Answering: “No historical facts about Jesus”

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Answering: “No historical facts about Jesus”

By Chris Du-Pond

After a recent debate with my friend, apologist Santiago Alarcón, Argentinian Historian Walter Burriguini issued the following statement:

“Christian apologists misinform their followers when they teach that there are historical evidences about the resurrection of Jesus, due to the fact that there are no serious historians (not even a Christian one) that believe this…otherwise they would be using such evidence. And that is not happening”

Furthermore, during a subsequent social media conversation (with me), he affirmed that the Four Gospels are, historically, at the same level as the novels of Harry Potter. 

Finally, he assured:

“There are no direct eyewitness accounts of a flesh and blood person named Jesus Nazareth who lived in the first century. So we do not even know if there are “facts about Jesus” to study and that’s why no historian takes the issue seriously”.

When we cited Dr. Gary Habermas, he said:

“Gary Habermas is a theologian and an apologist…The minimal facts were plagiarized from the ‘microhistory’ from Carlo Ginzburg… Serious historians have criteria to validate a source. Apologists like Habermas do not respect these criteria and that is why they do not publish their speculations in specialized historical journals or present in historical conferences. He would be considered a buffoon [in such setting].”

 
Given that some of these statements were uttered directly against Dr. Habermas and his credentials, I did write to him to give him the opportunity to answer. The following data was kindly reviewed by Dr. Habermas for accuracy, however the post is of my own authorship so any fault with it (if any) is my own responsibility. I have tried, however to be factual, accurate, and truthful.

Now, let’s answer some of Mr. Burriguini assertions in order:

Claim:

“There are no direct eyewitness accounts of a flesh and blood person named Jesus of Nazareth who lived in the first century. So we do not even know if there are ‘facts about Jesus’ to study and that is why no historian takes the issue seriously”.

Answer:

If this is the case, are we to seriously believe that Alexander the Great—and many other historical figures from the ancient past—never lived since there are no flesh and blood testimonies? This claim shows that Mr. Burriguini is completely out of touch with the historical method and ancient historiography.

Claim:

“Christian apologists misinform their followers when they teach that there are historical evidences about the resurrection of Jesus, due to the fact that there are no serious historians (not even a Christian one) that thinks this…otherwise they would be using such evidence, and that is not happening”

Answer:

This is fairly simple to answer. Suffice to frame a historical argument in favor of the resurrection of Jesus using historical data endorsed by, at least, one “serious” historian. We already have that from Dr. Gary Habermas and I have a synthesis of the (minimal facts) argument here. Since Burriguini rejects biblical scholars as a whole, let’s just focus on a few historians with impeccable credentials.

 

1) J. K. Elliott. Elliott, an agnostic, has doctorates from Oxford and Leeds. He has published in Textual Criticism and Christian Apocrypha besides numerous historical articles in one of Britain’s most prestigious historical magazines: History Today. In Volume 29, Elliott admits that the disciples of Jesus had experiences that they interpreted as apparitions of the risen Jesus. This does not prove the resurrection. It just affirms the historical fact that the disciples believed in the resurrection sincerely. It would be confused from the part of the editors of History Today to let a non-historian write 10 articles in a secular historical magazine. Source: https://www.historytoday.com/author/jk-elliott

2) Dr. Michael Grant was a Cambridge-trained specialist in classical Greco-Roman history. His translation of Tacitus’s Annals stands as one of his best works to this day. He authored more than 70 historical works that span subjects such as Roman coinage, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and the Gospels. In his historical review of the Gospels (Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels), he concludes the following about Jesus: 1) he died by crucifixion, 2) his disciples believed to have seen Jesus alive after his crucifixion, 3) the disciples were transformed from cowards to ambassadors of the Christian faith, 4) the proclamation of the Christian faith happened very early after Jesus’ death, 5) James (brother of Jesus) and Paul (a persecutor of Christians) both converted to Christianity shortly after Jesus’ death. Additionally, Grant affirmed that the empty tomb of Jesus can be demonstrated via the historical method.

3) Geza Vermes was a Jewish historian and scholar from Oxford University, specializing in Jewish history and the Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls. Vermes declared that “we know more about Jesus than almost any other first century Jew.” Vermes even admitted that the tomb of Jesus was found empty (Jesus the Jew) and offered refutations to naturalistic explanations of the resurrection. It is more than obvious that Vermes believed Jesus lived as a simple matter of history.

4) Paul Barnett is a respected classicist historian. He did his Ph.D. on the interaction between the New Testament and Jewish history of the first century. Barnett accepts the same five historical facts above mentioned about Jesus, just as Michael Grant. Furthermore, Paul Barnett grants: “Careful comparison of the texts of Mark and John indicates that neither of these Gospels is dependent on the other. Yet they have a number of incidents in common: for example . . . the burial of Jesus in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.” 1

5) Dr. Paul L. Maier is Emeritus Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University and a much-published author of both scholarly and popular works.  His novels include two historical documentaries—Pontius Pilate and The Flames of Rome. His nonfiction works include In the Fullness of Time, a book that correlates sacred with secular evidence from the ancient world impinging on Jesus and early Christianity; Josephus: The Essential Works, a new translation/commentary on writings of the first-century Jewish historian; and Eusebius: The Church History.  More than five million of Maier’s books are now in print in twenty languages, as well as over 250 scholarly articles and reviews in professional journals. Paul Maier also does accept the same five facts about Jesus as Barnett and Grant.

We could add many, and I mean, many more credentialed historians to this list. I have to add that most of these are non-Christian scholars. In the final analysis, it matters very little what the likes of Mr. Burriguini think of the credentials of these individuals. People reading this are smart and can go check the data and the credentials by themselves. This shows how disconnected Burriguini is from the realm of historical Jesus studies. Herein lies a list of scholars from Dr. Gary Habermas’ readily available published works—which constitutes just a small subset of his own research of about 3400 historical sources that affirm the same five core facts above mentioned.

These, alone, do not prove the resurrection, but constitute the building blocks for the argument of the minimal facts that posits the resurrection as the best explanation for such data since alternative naturalistic explanations fail miserably. It should be noted that these minimal facts are accepted by the vast majority—about 90%—of scholars (including atheists, agnostics, Jews and other). Similarly, most of these same scholars also reject naturalistic explanations of the resurrection.

With the data above in place, Mr. Burriguini’s claims turn out to be simply false and/or misinformed. Dismissing credentialed scholars just because their focus touches on religious history commits the genetic fallacy and hints to great prejudice against historical documents of Christian origin.

Now, about his claim that the Four Gospels are, historically, at the same level as the novels of Harry Potter. Not sure where to begin here. The five historians surveyed above—and hundreds more—certainly believe the gospels contain historical data about the life and death of Jesus and his followers. Serious historical journals frequently publish about Jesus.

Let me quote just a few non-Christian scholars about this:

“Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.”  Gerd Lüdemann 

“That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”  J.D. Crossan

“The passion of Jesus is part of history.”  Geza Vermes

Jesus’ death by crucifixion is “historically certain.” Pinchas Lapide

“The single most solid fact about Jesus’ life is his death: he was executed by the Roman prefect Pilate, on or around Passover, in the manner Rome reserved particularly for political insurrectionists, namely, crucifixion.”  Paula Fredriksen

 “One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Ponitus Pilate.” Bart Ehrman

It is interesting that Ehrman has listed 15 independent ancient historical sources within 100 years of the life of Jesus. In contrast, Alexander the Great has ZERO ancient sources within 100 years of his life. Ehrman is not a friend of Christianity and considers himself an atheist. He is simply being honest with the historical data.

Now, let me say something about Dr. Gary Habermas, not only since I consider him a friend but as my former professor at Biola.

Mr. Burriguini claimed that

“Gary Habermas is a theologian and an apologist…The minimal facts were plagiarized from the ‘microhistory’ from Carlo Ginzburg… Serious historians have criteria to validate a source. Apologists like Habermas do not respect these criteria and that is why they do not publish their speculations in specialized historical journals or present in historical conferences. He would be considered a buffoon [in such setting].”

What Mr. Burriguini seems to ignore, is that history of religion, historical Jesus questions, and even miracles are discussed in serious secular historical journals. As an example, the leading, yes, leading secular journal! on the most theoretical area of history, History & Theory, ran an entire issue on the miracles question—an entire issue plus a few odd articles in other issues thereabouts. You can see examples of these articles here, here, here and here. This is a fully secular, very reputable journal that discussed miracles for more than one whole issue.

Regarding the accusation that Dr. Habermas plagiarized the “minimal facts” from Carlo Ginzburg:

To asset that this resurrection argument was plagiarized from the “microhistory” from Carlo Ginzburg indicates the superficial level of the critique, since Ginzburg wrote nothing similar on this topic, neither does microhistory specialize in religious topics, nor is it plagiarism when there is nothing there from which to plagiarize in the first place!

Finally, about the insinuation that Dr. Habermas is not a true historian, let me say this:

To obtain his Ph.D. Habermas had to satisfy the requirements of the History Department at Michigan State University. Furthermore, one of the historians on staff at MSU served on his dissertation committee.

Now, this is to put it mildly. Dr. Habermas is recognized worldwide as a scholar, historian, philosopher and a foremost expert on the historical Jesus. His numerous books and publications are a testament to his erudition and credentials. Mr. Burriguini’s statements are nothing more than that: empty assertions and personal attacks geared to avoid addressing the elephant in the room: real evidence.

I wonder why we have hundreds of scholars interested in the life of Jesus as a historical matter and zero scholars interested in Harry Potter as a historical figure. If Jesus and Harry Potter are the same level, as Mr. Burriguini claims, I challenge Mr. Burriguini to explain why, historically, scholars are interested in one but not the other. We will patiently wait for the answer.

  1. Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Logic of History (Grand Rapids, Mich.:Eerdmans, 1997), 104–5.

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