Logical Fallacies of Historians: Begging the Question

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by Neil Godfrey

The fallacy of the circular proof is a species of a question-begging, which consists in assuming what is to be proved. . . . [I]t is exceedingly common in empirical scholarship. (Fischer, 49)

(Note that this expression is different from its misuse elsewhere to mean “this raises [or suggests] the question . . .”; here it has a specific, philosophical import.) — Newall, 264

Begging the question (or petitio principii) occurs when the conclusion of an argument is used to demonstrate it, thereby achieving a circular proof. (Newall, 264)

Fischer offers a silly example to illustrate.

A researcher asks, “Do gentlemen prefer blondes?” He discovers that Smith, Jones, and James prefer blondes, and tacitly assumes that Smith, Jones, and James are therefore gentlemen. He concludes that three gentlemen out of three prefer blondes, and that the question is empirically established, with a perfect correlation. His argument runs through the following stages :

Inquiry : Do gentlemen prefer blondes?

Research : Smith, Jones, and James prefer blondes.

(Tacit Assumption) : Smith, Jones, and James are gentlemen.

Conclusion: Therefore, gentlemen prefer blondes.

Here are some other examples I’ve considered. Let me know if I have made mistakes or if you have others to add.

Inquiry: Has Trump been a good manager of the US economy?

Research: The GDP has increased under Trump’s presidency.

(Tacit Assumptions): Trump’s policies have been responsible for its growth and there are no negatives in the economy that outweigh the positive figures.

Conclusion: Therefore, Trump has been a good manager of the US economy.

– – – o – – –

Inquiry: Should Trump encourage people to try hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19?

Research: Trump and others say they have heard that many people have tried it and been cured of COVID-19.

(Tacit Assumption): The stories one has heard are all genuine and hydroxychloroquine was responsible for the cures and there have been no negative experiences with hydroxychloroquine.

Conclusion: Therefore, Trump should encourage people to try hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19.

– – – o – – –

Inquiry: Is the lockdown response an overreaction to the COVID-19 threat?

Research: I and other people I know are sensible and will keep social distancing advice without a lockdown.

(Tacit Assumption): the lockdown is an overreaction because everyone is like me and we can contain the COVID-19 spread without a lockdown

Conclusion: Therefore, the lockdown is an overreaction.

– – – o – – –

Inquiry: Is it a historical fact that Judas betrayed Jesus?

Research: It is unthinkable that the early church would make up a story of one of the inner Twelve betraying Jesus.

(Tacit Assumption): There was a historical Jesus with a historical Twelve disciples whom he trusted and the early church was dedicated to recording the historical facts.

Conclusion: Therefore it is a historically reliable tradition that Judas betrayed Jesus.

– – – o – – –

Inquiry: Did Jesus exist?

Research: No Jew would have made up a story about a crucified itinerant preacher being the Davidic messiah.

(Tacit Assumption): Jesus was historically an itinerant preacher who was crucified yet still believed by his followers to be the Davidic messiah.

Conclusion: Jesus existed.

– – – o – – –

Inquiry: Did the gospels originate as stories based on astronomical phenomena?

Research: We see many narratives in the gospels that can be explained as astronomical references (e.g. Baptist decreasing: Jesus increasing; Twelve Disciples….)

(Tacit Assumption): The narratives were created as codes for astronomical phenomena.

Conclusion: The gospels originated as stories based on astronomical phenomena.

– – – o – – –

Inquiry: Were there many messianic figures at the time of Jesus?

Research: Some rebels and bandits and prophets attracted followings around the time of Jesus

(Tacit Assumption): Rebel figures who attracted followings were messianic figures.)

Conclusion: Therefore, there were many messianic figures around the time of Jesus.

– – – o – – –

Fischer offers an example that many of us can extrapolate to other questions of identity in the ancient sources (e.g. was James the Teacher of Righteousness?). The following argument was made by Jeremiah O’Sullivan, a historian of early Ireland.

Inquiry: Were Saint Patrick and Palladius one and the same person?

Research: Tirechan in his Memoir of St. Patrick states that Palladius also had the name of Patrick and changed his name as Patrick did. The best proof that they were not the same seems to be that St. Patrick died in Ireland in 461, whereas the time and circumstances of Palladius’s death are uncertain.”

(Tacit Assumption): If Palladius and St Patrick were the same person then they died the same day and place.

Conclusion: Saint Patrick and Palladius were the same person.

– – – o – – –

Another example Fischer uses from a study of English Puritanism:

Inquiry: Were ideas X, Y and Z were specifically attached to Puritanism? [Ideas P and Q were rejected by Puritans]

Research: Historians see many expressions of ideas X, Y and Z at that time. [Sometimes a known Puritan expresses P and Q]

(Tacit Assumption): The authors of those ideas were Puritans. [Puritans did not really mean P and Q when they expressed them]

Conclusion: Puritans were identified by believing in X, Y and Z.

– – – o – – –

Newall finds a similar instance:

Inquiry: Were certain intellectuals in the seventeenth-century crypto-atheists? 

Research: Certain intellectuals in the seventeenth century behaved in specific ways or authored specific sentiments.

(Tacit Assumption): Those sentiments and behaviours can be identified with crypto-atheism.

Conclusion: Certain intellectuals in the seventeenth century were crypto-atheists.

Thus a historical figure was an atheist because he displayed particular traits, but someone who displayed those traits was defined to be an atheist; and so we start by assuming what we want to prove. (Newall, 264)

Fischer, David Hackett. 1970. Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. New York: Harper.

Newall, Paul. “Logical Fallacies of Historians.” A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography, edited by Aviezer Tucker and Mary Kane, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, pp. 262–73.

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Neil Godfrey

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19 thoughts on “Logical Fallacies of Historians: Begging the Question”

  1. And here I though historians got their exercise by jumping to conclusions … and all this time they were larding their premises with their conclusions.

  2. Inquiry: Was Jesus a myth?

    Research: Scholars find little biographical data in non-biblical ancient sources about an historical Jesus.

    (Tacit Assumption): Jesus must have been a fictional construct.

    Conclusion: Jesus was a myth.

  3. Here’s another one. It’s direct from Dr Sara Parks giving her reasons for believing the Q source was behind the gospels:

    Inquiry: Did Q exist?

    Research: the Hermeneia series publishes a critical edition; every [student?] who goes to college has got to learn about the Q hypothesis.

    (Tacit Assumption): A critical edition implies a historical document; a curriculum implies teaching basic facts.

    Conclusion: “That’s enough for me”.

    See transcript at https://vridar.org/2020/02/17/q-where-scepticism-is-really-hip-right-now-and-other-thoughts-on-historical-jesus-studies-methods/

  4. All of which goes to show that a single syllogism is never enough to prove any of the large conclusions listed in the examples, whether the syllogism begs the question, limits the alternative, constitutes ad hominem attack, or whatever the particular fallacy may be. The logical syllogism is best used to make narrower points; maybe something like “The consensus opinion of New Testament scholars is that the Gospel of Mark was not likely to have been composed before the year 65 C.E.”

  5. “No Jew would have made up a story about a crucified itinerant preacher being the Davidic messiah.”

    Maybe that’s why Jews almost completely didn’t become Christians while non-Jews did. Except for that one nut who hallucinated Jesus all the time.

    1. Here’s a question: What can we adduce from the first four of Paul’s epistles as found in the New Testament that would speak to Paul’s intellectual background? He claims to be a Pharisee; he uses the language of the mystery cults; he uses allegory based on Hebrew scripture; he uses sporting metaphors and metaphors about arraying troops just off the top of my head. But what else can we say about his intellectual background? The disjointed carcass of Paul’s Jesus Christ litters the work of his ostensible contemporary Philo of Alexandria but Philo never articulates and/or resurrects the corpse. We can discern from Philo’s works that he had a thorough post-grad equivalent education for the day. Can we say the same of Paul, or can we say the inevitable blindspots of the autodidact with an incomplete education had a bearing on the path he took? If you make the statement “No Jew would have made up a story about a crucified itinerant preacher being the Davidic messiah.” you miss the fact that we cannot say any Jew did. There doesn’t appear to be a crucified itinerant in Paul’s writings and whoever wrote G.Mk. cannot be said to be a Jew. Everyone else was running with a ball that already existed.

  6. They were now approaching Jerusalem, and when they reached Bethpage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples… (Mark 11.1)

    Anyone approaching Jerusalem from Jericho would come first to to Bethany and then Bethpage, and not the reverse. This is one of several passages showing that Mark knew litle about Palestine; we must assume, Dennis Nineham argues, that “Mark did not know the relative positions of these two villages on the Jericho road” (1963, 294-295). Indeed Mark knew so little of about the area that he described Jesus going from Tyrian territory “by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee through the territory of the Ten Towns” (Mark 7:31); this is similar to saying that one goes from London to Paris by way of Edinburgh and Rome. The simplest assumption, says Nineham, is that “the Evangelist was not directly aquainted with Palestine”

    Helms, 1997, p.6

    Not a Judean then; and probably not a Jew either:

    So perhaps in “small-town southern Syria” (Kee, 1977, 105) in the early seventies, a Greek-speaking non-Jewish Christian wrote about Jesus for an audience like himself of non-Jewish Christians who mistakenly expected the destruction of Jerusalem was the beginning of the end of the age

    ibid., p.9

    Helms, Randel. Who Wrote the Gospels. Altadena: Millenium Press: 1997. And quoting Nineham, Dennis E. Saint Mark. Baltimore: Penguin, 1963. & Kee, Howard Clark. Community of the New Age: Studies in Mark’s Gospel. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977.

    Helms was to hand; I’d date G.Mk. to the early one-thirties myself.

    1. Since we are addressing logical fallacies of historians here, — I take it you don’t see the logical fallacy in your conclusion from the evidence cited?

  7. Go on, if I’m mistaken about something I’d like to correct it.

    I also should have included G.Mk’s allegorising and euhemerising (incidently?) Paul. My question/musing was about Paul, the remark about the itinerant preacher was secondary, but I have never since I actually read Paul through forty-five-odd years ago now thought there was any human Jesus in his writings. I’d concluded RC Christianity was the husk of a mystery cult sometime before that. Others mistook G.Mk’s exoteric legend and ran with it.

    The human Messiah crucified in history on earth didn’t spring fully armed from the head of Yahweh; he was assembled over time. The author of G.Mk can’t be said to be anyone or anything from anywhere. The known facts are too slight to make anything but a plausible background story for him or her. We probably do not have sufficient information to do say anything beyond someone or someones wrote the thing.

    1. My point was that the argument you present is another form of the question-begging fallacy the post was addressing. It is very common among historians and scholars, as your citations indicate.

      Inquiry: Is the author of the Gospel of Mark not a Jew?

      Research: In the Gospel of Mark we find non-geographical sequences of placenames in two narratives

      (Tacit Assumption): A Jew would write list the place names in a different order.

      Conclusion: Therefore the author of the gospel was not a Jew.

      The argument assumes that a Jewish author would also be a long time resident with a familiarity of places both small and distant in Palestine and that as a knowledgeable Jewish resident he would be careful to demonstrate his geographical knowledge in his narratives. Other possible explanations of the evidence are excluded because of the leading assumption that a Jew would not write like that.

      Among the exclusions: that the author was a diaspora Jew unfamiliar with much of the geography of Palestine; that the author was focused on presenting a midrashic or other symbolic message with his order of place names (not unlikely given their meanings and order in the OT and his evident interest in symbolism and inattention to realism throughout the gospel).

      I am not saying that anything in the above “proves” the author was Jewish, either, by the way.

  8. What do “probably” and “seems” mean?

    Your question was: “Why could GMark not have been authored by a Judean?” My answer was not novel a century ago; the infelicities of geography make it hardly likely our author was a Judean or very familiar with the geography of the area. We also see infelicities of the geography in episodes placed in the north.

    You asked nothing about Jews and your fallacy formulation was itself fallacious. You have me answering a question you didn’t ask. I brought up “Jew” just in case anyone mistook “Judean” for such.We cannot say one way or another whether our author was a Jew, Greek, or pickled Red Herring. They certainly seem to understand a fair bit about “Judaism” but at the climax they mix the Passover with Yom Kippur. Why is that? For narrative purposes perhaps?

    I’m of the school that takes the view that G.Mk is an allegorising of Paul and his teachings amongst other things, they incidently euhemerised his god. The whole gospel is parable, I think. The idea of a crucified messiah evolved. No one suddenly had it; it emerged over the arc of Christianity’s origin. G.Jn takes the character back to being a god and in G.Jn 8:44 even denies that god is the Jewish god. One gets the impression that most synagogues/proseuches in the Diaspora had a nimbus of “God-fearers” just as likely to be as knowledgeable of the Tanakh, targums, and other texts as any Jew. Therefore we cannot say the author of G.Mk was Gentile or Jew.

    I hope that is clearer.

    1. My answer was not novel a century ago

      My posts point out that historians themselves lament that this logical fallacy is all too common among their peers. Look at the logic of the argument, not at who or how many repeated the argument.

      Your rationalization of your answer is merely repeating the question-begging reasoning.

      I was not expecting you to draw a distinction between Judean and Jew. I prefer the use of Judean to Jew when speaking of the ancient people culturally or ethnically attached to Jerusalem because it is consistent with the descriptions of other peoples then. A number of scholars explained their reason for preferring Judean to Jew and I have liked their reasons. It’s not a big deal. I began to use “Jew” where you use the term and it was evident you did not follow my original usage of Judean.

  9. I’m still not following you. We can’t say one way or the other anything about the author’s ethnicity, religious background, or place of residence. The geographical howlers make it improbable they were either a native of, or a long term resident of, any part of Palestine. But: Bethphage is literaly “House of un-ripe figs” and the parabolic fig tree episode is up coming…

    …whoever wrote G.Mk. cannot be said to be a Jew.

    Is that what you are tripping over? It’s a negative statement. We can’t say anything about the author. That’s all.

    1. There is no reason to think that the way geographical names are narrated makes it unlikely that the author was a Jew. — Unless one begins with the assumption that “a Jew would not write the place names like that”. That is the question begging. Why would a Jew “not” write like that? What is it about being a Jew that would prevent a Jew from writing that way? (Have you looked at other explanations for the way the names are sequenced in the narrative?)

      1. (Have you looked at other explanations for the way the names are sequenced in the narrative?)

        But: Bethphage is literaly “House of un-ripe figs” and the parabolic fig tree episode is up coming…

        Please read what I write, not what you think I’m writing. There are other reasons just as plausible for the Marcan author to write as they do. Of course. There isn’t any way of discriminating, I don’t think; but since we can’t discern anything about our author, either ethnically or culturally, as it is, it might be better to go with one of those other explanations, yes.

        As to Jew/Judean; I can see where you are coming from but we are going to trip over the terms continuously because anachronism and false friends, traduttore, traduttore. I had a friend who was atheist of atheist parents; there was nothing in their life that was “religiously” “Jewish” but they still identified as such. I never could get my head around that. Recently, reading some Boyarin has reminded me that Christians invented “religion” and religio went from meaning something like “The ties that bind”, including gods, to just “God and things to do with God” well before the word got into English. It might best to leave the Greek terms untranslated; then people will ask what we mean and we would be more on the same page with one another.

        You often write about “Islamism” and “Political Islam”. As I said, meanings shifted in Late Antiquity: if they hadn’t, or hadn’t been so quick of the mark doing so, Islamismos might be a thing and those conversations would be easier.

        Thanks for shifting and broadening my perspective.

  10. Again: there isn’t enough information to say anything about our author’s ethnicity or place of residence. That is my SOLE point and ALL I am saying. My answer is agnostic and it is ironic that you of all people are hung up on it for some reason not readily apparent to me.

    1. To the claim

      and whoever wrote G.Mk. cannot be said to be a Jew.

      came the response in the form of a common argument, this one summed up by Helms, found in the literature about the authorship of the Gospel of Mark. It was that common argument, found in much of the literature, that we were addressing, or so I thought.

      Alternatives not considered in the common argument:

      Mark: failed geography, but great bible student

      and the symbolic meanings of Bethany and Bethphage (More Puns in the Gospel of Mark: People and Places)

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