This post is #1 of 2 on how Jesus’ Resurrection is evidenced through certain historical facts about His disciples’ lives. For the next two posts, I will almost exclusively be referencing Sean McDowell’s book The Fate of the Apostles.
Today, I want to explore an angle of the minimal facts argument for the Resurrection of Jesus that is not addressed very often. The angle is one of how we can know that James, the brother of Jesus and Paul of Tarsus indeed were willing to and did go to their deaths for their belief that they had personally seen the Risen Jesus.
This Issue and Me
Growing up I was the kind of person who acknowledged Christianity and took comfort in believing there was a good God somewhere out there. It was a comfort that I would go back to if I was in trouble or there was an issue in my life. Overall though I lived my life like Christianity was false and I was convinced that the Christian faith had several logical problems. I went out and did what I liked without considering what God might think of it. One day when I was about 22 years old I was forced, by God, to face the duplicity of my life. I was confronted by 4-5 deaths of people I was close to with-in a couple of months. I asked myself “is that all there is to life? You live until something inevitably ends your time here? What is my life really worth?” Meanwhile, I had been getting myself into trouble and had seen God answer my prayers, this confirmed Romans 5:8 that God loved me in spite of the sort of person I was and the things I had done… In spite of what I had experienced I remember knowing that I would have to investigate the evidence for this faith if I was going to really make Jesus a part of my life, I couldn’t honestly live for what I believed wasn’t true. (Lee Strobel’s The Case For Christ and C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity played a big part in this process as well as regular reading from the Bible both New and Old Testament). While I was convinced overall that this faith was historically sound and that it explained what is known about the world and human nature better than any other theory I had a couple nagging questions. One was: How can we really know that the disciples suffered and died proclaiming that they had seen the risen Jesus? In this post, I will explain what I believe is the most convincing argument for Jesus’ having actually risen from the dead. Then I’ll go into why the evidence we have for the martyrdom of Paul and James is so important to this argument.
The Minimal Facts Argument
First, to explain the minimal facts argument in case you haven’t heard of it. The minimal facts argument is one based on the dissertation of Gary Habermas while he was attending Michigan State University. The argument attempts to take the skeptic’s point of view and ask the question “given the minimum accepted facts by scholars in the field is Jesus’ resurrection reasonable?”. Gary has 12 facts that are agreed on by the vast majority of scholars, from all faiths or walks of life, who have studied the life of Jesus. Usually, when this argument is presented only a few of the facts will be given and then it is pointed out that Jesus being raised from the dead is the most probable explanation because it alone explains each fact.
The four core facts used by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona are:
- Jesus died by crucifixion.
- The disciples had experiences of what they honestly believed was the resurrected Jesus.
- Paul of Tarsus was an enemy of the faith and a persecutor of Christians. He became a committed believer because of his personal experience of the resurrected Jesus.
- James, Jesus’ brother was a skeptic during Jesus’ life but was converted and became a committed believer because of his experience of the resurrected Jesus.
How the deaths are tied in
Given the last two core facts, it is reasonable to ask how we can know that Paul and James honestly believed they experienced the risen Jesus. The common answer is that they were willing to suffer and die for their belief and it is not likely they would suffer and die for what they knew to be a lie. So then it is paramount to the argument that we know that they did suffer and were at least willing to die for their belief in the resurrection.
For the purposes of this post, martyrdom is defined as the act of dying for belief in Jesus as a choice, it means having the option to recant and choosing instead to die for the faith. McDowell points out that the person doesn’t need a formal opportunity to recant to be a martyr just to have understood that execution was a live option if they continued to testify.
The Argument for Paul’s Martyrdom
McDowell gives the historic probability for Paul’s martyrdom the highest possible probability. A few factors from this chapter particularly stood out to me as convincing toward this conclusion:
- Paul anticipated his upcoming death.
- Luke anticipates Paul’s martyrdom through the end of Acts.
- Several extra-biblical documents speak of Paul’s martyrdom within the living memory of Paul.
- The accounts of his death are consistent with one another.
- There is no evidence for any competing narrative.
Given these facts, it is very likely that Paul was willingly martyred for his faith in the Risen Jesus.
The Argument for James’ Martyrdom
For James’ martyrdom, Dr. McDowell gives a rating of Very Probably True. This is his second-highest rating and slightly less confident than his confidence in Paul’s martyrdom. Some of the reasons for the difficulty unique to the evidence for James’ martyrdom are:
- Issues involving the confounding of different Jameses in the early church.
- Some of the accounts of James’ death are inconclusive about why he was killed.
Though these are problems there are several points in favor of James having died as a Christian martyr:
- Multiple extra-biblical accounts of James’ execution by Jewish leaders.
- Non-Christian accounts of James’ execution specifically noting he was the brother of Jesus.
- James’ willingness to be identified with Christians, even as a major leader of them, in spite of knowing the possible consequences.
- The ancient Christian Creed found in 1 Cor. 13:3-8, that dates back within 5 years of the resurrection, that states James was appeared to by the resurrected Jesus.
Given this solid evidence, it is very likely that James was killed for his faith in the Risen Jesus.
The above evidence helps establish the reliability of the last two points of Gary Habermas’ core facts. Since Paul and James’ martyrdom are well established by the evidence we can confidently present these two facts as confirmed by solid logic as well as by the scholars themselves. Due to the preponderance of the evidence, we must ask what do we make of these facts? What sort of experience of the Risen Jesus would they have had to have experienced to be so changed by it that they willingly went to their deaths?
Reference: Sean McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles
Amazon link for those interested: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1472465202/ref=cm_sw_r_wa_apa_i_saIPDbYH71ZC6