Did Jesus Exit? – Part 8

In Did Jesus Exist?(hereafter: DJE) Bart Ehrman argues for something like the Minimal Jesus Hypothesis (MJH), which I have clarified and tweaked a bit to get to this formulation:

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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
5B. crucified in Jerusalem by the Romans around 30 C.E. (between 28 and 33 C.E.).
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I don’t claim that this formulation of MJH successfully gets around the ‘triviality’ objection, the objection that this claim has a significant likelihood of being true even if the Gospels are complete fiction (because in first century Palestine there were lots of Jewish males named ‘Yeshu’a’, and lots of Jewish males who were crucified by the Romans, and lots of Jewish males who were preachers and teachers of religious beliefs and moral values).

It might be necessary to add some further details of time, place, events, or names to MJH in order to avoid the ‘triviality’ objection. But the above version of MJH is somewhat more specific than what Ehrman states, and I don’t want to revise MJH so much that it no longer reflects Ehrman’s viewpoint.

So, I’m going to proceed with looking into Ehrman’s case for MJH (as it stands), starting with Chapter 3 of DJE:

We are not dealing with just one Gospel that reports what Jesus said and did from sometime near the end of the first century. We have a number of surviving Gospels–I named seven–that are either completely independent of one another or independent in a large number of their traditions. 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)

The seven Gospels that Ehrman uses as evidence for MJH are:

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
AND
Thomas, Peter, and Papyrus Egerton 2

(see MJH, p.74-77)

So, Ehrman points to the four canonical Gospels as well as three Gospels that are not part of the New Testament.

I have one initial comment on the above summary of Ehrman’s Seven Gospels Argument (SGA); Ehrman appears to be confused about his conclusion. First, he makes the claim that the seven Gospels “all attest to the existence of Jesus”. Next, he makes what appears to be a different and additional claim: “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…”

But wait a minute. What does it mean to attest to “the existence of Jesus” or to the fact that “Jesus…lived”? If I understand Ehrman correctly, to attest to “the existence of Jesus” means to attest to MJH. What this does NOT mean is that the Gospels attest merely to the trivial claim that there was a Jewish male named ‘Yeshu’a’ who lived in Palestine in the first century. This latter claim we know to be true, even if all seven of the Gospels that Ehrman points us to are complete fiction. There were about 17,000 Jewish males named ‘Yeshu’a’ who lived in first century Palestine (at any given point in that century).

But in order to attest to MJH, these Gospels must attest to the various necessary conditions that make up MJH, such as that the Yeshu’a in question “was a Jewish teacher who was crucified by the Romans”. Attesting to the various attributes or conditions that make up MJH is precisely what is required in order to attest to “the existence of Jesus” or to the fact that “Jesus…lived”.

So, Ehrman is confused in making it seem as though there were two separate conclusions at issue here. In order to provide evidence for “the existence of Jesus” the seven Gospels MUST each provide independent evidence supporting MJH, that is to say they MUST “corroborate many of the same basic sets of data” such as that there was a Jewish male named ‘Yeshu’a’ who was “a Jewish teacher who was crucified by the Romans”. There is no such thing as showing “the existence of Jesus” apart from showing the existence of a Jewish male who had various specific attributes, i.e. the attributes specified in MJH.

If one Gospel provides evidence for a Jewish male named ‘Yeshu’a’ who was crucified by the Romans around 30 CE, but does not provide evidence for this person being a preacher and teacher of religious beliefs and moral values, and if another Gospel provides evidence for a Jewish male named ‘Yeshu’a’ who was a teacher and preacher of religious beliefs and moral values, but does not provide evidence for this person being crucified by the Romans around 30 CE, then this sort of evidence will be weak and problematic. How do we know that these two Gospels are about just one person, as opposed to being about two different persons who both happen to have the name ‘Yeshu’a’ (which was a very common name in first century Palestine)?

The existence of Jesus can no more be separated from MJH than the existence of God can be separated from a the existence of a person who has various divine attributes (omniscience, omnipotence, perfect freedom, etc.). It makes no sense to say “I have provided evidence for the existence of God, and I have also provided evidence for the existence of a person who is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly free.” If one has NOT provided evidence for the existence of a person who is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly free, then one has NOT provided evidence for the existence of God.

Similarly, if one has NOT provided evidence for the existence of a Jewish male named ‘Yeshu’a’ who was a preacher and teacher of religious beliefs and moral values AND who was crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem between 28 CE and 33 CE AND who was living in Palestine as an adult (in his twenties and/or thirties) in the 20s CE, then one has NOT provided evidence for the existence of Jesus.

‘God’ is a proper name. ‘Jesus’ is a proper name. We can specify the meaning of a name by means of a definite description, and that seems to be the best way to clarify the meaning of the proper name ‘God’. Similarly, we can specify the meaning of the proper name ‘Jesus’ by means of a definite description, and that seems to be the best way to clarify the meaning of this word. Once the meaning of ‘Jesus’ is clarified by means of a definite description (which is what MJH is, or is supposed to be), then the question of whether such a person exists (or did exist) should be understood in terms of that definite description, in terms of the list of attributes or characteristics that are used to identify the person to whom the name belongs.

Since MJH is how we have clarified the meaning of the proper name ‘Jesus’ evidence for the existence of Jesus must now be in terms of the various attributes or characteristics that are spelled out in MJH.

The logical error that I’m anticipating about the case for the existence of Jesus, has actually already been manifested in the case for the existence of God. Although the proper name ‘God’ is generally understood in terms of a definite description along the lines of ‘a person who is eternally omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free, and perfectly good, and who is creator of the universe and who creates moral obligations for humans’, the traditional arguments for the existence of God do not attempt to show the existence of a being who possesses all of these divine attributes.

One argument is used to try to prove that there is a creator of the universe, another argument is used to try to prove the existence of a moral law giver, another argument is used to try to show the existence of an eternal being, and so on. But even if each of these arguments were sound, there is no particular reason to believe that the ‘creator’ is the same being as the ‘moral law giver’ or the ‘necessary being’. Proving the existence of a creator is NOT the same thing a proving the existence of God. Proving the existence of a ‘moral law giver’ is NOT the same thing as proving the existence of God.

The same problem could well crop up in relation to arguments about the existence of Jesus. Proving the existence of a Jewish male named ‘Yeshu’a’ who was crucified by the Romans about 30 CE is NOT the same as proving the existence of Jesus. Proving the existence of a Jewish male nameed ‘Yeshu’a” who was a preacher and teacher of religious beliefs and moral values in first century Palestine is NOT the same as proving the existence of Jesus.

One must show that there is good reason to believe that there was a Jewish male who had BOTH of these attributes and a few others as well. Because there were about 17,000 Jewish males named ‘Yeshu’a’ in first century Palestine, it is quite possible that there was one such man who was crucified in Jerusalem by the Romans about 30 CE, and another such man who was a preacher and teacher of religious beliefs and moral values who was an adult who was living in Palestine in the 20s CE, and that these were two different men.

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