Did Jesus Exit? – Part 5

In his book Did Jesus Exist? Bart Ehrman argues for 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.

========================

1. named ‘Jesus’
As previously pointed out, the actual name would have been Joshua (in Aramaic):

1A. named Yeshu’a

2. a Jewish man

From my American Heritage Dictionary:

Jew n. 1. An adherent of Judaism. 2. A descendant of the Hebrew people.

Condition (2) is thus ambiguous. But presumably, both senses of the word are intended. This condition describes both the general religious viewpoint of Jesus and his ethnicity. Jesus was not a Hindu, nor a Zoroastrian, nor a worshipper of Greek or Roman deities. Jesus was not Chinese, nor African, nor East Indian:

2A. an adherent of Judaism, and a male descendant of the Hebrew people

3. living in Palestine as an adult in the 20s C.E.

This condition seems fairly straightforward. The phrase ‘as an adult’ is a bit vague. That could mean anywhere from 16 years old to 110 years old. Since Jesus is generally believed to have been about 33 years old when he was crucified, we could narrow the age range a bit by assuming that Jesus was between 30 and 36 years old in 30 CE (i.e. 33 years old plus-or-minus three years). So, we can say that Jesus was betweem 20 and 26 in 20 CE., and that Jesus would have been in his twenties or thirties in the 20s CE:

3A. living in Palestine as an adult (in his twenties and/or thirties) in the 20s C.E.

4. known to be a preacher and a teacher

This condition is also a bit vauge. A man who taught mathematics or who taught Greek philosophy or who taught others how to build boats would not fit our concept of Jesus. The word ‘preacher’ does imply speech with religious content, and thus is a bit less vague. But I think Ehrman has in mind the widely held assumption that Jesus was a preacher and teacher of religious beliefs and moral values:

4A. known to be a preacher and teacher of religious beliefs and moral values

5. crucified in Jerusalem by the Romans around 30 C.E.

This condition is straightforward and clear. The phrase ‘around 30 C.E.’ is a bit vague, so I would make a slight clarification/specification here:

5A. crucified in Jerusalem by the Romans around 30 C.E. (between 26 and 36 C.E.)

This puts the crucifixion of Jesus in the timeframe when Pilate was governor of Judea (26-36 C.E.)

6. crucified when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea

Given the above clarification of the date range for the crucixion of Jesus, condition (6) is largely redundant, since (6) is logically implied by (5) in conjuction with the generally accepted assumption that Pilate was governor of Judea from 26-36 C.E.

So, here is my clarified version of MJH:

=======================
There was a flesh-and-blood person who was…
1A. named Yeshu’a, and
2A. an adherent of Judaism, and a male descendant of the Hebrew people, and
3A. living in Palestine as an adult (in his twenties and/or thirties) in the 20s C.E., and
4A. known to be a preacher and teacher of religious beliefs and moral values, and
5A. crucified in Jerusalem by the Romans around 30 C.E. (between 26 and 36 C.E.).
========================

  • Lonorising

    “Since Jesus is generally believed to have been about 33 years old when he was crucified…”

    I for one would be more comfortable if we left this assumption out of the equation. Such “general beliefs” are spurious at best. They represent the very thing this exercise in forensics is trying to dispel.

    • Bradley Bowen

      Good point. If I cannot come up with a better justification of the assumption, then I will drop it from MJH.

    • Bradley Bowen

      One possible date for the birth of Jesus is 4 BCE:

      “It is conventional to date the birth of Jesus to 4 BC or a bit earlier. This date is based on the Matthean evangelist, whose narrative suggests that Jesus was born shortly before the death of Herod the Great (cf. Matt 2.1, 19). However, the evangelists association of Jesus’ birth with the final days of the reign of Herod may reflect a Moses-Jesus typology. Just as Pharaoh tried to destroy the promised savior of the Hebrew slaves, so the wicked Herod – infamous for the execution of family members, including his elder son Alexander only days before the king himself would die – tried to destroy the saviour of Israel (Matt 2.1-18; cf. Exod 2.1-10).”
      (from “Context, Family and Formation” by Craig A. Evans in The Cambridge Companion to Jesus, edited by Markus Bockmuehl, p.13-14)

      So, the date of 4 BC for the birth of Jesus is based on questionable data.

      The birth story in Matthew is questionable in general, because it contradicts the birth story in Luke, and because particular details in it are historically implausible. Ehrman asks, “How exactly, for example, does a star stop over a particular house?” (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, p.38). So, we have good reasons to doubt the historical reliability of the birth story in Matthew, and thus good reason to doubt the association in Matthew between the birth of Jesus and the death of Herod the Great, particularly in view of Matthew’s Moses-Jesus typology, which may well have been the basis for the association that Matthew makes between Jesus’ birth and Herod the Great.

      Another possible date for the birth of Jesus is 6 AD. This alternative date is based on the gospel of Luke:

      “It has also been suggested that Jesus may have been born near the end of the reign of Herod Archelaus (Luke 1.5), at the time of the controversial census ‘when Quirinius was governor of Syria’ (Luke 2.1-2). …It is therefore possible that Jesus may have been born in AD 6 and began his ministry in his mid-twenties (instead of mid-thirties).”
      (The Cambridge Companion to Jesus, p.14)

      However, just as the contradictions between Luke’s birth story and Matthew’s birth story casts doubt on the historical reliability of Matthew’s birth story, so the contradictions between these accounts also cast doubt upon the historical reliability of Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth.

      Furthermore, there are a number of historically implausible points in Luke’s account considered on its own, separate from the contradictions with Matthew’s account. Ehrman discusses some of these problems with Luke’s birth story, and draws this conclusion: “Not only do the two accounts of Jesus’ birth stand at odds with one another, they are also not historically credible on their own terms.” (Jesus, p.39)

      In a footnote to the article by Craig Evans that I quote from the Cambridge Companion to Jesus, Evans (an Evangelical Jesus scholar) makes the following admission: “Most critics doubt that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea.” (Cambridge Companion, p.22) Wow! This is one of the few points of agreement between the birth stories in Matthew and Luke, and it is obviously a key factual claim. If scholars generally doubt this key factual claim, put forward by both birth stories, then how can either birth story be taken seriously as providing historical information about the birth of Jesus, especially in view of the various contradictions between Matthew and Luke, and various historically implausible details?

      So, we have good reason to doubt the historical reliability of the details in Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, including the association of Jesus’ birth with a census ‘when Quirinius was governor of Syria’ (Luke 2:1-2). Ehrman points out some serious problems with the idea that there ever was such a census (Jesus, p.38-39), so we also have a very specific reason to doubt the dating of Jesus’ birth that is based on Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. Not only is the birth story in Luke historically questionable in general, but the specific data that could be used to determine a date for Jesus’ birth is itself historically implausible.

      So, the two main dates for the birth of Jesus, 4 BCE and 6 CE, are both based on historically unreliable accounts in Matthew and Luke (respectively), and the specific data used in each case is itself subject to specific grounds for doubt (Moses-Jesus typology in Matthew and historical implausability of the census in Luke).

      Given the widespread doubts among NT scholars about the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, we cannot even claim scholarly consensus on a date for Jesus’ birth, at least not a consensus of firm convictions, given that the key data comes from highly dubious sections of Matthew and Luke.

      It seems clear to me that we cannot determine with any significant degree of certainty or precision when Jesus was born, at least not based on the birth stories in Matthew and Luke. Thus, unless further relevant information and reasoning becomes available, we don’t know how old Jesus was when he was crucified, assuming that he was crucified around 30 CE.

      It is, of course, unlikely that Jesus was only ten years old when he was crucified. It is also unlikely that Jesus was sixty years old when he was crucified, given that people did not usually live that long. But it is difficult to narrow the range down any more than that without making the MJH subject to obvious historical objections/doubts.

      =======================

      Additional data…

      Another passage used to determine Jesus’ date of birth is Luke 3:23 which states that Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his ministry. Luke also states that John the Baptist began his ministry in the fifteenth year of Tiberius (Luke 3:1), which was 29 CE (The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders, p.12).

      So, if Jesus began his ministry about one year after John the Baptist began his ministry, then Jesus began his ministry in 30 CE. If Jesus was exactly 30 years old at that time, then Jesus would have been born at the beginning of the Christian era (thus the origin of our Christian system of dating). However, “Modern scholars note that Jesus’ age in Luke 3.23 is a round number…” (The Historical Figure of Jesus, p.12). So, this information from Chapter 3 of Luke provides a rough estimate (a range) for the year of Jesus’ birth, if this information is taken to be reliable.

      • SocraticGadfly

        Don’t forget the passage in John 8 where Jesus is asked about his background, and gives no indication that he was *necessarily* born in Bethlehem.

      • Bradley Bowen

        There is a good discussion by John Meier of the chronology of the ministry and crucifixion of Jesus in Meier’s book A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, in Chapter 11.

        I will draw on that discussion for some further thoughts and comments about the dates for the birth, ministry, and crucifixion of Jesus.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X