Titled, “Circular Reasoning Isn’t Evidence For the Historical Jesus”, a guest post at the No God Blog, written by Frank Zindler, a former president of the American Atheist and a mythicist, clearly mistitled his article.
Zindler’s post is the last part of a sort-of response with Philip Jenkins, a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor university. You can read his original post here, which is simply giving his readers some broad strokes on the scholarship.
Now, this is not to say that Zindler is uneducated. According to this profile, he has an M.A. in geology, but whenever you speak to areas outside of your specialty you have a responsibility to engage with scholars outside of your field, but also to engage with those who do not hold your position fairly and honestly, else you can be accused of confirmation bias. There is also a danger of falling into the trap of argument from authority.
This is not to say that all appeals to authority are necessarily fallacious because we are dependent upon specialists. However, when depending upon an authority, it is best to check those authorities for accurate representation and use of original sources. An authority who is using secondary sources for anything other than commentary or contrast is likely engaging in poor scholarship.
Zindler’s comments begin with a curious statement that needs some response,
Lies: So short in stating, so long in negating.
Hmmm. Is he accusing Jenkins of perpetuating a falsehood? Let’s keep in mind that Zindler is making a two-fold claim that he has to substantiate.
He begins the body of his response,
We now have reached the final argument of “The Myth of the Mythical Jesus,” an “anxiousbench” blog posting written by the apologist Philip Jenkins. In it, 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, such as Krishna or even Buddha.”
I wouldn’t consider Jenkins’ post a “sneer”, as much as a reasonable response to people who are dependent upon half-truths and shadows to make their argument. If it is a sneering statement it is because of Jenkins looking at the actual evidence and drawing a conclusion. Further, just because someone makes or attempts to draw an analogy doesn’t mean that the analogy is true or even accurate in its representation. When we start drawing lines of comparison between men in history, similarities and differences immediately become clear.
No explanations are given for the many parallels that exist between Jesus “of Nazareth” and the ancient mystery religions or solar cults—only an implicit denial that they exist.
I’ll make it explicit: they do not exist. In fact, many of the supposed parallels are just that: supposed. Interaction with original sources makes this point clear. I’ve posted a rather tongue-in-cheek response to such an accusation as this once. The end of the matter is often a Wikipedia search away, which is simply sad. Parallels are often contrived or stretched to absurdity. In short, it is not up to the person responding to the claim to refute it, it’s up to the person making the claim to substantiate it. Shifting the burden, much?
He goes on,
[…]Jenkins commences his rebuttal of the notion that the savior-god Jesus resembles other savior gods with the fact-filled comment, “Ah, the golden oldies.”
Jenkins characterization of works, like Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, which Zindler calls a “tour-de-farce”, from any meaningful perspective of scholarly anthropology or comparative religion, I consider to be spot on. Jenkins says that such sources, “Usually, they arose from superficial knowledge of those other faiths, commonly by people with a Christian background who projected those understandings into other religions, where they did not belong.” Frazer’s work, while interesting and reflective of the status of scholarship in the middle and late 19th century can, at best, be called “speculative” and many of his arguments seem to lean heavily toward hasty generalization or correlation/causation fallacy. It is highly steeped in evolutionary beliefs. I don’t say that to disparage Frazer’s work, or diminish its value, so much as to contextualize it. Jenkins view, however, stands: there is often a very superficial and highly glossed view of religion and myth in those older sources.
Zindler accuses Jenkins of engaging in ad hominem against Frazer. Jenkins never dismissed Frazer as much as properly characterizing much of the works from those times. I will say that he goes too far in calling Frazer’s and similar work, “historical fiction”. Jenkins does a bit of broad brushing and his attitude is somewhat dismissive, but he’s also not giving a full, thought out position paper as much as generalizing, sometimes over-generalizing. Zindler also accuses Jenkins of affirming the consequent, writing,
In the case in question, we have the fallacious argument that:
(1) If Jesus existed, the Mythicists are wrong about mystery-religion parallels.
(2) The Mythicists are wrong about mystery-religion parallels.
(3) Therefore, Jesus existed.
We see then, that in this final attempt to prove the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, Philip Jenkins has added not a single datum of evidence.
I’m going to call that a straw man argument. Jenkins’ post is merely serving as a commentary on the popular positions, and giving his personal opinions about the issue. Further, he’s taking in Jenkins’ conclusion of his entire article, which is not a scholarly, sourced paper on the issue. Something is telling me that Zindler wasted a lot of time (22 posts?) responding to something that required 1 or two at the most. The main point is this: Jenkins doesn’t condition his argument towards the existence of Jesus based upon an affirmation of that existence. What he does do is present a number of assertions and respond to them. In fact, Jenkins doesn’t necessarily seem to deny any existence of parallels as much as responding to the parallelomania that mythers engage in, something that this source delves into and responds to. Zindler is dependent upon his audience taking his word in his representation of Jenkins as accurate. In this case, it’s not, in fact it’s deliberately misleading, evidenced in this statement: “This leaves his final score—after all those paragraphs of trying to convince his readers that he is providing evidence for the historicity of Jesus—at zero (if we are feeling charitable), or even reduces it to minus one (if we dock him a point for false evidence)!” Considering the four paragraphs he’s referring to had nothing to do with establishing the historical Jesus as much as interacting with outdated scholarship on the matter, you can see the point.
I’m not even sure how to characterize Zindler’s next comments as anything other than dismissive as he writes,
Jenkins pretends to be refuting the idea that “ ‘Jesus’ was a mythical figure like those of the ancient mystery religions.” This is reminiscent of Bart Ehrman, the popular New Testament scholar who tried to refute my similar claim in his New York Times best-selling Did Jesus Exist? (It would appear that Jenkins derives much of his misinformation from that book.) As I point out in Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth (available on Amazon.com in Kindle as well as paperback editions), there really can be little doubt that Christianity began as a mystery cult. The word “mystery” (mysterion in Greek) occurs 27 times in the New Testament itself, not only in the gospels but in the Pauline literature and Revelation as well!
The problem with calling Christianity a “mystery cult” is that Christianity operated in a completely different method than those which were called “mystery cults”, something this paper excerpt gets into as it sets out to describe them. Most interestingly, this quote from the excerpt seems to strike the starkest contrast,
The mysteries had little or no use for doctrine and correct belief. They were primarily concerned with the emotional life of their followers. The cults used many different means to affect the emotions and imaginations of initiates and hence bring about “union with the god”: processions, fasting, a play, acts of purification, blazing lights, and esoteric liturgies. This lack of any emphasis on correct belief marked an important difference between the mysteries and Christianity. (Emphasis added)
Any meaningful reading of the Christian sources reveals two very key elements that are focused upon: right belief dictated by strict doctrine and a harmony between the rites of religion and the secular life, so much so that there was no way to tell the difference. Mystery religions and their cults focused upon experience without uniformity between them, while Christianity focused upon uniformity of doctrine defining experience.
Now the fact that the Greek word μυστήριον (mustereon) appears “27 times”—28 by my count—“in the New Testament,” renders a big, “so what?” I want to know how the noun is being used. The fact that he throws in an irrelevant, unsourced fact, saying, “[The] related word mystēs means “one who has been initiated,” and readers will be reminded that baptism by immersion was a common initiation ritual in earliest Christianity and in other ancient religions,” gains another, “so what?” He’s made an assertion, and his only evidence is a single word. Correlation fallacy, much? The point being is that almost every time that the word is used, it is used in regards to revelation, that there are things that were once not known or apparent. In fact, most modern translations contextually render the term as “secret” or “hidden” and often refer to them in the past tense, such as with this from Paul,
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith… (Romans 16:25-26, ESV)
Hmmm. Notice that what Paul once called a “mystery” he now calls “disclosed” and “revelation”.
What’s more important to recognize, and what often goes unsaid by mythers, is that “mystery religions” and “mystery cults” are often referred to as such because they are just that, mysterious. Little to nothing can be said for certain about the cults outside of a few limited, and sometimes conflicting sources. The heart of such assertions is based upon a denial of one key fact: Christianity’s tie to second temple Judaism. Christianity arises out of a fairly rigid orthodox system. The existence of shared doctrinal information in the form of the Gospels and the epistolary works, adherence to the Jewish Scriptures and similarity of structure, as well as the existence of the Didache, flows in contraposition to the norm of the mystery cults. The best evidence against the assertion is the existence of the Christian Scriptures and the secondary Christian works such as Clement’s epistles the various Epistles of Ignatius and Polycarp.
I have argued elsewhere that this “kingdom of the heavens” [“heaven” is actually in the plural in the Greek text] referred to the new age dawning as the vernal equinox was moving from the constellation of Aries the Ram into Pisces the Fishes at the turn of the era.
The problem with that is that words have meaning and that their meaning is determined by the context. One has to import a whole bunch of assumptions into the text that Matthew has already established from the beginning meaning a certain thing. He likewise attempts to do the same with Revelation 1:20. Problem is that John tells you what they mean in the same verse. Remember me saying something about that circular reasoning? Here ya go.
The mystery-cult origin of Christianity is even more clearly to be detected in the Pauline epistles.
“Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect [Greek teleios: initiated, brought to perfection; with full authority; fulfilled (of omens or predictions); (of gods) having power to fulfill prayer]: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory.”
It makes me very nervous when I cannot find a reference that has the definitions that a person is using. I pulled these screenshots from LOGOS Bible Software, first the verse in parallel with the Greek text (SBL edition) and it’s lexicon in the The New Strongs Concise Dictionary.
What’s important is the phrase, τοῖς τελείοις, rightly translated “the mature”. It’s being used adjectivally to distinguish between two groups of people: believers and non-believers. This is simply a case of definition fallacy as well as cherry picking a translation. Of course, if we follow Paul’s argument and not rip it out of its context, verse 8 centers on a historical reality, the crucifixion of Jesus, and is contrasted against the very thing that he’s arguing for. Hmmm.
He goes on,
A bit farther on, in 4:1, we find “Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards [in the singular, the Greek word oikonomos was also the title of the master of the Serapeum, where the healing and resurrection mysteries of Serapis were believed to take place] of the mysteries of God.”
First, Paul uses two parallel phrases to describe a group, himself along with Peter and the evangelist Apollos as, “servants (hypēretas) of Christ” and “stewards (oikonomous) of God’s mysteries”. The former is used to refer to those joined together for a task, the latter is a more general title. While it may (source needed) refer to the “master of the Serapeum”, the word, in normal Greek usage, simply refers to a household manager. To stretch the word outside the normative use of the word is a violation of sound rules of exegesis. The fact that Greeks used the word to describe a religious office is irrelevant, in fact it’s another one of those “so what” moments. It’s equal to saying that because we use the word “president” to describe a number of different roles, including the leader of a nation, that the president of the school board is related to the President of the United States. It’s a title.
He gives a few more examples, then concludes with this jab,
Given that both Philip Jenkins (peace be upon him!) and Bart Ehrman (p.b.u.h.!) have read the Bible carefully, we must wonder how anyone seeing just these few of the 27 passages mentioning the Christian mysteries could doubt, let alone deny, that Christianity began as a mystery cult.
How about because we allow those 27 (28 by my count) passages to speak for themselves and because words have meanings and their meanings are determined by context? How about the fact that Zindler assumes but doesn’t prove that Paul is necessarily going outside the normal usage of the word, which simply means “hidden” or “secret”? Remember what I said about that circular reasoning? Yeah, he’s doing it.
Let’s just think about something: Paul is using the Greek language, koine, or common Greek to be exact. He’s having to use the vocabulary of that language. Why do we have to assume that Paul is using anything other than the most commonly understood meanings of the words that he is using? Simply, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t. The reason why mythers have to go to these lengths is because they’re operating under the false assumption that because Paul is speaking about religious topics that he necessarily has to be using the Greek religious context. Paul, was a Jew. The Gospel writers, except for Luke, were Jews. Jesus was a Jew. Why can’t the context be the Jewish religion?
Because no religion can have an original thought.
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Zindler goes on,
It is unclear what the intended purpose was for Jenkins’ quoting G.K. Chesterton about comparisons of Christianity with Buddhism.
What does Jenkins say?
As to the degree of resemblance to Christian stories, I am reminded of G. K. Chesterton’s complaint about people who “are always insisting that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism.”
Well, we’ll let Chesterton speak for himself,
The reasons were of two kinds: resemblances that meant nothing because they were common to all humanity, and resemblances which were not resemblances at all. The author solemnly explained that the two creeds were alike in things in which all creeds are alike, or else he described them as alike in some point in which they are quite obviously different. (Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith). Orthodoxy (pp. 122-123). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.)
Point being, it’s very easy to point out superficial similarity it’s very difficult to sustain that upon closer inspection. The mythicist is entirely dependent upon people taking superficial similarities as definitional similarities. So, category errors much?
This highlights the problems with Frazer’s much-heralded work The Golden Bough: it stops at the similarities, or even contrived similarities. It cannot even allow for the gospel to be historical. Zindler wants to complain about circular reasoning: it’s right there in his lofted tome.
Zindler gets down to closing his post by referring to mythicist René Salm saying,
[…]I can merely remind my readers that nowhere, in any paragraph, in any sentence, in any meaningful phrase of Jenkin’s lengthy blog have we found any evidence even slightly supportive of the historicity of any Jesus coming from Nazareth—a place that didn’t exist at the turn of the era.
Mmmm, not so fast. Even Bart Ehrman contests this, writing on his blog,
There are numerous compelling pieces of archaeological evidence that in fact Nazareth did exist in Jesus’ day, and that like other villages and towns in that part of Galilee, it was built on the hillside, near where the later rock-cut kokh tombs were built. For one thing, archaeologists have excavated a farm connected with the village, and it dates to the time of Jesus. Salm disputes the finding of the archaeologists who did the excavation (it needs to be remembered, he himself is not an archaeologist but is simply basing his views on what the real archaeologists – all of whom disagree with him — have to say). For one thing, when archaeologist Yardena Alexandre indicated that 165 coins were found in this excavation, she specified in the report that some of them were late, from the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries. This suits Salm’s purposes just fine. But as it turns out, there were among the coins some that date to the Hellenistic, Hasmonean, and early Roman period, that is, the days of Jesus. Salm objected that this was not in Alexandre’s report, but Alexandre has verbally confirmed (to me personally) that in fact it is the case: there were coins in the collection that date to the time prior to the Jewish uprising.
Point being that Salm’s assertions are simply that, assertions. Here’s a paper discussing recently discovered 1st century structures found in the area. But, Jenkins wasn’t dealing with the existence of Nazareth as much as dealing with textual attacks.
ZIndler winds his way to the consulsion, writing,
A fortiori, we have found nothing to compel us to believe in the quondam bodily presence of the Jesus god-man on planet earth. It has all been smoke and mirrors. Indeed, it has been the same smoke and mirrors that have been used since antiquity to conceal the mystery-cult nature of the riotously varied Christianities that infested the Mediterranean world during the first three centuries of the current era.
The only “smoke and mirrors” that have been employed have been those brought in my the mythicists. Conflation and confusion are the rules that they play by. They dismiss evidence to the contrary and do not feel compelled as though they actually have a case to make. In the end, the only think that will convince them is the present work of Christ in the Holy Spirit or when they stand before him in his judgment.
Keep in mind, Zendler is responding to a blog post that can best be described as a rough outline, something of an abstract, it is not meant to be the be-all-end-all arguement. It is the expression of a history scholar who has written some 20-plus works versus a non-specialist who is dependent upon misrepresentation, outdated sources, as well as biased and fallacious reasoning.
See this episode of Cold Case Christianity TV,
As well as this debate on the issue