Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Case for the Real Jesus (9): More on "Minimal Facts"

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am not a fan of Lee Strobel’s “investigative journalism” and the way that he somehow always seems to find the conservative Christian position overwhelmingly supported by the conservative Christian scholars that he interviews. I often find myself wanting to ask his experts a pointed follow-up question at the very moment Strobel is exclaiming “Wow! I’m completely convinced.” Sometimes I am fortunate enough to run across the answer to the question I wanted to ask somewhere else though.

This recently occurred with a question I had about Strobel’s interview with Mike Licona in The Case for the Real Jesus:
Although the fifth fact—that the tomb of Jesus was empty—is part of the minimal case for the resurrection, it doesn’t enjoy the nearly universal consensus among scholars that the first four do,” Licona began. “Still there’s strong evidence in its favor.”
“How strong?” I asked.
[Gary] Habermas determined that about 75 percent of scholars on the subject regard it as a historical fact. That’s quite a large majority.
The Case for the Real Jesus p. 123

I’ve always wondered about the sample of scholars that Habermas surveyed as part of his “minimal facts” approach. I couldn’t help but suspect that most of the “scholars on the subject” might be theologians whose qualifications as historians might be questionable. I thought that even a liberal theologian might be more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the historicity of the New Testament accounts than say a historian of ancient Rome or an archeologist. I have occasionally considered tracking down some of Habermas’ books through intra-library loan, but I’ve never gotten around to doing it. A few weeks back though, a blogger (who I would thank personally if I could remember who it was--turns out that it was Jon over at Evangelical Agnosticism) directed me to an article on Habermas’ website that had some of the information I was looking for.

Habermas’ Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying? confirmed that “[m]ost of the critical scholars are theologians or New Testament scholars, while a number of philosophers and historians, among other fields, are also included.” Well call me a nitpicker, but I would like to see a lot more historians, archeologists, and cultural anthropologists in that sample. Essentially, the “minimal facts” approach boils down to this: Historians are required to explain those things that theologians consider to be facts. If they cannot do so to the satisfaction of Christian apologists, the apologists deem themselves entitled to claim the theological facts as historical facts on a par with any other fact that the historians accept. This doesn’t seem quite right to me. Maybe if Christian apologists showed some respect for the things that other groups of scholars (e.g., scientists) consider to be facts (e.g., evolution) I might feel differently.

Another thing I always wondered about was where Habermas’ sample fell on the liberal/conservative spectrum. I could not help but think that schools like Bob Jones University might have more scholars working on questions of the historicity of the New Testament than more liberal institutions. Happily, the Habermas article answered that question as well:
A rough estimate of the publications in my study of Jesus’ resurrection among British, French, and German authors (as well as a number of authors from several other countries), published during the last 25 or so years, indicates that there is approximately a 3:1 ratio of works that fall into the category that we have dubbed the moderate conservative position, as compared to more skeptical treatments....
By far, the majority of publications on the subject of Jesus’ death and resurrection have been written by North American authors. Interestingly, my study of these works also indicates an approximate ratio of 3:1 of moderate conservative to skeptical publications, as with the European publications.

Isn’t that interesting? 75% of the sample is composed of moderate Christian conservative publications and 75% of the scholars accept the empty tomb as a fact. That’s a hell of a coincidence! Funny that Licona and Strobel didn’t mention that. Kinda makes Mikey’s majority seem not quite so large.


  1. Curiously, Strobel's Case for a Creator book never mentions that 99.9% of professional biologists have no doubts about common descent.

    Why , 99.9% is even larger than 75%!

    I know of no field of inquiry where a 75% consensus does not mean that the whole thing is very controversial.

  2. Vinny: A few weeks back though, a blogger (who I would thank personally if I could remember who it was) directed me to an article on Habermas’ website…

    Hmmm….who was that Masked Blogger?


  3. Thanks Dagoods.

    And thanks to the Masked Blogger.

    Unfortunately, The Case for the Real Jesus was checked out of the library at the time that I saw MB's post so I wasn't able to compare what Licona was saying there to Habermas. (I refuse to spend any money on Strobel's books.)

  4. Let me repeat my constant refrain.

    I don't care how many experts, real or imagined, agree on some statement. If it sounds the least bit fishy to me, I want to see the actual evidence and arguments.

    It irritates me to see an actual historian or scientist use an appeal to authority, unless they instantly follow it up with the actual arguments.

  5. They are hoping you will notice the quantity of expert opinion rather than the quantity evidence upon which the experts have based their opinions.