A Brief Review of My Previous Objections
One key argument for the existence of Jesus presented by Bart Ehrman in Chapter 3 of Did Jesus Exist? (hereafter: DJE) is based on an historical claim about alleged Agreements Between Seven “Independent” Gospels:
(ABSIG) There are seven Gospels which were written within “a hundred years after the traditional date of Jesus’s death” (DJE, p.78) that are “either completely or partially independent” from each other (DJE, p.78) and yet they “agree on many of the basic aspects of Jesus’s life and death” (DJE, p.86).
One problem with the argument is that a strong version of the argument requires forty to fifty pieces of historical evidence (i.e. forty to fifty specific passages quoted from the seven “independent” Gospels), but Ehrman provides ZERO pieces of historical data in support of the historical premise of this argument: (ABSIG).
Another problem with Chapter 3 in general, and the ABSIG argument in particular, is that Ehrman is UNCLEAR about the meaning of the question “Did Jesus exist?”. Specifically, Ehrman never attempts to clarify or define the meaning of the word “Jesus”, nor does he provide a clear explanation or definition of what he means by a “basic aspect” of the life or death of Jesus. Before Ehrman can prove that “Jesus exists”, he needs to identify what the “basic” or essential aspects/attributes of Jesus are, so that he can then (potentially) prove that someone who had those attributes actually existed. Since Ehrman did not clarify or define the meaning of the word “Jesus”, he was in no position to present ANY arguments for the existence of “Jesus”.
A third problem with the ABSIG argument is that Ehrman does a poor job explaining and clarifying the crucial concept of “independence”. First of all, his use of the phrase “independent Gospels” is misleading and confusing, because, for example, the Gospel of Matthew is one of these “independent” Gospels, but a large portion of Matthew was based on the Gospel of Mark. The author of Matthew used Mark as a source of information about Jesus, as Ehrman himself points out. Because the evidence needed to support (ABSIG) is specific passages from the seven Gospels, the real issue concerns the independence of the PASSAGES presented to support the claim that there is an agreement between some of these Gospels on a basic aspect of the life or death of Jesus. So the “independence” of the Gospels (as books) becomes irrelevant.
Furthermore, the concept of “independence” is not as clear and simple as it first appears, and upon closer examination it has numerous implications, especially when we are talking about the claim that several passages (concerning a basic aspect of the life of Jesus) are independent of each other. If we have six such passages, for example, then there are 30 different potential dependencies between these passages which must be eliminated in order to show that the passages are independent of each other. This means there is a significant burden of proof on anyone who attempts to provide historical evidence in support of (ABSIG). Since Ehrman offered ZERO pieces of historical evidence in support of (ABSIG) he never had the opportunity to take on this burden of proof, and thus made no efforts along these lines.
Today I will discuss another problem (or potential problem) that faces anyone who attempts to provide actual historical evidence in support of (ABSIG).
Independence of the Basic Aspects/Attributes of Jesus
Ehrman never provided actual historical evidence in support of (ABSIG) so he had no opportunity to work at meeting the burden of proof to show that the relevant PASSAGES from the seven “independent” Gospels were PASSAGES that were independent from each other (as well as from other possible sources). Similarly, Ehrman never provided a list of “basic aspects” of the life of Jesus; he never defined the essential attributes of “Jesus”, and so he had no opportunity to work at meeting the burden of proof to show that those attributes were reasonable and significant attributes to use for the purpose of investigating the question “Did Jesus exist?”
One likely problem or objection that Ehrman would face (from me at least) if he ever gets around to defining the essential attributes of “Jesus”, is that his list of essential attributes will probably contain attributes that are NOT independent of each other.
The independence that I have in mind is different from the concept of the independence of sources or passages. Lists of important or essential attributes of Jesus typically involve attributes that are not “independent” given that we understand “independent” in the sense that is used in relation to probability calculations. It is crucial, for the purposes of supporting (ABSIG) that either the basic attributes of Jesus are independent from each other, or (failing that) that we determine the degree of dependence between each of the various basic attributes.
There is no discussion of this issue by Ehrman simply because he never gets down to the business of actually providing historical evidence in support of (ABSIG), so the issue of the independence of “basic aspects” of the life of Jesus, or of essential attributes of “Jesus”, does not come into view. But if someday Ehrman (or a Christian apologist) attempts to provide actual historical evidence for (ABSIG), then they are likely to run into this problem.
In his book, The Real Jesus, Luke Johnson’s argument for the basic historicity of the Gospels runs into a problem because Johnson fails to notice the degree to which some of his basic attributes of Jesus have dependencies on each other. I have commented on this in my series of posts responding to criticisms from William Lane Craig.
This concern about the independence of basic or essential attributes of Jesus grew out of objections to apologetic arguments concerning alleged fulfilled messianic prophecies. Consider the following objection raised by Tim Callahan in Bible Prophecy: Failure or Fulfillment? (hereafter: BP) against Josh McDowell’s presentation of allegedly fulfilled prophecies about Jesus:
McDowell has fudged his figures a bit by taking one incident and breaking it into two to get an extra prophecy or using one prophecy as the source of two separate fulfillments. … Numbers 8 and 9 on his list are that Jesus was a descendant of Jesse, fulfilling Is. 11:1 and that he was of the house of David, fulfilling Jer. 22:5. Since David was the son of Jesse, if Jesus were a descendant of David he would also be a descendant of Jesse. Thus, this should be one prophecy, not two. (BP, p.113)
One can broaden Callahan’s objection by use of the concept of “independence” from the context of probability calculations. Because being a descendant of David implies being a descendant of Jesse, these two (alleged) attributes of Jesus are NOT independent from each other. If Jesus is the descendant of David, that impacts the probability that Jesus is the descendant of Jesse; it raises the probability of the latter attribute to: 1.0 (certainty). So, if possession of attribute A by Jesus impacts the probability that Jesus possesses attribute B, then attributes A and B are NOT independent attributes.
Furthermore, if possession of attribute A by Jesus makes it certain or likely that Jesus also posses attribute B, then we need to be cautious about overestimating the significance of the fact that Jesus possesses BOTH attribute A and attribute B.
Jesus was generally believed by early Christians to be “the messiah”. The messiah was expected to be a Jewish male, from the tribe of Judah, a descendant of King David, who would be born in Bethlehem, who would be righteous and a devout worshipper of Jehovah, and a wise man who was obedient to and close to Jehovah. Because of these expectations, a list of basic attributes like the following is highly problematic:
- A jewish male
- who was the messiah (or claimed to be the messiah)
- who was from the tribe of Judah
- who was a descendant of King David
- who was born in Bethlehem
- who was righteous
- who was a devout worshipper of Jehovah
- who was a wise man (or was believed to be wise by many)
All of these attributes (and more) are implied or at least made probable by the second attribute: “who was the messiah (or claimed to be the messiah)”.
More precisely, anyone who sincerely believed that Jesus was the messiah would be likely to also believe that Jesus possessed the other attributes in this list. So, if the author of a Gospel believed that Jesus was the messiah, then we would reasonably expect that author to also believe that Jesus possessed all of these other attributes as well (even if they had no evidence, no facts, and no sources of information indicating that Jesus possessed those other attributes).
So, if and when Ehrman (or some enterprizing Christian apologist) makes a serious attempt to provide actual historical evidence supporting (ABSIG), then I, for one, will take a very close look at the list of basic or essential attributes used to define the word “Jesus” and to clarify the claim “Jesus exists”, and one of the things I will be looking for is whether those attributes are in fact independent of each other.
If I find there are dependencies between the attributes, then I will be checking to see whether Ehrman (or the apologist) has identified those dependencies and whether the degree of dependence has been properly assessed and taken into account in evaluating the significance of the conjunction of those various attributes in the descriptions of Jesus found in the seven Gospels.
This article is archived.