Gary: I’ve read a lot of articles both for and against the historicity of the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, but so far, this article, by Matthew Ferguson, is the best:
When investigating virtually every other past event outside of the origins of Christianity, professional historians recognize that ancient texts — both Pagan and Christian — are incapable of proving paranormal claims about the past. This is due to no special bias against the supernatural, as I explain in my article “History and the Paranormal,” but would apply equally to natural paranormal claims, such alien abductions, sasquatch sightings, and so on. The operating principle has to do with ad hoc assumptions and “existing knowledge.” As historiographer C. Behan McCullagh explains in Justifying Historical Descriptions (whose methodology is summarized here), historians cannot make claims with good probability about the past that involve too many unproven, ad hoc assumptions. For example, in order to claim that a particular alien abduction had historically occurred in the past, one must first make general ad hoc assumptions that aliens even exist, visit the earth, and occasionally abduct humans. These are assumptions that historians are unable to verify or investigate, which cannot be assumed as sound premises in historical analysis. The same applies to the resurrection of Jesus. In order to justify the particular claim that Jesus resurrected, one has to assume a slew of untestable metaphysical assumptions about miracles, divine wills, and other unproven phenomena that cannot be regarded as bona fide historical background knowledge (explained by Bayesian expert Robert Cavin here, slides 325-351).
Normally historians, at the very least, bracket paranormal claims about the past, particularly those of a supernatural character, as philosophical questions that extend beyond the scope of the historical method. If they did not responsibly limit historical epistemology in this way, as I have discussed before, paranormal events such as witchcraft at Salem in the late 17th century would be fair game for being considered “historical” and we would have far greater evidence to support such miracles than the resurrection of Jesus (for more information about the Salem comparison, see Matt McCormick’s article “The Salem Witch Trials and the Evidence for the Resurrection” in The End of Christianity). We can all see the absurdity of the former example and yet apologists (who often exercise the same skepticism towards supernatural events outside of their religion) consider it an unfair bias to bracket Jesus’ resurrection as a religious, rather than historical, matter.
Simply because the method of history has these restrictions, and is thus incapable of “historically” proving the resurrection, does not entail that one cannot have other reasons for believing in the resurrection. The fact that Jesus’ resurrection is a theological matter does not bother most Christians, as their belief in Christianity is obviously rooted in more than a cold and detached study of history. I have, however, encountered several apologists who converted for personal reasons and later sought rational and evidential justifications when they were trying to convert other people who do not share in such personal experiences.
Such apologists, seeking to use the field of ancient history, are eager to slap the label “historical” onto the resurrection. This goal is not really derived from academic concerns, but instead is born primarily out of the desire to evangelize. Once Jesus’ resurrection is considered a “historical fact,” you just have to accept it and apologists can accuse non-believers of being ill-informed or dishonest for not converting to their religion. It was to avoid such non-academic agendas that historians bracketed such religious questions in the first place. I myself was originally content with letting the resurrection be a religious, rather than historical question, but since apologists have fired the first shot in attempting to invade the field of ancient history, targeting lay audiences with a variety of slogans aimed at converting the public, my duty here on Κέλσος is to rebut their arguments.
One such slogan is the so-called “minimal facts” apologetic, spread by apologists such as Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig. Both apologists use different sets of “minimal facts” in order to provide a minimal case for proving just one of Jesus’ miracles: the resurrection.
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