The “Minimal Facts” Done And Dusted

Since Mr. Peters has agreed to an organized debate about the resurrection, this will be my last post in this written exchange. This reply is written in response to Peters’ most recent criticism of my article Knocking Out the Pillars of the Minimal Facts Apologetic (his first criticism can be found here, as well as my first response here). Below is a summary of the main issues followed by my conclusion:

First off, Peters claims that I did not inform him when I wrote my first response: “For some reason, Ferguson did not want to come to my blog to post it.” In fact, I checked Peters’ page immediately after posting it and saw that WordPress had automatically posted a link there and Peters had already noticed. I very much made sure that Peters was informed of my reply.

Next, Peters continues to claim that the minimal facts apologetic is really just about proving “only one” miracle rather than be a conversion tool for Christianity. But then he further states:

“Of course, it would be my hope that someone would come to the conclusion that Jesus is who He said He was and that God raised Him from the dead, but I have to go beyond just the minimal facts for that. The minimal facts are necessary, but they are not sufficient. Yet then as I said, this becomes another dialogue.”

Here Peters is clear about his intention and acknowledges that the minimal facts apologetic is about establishing a “necessary” condition for converting people to Christianity. Hence, I was completely correct in my original post in saying that it is a tactic to “get people’s foot in the door” on converting. There is no reason to pretend it is anything else. This does not mean that I dismiss the apologetic for this reason alone, but again I was clarifying to my readers what the context of the minimal facts apologetic is really all about.

Peters asserts that I only consider history to be methodologically naturalist, so that I can treat it as if it were ontological naturalism. This is not at all true. I only acknowledge that the question of Jesus’ resurrection is laden with theological and philosophical assumptions, so we need to recognize that it is different than ordinary historical questions. Nevertheless, I set aside the brackets of methodological naturalism in the article anyways, so this claim is really quite trivial.

Peters next critiques my application of Bayes’ Theorem, where I point out that the low prior probability of a miracle makes it less likely of an explanation than natural hypotheses that have less expected evidence, but higher prior probabilities, especially when we combine the probability of multiple natural hypotheses. Peters oversimplifies this by stating: “Which is a way of saying that any explanation will work better than a miraculous explanation.” For my actual in-depth analysis of the probability issue, see what I say myself in my article History, Probability, and Miracles, in which I do provide criteria for which a miracle can become more probable, none of which have been met by apologists.

Next on to miracles: Peters makes a big deal about miracle claims happening all over the world. Of course, there are claims of UFOs and Bigfoot (in addition to other paranormal monsters) likewise all over the world. Yet, none of these have been substantiated upon rigorous investigation. Earlier in the post, Peters states:

“At the same time, I will also add in that one can be an atheist and seriously study miracles. All you have to do is have a non-dogmatic approach. It is the same kind of approach I take to UFO stories. Personally, I’m skeptical of there being life on other planets. Yet at the same time, if people come forward with evidence, I want to hear the evidence.”

I agree with Peters. If a crashed alien spaceship was found, that would be good evidence for a UFO. Likewise, if we confirmed a biblical-scale miracle under scientific investigation, that would be good evidence that I would accept. However, we have never confirmed things like walking on water, rising from the dead after being stabbed and brain-dead for three whole days, and ascending to heaven. We only have stories and rumors of such things, just like we have stories and rumors of UFOs. Hence, I am more skeptical of these claims.

Furthermore, to establish the sort of evidence we would need to confirm a biblical-scale miracle, see Richard Packham’s The Man with No Heart: Miracles and Evidence, where he provides an example of the set of medical, testimonial, and documentary evidence that would be sufficient to establish a miracle that is impossible to explain in natural terms [1]. None of these criteria have ever been met and apologists instead just provide ancient literature, unconfirmed rumors, or evidence of rare healings in extreme medical circumstances that still do not escape a natural explanation. Hence, no “bench mark” miracle has ever been established to increase the prior probability of one.

Peters next makes a straw man of my position:

“Could it be Ferguson denies the event because it entails a conclusion that he does not like, that he sees no other explanation for it than something outside of nature operating on nature? If so, then he is no longer really doing history. After all, let’s make the assumption for the sake of argument that it is true that Jesus rose from the dead. If Ferguson’s approach rules that out a priori, then it would follow that he can never know history.”

I specifically do not rule out miracles a priori, but I do assign very low prior probabilities, because biblical-scale miracles are not known to have been confirmed in our background knowledge. Peters is misrepresenting what I am saying. I assign low prior probabilities to UFO stories for the same reason. If we found a crashed UFO, then the prior probability would increase, the same as if we scientifically confirmed a biblical-scale miracle, which we haven’t.

Next, Peters discusses how the rejection of miracles is due to prior metaphysical beliefs. This is only true if one’s metaphysics is determined a priori, but my view of metaphysical naturalism is instead reached a posteriori. I maintain that upon investigating all available evidence that nature probably is or appears to be all that exists. This a posteriori view would change if did have good evidence of biblical-scale miracles, which we don’t. Accordingly, my belief that miracles don’t happen is not a priori and it is also open to revision upon good evidence, none of which has been provided.

Next, Peters draws a distinction between empiricism and science. The only relevant statement I see is this: “the point is that one can be an empiricist and hold to suprahuman realities.” I completely agree. In fact, the only way I would believe in such realities is if we had empirical evidence of them. I likewise think the investigation of miracles is entirely empirical. We could never confirm the existence of biblical-scale miracles, unless we verified them empirically. So I am all for bringing empiricism into investigating the supernatural, I just find no evidence from there onward.

Next, Peters makes a big deal about how I banned a troll on my webpage who was making personal attacks and was violating my comments policy. You can see here why I did. Peters’ response likewise raises other trivial complaints like this, such as when he points out that I accidentally spelled the Nobel Prize as “Noble” or the fact that I used Wikipedia in parenthetical links, just so someone who was curious could know who Lucian of Samosata was (as if Wikipedia wouldn’t be sufficient for this parenthetical information). He also claims that my criticism of the poor reading comprehension in his first critique is a personal attack when it is not. When a critical post egregiously fails to read what is actually written in the article, the post should be criticized for not accurately comprehending the argument.

Peters’ next statement has multiple problems:

“The problem is that if history is the study of the past and the past is not repeatable, then how is one to redo a miracle under scientific observation? If God acts to do a miracle, one cannot force Him to act again. It is true that science of course studies unrepeatable events all the time, but this is the study of what happened naturally. Science cannot answer yea or nay on the question of miracles or God. Science is great at telling you about the material world. There is nothing better at doing that. It is limited in that it can only tell you about the material world. What inferences you make from the scientific data is more philosophy.”

Of course history is not repeatable, but one estimates the probability of past events based on the data of how things happen today. We don’t just treat all past claims as equal. When Tacitus (Ann. 6.28) claimed that a phoenix visited Egypt, we of course cannot repeat the exact event of the phoenix visiting Egypt, but we can know that the lack of confirmation of phoenixes existing in any hard evidence makes the prior probability of Tacitus’ claim very low verses other hypotheses (e.g. another bird being mistaken for a phoenix or the story being made up). If god really did only do miracles in the past, but provides no good trace of them today, then he has made it untenable for us to know about them today. It would be like all phoenixes being in the past, but then vanishing forever without any further trace beyond ancient rumors. We’d have no hard evidence to confirm that phoenixes exist. Of course, Peters can point out that there are tons of miracle claims happening everywhere, but we also have similar claims about paranormal animals, such as the phoenix, with stories about sasquatches, etc. Ultimately, we need some harder modern proof of a miracle before we can grant a higher prior probability of one happening in the past.

Peters next claim about science not being able to say “yea or nay” about miracles is completely false. In fact, it is contradicted by what Peters next says, “Science is great at telling you about the material world.” Miracles are claims about the material world! If Jesus turned water into wine, then it would be a material fact that the water had undergone chemical change. If Jesus rose from the dead, it is a material fact that his body once again was pumping blood and alive. So in order to investigate miracles we precisely need science.

Peters next misses the mark on critiquing my analysis of how our scientific knowledge plays a role in how we assess past events. Peters asks:

“The NT claims that Mary gave birth as a virgin not having had sexual intercourse prior. Do we know better now with modern scientific knowledge? When was it demonstrated by science that virgins don’t give birth? Who did this experiment?”

This gets the issue backwards: science has never confirmed that such virgin births occur and from what we know of reproductive biology, they would be extraordinarily unlikely. Hence, virgin births are not known to exist in our background knowledge and they would have a very low prior probability. Of course, Peters can say that we haven’t disproven virgin births, but this would be akin to saying that we should believe in something simply because we have no evidence for it. I am open to the possibility of virgin births, but we need to confirm them first.

Next, Peters misunderstands my analogy between astrology and miracles:

“Ferguson also wishes to compare miracles to astrology. This comparison does not work. It does not follow that because one belief system is false that another one is.”

This is very much not what I said. I didn’t say that astrology’s falsehood makes miracles false. I used it as an example for how a past claim is less probable if it contradicts our background knowledge. In our background knowledge, astrology is not known to work, so ancient claims about astrology working have a low prior probability (on a side note, we also have tons of unsubstantiated claims of people saying astrology worked for them, but these have likewise never been proven). This does not entail that miracles aren’t known to exist. It just so happens that miracles likewise have the same lack of evidence, so they likewise are not known in our background knowledge. It’s an analogy about the same problem, not an assertion that astrology’s falsehood ipso facto makes miracles false.

Peters next responds to my example about how a story of a cartoon anvil falling on my head would require more evidence than a story of me eating cereal for breakfast (for the context of this analogy, see my previous post): “Indeed I would be [skeptical], and as I have said I have no problem with skepticism! Yet if there could be provided good evidence for such a claim, then I would be willing to accept it.” And yet I provided a standard of evidence: recorded demonstration of such cartoon anvils. Peters’ evidence for miracles are a bunch of unsubstantiated rumors and ancient literature. I would not accept the existence of cartoon anvils with like evidence.

Peters next states:

“What reason has Ferguson given for his skepticism. Science? The ancients had just enough scientific knowledge as would anyone claiming a miracle today.”

This once more is misconstruing what I have said and argued. I am skeptical of miracles because they have never been scientifically confirmed, so we have no hard evidence to bolster their prior probability when investigating a past claim about them. The ancients did not have the scientific knowledge or instruments that we have today. They would have no medical equipment to test if Mary really was a virgin. They didn’t even know how babies were made in the first place!

Next, Peters dismisses and misunderstands my treatment of Keener. I pointed out that, even if Keener’s dubious miracle claims were true, they do not provide evidence of “biblical-scale” miracles. Peters does not even treat with my distinction about miracles that involve unlikely medical healings versus “biblical-scale” miracles, such as walking on water or flying in the air. Keener, of course, claims to have evidence of people rising from the dead, but, to my knowledge, he does not have medical evidence of someone who has been brain dead for three days coming back to life. At best he probably has instances where people were misdiagnosed or resuscitated under extreme circumstances. But again, Keener does not provide the evidence that we would need to establish that “biblical-scale” miracles happen in our background knowledge.

Peters implies that I am somehow prejudiced in dismissing miracle claims from the third world: “What do we often say about stereotyping a group of people like that today? Think about it.” Yet, I cannot help but comically think of what Peters had said in his first criticism of my article about the (diverse) Jewish beliefs regarding the resurrection: “A Jew would not accept the fact of a resurrection that left behind a body.” Wouldn’t defining a whole race of people and their various religious ideas according to what “a Jew” would think be a like form of stereotyping?

Furthermore, Peters merely alludes to Keener’s critique of Hume when I have never even mentioned Hume in this exchange. I have provided my own article about why miracles are improbable. People should interact with what I have said, not Hume. And I think it is fair to say that the smell test still stands that if Keener really had proven medical miracles in that book, he would have won the Nobel Prize in medicine. Instead it is primarily evangelicals discussing his work.

All that about miracles, and just now does Peters get to the minimal facts. Peters continues to complain that I addressed Craig’s minimal facts originally and not Habermas’ (even though I specify that they are Craig’s minimal facts). This is because I mention Habermas “first” in a parenthetical statement about the types of apologists who make this argument. Again, this is just a petty complaint and by not responding to my critique of Craig, Peters is in many places not responding to my actual article.

Next, Peters echoes layman JP Holding’s claim about how the Christians could never have worshipped a crucified messiah, unless he had risen from the dead:

“I find this extremely important to the argument since the death that Jesus went through entails one of great shame. Jesus was seen in his death as a traitor to Rome, a blasphemer to YHWH, or both! The shamefulness of his death speaks volumes if we realize it was an essential part of the early Christian apologetic and would have liked to have been avoided.”

This notion that only a miracle could overcome such obstacles has been so thoroughly refuted by a real historian, Richard Carrier, in Not the Impossible Faith that it does not even need to be dealt with further here.

Peters next critiques my analysis of Paul’s conversion by asserting that I did too much psychological speculation. But again, historians have to consider the author of the work and his background when analyzing its material.

He doesn’t address my point where I stated that, yes, Paul’s conversion was unlikely, but, guess what, it only happened once. The point of this was to show that Habermas’ “fact” about Paul’s conversion, as a former persecutor, was trivial to his main argument, since it could be explained as a natural rare event that, not surprisingly, only happened once. Habermas sets up circumstances that are very easy to explain in natural terms. Furthermore, Peters claims that I am just “begging the question” by assuming that Paul’s visionary experiences are hallucinations. Not at all. From what we can observe of people who have such experiences today, they suffer from psychological conditions that cause them to experience these things, whereas we have never reliably documented someone getting raptured to heaven. I therefor infer, as I would when evaluating any historical claim based on present data, that the same may be true with Paul. That is certainly a more probable explanation.

Likewise, Peters still continues to dismiss the comparison of Paul with Clarence Cope:

We do not see Cope as having any signs of serious education and we see him showing up in an individualistic society where such is more acceptable. Paul is just the opposite. Paul is no doubt a highly educated scholar of his time. He is in an agonistic society where he would face shame for his behavior, and he is putting his religious beliefs on the line for his claim.”

For starters, this is entirely false. Clarence has a B.S. in Computer Science from Penn State University. I think the man is crazy, but he is not stupid nor uneducated. Relatively intelligent people can also suffer from mental disorders, and by characterizing crazy people as “uneducated” Peters is not even seriously treating the issue of mental illness. Peters of course makes broad generalizations about our “individualistic” society versus the ancient “agonistic” society, but this is irrelevant. I have seen Cope preach and he is routinely insulted and shunned (like Paul was), he has gotten in trouble with the authorities and been arrested (like Paul), he claims to have performed miracles (like Paul), and yet he also writes theological letters to people around the country (like Paul) and has gathered a following of a small, self-ostracized group of people (like Paul). I think Clarence is completely sincere in his belief that he saw Jesus and hears god, but the man is just plain crazy (and before Peters accuses me again of “begging the question,” I will let you know that Clarence has never made a fulfilled prophecy or performed a miracle before an audience). The fact that someone motivated by hallucinations could be so determined to travel and spread his religion today shows that it is likewise a possibility for what happened in the past.

With regard to James’ conversion, Peters merely tries to harmonize the different accounts between Mark and Luke about whether the family and brothers of Jesus supported him. Yet he doesn’t respond to the fact that we don’t have James own testimony about the matter to begin with. We can hardly assume he was a skeptic that just had to be converted through physically seeing Jesus’ resurrected body. Again, Habermas’ minimal facts are extremely weak, which is why I refuted Craig’s instead.

Next, Peters poorly treats the hypothesis of cognitive dissonance reduction. Peters alludes to the studies done by psychologist Leon Festinger on the subject, but does not quote him verbatim. Festinger in When Prophecy Fails (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1965. 27-28), after analyzing the behavior of cult groups who have had their beliefs disconfirmed, made the following observation:

“Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before…The dissonance [conflict between belief and reality] would be largely eliminated if they discarded the belief that have been disconfirmed…Indeed this pattern sometimes occurs…But frequently the behavioral commitment to the belief system is so strong that almost any other course of action is preferable…Believers may try to find reasonable explanations and very often they find ingenious ones…Fortunately, the disappointed believer can usually turn to others in the same movement, who have the same dissonance and the same pressures to reduce it. Support for the new explanation is, hence, forthcoming.”

This is the theory that is being applied in the case of the disciples and the earlier followers of Jesus. Despite having their beliefs originally shaken by Jesus’ death, they sought new and ingenious ways to rationalize it. Soon, this could have blossomed into the expectation that Jesus may rise and return, soon this could have caused some to have visions and hallucinations of a risen Jesus, and, finally, a new religion could spring up about a crucified and resurrected savior who would soon usher in a new Kingdom of God. The religion could then proselytize to others and would have the appeal of preaching about a new life and resurrection to people around the Mediterranean. This type of religion, of course, would not click right away or be popular with all people. But guess what? It remained a relatively small, fringe religion until centuries later. Again, not something that needs to be explained with a miracle.

Furthermore, Peters merely brushes off the same cognitive dissonance effect with the messianic figure Sabbatai Zevi. “The problem with Zevi is that after his conversion to Islam, the movement died out. For Christianity, it was just the opposite!” This is not true. For one, Zevi’s movement did persist and, second, we do not know how much of Jesus’ original following diminished after his death (again, we lack good evidence for any of these events). Quite possibly many of his followers did break off. Christianity did later grow, yes, but that was through the ideological transformation of the movement and proselytizing, and it also largely happened in the area outside of Palestine among people who were already superstitious and never bother to check the details (for more information about this, see Carrier’s Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire: A Look into the World of the Gospels).

Furthermore, the parallels between the rationalizations made about Jesus and Zevi have been ignored. As Gershom Scholem explains in Sabbatai Sevi, the Mystical Messiah (Princeton, NJ: Princeton, 1973. 792-799):

“The peculiar Sabbatian doctrines developed and crystalized with extraordinary rapidity in the years following his apostasy…When discussing the Sabbatian paradox by means of which cruel disappointment was turned into a positive affirmation of faith, the analogy with early Christianity almost obtrudes itself…Both had to provide an ideology accounting for initial disappointment. Their master’s death was a blow which the disciples of Jesus could overcome only by cultivating the image of his resurrection and the hope in his triumphal returns as lord and judge…Both Christianity and the Sabbatian movement took as their point of departure the ancient Jewish paradox of the Suffering Servant which, however, they stressed with such radicalism that they practically stood it in on its head…The early Christians believed in the return of the crucified after his ascension to Heaven. The Sabbatians too believed that the redeemer’s absence (a moral absence after his apostasy, a physical absence after his death) was temporary only and that he would return before long to achieve his messianic mission.”

Remember in all of this my diachronic analysis of the issue. We have approximately a two-decade period before anything is written down about Jesus. Any number of ideological developments could have occurred during that time of a very similar sort. Two decades is most of my entire lifetime, during which tons of radical things have happened and new developments taken place. It’s very, very easy to see how a new and radical religion might emerge in that time. Next, we have Paul, a non-eyewitness, discussing “appearances” of Jesus to people, and, finally, decades later we have anonymous hagiographies further embellishing the religion with legendary stories. A clear trail is apparent for how the religion developed.

(On a side note, Peters misconstrues my statement about there being no secular, disinterred sources for the resurrection. Peters states, “Ferguson says he wants to use secular disinterested sources.” I never said that. I just pointed out that we don’t have any, and then I do analyze the religiously-biased ones that we do have for what they are worth. Again, Peters’s misrepresentation of my article like this are frequent.)

Peters complains that I did not interact with Licona’s word study regarding how Paul’s uses the verb ὤφθη (“to appear” or “to appear in visions”). This is all very interesting, because Peters never quotes the study nor the page number of the book he lists it from. Peters does state, “Licona says about ὤφθη in its Pauline usage in “The Resurrection of Jesus” that there are 29 usages of it by Paul in the NT. 16 refer to physical sight, 12 have the meaning of behold, understand, etc. Only one refers to a vision.” (On a side note, Peters does not fully know how to read Greek, so he is purely relying on authority here).

Nevertheless, I have taught courses in ancient Greek at the university level, so I decided to perform my own word study on the issue. I referred to a Greek New Testament concordance on it. I looked into the verb ὁράω (“to see”) and its abnormal aorist form εἶδον and found 29 instances of their occurrence in the epistles attributed to Paul. I italicize “attributed,” since this includes uses of the word in the forged works. Licona’s study has not been provided, so I am only guessing that these are the instances he is referring to (please correct me if I am wrong). Since I do not consider the forged letters to be in the Pauline word usage, I will only focus on Paul’s uses, for which I have counted 22.

By my reckoning, Paul uses the verb 7 times in terms of comprehension, 11 times in terms of physical sight, and 4 times in terms of visions [2]. There are key reasons for drawing these distinctions.

First off, ὁράω takes on different connotations when used in the active versus that passive voice. The active voice far more often means literally “to see,” whereas the passive voice takes on the connotation “to appear.” As the LSJ Greek-English Lexicon also notes s.v. ὁράω, the passive form very often means “to appear in visions.”

In every instance that Paul refers to Jesus with the verb, with the exception of one instance where “to see” is meant “to comprehend,” it is in the passive form [3]. This is very different from the other times Paul uses the verb in the instances that mean to see physically. In fact, from the passages I found, Paul never uses the verb in the passive voice except when he is referring to Jesus.

When Paul uses the verb to refer to physical site, he often specifies actual locations and physical object. For example, 1 Thessalonians 3:10, where the verb specifies, “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.” Or Galatians 6:11, where the verb specifies, “See what large letters [physical object] I make when I am writing in my own hand!” Or Galatians 1:18-19, which specifies, “Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem [physical location] to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother.” All of these examples are very different from the instances of Jesus, where Paul never specifies a venue, physical details, or whether people touched or interacted with Jesus. Paul’s treatment of the verb with the “appearances” of Jesus are very different.

Peters brushes off my example in English about how we need to be careful when we interpret words that have multiple meanings based on the context. Even today, people use “to see” to discuss having revelations of Jesus. Paul’s language is entirely vague and most likely visionary.

Peters again tries to interpret Paul’s passage by the later usage of the verb in Luke, but this is just splicing the later legendary narrative with the early one where Paul actually reports the very vague “appearances” people were having of Jesus. In addition, Peters takes the later legendary narrative in Acts 9:7 about companions having a vision with Paul, in order to argue that Paul did not have a private visionary experience, but this is again taking details from the later legendary narrative that the author could have invented and added. In splicing these later accounts Peters is again not taking Habermas’ route, which he defends, to primarily rely on the epistles rather than the Gospels and Acts.

Peters also tries to claim that there were groups of people seeing Jesus. This is not clear from Paul. First, I have already written another article about how 1 Corinthians 15 is not even clearly referring to “groups” of people (except in the case of the 500), rather than reporting an early church hierarchy and census estimate (Peter -> the 12 -> the 500). In the case of the appearance to the 500, I further provide examples in the linked article about how such an event could be explained in natural terms.

Furthermore, we need to be clear about the sequence of events in 1 Corinthians 15. The apostle Peter is reported to have seen Jesus first. Nick Peters keeps making a big deal about how hallucinations only happen privately to individuals (which is not true, but we’ll bear with him). That seems to be the original case. Furthermore, it is not unlikely from what we know of psychology. Studies from psychologists Slade and Bentall in Sensory Deception: a Scientific Analysis of Hallucination (Baltimore: JHU Press, 1988. 68-78) have found that 1/10 people have experienced a brief auditory or visual hallucination of a dead person, where visual is the more common. In many of these instances, people even have had long hallucinations and even conversations with the dead person. They also found that such hallucinations are more common in cultures that have more widespread supernatural beliefs, such as 40% of the natives of Hawaii experiencing such hallucinations. Note too that these hallucinations can appear physical, even if Paul’s language weren’t visionary.

Now, all it would take is for the apostle Peter to have a hallucination of the resurrected Jesus and to tell the other disciples of his experience. Following that, these disciples would have a prior expectation for having similar experiences. Soon, both through triggered hallucinations and placebo effects, a small cult of people could claim to have “seen” Jesus. They could proselytize and the movement could grow to around 500 people. Twenty years later, an author like Paul could report the story the way he did in 1 Corinthians 15. Again, it is all explicable in natural terms.

Nick Peters, of course, again claims that the early Christians would not have started a movement that would cause them to be ostracized. But this is again very flimsy evidence. For starters, the early Christians already were ostracized. They were a messianic movement whose leader had died. Certainly they weren’t going to be immediately accepted back as well-regarded members of society. The early followers of Jesus were already a fringe cult. They came to believe in a radical new theological view that allowed them to revitalize their movement, and gave them new confidence, despite their ostracized status. One might ask why Paul, a former persecutor, would choose to join a group when it would ostracize him. But guess what, it was a rare even that only happened in one major instance. Other than that, Christianity remained on the fringes and largely moved elsewhere, mostly into Gentile regions with more religious diversity, where they set up a new religion of their own.

Finally, Peters again makes a poor case for a pre-Markan account of the empty tomb. He starts by playing the old card that people would have sought to disprove the Christian claims. Again, the first Christians were a fringe apocalyptic cult in a world where superstitious claims were going on regularly with no investigative journalists or anything like that. There’s no reason to think that there would be a large interest in disproving them.

But furthermore, Peters offers no evidence for a pre-Markan “discovered” empty tomb story. He merely states:

“Note also I said that this would be the most disprovable hypothesis. Whether or not someone would try to dispute it, one would not want to start a religion on a claim that most anyone could have disproven by going to the tomb and especially in the very city where the Messiah was put to death.”

It’s not established that the early Christians ever claimed to have found an empty tomb. Paul’s testimony is based on the “appearances” of Jesus, not on an empty tomb. Peters, of course, continues to argue that Paul must have believed in an empty tomb, because “a Jew” would not have believed in a “two body” resurrection. But again, this says nothing about a “discovered” empty tomb. As G.W.H. Lampe in “Easter: A Statement” (in The Resurrection, ed. William Purcell, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966. 43) points out:

“In this case I think that the argument from silence has unusual force. For the situation in which Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15 was that some of the Corinthians were denying there is a resurrection of the dead (1 Cor. 15:12). In answer to them Paul marshals every possible argument…If Jesus’ resurrection is denied, he says, the bottom drops out of the Christian gospel. And the evidence that he was raised consists in the appearances to himself and to others. Had he known a tomb was found empty it seems inconceivable that he should not have adduced this here as a telling piece of objective evidence.”

Peters offers very poor evidence for a pre-Markan version of an empty tomb narrative. First, he states:

“Would the disciples not want to check and make sure of their claims, especially due to the nature of the death that their Messiah died?”

Again, it has not been established that the disciples (for whom we have no written works) would have thought the tomb was empty, if it is the case that they believed in a “two body” resurrection. But, even if they believed for theological reasons that the burial place was technically empty, it is not established that they would have been able to confirm it. Peters goes on to say:

“If they did not know the site, then it seems odd they would claim the tomb was empty. Surely the apostles who were great followers of Jesus would have familiarized themselves with where he was buried.”

Again, we do not have the writings of a single eyewitness of Jesus who claims that they discovered an empty tomb. Paul never states that the disciples discovered an empty tomb. Peters is merely splicing the later legendary narratives in the Gospels.

Second, his notion that they would familiarize themselves with the tomb is implausible. If Jesus’ body was buried by the same hostile forces who executed Jesus (which is Crossan’s thesis that Peters ignored), then it’s not established that they would have been able to check it.

After an extensive analysis of the burial of executed criminals, both in light of Jewish law and archaeological evidence from the period, Kris Komarnitsky in Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection concludes:

“Whether Jesus was buried honorably or dishonorably, mourning would have been prohibited. In this case, attendance at the burial, if not altogether banned, would have been restricted to those who could keep from mourning…In this case, none of Jesus’ followers would have been present at Jesus’ burial and so none would have known where he was buried.”

Komarnitsky’s thesis is backed by leading N.T. scholars like Crossan, and likewise mainstream NT scholar Bart Ehrman has also recently expressed skepticism over whether the disciples would have known the location of Jesus’ burial place (see Ehrman’s blog series on the subject, “Did the Romans Allow Decent Burials?”). So, even if the disciples thought for theological reasons thought that the tomb would be empty, because of Peters’ claim that “a Jew” would always think this, there is no certainty that they would have been able to investigate the claim. Instead, the earliest report we have of a discovered empty tomb is that in the Markan narrative dealing with Joseph of Arimathea, which I showed in my first article cannot be considered a “fact,” not only because it is not accepted by a consensus of scholars, but also because it contains many legendary elements and is possibly an entire literary invention, which Peters never disputed.


From the historical analysis that has been done, a number of conclusions can be reached:

1.     In Bayesian terms the prior probability of a miraculous resurrection is extremely unlikely. Accordingly, alternative hypotheses will have higher prior probabilities, and the miraculous claim will need very good expected evidence to offset this disparity.

2.     The expected evidence in the case of the resurrection is very poor. We do not have writings from any eyewitness, Paul’s epistles are too vague and sparse to provide many concrete details, and the Gospels are later legendary narratives.

3.     The apostle Paul, who is the first to relate Jesus’ resurrection, claims that the basis for belief in the resurrection was because his early followers had experienced “appearances” of Jesus.

4.     Paul’s testimony about people claiming to see Jesus can be explained in terms of cognitive dissonance reduction (in conjunction with visionary experiences and possibly hallucinations). The early Christians, rather than abandon their belief in Jesus, were inclined to seek new explanations for how he could be the messiah.

5.     Like other cult groups in similar circumstances, such as Sabbatai Zevi’s and Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s messianic movements, part of the explanation emphasized a temporary period of suffering followed by the return and judgment of the messiah.

6.     Psychological studies have shown that it is not uncommon for people to have hallucinations of the dead (which include visual and auditory hallucinations and even conversations). Given their expectation of Jesus’ return, some of the earlier followers of Jesus could have had such hallucinatory experiences, related it to others, and caused them to have similar experiences. The end result is that multiple people could start to have experiences that caused them to believe in a resurrected Jesus.

7.     The belief in a resurrected messiah blossomed into a new religion that evolved over time. Paul’s account relates “appearances” of Jesus that later grew into stories about his disciples interacting with him in an earthly setting. A diachronic analysis from Paul to the Gospel of John shows that over time the nature of the resurrection became more and more embellished.

8.     While an unlikely conversion, Paul was the only major persecutor of Christianity to convert, and the other early followers were close to Jesus, like James, or early supporters of Jesus. This movement grew over time by proselytizing.

9.     No strong argument has been presented for the earliest Christians even believing in an empty tomb. Even if they did, no one prior to the author of Mark relates that an empty tomb was discovered. It is further not established that the disciples would even have been able to confirm a tomb being empty, even if they wanted to. Instead, the resurrection belief was based on post-mortem “appearances.”

10. Mark’s story about the discovery of an empty has been shown to most likely be a later literary invention, either by the author of Mark or by a common source between Mark and the other canonical Gospels, as demonstrated in the first article. At the very least, the discovery of the empty tomb is far too uncertain to be considered a historical “fact,” not only because it is accepted by no consensus of scholars, but also because the stories relating such a discovery are contaminated by legendary elements.

All of the minimal “facts” – the the burial of Jesus, the story of the empty tomb, the “appearances” of Jesus to his followers, the origin of belief in the resurrection, the conversions of Paul and James, and the rise of the Christian religion – can be explained by the hypothesis advanced here.

Accordingly, the “minimal facts” apologetic has all been answered in natural terms.

Furthermore, the hypothesis here, which I consider to be the most probable explanation, is not the only natural hypothesis. Many more have been discussed and there are other ones yet to be discussed that could still be plausible. The combined weight of multiple natural hypotheses, including ones that I have not listed (e.g. the swoon theory, the body being stolen, etc.), outweigh the probability of the resurrection.

Of course I don’t think that Mr. Peters will accept any natural explanation. Apologists continue to just repeat the same slogans about “worldviews” and “naturalist presuppositions.” But it is the apologists who are refusing to consider any possible natural explanation, no doubt influenced by their Christian and theistic worldviews. Apologists just want to use the minimal facts apologetic to keep claiming, “There’s no natural explanation! There’s no natural explanation!,” when historians, psychologists, anthropologists, and philosophers have provided many sound ones. For people who are not seeking to “prove” the resurrection as an after-the-fact rationalization of their religion, however, I think they can see why the minimal facts argument is unpersuasive.

Since I have invested more than enough time in addressing Peters’ concerns and since most of his posts consist only of him misreading or misrepresenting my article, I will now be closing this exchange of written posts. If Peters posts another reply, I will provide a link to it below. Otherwise, I look forward to confronting him on these issues more directly when we meet to debate.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] For my definition of what constitutes a “miracle,” see my article Defining Theism, Atheism, Supernaturalism, and Naturalism, in which I quote the Cambridge Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (pg. 208): “An event (ultimately) caused by God that cannot be accounted for by the natural powers of natural substances alone. Conceived of this way, miracles don’t violate the laws of nature but rather involve the occurrence of events which cannot be explained by the powers of nature alone. When dead bodies come back to life it is a miracle because the molecules that make up the corpse lack the powers necessary to generate life.”

[2] These are the instances of ὁράω and εἶδον that I found in the non-forged letters of Paul. If there are more instances, please let me know! I have categorized their meanings as follows:

Comprehension: Romans 15:21; 1 Corinthians 9:1; 1 Corinthians 2:9; Galatians 2:7; Galatians 2:14; Philippians 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:15.

Physical sight: Romans 1:11; 1 Corinthians 8:10; Galatians 1:19; Galatians 6:11; Philippians 1:27; Philippians 1:30; Philippians 2:28; 1 Thessalonians 2:17; 1 Thessalonians 3:6 (the infinitive is counted twice); 1 Thessalonians 3:10.

Visions: 1 Corinthians 15:5; 1 Corinthians 15:6; 1 Corinthians 15:7; 1 Corinthians 15:8. It should be noted that the first three usages of the verb are pre-Pauline, since they belong to the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. However, this adds even more ambiguity, since we do not even know the author of the creed. Regardless, the verb is in the passive voice, which is frequently used to denote visionary experiences. What can be gleaned then is that the people mentioned in the creed are reported to have “seen” Jesus in some way, but the vocabulary can easily refer to visionary experiences, and no physical details or location is provided. I discuss how all of these reports can have visionary, hallucinatory, or have other natural explanations in my article discussing the creed, here.

[3] The one exception is 1 Corinthians 9:1 in which Paul states, “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen [ἑόρακα] Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord?” Peters cites N.T. Wright claiming that this passage refers to physical sight, but this is hardly suggested from the context. Wright claims that that the verb means physical sight elsewhere, but it also means visions and comprehension, so that is insufficient evidence. Within the context of the passage Paul emphasizes that he is free and has been transformed through the Lord. Hence, the idea of “seeing” the Lord here could be meant in terms of comprehension.

16 Responses to The “Minimal Facts” Done And Dusted

  1. Toasty McGrath says:

    Man, it is really pretty ridiculous that Peters tries to be condescending to you about ancient history when you have a Masters Degree in the subject, and he can’t even read Greek. He accuses you of not using scholarly sources? The guy quoted a book review from the unqualified clown J.P. Holding.

    As for this guy’s blog readers. None of them have even bothered to dispute your historical analysis. That Cornell guy raised a bunch of red herrings to distract from the historical issue and then threw a tantrum when you stopped letting him change the subject.

    Hopefully we can get some more honest dialogue out of him when you have your debate with Peters. What I’ve seen from him so far doesn’t speak well for his personal integrity.

  2. MrHolbyta says:

    It seems to me that Peters doesn’t understand your use of Bayesian reasoning at all. For your debate, it may be useful to give some specific probabilities to key points to demonstrate what you mean by low prior probability for miracles and the extraordinary expected evidence required to offset it. When addressing modern miraculous claims a reminder about the multiple iterations fallacy would be instructive, as well.

    As for Wright’s assertion, the reading of horaka as referring to physical sight is rendered further unlikely because of the Greek perfect tense’s emphasis of the present significance of the completed action, e.g. “Have I not seen & therefore now know?” Your reading of the passage as referring to comprehension fits much better.

    • Thanks for the pointers! Yeah, I am going to discuss some secular, non-miraculous uses of Bayes’ Theorem to explain how I am not just unfairly ruling out miracles as unlikely, but tons of natural events as well.

      Great point about the perfect tense with the passage Wright commented on. I forgot that οἶδα is even a perfect variation of that verb where “to have seen” literally means “to know.” Glad to hear from someone who had some background in Greek!

      • MrHolbyta says:

        I suppose, on further reflection, that Wright may say that Paul’s use of the regular perfect, horaka, emphasizes physical sight since if Paul intended to show comprehension he’d have used the irregular, oida. I’m not sure how much difference it makes to the overarching case, though. With Paul’s extensive use of phthe and other visionary language, I think the most likely meanings are comprehension or visionary here.

        • Well one does not always use just οἶδα for comprehension. As was shown, many times “to see” in the Pauline usage is meant “to recognize” or “to understand.” Paul has recognized Jesus and hence seen him. Saying that he merely “knows” Jesus might not have the same effect.

  3. why would the jews want to have a guard placed at the tomb? why didn’t they put thier thinking caps on and relocate the body? they can stir the crowds, demand the release of a criminal and murder god almighty, but they couldn’t bury the dead body in an unknown place?

    • If we take the story literally, there are even bigger logical problems. Why, for example, would Pontius Pilate be so worried about the tomb being found empty, lest people think that a miracle had occurred, after the Temple veil had been torn by an earthquake, the world had gone dark for three hours, and all of the saints had risen from the dead and appeared throughout Jerusalem? After all of that, a tomb not being marked “ocupado” would be the sign that convinced people of a miracle? Pilate would have much bigger problems on his hands, such as cleaning up Jerusalem, which would be in a state of disaster.

      I do like your idea about the Jewish/Roman authorities deliberately hiding the body though. That normally doesn’t come up, but it could explain an empty tomb without grave robbery.

      But the reality is that the author of Matthew almost certainly made up the detail about the guards, in order to counter the possible objection that the body was stolen. This is the same guy who made up a fake genealogy of Jesus with the 14,14,14 spelling out David, and the guy who invented Herod slaughtering a bunch of babies to draw a parallel with Moses being sent down the Nile in Egypt. After all that, he couldn’t just make up that guards were at the tomb to cover up a hole in Mark’s narrative?

      As you say, the scenario is implausible, and, seeing how the author of Matthew makes up other things, when it suits his narrative, I see little reason to think that the guards at the tomb are based on any historical event.

      • christians take the story literally and speculate to defend it. i wish too speculate too. if the deciples ran away and no one knew where ,then why would they hang around in an area where thier leader was murdered? they did the intelligent thing by running away, and according to ehrman, they legged it to galilee:

        In addition, our earliest sources are quite clear that the male disciples fled the scene and were not present for Jesus’ crucifixion. As I stated earlier, this may well be historical, that the disciples in fear of their own lives not only went into hiding, but fled town in order to avoid arrest. Where would they go? Presumably back home, to Galilee. ”

        if we speculate like christians and assume that pilate was aware that the deciples disappeared to somewhere unknown ,then why would he not make the jews realize that stealing the body would be an impossible task for deciples who ran away like cowards?

        the strange thing is that the pagans go out and proclaim that the deciples robbed jesus’ body and when the deciples were interrogated in acts, no one gives one hint that the deciples came at night and stole the body of jesus while the guards were asleep.

        • I agree that the silence in Acts about the charge of grave robbery completely undermines the story of the guards in Matthew. Pilate had guards posted specifically to prevent the body from disappearing, and yet when it is stolen and the claim is made that the disciples stole it, this charge never comes up again, even what grave robbery was a capital offense. It is simply another logical inconsistency that occurs when people make up stories and ad hoc explanations in this fashion, and yet the pieces don’t add up if this were a real historical sequence of events.

  4. even if they did rob it where would they hide it? it is strange that none of the other gospels thought about this question and how to create speculation like 21st century christians like to do.

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