Minimal facts argument

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The minimal facts argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the argument that there are certain well-evidenced facts surrounding Jesus's death and resurrection that are best accounted for by an actual resurrection, as opposed to skeptical explanations.


The resurrection of Christ is an event of central importance to Christianity, providing hope for the future resurrection of the dead. (1 Corinthians 15:12-17) As the apostle Paul of Tarsus states in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, if Christ did not rise from the dead, "[t]hen they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished." (1 Corinthians 15:18) The main sources for this resurrection are the epistles of Paul of Tarsus and the four gospels.[1] While some other sources, like Josephus or Tacitus, may have mentioned Jesus, they do not claim to have had access to eyewitness sources, and do not give us any details that the gospels and epistles do not already give.

As the gospels and epistles of the New Testament are religious texts and not neutral histories, questions have been raised regarding their credibility and consistency. Indeed, it seems that the strongest defenders of Christ's resurrection are also often the first to realize that the Bible may not be completely historical and literally true. Christian scholar Michael Licona lost his job at the Southern Evangelical Seminary after questioning whether Matthew 27:52-53's account of the saints resurrecting and appearing to many people in Jerusalem (only to have nobody else corroborate this extraordinary event) is literally true.[2] Incidentally, this throws into question the credibility of work produced by evangelical scholars, as they risk censure if their work does not agree with predetermined conclusions. And N.T. Wright, a prolific defender of the resurrection, believes in theistic evolution.[3] Even if Christianity survives all of the challenges regarding the resurrection, it survives far from unscathed.

As a result, the minimal facts argument seems to have emerged as a venture to prove the resurrection of Jesus without assuming the total credibility of the entire New Testament — in other words, instead of trying to defend all the claims of the New Testament, seemingly credible facts are gleaned from it in order to prove the resurrection. Throwing out ballast to try to save the balloon, as it were.

The argument[edit]

The minimal facts argument begins with the claim that the gospels and circumstantial evidence combined allow us to glean certain facts about the death of Jesus and the reaction of his followers to his alleged resurrection. Even without accepting the full inerrancy of the gospel accounts, they argue, we can deduce what is unlikely to have been made up based on the motives of the early Christians[4] (never mind proving the motives). The list of "minimal facts" provided varies a bit between different apologists. The following list combines the facts raised by Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig:[5][4]

  1. That Jesus died by crucifixion
  2. That Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea
  3. That Jesus's followers found his empty tomb
  4. That early on in the development of Christianity, the followers of Jesus experienced something that caused them to zealously preach the resurrection
  5. That belief in the resurrection started among people who would have been unlikely to accept it, including the apostles, who did not expect a resurrection, James the unbelieving brother of Jesus, and Paul the persecutor of early Christians.

The argument continues by claiming that the secular explanations for the resurrection do not account well for all the relevant facts. For instance, apologists argue that the swoon theory (the theory that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but merely fainted) is medically implausible,[6] and that the theory that the apostles had a mass hallucination is not consummate with the apostles' disbelief.[7]

Evaluating the argument[edit]

Problems with the argument in principle[edit]

In principle, even if it were true that there are no known good secular explanations of the resurrection, it would still not make the resurrection true. UFOs, for instance, are unexplained by definition; yet we do not assume that every unexplained light in the sky must be of alien origin. It could be that there is more evidence to uncover that would cast doubt on the veracity of the resurrection or point towards a secular explanation that has not yet been considered.

Furthermore, even if the resurrection is true, Christianity would not necessarily be proven. The Old Testament Bible warns against false prophets who will perform signs and wonders to trick people into believing in "other gods, which thou hast not known".(Deuteronomy 13:2) As a result, Jewish apologists have argued that because Jesus both did not fulfill the Jewish messianic prophecies and has told people to worship a strange God (the Trinity), Christianity remains false regardless of how many miracles are associated with Jesus.[8]

Did Jesus die by crucifixion?[edit]

There is some reason to wonder if he actually existed in the first place as a man in history. The evidence for it is rather thin on the ground. Still, assuming he did, he may have been a street preacher who disappeared for whatever reason and stories were made up about him later. The world's religions are full of examples of stories about a central figure that were simply made up. In short, while he certainly may have existed and been crucified, the evidence for it is somewhat short of conclusive.

Was Jesus buried in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb?[edit]

The gospels indicate that Joseph of Arimathea, a rich disciple of Jesus and a member of the Sanhedrin, buried Jesus in his own tomb. This is significant because if Jesus was not buried in a tomb but rather in a Roman mass grave, as was often the case for many people executed via crucifixion, then the empty tomb story becomes purely mythological.

Arguments for the claim's authenticity[edit]

Arguments for authenticity Problems
Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 that Jesus was buried.

And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:

This is in the context of a creedal statement with non-Pauline phraseology that Paul states he received from others. According to apologists, this creedal statement likely dates to before 36 CE, as that was when he went to Jerusalem to meet Cephas and James.[4] Thus, the belief that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea started early on, and is therefore unlikely to be mythical in nature.

Glaringly, the passage cited does not mention anything about the empty tomb or about Joseph of Arimathea. Thus, it is not inconsistent with the alternate explanation that Jesus was buried in a Roman mass grave.

Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 15:1-29, Paul is writing about the importance of believing in a resurrection of the dead, and linking it to the resurrection of Jesus. This would have been the perfect place to remind the readers of the empty tomb, just as Paul reminds the readers of all the witnesses of the resurrection.[9] This glaring silence on the part of Paul is evidence that the story about Joseph of Arimathea may have come about later on.

Mark's passion and burial narrative is continuous, indicating that the story of Joseph of Arimathea came from the same source as the passion narrative, which is far older than Mark.[4]
The Christians hated the Jewish court and therefore would not have invented a court member who honors Jesus.[4]
There are no competing accounts of the burial of Jesus.[4]

Arguments against the claim's authenticity[edit]

Joseph of Arimathea is not mentioned in the earlier Pauline epistles, but rather the later gospel accounts. This raises doubts as to whether the claim could have developed over time.[10]:77

New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman further argues that the story of Joseph of Arimathea creates conflicts in the text of the Bible, indicating that either different traditions were spliced together, or the author of the Gospel of Mark made up the story without being aware of the contradictions it created.[10]:77 According to the Gospel of Mark, the entirety of the Sanhedrin condemned Jesus to death. (Mark 14:55-64) Yet the Bible also states that Joseph took a risk to bury Jesus's corpse (Mark 15:43), and that he himself was a disciple of Jesus. (Matthew 27:57) What's more, in Acts 13:27-29, Paul speaks as if the whole Sanhedrin killed and buried Jesus. This whole affair is suspect, even from a purely theological point of view; voting for Jesus's execution would have made Joseph an accomplice in Jesus's death, and yet the Bible speaks of Joseph admiringly rather than placing him into the same category as Judas.

The story of a sympathetic member of the Sanhedrin makes sense in the context of the general tendency of the Christian gospel accounts to find more "'good guys' among the 'bad guys'" over time.[10]:78 Ehrman gives the example of Pontius Pilate, who becomes increasingly reluctant to execute Jesus in the later gospels, and is even shown to convert to Christianity in later non-canonical gospels.[10]:78 This also puts into question the claim that the early Christians would have hated the Sanhedrin too much to make up a good member of the Sanhedrin.

According to Ehrman, the story of Joseph of Arimathea also conflicts with our historical understanding of Roman crucifixion practices. Crucifixion was intended to humiliate, and bodies were often left up on crosses to be eaten by animals.[10]:79 In general, criminals were denied a dignified burial and were instead thrown into mass graves.[10]:80 Christian apologists have responded by citing Philo's writings to argue that clemency was sometimes given to families to allow them to bury their executed relatives.[10]:80 However, the exception Philo mentions is a form of clemency given on the occasion of the emperor's birthday, and there is no evidence that the same clemency would have been extended to Jews on their holidays.[10]:80 Pilate is known to have been brutal towards the Jews, and was not as kind and merciful as the later gospels made him out to be,[10]:81 so there is no strong reason to believe that he would have extended this type of mercy at the request of a few lone members of the Sanhedrin.

Was the development of belief in the resurrection unlikely?[edit]

Christian apologists argue that belief in Christ's resurrection is unlikely to have formed through hallucinations or via a conspiracy because such a belief would have been alien to the Jewish tradition. On this, they cannot have their cake and eat it too by also citing Tanach verses appearing to show that Jesus meets the criteria when preaching to Jews, because that would seem to show that belief in a resurrecting messiah could indeed have arisen from a fringe or sectarian reading of the Tanach.

The ability of skeptical explanations to explain the facts in question[edit]

Conspiracy hypothesis[edit]

The claim that the followers of Jesus faked the resurrection is one of the less popular secular explanations, and also one of the least probable. But if it can be shown that the conspiracy hypothesis, the least probable secular explanation, is still at least a little more probable than the supernatural explanation, then it should be accepted that the aggregate of all the secular explanations is more probable than the supernatural explanations.

Problems with the conspiracy hypothesis[edit]
The Apostles risked persecution to spread the gospel[edit]

That's hardly unique to Christianity; the followers of many other religions have risked persecution to spread the word of their faith.

The criterion of embarrassment and the female followers[edit]

Christian apologists will frequently argue that the criterion of embarrassment adds credence to the Bible. The argument is essentially claiming that any stories which cast a protagonist in any sort of unfavorable light, are less likely to be fabrications. A couple of commonly cited examples include Peter’s denial of Jesus and the fact that the first reported witnesses to the resurrection were women (who were considered less credible than men).

The former example is a poor one for the simple reason that Christian theology is built on the teaching that humans are imperfect and weak. If Peter was portrayed in a consistently flawless manner, it would undermine the entire theology.

The latter example might be valid if it weren’t for the addition of other supposed resurrection confirmations by men.

The problem that apologists ignore is the fact that their beloved criterion is a double-edged sword. If the embarrassment criterion lends credibility to certain passages, its reverse should likewise induce considerable skepticism. By definition, if supposedly embarrassing stories somehow add credibility, positive stories (especially ones that are fantastic in nature) written by members of the early Jesus cult should be inherently and significantly suspect. So the flip-side corollary to the criterion of embarrassment, is the criterion of embellishment. In today’s vernacular, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Hence the claims of miracles, and the resurrection itself should engender significant skepticism among Christians.


  1. Maas, Anthony. "Catholic Encyclopedia: Resurrection of Jesus Christ". 
  2. Christian NT Scholar and Apologist Michael Licona Loses Job After Questioning Matthew 27 by Jeffery Jay Lowder (November 8, 2011) Patheos(archived from October 14, 2014).
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 Craig, William Lane. "The Resurrection of Jesus". Reasonable Faith. 
  5. Habermas, Gary. "Minimal Facts on the Resurrection that Even Skeptics Accept". Southern Evangelical Seminary and Bible College. 
  6. "The Swoon Theory - What is it? Did Jesus survive His crucifixion?". Got Questions Ministries. 
  7. "Countering Common Arguments against the Resurrection". Harvest Ministries. 
  8. blumenthal, Yisorel. "Resurrection". Jews for Judaism. 
  9. Pearce, Jonathan MS (5 January 2015). "On the Skepticism of the Resurrection (part 3)". 
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 10.7 10.8 Ehrman, Bart. How Jesus became God: the Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. HarperOne.