In recent years, an increasing number of studies have begun to employ what I have termed the “Minimal Facts” approach to a critical study of the resurrection of Jesus. This methodology differs significantly from older apologetic tactics that usually argued from historically reliable or even inspired New Testament texts to Jesus’ resurrection. The Minimal Facts outlook approaches the subject from a different angle. In this essay, I will concentrate on the nature, distinctiveness, and value of the Minimal Facts methodological approach to the resurrection of Jesus. After a brief overview, I will interact directly with the use of such an approach by Michael Licona in his recent volume, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach,1 including considering a few caveats for future study.
The Minimal Facts Method
For more than 35 years, I have argued that, surrounding the end of Jesus’ life, there is a significant body of data that scholars of almost every religious and philosophical persuasion recognize as being historical. The historicity of each “fact” on the list is attested and supported by a variety of historical and other considerations. This motif began as the central tenet of my PhD dissertation.2 This theme has continued in virtually all of my other dozens of publications on this subject since that time.3 Interestingly, my second debate on the resurrection of Jesus with philosophical atheist Antony Flew began with his general acceptance of my list of historical facts as a good starting point.4
From the outset of my studies, I argued that there were at least two major prerequisites for an occurrence to be designated as a Minimal Fact. Each event had to be established by more than adequate scholarly evidence, and usually by several critically-ascertained, independent lines of argumentation. Additionally, the vast majority of contemporary scholars in relevant fields had to acknowledge the historicity of the occurrence. Of the two criteria, I have always held that the first is by far the most crucial, especially since this initial requirement is the one that actually establishes the historicity of the event. Besides, the acclamation of scholarly opinion may be mistaken or it could change.5
Throughout this research, I have produced two lists of facts that have varied slightly in the numbering from publication to publication. The longer list was usually termed the “Known Historical Facts” and typically consisted of a dozen historical occurrences that more generally met the above criteria, but concerning which I was somewhat more lenient on their application. This would apply especially to the high percentages of scholarly near-unanimous agreement that I would require for the shorter list. From this longer listing, I would extrapolate a briefer line-up of from four to six events, termed the Minimal Facts.6 This latter list is the stricter one that Licona is addressing and which is the focus of much of this essay.
I explain my use of the longer and shorter versions this way: since I have surveyed this material for decades, I can report that most contemporary critical scholars actually concede far more facts than those included even in the long list, let alone just the few Minimal Facts alone. But the problem is that, as the numbers of events expand, fewer scholars agree on each one. So there could be more give and take on “whose facts” ought to be utilized. Obviously then, longer lists would not fulfill especially the second strict criterion of the Minimal Facts method.
So I decided to be even more selective than the majority of critical scholars by shortening the list in order to get more scholars (and especially the skeptics) on board. This methodological move has the benefit of bypassing the often protracted preliminary discussions of which data are permissible, by beginning with a “lowest common denominator” version of the facts. If I am correct in holding that this basis is still enough to settle the most pressing historical issues, then it is indeed a crucial contribution to the discussions. We will return below to some ramifications here.
Regarding my references to the “vast majority” or “virtually all” scholars who agree, is it possible to identify these phrases in more precise terms? In some contexts, I have identified these expressions more specifically. At least when referencing the most important historical occurrences, I frequently think in terms of a ninety-something percentile head-count. No doubt, this is one of the reasons why the concept has gained some attention.
But are figures like these based on something between a rough guess and an estimate? Academics quite often report things such as “most scholars hold that” or “the majority view here is that.” Although similar phrases are found frequently in the literature, we may wonder how the knowledge of such conclusions were, or even could be, established. Those who specialize in the particular area are probably the best to consult on such matters. But even when the authors are well-respected, Licona still provides illustrations where different researchers produce estimated head counts that seem to be at odds with each other (pp. 278-9).
Still, the regularity of citing majority views may serve to illustrate how important we seem to think that such overviews of pertinent researchers might be, especially where such conclusions could be reasonably established.7 Once again, the situation seems to be that there is an incessant search for a methodological starting point. Where are most scholars and why, precisely, are they there?
To answer this question in my case, what began as a rather modest attempt to update my resurrection bibliography grew by large increments until it developed into a full-blown attempt to catalog an overview of recent scholarship. The study dominated five straight years of my research time, as well as long intermittent stretches after that. Apparently, I was not very successful at drawing boundaries! I pursued an ongoing study that classified at least the major publications on these topics, continuing on through other representative sources. I counted a very wide spectrum of scholarly views, tracing the responses to about 140 sub-issues or questions related to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.