Did Jesus Exit? – Part 6

Here is my clarified version of the Minimal Jesus Hypothesis (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.).

A reasonable challenge to this version of MJH is that the specification that Jesus was in his twenties and/or thirties in the 20s CE is an assumption that is not adequately justified. It is not necessary to prove this claim, since the point is to (at some point) critically evaluate whether or not MJH is true or probably true. But claims about chronology or the age of Jesus need to be well-supported and uncontroversial from the point of view of mainstream NT scholarship to be included in MJH.

Although MJH is supposed to reflect a key claim put forward by Bart Ehrman in his book Did Jesus Exist?, I’m clarifying and tweaking his claim a bit, in order to give it the best chance of success.

Two extremes need to be avoided. First, we don’t want to make MJH so detailed and so strong that it would be controversial among NT scholars. We want MJH to be a MINIMAL hypothesis; one that most NT scholars would accept and support with a significant degree of confidence, and one that has a reasonable chance of being provable.

Second, we don’t want to make MJH so broad and so weak that it makes a trivial claim; a claim that is clearly true or higly probable, but that has little significance for the question of the historicity of Jesus. The general claim that “a Jewish man named ‘Jesus’ (or ‘Yeshu’a’) was crucified in Palestine in the first century” could be appropriately called the Weak Jesus Hypothesis (WJH).

WJH is true or at least highly probable, but trivial. Many Jewish men were crucified in Palestine in the first century, and ‘Yeshu’a’ was a very common name for Jewish males in Palestine at that time:

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.)

from a blog post by by Richard Bauckham (viewed 6/16/13):

There were about one million Jews living in Palestine in the first century at a given point in time (a ballpark estimate). About half of those Jews were male. So, at any given point in time in the first century there were aproximately 500,000 Jewish males living in Palestine, because about half of the Jewish population was male. Since this is a ballpark estimate, let’s increase the probability of our correctness by using a range instead of a single number: between 400,000 and 600,000 Jewish males.

Since 3.4% of Jewish males were named ‘Yeshu’a’ (on average), we can calculate that the number of Jewish males named ‘Yeshu’a” who were living in Palestine at any given point during the first century would be between 400,000 x .034 and 600,000 x .034 or between 13,600 and 20,400. In rounder numbers, there would have been about 17,000 (give or take 3,500) Jewish males named ‘Yeshu’a’ living in Palestine at any given point in time during the first century. It is almost certain that one or more of those 17,000 (or so) Jewish males died as a result of crucifixion, even if the NT Gospels are complete fiction.

And this number only represents a particular time slice. Each month more Jewish boys would be born in Palestine, and some of them would be named ‘Yeshu’a’ adding more people to the existing collection of Jewish males with that name, and each month some of the Jewish males named ‘Yeshu’a’ living in Palestine would die, grow old (beyond an age appropriate for the historical Jesus), or move away from Palestine. So, over the course of several decades, thousands of Jewish males named ‘Yeshu’a’ would come and go, increasing still further the probability that one or more of them would be crucified.

So, if it is possible to narrow the scope of people who would satisfy the requirements/conditions layed out in MJH, then that will help to avoid the problem of triviality just illustrated in terms of WJH. One way to do this is by narrowing the range of dates for the ministry and crucifixion of Jesus, and the range of the age of Jesus when he was crucified or at the start of his ministry. But we also need to do this without making clearly questionable or controversial chronological claims about Jesus of Nazareth.

Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience – Part 2
Jesus on Faith – Part 5
Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience – Part 2
The Theistic Arguments: A Brief Critique
  • http://manojpontificates.blogspot.com/ Manoj

    Wouldn’t you need some condition that actually links your ‘Minimal Jesus’ to Christianity/gospels/epistles? Wouldn’t you need a condition like this?

    6. The stories that made its way into the gospels/epistles were loosely based on the stories told about this Jesus.

    Just an obscure guy with the right name, getting killed at the right time and place, but subsequently forgotten, does constitute a ‘Minimal Jesus’, I think.

    • Bradley Bowen

      Good question.

      Most of our info about Jesus comes from the Gospels, so in trying to determine whether MJH is true, we are going to have to examine the Gospels as historical evidence and make some evaluations about the strength and value of that evidence.

      If the use of Gospel evidence is unavoidable in determining whether MJH is true, then we are going to have to do some evaluation of the Gospels as sources of historical information. So, I think that when we work on evaluating the truth of MJH we will need to think about and make determinations about the connection between the Jesus of MJH and the Jesus of the Gospels.

      It is essential to address that point that you raise, but I’m not sure that it has to be built into the historical hypothesis. Theoretically, the basic outline of the Gospels could be correct or true by accident; there could have been a Jewish man named Yeshu’a who did and experienced many of the things attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, even though the Gospels are completely fictional. But if we construct MJH properly, this should be a fairly remote possibility. And if the primary evidence supporting MJH is drawn from the Gospels, then we have to deal with your point as part of the process of evaluating the truth of MJH.

      • http://manojpontificates.blogspot.com/ Manoj

        ” Theoretically, the basic outline of the Gospels could be correct or true by accident; there could have been a Jewish man named Yeshu’a who did and experienced many of the things attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, even though the Gospels are completely fictional.”

        If the Gospels are indeed *completely* fictional, then we can rule out the historicity of the Jesus of the Gospels. If they are *completely* fictional, they have no connection to a real historical person. A person experiencing some of those Gospel incidents by accident, does not constitute a ‘historical Jesus of the Gospels’.

        As I understand, the “Minimal Jesus Hypothesis” is that the Jesus in the Gospels/Acts/epistles/foundation of Christianity was based on a real, life and blood historical person. Without that connection to the foundation of Christianity (however loose the connection might be), there is no ‘historical Jesus’, I’d argue.

  • L.Long

    I really like history and anthropology, and the investigations that go on thru history. But other then the link to religion, jesus is a ‘who cares’ sort of thing. It is obvious that the one in the buyBull is a load of mythic crap, and anyone ‘real’ would be just some guy caught in history. I would find both interesting, but only because of the bigoted assholes who ‘believe’ in jesus, do I really care about it.

    No matter HOW MUCH evidence you or anyone can show that he was only a man or totally myth, the true believers wont care, they will deny the truth as they deny all the science truth that at present smacks them in the face.

    • Bradley Bowen

      L. Long said:

      No matter HOW MUCH evidence you or anyone can show that he was only a man or totally myth, the true believers wont care, they will deny the truth as they deny all the science truth that at present smacks them in the face.


      There are indeed many ‘true believers’ for whom facts and evidence do not matter. However, you never know when someone who looks and sounds like such a ‘true believer’ is actually being influenced by facts and evidence. Sometimes, the influence can occur weeks or months or years later.

      I was, to all appearances, a ‘true believer’ for many years. It took years for relevant facts and evidence to find their way into my head and to change my thinking. Some of my friends and family members have gone through similar deconversions.

      When I started to have serious doubts about Christianity, I backed off of attending Church and going to prayer meetings and Bible studies, but I did not announce my doubts in a public way to other believers. It took me a year or two to shift gears and leave Christianity and the Bible behind me, and to fully embrace atheism and skepticism.

      In my Christian days, I might well have been viewed as a ‘true believer’, but despite appearances, there was room in my mind for facts and evidence that pointed me in another direction.

  • MNb

    1. I wonder if you shouldn’t drop the crucifixion criterion. The Romans didn’t keep record, so you don’t have any means to check if it’s historical or made up, like the Resurrection.
    2. Before you run your experiment you should do a test with Socrates and Diogenes of Sinope to check if it works. You don’t want to fall in the trap of the ad hoc argument.

  • Mick

    This is what it sounds like to me: The Minimal Thor was a builder who sometimes used a hammer – so the legendary Thor definitely has some basis in fact.

    • Bradley Bowen

      You are raising the ‘triviality’ objection to MJH, and I take that objection seriously.

      To avoid the problem of triviality, MJH needs to have enough details of time and place and (perhaps) names, in order to make MJH improbable when considered apart from the relevant evidence (e.g. the Gospels, Josephus, other NT writings, non-canonical Gospels), but the details also need to be non-controversial, at least in terms of mainstream NT scholarship, and the number of details needs to be limited, since every additional detail makes the hypothesis a bit less certain.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    What I find interesting is that even with such a minimal picture, our earliest source corroborates less than half of it. Paul doesn’t say when or where Jesus lived or died and doesn’t say that he was a teacher or preacher.

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