Did Jesus Exit? – Part 3

If Jesus did not EXIST, then Jesus did not EXIT this life by dying on a cross in Jerusalem. If Jesus did not die on a cross in Jerusalem, then Jesus did not rise from the dead. So, this question of whether Jesus existed has a direct logical connection to the question of whether Jesus rose from the dead.

If the probability that ‘Jesus existed’ is .8, then the probability that ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ cannot be any higher than .8, and given that the evidence for the claim that ‘Jesus was alive and walking around on the first Easter Sunday’ is weak, then the probability that ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ would be something significantly less than .8 (less than eight chances in ten), on this assumption.

If the probability that ‘Jesus existed’ is .5, then the probability that ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ cannot be any higher than .5, and given the weakness of the evidence for the claim that ‘Jesus was alive and walking around on the first Easter Sunday’, the probability of ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ would be significantly less than .5 (less than five chances in ten). Clearly, the probability that one assigns to the claim ‘Jesus existed’ has a direct impact on the probability that one ought to assign to the claim ‘Jesus rose from the dead’.

Before I describe and evaluate the first argument for the existence of Jesus that Bart Ehrman puts forward in Chapter Three of his book Did Jesus Exist?, I want to take the good advice of Keith Parsons, and clarify the basic claim of those who argue in support of the existence of Jesus:

Actually, “Did Jesus Exist?” needs to be clarified. I would put it this way: “Was there a man, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived in the early first century, who can be identified with the ‘Jesus’ of the canonical Gospels?” To be identified with the Jesus of the Gospels, this putative Jesus would have to have SOME of the characteristics of the Biblical Jesus. If there were a “Jesus” who lived in Nazareth at the time and ran a used camel lot and never had any interest in religious matters, then this person, obviously, could not be identified with the NT Jesus.
(Comment by Keith Parsons on “Did Jesus Exit? – Part 1″)

Parsons goes on to describe three different hypotheses, beginning with a ‘Minimal Jesus Hypothesis’:

1) Was there a Jesus minimally like the NT Jesus? …I will assume that the differences (which are real) between the depiction of Jesus in the Synoptics and the John are not THAT different and that they agree on enough points to permit a general, core depiction of Jesus to be gathered from the Gospels. What I am asking, then, is whether there was someone who was to some minimal degree like the Jesus of the Gospels. Let’s say someone who was a wandering rabbi from Galilee, who attracted a following, and somehow fell afoul of the Romans and got crucified.
(Comment by Keith Parsons on “Did Jesus Exit? – Part 1″)

I have quickly reviewed Ehrman’s positive case for the existence of Jesus and found several passages that indicate that Ehrman, as I expected, does in fact argue for something similar to the ‘Minimal Jesus Hypothesis’ suggested by Parsons.

The first indication occurs in the second-to-last paragraph of the Introduction to DJE:

…a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist. He may not have been the Jesus that your mother believes in or the Jesus of the stained-glass window or the Jesus of your least favorite televangelist or the Jesus proclaimed by the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, the local megachurch, or the California Gnostic. But he did exist and we can say a few things, with relative certainty, about him.
(DJE, p.6, emphasis added)

The next indication that Ehrman is arguing for something like Parson’s Minimal Jesus Hypothesis occurs on the second page of Chapter One:

Despite the enormous range of opinion, there are several points on which virtually all scholars of antiquity agree. Jesus was a Jewish man, known to be a preacher and teacher, who was crucified (a Roman form of execution) in Jerusalem during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea.
(JDE, p.12, emphasis added)

The fact that these two indications that Ehrman is arguing for something like the Minimal Jesus Hypothesis occur in the Introduction and opening pages of Chapter One, provide significant confirmation of my suspicion that this is indeed the position Ehrman is defending. But there are further passages that confirm this understanding of Ehrman’s viewpoint:

…my claim is that once one understands more fully what the Gospels are and where they come from, they provide powerful evidence indeed that there really was a historical Jesus who lived in Roman Palestine and who was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
(DJE, p.70)

We have a number of surviving Gospels–I named seven… . These all attest to the existence of Jesus. Moreover, these independent witnesses corroborate many of the same basic sets of data–for example, that Jesus not only lived but that he was a Jewish teacher who was crucified by the Romans at the instigation of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem.
(DJE, p.92, emphasis added)

WHAT CAN WE SAY in conclusion about the evidence that supports the view that there really was a historical Jesus, a Jewish teacher who lived in Palestine as an adult in the 20s of the Common Era, crucified under Pontius Pilate sometime around the year 30?
(DJE, p.171)

UP TO THIS STAGE in our quest to see if the historical Jesus actually existed, Ihave been mounting the positive argument, showing why the evidence is overwhelming that Jesus really did live as a Jewish teacher in Palestine and was crucified at the direction of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.
(DJE, p.177)

Based on these six passages from DJE, it is clear to me that Ehrman is attempting to defend something like the Minimal Jesus Hypothesis that Parsons suggested be the focus of my inquiry.

Since Ehrman is currently the prominent NT scholar who has defended the claim that ‘Jesus existed’, I will define the Minimal Jesus Hypothesis in terms of what Ehrman has asserted in the above passages, with some slight revisions (for the sake of clarity and plausibility).

Here is my initial attempt to define the Minimal Jesus Hypothesis in keeping with Ehrman’s defense of the existence of Jesus:

There was a flesh-and-blood person…

1. who was named ‘Jesus’
2. who was a Jewish man
3. who lived in Palestine as an adult in the 20s C.E.
4. who was known to be a preacher and a teacher
5. who was crucified in Jerusalem by the Romans around 30 C.E.
6. who was crucified when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea

I have left out Ehrmans specification that Jesus was crucified “at the instigation of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem”(DJE, p.92) because that seems too controversial to include in a reasonable ‘minimal’ historical theory, which aims to be nearly certain or highly probable.

Although perhaps not as controversial, I have also excluded Ehrman’s claim that Jesus was “crucified at the direction of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate” (DJE, p.177), because this seems to me to be a somewhat questionable historical claim, one that is not necessary to include in the ‘Minimal Jesus Hypothesis’.

The above Minimal Jesus Hypothesis (hereafter: MJH) needs further clarification, but it is, I believe, a good starting point for spelling out the historical Jesus position that Ehrman is trying to defend.

Interview with Prof. Axgrind
Jonah Goldberg Defends the Christian Record
Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience – Part 2
Jesus on Faith – Part 6
  • watcher_b

    One thing I’ve been pondering about the evidence of the existence of Jesus is does the amount of evidence warrant worship and service?

    I’ve heard the evidence of Jesus compared to the evidence for Alexander the Great (I don’t know how it compares, but for the sake of argument I’ll say the evidence is similar to the same). We can accept the existence of Alexander the Great because it doesn’t require anything from us. Jesus, though, does. And thus requires an even greater burden of proof in order to elicit the response of worship and service.

    That, IMHO, is where the evidence for Jesus is greatly lacking.

    (edited: I had a spelling fix in there, it was embarrassing)

    • Bradley Bowen

      I agree (with watcher_b).

      To be worthy of worship and service, Jesus must be determined to be the divine Son of God, or God incarnate, and this determination must be based on rock-solid evidence.

      Two primary arguments for the divinity of Jesus are: (1) that he fulfilled several specific OT prophecies about a coming Messiah, and (2) that his life involved a number of miracles, especially his alleged resurrection from the dead.

      Both of these claims require extraordinary evidence. Neither of these claims is supported by strong evidence. Furthermore, to the extent that there are reasonable doubts about the existence of Jesus, those reasonable doubts also reduce the probability of these two claims that are the basis for the view that Jesus was God incarnate.

    • ctcss

      “We can except the existence of Alexander the Great because it doesn’t require anything from us. Jesus, though, does.”

      I’m puzzled here. Why does the possible existence of Jesus require anything of us? (Just to point out where I am coming from, I am a Christian believer, but not mainstream. I was taught to regard Jesus as the Son of God, but not as God. Furthermore, I was not taught about hell or the concept of God as an entity that inflicts eternal punishment on His children.)

      The thing is, let’s ignore Jesus for the moment and just think about God. God is not historical, in the sense that God did not live in some specific place at a specific time and leave artifacts behind like a person might have. God is non-material, so, from a human perspective, God is more a concept (as opposed to a physical, material entity) than anything else. If, from a human perspective, God exists, why would God’s existence require anything of from us? Does pi’s existence require anything of us, or is it simply something that, when encountered and understood, may intrigue a person to want to further investigate the concept of mathematics? But the person may not have an interest in pi (or in mathematics), and may simply choose to ignore those concepts. The only downside is, that person would miss out on the neat subject area and utility of what mathematics may offer, at least while they remain in ignorance of pi and what it is.

      So, if God exists, why would God’s existence require anything of a person? If the person decides that the concept of God is intriguing and compelling enough, they will want to investigate further, just as the intriguing concept of pi might make them want to investigate mathematics further. (BTW, I consider God to be something more than just a concept. However, from the perspective of a hypothetical person who has never encountered anything at all about God, they will encounter God first as a concept before they ever find out anything further regarding God.)

      So, to me anyway, the historical evidence of Jesus is more of an interesting side issue. The question I need to answer is, do the concepts regarding God that Jesus taught intrigue me? (They do, BTW.) Thus, I want to investigate these concepts further. I want to explore the subject of God further. (And yes, I also accept that God exists.) I want to see how these ideas fit into one’s life and improve it. In essence, I would like to understand and follow God in a manner similar to what Jesus is said to have taught. (And yes, I do accept that Jesus was a historical person. However, Jesus is not physically around anymore. The ideas he purportedly taught about God are, as are the record of the actions he purportedly engaged in.)

      So, to me, the ideas about God, and the possibilities that follow from such ideas, are the things that make me want to engage in actions relating to God and to Jesus.

      So while I think the idea of investigating the possibility of Jesus’ historical existence is interesting, it is not nearly as important to me as whether or not there is something intriguing to explore about God here-and-now.

      I take it that this is rather different than your view of God and of Jesus?

      • watcher_b

        I guess a definition of God is in order here, or at least a characterization of who God is and what He does. The discussion in the article makes the point that if Jesus did not exist then he did not die and if he did not die then he was not risen from the dead. This is extremely important to Christianity because if one disregards all those things I am not sure why one would call themselves a Christian? I mean, I would be very confused if I called myself a Christian but totally disregarded the bible and only followed the Koran. At it’s basic level, IMHO, Christianity is about Jesus’ death and resurrection.

        If Jesus died and rose again then that indicates not a God as a concept but a God who takes direct action in History. I understand the (unfailable, ie something that cannot be proved or disproved) argument that God is outside of time and space and what not and therefore untestable, but in the case of Christianity the most fundamental of doctrines dictates that God interacted in history and THAT interaction is testable. And there is the point I am making (as opposed to what the article is saying), that the evidence is lacking in the evidence that God has interacted with this world.

        But using the same logic, if God did not interact with this world then there is no proof that he exists, even if he does. And if there is no proof that he exists then there is no reason for me to worship or follow what someone says that he wants.

      • Bradley Bowen

        Response to ctcss -

        Very intersting comments. Thank you.

        ctcss said:
        I’m puzzled here. Why does the possible existence of Jesus require anything of us?


        So, if God exists, why would God’s existence require anything of a person?



        It depends on what you mean by “Jesus exists” and what you mean by “God exists”.

        According to traditional western theism “God exists” implies that there is a person who is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly morally good.

        If a person who is morally good deserves admiration and appreciation, then a person who is perfectly morally good deserves maximal admiration and appreciation, which is something like worship. In other words, the EVALUATION of God is built into the concept of ‘God’.

        So, I suppose that similar logic applies to Jesus. If the meaning or implications of “Jesus exists” is restricted to the Minimal Jesus Hypothesis, then it looks to me like there is no built-in EVALUATION of Jesus in that claim, in the way that there is a built-in evaluation of God in the claim “God exists”.

        I think watcher_b is anticipating that the claim “Jesus exists” will be put to use as part of a case for the divinity of Jesus, for the claim that Jesus is God incarnate. In that case, the built-in evaluation in the concept of “God” comes into play, and thus this use of the claim “Jesus exists”, it might be argued, raises the stakes and raises the bar for evidence required to establish this claim.

        I’m thinking of an analogy with the claim “The light switch is turned off”. If this claim is only going to be used to determine whether the lights need to be turned back on in order to read a book or to do some activity requiring good lighting, then the evidence required to establish this claim is minimal.

        But if the use of this claim is to determine whether it is safe to do some electrical work on the light socket, then the bar for the evidence required to establish the claim is raised significantly. We need strong evidence for the claim “The light switch is turned off” if there is a human life on the line if the claim turns out to be false.

        If the claim “Jesus exists” implies “Jesus died on the cross”, then the claim that “Jesus exists” establishes part of the case for the resurrection of Jesus, which is a primary argument for the divinity of Jesus. If the Christian religion did not exist, and if there were no general interest in the question “Is Jesus God incarnate?”, then the claim that “Jesus died on the cross” could reasonably be accepted on the basis of modest or even somewhat questionable evidence (hearsay evidence would be fine, for example).

        But since the claim “Jesus died on the cross” is clearly going to be used as part of the case for the resurrection of Jesus and for the claim that “Jesus is God incarnate”, this context, it could be argued, raises the bar for the evidence on the claim “Jesus died on the cross”.

        Since this claim will be used as part of the case for a miracle that could establish the divinity of Jesus, we skeptics are reasonable to demand very strong and solid evidence for the claim “Jesus died on the cross”. If “Jesus exists” implies “Jesus died on the cross” then that requirement for very strong and solid evidence would also apply to the claim that “Jesus exists”.

        My inclination is to define “Jesus exists” so that this implies that “Jesus was crucified” but NOT that “Jesus died on the cross”. This would keep the claim “Jesus exists” more separated from the resurrection issue, and thus reduce, to some degree, the requirement for very strong evidence for “Jesus exists”.

        • watcher_b

          Thank you. I love your light switch analogy, it fits in perfectly with what I was saying.

    • MNb

      Alexander the Great also claimed to be of divine origin. Why accept one claim and reject another?
      This is not the same as the existence of both men though. The example of Alexander the Great shows how the scientific method regarding Antiquity works – the earliest sources about him are written more than 200 years afterwards. Hence the argument “the Gospels are no eyewitnesses hence Jesus didn’t exist” is not valid.

      • watcher_b

        Irregardless of whether Jesus existed or not (I am not prepared to argue either way) my point is that even if he did exist the evidence is not so overwhelming as to elicit a religious response. The same as Alexander the Great. We can state that he did exist, and if we find evidence later that he did not we can change our minds. If Jesus has the same small amount of evidence that he could easily be dethroned from the question of existence then there is not enough evidence for his divinity.

        I think though there is worth a discussion about Jesus as a regular guy vs Alexander the Great as a political leader. Which situation requires greater evidence in order to prove existence?

  • MNb

    “these independent witnesses”

    I dispute that the authors of the Gospels are independent witnesses. For this I refer to the hypothesis of the Q-document. I also think it’s reasonable to assume that the author of Acts was aware of the Gospels, at least in an early oral form.
    That’s why Flavius Josephus and Polycarpus are so important.

    • Bradley Bowen

      You raise an important issue here. I think this will probably be the primary objection to Ehrman’s first argument, which is based on the evidence of the existence of Jesus from seven Gospels.

      • gregorius XXI

        The synoptic gospels are far from independent. They sometimes contain the same passages verbatim. Ehrman, in his pther writings, has noted this, so it is very odd that he would make a claim here for independent witnesses.

  • Testinganidea

    Though a bit pedantic the distinction I make below matters for many of the non-historic Jesus theories.
    You state:
    “If the probability that ‘Jesus existed’ is .8, then the probability that ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ cannot be any higher than .8″

    The issue is you are taking ‘Jesus existed’ which is a general statement and looking only at the evidence that a physical human person on earth existed. It is possible that the probability of “Jesus existed as a physical human person on earth” is .8 yet the probability of “Jesus rose from the dead” is greater than .8 as he could have existed, died and rose in the heavenly realms. 

    Does Christianity need an earthly Christ or just a resurrected Christ?

    • Bradley Bowen

      Testinganidea said:

      It is possible that the probability of “Jesus existed as a physical human person on earth” is .8 yet the probability of “Jesus rose from the dead” is greater than .8 as he could have existed, died and rose in the heavenly realms.


      I appreciate your concern for clarity on this matter.

      I take it you are talking about the idea of Jesus existing as a spritual being, rather than as a flesh-and-blood human. Right?

      I take the resurrection claim in a literal sense; I understand the claim to imply that Jesus physically died, and that Jesus’ physical body came back to life (whether in ‘glorified’ form or not).

      There are non-literal or non-physical interpretations of the resurrection, but those do not involve a miracle, and thus don’t work as miraculous evidence for the divinity of Jesus. Since I’m interested in the resurrection as a miracle, as a violation of the laws of nature, as a key reason in support of Jesus being the incarnation of God, I’m interested in the literal interpretation of the claim “Jesus rose from the dead”.

      Given the literal and physical interpretation of “Jesus rose from the dead”, it is necessary that Jesus was actually a flesh-and-blood human being so that he could literally and physically die on the cross. So, Jesus being a flesh-and-blood human being is a necessary condition for the claim “Jesus rose from the dead” if we interpret this claim in a literal and physical way.

      But I acknowledge that some believers think that Jesus was a spirit who only appeared to be physically killed, but actually did not have a physical body. Other believers think that Jesus had a physical body, but that the resurrection had nothing to do with his physical body, that the Jesus who appeared to the disciples on Easter Sunday was a spirit or an angelic sort of being, and that Jesus’ dead body was either still a dead corpse or that God destroyed the physical body that Jesus had previously occupied.

  • Bradley Bowen


    I just noticed that I left out the location of the crucifixion: Jerusalem.

    I have fixed this by adding the location into condition (5):

    “who was crucified in Jerusalem by the Romans around 30 C.E.”

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