Here is my clarified version of the Minimal Jesus Hypothesis (MJH):
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
5A. crucified in Jerusalem by the Romans around 30 C.E. (between 26 and 36 C.E.).
A reasonable challenge to this version of MJH is that the specification that Jesus was in his twenties and/or thirties in the 20s CE is an assumption that is not adequately justified. It is not necessary to prove this claim, since the point is to (at some point) critically evaluate whether or not MJH is true or probably true. But claims about chronology or the age of Jesus need to be well-supported and uncontroversial from the point of view of mainstream NT scholarship to be included in MJH.
Although MJH is supposed to reflect a key claim put forward by Bart Ehrman in his book Did Jesus Exist?, I’m clarifying and tweaking his claim a bit, in order to give it the best chance of success.
Two extremes need to be avoided. First, we don’t want to make MJH so detailed and so strong that it would be controversial among NT scholars. We want MJH to be a MINIMAL hypothesis; one that most NT scholars would accept and support with a significant degree of confidence, and one that has a reasonable chance of being provable.
Second, we don’t want to make MJH so broad and so weak that it makes a trivial claim; a claim that is clearly true or higly probable, but that has little significance for the question of the historicity of Jesus. The general claim that “a Jewish man named ‘Jesus’ (or ‘Yeshu’a’) was crucified in Palestine in the first century” could be appropriately called the Weak Jesus Hypothesis (WJH).
WJH is true or at least highly probable, but trivial. Many Jewish men were crucified in Palestine in the first century, and ‘Yeshu’a’ was a very common name for Jewish males in Palestine at that time:
All of the names on these ossuaries were extremely common names among Jews in Palestine at this period. We have a great deal evidence about this (the data is collected in the enormously useful reference book: Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, part 1 [Mohr-Siebeck, 2002], and also analysed in chapter 4 of my recent book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses [Eerdmans, 2006]). We have a data base of about 3000 named persons (2625 men, 328 women, excluding fictional characters). Of the 2625 men, the name Joseph (including Yose, the abbreviated form) was borne by 218 or 8.3%. (It is the second most popular Jewish male name, after Simon/Simeon.) The name Judah was borne by 164 or 6.2%. The name Jesus was borne by 99 or 3.4%. The name Matthew (in several forms) was borne by 62 or 2.4 %. Of the 328 named women (women’s names were much less often recorded than men’s), a staggering 70 or 21.4% were called Mary (Mariam, Maria, Mariame, Mariamme). (My figures differ very slightly from Ilan’s because I differ from a few of her judgments for technical reasons, but the difference is insignificant for present purposes.)
There were about one million Jews living in Palestine in the first century at a given point in time (a ballpark estimate). About half of those Jews were male. So, at any given point in time in the first century there were aproximately 500,000 Jewish males living in Palestine, because about half of the Jewish population was male. Since this is a ballpark estimate, let’s increase the probability of our correctness by using a range instead of a single number: between 400,000 and 600,000 Jewish males.
Since 3.4% of Jewish males were named ‘Yeshu’a’ (on average), we can calculate that the number of Jewish males named ‘Yeshu’a” who were living in Palestine at any given point during the first century would be between 400,000 x .034 and 600,000 x .034 or between 13,600 and 20,400. In rounder numbers, there would have been about 17,000 (give or take 3,500) Jewish males named ‘Yeshu’a’ living in Palestine at any given point in time during the first century. It is almost certain that one or more of those 17,000 (or so) Jewish males died as a result of crucifixion, even if the NT Gospels are complete fiction.
And this number only represents a particular time slice. Each month more Jewish boys would be born in Palestine, and some of them would be named ‘Yeshu’a’ adding more people to the existing collection of Jewish males with that name, and each month some of the Jewish males named ‘Yeshu’a’ living in Palestine would die, grow old (beyond an age appropriate for the historical Jesus), or move away from Palestine. So, over the course of several decades, thousands of Jewish males named ‘Yeshu’a’ would come and go, increasing still further the probability that one or more of them would be crucified.
So, if it is possible to narrow the scope of people who would satisfy the requirements/conditions layed out in MJH, then that will help to avoid the problem of triviality just illustrated in terms of WJH. One way to do this is by narrowing the range of dates for the ministry and crucifixion of Jesus, and the range of the age of Jesus when he was crucified or at the start of his ministry. But we also need to do this without making clearly questionable or controversial chronological claims about Jesus of Nazareth.