris and Tammuz whose rituals and followers are attested to in the Bible itself (see Price, The Case Against the Case for Christ, p157, 2010, for the full details).

There are more examples, Richard Carrier, again in his book Sense and Goodness without God discusses the pagan god Asclepius who has surviving “testimonies to his influence and healing power throughout the classical age are common enough to fill a two-volume book.” We have first hand testimony to his miracles by those healed at his temples, which continues on for centuries (from 4th century B.C.E to 3rd century C.E), going all over the mediterranean. (Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God, p233, 2005). There is the emperor Vespasian who was thought to have cured the blind and lame, and statues with healing powers were common attractions for the sick people of this era (p233). Lunar eclipses were thought to be a monster devouring the moon, or witches using diabolical spells, so when an eclipse occurred people would bang pots and blow horns, to scare away the demons. The list goes on, Proteus Peregrinus (who resurrected), Alexander of Abonuteichos etc all attested to by testimony! When Habermas and Licona dismiss other accounts of religious or cultish miracle workers and sects which are attested to via testimony as they do implicitly (as they are Christians making a case for Jesus’ resurrection) and explicitly (on pp92,142) they are engaging in special pleading.

Conclusion

The fact that believers believed in their religious experiences is no more to the point than any other believer believing in the truth of their deity and experiences, or for that matter, me attempting to justify my atheism because I “feel that it’s true”, or  because  “I don’t have experiences of a god or gods”.

We see that establishing the supernatural via testimony is impossible as it would force us, if we wished to avoid special pleading, to accept all claims given by testimony. We see that even if one doesn’t accept this, we still can’t use testimony that is contrary to established scientific and logically well-proven data. Even if one doesn’t accept this,  by the authors own admission natural explanations are more preferrable to supernatural ones , we see that miracles by their definition are the least likely events to happen, and that any natural explanation is prima facie more probable than a supernatural one, hence a fallible human belief in the resurrection as opposed to an actual resurrection is far more likely. Still, if one doesn’t accept this either, we see that testimony itself is the worst kind of evidence we can have to establish a natural event, hence it would almost certainly be insufficient to establish the supernatural. Still oh obstinate one, if you do not accept that, there is the unreliability of the Biblical account of the resurrection and the resulting testimony and subsequent confirmation by extrabiblical sources (re: decades to hundreds of years later, which Habermas and Licona don’t accept for other supernatural claims).  Again even, if by some insane chance, you accept none of the above, we see that other religious and cult leaders death, resurrection and miracles are established by testimony, viz our first point, if we wish to avoid special pleading we have to accept these as true, if we’re going to accept the resurrection.

From this do I conclude that Jesus was in fact not raised from the dead? Well, no, I don’t make such a claim, only that the evidence I’ve been presented with thus far, is unconvincing to me. I’m a fallabilst, I could be wrong, and I don’t go so far as to say what I’ve written here is complete, I’m sure there are many logical and factual errors, as well as much more that could be said on the subject. But hopefully this investigation gives you some insight into why I don’t accept, at the very least, Habermas and Licona’s portrayal of the events.

References

Carrier R. (2005).  Sense and Goodness without God. Bloomington, Indiana. Arthur House. pp-55,233,242.

Crossan J D. (1994).  Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. New York, New York.  Harper Collins. ppX-XIV.

Ehrman B. (2009). Jesus, Interrupted, New York, New York. Harper-Collins Publishing. pp-12-3,53-6,63-70,171-9.

Geisler N L. (1976).  Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Baker Book House Company. p- 177.

Habermas G R., Licona M R. (2004). The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Kregel Publications. pp-48-9,64-7,82,135,137.

Martin M. (1991). The Case Against Christianity. Philadelphia. Temple University Press. pp-88-9.

Nielsen K. (2005). Atheism and Philosophy. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. pp-84-5.

Price R M. (2010). The Case Against the Case for Christ. Cranford, New Jersey. American Atheist Press. pp-154-7.

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