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Why I Favor The Minimal Facts Approach Over The Maximalist One

The Minimal Facts Argument is an argument for the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth’s resurrection from the dead. It is championed by Drs. Gary Habermas and Michael Licona; two New Testament scholars. Licona wrote his dissertation on this argument and that book became “The Resurrection Of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach”, but Dr. Licona and Dr. Habermas wrote a popular book defending this argument called “The Case For The Resurrection Of Jesus”. And as for myself, I’ve defended The Minimal Facts Argument in places such as my 10 part blog series “The Evidence For Jesus’ Resurrection” and in a 2 part blog series called “The Minimal Facts Case For Jesus’ Resurrection PART 1” and “The Minimal Facts Case For Jesus’ Resurrection PART 2”. The former going into much, much, much more detail and giving far more evidence than the latter two. There’s also a whole YouTube series on it as well.

I first discovered The Minimal Facts argument when I read the aforementioned popular book Habermas and Licona co-wrote. I discovered this approach in 2014 and this has been my primary argument for the resurrection ever sense. However, not everyone in the Christian Apologetics community puts their stamp of approval on The Minimal Facts Argument. It used to be the case that The Minimal Facts Approach and The Reliability Method were just two different ways to arrive at the same conclusion (i.e Jesus rose from the dead and ergo, Christianity is true). Not unlike how The Kalam Cosmolgical Argument and The Argument From Contingency were just two different arguments that concluded that the universe exists because of an uncaused, spaceless, timeless, immaterial, powerful, personal being. Proponents of one argument never really bashed the other one. 

But in the past couple of years, I’ve seen champions of defending the reliability of the gospels go after The Minimal Facts approach on the grounds that they don’t think it’s a strong enough case to establish the resurrection’s conclusion. And I suspect the primary culprit is a philosopher named Lydia McGrew, with Erik Manning being her accomplace. I’ve been doing apologetics for over 10 years now, and before McGrew came along, I can’t really recall so-called Maximalists taking pot shots at The Minimal Facts approach. Like I said, this is a really recent trend. 

I’m not going to address their arguments here because as the title leads you to believe; the purpose of this article is to explain why I prefer the Minimal Facts approach over the so-called Maximalist Approach. I plan on writing an article in the future addressing their specific claims. 

Anyhoo, here are some reasons why I prefer using Licona’s method over McGrew’s. 

Reason No. 1: The Minimal Facts Is More Conducive To Conversation

When I first got introduced to the evidence for the resurrection, I felt incredibly overwhelmed whenever I had to share what I had learned with a non-believer. The problem with the maximalist case is that it is extremely cumulative. You cannot make a persuasive case for gospel reliability in 10 minutes or less. One or two extra biblical findings that confirm one or two events in the gospel isn’t going to cut it. After all, a broken clock is right twice a day. And the case is even weaker if you summarize all your points like 

  • Textual criticism unanimously agrees that The New Testament has been preserved to 99.99999% accuracy, and those few areas we’re not certain about don’t effect any major doctrine. 
  • Colin J Hemer confirmed 84 events in the book of Acts to be historical facts, grounded in extra biblical documents and archeological findings. Luke was really meticulous with his reporting. And since Acts and Luke share the same author, we can conclude Luke was reliable as well. 
  • Josephus corroborates the existence of over 30 New Testament persons. 

And so on. I have listened to reliability argument summaries before, and I don’t find them as persuasive as actually getting into the raw data and unpacking it. Unfortunately, if you do this, you have to do a LOT of talking. 

To establish a good case for New Testament reliabilty, you have to show at minimum

*The New Testament manuscripts were reliably preserved through the copying or transmission process. 

*The gospels and epistles were written really early. 

*The historical accounts (i.e Gospels, Acts) got a sizeable number of things accurate as shown by extra biblical records such as writings by secular authors and archeological findings like coins and plaques. 

*The New Testament authors have internal evidences that establish their credibility. 

I used to think gospel authorship was necessary, but since I’ve reflected on it, I do think it could be left out. Think about it; if the gospel of John gets 100 different things right, does it really matter if it was actually the apostle John who wrote these things down? I think we can say “Whoever this might have been, he had access to eyewitness testimony.” I think traditional gospel authorship can strengthen the case for reliability, but reliability doesn’t stand or fall on it.

When I would try to share the case for the resurrection with a skeptic, I would go on and on and on and on talking about this archeological discovery and that internal piece of evidence, I’d talk about the textual criticism which shows the New Testament we have today reads the same as the books originally pinned. A dialogue with a non-Christian turned into a monologue really quickly; a lecture. 

This might surprise you; but most people don’t want to hear you drone on and on and on. If you’ve ever come into contact with a talkative friend spending 20 minutes telling you about their day, and you’ve said “Man, that’s crazy” 100 times, you’ll know how annoying this is. More often than not, in my early days of defending the resurrection, their eyes would just glaze over. Either that, or they’d interject with an objection to one of the aforementioned bullet points that I couldn’t answer, and thus, it seemed the case for reliability wasn’t as sound as it initially appeared. 

But what about the minimal facts? I can easily unpack this before the eye glazing begins. Observe the following hypothetical conversation; 

——————–

Sam: “Jesus’ resurrection is a myth. It’s no more true than Zeus impregnating Athena.” 

Me: “Actually, there’s lots of historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection?” 

Sam: “Yeah? Like what?” 

Me: “Well, most scholars – even skeptical non-Christians like Ehrman – don’t throw the gospels and epistles out as mythical material. They don’t think they’re inspired, but by employing what they call ‘The Criteria Of Authenticity’, they can ascertain certain facts regarding the Historical Jesus. Extra biblical evidence is welcome, but we’re concerned mainly with applying the criteria to the New Testament documents. When we do this, we can arrive at a few historical facts, and nearly everyone from evangelicals to liberal atheists grant these. They are (1) Jesus died by crucifixion, (2) His tomb was found empty the following sunday. And (3) His disciples believed he appeared to them after His death. 

Let me give just one argument for the historicity of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ crucifixion is mentioned in 4 secular sources in addition to the gospels, and epistles in our Bibles. This makes at least 9 independent sources. One of the criterion is multiple attestation; if an event is recorded in 2 or more independent sources, it’s more likely to be true. After all, what are the odds that 9 independent authors would all make up the same fictional event and treat is as history? Those sources are Josephus, Tactitus, Mara-Bar Sarapion, Lucian Of Samosata, the synoptic gospels, the gospel of John, and Paul’s letters (e.g 1 Corinthians). 

We can reasonably conclude Jesus’ tomb was empty because all 4 gospels feature women as witnesses to the empty tomb. The testimony of a woman was regarded as worthless back then, so if the empty tomb narratives were conjured up whole cloth, they would have made male disciples be the ones to discover it. Since they did not, the best explanation is that the tomb really was found empty. This really happened. According to the criterion of embarrassment which says that people don’t make up lies to make their stories seem non-credible.

Thirdly, we have Paul’s testimony to the appearances in 1 Corinthians 15. Scholars believe Paul likely got this list of appearances 2-5 years after his conversion, most likely in the trip to Jerusalem he mentions in Galatians 1 and 2 in which he visited with Peter and James for 15 days. Scholars think it’s a creed for several reasons (1) Paul says “For what I received, I passed onto you” indicating he’s not writing in His own hand, (2) It’s structured in paralellism – i.e long line followed by a short line, followed by another long line, (3) the repetitive “and that” is ryhtmic which was likely done on purpose to contribute to easy memorization. Scholars think he most likely got it during the 15 days mentioned in Gal 1 for a couple of reasons. I’ll only mention one here; Peter and James are two of the individual appearances specifically named. 

So, we have a creed that lists multiple group appearances that Paul got from Peter and James; two of Jesus’ closest disciples. Early AND Eyewitness testimony are two of the Criteria of Authenticity. In fact, these are probably a couple of the most important. Moreover, to have an account that is both early and is from an eyewitness is like gold to historians. We can safely conclude then, that Jesus’ disciples were claiming He appeared to them. 

For these reasons we can conclude that the crucifixion, Jesus’ empty tomb, and postmortem appearances are historical facts. 

Sam: Yeah, ok. I guess something must have happened that first Easter. But that doesn’t mean Jesus rose from the dead. Maybe the tomb was empty because the disciples stole the body. Or maybe they only THOUGHT they saw Jesus, but were actually hallucinating. 

Me: Those certainly are possible options. As someone who doesn’t like appealing to supernatural explanations when natural ones will do, I have to rule such options out before I conclude something supernatural occurred. I think those natural theories are weak. Would you like to know why? 

————————–

As you can see, I unpacked my case in only a few minutes. There was a lot more I could of said, but I streamlined my arguments to make sure to avoid info dumping him. I have never been able to do this with the maximal approach. With a Minimal Facts approach, you can go for as long or as short as you need do. As you can see from my blog and YouTube series, I can give about 10 different criteria based arguments for each of the facts a theory must explained. But as you saw from the above hypothetical interaction, I can only mention 1 for each (and I didn’t even mention every one of the minimal facts, only 3 out of the usual 5 I appeal to). I can give 10 arguments for Jesus’ empty tomb over 40 minutes or 1 argument in just 60 seconds. The Minimal Facts Approach is like an accordion; I can expand it or contract it depending on the circumstance. 

If I’m on an airplane or a train and I need to “give a defense to someone who asks for the hope that is in me” (1 Peter 3:15) and I only have a small amount of time to unpack the evidence, I will go for The Minimal Facts approach. Now, if I’m teaching a course at a local church, or writing a book, a blog series, then I have all the time I need to go into the evidence and then I’ll consider doing a maximalist case. 

Reason No. 2: The Minimal Facts Approach Prevents Needless Rabbit Trails

Very often, I find that with a maximalist case, I get bogged down in a variety of sub-debates. It’s usually alleged contradictions in the gospels. In my early days as an apologist (before discovering the Minimal Facts method), I would sometimes spend entire conversations harmonizing gospel contradictions. Was there 1 angel at the tomb or were there two? Did both thieves ridicule Jesus as the cross or did one repent and say “Lord, remember me when you enter your kingdom?” Did the curtain rip AND THEN Jesus died or did Jesus die with the curtain ripping following it? 

At other times, we’d be stuck on some alleged historical error like the meekness of Pilate before the Jewish crowd. Or Josephus saying John The Baptist was killed because of political reasons rather than the fact that he was calling out Herod’s sin. 

I remember one skeptic on Twitter bringing up several of the alleged historical inaccuracies regarding the Christmas narratives in Luke, which, in case anyone is interested,  Lydia McGrew tackled in episode 94 of The Cerebral Faith Podcast as part of the Christmas Apologetics series

We would just be running all over the place and I would have to respond to this objection, and then another objection, and then another objection. It was tiring, it was overwhelming, I hated every minute of it. 

With the Minimal Facts argument; we have the facts that 99% of scholars of all worldviews accept as historical, and are backed by multiple arguments (again, see my blog series). In the worst case scenario with internet skeptics in particular, I may have to pull out more than one argument for each of the minimal facts, especially the crucifixion if I’m dealing with a Jesus Mythicist. But for less conspiratorial kooky skeptics, I usually just have to refute naturalistic theories and/or show why Kant’s argument against miracles doesn’t work. But I am not having to defend the gospels’ every claim about Jesus. It does not hurt my case if the gospels even get it wrong MOST of the time, much less some of the time. Contradictions? Sure. I’ll concede for the sake of argument that the gospels are riddled with contradictions! You don’t think Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote the books bearing their names? Sure. I’ll concede that for the sake of argument. You think that maybe there wasn’t a census around the time Jesus was born? Whatever you say. 

Reason No. 3: In Apologetics, Less Is Often More

In my experience over the past 10 years of running Cerebral Faith, I have discovered that I’ve been running a minimal facts approach for other things, not just the resurrection. 

A Minimal Facts approach that uses data points backed up by a lot of evidence, and has nearly universal scholarly acceptance is what I’ve been doing with creation for years. Even when I was anti-evolution, I never appealed to anti-evolutionary arguments. One reason was that I sucked at defending design arguments in biology, but another is that I found skeptics had a harder time dealing with the argument from the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning of the laws of physics for life, and the many local parameters needed for a life permitting planet. I made the case for a Creator using only mainstream science, not creation science or ID. Big Bang Cosmology, fine-tuning, facts that most scientists accepted. Areas where the only debate was the best metaphysical explanation. 

I have found that intellectually honest skeptics take The Kalam and Fine-Tuning arguments more seriously than, say, irreducible complexity or the DNA-Is-A-Code argument. Whether they are convinced or not, most of them are aware that they cannot refute me on scientific grounds. They have to do so on metaphysical grounds. The debate moves from science to philosophy quickly. 

There’s something particularly potent about only using data the skeptic accepts to lead him to a conclusion he doesn’t. 

Conclusion 

For me, discovering The Minimal Facts approach was a breath of fresh air. I had been studying the so-called “Maximalist” approach for a couple of years. And I agree that the case for reliability is good, it’s powerful, and getting to the resurrection that way alleviated my doubts that I had as a teenager. However, when I would try to witness to skeptics, I found it so EXTREMELY cumbersome to make a case for the resurrection. I never felt like I knew enough, and I always had the problem of having to prove too much. I had to talk about external corroboration for gospel events such as what Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian etc. report and archeological evidences that show the New Testament writers accurate. I had to talk about internal evidences that showed they weren’t making stuff up. I had to talk about the textual purity of the New Testament, authorship, and of course, contradictions. That is a HUGE rabbit trail that I went down far too often.

Discovering the Minimal Facts approach was like a weight lifted off of my shoulders. Now, I could just say “Ok, we have these 5 facts; Jesus died by crucifixion, his tomb was empty, he was believed to be seen by the disciples, and two skeptics.” and then I would go on to give maybe one or two quick criteria-of-authenticity based arguments for these facts. After I got done, I’d say “Now what do you think is the best explanation?” and I’d refute all the naturalistic theories my interlocutors would try to come up with.

I’ll be honest, when apologists like Erik Manning or Lydia McGrew diss the minimal facts effort and say “No, you HAVE TO, HAVE TO, HAVE TO use the reliability method”, I feel like they’re trying to put me back under that heavy burden. It’s like they’re trying to put me back under a methodological “yolk of slavery” that Habermas and Licona freed me from. And I’ll be honest; it makes me mad. 

The minimal facts approach has been my main method for the past 8 years, but I still like the reliability method (or as it’s now known as “The Maximal Approach”). In fact, I plan on doing a blog series on this at some point. And I also plan on talking about this next year on Cerebral Faith Live. So, be on the lookout for that. 

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Jobin

    “Scholars think he most likely got it [1 Cor 15 creed] during the 15 days mentioned in Gal 1 for a couple of reasons”. Please give the other reasons. Thankyou

    1. Evan Minton

      Hi, Jobin. The portion you quoted was the “Elevator Pitch” version of the argument in a hypothetical conversation. Obviously, I could not go in as much depth as some may have wanted, but hopefully as you can see, the point of that hypothetical conversation was to present a way that the argument can be unpacked briefly. In a real conversation, I’ve had people, like you, ask for more. Maybe they mount an objection to an argument for the historicity of the empty tomb for example. I respond to it, and also add “Even if this argument weren’t any good, as you say, there are still others.”

      In this case, you are asking for more reasons to think 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is an early creed Paul received while in Jerusalem. I would defer you to my previous writings on the case for the resurrection such as “The Minimal Facts Case For Jesus’ Resurrection PART 1” –https://cerebralfaith.net/the-minimal-facts-case-for-jesus/

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