Did Jesus Exit? – Part 20

The Minimal Jesus Hypothesis (MJH) can be stated in terms of a list of a dozen attributes:

A1. This person was a flesh-and-blood person.
A2. This person was an adherent of Judaism.
A3. This person was a male descendant of the Hebrew people.
A4. This person lived in Palestine as an adult (in his twenties and/or thirties) in the 20s CE.
A5. This person was know to be a preacher of religious beliefs.
A6. This person was known to be a preacher of moral values.
A7. This person was known to be a teacher of religious beliefs.
A8. This person was known to be a teacher of moral values.
A9. This person was crucified in Jerusalem.
A10. This person was crucified by the Romans.
A11. This person was crucified around 30 CE (between 28 CE and 33 CE)
A12. This person was named Yeshu’a.

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 confirmed or highly probable.

However, because the idea of a “Messiah” was a cultural idea that was widespread among Palestinian Jews of the first century, many of the above attributes could have been derived simply from common Jewish beliefs about what the “Messiah” was supposed to be like.

Most adult Americans have a common cultural idea of “Superman” and could write a story about Superman, without consulting any books or written stories about Superman or any movies about Superman, and such stories would contain many common elements (Superman has a red cape and can fly like a jet airplane. Superman has superhuman strength and often uses his special powers to defeat criminals and evildoers, etc.).

Similarly, most adult Palestinian Jews of the first century could create stories about a “Messiah” figure, and those stories would contain many common elements, even if the person creating the story did not use or consult any written documents.

Characteristics (A1) through (A8) can be explained fairly well as being the result of a common cultural idea of a “Messiah”, with the exception of the specific chronological details mentioned in (A8). The chronological details, however, probably cannot be found in all seven of the seven gospel sources that Ehrman points us to, and they probably cannot be found even in all four of the gospel sources that I have been focused on (Mark, Q, L, and M).

Thus, correspondences between the various gospel sources concerning the characteristics (A1) through (A8) provide only very weak evidence for the view that there was an historical Jesus who actually had those characteristics and thereby explains why various independent sources correspond with each other on those characteristics of Jesus.

Thus, it seems to me that Ehrman’s argument really stands or falls on the remaining characteristics (A9) through (A12). These do not appear to be explainable in terms of the common cultural idea of a “Messiah”. So, if all seven gospel sources are independent, and if they all agree on those remaining characteristics, then Ehrman’s argument may have some force, although it would have significantly less force than what it appeared to have initially, when I did not realize there was a plausible alternative explanation available for most of the dozen characteristics showing up in several independent gospel sources.

Most of the remaining characteristics concern the crucifixion of Jesus. There is some redundance here to take into consideration. Crucifixion was (primarily) a Roman punishment, so if one decides that the “Messiah” was crucified, it follows naturally that the crucifixion would be performed by Romans.

Jerusalem also seems like a fairly natural location for the crucifixion, since Jerusalem was not only the most sacred city, for Jews, being the location of the holy Temple, where God (Jehovah) was present, but it was also central politically, in that the wealthy and powerful Jewish priesthood maintained their position of power by collaborating with the Romans. The political conflict between Jews and Romans focused on Jerusalem, and the final battle between Jews and Romans was over the possession and control of Jerusalem.

Death by crucifixion was not what Jews expected to happen to the Messiah. So, the characteristics of Jesus concerned with the crucifixion are not explainable in terms of the common cultural idea of a “Messiah”. However, if some other explanation could be provided to explain why the idea of a crucified Messiah might be present in several of the seven gospel sources, then Ehrman’s first argument would be completely done in. I don’t have such an explanation at this time, but I note this point, because it appears to make the success of Ehrman’s argument precarious.

If just one sentence became somewhat widespread, through oral traditions or word-of-mouth, then the seven gospels argument would be largely undone:

Yeshu’a the messiah was crucified.

The widespread utterance of this one sentence, or very similar sentences, could explain the correspondence of several “independent” gospel sources on the twelve characteristics outlined above, the characteristics defining the Minimal Jesus Hypothesis.

Probably the most significant characteristics are the specific chronological indications, such as the age of Jesus, the date of his ministry, and the date of his crucifixion. If all seven gospel sources independently agree on these chronological points, then that would be significant. But, I think this is not in fact the case. I will need to take a closer look to verify my view, but my impression is that these chronological details are a weak point of Ehrman’s argument.

The Theistic Arguments: A Brief Critique
Interview with Prof. Axgrind
Jesus on Faith – Part 6
Lessing’s Broad Ditch and Brad’s Lesser Ditch
  • Testinganidea

    The existence of a cultural meme among first century Jews about a martyred “messiah” is often linked to the Maccabean martyrs and the elder Razis in 2 and 4 Maccabees, 

  • Greg G.

    It seems to me that the first generation Christians established the name “Jesus” and the crucifixion (“we preach Christ crucified”) without specifying time or place. Putting the crucifixion in Jerusalem in 30AD implies that it was the Romans so A10 seems redundant while A9 might be two separate elements.

    Edit: On second thought, A10 could have happened elsewhere in another decade and still be true even if A9 and A11 were wrong.

  • Greg G.

    These links clear prophecies about David’s line occupying the throne and its re-establishment. A1 through A4 could be inferred from these.

    I recently posted on Did Jesus Exit? – Part 19 that many of the red letters in the gospels actually came from Paul, specifically Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians, but no other Pauline letters. If Paul and Mark drew from the sayings of Jesus, we should see more correspondence from Paul’s other letters. It appears those were the only letters of Paul that Mark had. If there was a document of Jesus teachings, we would expect Paul to have learned of it, so it is unlikely that Mark had an authentic document of the type. So the teaching and preaching in the second generation documents are probably not authentic. The impression that Jesus was a preacher and a teacher comes from inauthentic sayings, so A5-A8 can be discounted.

    Paul or his pseudepigrapher mention long hidden mysteries that are being revealed, but it seems that the sect began to think it was valid to get revelations from out-of-context verses to explain why the Messiah was about to come anytime now. Here’s how Paul says he got his information.

    Galatians 1:11-12 (NRSV)
    11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

    Things he knew came from Septuagint scripture.

    1 Corinthians 15:3b (NRSV)
    that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures
    Isaiah 53:5 (NRSV)
    But he was wounded for our transgressions,
        crushed for our iniquities;
    upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
        and by his bruises we are healed.

    1 Corinthians 15:4a (NRSV)
    and that he was buried
    Isaiah 53:9 (NRSV)
    They made his grave with the wicked
        and his tomb with the rich,
    although he had done no violence,
        and there was no deceit in his mouth.

    1 Corinthians 15:4b (NRSV)
    and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,
    Hosea 6:2 (NRSV)
      After two days he will revive us;
        on the third day he will raise us up,
        that we may live before him.
    Psalm 16:10 (NRSV)
      For you do not give me up to Sheol,
        or let your faithful one see the Pit.
    Psalm 41:10 (NRSV)
      But you, O Lord, be gracious to me,
        and raise me up, that I may repay them.

    Galatians 3:13 (NRSV)
    Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”—
    Deuteronomy 21:23 (NRSV)
    his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession.

    1 Corinthians 11:23 (NRSV)
    For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread,
    Psalm 41:9 (NRSV)
      Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted,
        who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.

    Note that these are taken from Galatians and 1 Corinthians, two of the letters that Mark was lifting ideas from to have Jesus say.

    So the crucifixion idea apparently comes from out-of-context Septuagint scripture which Mark got second-hand but embellished with more out-of-context Septuagint scripture and simply placed the event in Jerusalem during the Roman occupation.

    So, I am skeptical of A9-A11, too.

    • Bradley Bowen

      Thank you for the information and for your theory. Paul’s letters were earlier than the gospel of Mark, based on standard datings of these writtings, so the chronology fits with your theory of Mark’s dependence on some of Paul’s letters.

      Q might be earlier than Paul’s letters, but there is no crucifixion of Jesus in Q, so Ehrman’s argument falters on that point. I’m not sure of the dating of M and L, but I suspect that the dating is just an educated guess with little solid information upon which to base the dating (other than the estimated dating of Matthew and Luke as a maximal end point).

      So, the main key gospel source that predates Paul’s letters (i.e. Q) doesn’t have the crucifixion of Jesus in it, and Mark, which does have the crucifixion of Jesus, was clearly written after the letters of Paul. I don’t know, but I suspect that M and L cannot be dated with any sort of certainty to earlier than the gospel of Mark, and I’m not sure what M and L have to say about the crucifixion of Jesus (need to go check on that).

      Ehrman’s Seven Gospels Argument is looking pretty weak to me right now. A little more review of the dating of M and L and their contents might kill off this argument. We shall see…

      • Bradley Bowen

        I have reviewed Q, M, and L passages.

        The Gospel of Mark includes several crucifixion-related events in Chapters 14 and 15:

        1. The Plot to Kill Jesus
        2. The Anointing at Bethany
        3. Judas Agrees to Betray Jesus
        4. The Passover with the Disciples
        5. The Institution of the Lord’s Supper
        6. Peter’s Denial Foretold
        7. Jesus Prays in Gethsemane
        8. The Betrayal and Arrest of Jesus
        9. Jesus Before the Council
        10. Peter Denies Jesus
        11. Jesus Before Pilate
        12. Pilate Hands Jesus over to Be Crucified
        13. The Soldiers Mock Jesus
        14. The Crucifixion of Jesus
        15.The Death of Jesus
        16. The Burial of Jesus

        Matthew chapters 26 and 27 cover the crucifixion-related events. There are no passages from M that are included in those chapters. Furthermore, there are no crucifixion-related events covered by M. None of the sixteen crucifixion-related events in Mark are found in M.

        Luke chapters 22 and 23 cover the crucifixion of Jesus. There are no passages from L that are included in those chapters. Furthermore, there are no crucifixion-related events covered by L. None of the sixteen crucifixion-related events in Mark are found in M.

        There are no crucifixion-related events covered by Q. None of the sixteen crucifixion-related events in Mark are found in Q.

        I conclude that SGA (Seven Gospels Argument) by Ehrman is very weak and inconclusive. It has at least two very serious flaws:

        (1) Most of the points of agreement between the various gospel sources can be fairly well explained in terms of the common cultural idea (for first century Palestinian Jews) of a “Messiah”.

        (2) Although crucifixion-related events probably cannot be accounted for in terms of the common Jewish idea and expectations surrounding a coming Messiah, only one out of four of the gospel sources that we have examined include any of sixteen different crucifixion-related events found in Mark. There is no agreement or correspondence between the gospel sources on crucifixion-related events.

        There may be a third serious issue as well: lack of agreement or corroboration on the chronology of Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion.
        Since crucifixion-related events are not found in Q, M, or L, it is hard to see how they could support the chronological aspects of the crucifixion found in Mark. But I need to do a bit more study before I draw conclusions about chronological agreement or lack of it.

        • Bradley Bowen

          My comments on L conclude with this sentence: “None of the sixteen crucifixion-related events in Mark are found in M.”


          None of the sixteen crucifixion-related events in Mark are found in L.

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