When Absence of Evidence is Evidence of Absence

When Absence of Evidence is Evidence of Absence February 20, 2017

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 30th 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 V of a mini series debunking “The Myth of the Mythical Jesus“.)

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

We are nearing the end of my deconstruction of “The Myth of the Mythical Jesus,” an “anxiousbench” blog posting written by the apologist Philip Jenkins. Readers who have been following this long but fun-filled critique of his clever defense of the traditional notion that Jesus of Nazareth once was an historical figure (“the Historical Jesus”), will recall that up until now Jenkins has yet to present a single fact to support the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, for reasons given in a previous posting, I have assessed the value of his “cumulative evidence” as equal to minus one! For new visitors to this blog, I strongly urge you to search the Archive of this NoGodBlog to get back to the first posting in my series of rebuttals to Jenkins. (I believe that this series began with my ninth posting.)

The subject of today’s installment is Jenkins’ reply 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].” Jenkins devotes two paragraphs to this apology, beginning with:

“These theories are fun, and much like London buses, don’t worry if you miss one, there’ll be another one along in a few minutes. For the arguments against these various candidates, check out ‘scholarly consensus’ above.”

Again, this is cute and amazingly economical. This witty comment draws the reader’s attention away from the facts that (1) no specific “historical character” is mentioned for readers to evaluate; (2) no evidence is presented against any of the unspecified characters; (3) no actual reference is presented for interested readers to consult; and (4) the whole topic of confused memory of historical figures is dismissed as too silly either to define specifically or to bother to refute. Very skillful evasion of the duty to presented actual evidence supporting the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.

But there is a further fallacy lurking concealed in this witty barb. That is the idea that if indeed Jenkins had refuted specific Mythicist claims it would have counted as evidence in favor of an historical Jesus! This reminds me of creationists who try to refute Peppered-Moth evolutionary ecology and think that they have presented evidence in favor of creationism. Moreover, they think they can use that argument to support a six thousand-year-old earth, a talking snake, and the existence of green plants before the sun came into being! Come to think about it, it’s a sort of “excluded-middle” fallacy: thinking that there are only two logical options, with no middle ground or grounds existing. Pascal’s Wager is of this sort. It supposes that either the Christian god exists or no gods at all exist. It excludes one of many middle possibilities such as (1) yes, there is a god and she’s Chinese; (2) many gods exist, both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic; (3) that “God” is a “Piety”: a personal deity comprised of π persons, not three. (I’ve always thought the latter was a great notion to ponder, as it posits a godhead that is both an irrational number and an irrational idea!)

Jenkins lays to rest the notion that Jesus of Nazareth was a confused memory of some actual figure of history with a second paragraph:

“At some point in this process, too, Ockham’s razor comes into play, namely “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.” So what’s wrong with accepting the simple, straightforward explanation, namely that the really well-documented historical Jesus we know is the one the ancient books are talking about?”

Unlike many apologists, Jenkins actually quotes Ockham’s razor correctly, adding the crucial “beyond necessity” to the “Entities must not be multiplied” rule. (Of course, his readers would have been much more impressed if Jenkins had cited Ockham in his original Latin: entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.) However, I can’t imagine why he didn’t quote Carl Sagan’s famous dictum “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”; I must suppose Jenkins had too many other things on his mind.

As Ockham himself knew all too well, the “beyond necessity” requirement often makes shaving with his razor a quite shaky and dangerously uncertain activity. Although Jenkins quotes those two words, he pays no attention to them and makes no effort to show that no further assumptions are needed in order to settle upon “the really well-documented historical Jesus we know.” Excuse me? Isn’t the “historical Jesus we know” precisely the guy whose existence he’s supposed to prove—but now is simply assuming? Isn’t that the Jesus for whom—with only one more argument in his “Myth of the Mythical Jesus” left for us to examine—even at this late date he has presented absolutely no evidence at all? Indeed it is!

Apart from the absence of evidence in all of Jenkins’s paragraphs, we must inquire just which “well-documented historical Jesus” is the one “we know” and “is the one the ancient books are talking about?” Which ancient books is he talking about? Anything outside the New Testament? The books we’ve already demonstrated to contain no evidence for any historical Jesus? Is he referring to the well-documented Jesus of the “authentic” Pauline Epistles? The Jesus of the Deutero-Pauline Epistles? The Pastoral Epistles? The Book of Revelation? The canonical gospels? The Gnostic gospels? Is he referring to the well-documented Jesus who drove a legion of demons into a really well-documented herd of swine and well-documentedly drove money changers out of the Temple of Yahweh? Is it the well-documented Jesus who was born to a really well-documented perpetual virgin? Who exactly did the documentation? Whose Jesus should we be shaving with Ockham’s Razor?

Jenkins adroitly misleads his readers into thinking that it is more logical to accept—without evidence—any of the incompletely defined Jesuses of popular culture than it is to demand evidence for a precisely defined one!

Finally, we must indeed wonder if the mythical picture of Jesus of Nazareth may in fact be a pastiche of fragments of biographies of historical figures such as Apollonius of Tyana or one of the Caesars, fragments of mystery-cult deities, quotations from ancient wisdom literature (including Aesop’s Fables!), or other things beyond my ken? Much has been written along these lines by various Mythicists, and this is not the place for me to enter into evaluating that material. The reason is simple: all of that literature could be false, and it still would not count as any evidence at all in favor of an historical Jesus!

Next time: Jenkins sneers at the charge that “ ‘Jesus’ was a mythical figure like those of the ancient mystery religions, with many analogies to figures in other world religions, with many analogies to figures in other world religions, such as Krishna or even Buddha.”

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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