The Argument from Silence (2 of 2)

We’ll conclude our defense of the Argument from Silence and touch on the ravages of time, agendas, deliberate snubs, and Christians’ no-win situation.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The Argument from Silence applied to the gospel says that Jesus’s miracles were so remarkable that they should have left a mark in the record of historians who were outsiders to the Jesus movement. If we find these stories only in Christian sources, that suggests they didn’t happen.

The Christian argument comes from a video by InspiringPhilosophy (IP). To start at the beginning and see the eight points of the Christian argument in more detail, go to part 1.

The points sound compelling but don’t stand up to critique. The next three points argue that we shouldn’t expect much of a historical record.

3. Poor literacy meant few authors

4. Writing materials were expensive

5. Few people had spare time to document an event

I agree with these, and I’ll add that time takes its toll. We have a tiny fraction of the documents written in the first century CE.

Naysayer argument

IP is arguing that competing arguments would be destroyed by time, but let’s pause to see what this means. This claim favors the Christian who wants to attack the Argument from Silence (AfS), but it hurts the Christian who wants to use the Naysayer hypothesis.

What is the Naysayer hypothesis? It’s a popular Christian argument that says if the gospel story were wrong, you’d have many naysayers who would’ve shut it down. “Hold on,” they’d say. “I was there, and it didn’t happen like that.” From Jesus’s miraculous cures to his triumphant entry into Jerusalem to his resurrection—people from that time would’ve spoken up to shut down the gospel claims. Christianity would’ve been stillborn.

A key part of the Naysayer argument is that the naysayers’ rebuttals would’ve been written and then copied through time so that we’d have them today. Since there are none, the initial assumption that there would’ve been naysayers poking holes in the gospel story must be false, and no naysayers means that the gospel story must therefore be true.

Returning to these three claims IP makes about poor documentation of events, I agree, but this shoots them in the foot if they want to use the Naysayer hypothesis.

(BTW, the Naysayer hypothesis is crap.)

Strip away the miracle claims from the gospel story, and you’re left with the story of a Jewish teacher who did little worth documenting.

6. Each author has their own agenda

IP adds: that agenda might not include the miraculous events noted by another source.

Let’s return to the reanimated dead walking the streets of Jerusalem and seen by “many people” (Matthew 27:53). The first fruits of the new Age were the resurrected Jesus plus the “many holy people” returned to life. Why wasn’t that in Luke? These two synoptic gospels (“synoptic” means seen from the same point of view) shared so much that you’d think that something this monumental would’ve also been shared, especially since this story takes just a verse and a half in Matthew.

Actually, I agree that Matthew had a different agenda from Luke. They weren’t historians or journalists, and recording history wasn’t their agenda—each had their own religious agenda. That explains both why they differed and why they’re not reliable history.

If God needed them to write accurate histories, I’m sure he could’ve arranged that.

7. An author might deliberately ignore an enemy

IP says: an author might want to snub a political or religious rival.

Outside of the circles of Christians, secular or Jewish authors would not care or like Jesus enough to mention his deeds. And if he did make a big enough mark, the clue would be to only mentioned it briefly, to not make it seem like he was very important.

But there are counterexamples like Origen’s Contra Celsum, which was a Christian response to an attack by a pagan named Celsus. The only surviving work documenting the Celsus argument is Origen’s rebuttal. Or take Marcion, a Christian heretic. No copy of Marcion’s gospel survives, but it has been largely reconstructed from quotations in the writings of early Christians such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Epiphanius.

While it’s true that an author might ignore an enemy, these examples prove that the reverse is also true, that they might take pains to document an enemy.

Additionally, the actions of rabble rousers such as Jesus could easily have made it into official correspondence. Christians often cite one example of this, the letter Pliny wrote to Emperor Trajan in 112 CE. Pliny was governor of a province in Asia Minor, and he was updating the emperor on the Christian movement.

IP laments the ravages of time:

We have lost most of what would have been written in the ancient world simply because records were not made to last 2000 years. They were made to last more like 200 if you were lucky.

This is getting close to the argument that goes, “Be realistic—you can’t expect security cameras recordings!”

But of course if omnipotent God wanted his message to be complete and unambiguous throughout time, he could have effortlessly made that happen. He can’t speak the universe into existence and yet be unable to reliably communicate the most important message on one dust speck of a planet.

8. Skeptics want a no-win situation for Christians

IP characterizes the skeptics’ approach this way: if an ancient source is Christian, it must be biased. But no non-Christian would write about Jesus, so if they do, they must actually be Christian and therefore biased.

IP is talking about a non-Christian who’s really a Christian. Is this a Christian just pretending to be an atheist? We’ve actually seen a few of these here. Their arguments sound roughly like, “Well, I’m an atheist, but ya gotta hand it to the Christians for having arguments that are so danged compelling.” Their implausible atheist-Christian position flags them as bogus.

Curiously, there is a first-century example of this. I’ve already mentioned the Testimonium Flavianum. This passage was added to the work of Jewish historian Josephus to make him sound like a fan of Jesus. It stands out as fraudulent because no Jew of the time would write that.

Someone’s position is usually clear, and a first-century opponent of Jesus could have given an honest account of what they saw. Based on the examples of Celsus, Marcion, and Pliny above, people who were against Christianity argued unambiguously against Christianity. And something as nonpartisan as zombies in Jerusalem would intrigue anyone with a pen, whether a follower of Jesus or not.


IP wraps up:

So arguments from silence? Yeah, they don’t work. If any skeptic tries to throw this out at you, it is a pretty clear sign they have never read any ancient history. [Consider] asking them if they apply this criteria to Hannibal, Alexander the Great, or Josephus. 99% of the time, it’ll be pretty clear they do not, and it will reveal how fallacious their reasoning is.

No, let’s make sure you’re consistent. The stories of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus, and other great leaders from history contain miracle claims, but historians scrub out every one. The result are the remarkable naturalistic stories of these important figures that we have in history. Jesus, by contrast, is nothing without the miracles. Strip away the miracle claims from the gospel story, and you’re left with the story of a Jewish teacher who did little worth documenting.

See also: Historians reject the Bible story

IP brought up Hannibal, so let’s see what ancient sources said about him. This is from historian Richard Carrier:

We have the writings of numerous historians within a century or so of Hannibal’s death, writing detailed histories using critical and rational methods, and [like other eyewitness writers] not composing mythical hagiographies….

We have nothing like this explosion of quotable histories of Jesus within 120 years of his death. In fact, we have exactly zero histories of Jesus. Only a line or two in a few historians nearly a century after the fact or more, who have no identifiable sources outside the Gospels, which in turn are mythical hagiographies anonymously composed by literary propagandists after the lifetime of any known eyewitnesses.

Exactly unlike Hannibal.

Remember that the dogmatic version of the Argument from Silence—if you don’t see the expected historical sources then it didn’t happen—is not what any thoughtful person is arguing for. The AfS simply acts as a warning, just one of hopefully several inputs to a decision.

The core question when applying the AfS is, what would we expect? IP is right that not a lot would have been documented, and not a lot of that would have survived, so our expectations must be reasonable, but there were historians. For example, Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews from about 93 CE has survived, probably because Christians copied it through the centuries. If Christians had protected it, it’s unlikely any mention of Jesus’s miracles would have been erased. It was in the right place and the right time to record Jesus’s miracles, and yet, aside from the fraudulent Testimonium Flavianum, we see nothing.

When we look at early sources, do we see the widespread documentation of Jesus as a miracle worker (the only legitimate one among countless frauds), or do we see documentation only from one religion (among countless)?

IP wants to imagine the all-powerful son of God, a person of the Trinity and a miracle worker eager for publicity, making a personal visit to our little planet. But when he gets here, his speech and actions are so uninteresting that history sees him as merely (to quote IP) “one Jewish rabbi, primarily speaking to uneducated peasants in a small backwater province of Rome.” IP can’t have it both ways.

The Argument from Silence helps decide whether we jump into the familiar arms of Legend or if the unbelievable supernatural option might just be believable. It helps the Christian reject bogus claims from history as much as it helps the skeptic.

If you’d come today
You could have reached a whole nation.
Israel in 4 BC
Had no mass communication.
— “Superstar,” from Jesus Christ Superstar

CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...