Did Jesus Exit? – Part 4

When Bart Ehrman asserts that “Jesus existed”, he is asserting something like the following Minimal Jesus Hypothesis (MJH):
There was a flesh-and-blood person who was…
1. named ‘Jesus’, and
2. a Jewish man, and
3. living in Palestine as an adult in the 20s C.E., and
4. known to be a preacher and a teacher, and
5. crucified in Jerusalem by the Romans around 30 C.E., and
6. crucified when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea.


There was a flesh-and-blood person

Ehrman does not specify that Jesus was a “flesh-and-blood person”, but I think that is what he has in mind when he asserts that “Jesus existed.” For one thing, a literal crucifixion of Jesus does not fit well with the idea of Jesus being a spirit.

Many Christians believe in the existence of angels and demons. Most Christians believe in the existence of souls. Virtually all Christians believe that God exists, and that God is a ‘spirit’, meaning that God is a person who does NOT have a body. Since Christians believe in the existence of persons who do not have bodies, it is theoretically possible, given such a metaphysical viewpoint, that “Jesus existed” but that “Jesus did NOT have a body” and thus that “Jesus was NOT a flesh-and-blood person”.

Given Christian metaphysics, it is theoretically possible that Jesus was an angel or a spirit who existed but had no physical body. Therefore, when a defender of the historicity of Jesus claims that “Jesus existed” this is a somewhat ambiguous claim. I think that most defenders of the historicity of Jesus have in mind the claim that there was a flesh-and-blood Jesus; they don’t have in mind the claim that there was an angel or spirit named ‘Jesus’ who appeared in Palestine in the past. So, if what is intended by Ehrman is the claim that there was a Jesus with a physical body, then that belief needs to be made clear and explicit.

This point is also important to me, because I’m intested in the logical relationship between the claim that “Jesus existed” and the claim “Jesus rose from the dead”. If “Jesus existed” (or “Jesus was an historical person”) implies that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood person, then this claim is directly relevant to the the claim “Jesus rose from the dead”, at least if the resurrection claim is taken to be asserting a literal, physical resurrection.

In order for Jesus to literally rise from the dead, he must first literally die. And literal death requires that Jesus have a physical body, that Jesus be a flesh-and-blood person. So, because I’m interested in the resurrection claim, understood as asserting a literal, physical resurrection, I’m interested in the claim “Jesus existed” because this claim, understood as implying that Jesus was a ‘flesh-and-blood person’, is a necessary condition for the claim “Jesus rose from the dead”.

If, on the other hand, one interprets “Jesus existed” as including the possibility that Jesus was merely an angel or a spirit who never occupied a physical body, then the claim “Jesus existed” would NOT entail that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood person who could die on a cross. If Jesus was merely a spirit and he never had a physical body, then “Jesus rose from the dead” would be a false claim, assuming that this claim is understood to refer to a literal, physical resurrection.

My interest in the resurrection issue influences my preferences here. So, I’m in favor of adding the qualification “flesh-and-blood person” not only because this is what I think Ehrman and other defenders of the historicity of Jesus have in mind, but also because this makes the claim “Jesus existed” of greater significance in relation to the claim “Jesus rose from the dead.”

1. named ‘Jesus’

Strictly speaking, Jesus was not named “Jesus” by his parents, nor was he called “Jesus” by his disciples. “Jesus” is an English word, and since the English language did not exist 2,000 years ago (Prehistoric Old English dates back to the 5th century C.E.), it is highly unlikely that Jesus’ parents used an English word as the name of their son!

The word “Jesus” derives from the Latin name Iesus. Latin is an older language than English, but Jesus probably did not speak Latin, nor his parents, nor his disciples. So, Jesus was not called Iesus by his parents or disciples.

The Latin name Iesus derives from the Greek name Iēsous (in Greek letters: Ἰησοῦς), the name used of Jesus in the Greek New Testament. Although it is possible that Jesus’ parents and some of his disciples could speak some Greek, they probably talked to each other in Aramaic not Greek, and thus whatever name Jesus was given, was presumably a name in Aramaic, not Greek.

The Greek name Iēsous (in Greek letters: Ἰησοῦς) is usually translated as “Jesus” in the Gospels, but the same Greek name is translated elsewhere in the NT as “Joshua” (Acts 7:45 and Hebrews 4:8), and is translated “Joshua” in Luke 3:29.

Furthermore, the Greek translation of the OT (called the Septuagint) uses the Greek name Iēsous ( Ἰησοῦς) to translate the Hebrew name Yĕhôshúa‘ (in Hebrew: יְהוֹשֻׁעַ). In English versions of the OT the Hebrew name Yĕhôshúa‘ (יְהוֹשֻׁעַ) is translated as “Joshua”. Thus, the Greek name Iēsous is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Yĕhôshúa‘ (יְהוֹשֻׁעַ).

But Jesus and his parents and his disciples probably did not speak Hebrew either. They probably only or primarily spoke Aramaic.

The Aramaic version of this Hebrew name is: Yeshu’a (יֵשׁוּעַ). Presumably, if Jesus was an actual historical person, the actual name that Mary and Joseph gave to their son was: Yeshu’a (יֵשׁוּעַ).

To be continued…

Geisler & Turek Rebuttal, Part 7: Chapter 8
G&T Rebuttal, Part 6: Chapter 7
G&T Rebuttal, Part 6: Chapter 7
Rape them Atheists!
  • JohnH2

    ” God is a person who does NOT have a body.”

    Not Mormons, we believe that God does have a body.

    Also this MJH really doesn’t say much of anything. Yeshua is and was a very common Jewish name. The first century was lousy with Jewish preachers who claimed to be Messiahs and who got themselves killed in doing so. I would not be surprised if there weren’t multiple people named Yeshua (or who took the name Yeshua for preaching purposes) who got themselves killed via crucifixion in the first century. That in my opinion is what most of the (early) non-Christian writers are expressing when they talk about it; they don’t know that this particular Jesus existed but given the number of Jews name Yeshua, the number of jewish preachers, and the number of those who get themselves crucified then they have no reason to doubt the Christian claim of a Yeshua who was a preacher and was crucified.

    • Bradley Bowen

      Good point.

      ‘Yeshua’ was a common name and crucifixion was a common punishment in Palestine in the first century. I’m not sure how many Jewish preachers claimed to be Messiahs in Palestine in the first century, but there were probably a few of them.

      So, the problem you are raising here is that MJH could be satisfied by chance. More specifically, there is a significant probability that MJH is true even if the Gospels are works of fiction.

      I was trying to avoid specifically and explicitly connecting MJH to the historicity of the Gospels, but that strategy might not work. In order to give more substance to MJH, I might have to add a condition that this man “was the basis of many/most of the stories about Jesus found in the canonical Gospels” or something like that.

      Such a condition, however, makes MJH much more difficult to establish; it doesn’t seem to be very ‘minimal’ as an historical hypothesis if we add this condition.

      The trick is to find the right balance so that it falls somewhere between a trivial hypothesis (one that is provable but of little significance) and an overly strong hypothesis (which may well be clearly significant but claims so much that there is no reasonable chance that it could be proven or firmly established).

      • JohnH2

        Yes, Joshua was a very popular name, just in general. It was also an extremely popular name for those that wanted to be Messiahs to claim (because of Joshua in the book of Joshua).

        It would be mildly amusing if instead of an occurrence such as palm sunday being unique to a particular Joshua it was instead something that happened a few times every year before passover.

        The Gospels themselves mention something like four other “messiahs” during the three year ministry of Jesus and I know that “messiahs” were a huge pain for the Romans. Pilate may not have wanted to kill Jesus not because he believed in Jesus but because Jesus wasn’t appearing to preach armed revolt and told people to pay their taxes, The other Jesus, who was also a messiah figure, (Jesus Barabbas) appears to have been more violently inclined. Meaning that at that single particular passover there was definitively two people named Jesus who were considered by some as a messiah and were up for crucifixion. (Since John and the Gospel of Peter both talk (besides the synoptics) of this event then it likely happened (in some form) assuming anything from any gospel is true)

  • Greg G.

    To add on to JohnH2′s post, if Solomon had a fraction of the wives and concubines attributed to him, it would be a given that most everyone in the area would be descended from David. Josephus lists 18 high priests from Herod’s time to the destruction of the Temple and four of them were named “Jesus”, so it was probably a common name. Even if Tacitus had gone through 80 year old scrolls to find that Pilate had crucified a preacher from Galilee named Jesus who was descended from David and arrived in Jerusalem riding a donkey, it would probably be the wrong Jesus.

    The harder part is getting your criteria of the MJH to match the Jesus portrayed in the pre-gospel Epistles. They agree with (1), (2), and the first word in (5) and (6) but you don’t find any preaching, teaching, person from the 20′s who was crucified by the Romans under Pilate. Nearly everything said about Jesus seems to come from scripture. They seem to be panning the scriptures for gold nuggets that were always hidden but were now being revealed because the Messiah was coming soon.

    Romans 16:25-26
    New International Version (NIV)

    25 Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, 26 but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith—

    Robert M. Price collects the studies of several scholars tracing the roots of the Gospels in New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash. This article makes up the major part of his book, The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems where he also adds some of the Bible verses discussed. When the parts of Mark that appear to come from the Old Testament and the Greek literature of the day, it seems to leave selections from the Gospel of Thomas (most of Mark 4, for example).

    • JohnH2

      There have been close to 100 tombs found from the 1st century that have the name Jesus associated with them. There are multiple that have the name Jesus son of Joseph. Even with most of them being empty though there isn’t really any way at all to say that the tomb belonged to Jesus Christ (and some good reasons to think that the actual tomb wouldn’t have the name Jesus associated with it)

      • Bradley Bowen

        Could you point me to a book or article that discusses this evidence? Also, do you know whether the name ‘Jesus’ was usually found in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, in relation to the 100 or so tombs?

        • Bradley Bowen

          The Wikipedia has an article on the movie The Lost Tomb of Jesus. This article has some information on how common the name “Jesus” (or Yeshua) was in ancient Palestine. The movie discusses an ancient ossuary that some claim contains the remains of Jesus. The ossuary or ‘bone box’ has an inscription that appears to read: Yeshua bar Yehosef’ — Aramaic for “Jesus son of Joseph”

          One major problem with the theory is that the names on the various ossuaries were very common names, this includes the name “Jesus” or Yeshua:


          Interpretation of the inscriptions

          David Mavorah, a curator of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, points out that the names on the ossuaries were extremely common. “We know that Joseph, Jesus and Mariamne were all among the most common names of the period. To start with all these names being together in a single tomb and leap from there to say this is the tomb of Jesus is a little far-fetched, to put it politely.”[46] David Mavorah is an expert of Israeli Antiquity, and (presumably) not an expert of statistics. However, Dr. Andrey Feuerverger, the statistician cited by the makers of the documentary, has said that determination of the identity of those in the tomb was the purview of biblical historians, and not statisticians. For another interpretation of the statistics see the statistics section above.

          Professor Amos Kloner, former Jerusalem district archaeologist of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the first archaeologist to examine the tomb in 1980,[47] told the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper that the name Jesus had been found 71 times in burial caves at around that time.[46] Furthermore, he said that the inscription on the ossuary is not clear enough to ascertain, and although the idea fails to hold up by archaeological standards it makes for profitable television. Quote: “The new evidence is not serious, and I do not accept that it is connected to the family of Jesus…. They just want to get money for it.” [8]

          Dr. Richard Bauckham, professor at the University of St Andrews, catalogued ossuary names from that region since 1980. He records that based on the catalogue, “Jesus” was the 6th most popular name of Jewish men, and “Mary/Mariamne” was the single most popular name of Jewish women at that time. Therefore, finding two ossuaries containing the names “Jesus” and “Mary/Mariamne” is not significant at all, and the chances of it being the ossuaries of Jesus and Mary Magdalene are “very small indeed.”[48]


          viewed 6/16/13

        • Bradley Bowen

          More data on frequency of the name “Jesus” in ancient Palestine from Ben Witherington’s blog

          MONDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 2007




          My friend Richard Bauckham provides me with the
          following statistics:

          Out of a total number of 2625 males, these are the figures for the ten most popular male names among Palestinioan Jews. the first figure is the total number of occurrences (from this number, with 2625 as the total for all names, you could calculate percentages), while the second is the number of occurrences specifically on ossuraies.

          1 Simon/Simeon 243 59

          2 Joseph 218 45

          3 Eleazar 166 29

          4 Judah 164 44

          5 John/Yohanan 122 25

          6 Jesus 99 22

          7 Hananiah 82 18

          8 Jonathan 71 14

          9 Matthew 62 17

          10 Manaen/Menahem 42 4

          For women, we have a total of 328 occurrences (women’s names are much less often recorded than men’s), and figures for the 4 most popular names are thus:

          Mary/Mariamne 70 42

          Salome 58 41

          Shelamzion 24 19

          Martha 20 17

          You can see at once that all the names you’re interested were extremely popular. 21% of Jewish women were called Mariamne (Mary). The chances of the people in the ossuaries being the Jesus and Mary Magdalene of the New Testament must be very small indeed.




          viewed 6/16/13

          • Greg G.

            I wonder where the name “James” of “Yacob” would be on the list. The top 10 is a little less than half the total.

        • Bradley Bowen

          More data on frequency of the name “Jesus” from a blog post by Richard Bauckham:

          All of the names on these ossuaries were extremely common names among Jews in Palestine at this period. We have a great deal evidence about this (the data is collected in the enormously useful reference book: Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, part 1 [Mohr-Siebeck, 2002], and also analysed in chapter 4 of my recent book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses [Eerdmans, 2006]). We have a data base of about 3000 named persons (2625 men, 328 women, excluding fictional characters). Of the 2625 men, the name Joseph (including Yose, the abbreviated form) was borne by 218 or 8.3%. (It is the second most popular Jewish male name, after Simon/Simeon.) The name Judah was borne by 164 or 6.2%. The name Jesus was borne by 99 or 3.4%. The name Matthew (in several forms) was borne by 62 or 2.4 %. Of the 328 named women (women’s names were much less often recorded than men’s), a staggering 70 or 21.4% were called Mary (Mariam, Maria, Mariame, Mariamme). (My figures differ very slightly from Ilan’s because I differ from a few of her judgments for technical reasons, but the difference is insignificant for present purposes.)



          viewed 6/16/13

      • busterggi

        Yet no ancient Jewish tombs have been found in North America despite the supposed presence a Jewish empire here according to the BOM.

    • Bradley Bowen

      Greg G said:

      The harder part is getting your criteria of the MJH to match the Jesus portrayed in the pre-gospel Epistles. They agree with (1), (2), and the first word in (5) and (6) but you don’t find any preaching, teaching, person from the 20′s who was crucified by the Romans under Pilate.


      Assuming this is correct, that makes MJH at least slightly better than a purely trivial historical hypothesis. It is a bit more challenging to prove, and also would have a bit of significance in bringing together the pre-Gospel descriptions of Jesus and the Gospel Jesus into a single person.

  • Don

    So, if God is a spirit, then there’s no way he can have a physical body in the form of Jesus? If you presume there’s an all-powerful, all-knowing God who created the universe and everything in it, would it really be such a task for God to create an extension of himself in the form of a human being?