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:

=======================
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.

  • Greg G.

    I think you should focus on whether the Jesus of the early epistles existed. Most of the passages in Mark can be accounted for from the literature of the day and it seems to rely on the epistles more than oral tradition.

    • Bradley Bowen

      My first order of business is to understand and evaluate the case for MJH that Bart Ehrman has put forward. When I’m finished doing that, then I would be happy to explore other arguments and approaches to this issue.

  • Ryan Jean

    “There were about 17,000 Jewish males named ‘Yeshu’a’ who lived in first century Palestine (at any given point in that century).”
    “Because there were about 17,000 Jewish males named ‘Yeshu’a’ in first century Palestine…”

    If I may, where does the 17k data come from? I’m not familiar with any claim beyond that it was *not an uncommon* name in the period, not that we can estimate the name to that degree.

    • Bradley Bowen
      • Ryan Jean

        Ah… Thank you. That makes more sense.
        I think that in your shoes I would be more inclined to deliberately err in a more conservative direction with the range of the numbers, and perhaps say ~12-15k instead of 17k, but at least now the 17k number doesn’t seem random as it did to me before.

        • Bradley Bowen

          If I use this number in a probability calculation, I will try out three different possibilities: 10k, 15k, and 20k, in order to see how big a difference that makes to the outcome.

  • MNb

    1. If we accept the hypothesis of the Q-document we cannot assume that the Gospels are independent sources.
    2. As Paul, the author of Acts, claims to have known the Apostles but not Jesus himself he in not an independent witness either.
    3. Tacitus had his information very likely from the christian community in Rome. It’s likely that the Roman christians knew the Gospels in one form or another, so Tacitus is not an independent source either.

    • Bradley Bowen

      Q is basically the common material between Matthew and Luke that does not come from the Gospel of Mark. I think Ehrman’s argument for independence of Matthew and Luke would be focused on parts of those Gospels that do not appear to be based on either Mark or Q.

      Paul was not an eyewitness to the life or ministry of Jesus, but he is an important historical source because his letters are very early, predating the Gospels. Paul would appear to be independent of the Gospels, because his letters predate the writing of the Gospels.

      Ehrman concedes that the information from Tacitus “is not particularly helpful in establishing that there really lived a mand named Jesus” because “he was writing some eighty-five years after Jesus would have died, and by then Christians were certainly telling stories of Jesus (the Gospels had been written already, for example)…” (DJE, p.55-56)

    • MNb

      The research question is: is Jesus historical or mythical?

      “I think Ehrman’s argument for independence of Matthew and Luke …”

      That’s irrelevant for the research question. If one of them made up the character of Jesus the other took the myth over and added stuff. The two only are independent as soon as you accept Jesus’ historiciy for the details of his life. There is also the possibility that they both added to the stories made up by the author of the Q-document (or narrator if its charactor is oral). So assuming the authors of the Gospels are independent is begging the question.

      “he is an important historical source”

      I didn’t deny that. I argue again that accepting Paul as an independent witness regarding your research question is begging the question. Paul only has told us that Jesus existed; it’s very possible that he received that info from the same source as the author or narrator of the Q-document.

      From another angle – if Ehrman is right and all those authors are independent from each other than your series is finished. Chance that they all independently from each other made up the same mythical character is close to zero.

      • Bradley Bowen

        MNb said:
        I argue again that accepting Paul as an independent witness regarding your research question is begging the question. Paul only has told us that Jesus existed; it’s very possible that he received that info from the same source as the author or narrator of the Q-document.
        ============
        I disagree, but let’s hold off on this question for now. I want to stay focused on the Seven Gospels Argument in Chapter 3 of DJE.
        Chapters 4 and 5 get into the evidence from Paul’s letters.

      • Bradley Bowen

        MNb said:

        “I think Ehrman’s argument for independence of Matthew and Luke …”

        That’s irrelevant for the research question. If one of them made up the character of Jesus the other took the myth over and added stuff. The two only are independent as soon as you accept Jesus’ historiciy for the details of his life.
        ========================
        What specifically is it that you think is irrelevant? Can you say a little more about why you think that point (whatever it is) is irrelevant? I’m not clear about what your objection is here.

        Let me revise my original comment a bit. In my view Q, L (special source(s) used by Luke), and M (special source(s)) used by Matthew are prima facie independent sources. I’m open to evidence and arguments for the view that these are NOT independent historical sources, but in my view they appear to be independent sources, and the burden of proof rests on those who claim they are NOT independent historical sources.

        The author of Matthew and the author of Luke both had access to the Gospel of Mark, so the belief of these authors in an historical Jesus or in something like MJH can reasonably be explained as the product of their reading Mark. So, the belief of the author of Matthew in an historical Jesus, and the belief of the author of Luke in an historical Jesus does not count for much.

        However, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke also draw upon Q, L, and M sources in addition to making use of Mark. So, the important question is whether Q is independent from Mark, and whether L is independent from Q and Mark, and whether M is independent from Q and Mark. If so, then by careful study of Matthew and Luke, we have potentially three more independent sources of information: Q, M, and L.

  • Bradley Bowen

    I have not yet tried to justify the specified age range given in condition 3A of MJH.

    The specified age range might not be supported by a consensus of NT scholars or might not be sufficiently supported by multiple sources, to be appropriately included in MJH.

    The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke suggest that Jesus was born during Herod the Great’s rule, which would support a birth date a few years BCE or a few years CE. But the birth narratives are highly questionable. Not only do they contradict each other, but some of the details are historically implausible even apart from the contradictions between Matthew and Luke accounts. Furthermore, most scholars doubt the most basic historical claim made by both accounts: that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It is no surprise that some of the details of the birth narratives would be false or inaccurate, but if Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, then this implies that the stories are purely fictional creations, not just historical accounts with errors. So, I’m not inclined to place any confidence in any information from the birth narratives found in Matthew and Luke, including the timing of Jesus’ birth.

    The Gospels do agree that Jesus had contact with John the Baptist, and they imply that Jesus started out as a disciple of John the Baptist and then developed his own ministry and his own message and his own disciples. But we don’t know how old Jesus was when he was baptized by the Baptist. Jesus was presumably at least 12 and probably was less than 50 (since 40 was the average life expectancy back then in Palestine). But that is a large range of possible ages.

    Probably the best info on Jesus’ age is the comment in Luke that Jesus was about thirty years old when he started his ministry (Luke 3:23). The Gospel of John also has some critics of Jesus saying that he was “not yet fifty years old” (John 8:57). The event described in John is, IMHO, purely fictional, so I don’t believe that anyone actually spoke those words. However, the Gospel of John probably does have some basis in an eyewitness source, in the teachings of an unknown disciple of Jesus.

    The Gospel of John was NOT written by an eyewitness; it was probably composed by a disciple of a disciple of Jesus. Even so, if this story has some basis in the teachings of a disciple of Jesus, then this would mean that Jesus was in his thirties or forties during his ministry (because the disciple of Jesus believed that Jesus was “not yet fifty” during Jesus’ ministry), and that roughly corresponds with the age info from Luke, that Jesus was “about thirty” when Jesus’ ministry began.

    We can date the start of the ministry of Jesus by working backwards from the date of his crucifixion, assuming that his ministry lasted between one and three years:

    27-28 CE……….26-28 CE……….25-28 CE
    28-29 CE……….27-29 CE……….26-29 CE
    29-30 CE……….28-30 CE……….27-30 CE
    30-31 CE……….29-31 CE……….28-31 CE
    31-32 CE……….30-32 CE……….29-32 CE
    32-33 CE……….31-33 CE……….30-33 CE

    Then we can use Lukes aproximate age of Jesus and turn it into a range:
    25 years old to 35 years old.

    The latest start for Jesus’ ministry is 32 CE. If we combine that with the youngest age (25 years old), that would mean Jesus was 13 in 20 CE and 23 in 30 CE.
    So, Jesus would have made it into his 20s before the end of the third decade (on this scenario).

    The earliest start for Jesus’ ministry is 25 CE. If we combine that with the oldest age (35 years old), that would mean that Jesus was 30 in 20 CE and 40 in 30 CE.
    So, Jesus would have been in his thirties for most of the third decade (on this scenario).

    This justifies the statement that Jesus was in his twenties or thirties in the 20s CE.
    However, this depends primarily on Luke’s statement that Jesus was about thirty years old when he started his ministry, and Luke was not an eyewitness of the life and minstry of Jesus.

    • Greg G.

      John 8:57 “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”
      Irenaeus argued that the Jews would not have weakened their argument if he was in his early thirties. In that case they would have “You are not yet forty years old” if he was in his thirties.Therefore Jesus must have been over 40.
      Irenaeus also thought Pilate was governor when Claudius was Caeser but that would mess up the dating for Paul. Otherwise, you have to ditch Luke to go with a 10 to 20 BC range for his birth, which would be better for Matthew that he doesn’t need a dying Herod sending goon squads after babies.

      • Bradley Bowen

        Irenaeus believed the negative comments made by Jesus’ critics about his being “not yet fifty years old” represent an actual historical event, and I don’t share that belief. This is a fictional event in the Gospel of John. Jesus did not claim to be God or to be an eternal being.

        In A Marginal Jew, Volume I, p.379, John Meier argues, contrary to Irenaeus, for an interpretation of John 8:57 that does not imply that Jesus was in his forties.

        I checked four different Bible Dictionaries and the dates they give for Pilate are the same as the dates used by John Meier and E.P. Sanders. So, I think modern NT scholars do not find Irenaeus’ dating of Pilate to be convincing.


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