The current version of the Minimal Jesus Hypothesis (MJH) has five parts:
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.).
MJH can be re-stated in terms of a list of attributes of Yeshu’a:
A1. Yeshu’a was a flesh-and-blood person.
A2. Yeshu’a was an adherent of Judaism.
A3. Yeshu’a was a male descendant of the Hebrew people.
A4. Yeshu’a lived in Palestine as an adult (in his twenties and/or thirties) in the 20s CE.
A5. Yeshu’a was know to be a preacher of religious beliefs.
A6. Yeshu’a was known to be a preacher of moral values.
A7. Yeshu’a was known to be a teacher of religious beliefs.
A8. Yeshu’a was known to be a teacher of moral values.
A9. Yeshu’a was crucified in Jerusalem.
A10. Yeshu’a was crucified by the Romans.
A11. Yeshu’a was crucified around 30 CE (between 28 CE and 33 CE)
These are the specific claims that should be confirmed by multiple early and independent historical sources in order for MJH to be considered to be verified or highly probable.
Ehrman’s Seven Gospels Argument (SGA) is based upon some principles of historical investigation. Here is a summary by Ehrman of the key principles:
In short, if a historian were drawing up a wish list of sources for an ancient person, she would want a large number of sources that derive from near the time of the person they discuss; that are extensive in what they have to say about that person; that are disinterested, to some extent, in what they say; and that corroborate one another’s accounts without having collaborated.
According to Ehrman these criteria are satisfied by the Gospel evidence for Jesus:
But if we restrict ourselves here, as we did earlier, to a hundred years after the traditional date of Jesus’ death, we have at least seven independent accounts [about Jesus], some of them quite extensive.
The claim that these seven accounts provide ‘independent’ evidence for MJH means that the seven accounts “corroborate one another’s accounts without having collaborated.”
I’m more familiar with the canonical Gospels, so let’s start our evaluation of Ehrman’s claims in relation to the four canonical Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Ehrman argues briefly for the independence of the Gospel of John from the other three canonical Gospels (see DJE, p.76). I think, however, that this is a controversial issue among NT scholars. I’m going to do a bit of reading up on this question before passing judgment on Ehrman’s claim about the independence of John from the synoptics, so I will set this claim aside for now and return to it in a future post.
Matthew and Luke are clearly and obviously NOT independent from the Gospel of Mark, since it is clear that Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their main sources of information about Jesus. Ehrman acknowledges this:
It is almost (but not quite) universally thought among New Testament scholars that both Matthew and Luke had access to the Gospel of Mark and used it for many of their stories of Jesus.
Ehrman emphasizes the fact that Matthew and Luke drew upon multiple sources in composing their Gospels. So, it appears that Ehrman’s claim about ‘independent accounts’ should be understood to be not about Matthew and Luke being independent from Mark, but about the various sources used by Matthew and Luke being independent from each other:
Matthew and Luke did indeed use Mark, but significant portions of both Gospels are not related in any way to Mark’s accounts. And in these sections of their Gospels Matthew and Luke record extensive, independent traditions about Jesus’s life, teachings, and death.
In the three synoptic Gospels, Ehrman points to at least four different sources, which he claims are independent of each other:
When dealing only with Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the synoptic Gospels, then, we are talking not just about three books written late in the first century. We are talking about at least four sources: Mark, Q, M, and L, the latter two of which could easily have represented several, or even many, other written sources.
I believe that most NT scholars would agree with this view about the sources used by Matthew and Luke, and that these sources are independent of each other. So, that is my initial position. I’m open to arguments and objections against this view of the synoptic Gospels, but the burden of proof rests on those who reject this viewpoint, as far as I am concened.
So, I think Ehrman has the makings of a good argument for MJH. If these four sources each confirm all (or most) of the eleven specific claims about the attributes of Yeshu’a, then his argument will be off to a good start.
The problem, however, is that Ehrman’s presentation of SGA is relatively fact free. He is short on details, but as a skeptic I believe that the devil is (often) in the details. The facts and data, in this case, should drive our evaluation of the strength or weakness of SGA.
What we need is a matrix that shows the four key sources as rows, and the eleven key claims as columns, and check marks (or some sort of evaluative terms: GOOD, FAIR, POOR) to indicate whether a source confirms a particular attribute claim:
So, in order to do an initial evaluation of the evidence from the synoptic Gospels (three out of the seven Gospels put forward by Ehrman), we need to answer 44 questions and fill in the above MJH-Source Matrix chart.