When I was a young boy, I enjoyed watching many episodes of Superman on a black-and-white television. When I was about ten or eleven years old, my family would gather on evenings when the TV show Batman was on; we would eat hot-buttered popcorn while watching the show together. Later in my life Hollywood began making blockbuster movies about superheroes. Superman was one of the earlier blockbusters (1978). For my birthday this year I received a set of Blu-Ray movies called The Dark Knight Trilogy which includes three recent movies with Batman as the central character. I see that another superhero movie just came out called Man of Steel which is about Superman.
In the USA, people know who Batman is, and who Superman is, and some people know this without ever having read Superman comic books or Batman comic books. In fact, some people know about Batman and Superman even though they have never read comic books about these heroes and never seen any of the T.V. shows or movies about them either. These characters are just a part of American culture, and thus people in the USA know about Batman and Superman, even if they have never directly experienced cultural artifacts such as books or movies about these characters.
I know many features or attributes of Superman, and millions of Americans would agree on most of these points, even many Americans who have never read a Superman comic and never seen a Superman movie or TV show:
1. Superman wears a red cape and a special suit with an ‘S’ on his chest, at least when he is fighting crime or rescuing people from danger.
2. Superman can fly, and he can fly very fast, like a jet or a rocket.
3. Superman has X-ray vision.
4. Superman is extremely stong; he has super-human strength.
5. Superman looks like an ordinary human being, at least when he is not in his hero costume.
6. Superman uses his extraordinary powers to fight crime and to rescue people who are in danger.
7. Superman leads a second life, pretending to be an ordinary human being.
8. In his ordinary ‘human’ life, Superman is known as ‘Clark Kent’, a newspaper reporter.
9. Superman loves Lois Lane.
10. Superman can be weakened and even killed by being close to a substance called Kryptonite.
This phenomenon of cultural awareness of specific ‘facts’ about Batman and Superman raises a problem for Bart Ehrman’s ‘Seven Gospels Argument’ (SGA) for the existence of Jesus. So far in my analysis of SGA, I have granted the key premise that the seven gospel sources are independent sources. What does it mean to say that these sources (which include Mark, Q, M, and L, among others) are independent sources?
First of all, this means that none of these sources made use of one of the other sources. For example, the author of Mark did not make use of Q as a source for his gospel, nor did Mark use M or L material. Similarly, Q did not make use of Mark, nor of M or L material, and so on.
Second, this means there was no other written source outside of the seven sources that was made use of by two or more of the seven. Mark and Q did not, for example draw on a third source, so that some of the corresponding details about Jesus in Mark and Q were based on the use of a common written source.
The idea is that if these seven gospel sources are independent sources, then a plausible explanation of why they each present a Jesus character who is very similar, Jesus characters who have several features in common, is that they are all based on an actual flesh-and-blood human being named ‘Jesus’ (or ‘Yeshua’), as opposed to all being based on a common fictional character in a book.
American awareness of Batman and Superman raises an objection to SGA, namely that a cultural idea can exist and can be transmitted apart from written documents, and even apart from other cultural artifacts (e.g. plays, movies, T.V shows). Therefore, it is quite possible that a conception of a Jesus-like character existed prior to the time when Jesus was allegedly born, and that this idea existed and was transmitted apart from books or plays about this character (at least for some people, especially for those who could not read or who did not attend plays).
If there was such a cultural idea available, then the Jesus character found in Mark, Q, M, and L could share common features based on this cultural idea, apart from any book or document. In other words, it is quite possible that there is a common source for the features of the Jesus character in Mark, Q, M, and L even though there was not a common written document used as a source by two or more of the seven gospel sources.
Furthermore, not only is this alternative explanation a real possibility, but we have good reason to believe that at least the core features of Jesus as found in Mark, Q, M, and L are based on a common cultural idea that was present prior to the time of the alleged birth of Jesus, namely the idea of a Messiah.
The idea of a Messiah evolved over a period of centuries, following the reign of King David. So, there is not simply a single sharply defined concept of ‘Messiah’. Nevertheless, there are a number of elements or characteristics that were associated with the idea of the Messiah that are reflected in Mark, Q, M, and L’s characterizations of Jesus:
1. The Messiah would be a man (not a woman).
2. The Messiah would be a devout follower of the Jewish faith (not a worshipper of Egyptian gods, not a worshipper of Greek or Roman gods, not a Zoroastrian, not a Hindu, not an animist, etc.)
3. The Messiah would be a descendant of the Hebrew people.
4. The Messiah would live in Palestine.
5. The Messiah would be a very wise person.
6. The Messiah would be a very just person.
7. The Messiah would be a great leader.
8. The Messiah would have appeal not only to Jews, but also to Gentiles.
The idea of the Messiah may not explain all of the corresponding characteristics of Jesus, all of the similarities in how Jesus is portrayed in the seven gospel sources, but it does explain a number of those characteristics; it does provide a plausible explanation for why several of the characteristics of Jesus are common between the seven gospel sources, even if there was no historical Jesus, and even if there was no common written source, or even a common cultural artifact, that was made use of by two or more of the seven gospel sources.