Along with his contradictory rationalizations to (1) declare the parallels between Jesus son of Ananias and the gospels’ Jesus to be “hopelessly flimsy”, yet at the same time are real and strong enough to (2) point to real-world parallel historical, socio-political, religious and onomastic events and situations anyway, Tim O’Neill further adds a common sophistical fallacy in a misguided effort to strengthen his argument:
Even if we were to accept that the parallels here are stronger and more numerous than they are, parallels do not mean derivation. A far stronger set of parallels can be found in the notorious urban legend of the supposedly eerie parallels between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lincoln%E2%80%93Kennedy_coincidences_urban_legend), but any future fringe theorist who concluded that, therefore, JFK’s story was derived from that of Lincoln would be laughably wrong. This is why professional scholars are always highly wary of arguments of derivation based on parallels. The danger is that if you go looking for parallels, you will find them. It is always more likely that any parallels that are not artefacts of the process can be better explained as consequences of similar people doing things in similar contexts rather than derivation of one story from the other.
Again O’Neill informs readers of what he seems to assume “professional scholars always” think and write. (Yet we will see that the fallacy of this analogy is the same as comparing apples and aardvarks.) Recall that Tim O’Neill is presumably attempting to inform his readers
of what is scholarly and credible and what is not.
Let’s see, then, how a scholar does respond to that same Lincoln-Kennedy parallel when it is laid on the table in the middle of a discussion about the two Jesuses parallels, son of Ananias in Josephus’s Jewish War and the Gospel of Mark’s Jesus. Brian Trafford posted to the Crosstalk2 discussion on 10th March 2003 the following (my bolding and formatting):
13026 Re: Two Jesuses: the Provocative ParallelsMar 10 12:16 PM
I have a fundamental difficulty with attempts like this to read
meaning into parallels, especially when the possibility of mere
coincidence is dismissed too casually. For example, if one goes to
http://fsmat.at/~bkabelka/titanic/part2/chapter1.htm one can see a
number of parallels between the sinking of the fictitious ship Titan
in a book called _The Wreak of the Titan_ published in 1898, and the
real life sinking of the Titanic in 1912. In another article found
at http://www.worldofthestrange.com/wots/1999/1999-01-25-03.htm we
find a listing of some of the more astonishing parallels between the
assassination of Abraham Lincoln and that of John Kennedy. They
1. Lincoln was elected president in 1860. Exactly one hundred years
later, in 1960, Kennedy was elected president.
2. Both men were deeply involved in civil rights for Negroes.
3. Both me were assassinated on a Friday, in the presence of their
4. Each wife had lost a son while living at the White House.
5. Both men were killed by a bullet that entered the head from behind.
6. Lincoln was killed in Ford’s Theater. Kennedy met his death while
riding in a Lincoln convertible made by the Ford Motor Company.
7. Both men were succeeded by vice-presidents named Johnson who were
southern Democrats and former senators.
8. Andrew Johnson was born in 1808. Lyndon Johnson was born in 1908,
exactly one hundred years later.
9. The First name of Lincoln’s private secretary was John, the last
name of Kennedy’s private secretary was Lincoln.
10. John Wilkes Booth was born in 1839. Lee Harvey Oswald was born in
1939, one hundred years later.
11. Both assassins were Southerners who held extremist views.
12. Both assassins were murdered before they could be brought to
13. Booth shot Lincoln in a theater and fled to a barn. Oswald shot
14. Kennedy from a warehouse and fled to a theater.
15. Lincoln and Kennedy each have seven letters.
16. Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Johnson each has 13 letters.
17. John Wiles Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald each has 15 letters.
18. In addition, the first public proposal that Lincoln be the
Republican candidate for president (in a letter to Cincinnati
Gazette, Nov. 6, 1858) also endorsed a John Kennedy for vice
president (John P. Kennedy, formerly secretary of the Navy.)
Obviously it would be easy, based upon this list, to conclude that
the story of Lincoln’s assassination served as the template used by
later creators of the story of Kennedy’s death.
Very simply, if one takes two events and looks for potential
parallels, one can very often create a list that, on the surface
looks rather impressive, but on closer examination does not really
tell us very much. More importantly, it should make us cautious in
claiming that superficial similarities means that the earlier report
served as a template for creative fictionalizing by the later source
(in whichever direction one wishes to propose). I think that this is
the case with the parallels between the two Jesus’.
My original intent was to post my own analysis and criticism of the the Kennedy-Lincoln parallels but then I saw Ted Weeden had already responded and since my main intent is to demonstrate scholarly opinions I will quote the scholar:
13040 Re: [XTalk] Re: Two Jesuses: the Provocative Parallels
Brian Trafford wrote on March 10, 2003:
In response to Ted Weeden’s [XTalk] Re: Two Jesuses: the Provocative
> I have a fundamental difficulty with attempts like this to read
> meaning into parallels, especially when the possibility of mere
> coincidence is dismissed too casually. For example . . . .
> . . . . . In another article found
> at http://www.worldofthestrange.com/wots/1999/1999-01-25-03.htm we
> find a listing of some of the more astonishing parallels between the
> assassination of Abraham Lincoln and that of John Kennedy.
Brian, you have given two examples of parallels that are clearly
coincidental. In one case reality mirrors literature and in the other
history mirrors history. Unless one’s believes in a God or some universal
force that has a good sense of humor and enjoys fashioning the present to
replicate the past, your examples are clearly parallel only in an accidental
or coincidental sense. These examples do not exhibit the kind of
dependency, as we speak of dependency in literature or oral tradition, which
suggests that a hypotext ihas served as the basis for the fashioning of a
> Very simply, if one takes two events and looks for potential
> parallels, one can very often create a list that, on the surface
> looks rather impressive, but on closer examination does not really
> tell us very much. More importantly, it should make us cautious in
> claiming that superficial similarities means that the earlier report
> served as a template for creative fictionalizing by the later source
> (in whichever direction one wishes to propose). I think that this is
> the case with the parallels between the two Jesus’.
The parallelism which appears to exist between the Markan story of Jesus and
Josephus’ literary rendition of the story of Jesus, son of Ananias, like
other ancient texts of the Hellenistic period which exhibit evidence of
parallelism, cannot be dismissed so easily as pure coincidence. In the
Greco-Roman world where there appears to be some evidence of parallelism
between two writings, such parallelism would be interpreted not as
coincidental or accidental but more likely as an indication on the part of
one author to imitate intentionally the work of another. Dennis MacDonald,
in his _Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark_ , points out that a guiding
principle of Greco-Roman literary creativity and craft was MIMESIS*, the
widely followed practice of an author imitating another highly revered and
often imitated authorMar 11 6:21 PM (4). Imitation was so important as an applied skill
in literary creativity and craftspersonship that, as Teresa Morgan observes
(_Literate Education in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds_), in Greco-Roman
education, after memory, imitation was considered the most important faculty
for a student to develop and master. She reports that developing this
faculty of imitation was stressed at every stage of a student’s learning.
In the initial stage’s of the student’s education a student in a Greco-Roman
classroom was taught to slavishly imitate his/her teacher. In more advanced
stages, a student was taught how to imitate those the teacher thought were
worthy of imitation, such as Homer and the like (see 245f., 251-253).
Finally, if a person in the Greco-Roman world aspired to be an accomplished
and successful writer that person had to be able to demonstrate the ability
to imitate, with sophistication, ancient revered writers by turning and
transforming the revered writers’ hypotext imaginatively into the person’s
own creative hypertext (see MacDonald, 6).
Let me share with you some snippets from MacDonald on the Greco-Roman
penchant for, almost love affair with, *MIMESIS*.
“Students in ancient
schools learned to write largely through *MIMESIS* or its Latin equivalent,
*imitatio*” Homer was the ancient writer par excellence who all students in
Greco-Roman education were taught to imitate
“Prose authors imitated the Odyssey more frequently than any other book
of the ancient world.”
“Imitations of Homer, especially the Odyssey,
appeared also in Jewish prose. The author the book of Tobit borrowed
extensively from the epic…. The writings of Josephus display several
possible imitations of the epics, and in some cases one suspects that he
expected his readers to detect and appreciate his free adaptations” (5).
“Texts discussing rhetorical imitations frequently mention the practice of
occulting or disguising one’s reliance on a model, for servile imitation
could lead to charges of boorish pedantry and even of plagiarism. These
disguises included altering the vocabulary, varying the order, length, and
structure of sentences, improving the content, and generating a series of
formal transformations. Although students usually imitated a single work,
the experienced author borrowed from many….” (5)
“According to Seneca,
such apian authors [skilled in drawing the best from other authors] should
‘blend those several flavours into one delicious compound that, even though
it betrays its origin, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from
that whence it came.’ One achieves the height of imitation, however, when
‘the true copy stamps its own form upon all the features which it has drawn
from what we may call the original’ so that ‘it is impossible for it to be
seen who is being imitated'” (6; quoted from Seneca_Epistle_84. 3-5 and
Consequently, unusual parallelism, commonality and similarities between
literary works may suggest to us in the post-modern world mere accident or
coincidence. But in the Grec-Roman world a skilled reader would suspect
imitation before coincidence, and likely be right, that what was at hand was
the respected and expected imitation of one author by another, the text of
the former serving as the hypotext for the development of the hypertext of
the latter. In view of the appearance, at least, of the practice of
*MIMESIS* behind the parallelism of the two Jesus stories, I do not think
one, then, should chalk up the similarities between the two Jesus stories to
mere coincidence. I do not think that explaining the parallelism which
exists between the two stories as a matter of coincidence adequately
accounts for the narrative features that stories share in common. Rather
imitation, in my judgement, appears to be what drives the parallelism which
exists between the two “Jesus” stories.. . . . .
The rest of the comment addresses criteria that can assist with controls a scholarly analysis of texts. Trafford had said we need such controls but Weeden points out the controls are not overlooked but in fact are the basis of establishing literary dependency.
Thus ended the Lincoln-Kennedy challenge in the scholarly forum.
Literary works are creative efforts. The concept of plaigarism is justified by our awareness that similarities in literary works call for explanation given what we know of human creative intent in a world of wider literary influences. Coincidence is always one possible explanation but it can never be a mere default position. Looking for historical analogies across a wide range of institutions and various media, pulling out a point in common in one institution and another parallel in another context, etcetera, is one thing; but studying two discrete creative works is and comparing the themes, images, structures of the those two compositions is quite another. Coincidence is always a possible explanation, but that explanation needs to be justified against other hypotheses and not merely assumed.
Here’s a little exercise.
Was Brian Trafford an alias for Tim O’Neill?
O’Neill: As with most of Carrier’s arguments, this looks impressive until it is subjected to critical scrutiny and then the whole thing can be shown to be hopelessly flimsy.
Trafford: Very simply, if one takes two events and looks for potential parallels, one can very often create a list that, on the surface looks rather impressive, but on closer examination does not really tell us very much.
Parallels. But I suspect coincidence is at work here. The highlighted words are a kind of cliched collective — “looks good but wait…”. If, however, we found a string of such “cliched collectives” in common and in the same context of making the same argument, then we would become suspicious and begin to look for a common source or literary tradition of the way this particular argument is presented in various internet fora. We would still be some distance from making a case for a common author but we are looking for explanations that go beyond mere coincidence.
And that’s what we have with the two Jesuses parallels. We should not assume that there has been direct literary borrowing because there are other explanations as the XTalk discussion amply demonstrates (e.g. a third oral or literary source common to both; a common literary matrix of interest in composing accounts of a messenger from God who is ignored and ironically suffers a tragic fate; Josephus mocked the Gospel of Mark…) but coincidence as an explanation needs to be justified and tested along with any other hypothesis.
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12 thoughts on “Even Better Informed History for Atheists: The Lincoln – Kennedy Parallels Fallacy”
Another odd possibility? The myth or story of Lincoln is so hugely influential, Lincoln was such an admired figure, that in everyday life, some Americans subconciously tried to duplicate it, in their own lives.
So for example, Kennedy and those around him would gave felt an odd – and to them inexplicable – compulsion, to choose for our civil rights leader, a potential successor named Johnson, etc..
The 1950’s science fiction movies “Invaders from Mars” (1953), “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956), and the television show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents:”Special Delivery” (1959) all had aliens from outer-space taking over human bodies and emphasized children as special targets. These fictional accounts were reflections of the fears of a communist invasion that had been fanned in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
“The Twilight Zone: The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” (1960) used similar motiffs, but dismissed this as idea as dangerous paranoia.
Compare the movie serial “Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers” (1936) to its later rip-off, the dreadful “Star Wars.”
Mimesis is still the rule.
OP: “coincidence as an explanation needs to be justified and tested along with any other hypothesis”
Carrier (25 April 2016). “Bart Ehrman Just Can’t Do Truth or Logic”. Richard Carrier Blogs.
The main way we categorize, typify things, is by looking for similarities in some of the things on the world; to find a class resemblance.
Then? The way we remember things, learn things, is by repeating them in our minds.
So repetition of similar impressions, ideas, is the core of much of human intellect.
And it is further assumed or hoped that the models we memorize, will help guide our thoughts in characterizing, dealing with, many new events. Which will hopefully be similar to things we memorized in the past.
I think the Jesus parallels could actually mean something as far as concerning history. JFK/Lincoln is just a novelty.
I’d agree with Vardar’s main methodological point: that mimesis is all around. I add that even human intelligence itself (including memory, storytelling, analytical thinking ), depends on seeing the similarities between many things of the same type. Seeing classes of things. Then acting on that awareness.
And of course, here we need to focus on its application to Jesus historicism specifically.
If human brains depend on seeing similarities or patterns, then they often may impose them moderately, or immoderately. In the case of early creators of Jesus, likely they illegitimately imposed a master model on a variety of only loosely interconnected figures, material.
The Lincoln Kennedy example is totally bogus.
We are talking about literary parallels here, not cherry picked summaries from people’s lives.
When we look at parallels like Jesus ben Ananias and Jesus Christ, we have only small sections of text. We know only a few small facts about Jesus ben Ananias, and the scene with Jesus Christ very closely matches those facts.
With Kennedy and Lincoln we know thousands of facts about them, of which a few happen to overlap. This is apples and oranges, not even worth talking about.
Note I point out several other reasons why the Lincoln-Kennedy example is inapplicable to cases of literary mimesis, having to do with the logic of probability, in On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 228 n. 187. It sounds like, once again, O’Neill doesn’t read what he claims to have read. Or hides what he has read from his readers.
I copy an extract from your argument here partly to fill out my response to Greg G’s comment about certain Jewish War and Gospel of Mark parallels. I think the same principle applies to some of those parallels:
Talking about literary parallels, what do you think about the possibility that Mark 15:1-16 is based on Josephus’s Ant. 18:3 ?
My first reaction is that the connections are at too high a conceptual level to offer any certainty. A trial of a would-be criminal is a situation where the powers that be are in control and all is going according to plan; the case of the effigies is an affront to the powers that be and there is no due process under way.