Thursday, December 02, 2021

On the minimal facts for the resurrection, Part 3: How did we get confused about what scholars grant?

My purpose in this post is two-fold. First, for those interested in "McGrew history," I want to explain a timeline of how it came about that, for a time, Tim and I were confused about how much scholars across the spectrum grant about the resurrection. That confusion made it into our 2009 article, which has in turn caused some people to think that we ourselves were doing something significantly like an MFA in that article. (This has sometimes led to a frustrating attempt to play "gotcha" by quoting certain comments about consensus from that article and then claiming that it is very strange, or ironic, or something like that, that we have since then emerged as critics of the MFA.) Even at the time, we were self-consciously not doing an MFA. We knew that our argument was not an MFA and that it was crucially relying on the polymodal details of the disciples' claims. But we were mistaken about how much scholars grant, and we referred to that incorrectly (though with some qualifications) in the article. How did that happen, and how did we get un-confused? Some people may find that history interesting.

Second, I want to warn about a very real possibility and ask people doing the MFA to be much more careful. People who state the MFA can cause confusion in others about how little the majority of NT scholars really do grant. 

I realize that that part of my post is going to upset some people, so I want to say a couple of things about that right here at the outset, while perhaps I still have readers' attention: When I discuss below some places where I think that Gary Habermas has been unclear on this point, I am not at all saying that he has been intentionally unclear. I think it has been unintentional. I would call it something like getting carried away or getting overenthusiastic in stating the argument, thus describing the disciples' experiences in ways that go beyond what skeptical and liberal scholars grant, and then returning to claim that the argument depends only on what the vast majority of scholars all across the ideological spectrum grant. 

Also, I am not saying that Habermas is always unclear. Sometimes he is very clear about how limited the appearance minimal fact really is. I fully acknowledge this. 

And finally, I am not saying that Habermas explicitly says that skeptical scholars grant more than they really grant. However, I am saying that in some of what he writes, which is influencing apologetics, he does give that impression (no doubt accidentally), especially if what he writes is read by someone who doesn't already know that skeptical scholars and "critical" scholars would never grant that much. In these writings he is supposedly informing the reader of how much is granted by many scholars and how surprising it is. So you shouldn't need to know already what is and isn't granted in order to avoid getting confused!

Although this may sound harsh, I would like to request that you would refrain from commenting on this post if your only purpose is saying something like, "Habermas is clear over in this other place!" or "Anybody should know that skeptical scholars wouldn't grant that, so you'd really have to have something wrong with you to be confused!" or even, "But I can find some other way to construe this article or this passage, so it isn't unclear, so you're wrong!" The fact that you can find some other way to construe a passage doesn't mean that it isn't unclear and doesn't mean that intelligent people of good will couldn't get confused by reading it. It doesn't prevent my warning from being well-taken.

Look: I'm saying that intelligent people of good will who don't already know what the consensus does and doesn't contain could pretty easily get confused about this from such passages as those I'll quote, and some have gotten confused. Therefore, MFA users need to be more careful. Is that really such a threatening statement that you have to try to read the passages with a magnifying glass, cherry pick certain sentences, insist that we focus only on this sentence or that sentence, in order to find some way to say I'm being sloppy, misrepresenting, or that we must have been nuts ever to have been confused, etc.? If you think about it, it's kind of a moderate point. I'm not saying that Dr. Habermas was or is or ever has been dishonest about this matter.

I'm also saying that the context itself is part of what is confusing. You have to look at the flow of the article or passage. You can't legitimately insist on restricting attention only to the briefest statement of the minimal fact, look at nothing else, and say, "See, there, he doesn't say anything more in that list of the minimal facts, so that's all that matters." No, that isn't all that matters, if he then goes on to rely importantly on something more in the exposition of the argument, while claiming that he's only relying on what virtually all scholars grant! 

I'm saying, here are some illustrative passages from Dr. Habermas that are quite understandably confusing to a reader, so please be more careful than this. It's not necessary and not helpful for MFA proponents to oppose such a point to the death. If you have no objection to being clear, just try to make it extremely clear that the majority of scholars don't really grant much of interest about what the disciples' experiences were actually like

What's the problem? If the problem is that the MFA won't look very strong if we state openly that most skeptical and liberal scholars don't grant much about the nature of the disciples' appearance experiences, that is not my problem. 

Another thing: It doesn't refute anything I'm saying in this post to point to places where either MFA proponents or skeptics say something like, "That the disciples really had resurrection experiences is widely granted, even though some try to explain these naturalistically." That's not the point. Just saying that (or similar things) isn't enough to clear up the confusion. I'm concerned about the potential (and in some cases actual) confusion people have about what the subjective nature of the experiences was like and how much is and isn't granted on that point. Of course skeptics will try to explain the experiences (whatever they were like) naturalistically. The question is, do virtually all scholars grant that the disciples had highly physical-like experiences like those recorded in the Gospels? Well, no, they don't! Everybody who actually knows the scholarly literature knows that. But unfortunately in statements of the MFA, that is not always well explained. When that is combined with eye-popping statements about the amazing scholarly agreement about the resurrection appearances, that can lead to confusion on that point--what do the "vast majority of scholars" concede about what these experiences were like? 

Onward to personal history.

How the confusion about scholarly consensus got into our 2009 article

In 2007-2008 when Tim and I were writing our article on the resurrection for the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, available here, Tim had read far more of Dr. Habermas's work than I had. Our article (as anyone who has read it knows) was already going to be quite long, due to the generosity of William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, the editors, in giving us page space. Obviously we weren't going to include in a single article an entire defense of the reliability of the Gospels!

We knew quite well that we wanted to base our argument in part upon the specifics of the disciples' testimony as given in the Gospels. After all, you can't base an argument on testimony unless you specify the content of the testimony! We knew that we wanted to use the polymodal nature of that testimony--that the disciples claimed that they could touch Jesus, hear him, and see him, that they had long conversations with him, that they ate with him in groups, and so forth. We considered that salient and important. And we therefore knew that we were structuring our argument differently from the MFA. For one thing, we talked about the "testimony of the women" rather than the "empty tomb." I can remember our discussing that specifically. While the testimony of the women of course included their claiming that they found the tomb empty, it included more--their claims of seeing Jesus, talking to an angel, and so forth. Moreover, we decided that instead of saying that the disciples had experiences, as the MFA does, we would instead conditionalize on their testifying to their experiences. Along that axis, we regarded ourselves as (in a sense) being less generous than the MFA in the facts we were conditionalizing on, since the MFA says that they actually had experiences. 

I can remember our discussing the question of what scholars do and don't grant and Tim's being quite definite that, especially given the modestness of our assumption that this was just what the disciples claimed, Habermas's research about the surprising degree of scholarly consensus would support it. He was basing this on his reading of a number of different works by Habermas, such as the older debate with Flew, The Verdict of History, The Historical Jesus, etc. (The latter two of these contain several pages that are identical on this topic.)

So we proceded to write the article, and we put a sentence in it, in particular, that contained something incorrect:

Indeed, much of our argument could be made without even the general claim of reliability, since as we shall point out many of the salient facts are agreed upon by scholars across the spectrum. But we have chosen to frame the argument this way since we think the general reliability claim is quite defensible and since this allows us to tackle the philosophically interesting questions regarding evidence for the miraculous on the same plane where Hume leveled his famous attack.

This is a qualified statement. We don't say that the assumption of reliability is totally unnecessary nor that we are basing our argument only on what is granted. (Why make the assumption if it's totally unnecessary?) But the statement does give the impression that we think that a lot of the things we're going to be using are granted by scholarly consensus. As I recall, I in particular was thinking that our argument was focused upon the resurrection narratives, so even if other narratives in the Gospels were not true, as long as we could take it as given that the resurrection narratives represent what the witnesses claimed, the argument would go through. Of course, lots of scholars certainly don't grant that the resurrection narratives do represent what the disciples claimed, so ... But we didn't know that.

Another quotation contains some isolated sentences that, taken out of their immediate context, could be regarded as causing confusion about what we, ourselves, were doing, but that one actually (in context) makes it quite clear that we weren't doing an MFA. Here are those sentences in context.

It is true that this conclusion is conducted under an initial constraint; it is predicated on the assumption that in matters other than the explicit claims of miracles, the gospels and the book of Acts are generally reliable – that they may be trusted as much as any ordinary document of secular history with respect to the secularly describable facts they affirm. And where they do recount miraculous events, such as Jesus' post-resurrection appearances, we assume that they are authentic – that is, that they tell us what the disciples claimed. This calculation tells us little about the evidence for the resurrection if those assumptions are false. We have provided reasons to accept them, but of course there is much more to be said on the issue. This limitation, however, is not as severe as might be thought. “General reliability” admits of degrees, and we have deliberately kept our salient facts minimally stated with the intention that they should not require reliance at every point on the smallest details of the biblical texts. The weight placed on our textual assumptions varies from one fact to another and even from one aspect of a given fact to another. The facts we have designated as W are perhaps the most vulnerable to a challenge based on textual skepticism. Some aspects of D – for example, that the disciples made specific claims regarding the physical details of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances – depend more heavily on the authenticity of the sources than others – for example, the witnesses’ willingness to die for their belief in the resurrection, which is supported by extrabiblical sources. 

"Minimally stated," "not require reliance at every point on the smallest details"!! See, the McGrews weren't relying on the details of the Gospels! They explicitly said so! Um, no, just read on a little bit further. We immediately illustrate the "at every point" qualifier by explicitly stating that the aspect of D concerning the disciples' "specific claims regarding the physical details of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances" does depend more heavily on the authenticity of the sources. So you'd really have to be quote-mining to get out of that paragraph the idea that we weren't relying on details. 

I hope that no one will do that, at least not after reading this post.

We also made repeated references to the polymodal nature of the disciples' testimonies and to the crucial role they are playing in setting the Bayes factor for D (the testimony of the disciples):

Second, to explain the facts the hallucination theory would have to be invoked for more than a dozen people simultaneously (Luke 24:36-43).26 The plausibility of a collective hallucination is, for obvious reasons, inversely related to the amount of detail it involves.27 Given the level of polymodal interactive detail reported in cases like the one in Luke 24, the probability of coincidence is vanishing. A third factor exacerbates this problem: the hallucinations would have to be not only parallel but also integrated. According to the gospels, the risen Jesus interacted with his disciples in numerous ways including eating food they gave him (Luke 24:41- 43) and cooking fish for them (John 21:1-14). In such contexts, the disciples were interacting not only with Jesus but with one another, physically and verbally. The suggestion that their parallel polymodal hallucinations were seamlessly integrated is simply a non-starter, an event so improbable in natural terms that it would itself very nearly demand a supernatural explanation. Finally, these detailed, parallel, integrated hallucinations must be invoked repeatedly across a period of more than a month during which the disciples were persuaded that they repeatedly interacted with their Lord and master here on earth.

When we consider the fact that at least thirteen men were willing to die for the claim that Jesus of Nazareth had risen again, it is important to consider what sort of account they gave of what had happened in order to know what it was that they were willing to die for. First, the accounts of Jesus’ appearances to the disciples are not vague nor “spiritualized” but rather circumstantial, empirical, and detailed. Not only do they purport to give a number of his statements, discussed below, but they state expressly that he deliberately displayed empirical evidence that he was not a spirit but rather a physical being. It was therefore a physical resurrection claim that the disciples made: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; touch me, and see; for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see that I have.” And when they still do not believe, he asks what food is available and eats a piece of fish and a honeycomb. Later he cooks fish for them and invites them to breakfast (Luke 24:39-43; cf. John 20:27; John 21:9-13). 

So it's very clear that we are relying on DT (stated again below). That much you can see in the article explicitly and emphatically.

At the same time, there were several references to consensus in the article, and the first quotation above gave an impression that some important part of our argument could go through based only on what was granted by consensus, without Gospel reliability. The article thus contained hints (for someone who happened to know that the consensus doesn't grant all that much) that we were somewhat confused about something concerning consensus. As indeed we were: How much did the consensus really grant about the claims made by the disciples and the women?

Time went by after the publication of that article, and I began in the following years, revving up especially in 2014, delving into New Testament studies. The more I looked into things, the more I realized that it just wasn't the case that a majority of scholars granted what I've more recently dubbed DT. DT, as stated in an earlier post, is this:

DT: The Gospel accounts and the account in Acts 1 of Jesus' resurrection appearances and of the finding of the empty tomb reliably represent what the disciples/alleged witnesses (both male and female) claimed about their experiences at that time. This includes such matters as that Jesus ate with them more than once, that they were able to touch him, that he appeared to them multiple times and to varied groups, that he had lengthy conversations with them, and so forth.

Interestingly, the publication of Michael Licona's resurrection book in 2011-2012, fleshing out the MFA, was part of what really raised questions for us about what is granted by scholars. I want to say right here that this is one place where Licona himself is virtually always, perhaps always, clear and consistent--he makes it clear what scholars across the spectrum don't grant. There is a somewhat interesting tradeoff here between Licona and Habermas, the two major architects of the MFA. Habermas, at least in his earlier work, repeatedly states that he's quite willing to defend Gospel reliability, and I believe that he means "reliability" there in its older, unqualified sense, not in any redefined sense. It is even possible that it is his willingness to defend old-fashioned Gospel reliability that leads Habermas to be, sometimes, incautious and unclear (as I'll argue in the second part of this post) about what is and isn't granted by a majority of scholars. Licona, on the other hand, is more inclined than Habermas is (or at least than Habermas was in his earlier writings) to try not to go too far beyond the consensus of scholarship about what historians can know objectively from the Gospels. Anyone who reads my work knows of my many criticisms of Licona's work on Gospel literary devices. At the same time, this greater closeness to scholarly consensus in his own work and greater caution about defying it may be what causes Licona to be clearer than Habermas about what is not granted by scholars.

In 2014 Tim contributed a debate review to this volume on the debate between William Lane Craig and Alex Rosenberg. By that time, he and I were uneasy enough about what was and wasn't in scholarly consensus that Tim thought he needed to issue a caution. Being the tactful fellow that he is, he merely noted that the scholarly consensus, depending on its extent, might not be robust enough to bear the weight being placed on it.

Are a majority of historical scholars agreed that groups of people who were intimately familiar with Jesus’ appearance simultaneously experienced what they believed to be extensive, coordinated, polymodal interactions with him? This claim goes beyond the strict letter of the early creed embedded in 1 Corinthians 15, though it is certainly consonant with it. I am uncertain how far the consensus extends in this direction, and it obviously matters for the evaluation of the hallucination hypothesis. There are ample resources for addressing that hypothesis in the Gospel accounts. But that brings us back to the question of the broader historical trustworthiness of the resurrection narratives in the Gospels. So without knowing more about the details of the scholarly agreement, it is difficult to pass judgment on the explanatory step in Craig’s argument.

In a footnote, Tim specifically tagged our 2009 article as going farther than minimal facts:

For a somewhat different approach to the question, not based solely on 'minimal facts,' see Timothy and Lydia McGrew, 'The Argument from Miracles,' in Craig and Moreland, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2009), 593-662."

By February, 2015, I was quite convinced that the MFA premise about "the appearances" did not imply that DT was granted by skeptical scholars, and I was particularly bothered about the inclusion of people in the "consensus of scholarship" who quite explicitly deny DT and hold that all that physical stuff is later embellishment. I felt that there was a lot of confusion going on. So I published this post stating outright what the "appearances" claim didn't include and arguing that this significantly weakens the argument. 

In April, 2018, I put out this longer critique of the MFA. In 2018, someone (I forget who it was) pointed out the sentence quoted above from the 2009 article that "much of" our argument could go through without the reliability assumption. Therefore, in May of that year, I put out this explicit retraction of an incorrect implication about the extent of consensus. 

Let me add though that anyone familiar with my criticisms of the MFA from 2015 to the present should automatically know that Tim and I have figured out that consensus doesn't extend to DT! That's at the heart of my critique.

I hope that all of this history is of some interest to someone. 

Now I want to ask and (in the next section) answer a question: Someone might say, how could you, or Tim, or any intelligent person of good will, possibly get confused about what Habermas was saying he'd found to be included in scholarly consensus? After all, we find Habermas making clear statements like this:

The nearly unanimous consent of critical scholars is that, in some sense, the early followers of Jesus thought that they had seen the risen Jesus. "Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What Are Critical Scholars Saying?" Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 3.2, p. 151.

Note the careful wording "in some sense." Or this:

The vast majority of scholars agree that these persons certainly thought that they had visual experiences of the risen Jesus. "Resurrection Research From 1975 to the Present," p. 152.

Note the emphasis upon visual experiences. Or this, from the later Habermas-Flew debate:

I recently finished a study of about 1,400 sources on the Resurrection, all written in German, French, and Enlish from 1975 to the present, to see where critical scholars are today. By far more scholars think that something really happened--that the disciples had real experiences. They believed they saw the risen Jesus. While a majority of scholars in recent decades admit that Jesus appeared in some sense, they often avoid talk about bodily resurrection. They sometimes talk as if--these are my words--there was some kind of shimmering holographic image of Jesus--some manifestation of light. So that’s probably the typical approach today from critical scholars that are somewhere in between Tony and me. 

Obviously, a mere shimmering holographic image or a manifestation of light is not like the polymodal appearance experiences recorded in the Gospels, especially since none of the Gospels say anything about Jesus glowing or shimmering. Replacing an experience of a tangible Jesus with a "manifestation of light" is a pretty big downgrading of the appearance premise. Habermas doesn't apparently realize the epistemic implications, but he states openly here something that pretty clearly implies that the majority of scholars don't grant DT.

So what was the matter? How could any person of good will be confused? Well, quite simply, because Dr. Habermas sometimes is unclear. I will document below that we are not the only ones to be confused.

Unclear statements that lead to confusion about scholarly consensus 

I want to clarify again my purpose here: My purpose is to answer, "How could any intelligent person of good will be confused by the statement of the MFA about the extent of scholarly consensus?" and also to ask advocates of the MFA to be more clear in all their presentations that the scholarly consensus does not extend to saying that the disciples even claimed experiences like those found in the Gospels.

What I'm going to do is to quote and discuss statements from three different works by Dr. Habermas, going backwards chronologically, that I think could understandably cause confusion on this point in those who read them. This is not intended to be disrespectful to him but to raise this warning and concern about the possibility of unclarity.

I could discuss more works in more detail but am going to take the space only for longer quotations from three to show that this is something that Habermas does on more than one occasion. Here I mention only briefly his earlier debate with Antony Flew, but there are ways that one could get honestly confused from that. There is also his use of the physical details of the Gospel reports in the Philosophia Christi response to the work of Dale Allison (2008). He argues in the main text that the Gospel accounts of the resurrection appearances are disanalogous to the apparitional literature: "Jesus appeared many times, to individuals as well as to groups of up to five hundred persons at once, was touched, ate food, and had normal, sometimes rather lengthy, conversations with his followers." At that point he has the a footnote:

Some of these details, especially those in the last half of this sentence, are questioned in the critical literature. But again, as I have said, we are only comparing the various sorts of reported phenomena here, not debating the data on their behalf. After discussion, if certain scholars think that particular items here should be bracketed, that could of course affect their reaction to the conclusions here. But I still maintain that there would be enough remaining that most scholars would still allow various levels of differences between the appearances and the apparitional literature.

Habermas is right in the main text to call out Allison on allowing so many paranormal accounts to pass muster as what the original alleged witnesses claimed while being so skeptical on this point concerning the Gospels. At the same time, Habermas does an odd back-and-forth here himself: First he uses the details of the Gospel accounts to point out disanalogies to apparitional reports. He then admits in the footnote that the most important of these details are "questioned in the critical literature" but then vaguely says that "there would be enough remaining" to create "various levels of differences" between the appearances and the claims of apparitions. But what does this mean? What "level of difference" from the apparitional literature would remain if we stuck, for example, to what is granted by the large majority of scholars? Habermas doesn't claim in this article to be doing an MFA, but if something more than an MFA is necessary to respond to Allison's bodily resurrection skepticism (or agnosticism), that is a fairly significant apologetic limitation, especially if Allison's paranormal sympathies become more popular. Naturally, in Allison's response, he says that Habermas can't justifiably assume that the Gospel accounts are unembellished accounts of witness claims. This is (I agree with Habermas) a double standard on Allison's part, but it was inevitable that he would make that move, given his own place on the NT scholarly spectrum, and the scholarly consensus certainly isn't going to stop him. Habermas's instinct to move beyond the MFA in his response to Allison, then admit that what he's using is questioned by some scholars, but then say that he thinks enough is agreed upon to do the job, raises the question rather urgently: Just how much is granted by the majority of scholars?

There are even clearer instances, though, of confusing language, spanning several decades. Here is a particularly strong statement from a 2018 popular post on The Stream about the very topic of surprising scholarly agreeement on the resurrection.

About 40 years ago, I began writing about what I have called the Minimal Facts Argument. I wouldn’t want you to think it’s a “minimally-sized” argument in any way, or that only a few facts from the day are available. Rather it’s an argument for the resurrection of Jesus based on that small, “minimal” core of facts that all academically credible researchers agree on. Using between three and seven historical events that are recognized by these scholars, it builds on what we may learn from these data.

Not too long ago I listed six of these events in a dialogue with an agnostic New Testament scholar. I used the historical facts that 1) Jesus died by crucifixion, 2) his early followers had experiences a short time later that they thought were appearances of Jesus, 3) and as a result, they were transformed to the point of being willing to die for this message. Further, two former unbelievers 4) James the brother of Jesus and 5) Saul of Tarsus (later the apostle Paul) both similarly thought that they had seen the risen Jesus, as well; and 6) This Gospel message of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ began to be taught very soon after these events. [snip]

How Do We Move from the Minimal Historical Facts to Jesus’ Resurrection Appearances?

Using only the six facts about Jesus and his disciples listed above, backed up by the evidences that confirm them, we have a scenario that points very strongly to Jesus’ appearing to his disciples after he died by crucifixion. Actually, we can boil the case down to those two ingredients. Did Jesus actually die on the cross? Then was he seen afterwards, having conversations with friends just like any of us might do? If Jesus was walking around and talking, seen by groups of witnesses (such as reported in the most scholarly-tested text, 1 Corinthians 15:3-7), then His appearances are solid!

Some might question whether historians can use the New Testament texts at all. Do critical scholars allow that? Actually, they cite these passages as often as conservative Christians do. The difference is that critical scholars generally only make use of those accredited citations that satisfy their reasons, such as those that we just mentioned.

The result of it all is that we have six solid, agreed facts, backed up with good historical reasoning. Rather incredibly, these six facts are enough to argue strongly against all of the major non-supernatural alternative hypotheses to Jesus’ resurrection. This is the primary reason why only a minority of critical scholars today still even attempt to argue these natural suppositions. Incidentally, they were popular primarily in the Nineteenth Century.

But these six facts are also the strongest affirmative reasons for believing that Jesus appeared to His followers both individually and in groups after His death. That so many eyewitnesses reported these experiences is admitted by virtually all critical scholars. You would have to look hard to find very many dissenters.

I want to talk especially about the latter part of this quotation. After introducing these facts as those that this vast consensus agrees on, Habermas characterizes two of those facts like this:

Did Jesus actually die on the cross? Then was he seen afterwards, having conversations with friends just like any of us might do?

Now, this is just getting carried away. It is definitely not agreed on by any sort of vast scholarly consensus that the disciples even claimed that Jesus had conversations with them just like any of us might do! Yet I think if one is honest, one should admit that this looks like its intended as a restatement of the "appearance" minimal fact! Habermas continues:

If Jesus was walking around and talking, seen by groups of witnesses (such as reported in the most scholarly-tested text, 1 Corinthians 15:3-7)...

Two points: Perhaps this was just unclear writing, but I must note that I Corinthians 15 says nothing about either walking or talking. But let that go. Maybe Habermas meant "such as reported..." to refer solely to "seen by groups of witnesses." Okay. But what is a reference to "walking around and talking" doing at all in a statement of the minimal facts argument? To be blunt, it simply doesn't belong in the article, period. Neither does the reference to having conversations with friends. These are not granted by the majority of scholars. The majority of scholars don't even grant that the disciples claimed that this was what their experiences were like. 

I'm sorry to have to say this, but this article is radically unclear about what is and isn't granted by a consensus. Making matters worse, since it makes such a big deal about how surprising this consensus is, and since it's intended to inform people about this surprising consensus, someone who wasn't an expert might easily shrug off his own surprise about how much scholars grant!

Now move backward in time to a more scholarly piece from 2001. This article is about renewed interest among scholars in hallucination theories as alternatives to the resurrection. Early on, Habermas says,

 Lastly, I will present a multifaceted critique of these positions, using only data that can be ascertained by critical means, which the vast majority of scholars will accept.

But here is one of his criticisms of the hallucination theories:

What about the natural human tendency to touch? Would not one of them ever discover, even in a single instance, that his or her best friend, seemingly standing perhaps just a few feet away, was not really there?

Now, it simply is not granted by the vast majority of scholars that Jesus appeared to the disciples to be standing close enough to them to be touched. It isn't even granted by the vast majority of scholars that the disciples claimed this. It isn't even granted by the vast majority of scholars that Jesus appeared to be standing on the ground when he appeared to them. And if someone says that Habermas meant "which the vast majority of scholars will accept" to modify only "critical means," what are the "critical means," which the "vast majority of scholars will accept" by which it is ascertained that Jesus appeared to the disciples to be close enough to touch? In any event, it shouldn't be necessary to get that nitpicky with the sentence to avoid confusion. Here is another criticism of hallucination theories:

The wide variety of times and places that Jesus appeared, along with the differing mindsets of the witnesses, is another formidable obstacle. The accounts of men and women, hard-headed and soft-hearted alike, all believing that they saw Jesus, both indoors and outdoors, provide an insurmountable barrier for hallucinations.

The vast majority of scholars do not grant that Jesus appeared both indoors and outdoors. Nor, if we confine ourselves to "critical means," are we going to be able to get this out of the texts by widely allowed "critical means." It isn't even clear that the vast majority of scholars grant a wide variety of times and places. Nor do the vast majority grant that he appeared to both men and women. (Remember that there's a big difference between even granting the empty tomb, discovered by women, and granting that he appeared to a group of women.)

I submit, again, that someone of good will and intelligence, reading this article, could easily get confused about what the vast majority of scholars grant.

Last, I'd like to go over some quotations from Habermas's book The Historical Jesus, 1996. Because these cover several pages, I can't quote the pages in their entirety. This means that if someone is determined to say that I must have left something out that prevents these pages from being at all unclear, he can say that. I encourage anyone to read the book for himself. Please, again, remember that all I'm saying is that an intelligent person of good will could be confused by these pages if he didn't already know in some independent way what the consensus of scholars does and doesn't include. It shouldn't be necessary to take a magnifying glass to the pages and find some one-word qualier here or there in order to avoid getting confused. (Note that above, I have owned that someone could be confused by our 2009 statement about scholarly consensus even despite our use of the phrase "much of our argument.")

Habermas, of course, lists his facts in brief form, giving both a list of twelve "known facts" and a shorter list of four "minimal facts." The appearance claim is included in both and is worded in the usual minimal way that is compatible with either "thick" or "thin" apostolic experiences. He emphasizes, as usual, that these facts are granted by virtually all scholars.

There are a minimum number of facts agreed upon by practically all critical scholars, whatever their school of thought. (p. 158)

Earlier, twelve facts were enumerated as knowable history, accepted as such by almost all scholars. It is this writer's conviction that even by using only four of these accepted facts, a sufficient case can be made for the historicity of the resurrection, which will strengthen the earlier apologetic. p. 161

In passing, the phrase "strengthen the earlier apologetic" is just incorrect, taken epistemologically, and is an example of what I called in the last post conflating epistemology and sociology. While it may look more impressive in some rhetorical or sociological sense to use a very small number of premises, it does not actually strengthen the case for the conclusion.

In any event, Habermas has here staked out, as usual, the claim that he's going to do this with only things granted by virtually all scholars.

The appearance fact, as usual, is stated in minimal-sounding terms:

The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus. (p. 158)

However, Habermas confusingly states multiple times that the appearance fact is especially important because it concerns the nature of the appearances:

Of these four core facts, the nature of the disciples' experiences is the most crucial. As historian Michael Grant asserts, historical investigation actually proves that the earliest eyewitnesses were convinced that they had seen the risen Jesus. p. 163

One major advantage of these core facts is that, not only are they critically accepted as knowable history, but they directly concern the nature of the disciples' eperiences. As such, these four historical facts are both disprove the naturalistic theories and to provide major positive evidences which relate the probability of Jesus' literal resurrection. p. 164

The statement that the minimal facts "directly concern the nature of the disciples' experiences" simply isn't true in any interesting sense. If one sticks only to the minimal fact as stated, the only thing it tells us about the nature of the appearances is that they convinced the apostles (somehow) that Jesus was literally risen. (By the way, elsewhere at around this same time, Habermas seems to use "literally" to mean "objectively" rather than, necessarily, "physically"--in other words, in such a way that it would be compatible with an objective vision as well as with bodily resurrection. My understanding is that he takes it as a majority-granted but not supermajority-granted fact that the disciples believed Jesus to have been physically risen. It isn't clear whether here by "literally" he means "physically" or just "objectively.")

The emphatic statement that the minimal fact of the appearance experiences "directly" concerns the nature of the disciples' experiences is highly confusing. If the reader doesn't already know in some other way that Habermas is attempting to state the appearance fact in a vague way in order to garner the largest critical acceptance for it (and why should the reader think that, going into this topic?), he could certainly get the idea that this minimal fact, granted by nearly all scholars, includes the idea that the disciples had experiences of some rather specific nature which strongly supports the resurrection. It would be unfair to ask the reader, who thinks he is learning about scholarly consensus on the matter, to take it that what is granted by scholars is only what is given in what is the briefly-stated list. It definitely appears that the further statements that this core fact "directly concerns the nature of the appearances" is a further spelling-out of what is granted by the scholars.

This interpretation seems all the more warranted given that Habermas strongly insists that the minimal facts alone can rule out all naturalistic theories and that this is why these were abandoned in the 19th century:

These known historical facts...answer the various theories which have been proposed in order to account for Jesus' resurrection on naturalistic grounds. These hypotheses, chiefly popularized by liberal scholars in the nineteenth century, are rarely held today by critics, especially since they failed to account for the historical facts surrounding this event (such as those just mentioned above). p. 159

He illustrates this supposed ruling out concerning the hallucination theory in the following way:

First, using only these four historical facts, the naturalistic theories can be disproven....The disciples' experiences disprove the hallucination and other subjective theories both because such phenomena are not collective or contagious, being observed by one person alone, and because of the wide variety of time and place factors involved, p. 164

Do virtually all scholars grant a wide variety of times and places? Do virtually all scholars even grant group appearances? In a recent video Michael Licona has related from personal communication with Habermas that Habermas has said that about 75% of scholars grant group appearances. Some group appearance or other. Since we don't have Habermas's underlying survey and literature interpretation data, and since his estimate relies upon his own interpretation of various articles, even this is open to legitimate question. My own suspicion, based on reading Habermas's other work (such as the original debate with Flew), is that the "creed" in I Corinthians 15 is doing much of the work. Could it be that, if a scholar grants that the "creed" there is pre-Pauline and early, Habermas automatically counts that scholar as "granting group appearances" which "rule out" hallucination? That inference contains a couple of jumps in and of itself. 

In any event, it's not even clear that the "creed" in I Corinthians 15 contains a wide variety of times and places, especially not for group appearances. It mentions only two, even if the skeptic grants the (natural but not absolutely necessary) interpretation of the appearance "to the twelve" to mean "to the twelve all at once," which scholars may not grant. I really don't think we should take it that the vast majority of scholars grant a "wide variety of times and places" at which appearances took place. (The reference to places makes one think of "indoors and outdoors" quoted above, which is far too specific to be widely granted.)

Moreover, the reference to scholars abandoning naturalistic theories in droves after the 19th century does leave one scratching one's head. What did virtually all of the unbelieving scholars in 1996 believe, then? Did most of them believe in ghosts? Did they nearly all adopt an "objective vision" theory? But that requires at least the belief in God. Did they all adopt some paranormal theory? Or is Habermas implying that most of them were so impressed by the minimal facts (which they granted) that they threw their hands up and admitted that they were unable to account for the data and didn't know what happened? This overstatement about the abandonment of naturalistic theories, together with the emphasis upon "the nature" of the disciples' experiences, could certainly lead to unclarity concerning what virtually all scholars grant.

I note, too, that in 2001 Habermas stated that hallucination theories were making a comeback, even by his estimation, but by 2018 he was once more stating that only a minority of critical scholars believe naturalistic theories. Remember this, from the article in The Stream? "Only a minority of critical scholars today still even attempt to argue these natural suppositions. Incidentally, they were popular primarily in the Nineteenth Century." 

In the course of the discussion earlier in the same chapter in The Historical Jesus, Habermas brings in the sermons in Acts and cites C. H. Dodd in support of the claim that,

Next to I Corinthians 15:3ff., the most crucial texts for historical purposes are several early passages in the book of Acts (especially Peter's speeches)....Many scholars have argued that in these early texts we have a clear summary of the earliest apostolic kerygma. pp. 148-149

He also cites, on a different page (p. 141), a long list of facts that one could deduce from the sermons in Acts, including that the disciples ate with Jesus (Acts 10:40-41). He lists this same proposition about eating with them on p. 168, again giving this same reference.

Could it be that Habermas is treating the historicity of the sermons in Acts, taken to be historical declarations of the original witnesses, as included in the evidence he can use to rule out hallucination? I'm strongly in favor of using these passages, but I take a maximalist approach. It should not be included in the evidence relied on in a MFA, when one is emphatically declaring that one is relying only on what is granted by the majority of scholars. Whether Habermas is doing this is left unclear in these pages, though if he is doing so, that would help to explain some of his overstatements. 

In any event, Dodd (whom I have now looked up on the subject, though one shouldn't have to) is moderately positive about the idea that the sermons go back to "the kerygma of the apostolic church," though even that doesn't make for acknowledgement of DT. Dodd is quite definite that the sermons don't represent what Peter himself said on some particular historical occasion. The degree of historicity of the speeches in Acts is extremely controversial among critical scholars. I myself think it is very solid and have argued as much, but I'm considered very conservative, and I'm self-consciously bucking critical consensus. Colin Hemer has an entire appendix on the subject in his wonderful book on Acts, but he certainly makes it clear that by no stretch of the imagination is any strong historical thesis about those speeches granted by a large consensus of scholars across the ideological spectrum! I doubt that you could get even a bare majority to agree that they are substantially historical as some kind of vaguely "apostolic" teaching, and you almost certainly couldn't if you added that they are substantially historical as uttered by Peter on specific occasions.

Perhaps Habermas would try to say that it is only certain portions of these sermons in Acts that he is treating as the testimony of the apostles. But the nearest one gets to a list of such shorter portions is footnote 31 on p. 149, after the sentence, "The death and resurrection of Jesus are at the center of each sermon." The verses selected are those that assert the death and resurrection of Jesus. But Habermas provides no evidence of large majority or even majority scholarly consensus that the content in these verses (including the statement that Jesus ate and drank with them) was actually attested to by the disciples. The closest he comes is to say this: "Critical research has shown that these texts reflect early, largely undeveloped theology, perhaps from theJerusalem community" (p. 149) and to cite both Dodd and John Drane as stating that the language in these speeches appears to be rougher and earlier than the language of the book of Acts. Again, that's all very interesting, but to claim that these verses are earlier proclamation, much less that disciples literally claimed to have eaten with Jesus in a group (!), is stronger, more contentful, and more controversial than the minimal fact of the appearance claim, and such a stronger statement does not enjoy large scholarly consensus, however it is supported. Merely to say that it has been supported by "critical means" just isn't enough to make it legitimately accessible in an argument allegedly based only one the minimal facts.

In the earlier debate with Flew, Habermas also states that Dodd holds that

the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection appearances (and the earlier reports included in them, in particular) should be utilized as records of what the eyewitnesses actually saw. (Did Jesus Rise from the Dead, p. 24)

The parenthesis here is especially puzzling. Surely it should be "or the earlier reports included in them," should it not? It is quite odd to make a distinction between the Gospel accounts of the resurrection appearances and some hypothetical "earlier reports included in them" and  then to state that a critical scholar grants that both of these should be utilized as records of what the eyewitnesses saw. The whole point of making such distinction is to claim that the eye of critical scholarship can discern an underlying, earlier layer within the accounts, which is to be taken as more likely authentic. (In fact that kind of procedure is typical of Dodd's whole approach to NT studies.) If one is going to say that the Gospel accounts and such a hypothetical pre-Gospel layer should be taken as accounts of what the eyewitnesses saw (or even claimed that they saw), why make the distinction? This parenthetical only makes the reference to Dodd more confusing, but a person of good will could certainly come away with the impression that Dodd, at least, acknowledges DT. I've looked up that Dodd paper as well (which, again, one shouldn't have to do to get clear on this), and this is an overly optimistic statement. Dodd is intrigued by the story of Mary Magdalene in John and its freshness, thinking that maybe it goes back to some very early human statement, yet he insists that John is a fabricator of scenes, and he says that the scene with Doubting Thomas is made up. (This use of Dodd also raises the point, yet again, that Habermas's claims about scholarly consensus are based upon Habermas's interpretations of a large number of scholarly papers, which no doubt could be challenged in individual cases, perhaps in many cases. The fact that I've found Habermas to be overly optimistic in his interpretation of Dodd here is reason for caution in this area.)

In any event, Dodd is generally regarded as a scholarly moderate. A few cautious moves in a conservative direction by C. H. Dodd do not make for a heterogenous consensus of virtually all scholars!

The inclusion of such supporting evidence from a critical scholar here or there, without clarity as to exactly what role it is playing in the supposedly minimal facts argument, Habermas's repeated insistence that he is relying only on what is granted by the vast majority of scholars, references to the minimal facts as directly concerning the "nature" of the disciples' experiences, and extremely strong statements about ruling out all naturalistic theories, create a situation ripe for confusion about what the majority grants. Habermas summarizes with this very strong statement about what his argument has accomplished and how:

Since these core historical facts (and the earlier accepted facts in general) have been established by critical and historical procedures, contemporary scholars cannot reject the evidence simply by referring to "discrepancies" in the New Testament texts or to its general "unreliability." Not only are such critical claims refuted by evidence discussed in other chapters, but it has been concluded that the resurrection can be historically demonstrated even when the minimum of historical facts are utilized. Neither can it be concluded merely that “something” occurred which is indescribable due to naturalistic premises or to the character of history or because of the “cloudiness” or legendary character of the New Testament texts. Neither can it be said that Jesus rose spiritually but not literally. These and other such views are refuted in that the facts admitted by virtually all scholars as knowable history are adequate to historically demonstrate the literal resurrection of Jesus according to probability. pp. 165-166 The Historical Jesus (emphasis in original)

Again, this is only conjecture, but one can't help wondering if Habermas thinks that supporting arguments that he believes have been established by "critical and historical procedures" can be included in the evidence used to rule out alternative theories, even if those supporting propositions are not granted by a majority of scholars. (Hence, for example, might he think that he can assume that the reference to the disciples eating and drinking with Jesus in Acts 10 has been "established by critical procedures" and that he can therefore take it to be an authentic proclamation by the original witnesses, and that he is therefore allowed to rely on it in ruling out hallucination?) That simply will not do if one is going to say that one is using "the minimum of historical facts" and that "the facts admitted by virtually all scholars as knowable history" are sufficient for one's argument. That's not "the facts admitted by virtually all scholars, plus a lot of other material that isn't admitted by virtually all scholars, but that supports the facts admitted by virtually all scholars, and that I think has been established by critical historical procedures, so even non-conservative scholars should agree with this additional material, even if they don't..." Obviously, more specific propositions (such as that the sermons in Acts came from the apostles themselves, that the disciples claimed that they ate and drank with Jesus, or that Jesus appeared to people both indoors and outdoors) support the proposition that the disciples had appearance experiences. (Some of these propositions even entail that they had appearance experiences. Stronger statements often entail weaker statements, but not vice versa.) But even if such a stronger proposition is allegedly mined out of the New Testament by "critical means" and endorsed by some critical scholar or scholars, and even if it supports a "minimal fact," that absolutely does not mean that it is fair game for use in an argument that purports to use only what is granted by a broad, heterogenous, critical consensus of scholars. I hesitate to attribute a mistake on this point to Habermas, but it does occur to me that such a mistake might be the origin of the ambiguity and unclarity that are the topic of this post.

Now, I've had a number of people say to me, "I've never been confused about what the scholars grant." But just to show that this is not merely a theoretical possibility, nor is it merely a theoretical-possibility-plus-the-weird-McGrews-who-must-have-been-crazy-at-the-time-or-something, here are two examples of popular posts by people who pretty clearly are confused in this way. It doesn't matter who they are. That's not the point. They seem to be thoughtful people, they appear to be people of good will, doing apologetics to the best of their ability, and trying to use the MFA to argue for the resurrection.  I've heard verbal presentations of the MFA that show the same confusion.

First, this one. This is a post called "Minimal facts 5-8 explained." So it's purporting to, you know, explain the minimal facts. And here's the insistence on scholarly consensus. Notice that the author explicitly says that the scholars don't actually believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

Minimal facts are those facts about the resurrection account that the majority of scholars, even skeptical ones, believe to be true. While these same scholars may not believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead, they do concede these points in the account are accurate.

The link, btw, is to Licona and Habermas's book on the MFA. Here's the first statement of the appearance fact:

The disciples had experiences which they believed were actual appearances of the risen Jesus.

Aaaand, here's the alleged explanation of that "minimal fact," in its entirety:

The disciples report seeing, eating with, walking with and touching the risen Jesus. They did not mean this to be interpreted as a spiritual resurrection. They saw a bodily risen Jesus. We see this when Thomas physically touches Jesus (John 20:24-29). Jesus also eats fish with his Disciples ( John 21:9-14).

Need I say more? 

Here's another example, claiming to present the minimal facts approach to arguing for the resurrection:

The minimal facts approach to the resurrection was originated by biblical scholar Gary Habermas....It is based on his research of 1,400 in-depth scholarly writings regarding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Habermas relies only on those facts supported by multiple sources and accepted by the vast majority of scholars.

Please notice that word "only." Here's his statement of the appearance fact, apparently copied verbatim from Habermas:

The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus. 

He emphasizes the consensus:

The fact that such a large percentage of scholars accepts these twelve points is quite compelling. 

Aaand, here's his refutation of the hallucination theory, in its entirety:

This theory claims the witnesses did not see a resurrected Jesus, they saw a hallucination. The problem with this theory is that Jesus appeared to more than 500 people, in different locations and circumstances (eating, walking, talking) for forty days. Hallucinations do not repeatedly happen to different groups of people for extended periods. The resurrected Jesus even told Thomas to touch him.

Then He (Jesus) said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27, emphasis added).

Not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead (Acts 10:41, emphasis added).

And He (Jesus) said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have" (Luke 24:28-39, emphasis added). 

I wonder how in the world he could have gotten confused into thinking that this refutation of the hallucination theory is fair game to use in the minimal facts argument? 

The fact that these aren't scholarly presentations only underscores the problem. Who, if not non-specialists, needs clarity most? It is precisely those who are not NT scholars themselves who are going to look to apologists and scholars to tell them what the argument is, what the majority of scholars grant, and so forth. Obviously, the MFA is not meant to be presented only from NT scholars to NT scholars! 

Imagine what could happen if a non-Christian non-specialist converts to Christianity on the basis of the MFA, being especially impressed by (what he thinks is) the vast consensus of scholarship on the nature of the disciples' appearance experiences, and then finds out later that he misunderstood and that much less was granted by critical scholars. How is that going to play out?

Once again, I'm not saying Habermas is in any way trying to mislead anyone. But I think it's undeniable that for some reason he sometimes gets carried away when he states his case and makes important use of propositions that he's not entitled to lean on in this type of argument, and that this does cause confusion. 

I'm going to say something rather strong, in conclusion: If you read this post, and you go away, and you present the MFA, and you do not make a self-conscious attempt to make it clear just how little is granted by the scholarly consensus about the subjective content of the disciples' experience claim, then you will be to blame. Because whoever you are, even if you're not anybody famous, you are reading this post. 

And if you're worried that, if you clarify that the vast, heterogenous, scholarly consensus contains very little about the nature of the disciples' experience claims, that will cause the argument not to sound impressive, then I have a suggestion: I suggest you go back to that "outdated" Paley-style approach and consider using it. 

If you do, I'll be here, more than happy to help!


Vincent said...

Hi Lydia. Thank you very much for your post. As a professional courtesy, I just thought I should let you know that I was interviewed a couple of days ago by Edouard Tahmizian, who is a member of the Board of Directors of Internet Infidels. During the interview, I mentioned you and Tim, in connection with apologetic arguments for Jesus' Resurrection. Anyway, here's the link (the interview is about 1 hour long):


Clark Coleman said...

It seems that a lot of the problem follows a pattern. Scholars grant A, B, and C; to a Christian such as Habermas, it seems obvious that D follows from A, B, and C, so he might as well move from A, B, and C to conclusion D in the same conversation.

Except that D is not granted by almost all scholars. Many critical scholars have different assumptions than Habermas, which would prevent D from being the logical conclusion, e.g. maybe gospel authors embellished stories, maybe beliefs about the resurrection evolved quickly in the first century church, etc. None of these assumptions are plausible to Habermas; ironically, their implausibility is due to his prior studies in, and belief in, the reliability of the gospels and Acts (which he still believes, but which he omits from MFA discussions).

Lydia McGrew said...

It's kind of worse than that.

Scholars grant A, B, and C'. C' is not very exciting, and D doesn't follow from A, B, and C'.

Habermas talks like scholar grant A, B, and C. C is much more exciting than C', and if A, B, and C were true, D would follow pretty much directly.

Habermas does not sufficiently distinguish the epistemic impact of C and C', mixes them up all the time in presentations, and uses C' when necessary to fend off alternative explanations, even though C' isn't *remotely* granted by a majority of scholars.

It's a mess, for sure.