The “Minimal Facts” Apologetic Remains Toppled

Recently a Christian blogger named Nick Peters wrote a critical response (available here) to my article Knocking Out the Pillars of the Minimal Facts Apologetic. Having carefully read through his reply, I found very few issues that were not already sufficiently addressed in my article, its footnotes, and my linked seminar paper that I provided in the article. Mr. Peters appears to have not read my material very carefully.

Peters’ style in his critique is merely to quote segments of text, raise a couple of complaints about a few statements, often out of context, and then to move on to quoting and complaining about another segment of text. This manner of reply often makes Mr. Peters’ critique scattered and tangential in many places, but there are furthermore several instances of simply poor reading comprehension. In a few instances (to be explored below) Peters would quote one block of text, raise an objection, and not even realize that the next paragraph, which occasionally he would even quote, would have the exact answer to his objection. In other instances, he ignored portions of my blog that answered the questions he raised elsewhere.

In light of these shortcomings, I was originally not going to respond to Mr. Peters, but since it is summer and I have a bit more free time, I think it will be a good exercise to demonstrate just how easily the article stands up to apologetic objections.

I have colored Peters’ quotes in red and quotations of my original article in green, to clarify who is talking in the conversation.

To begin with, Peters wastes a lot of time at the beginning of his critique nitpicking some of the statements I have in my introduction to the issue. This is tedious, since I was merely contextualizing the issue for my readers, and his objections are largely just complaints about a few introductory remarks.

First, Peters complains about how I point out that the minimal facts apologetic is not really about proving “only one” miracle, but is an evangelism tool to get people to convert to Christianity. Peters claims, “All you have to do is get that Jesus rose. Don’t want to believe the Bible is Inerrant? Sure. Go ahead.” But I would really be surprised if Peters thinks that the only other issues here are the fine points of Christian doctrine. Clearly, clearly apologists are using the minimal facts argument to get people’s foot in the door about believing in Christianity. No non-apologist goes around saying, “Hey, I have this case that Jesus rose from the dead, but none of it matters, I was just letting you know.” Obviously, the apologist wants the resurrection to be a starting point for getting people to “accept Christ” and convert. So it’s really silly to pretend that we are only discussing one issue here, when the minimal facts is a conversion tool. I don’t dismiss it on those grounds alone, but I was merely contextualizing for my readers what we are dealing with.

Next, Peters doesn’t understand the principle of methodological naturalism, which in the introduction I explain is how history, as a method, normally operates. Peters states, “I do not see a good reason to accept methodological naturalism. When I look at history, I want to know what really happened and I cannot do that if I rule out explanations that I disagree with right at the start.” Peters here clearly does not understand what I said in the article. I very specifically stated, “Simply because history is methodologically naturalist does not entail ontological naturalism.” The point of this introductory statement was to explain the scholarly practice of bracketing, where certain questions are acknowledged to be beyond the scope of a particular methodology.

What Peters doesn’t seem to understand is that history is not the same thing as the past, but rather a method used in the present to investigate the past. Historians acknowledge that history cannot tell us everything that has occurred in the past, and so certain questions are normally recognized to extend beyond the scope of the historical method. Such questions often include religious questions, which have underlying theological assumptions that separate them from ordinary questions about the past. Historians normally bracket these questions, as ones that need to be answered by a different epistemology, which often include one’s religious convictions.

This does not entail that all supernatural events are automatically ruled out from happening in the past, but it does mean that someone will need more than just ordinary historical methodology when dealing with them. Here is an excellent article from biblical scholar Hector Avalos explaining this practice, where he discusses how a question such as, “Did Alexander the Great fight elephants in India?,” is categorically different from a supernatural question, such as, “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” Normally, historians bracket the second form of question as one that clearly involves many more philosophical and theological issues than the former. But bracketing the question does not ipso facto entail denying the event.

This is all irrelevant, however, because what Mr. Peters did not understand is that I was actually setting aside these methodological brackets in the article, in order to offer the apologists intellectual charity in engaging with the minimal facts apologetic. So his entire complaint here was targeted against the very intellectual charity I was offering in not relying on methodological naturalism in the article. I’m open to investigating the stories about Jesus’ resurrection historically, but the conclusion for me is that Jesus is dead.

Next, Peters states that he is open to miracles happening today and also exploring the miracles of other religions [1]. I am as well, so long as we can first investigate these miracles in the hard sciences. If we could confirm the existence of miracles under scientific observation, then that would change our background knowledge about the possibility of miracles occurring in the past, and thus would increase the prior probability for a miracle occurring in a past event [2]. I explain this in my article History, Probability, and Miracles. The problem is that history relies on indirect observation and is a highly speculative method that must rely on probability. Science, in contrast, is a highly precise and rigorous method that can make conclusions with a much higher degree of certainty. Apologists point out that you can’t observe the past scientifically, which I agree with, but this does not divorce science from history and give history free reign to draw conclusions that would contradict our scientific knowledge. Instead, history operates as a secondary epistemology, where science provides for much of our background knowledge and prior probabilities when we investigate historical claims. When a historical claim contradicts what we know scientifically or what has not been confirmed scientifically, we can automatically be more skeptical of it.

I do not apply this skepticism solely to the origins of Christianity. Take, for instance, astrology. To my knowledge, no rigorous scientific experiment or tested theory has confirmed that the movement of astronomical bodies impacts the destinies and personalities of people here on Earth. Accordingly, I am skeptical of the many past claims that survive in ancient texts about astrologers supposedly predicting the future in antiquity. One such example is that three Roman historians, Tacitus (Ann. 6.20), Suetonius (Gal. 4), and Dio (64.1), all independently attest that the emperor Tiberius predicted the future reign of Galba through astrology. I am immediately skeptical of this claim, because in my background knowledge astrology is not known to work. Similarly, in my background knowledge, no one has ever been reliably documented to rise from the dead after being crucified, stabbed, and left brain-dead for three whole days, so I likewise assign very low prior probabilities to these claims.

Everyone applies probability when they assess claims that they cannot directly observe. I am pretty sure that if I told Mr. Peters “I had cereal for breakfast this morning” and then claimed “Later, a cartoon anvil apparated above my head, crushed me into a pancake, and then I popped back,” Mr. Peters would be skeptical of the latter claim and demand more evidence. I could merely complain (as Mr. Peters does about my skepticism) that his “worldview” is getting in the way, but I think we can all tell that Mr. Peters would have good reasons for being skeptical.

Personally, I would demand testable observation that such anvils can apparate and do such things. If this could be provided, then I would be more credulous towards the claim that such an anvil might have occurred that morning, even if we couldn’t directly observe that one. The same applies to other extraordinary claims, such as those about Big Foot. Provide direct evidence that Sasquatches exist, and then there would be a higher prior probability that many of the previously unconfirmed stories about them may have happened (many could still be rumors).

The point being is that our background knowledge and prior probability cannot simply be thrown out the window when assessing the likelihood of a past event that we can’t directly observe.

Now, to be fair, Mr. Peters and I do have different assessments of our background knowledge. Peters states, “I happen to know people who have been involved in the occult and have no reason to discount a number of claims that I hear from them.” Personally, I do not think that any instance of witchcraft, sorcery, fortune telling, magic, miracles, divine intervention, or wizardry has ever been reliably documented to occur. Accordingly, these events have a very, very low prior probability in my background knowledge.

Peters does mention Craig Keener’s work Miracles, which I have actually discussed before during my previous debate (at 43:08 – 1:18:38) with Don Johnson. I am not very impressed by the so-called “miracles” that Keener provides. Do we find scientifically documented cases of people walking on water in the book? Flying in the air and ascending to heaven? The Red Sea parting? A man feeding a whole crowd of people with a few loaves of bread and a couple fish? A man who is crucified, stabbed, and then brain-dead for three days rising from the dead? If Keener had demonstrated such things, then he would have no doubt been awarded with the Nobel Prize in Medicine by now. These are what I will term “biblical-scale” miracles (for further discussion of what I mean by this distinction, see here).

Instead we have a lot of cases of people healing under unlikely circumstances, dubious claims in regions of the world where there are high amounts of superstition and career miracle workers, and fortuitous events where people have good luck. I’m highly skeptical about whether Keener’s book even proves non-“biblical-scale” miracles (for a critical review discussing problems in Keener’s book, see here), but we don’t need to go there. The point is that Keener does not provide reliably documented instances of “biblical-scale” miracles, and accordingly, his book does not change our background knowledge for such extraordinary events occurring.

So I believe that it is fair to assign a very low prior probability to the resurrection before investigating it. If I can find another hypothesis with a higher prior probability, even if it requires a few ad hoc assumptions and does not have as good expected evidence, it can still be a more probable explanation of the data than a miracle. Furthermore, as I discuss in the article and Peters does not address, if I can formulate multiple plausible natural hypotheses, their combined probability can outweigh the combined supernatural hypotheses, which would entail that it is most reasonable to believe in some combination of natural events, even if we can’t be completely certain about the exact details.

So now, after moving past Peters’ complaints about my introductory remarks, we can discuss the minimal facts apologetic. Peters starts off with a straw man. At the beginning of the article, I provide a word-for-word list of William Craig’s version of the minimal “facts.” Peters complains, “Right here, I can tell the study has not been done on this. Craig’s approach is not the minimal facts approach of Habermas.” I can tell from this that accurate reading comprehension has not been done. I explicitly state in the article, “This apologetic takes a variety of forms.” I was specifically refuting Craig’s version of the apologetic, because I consider it to be a stronger version of the apologetic than Habermas and Licona’s. Peters is complaining because I mention Habermas earlier in a parenthetical remark as an example of an apologist who makes this argument. But the article is specifically addressed towards Craig’s argument. Peters proceeds to critique my article as if it were an article about Habermas’ use of the argument, which causes him to miss key points in many places. Nevertheless, I have added a footnote refuting Habermas and Licona’s version of the apologetic as well, most of which already overlaps with the issues I address in the article.

I point out in the article that Craig’s minimal facts require accepting a lot of the biblical stories at face value. Peters replies, “This is not the minimal facts argument. In fact, the minimal facts argument is done to AVOID such a statement. One can take a quite liberal approach to the Bible and still accept the minimal facts.” No, many liberal scholars reject Craig’s claim about Joseph of Arimathea and women discovering his empty tomb. What Peters has done in his straw man is conflate my statements with Habermas’ approach. Habermas’ approach is based on what more liberal scholars often accept (Habermas acknowledges, for example, that the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb is not a “minimal fact”), but even much of this information is dependent on the New Testament, as opposed to outside, disinterested secular sources. So the statement still largely applies. This does not mean that I dismiss the evidence right off the bat (I provide a whole article refuting it), but once more I am just contextualizing  the issue for my readers.

I proceed to dispute Craig’s facts, which he often represents as non-negotiable in his debates, by assuming that his opponents have to explain them. In failing to critique my response to Craig, Peters frequently misses the point of my article. I refute Craig’s first claim about Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb being found empty. Peters asserts that this is irrelevant, since it is allegedly not part of Habermas’ approach. But one of Habermas’ claims is about the empty tomb.

Peters states:

Ferguson thinks that dispatching with the claim about Joseph of Arimathea’s burial of Jesus deals with the empty tomb. No. It would just mean one account of the burial was wrong. It would not mean that there was no burial and thus no empty tomb.

Here Peters demonstrates a clear lack of reading comprehension, since I very clearly in the article do not dispute Jesus’ probable burial:

This does not mean that Jesus’ body had to stay up on the cross, but as Crossan (pg. 152) observes, “It is most probable that Jesus was buried by the same inimical forces that had crucified him and that on Easter Sunday morning those who knew the site did not care and those who cared did not know the site.” Thus, the discovery of an empty tomb is a literary myth that requires no circumstantial explanation from the historian.

Peters likewise fantastically fails to read what I write about Paul allegedly corroborating an empty tomb:

The basis for the empty tomb in the minimal facts approach is 1 Cor. 15. There, we find that Christ was buried and that Christ was raised. The raising would mean that there was an empty tomb left behind. A Jew would not accept the fact of a resurrection that left behind a body. Resurrection was bodily.

First, Peters does not address Carrier’s hundred-plus page article, “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave (pgs. 105-232) disputing whether Paul and the Jews of his days had universal, carbon copy beliefs about a physical “one body” view of the resurrection. Peters’ assumption that Paul would corroborate an “empty” tomb is simply based on a disputable interpretation of Paul’s theology about the resurrection. Paul never spells out that there was an “empty” tomb.

But what further demonstrates a lack of reading comprehension is that Peters does not even comprehend what I wrote about how, even if Paul believed the tomb was technically empty for theological reasons, he would not corroborate an “opened” and “discovered” tomb:

This article need not assume that Carrier’s conclusion is correct, however. Mánek, who argues that Paul believed in a “one body” view of the resurrection, points out that there is no indication in Paul of an “opened tomb,” even if Jesus’ burial place were technically empty (nobody had to find it).

Accordingly, Paul does not corroborate that an empty burial place was discovered and that this was a basis for belief in the resurrection. Instead, Paul records that later “appearances” were the basis for the resurrection. This, in my opinion, is much weaker evidence for a resurrection than the discovery of an empty tomb. If Jesus’ body were discovered not to be in its grave, the body could not be found, and later people had appearances of Jesus, this would be a stronger case for a bodily resurrection. This is why I specifically targeted Craig’s case in sections one and two of the article, in order to demonstrate that the stories about the “discovery” of an empty burial place are later legends.

Paul, even if Peters’ speculative interpretation were correct that he theologically believed that Jesus’ body was no longer physically in its burial place (wherever that happened to be), would not corroborate that anyone confirmed this by finding an empty burial place. Accordingly, by refuting Craig’s first and second “facts” the historian does not need to circumstantially explain how Jesus’ burial place was found empty or how a body was discovered to have gone missing. One need only to explain why Jesus’ followers later claimed to have experiences with him, who may have been unable to or not sought to confirm whether there was actually an empty burial place, regardless of whether they believed it was empty or not for theological reasons, which again is highly disputable.

Accordingly, Peters does not even attempt to dispute my arguments against the discovery of an empty tomb, so this is a very problematic omission in his critique.

Peters next moves on to complain about my analysis of the post-mortem sightings of Jesus. He does not dispute that such post-mortem sightings are still common rumors today and even states, “I could grant some of them.” As someone who maintains that the post-mortem sightings of Elvis and Michael Jackson are nothing but rumors, I will just have to disagree on this. The reason I made this point is to show that the prior probability of rumors about post-mortem sightings is higher than the prior probability of an actual post-mortem interaction with someone. Accordingly, when assessing the post-mortem sightings of Jesus, there is a higher prior probability that these are just rumors, so it will take some pretty solid expected evidence to make actual post-mortem sightings more probable.

Hence the problem is that we do not have the writings of a single eyewitness who knew Jesus during his or her lifetime (unlike many eyewitness accounts of post-mortem sighting today). The Gospels are later legendary accounts packed full of authorial inventions. Accordingly, we have very weak expected evidence that cannot overcome the low prior.

I do discuss, however, that Paul is our best source, since he is writing only a couple decades after Jesus’ death and knew some of Jesus’ followers. I do point out, however, that Paul appears to suffer from hallucinations and thus we need to take that into account when evaluating how he understood his interactions with Jesus. To provide an example, I compare Paul with a modern example of a man who likewise seems to have suffered from hallucinations, Clarence “Bro” Cope. Peters complains:

It is hardly a fair comparison to compare Paul to Clarence “Bro” Cope, and the link that Ferguson has is in a post loaded with argument from outrage. Even if this had been a hallucination on Paul’s part, that does not equate to him being schizophrenic. Ferguson should leave such psychological judgments to those who do study history. Should we trust Paul as well? NT critics seem to think so! Paul is quite well accepted. I don’t know any NT scholar who looks at what Paul says and says “Paul was crazy! Therefore we don’t need to deal with what he says.”

For starters, I have an M.A. in Classics specializing in Ancient History, in addition to experience in a doctoral program, so Peters’ claim about “those who do study history,” is entirely ad hominem and not even correctly so. Second, he fails to grasp the point of the comparison. We can’t go back in time and see what Paul was like. Accordingly, I provide a modern example to illustrate the type of people who make claims about being raptured to heaven and having dead people appear to them. Paul claims (2 Cor. 12:2-4) to have been raptured to “third” heaven, just as Clarence claims to have been raptured to heaven twice. Clarence likewise claims that Jesus has physically appeared and that he has touched Jesus, which is much more clear than Paul’s vague descriptions about Jesus appearing to him. Do I trust Clarence? Of course not! The guy shows clear signs of mental illness. Furthermore, I did not claim that Paul or Clarence were schizophrenic, but said that they “appear” to experience some sort of other mental disorder (or at least seem to have visionary experiences in such a way that we cannot take their reports of seeing dead people at face value). This needs to be taken into account when evaluating what they relate in their experiences.

Furthermore, Peters once more demonstrates a spectacular lack of reading comprehension in his claim that I merely dismiss what Paul says, when he doesn’t even casually read what I write in the next paragraph (which he even quotes):

Paul’s testimony is useful, however, since Paul is writing only a couple decades after Jesus and he claims to have known Peter and other eye-witnesses of Jesus.

This is very clearly NOT dismissing Paul, so Peters isn’t even bothering to read my article correctly. Peters brushes off how I analyze Paul’s description of his visions of Jesus and how they pertain to what he relates about the other disciples experiencing Jesus. Paul never claims to have physically seen Jesus. Even if he did, how would he know what he looks like? He never even met the man. Instead, Paul relates in Galatians 1:15-16 that god ἀποκαλύψαι τὸν υἱὸν “revealed his son” to him, and in 1 Corinthians 9:1 that he ἑόρακα “has seen” the Lord, where “seen” is meant in the sense of comprehension. This is very much visionary language. If we are historically sloppy and splice the later account in Acts, Paul had a vision from the sky, which, if anything, could far more probably be explained as a heat stroke on the road to Damascus.

Peters writes:

Note that in 1 Cor. 15, this is not described as a vision but put alongside appearances to Peter, James, the twelve, and five hundred.

Yes, that is precisely what I am noting. Paul uses the same visionary language to describe his experiences of Jesus as he uses to describe Jesus’ other followers’ experiences. The later accounts of them physically interacting with Jesus are only in the anonymous Gospels, which I demonstrate show a clear trail of legendary development getting them to that point.

Peters claims:

What Ferguson wants us to think then is that all these people conveniently had the same hallucinations, that a rare event like a mass hallucination (Something Licona and Habermas have both dealt with) happened (It can even be disputed that one has happened), that it was a resurrection they thought they saw and that they did not instead see Jesus in Abraham’s bosom vindicated, and this still would not answer the question of where the body was anyway!

For starters, I did explain the question of the body, if he had actually read the article. Second, I have written another article about how interpreting group hallucinations from 1 Corinthians 15 is an unlikely reading of the text, which even then can still be explained in natural terms. More importantly, Peters straw mans how I think the visionary experiences developed. I very clearly explain how the early visionary experiences could have been the result of cognitive dissonance. The death of Jesus could have caused his followers to seek new explanations for how he could still be the messiah. Some of them may expect his imminent return and start having a prior expectation that they would see Jesus. A few could have visions or hallucinations, relate the incident to others, and then give them a prior expectation for having similar experiences of Jesus. Soon, the idea could emerge that Jesus has been raised. This belief blossoms into a religion, legends develop over the course of half a century, and finally the anonymous author of Mark could make up a story about an empty tomb being discovered, the later author of Luke could write about how Jesus could teleport and how his disciples could not originally recognize what his resurrected form looked like, and, finally, the later author of John could claim that some of them physically touched Jesus. This is all far more probable than a supernatural miracle, and we have the type of evidence of legendary development that we would expect if it had occurred this way.

Peters does dispute my interpretation of the verb ὤφθη (“to be seen” or “to appear”) in the passage:

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. However, this is still a problem in that the creed is not Pauline language really but language Paul got from elsewhere.

To begin with, I highly doubt that I would agree with Licona’s categorization of the verbs. But furthermore, this is the wrong way to approach the data. Consider the following sentence: “I met Jesus during my darkest hour in prison.” Now, in English the verb “meet” can take on a literal, physical connotation or can take on a figurative, symbolic connotation. Now, most of the time we use the verb we will use it in the literal sense. Does that mean that I should interpret it in a literal sense, simply because that is the more common usage, even when the context of the statement above suggests otherwise? Obviously not.

In the case of ὁράω (“to see”) the verb very often has visionary connotations when used to describe people having experiences with celestial beings. Here is PDF documenting such visions of the god Aesculapius where the verb is used frequently. This is the context in which we have similar “appearances” and visions of a resurrected Jesus. Sure, ὁράω can more often mean other things in other circumstances, but the context is what is important. Peters even acknowledges that, if the creed is pre-Pauline, then it wouldn’t depend on Paul’s usage. Where does he go for context? Into the later Gospel of Luke, which is splicing the later legendary material with the earlier material, the very type of practice he claims to be avoiding in taking Habermas’ approach to the minimal facts.

Furthermore, I also explain in the article, which Peters does not address, that even if the earliest Christians around Paul’s time believed in a physical resurrection, this new enhanced body is still able to appear in visions. This is made clear if, contrary to Habermas’ approach, we do splice the accounts of the later the Gospel authors, who clearly believed in a physical resurrection, but still describe the appearances in some of the following ways:

Luke (24:31) has Jesus at first be unrecognizable to his followers and then teleport, John (20:19) has Jesus able to walk through walls, and Acts (10:9-13) has Jesus appear in visions from the sky. The point being is that even if the early Christians believed in a physical resurrection (which is debatable), Jesus’ enhanced resurrected body was still able to appear through visions, phantoms, and revelation. Accordingly, all of the early post-mortem sightings of Jesus can be explained in terms of hallucinations and visions. No eye-witness account survives of someone claiming to see or touch a physical Jesus. These stories come from later legendary narratives, such as the anonymous Gospels.

Peters next claim is riddled with problems:

These could have been hallucinations? Okay. I need to see evidence of that. Why would the apostles have come up with this? It would have been the most easily disprovable theory and ended up costing them everything, especially in the society of the time where they would have received ostracism and of course, be going against the covenant of YHWH which means they would face His judgment. Paul himself would be in no position to have such an experience. He was a persecutor of the church and the conversion accounts in Acts include objective phenomena which means that this was not something that just took place in Paul’s mind.

The evidence is that hallucinations are far more probable than an actual resurrection and Paul is even using visionary vocabulary. Again, Peters is being sloppy in splicing Paul’s own account with Acts. The apostles very likely came up with this because they were facing cognitive dissonance about how Jesus could still be the messiah. Peters’ notion that people would seek to “disprove” this fringe religious movement is ridiculous. The early Christians were a small, insignificant cult in an ancient world rife with other religions and superstitions. There were no investigative reporters going around trying to refute this stuff. In very rare instances, someone like Lucian of Samosata would write a polemic against a new religion, but this was very rare and we have no reason to expect that someone would do it for Christianity.

As for Paul’s conversion, I explain it in my new footnote addressing Habermas’ argument:

I agree that it is unlikely that an early church persecutor like Paul would convert, but guess what, not many did. If Jesus had appeared to Pontius Pilate, Tiberius Caesar, and Caiaphas, and gotten all of them to convert, that may be a stronger case for a miracle. But if the later resurrection stories were purely a superstition, I would expect one or so former persecutors might later sympathize with the group and convert. This is the evidence that we do have. Furthermore, Paul’s conversion is really not that extraordinary. As discussed in the post, Paul shows signs of suffering from hallucinations (e.g. 2 Corinthians 12:2-4). If Paul were facing cognitive dissonance about persecuting a group that he gradually started to feel sympathy for, and then had a hallucination of their leader chastising him, it is not that hard to see how he might later have a conversion experience.

As for James, the alleged skeptic:

The conversion of Jesus’ brother James, the alleged “skeptic,” is even more problematic. The Gospels are not even consistent on whether the family of Jesus were sympathetic to his ministry. John 7:5 and Mark 3:21 have Jesus’ family not agree with his ministry. Luke 8:19-21, in contrast, rejects Mark’s earlier tradition and has the family be supportive of the ministry. Furthermore, unlike Paul, we do not have any writings of James (the epistle attributed to him was either written by another James or a forgery), so it is not even clear what James’ feelings were about Jesus prior to his death. Only the later Gospel hagiographies, written by unknown authors who did not witness the events, tell the story in conflicting ways. Even if James had originally been a skeptic, do we really need a miracle to explain a family member later becoming sympathetic with a new religious movement that had sprung up about his brother? This is very feeble evidence to try to prove something as improbable as a magical resurrection.

As for the notion of ostracism and persecution, I demonstrate how the martyrdoms of the disciples are largely legendary in a previous article (the article includes discussion of how James’ death may not be corroborated by Josephus, since his reference could be to Jesus and James, the sons of Damneus). Furthermore, I encourage people to read Candida Moss’ The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom in order to see how the supposed persecution of the early Christians is largely exaggerated. Likewise, just because there might have been ostracism of the early Christians does not overcome the low probability of a resurrection happening.

Regarding the fourth section, Peters writes:

Ferguson is writing against the idea that Christians would have a crucified messiah as their savior. To be sure, there were new beliefs floating around. How having a more radical belief is more probable than a resurrection has not been shown. The term magical is just a bit of well poisoning on Ferguson’s part. Magic in the ancient world does not correspond to what we have in the resurrection.

Obviously I meant magic as a synonym for “supernatural.” Peters is just nit picking at this point. Also, yes, a new religion springing up is far more probable than the laws of physics being violated and a three day brain-dead human rising from the dead.

Peters next makes a trivial objection to an off-handed remark I made about cognitive dissonance, where I discuss how certain Christians who are forced to accept evolution from evidence, rather than abandon their belief in the Bible, which has a very different story in Genesis, will simply make ad hoc assumptions to avoid having to abandon their faith. This was just an example of how cognitive dissonance reduction works. Peters writes:

Why should I be held accountable for what Christians did for a century and a half. I am not a theistic evolutionist, but I have no problem with evolution. I just leave it to the sciences. I could not argue for it. I could not argue against it.

Obviously he is not even grasping the point of the example, and instead just saw the word “evolution” and started chasing an off-handed remark. This is the sort of tangential and scattered thinking that mires Peters’ analysis.

Peters next writes:

Cognitive dissonance does occur, but should I think it has here? In every single case in ancient history that I know of, when the would-be Messiah died, the movement died. Why was Jesus’s case different? Why again did they go the hard way with a physical resurrection? Why not just divine vindication? Why would Paul and James have converted? Paul was a persecutor. James was a skeptic. What would it take to make you convinced your dead brother was really the Messiah?

Cognitive dissonance would be more likely to be the case here than a supernatural resurrection and the circumstances of rationalizing how Jesus could still be the Messiah explain this. Peters did not even read or address the example I provided of Sabbatai Zevi, where the messianic figure did much worse then die, but even converted to Islam! This would be much more damaging for a Jewish religious movement and yet the movement persisted through cognitive dissonance reduction, and there were Jews who still regarded Zevi as the messiah even after his conversion. It is not clear that the early Christians believed in a physical resurrection, which Peters continues to speculate. I explain Paul’s and James’ conversions above. Again, everything has a more probable natural explanation.

That about sums up Peters’ complaints. The last bit is Peters parroting the typical apologetic slogan that skeptics only don’t believe in the resurrection because of their “worldview.” He ends his article with “In Christ.” Does Peter not realize that his worldview is playing a role as well? I’m open to the possibility of miracles, but the minimal facts evidence does not measure up. Every one of the alleged circumstances can be explained in more probable natural terms. Accordingly, Christianity looks no different to me than any other religion on the planet, all of which I think are nothing more than naturally explicable superstitions.

Peters, of course, did not even understand that my article was a critique of Craig and made much of his article ineffective by instead providing a defense of Habermas. In addition, he shows repeated signs of poor reading comprehension and most of his responses contain nothing but scattered and disorganized complaints. Accordingly, the minimal facts argument continues to be toppled. There is nothing in the origins of Christianity that defies a natural explanation. This can be shown by analyzing the historical evidence, as I do in my original article and this defense.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] Incidentally, Peters asks, “Personally, I would in fact welcome a strong case for Vespasian … doing miracles.” I provide such a case near the end of this article, where I explain why we have better evidence for Vespasian’s miracles than Jesus’ resurrection via the empty tomb, and yet I still do not believe in Vespasian’s miracles, in order to be consistent with my view about the low probability of miracles.

[2] In another post, Peters attempts a refutation of the “Argument from Locality.” This argument maintains that if a deity existed who wishes us to know about him, he would not only reveal himself in one time period, but would communicate to all cultures, time periods, and regions. Peters claims that this is an assumption and does not accept the argument. For the purposes of this article, however, the Argument from Locality, whether it is valid or not for dismissing the existence of god, does demonstrate that miracles would be epistemically untenable, if god no longer provides them today. If god merely provided miracles in a sealed-off time period that we could no longer observe, we would have no way of directly observing miracles today that would change our background knowledge and increase their prior probability. If so, the alleged time period where the miracles supposedly did occur would have a higher probability for simply being an age of ignorance, legends, and superstition. This describes the age in which the Bible was being written quite well. The relevant point is that, even if the Argument from Locality doesn’t refute the existence of god, it does make our ability to reasonably believe in a probable past miracle untenable today. This is because, due to locality, god would have deprived us of the sort of data we would need to update our background knowledge about miracles. Instead, the data that we would have would be that things always have natural explanations and that miracles, when investigated, turn out to be nothing more than superstitious rumors, which is the sort of data what we do observe in modern times.

[Peters responded again to this follow-up article. After reading his response here, scroll back to this page and read my second response here.]

This entry was posted in History, Replies to Critics, Resurrection. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to The “Minimal Facts” Apologetic Remains Toppled

  1. cornelll says:

    I find this article to be highly unpersuasive as it is, though I’ll stick to this point.

    You said “If we could confirm the existence of miracles under scientific observation, then that would change our background knowledge about the possibility of miracles occurring in the past, and thus would increase the prior probability for a miracle occurring in a past event”

    The Oxford English Dictionary defines the scientific method as: “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

    Since science for the most part studies repeatable events, your suggestion with respect to miracles misses the mark! Science can also only speak of NATURAL events. Miracles are neither and therefore it is not within the remit for science to speak about miracles, hence ‘miracles’ entail a metaphysical question. What about passing through a wall?! Well quantum physics suggests that this is possible!! So given how weird the quantum world is becoming it seems extremely unscientific for you to jump the gun and claim to know this!!

    If you would like to try this, go ahead, just walk into any wall……. about a couple of trillion times. One of those trillion times, your atoms are likely to tunnel right through the wall. Unfortunately, the time it would take you to run into a wall that many times would take you billions of years. Anyway, you would be dead after a certain number of hits to the head.

    • Cornell, science consists of a lot of empirical methods and not all science is laboratory science. We can’t repeat the formation of the solar system and yet science studies it.

      As for miracles being supernatural and therefor allegedly outside of the realm of science, that is entirely false. Science studies what is empirical, and yes, a miracle would be empirically observable. If Jesus turned water into wine or created enough friction on the surface of water to walk on it, we could observe these things under rigorous instruments and demonstrate that a miracle was taking place.

      As for the quantum physics example, you are discussing a possibility that is natural and therefor not miraculous.

      I’m not saying that we could repeat miracles. What I am saying is that we haven’t reliably documented any bench mark biblical-scale miracle, so we do not have reliable evidence of such miracles happening period. Ergo, miracles are not known to exist in our background knowledge and their prior probability is thus very low when assessing an unobservable claim about a miracle in the past.

      • cornelll says:

        “Cornell, science consists of a lot of empirical methods and not all science is laboratory science. We can’t repeat the formation of the solar system and yet science studies it.”

        Right, so how are supposed to study a miracle if indeed a miracle DID happen? What are you expecting to find? If a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, then we’d have to end up using the laws of nature to make sense of it, right? So where does one even start?

        “As for miracles being supernatural and therefor allegedly outside of the realm of science, that is entirely false. Science studies what is empirical, and yes, a miracle would be empirically observable. If Jesus turned water into wine or created enough friction on the surface of water to walk on it, we could observe these things under rigorous instruments and demonstrate that a miracle was taking place.”

        I still don’t see miracles being in the realm of science, suppose Jesus did turn water into wine (considering this even is a miracle anyways, hence perhaps 10,000 years from now someone will figure out how to do this) this was a one time deal that happened in the past, so how exactly could we observe happening today? Where do we start?

        “As for the quantum physics example, you are discussing a possibility that is natural and therefor not miraculous.”

        Right, so now I can just argue against those who think the probability of miracles are low and state that they are arguing from ignorance. so what exactly is ‘nature’? Isn’t miracle defined as an event that violates the laws of nature? Well do we know everything there is to know about ‘nature’? Now we have a bigger problem, and my question to you is this: Are humans in a position today to state what all the laws of nature actually are down to a T?

        “I’m not saying that we could repeat miracles. What I am saying is that we haven’t reliably documented any bench mark biblical-scale miracle, so we do not have reliable evidence of miracles happening period.

        What constitutes as reliable evidence?

        Do you have reliable evidence for the reliability of sense perception?
        Do you have reliable evidence for that fact that the physical world is what it seems, and that we aren’t just brains in a vat being transmitted our experiences?
        I find zero empirical evidence for the fact that other minds exist besides my own.

        “Ergo, miracles are not known to exist in our background knowledge and their prior probability is thus very low.”

        Maybe for YOUR background knowledge, but either way I think your best bet is to argue for why the a priori probability of a miracle occurring is low. Hume tried, and if you want to go into what he said, I can debate where his abject failure resides.

        • “Right, so how are supposed to study a miracle if indeed a miracle DID happen? What are you expecting to find? If a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, then we’d have to end up using the laws of nature to make sense of it, right? So where does one even start?”

          I provide a definition of what I would consider to be a miracle in another blog, just search “miracle”:

          One main criterion is that miracles involve agency or intention, which nature does not exhibit. So they would not just be categorized under nature.

          “still don’t see miracles being in the realm of science, suppose Jesus did turn water into wine (considering this even is a miracle anyways, hence perhaps 10,000 years from now someone will figure out how to do this) this was a one time deal that happened in the past, so how exactly could we observe happening today? Where do we start?”

          That’s the problem. Someone like Jesus could do this in the present and we could observe the chemistry of the water and see it being changed. That would change our background knowledge about the possibility of one in the past. The problem is: no such events happen to day and we only learn of such things in the writings of bronze age myths. Hence why we have low prior probabilities for unobservable past claims of miracles.

          “Right, so now I can just argue against those who think the probability of miracles are low and state that they are arguing from ignorance. so what exactly is ‘nature’? Isn’t miracle defined as an event that violates the laws of nature? Well do we know everything there is to know about ‘nature’? Now we have a bigger problem, and my question to you is this: Are humans in a position today to state what all the laws of nature actually are down to a T?”

          Look at my link above for my definition of naturalism. I did not say that miracles are impossible, but that there is currently no reasonable evidence to think that they occur outside of rumors and legends. We don’t have to know everything about nature to know that Santa Claus probably doesn’t exist. We draw reasonable inferences from the data that we have.

          “What constitutes as reliable evidence?”

          Here is a good article from Richard Packham that discusses the standard of evidence and miracles:

          “Do you have reliable evidence for that fact that the physical world is what it seems, and that we aren’t just brains in a vat being transmitted our experiences?”

          The whole Cartesian demon card can be played all day. I go off of the evidence I have, which is a purely natural world with no miracles.

          “I find zero empirical evidence for the fact that other minds exist besides my own.”

          I take it you haven’t seen brain scans and cannot draw reasonable inferences from other people who for all purposes appear to have minds.

          “Maybe for YOUR background knowledge, but either way I think your best bet is to argue for why the a priori probability of a miracle occurring is low. Hume tried, and if you want to go into what he said, I can debate where his abject failure resides.”

          I do argue for why the a priori probability of a miracle occurring is low and I provide a link in my article to my writings about it:

  2. In defense of those Quantum Physicists who do not claim to walk thru walls with any practicality

    “Please allow me to witness brethren. When I was an unbeliever I heard about something called ‘quantum tunneling’. I was eager to embrace the opportunity to transit thru walls effortlessly and subsequently claim my stature as Columbus in this new frontier. After many fruitless headfirst attempts I was unsuccessful yet something much better miraculously occurred within me. I started to see visions of bright lights, the almighty upon his golden throne with his angelic court beside…ahhuhh[passes out in the pew headfirst]”

    Where to start? Let’s just dispense with spurious claims of walking thru walls, upon water, to venus, etc. Why the fad hasn’t caught on as of yet IDK. Those darn things that ‘miraculously’ occur to particles at the nuclear level seem not to happen in our level/reference. God only knows as well as certain fanciful wikiphysicists, eh?

    One thing that I have discussed with MWF plenty of times is what describes/defines ‘miracle’. Oh we agree completely with the scientific validity of them, but we differ quite a bit in respect to their use in our apologetic language… what is implied by the use of the word ‘miracle’ by believers. This is why MWF replied “As for the quantum physics example, you are discussing a possibility that is natural and therefor not miraculous” without a little better understanding the position of the believer. I’ll explain:
    Miracles of the Biblical Scale: those events which transcend the natural via the supernatural. So far, science has been unable to detect these events. Certainly this changes when the data confirms such.
    Miracles that occur in Everyday Experience: Sure, these are figurative and plentiful. But as beautiful as they are they cannot substantiate the supernatural because we understand them as existing only within the mind. Immaterial & Qualitative only.
    MotBS should be used to scientifically verify supernatural agency. MtoiEE cannot be. But MtoiEE should be granted to anyone, non-believers & believers alike. Simply, it’s a part of the language.
    MotBS in actuality are used to enhance the telling of metaphors. I suspect that many of the authors of the bible knew this implicitly without caring very much to establish them factually.
    MWF, let’s say for the sake of it you grant ‘quantum tunneling’. Understand what begins as the miraculous evolves into the possibly practical. But it was and remains a totally unnecessary phenomenon to the scriptural authors intent. That is the unstated crux of these ‘past miracles’ that shouldn’t be left out!

    Cornelll, do you also realize that the xian template that overlays this concept of supernatural agency doesn’t work very well to establish its certitude? That’s really all the MWF is saying (blush, sorry).

  3. cornelll says:

    Ok well I took screenshots of all of this, so your censorship will be noted.

    I had a feeling that you were a coward, so I took precautions.

    I also posted my last response that you failed to put on your page on Nick’s blog.

    Now your credibility is shot

    I guess LYING for nature, didn’t work out for you this time. THEISM 1 NATUREDIDIT 0

    • This is why I am no longer responding to you. Your ad hominem and obsessive tone is not worth engaging.

      I encourage people read the dialogue above and then to check out Cornell’s long-winded comment on Nick’s page (much of which is copy and pasting and tangents irrelevant to this post), in order to see what he has to say, and to further see why I am no longer dragging out a conversation ad nauseam:

      I also encourage readers to see my new comments policy, particularly for the provisions against personal attacks, comments that are off topic (e.g. diverting the subject to “other minds” on a history article), and overly long and tedious comments.

  4. I don’t blame you for not posting Cornell’s last comment. His last comment is littered with red herrings; he’s obviously trying to make this discussion easier to have. You made no mention of Hume and yet he brings him up. Then he brings up the Problem of Induction, which in my opinion is no longer a problem. Apologists, in my experience, purposely ignore Karl Popper’s solution; furthermore, they quote mine the few philosophers that disagree with Popper. Unfortunately, the consensus is that Popper solved the problem via falsification. Of course, that’s still up for debate, but the fact is, not many philosophers are debating his solution; furthermore, the ones who do have a vested interest in undermining science–which is precisely what Cornell is doing in order to special plead for miracles. Never mind that he attempts to undermine your definition of miracles (which he states is in the ballpark) by quoting the definitions of other thinkers. A clear case of conflating quality with quantity.

    Then he says that your argument for other minds is circular; he says that you assume other minds in order to conclude that other minds exist. Brain scans do not assume the existence of other minds; the existence of other minds is substantiated via brain scans. Also, all minds aren’t normative; this is to say that there are clear structural, psychological and cognitive abnormalities. Brain scans show us the difference between the brains of a compulsive liar, a psychopath, and a normal individual. Autistic brains are different from normal brains–and since autism is a spectrum of several cognitive abnormalities, the brain activity of someone with Aspergers differs from the brain activity of someone with PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). Also, the existence of other minds is made obvious by such individuals. My mind manifests itself differently from theirs and that is made obvious by differences in behavior, speech, etc. One doesn’t need to assume that other minds exist to see that other minds indeed exist. Ultimately, I don’t see how Christians engage in such fatalism; if other minds do not exist, which one of our minds is the real mind? Or is it that god’s mind is the only mind that exists and how does that differ from the preexisting Hindu belief of Advaita Vedanta? If so, aren’t we reduced to predetermined puppets on strings? If Mr.Ferguson’s mind can’t be empirically shown to exist, why are you worried about the conclusions stemming from his mind? All of this is implied by such views–views that are held due to a stubborn refusal to admit that they’re wrong.

    On a personal note, I have a friend who, like Cornell, quotes x amount of people in order to make his posts and responses appear more academic. That’s what I mean by conflating quality with quantity. Then there’s always the issue of avoiding scholarship that disagrees with them–even if the stronger conclusions lean in that (those) direction(s) (i.e. maximal historicity proponents who ignore minimal historicists like yourself, Ehrman, Crossan, Funk, Helms, Avalos, etc. and mythicists like Carrier, Price, Doherty, Thompson, etc. whilst espousing the Evangelical views of Witherington III, Metzger, Habermas, Licona, etc.).

    • Yeah, do note as well that this post had nothing to do with the existence of other minds, nor did Cornell respond to any of my historical analysis. Just a guy who couldn’t respond to what I said, so asked a bunch of questions about other things and threw a tantrum when I stopped responding.

      • Duly noted. I noticed that as well. That’s precisely what I meant by red herrings. It seems he has little to no knowledge of history and thus, in recognizing his deficiency, he sought to change the topic at hand. In any case, you are a continuing source of knowledge; I really enjoy reading your blogs.

    • I will respond to this when I get the time. In the mean time, encourage everyone here to read the previous posts and Nick’s recent addition, and to weigh the matters for him or herself.

  5. mansubzero says:

    in todays bible, the phrase, “after his ressurection” is found.
    why would matthew have the saints wait in the tomb tills jesus’ ressurection? shouldn’t a miracle have an immediate affect like the instant withering of an innocent fig tree? if the clouds colour changed and an earthquake took place and all this was for public note and exposure, then why delay the exit from the tomb ? wasn’t matthew trying to show what a bad thing the jews did? if the original matthew had saints EXIT the tomb at the same time jesus is hanging dead off a cross, then one wonders why john, who according to christians was an eyewitness, didn’t remember anything about jesus’ alledged claim about ressurection.

  6. mansubzero says:

    how do you reply to christians who use the “it was already known ” argument ?

    in the synoptics, we cannot find a pierced jesus. there is no sign of a pierced jesus even after post ressurected jesus comes close to his deciples. in matthew, the deciples meet with jesus 70 miles away from jerusalem. jesus comes close and talks but some doubted that it was jesus.
    in luke, jesus tries to prove that he is not a spirit. john uses jesus’ pierced side to prove to doubting thomas about jesus’ ressurection. in john, the deciples get to see immeditiately jesus’ pierced side when jesus appears to them after his ressurection.
    if matthew really knew of jesus’ pierced side wouldn’t he know that jesus carried his pierced side with him 70 miles away from jerusalem? wouldn’t he know that what the romans did to jesus’ side would be an argument for the alledged ressurection? if the people they were writing to knew about every small and important detail, what was the point of writing the account?

    • All of the later canonical Gospels (yes, including John) follow Mark’s Passion narrative when discussing the crucifixion, burial, and discovered empty tomb. The original ending of Mark, however, had no post-mortem appearances. Accordingly, all three of the later Gospels radically diverge in the post-ressurection appearances.

      As you noted, clumsily combining the post-ressurection appearances between the later three Gospels results in discrepancies of location, orders of appearance, physical details, etc. When the later authors couldn’t copy Mark anymore, they all kind of went their own way in making up new details, which is why we have such discrepancies.

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