IV. Support for the Core Facts of Core Facts
Before considering the inevitable confrontation between these two most persuasive cases, I will briefly describe some of the evidence marshalled by Habermas in support of the premises of his abridged apologetic. Identifying these supports is extremely important, for apart from sheer authority-approval and appeal to “shared cultural assumptions” this is the real defence for the facts of Core Facts. For the conclusion of Core Facts to follow, Habermas must defend these supports against the Mythicist.(27)
Frequently, Habermas gives the appearance of defending these facts purely upon authoritative grounds, citing numerous scholars who are said to accept one or more of them. He does, however, make positive evidential connections on their behalf. While listing the points Habermas has made over the years defending these four facts alone would be too lengthy a task to perform here, fortunately Habermas has provided an abridged case for at least one of these: he claims that merely examining the ancient non-Christian evidence will sufficiently establish the crucifixion as historical fact.
Habermas has also claimed that CF2 — the experiences which the disciples thought were bodily appearances of a resurrected Jesus — is “the most crucial” of all four (1996, p.163). He further states that chapter 7 of 1996, “Primary Sources: Creeds and Facts”(28) presents
…perhaps our strongest category of evidence, especially for the death and resurrection of Jesus. Admittedly, the amount of material concerning the life and ministry of Jesus before his death [is] not overwhelming. However, when we enter the “passion week” of Jesus’ life prior to his crucifixion and afterwards, the situation changes drastically (p.169).
Relative to providing independent evidence for this second assumption, within the chapter itself he identifies the text of 1 Corinthians 15:3ff as perhaps the single most important creed in the New Testament (p.152).
For pragmatic reasons I will limit my examination of the support for Core Facts to these two facts. The examination of CF1will involve a limited but allegedly sufficient case for its historicity, i.e. the non-Christian evidence. The examination of CF2 will be limited to what is perhaps considered by Habermas to be the best independent corroboration for this fact within his apologetic arsenal. Given Habermas’ confidence in both the non-Christian evidence and 1 Cor.15:3ff, it is not excessively brief to limit the supports considered to these. From this point on, unless otherwise indicated all references to Habermas’ texts should be taken as pertaining to Habermas 1996.
IV.1. The Non-Christian Evidence for the Crucifixion:
Habermas divides the non-Christian evidence for the historical Jesus into six general sources of ancient testimony: ancient historians; government officials; other Jewish sources; other Gentile sources; gnostic sources; and other lost works. Not all of these sources are relevant to establishing CF1 and so again I will be making a selection rather than dealing with every one of Habermas’ points. Of the ancient historians, I will discuss Tacitus and Josephus; of the other Jewish sources, the Talmud and Tol’doth Jeshu; of the relevant other Gentile sources, Lucian and Mara Bar-Serapion; of the relevant other lost works, Phlegon.
Habermas is confident that the evidence provided by these authors and writings sufficiently establishes the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus in first century Palestine. If this is the case, it would follow that the Mythicist would have to seriously consider adopting a new explanation of the evidence for the resurrection. Whether this is so will be considered below in Chapter V, but for now I will simply say a few words about each of the above-mentioned sources, explaining briefly why Habermas thinks that each has something to say toward the historicity of Jesus’ crucifixion.
IV.1.a. Ancient Historians:
The Annals of Tacitus (ca. AD 55-120) is a history written around AD 115, covering the period from Augustus’ death (AD 14) to the death of Nero (AD 68). In one of its passages, Tacitus mentions “Christus”:
Christus, from whom the name [“Christians”] had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular (p.188; citing Tacitus, 15.44)
From the Jewish historian Josephus (ca. AD 37, 38-97), Habermas finds evidence for CF1 in the Antiquities, noting that this source is earlier in composition than Tacitus’ Annals, dating from around AD 90-95. Josephus’ writings contain two references to Jesus: the second and longer of these is known as Testimonium Flavianum and mentions the crucifixion:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared (Wells 1991, p.143; citing Loeb Classical Library, Antiquities 18:3).(29)
While Habermas admits that Christian interpolation is responsible for some of this passage, he thinks there are good reasons to consider most of the text genuinely Josephan. First, he thinks there is no textual evidence against the passage, and “there is very good manuscript evidence for this statement about Jesus” (p.193). Second, “leading scholars on the works of Josephus” have judged this portion of Antiquities to be written in the style of Josephus (ibid). Thirdly, in 1972 Schlomo Pines of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem released a study on an Arabic manuscript containing a shorter version of the passage; the wording of this Arabic version is different from the traditional text of Testimonium Flavianum and its content is much more plausibly attributed to a Pharisee like Josephus. It reads as follows:
At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good, and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders (Charlesworth, p.95).
Habermas thinks that none of the reasons for rejecting the authenticity of the traditional passage apply to this Arabic text: he agrees with the author of Jesus Within Judaism — James Charlesworth — concerning this Arabic manuscript, whom he cites as saying, “We can now be as certain as historical research will presently allow that Josephus did refer to Jesus” (p.195; citing Charlesworth, p.96). From this evidence, Habermas insists that there are good reasons to only modify “questionable words” in the passage (ie. words suspected of Christian modification or interpolation) and attribute the gist of the passage to Josephus. Habermas notes there is nothing prima facie unusual about this text originating from Josephus as he would simply have been repeating what was considered “common knowledge” in his day, i.e. AD 90s (p.196).
IV.1.b. Other Jewish Sources:
Habermas notes the Talmud‘s most reliable information about Jesus would be from its earliest period of compilation, AD 70-200. He finds a quotation from just this period — Sanhedrin 43a:
On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.” But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover! (Habermas, p.203; citing The Babylonian Talmud, trans. I. Epstein [London: Soncino, 1935], Vol. III, Sanhedrin 43a, p.281).
While there are other references to Jesus in the Talmud, the remainder either do not deal with Jesus’ crucifixion or, as Habermas admits, are from later periods of history and are therefore “…of questionable historical value” (p.204).
Tol’doth Jeshu is an anti-Christian polemic which relates the following about Jesus’ death:
The body was taken down while it was still the eve of the Sabbath…and immediately buried. A gardener, Yehuda, removed the body from the tomb and cast it into a ditch and let the water flow over it. The disciples discovered that the body was not in the tomb and announced to the Queen that Yeshu had been restored to life. The Queen, believing the story, was tempted to put to death the Sages for having killed the Messiah. Indeed, all of the Jews mourned, wept and fasted, until Rabbi Tanchuma, with the help of God, found the body in a garden. The Sages of Israel removed it, tied it to the tail of a horse and paraded it in front of the Queen so that she could see the deception (Hoffmann, pp.52-3).
Habermas reveals that this document was not compiled until the fifth century AD, but also claims that it reflects early Jewish tradition. It is indeed likely that Jews expressed this sort of stolen-body explanation of the resurrection as early as the time in which Matthew was written (see Mt.28:11-15), which Habermas seems to take as suggesting that this text could perhaps date from as early as that time (p.205).
IV.1.c. Other Gentile Sources:
Habermas thinks there are two Gentile sources relevant to the crucifixion: Lucian and Mara Bar-Serapion. Lucian was a second century Greek satirist who spoke derisively of Jesus and Christians; criticizing Christians for being gullible people who approved of charlatans posing as teachers, he wrote that the Christians worshipped a man who was crucified for introducing new teachings into Palestine.
Concerning Mara Bar-Serapion, the British Museum owns the manuscript of a letter from a Syrian by this name, dated “…between the late first and third centuries AD” (p.207). In the letter a father writes from prison to his son, attempting to motivate the younger to emulate wise teachers of the past:
What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgement for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teachings of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given (Bruce, p.31).(30)
IV.1.d. Other Lost Works
Born around AD 80, Phlegon was a freedman of Emperor Hadrian. Although none of his original writings remain, we can learn of what he wrote in the writings of others. Origen (ca. AD 185-254) records that
…Phlegon, in the thirteenth or fourteenth book, I think, of his Chronicles, not only ascribed to Jesus a knowledge of future events (although falling into confusion about some things which refer to Peter, as if they referred to Jesus), but also testified that the result corresponded to His predictions (p.218; citing Origen, Contra Celsum XIV in the Ante-Nicene Fathers).
And with regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place, Phlegon too, I think, has written in the thirteenth or fourteenth book of his Chronicles (ibid; citing Origen, XXXIII).
According to Habermas, Origen even quotes Phlegon as writing “Jesus, while alive, was of no assistance to himself, but that he arose after death, and exhibited the marks of his punishment, and showed how his hands had been pierced by nails” (ibid; citing Origen, LIX).
IV.1.e. Concluding Comments on the Evidence for the Crucifixion
This, then, is the ancient non-Christian evidence for the crucifixion of Jesus. Habermas is confident that the evidential force of these letters, fragments, and citations sufficiently demonstrates CF1 as a historical fact. While Habermas would not likely claim indubitable certainty here, his hard apologetic stance suggests he might think that this evidence overwhelms rational doubt of the crucifixion. As it is soft apologetics, though, that are of concern to DT, I will take these items to simply defend the rationality of believing in Jesus’ crucifixion, and not as arguing for the irrationality of doubting the crucifixion.
IV.2. Disciplinary Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus:
As mentioned, Habermas thinks his chapter “Primary Sources: Creeds and Facts” contains the most promising material for establishing the nature of Christian thought in the times before the writing of the New Testament documents. Specifically, Habermas claims the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples are mainly corroborated by early eyewitness testimony contained in 1 Corinthians 15:3ff. While the potential range of non-Pauline text in this passage is restricted to vv.3b-7 (given that Paul refers to himself in vv.3a,8), Habermas does not make this point explicitly in his 1996 text, preferring to vaguely designate vv.3ff as “the creed”.(31) The text of vv.3-8 is as follows:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Habermas purports that other creeds serve a similar function (e.g. Luke 24:34; Acts 1:1-11; 2:32; 3:15; 5:30-32; 10:39-43; 13:30-31), but he only quotes the text of the creed in 1 Cor.15, devoting an entire section to it; and he only argues for the creedal status of 1 Cor.15:3ff, simply identifying but not defending the others as creeds. Combined with his calling the creed of 1 Cor.15 “perhaps the most important single creed in the New Testament” (p.152), it is obvious that this creed takes priority in importance above all others within Habermas’ apologetics. Assuming the creed predates Paul, its date of composition would have to be prior to AD 55 — the approximate date of the writing of 1 Cor. — and so it is not difficult to imagine why Habermas might regard it so highly.
Unlike the non-Christian evidence for the crucifixion, Habermas never says explicitly that 1 Cor.15:3ff can sufficiently demonstrate the disciplinary appearances. Nevertheless, his confidence in this item is obviously rather high, as shown when he speculates that 1 Cor.15:3ff is not merely the best evidence for CF2, but “…perhaps the single most powerful argument for Jesus’ resurrection” (1992, p.67). If the creed is perhaps the single best piece of evidence for both the conclusion of Core Facts as well as its most important premise, it seems reasonable, given Habermas’ general apologetics, to interpret it as sufficient to establish CF2. Once again taking DT into consideration, I will consider the apologetic function of this single most importance piece of evidence to be establishing a soft apologetic for CF2, i.e. making it permissively rather than conclusively rational to believe that Jesus’ disciples had experiences which they were convinced were encounters with a post-resurrection Jesus.