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.
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?
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.
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.