The Circular Reasoning of Jesus Belief

The Circular Reasoning of Jesus Belief August 12, 2016

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 18th 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 J of a mini series debunking “The Myth of the Mythical Jesus“.) 

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

We have already shown that blogger-apologist Philip Jenkins is unable to refute the charge that “Contemporary writers do not refer to Jesus.” Now we shall see that he is equally unable to fight off the claim that “Jesus features in no contemporary secular or non-Christian literary sources.” Jenkins informs us that:

“Jesus’s activities were at the time strictly limited in their perceived importance, and it would be astounding—dare I say, miraculous—if any contemporary did make such a comment. The range of contemporary sources commenting on the region in that era, roughly the 20s-30s AD, is tiny. I dearly wish we had the police blotter of the Jerusalem PostIntelligencer for those years, but we don’t.”

We may begin by noting the circular reasoning (petitio principii) of the first sentence. The claim that Jesus’s activities were limited in perceived importance assumes that which is to be proved: (1) that Jesus existed, and (2) he did things that were ignored or perceived not to be important. The second assumption, moreover, is scientifically meaningless; there is no way one can imagine how to test it. Even if one had a time machine, how exactly would one detect events (perceptions) that weren’t happening?

Expanding his circle of reasoning, he claims that “The range of strictly contemporary sources commenting on the region in that era, roughly the 20s-30s AD, is tiny.” While this statement is true for manuscripts of authors whose works have survived, we cannot know how many more there may have been whose work has not survived because the Christian churches did not think them worthy of copying and preserving. We don’t know whose books were among the thousands burnt by Christianity triumphant, but we do know that the early churches treasured every scrap of information pertaining to Jesus—to the point of making up notices of him where they were absent but should have been found—for example, in the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.

It is worth noting that the total number of authors surviving from the first half of the first century almost certainly has been significantly reduced by the multiple rounds of book-burning that ushered in the Dark Ages and marked the “progress” of Christianity ever after. Despite the effect of book-burning on the survival of authors making no mention of Jesus, it would not have affected the survival of even hostile witnesses to Jesus, as persecution—both real and invented—was an important goad for the successful expansion of Orthodox Christianity.

Despite all the unknowns about which it is pointless to speculate, we do know of a certain Justus of Tiberias—so named after a city and lake mentioned in the gospel of John:

“John 6:1. After these things Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias. 2 And a great multitude followed him, because they saw his miracles which he did no them that were diseased. 3 And Jesus went up into a mountain [I’d like to know just which mountain that could have been!] and there he sat with his disciples. 4 And the Passover, a feast…” [There follows the tale of the miracle of two loaves and five fishes, most likely an astrological allegory involving the sun and moon (two loaves) and the five planets (the fishes, the astrological sign of Jesus himself.]”

Justus of Tiberias lived during the second half of the first century, and he was the rival and enemy of Flavius Josephus. He was a historian whose works have not survived to the present. Certainly had the event depicted in John 6 ever occurred (even without the miracles), vivid memories of the event would have survived in the Tiberias region, and Justus most certainly would have mentioned them—approvingly or not I cannot guess. The wonderful thing to note here, is that Justus’ Chronicle of the Kings of Israel from Moses to Agrippa II survived until the time of the Church Father Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople [c810–c893 CE], whose Bibliotheca, an enormous compendium of book reviews, records that Justus failed to make any mention of Jesus—much to Photius’ dismay. Despite the title given above for Justus’ book, there must have been good reason for Photius to expect to find a discussion of “Our Lord” in that book; but he didn’t. No need to preserve that book! Photius is the last person known to have seen manuscripts of the work of Justus of Tiberias.

To return to Jenkins: We have seen his use of circular reasoning in this paragraph and his use of meaningless, untestable claims. We now proceed to examine his use of the most difficult of all apologetic techniques to deal with—wit. Jenkins appears to be a very witty man, and I would imagine him to be a scintillating and entertaining conversationalist. His witty comments, however, can conceal both subtle and blatant fallacies. His wit can distract the reader away from a careful and logical consideration of his comments.

Jenkins wishes “we had the police blotter of the Jerusalem PostIntelligencer for those years, but we don’t.” I blush to confess that this is the sort of comment I myself might be prone to make in my wittier moments. Even so, we need to unpack it to see what purpose the comment might be serving.

Logically, this witty comment seems to conceal a counterfactual statement: “If the Jerusalem Post-Intelligencer had existed, it would have mentioned Jesus.” In this transformation we may try to analyze the witticism. We see at once an ignotum per ignotius fallacy—Jenkins is trying to explain one unknown (why we have no historical records of Jesus) by a wildly greater unknown (indeed, unknowable), namely, what probably would have been contained in a newspaper that never existed!

Next time: I shall examine Jenkins’ treatment of the “fatuous objection” that Philo of Alexandria does not refer to Jesus even though his life completely would have overlapped that of Jesus had he existed.

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;

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