The minimal facts approach has become a popular approach to Christian apologetics, and I can see why. It allows believers to run an end-around on one of atheists’ favorite topics: confusing and contradictory Bible passages. It basically says, “Hey, let’s set aside these 200 questions where scholars disagree and focus on these four where they do!”
At its core, the minimal facts approach is an argument from ignorance. The apologist presents a series of facts and asks the listener, “How can you explain these facts without the resurrection?” The apologist thus attempts to shift the burden of proof onto the listener, asking them to disprove a theory that the apologist has yet to prove!
It is possible, however, to play the apologist’s game and face their “facts” head-on. While the apologist asserts one unified explanation for all presented facts (namely, the resurrection), non-believers aren’t required to provide one unified alternative explanation.
Moreover, these alternatives don’t necessarily have to be the most plausible explanations on their own, just more plausible than a man rising from the dead. This is a relatively easy bar to clear! However, how one addresses the minimal facts depends on which specific ones are being presented.
1. Jesus was crucified.
This fact is uncontroversial (among non-mythicists), but also unspectacular. I feel fully comfortable agreeing for the sake of argument that Jesus, like all men, died. Finally, believers and non-believers find common ground!
2. Jesus was buried in a tomb.
This is where it starts getting controversial. Scholars such as Bart Ehrman have noted that Romans were not in the habit of granting traitors a proper burial, choosing instead to dump their bodies in a common grave. However, in How God Became Jesus, writing specifically to counter Ehrman, Craig Evans claims that we do have examples of Roman clemency to crucifixion victims, noting that “Peacetime administration in Palestine appears to have respected Jewish burial sensitivities” (p. 77).
So if Pilate could have allowed Jesus to be buried, the question becomes: did he? The story of Joseph of Arimathea does appear in all four gospels, but it is not without its own difficulties. For one thing, there is no town of Arimathea known to history. For another, different gospels give different reasons for the specific choice of the tomb. Matthew says Joseph buried Jesus in “his own new tomb” (27:60), but John says it was chosen simply because “the tomb was nearby” and it was time to prepare for Passover (19:42).
It is also sometimes claimed that a character like Joseph of Arimathea would be an unlikely invention. After all, didn’t the Sanhedrin just get through condemning Jesus to death? Why now introduce a sympathetic council member?
Two problems here. One, if Evans is right and the Romans did allow some crucifixion victims to be buried, it would be appropriate for a member of the council to ask Pilate for the body so the burial rites could be performed. And two, the gospels have a running theme of Jesus appealing to the most unlikely members of society. He’s already dined with tax collectors at this point, why not win over one of the Sanhedrin? Multiple gospels even quote a Roman centurion exclaiming beneath the cross, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39 et al)
3. The tomb was found empty.
Oh boy. I recently did a whole post on contradictions in the resurrection accounts, but it’s hard to be brief when faced with the sheer incongruity of the whole scenario. Given that this event is supposed to be the turning point in human history, the watershed moment of the entire Bible, you would think God would inspire the gospel writers to keep their stories straight.
Apologists expect us to look at stories of women finding an opened or unopened tomb both guarded and not guarded by one or two men or angels before or after fetching the disciples or telling no one, and take away “Well, we can all agree that the tomb was empty!”
Regarding the women who ostensibly discovered the empty tomb, apologists raise the same point as with Joseph of Arimathea. According to them, the “criteron of embarrassment” makes it unlikely that the gospel writers would invent a story where women, legal non-entities at the time, are the ones who make the discovery. But is this really embarrassing, or is it entirely consistent with a character like Jesus who eschews social norms and appeals to the lowest strata of society?
For the sake of argument, let’s say we ignore all objections and grant the apologist all three of these points. Is resurrection the only explanation? Here’s my pet theory — and remember, it just needs to be more believable than a holy zombie.
Jesus is crucified. Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for the body, but Pilate, still peeved from being dragged into the whole affair, refuses the request. Not wanting to admit failure, Joseph tells Jesus’ followers that he has secured the body and buried it in a tomb. The next morning, the stone is rolled away and followers find the tomb empty.
No appeal to the supernatural required! We know historically that Pilate was a dick to the Jews, and we certainly know that people lie to save face. I believe this hypothetical scenario accurately explains the facts presented in a wholly naturalistic manner.
But there are yet more “minimal facts” to address! My next post will go into the purported post-resurrection appearances of Jesus and the rapid growth of Christianity.