Gospel Fiction and Magical Nonsense

just say no jesus

Speaking FRANK-ly About Jesus: Critique of alleged evidence of the historicity of  Jesus of Nazareth.

(Ed. Note: This is the 16th post in Frank Zindler’s Speaking Frankly About Jesus blog which is dedicated to the thesis that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. This is part H of a mini series debunking “The Myth of the Mythical Jesus“.) 

Lies: So short in stating, so long in negating!

Let us take stock: We now have analyzed the first nine paragraphs of Philip Jenkins’ blog “The Myth of the Mythical Jesus” and have not yet been presented any real evidence to support the historicity or quondam physical reality of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, we have found the author’s great ability to commit indirectly the ad hominem abusive species fallacy, make unsubstantiated claims, and commit the fallacy so common with religious apologists—trying to explain the unknown by means of the even less known (ignotum per ignotius). Let us now consider Jenkins’ tenth paragraph:

“But you can take Paul entirely out of the story, and still have all the evidence you need. The gospels were not of course written during Jesus’s lifetime, but they use traditions that clearly do provide a direct linkage to a historical individual. The quality of historical sources depends on how directly they can be connected to events, and how plausible the chain of connection. All the canonical sources depict a very plausible Jesus in a very identifiable early first century historical setting. More significant, there are clear and well understood chains of evidence and tradition from Jesus’s time to the writing of those gospels.”

Goodness gracious, where should we begin? We must ask why “of course,” when Jenkins writes “The gospels were not of course written during Jesus’s lifetime…” If Jesus had done any of the magic tricks claimed in them, there would have had to be exactly contemporaneous reports—lots of them. Only if all the miracles of the gospels never happened can this statement have any plausibility at all. Jenkins either should concede that his Jesus was not a wonderworker, or he should give up his argument from the gospels. Bart Ehrman in his Did Jesus Exist? Was able (although not effectively) to use arguments based on the gospels simply because he is an Atheist and admits Jesus wasn’t a god and that the miracles are not historical. Jenkins must either give up Christianity or give up trying to use the gospels as historical documents.

Before continuing with our analysis of the paragraph quoted above, we must inquire why anyone, not just a scientist, would think that the gospels are historical documents. We read in Mark 4:8 that “the devil taketh him [Jesus] up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world [including those of the Andes and Mesoamerica?], and the glory of them.” That only is possible if the earth be flat! We read of talking devils and animal cruelty—Jesus driving devils into about two thousand pigs [Mark 5:13] and drowning them in the “Sea” of Galilee. The gospels are so intricately constructed as magical tales that there is no more reason to try to extract historical data from them than from the tales of the Thousand and One Nights.

“The gospels… use traditions that clearly do provide a direct linkage to a historical individual.” Really? How exactly do they do this? A direct linkage to a historical individual is precisely what we do not have—in the gospels or anywhere at all. Please bring out the whole chain! Please show, connecting-link-by-connecting-link, the connections of the Four Fables to a man named Jesus of Nazareth who lived at the same time as Herod the Great! This sentence is just a claim incapable of being substantiated. Moreover, it is outrageously and patently false.

“The quality of historical sources depends upon how directly they can be connected to events, and how plausible the chain of connection.” Indeed, I agree completely. “All the canonical sources depict a very plausible Jesus in a very identifiable early first century historical setting.” Surely, Mr. Jenkins, thou makest a joke! The tales of Aladdin in Thousand and One Nights are more coherent, if yet equally incredible!

What, pray prithee, is so very plausible about the Jesuses of the Gospels? They all wore sandals, not hip boots? They wore garments with hems? They drank wine instead of Mormon grape juice? One of them wore swaddling clothes instead of diapers when he was a baby because he never had to urinate or defecate?

It is all too easy to forget when getting mired in the quick sands of theological debate that for historical fiction to be good it must be credible in its historical setting. (I will argue in a later installment that there are historical incongruities in the gospel of Mark, the gospel plagiarized almost completely by Matthew and Luke.) Jenkins must bring evidence to support the claim that the Four Fables are not fiction.

If you’re going to tell a whopper, tell it twice to give it a better chance of being believed; people may not believe their ears upon first hearing. Jenkins ends this paragraph with an echo of an earlier line:

“More significant, there are clear and well understood chains of evidence and tradition from Jesus’s time to the writing of these gospels.”

That is so blatantly false that it sucks the breath right out of me. Not even Bart Ehrman in his most desperate attempts to demonstrate the historicity of a Jesus of Anywhereatall ever resorted to such a misrepresentation of the facts. Certain it is: had such a chain of evidence existed, Ehrman would have devoted an entire chapter to every link!

It is instructive to compare the situation in Christianity with that in Islam. Muslims, in addition to the Qur’an, also follow the hadith, the supposed sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad. Each “report” of the Prophet is accompanied by an isnad—a chain of references supposedly leading back to the Prophet himself: “A got this from B, who got if from C, … who got it from Z, who got it from the Prophet himself.” To be sure, Sunni and Shia‘ Muslims honor different sayings, and it is all too clear that the creation of the various hadith was for blatantly theopolitical purposes, not for historical accuracy.

To return to “The Myth of the Mythical Jesus”: no such chain of isnads exists for Christianity outside a few several-link chains in the Church Fathers, and the credulity of the Church Fathers is so great that no coherent argument can be made for their reliability in this matter.

We must conclude, then, that paragraph ten uses circular reasoning: The traditions are used to prove the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, and the imagined circumstances of the Jesus stories are used to validate the traditions! But no matter: except for sentence three, all the claims of paragraph ten are false.

Next time: We shall see what Jenkins has to say about Bart Ehrman’s latest book “Jesus Before the Gospels, and “the emergence of the Jesus movement between 30 and the 80s.”

Frank Zindler is the past interim President of American Atheists, a member of the American Atheists board of directors, the chief editor of American Atheists Press, and an esteemed academic and activist. 

(Photo credit: Eric Lin via Flikr; https://www.flickr.com/photos/phonescoop/214501602/)

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