(Ed. Note: This is the 26th 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 R of a mini series debunking “The Myth of the Mythical Jesus“.)
Lies: So short in stating, so long in negating!
For readers who have just fallen off a Christmas tree into this blog and can’t decide whether to read on or change channels, this is my umpteenth posting of rebuttals to an “anxiousbench” blog by Philip Jenkins entitled “The Myth of the Mythical Jesus,” an apology designed to convince the credulous that Jesus of Nazareth was REAL. In this posting I am deconstructing his reply to the charge that “There are no contemporary references to Jesus in non-literary sources, bureaucratic or otherwise.”
Very early in his apology, Jenkins makes the astonishing comment, “Let me put this as simply as I can: Jesus is better documented and recorded than pretty much any non-elite figure of antiquity” [emphasis original]. That is an amazing thing to say about a character for whom there is no contemporary documentation at all! It seems that Jenkins realizes the falsity of this claim later on when he tries to make excuses for the paucity of records of “non-elite” figures. (The question of why a believing Christian would consider Jesus of Nazareth a “non-elite figure” is neither asked nor answered! Only Atheist historicists like Bart Ehrman are entitled to make such an argument.) Let’s read why we shouldn’t expect to find any records of this character who is “better documented and better recorded than pretty much any non-elite figure of antiquity”:
“Look at the non-elite individuals recorded in contemporary legal texts, such as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. How many individuals are recorded there, and what proportion of the population of the Near East at the time do they represent? In other words, what were the odds that any individual from this time would be recorded in documents that survive, whether we are looking at wills, contracts, court proceedings, or anything else? Or indeed, any writings about those people? I’m still trying to come up with a better word than “infinitesimal” or “microscopic” Nanoscale?
“A similar comment applies to material remains such as monuments and grave markings. Only a microscopic proportion of the number of non-elite people appear in items of that sort that happen to survive and have been recorded. I don’t believe in the so-called James Ossuary, although it continues to attract believers.”
“You’ll note that I use the word “non-elite” frequently, and that is vital. Don’t ever try to compare what we know about Jesus with our evidence for (say) the Emperor Tiberius. Elite people often (by no means always) left some mark in the historical record, non-elite people generally did not.”
Jenkins notes that non-elite individuals are documented in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri from Egypt and he asks “what were the odds that any individual from this time would be recorded in documents that survive?” Excuse me? Are we to overlook the fact that all the marriage contracts, wills, arrest warrants, bills of sale, loan documents, etc. do in fact document the existence of actual non-elite people, and that we have absolutely nothing like that for Jesus? Are we to overlook the fact that every one of the persons named in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri ipso facto is better documented than Jesus? Are we not supposed to realize that the more “non-elite” Jesus of Nazareth might have been, the less confidence we could have in the gospel history—for the simple reason that the more obscure Jesus was, the less likelihood there is that the tales told in the gospels could have been based on actual facts?
Jenkins asks rhetorically, “What are the odds that any individual from this time would be recorded?” This probably cannot be answered with any precision for the simple reason that there are too many variables, in addition to the problem of determining population size and the probability of survival of documents and records. (Indeed, if Christianity did not in fact begin in Palestine—as now seems highly probable—there would be no such records there at all!) But even if we pulled a number out of the air and said “one in a million,” it would be irrelevant to the fact that no corresponding records of Jesus exist. Numerous “ones in a million” have in fact been verified in the Oxyrhyncus Papyri and other ancient sources; Jesus has not.
We cannot know how many people have existed of whom we can have no knowledge! That means, first of all, that Jenkins wants us to fall for the old ignotum per ignotius fallacy—trying to explain the unknown in terms of the more unknown. But come to think about it, this actually is an attempt to explain the unknown in terms of the unknowable! That makes it a scientifically meaningless claim; one can’t even imagine a way to test it. It can’t even be false.
Jenkins seems to admit this in a following paragraph:
“Let me draw a distinction here. Those various strictly contemporary sources give us a wonderful idea of the society at the time, in Palestine, Egypt or wherever, and they confirm what we read in the literary evidence, often to an uncanny degree. But as to producing records of a specific individual that we are seeking information on? No.”
It now occurs to me: the whole purpose of the “non-elite figures” argument in “The Myth of the Mythical Jesus” is to drag a red herring across the path of those seeking evidence in support of the quondam existence of Jesus of Nazareth. To continue on that path surely would only lead to the discovery of … nothing. So, come, track instead the fishy odor over to the shade of the bushes beside that path. Then let’s figure out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Forget about demanding evidence for angels.
We may recall that Jenkins told us “You’ll note that I use the word “non-elite” frequently, and that is vital. Don’t ever try to compare what we know about Jesus with our evidence for (say) the Emperor Tiberius.” And just why, we must ask, should we tie both hands behind our backs?
Once again, I must wonder if Jenkins has become an Atheist. Can anyone who truly believes that Jesus fed “about five thousand men” [Mark 6:44] or “about five thousand men, beside women and children” [Matt 14:21] with two loaves and five fishes was “non-elite”? (I’ll discuss the astrological symbolism of two loaves and five fishes in a later blog.)
Was there darkness from the sixth to the ninth hour at the Passover when eclipses of the sun are astronomically impossible [Matt 27:45] because of the death of a non-elite Jewish peasant?
Did the rocks split; the graves open, exposing the bodies of the saints for a whole day; and the dead rise the next day and amble into Jerusalem to be seen by many [Matt 27:51–53] because a non-elite man had died? Inquiring minds want to know!
It is a pity the British New Testament Scholar N. T. Wright did not heed Jenkins’s improper command. In his 1996 magnum opus on the Historical Jesus, Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright made the foolish claim:
“I have taken it for granted that Jesus of Nazareth existed. Some writers feel a need to justify this assumption at length against people who try from time to time to deny it. It would be easier, frankly, to believe that Tiberius Caesar, Jesus’ contemporary, was a figment of the imagination than to believe that there never was such a person as Jesus.”
In my 1998 essay “Did Jesus Exist?” [reprinted in Vol. I of my Through Atheist Eyes: Religions & Scriptures] I took up Wright’s challenge. My answer shows why Jenkins wouldn’t want us to compare Jesus with Tiberius:
“It is instructive, when examining … [the “evidence” for Jesus provided by scholars in the past] to compare it to the sort of evidence we have, say, for the existence of Tiberius Caesar—to take up the challenge made by Wright and to show that Wright was wrong.
“It may be conceded that it is not surprising that there are no coins surviving from the first century with the image of Jesus on them. Unlike Tiberius Caesar and Augustus Caesar who adopted him, Jesus is not thought to have had control over any mints. Even so, we must point out that we do have coins dating from the early first century that bear images of Tiberius that change with the age of their subject. We even have coins minted by his predecessor, Augustus Caesar, that show Augustus on one side and his adopted son on the other. Would Mr. Wright have us believe that these coins are figments of the imagination? Can we be dealing with fig-mints?
“Statues that can be dated archaeologically survive to show Tiberius as a youth, as a young man assuming the toga, as Caesar, etc. Engravings and gems show him with his entire family. Biographers who were his contemporaries or nearly so quote from his letters and decrees and recount the details of his life in minute detail. There are contemporary inscriptions all over the former empire that record his deeds. There is an ossuary of at least one member of his family, and the Greek text of a speech made by his son Germanicus has been found at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. And then there are the remains of his villa on Capri. Nor should we forget that Augustus Caesar, in his Res Gestae (“Things Accomplished”) which survives both in Greek and Latin on the so-called Monumentum Ancyranum, lists Tiberius as his son and co-ruler.”
“Is there anything advocates of an historical Jesus can produce that could be as compelling as this evidence for Tiberius? I think not, and I thank N.T. Wright for making a challenge that brings this disparity so clearly to light.”
It is quite amusing that Wright specifies “Jesus of Nazareth.” As my readers will know by now, Jesus of Nazareth is perhaps the only Jesus whose existence can be disproved. René Salm has shown once again in his book NazarethGate (NazGate for short) that without the existence of Nazareth at the turn of the era, Jesus of Nazareth is as unreal as the Wizard of Oz.
When Jenkins turns his apology to the problem of the absence of physical remains such as monuments and grave markings relating to Jesus of Nazareth, he says:
“Only a microscopic proportion of the number of non-elite people appear in items of that sort that happen to survive and have been recorded.”
In my studies of the vowel changes in Greek that changed Chreistos into Christos, I consulted hundreds of tomb inscriptions from Italy, Phrygia, Cappadocia, and other places—virtually all of which attested to non-elite people. Indeed, it would appear that the vast majority of grave monuments pertain to non-elite or minimally elite persons. It is the truly elite persons whose tombs and monuments make up the smallest portion of the surviving inscriptions.
Finally it should be noted that non-elite populations of the past present peculiar epistemological problems. While we do in fact know a great deal about many of the non-elite—those whose monuments and remains have been recovered—clearly Jenkins is correct that there must have been many more whose memorabilia have not survived. About them we can have no specific knowledge—only statistically inferred, probabilistic, group-knowledge. That knowledge must be inferred from study of the remains that have survived, records, and other data surviving from the past. We may infer probable population size, sex ratios, life expectancies, and many other group characteristics of the non-elite populations of the past. But we cannot know anything at all about specific individuals whose remains or records have not survived. We can’t even know for certain how many there were that we don’t know about!
We are coming pretty close to the end of Jenkins’ apology, and we must take stock yet once again. So far, despite all the argumentation, sophistry, logical and rhetorical fallacies, we have been presented no solid evidence to make us take seriously the historical existence of any Jesus of Nazareth. In this present installment we have seen Jenkins make the preposterous claim that “Jesus is better documented and recorded than pretty much any non-elite figure of antiquity.” We have seen how he tries then to make excuses for the actual absence of such documentation and drags the red herring of “non-elite figures” across our path of inquiry. We have seen the hypocrisy of a true-believer considering Jesus of Nazareth to have been a non-elite figure, and we end with the observation that no evidence has been presented in support of any historical Jesus in the paragraphs studied in this posting.
Next time: The James Ossuary.
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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