More than the Minimal Facts

I’ve been trying to figure out the inner working of William Lane Craig’s and Michael Licona’s arguments for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. They try to present their arguments – especially in debates – as being essentially simple and straightforward, but there’s actually a lot going on underneath the hood.

Take, for example, the claim that they are basing their arguments on a small set of basic or minimal facts. In his February 2013 debate with philosopher Alex Rosenberg on “Is Faith in God Reasonable?,” Craig presents a list of basic facts:

“Now, I realize that most people probably think that the resurrection of Jesus is something you just accept by faith or not. But there are actually three facts recognized by the majority of historians today which I believe are best explained by the resurrection of Jesus. Fact number one: on the Sunday after his crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers. Two: on separate occasions, different individuals and groups of people saw appearances of Jesus alive after his death. And three: the original disciples suddenly came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus despite having every predisposition to the contrary.”

My first observation about each of Craig’s facts is that none of them are really single facts; each of them is a carefully crafted bundle of multiple factual claims. Of course, it’s actually difficult to create a truly singular fact, especially when you’re talking about historical events; analytic philosophers have studied “atomic propositions” or “atomic sentences” that make singular factual statements and can’t be analyzed further into more basic statements. I don’t think Craig’s facts need to be simpler in that rather trivial sense. But the ones he uses in debates pack a lot of different assertions and links to other claims within a single sentence.

A second observation is that neither Craig nor Licona really stick to their set of basic facts; they routinely add additional factual claims to their arguments, using various justifications. In his 2006 debate on the resurrection with Bart Ehrman, after asserting the fact that “On the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers,” Craig proceeds to present examples of “reasons which have led most scholars to this conclusion,” which are of course additional factual claims on top of the set of minimal facts. Craig’s statements include the following:

“In patriarchal Jewish society the testimony of women was not highly regarded. In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus says that women weren’t even permitted to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court of law. Now in light of this fact, how remarkable it is that it is women who are the discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb. Any later legendary account would certainly have made male disciples like Peter and John discover the empty tomb. The fact that it is women, rather than men, who are the discoverers of the empty tomb is best explained by the fact that they were the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb, and the Gospel writers faithfully record what, for them, was an awkward and embarrassing fact.”

That statement – which again is carefully crafted and needs to be carefully parsed – includes a wide assortment of factual claims, and the factual claims are not limited to purely historical facts, such as the assertion that the Jewish society of the first century was patriarchal, or that Josephus said something specific. Craig’s assertion that “Any later legendary account would certainly have made male disciples like Peter and John discover the empty tomb” includes factual claims about general human behavior. It assumes – as fact- that cultural attitudes can be defined in a simple way that applies to all cases within a complex culture, and also makes the factual claim that legends must conform strictly to those simplified cultural attitudes; both claims are at least questionable.

This analysis suggests that there is inherently something incomplete in the lists of basic or minimal facts used in the arguments for the historicity of the resurrection. The asserted lists of facts aren’t capable by themselves of supporting the arguments. Other historical facts have to be asserted, and the arguments depend on additional types of factual claims in the form of either direct assertions or background assumptions about human behavior, etc.