Existence vs. Basic Aspects/Attributes
“Did Jesus exist?” – What does this question mean?
Clarity is a gateway standard of critical thinking. If you are UNCLEAR about the meaning of a question, then your thinking about that question will also be unclear, and your thinking will probably not be very useful or productive or logical so long as you remain UNCLEAR about the question at issue.
On the one hand, it is certain that there was no Jewish man who lived in Palestine in the first century named “Jesus”. That is because “Jesus” is a name in the English language, and the English language did not exist in the first century. Question settled! That was easy.
On the other hand, if the question is asking whether there was a Jewish man who lived in Palestine in the first century named “Yeshua” (in Aramaic), that question can also be answered with certainty. Yes, there was such a man. In fact, there were thousands of Jewish men who lived in Palestine in the first century named “Yeshua” (in Aramaic). Aramaic was the language of Palestinian Jews in the first century, and “Yeshua” was a very common name at that time. Question settled. No need for further discussion.
Obviously, I have not really settled the question “Did Jesus exist?” here. Clearly, the question is NOT merely asking whether there was a Jewish man by the name of “Yeshua” who lived in Palestine in the first century. But if that is not what the question is asking, then what IS the question asking? It turns out that it is not so easy to say what this question is asking. So philosophy (or at least logic and critical thinking) has an important role to play, as it usually does, right from the start. We need to clarify the meaning of the question “Did Jesus exist?”
One important failure of Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? (hereafter: DJE) is that Ehrman never asks this basic question of clarification:
What does the question “Did Jesus exist?” mean?
The clarity and quality of Ehrman’s thinking about the question “Did Jesus exist?” suffers because of this fundamental mistake. Furthermore, because of his basic unclarity about the question at issue, Ehrman appears to make the same sort of blunder that was made by Thomas Aquinas when Aquinas discussed the question “Does God exist?”.
In Summa Theologica Aquinas attempts to first prove the existence of “God” and then he goes on to try to prove that God has various divine attributes. Ehrman similarly thinks that the question of the existence of Jesus can be settled prior to showing that various basic aspects of the life of Jesus (as portrayed in the canonical gospels) are factual. Here are some comments by Ehrman where he seems to treat these as two separate issues:
The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist. (DJE, p.4, emphasis added)
…a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist. He may not have been the Jesus that your mother believes in or the Jesus of the stained-glass window or the Jesus of your least favorite televangelist or the Jesus proclaimed by the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, the local megachurch, or the California Gnostic. But he did exist, and we can say a few things, with relative certainty, about him. (DJE, p.6, emphasis added)
[My goal is] to show that there really was a historical Jesus and that we can say certain things about him. (DJE, p.37, emphasis added)
These [surviving Gospels] 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, emphasis added)
Would someone count as BEING “Jesus” if that person was not Jewish? I don’t think so. Would someone count as BEING “Jesus” if that person was not crucified by the Romans? Probably not. These “basic aspects” or attributes of Jesus seem to be more than just trivial claims about Jesus. They seem to be a part of the meaning of the word “Jesus”, part of how we determine whether or not a particular person was in fact “Jesus”.
Aquinas and Ehrman both failed to recognize the need to DEFINE the thing that you want to talk about BEFORE attempting to prove that it exists. This is a basic mistake in logic.
Knut Tranoy raises a serious objection against the way Aquinas approaches the question “Does God exist?”:
To prove or to produce evidence that a certain being, x, exists, is, one might say, to prove that a certain set of compossible properties is actualized. That is, we cannot prove or know that x exists without at the same time knowing something about the nature or essence of x.
To prove the existence of God is, then, to show that the properties ascribed to the Christian God in the Bible are actualized in one and only one being.
(“Thomas Aquinas” in A Critical History of Western Philosophy, p.110)
Tranoy sums up the logical principle this way:
Before we can try to prove anything at all we must, of course, have some idea of the nature or properties of the being whose existence we want to prove.
(“Thomas Aquinas” in A Critical History of Western Philosophy, p.110)
In order to prove the existence of God, one must START with a definition of God, and this is commonly done by means of a list of key (or basic) divine attributes. For example, here is a list of basic divine attributes that I use to clarify the meaning of the word “God”:
- an eternally bodiless person
- an eternally omnipotent person
- an eternally omniscient person
- an eternally perfectly morally good person
- a person who is the creator of the universe
Ehrman never explains what he means by a “basic aspect” of the life of Jesus, but I suspect that the word “basic” here is leaning in the direction of “essential”. In other words, some aspects of the life of Jesus are very important and central from the point of view of Christian faith, and other aspects of the life of Jesus are less important and less central from the point of view of Christian faith. That Jesus was crucified by the Romans is a very important and cenral aspect of the life of Jesus from the point of view of the Christian faith. That means that the “basic aspect” of Jesus being crucified by the Romans is a good candidate for being an essential attribute of Jesus. In other words, this is an aspect or attribute that we could reasonably include in a DEFINITION of the meaning of the word “Jesus” for the purpose of clarifying the question “Did Jesus exist?”
But lots of Jewish men were crucified by the Romans in first century Palestine, so these basic attributes would not be sufficient by themselves to define the word “Jesus”, since the point is not to locate a whole GROUP of Jewish men, but to identify exaclty ONE particular Jewish man. So, what we need, and what Ehrman failed to provide, is a clear definition of the word “Jesus” for the purpose of clarifying the question “Did Jesus exist?”, and that definition, in order to be plausible and useful, will need to specify several basic aspects or attributes, just like my definition of “God” specifies several basic attributes of God, in order to clarify the question “Does God exist?”.
Because Ehrman never stops to clarify and define the word “Jesus”, he is UNCLEAR about the meaning of the qeustion “Did Jesus exist?”, and because he is UNCLEAR about the meaning of this question, he is in no position to think clearly about this question, and he is in no position to prove or to establish that it is the case that “Jesus” did exist.
I have some other serious objections to raise against Ehrman’s ABSIG argument (Agreements Between Seven Independent Gospels) for the existence of Jesus, but they will have to wait for another day.