(Ed. Note: This is the 29th 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 U of a mini series debunking “The Myth of the Mythical Jesus“.)
Lies: So short in stating, so long in negating!
In the previous installment of my critique of the apologist Philip Jenkins’ (mis)treatment of the Mythicist claim that “Jesus left no writings,” I did not have time to deal with his comments dealing with the fact that the writings of “truly elite people” as well are largely lost. Let me quote his words again so readers can better follow my critique:
“Even if we look at truly elite people, it’s depressing to read of the substantial works they wrote that once existed, but no longer do. Just to take one example, in Rome at just this time, the pivotal imperial woman Agrippina the Elder wrote a family history that we would dearly like to read, but it has been lost irretrievably for many centuries. You could actually produce a lengthy catalogue of similar works that we know once existed, but which don’t any more—in fact, they would fill many imaginary libraries. And we wonder that we have nothing from a rabbi from Nazareth?”
This paragraph is so peculiar that I’m not certain where exactly to begin my analysis. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this paragraph is what it doesn’t list among the writings of antiquity that have been lost. It makes no mention of all the ancient works of science, mathematics, and philosophy that have perished. It makes no mention of all the ancient treatises on history that have disappeared from the libraries of the world, nor does it cite the loss of the sacred writings of nearly all the ancient Christian sects that weren’t winners in the theopolitical games that bestowed the Olympic laurel crown upon the Orthodox Catholic Church. (As I will explain later, there are strategic reasons why Jenkins would not want to mention any of these things.)
Instead of lamenting these important writings, Jenkins bemoans the fact that “the pivotal imperial woman Agrippina the Elder wrote a family history that we would dearly like to read, but it has been lost irretrievably for many centuries.” Agrippina the Elder? How many of Jenkins’ readers would know who this person was, or why the loss of her writings was so lamentable? Certainly, they must conclude, Jenkins must be a profound historian to lament the loss of writings of an ancient character of whom his readers have never heard! Well, it turns out that Agrippina the Elder was indeed a very important person. She was the granddaughter of Augustus, the daughter-in-law of Tiberius, mother of Caligula, and grandmother of Nero!
I agree with Jenkins: the loss of the memoires of Agrippina the Elder would indeed be lamentable—if indeed she had ever written any. Unfortunately, Jenkins has confused Agrippina the Elder with her daughter, Agrippina the Younger. It was Agrippina the Younger who wrote the memoires that were consulted by Tacitus when he was writing the Annales. It would appear that Agrippina the Elder was as obscure to Jenkins as she must have been to his readers!
Okay, so why wouldn’t Jenkins have wanted to mention the loss of most or all the writings of the ancient Greek mathematicians and scientists? Could it be because the Christian emperor Justinian I closed down the Platonic Academy in Athens in 529 CE, putting an end to all classical learning and science? After that fateful crime against reason, an effective end was made to all classical learning and science. After that, the Dark Ages would descend upon the West and all the books of learning that weren’t burnt were simply never again recopied and preserved. Christians had no need of worldly wisdom. Like many Fundamentalist Christians of today, the ancient faithful had no need for “the wisdom of this world.” All they needed to know was what their priests told them. All their priests needed to know was to be found in their suitably edited bibles.
Just how horrible was the loss of learning occasioned by the triumph of learning-loathing Christianity? The example of the so-called “Archimedes Palimpsest” may give us some impression of the enormity of that ancient triumph of superstition over science. The Archimedes Palimpsest is a Greek prayer book that turned out to have been written on top of parchment pages from which had been erased the text of a long-lost book by Archimedes [d. 212 BCE]. The book was entitled “On the Method of Mechanical Theorems.” In that book, it became clear, Archimedes showed that he had discovered the integral calculus—knowledge of which would not be regained until the time of Gottfried Leibnitz [1646-1716], almost two millennia later! Grant me the indulgence of quoting from my essay “Archimedes and the Moon,” reprinted in Vol. II of my collected short works, Through Atheist Eyes”:
“Archimedes lived in Syracuse, a Greek colony on the island of Sicily. He was killed during the Roman invasion of the city in 212 BCE, but it is clear that a copy of the calculus book that he had written survived his death. From Syracuse, either his original manuscript or a copy must have made its way to Alexandria—arguably greater than Athens as the intellectual capital of the Mediterranean world. From Alexandria, a copy went to Constantinople (now Istanbul, in Turkey), the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. … Around the year 1000 CE someone in Constantinople made a copy of the treatise on parchment. Approximately two centuries later, as Christianity consolidated its ignorance and cast shadows of superstition throughout its realm, a Christian monk scraped the greatest discovery of the ancient world off its parchment preserve and it became dust on a monastery floor. What one day would become a lunar flight plan was replaced by something that even in the year 1200 could be seen as simple lunacy. The erased and sanctified parchment was made over into a prayer book!”“Almost miraculously, the Greek Orthodox prayer book survived the assault of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, when Roman Catholic Christians sacked Constantinople and burned as many of its books as they could find. Until quite modern times, the mathematical and scientific wisdom of ancient Greece lay suffocating in the smoke of incense and monkish mephitis, enveloped and veiled by the vapors of vigils, venerations, and vaticinations. For nearly a millennium, no one in the world knew what Archimedes had known.”
This makes me recall to mind the saying of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of American Atheists, Inc. and winner of the 1963 SCOTUS case that ruled forced prayer and bible reading in the public schools were unconstitutional:
“Had it not been for Christianity, Christopher Columbus wouldn’t have landed on a Caribbean island; he would have landed on the moon!”
How true, how true.
There are further reasons Jenkins would have ignored all the important writings that have been lost and draw attention instead to the false case of Agrippina the Elder. We must recall that the second time that the great Library at Alexandria was burnt it was at the hands of Christians. Under the Christian emperor Theodosius I who outlawed paganism, Theophilus (“God-lover”) Patriarch of Alexandria oversaw the destruction of the Serapeum, the remnant of the great library that had been destroyed accidentally when Julius Caesar bombarded the city. (According to Plutarch, however, Mark Antony helped restore the Alexandria library with the gift of the 200,000 scrolls of the Pergamon library in compensation for Caesar’s destruction.) The destruction of the library was followed later by the murder of mathematician and scientist Hypatia, who was hacked to death in an Alexandrian church and her flesh removed down to the bone by scraping with clam shells. The Christian emperors cut off funding for the Museum of Alexandria, and intellectual pursuits and scientific research came to an end in the Christian Roman Empire.
Although Jenkins mentions the Oxyrhynchus Papyri and I have discussed those remnants of the literature and records of the 3rd to 8th centuries in a previous installment of this rejoinder to Jenkins, it is significant to note in the present context that those scraps of writing included classics of Greek literature, fragments of historical and other learned works, and fragments of Christian texts—including a collection of sayings (“logia”) of Jesus that are not found in the canonical gospels. One may fairly ask why such things were found in the rubbish mounds of the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus. Were they originally on library shelves and then consigned by zealous Christians (and later, Muslims) to the dustbin of oblivion?
As an aside, I wish to amuse my readers by the origin of the name “oxyrhynchus,” the name of the ancient city where the similarly designated papyri were found. In Greek the word means “sharp snout,” and refers to the sharp-nosed sturgeon Acipenser oxyrhynchus that swam in the nearby Nile. Let it be known, that was the great fish that ate the phallus of Osiris when the god’s body was dismembered and thrown into the Nile by his brother Set. An Egyptian fish cult developed that thrived until the triumph of Christianity and Islam. (It is interesting that Christianity also began as a fish cult of sorts when the vernal equinox moved from Aries (the “sacrificial lamb”) into Pisces, leading to the two-fish symbol becoming one of the earliest symbols of the religion.)
To return to the question of why Jenkins wouldn’t want attention to be drawn to the real reason almost nothing remains of the writings of ancient worthies: certainly, Jenkins would not want attention to be drawn to the fact that the centuries-long burning of books by Christians is the single greatest reason for the loss. I had originally intended in this post to give numerous examples of such atrocities, but the task proved too daunting. Instead, I shall provide a link to a Wikipedia “List of book-burning incidents” to which interested readers may connect to form some sense of the role of Christians in relation to the sum total of known burnings of books.
One last point: Jenkins sneers, “And we wonder that we have nothing from a rabbi from Nazareth?” Actually, it is only Jenkins and his coreligionists who might momentarily wonder about that one! Mythicists expect that nothing would be found that had been written by a mythical man! And now that we know that Nazareth didn’t exist when Jesus of Nazareth should have been there, we see the fact that “Jesus never wrote anything” just helps confirm the Mythicist position. And I almost forgot: what evidence does Jenkins have that anyone in first-century Galilee was called “Rabbi”? The first known use of the term outside the New Testament is in the Mishna [c. 200 CE].
Next time: Jenkins replies to the charge that “‘Jesus’ was actually a disguised or confused memory of another historical character, such as [insert ludicrous candidate here, from Teacher of Righteousness onward]”
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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