The Argument from Silence

The Argument from Silence asks why a historical source didn’t document something that you’d think it would have. Here’s a Christian attack on that argument.

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What do you do when you expect history to record something, but it doesn’t? This is the domain of the Argument from Silence, which says that such a gap in the historical record suggests that the event didn’t happen.

We’ll be responding to a Christian take on the argument, “Refuting Biblical Arguments from Silence” by InspiringPhilosophy (a video from roughly 2017).

InspiringPhilosophy (IP) opens by mocking atheists who agree that the argument fails, unless it’s used to attack the Bible. He says, “I’m astonished by how many atheists attempt this argument and assume it actually works.”

IP defines the argument:

The New Testament documents mentioned things that are so unbelievable, so magnificent, that if they truly happened, other writers surely would have mentioned them. Therefore, because no one else actually does, it probably didn’t happen and are just legends.

That sounds surprisingly good. I’ll state my definition more generally: Suppose one category of historical sources mentions events so remarkable that you’d expect sources in a second category to include them. If you don’t find those expected mentions, that casts doubt on the historicity of the first category.

And there were historians of the time who could have plausibly heard of the stories of Jesus as news rather than anecdotes filtered through the gospels.

To return to the Argument from Silence applied to the gospel story, take as an example the dead rising from their graves and walking through Jerusalem. The first category is Matthew 27:52–3, where we read about it, and the second category is every contemporary historian plus the remaining gospels, where we don’t. Are reanimated corpses seen by “many people” in Jerusalem—a sign that the end of the Age is at hand—remarkable enough to expect some sources in that second category to document it? Or would that be a faulty use of the Argument from Silence?

Here is the pushback from IP.

Points against the Argument from Silence

  1. This argument doesn’t even get off the ground because it’s a logical fallacy.
  2. Consider some remarkable examples from history that are poorly documented. For example, we have just one semi-contemporary record of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. Do you want to cite the Argument from Silence to argue that this eruption never happened?
  3. We’d expect silence because few people could read or write in the Palestine of Jesus’s day. That means few possible authors plus few possible readers.
  4. Writing was expensive. The papyrus for a New Testament epistle might cost two days’ wages.
  5. Few people had the luxury of free time to document an event.
  6. An author would have a particular audience in mind and would focus on what his audience wanted and ignore the rest. If you can’t find something in a source, ask if the omission was simply off topic for the author.
  7. An author might deliberately ignore someone on the other side of an issue as a deliberate snub—a political or religious rival, for example.
  8. Skeptics create a no-win situation for Christians. If an ancient source is Christian, they’ll reject that for being biased. But if a non-Christian writes about Jesus, he doesn’t count because he must be a Christian. Why else would he have gone to the expense of writing?

Let’s respond to these points.

1. Argument from Silence is a fallacy

In a surprising move, InspiringPhilosophy almost immediately redefines the action taken by the Argument from Silence (AfS). We had a sensible definition (above) where the events in question “probably didn’t happen,” and I’d even tone that down. I’d prefer “might not have happened.” But that has now changed to black-and-white words and phrases like “dismiss,” “made up,” “fabricated,” or “assumed to be false.”

We now have a strawman definition that I don’t use. IP says that that dogmatic version is a fallacy, and I agree.

Christians changing definitions, even over the course of just two paragraphs as in this case, shouldn’t be new to us. For example, the definition of “faith” can vary between belief firmly grounded in evidence and belief not grounded in evidence, depending on an apologist’s audience.

Let’s proceed while keeping in mind these different definitions of the AfS.

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

This popular adage helps inform the AfS. While absence of evidence is not proof of absence, it can certainly be evidence. If I have a drawer where I keep my keys, and I’ve poked through it three times this morning and still can’t find them, that’s good evidence of absence.

That’s the motivation behind the AfS. Not finding evidence where you’d expect to isn’t proof, but it’s evidence. Returning to the gospel story, not finding miracles about Jesus in the writings of contemporary historians isn’t proof that the supernatural claims are false, but it is evidence.

2. Consider some historical examples

IP cites the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum and says that we have only one letter documenting the eruption. Should we expect more? IP gives this perspective:

This eruption would have affected far more people—wealthy and educated people as well—than the deeds of one Jewish rabbi primarily speaking to uneducated peasants in a small backwater province of Rome.

If this dramatic disaster was poorly documented, IP argues, why expect more for “one Jewish rabbi”?

But using the AfS to weigh the evidence for Jesus is no ordinary use of the argument. The ministry of Jesus was God’s solution to mankind’s biggest problem. In four instances in the gospel of John, Jesus says that his miracles are evidence of his divine mission. In other words, Jesus intended to make a public splash.

Let’s give the almighty Creator of the universe some credit for being almighty. If God wanted the works of Jesus widely known, they would’ve been. To say that God’s record of Jesus was eroded by 2000 years of time just like any other ancient record is to misunderstand what “omnipotent” means.

Remember also that Vesuvius is just a volcano. No one doubts that they erupt. In fact, this particular one has erupted many times since 79 CE and has covered the area of Pompeii repeatedly. The eruption of Vesuvius was and remains one of those “when, not if” events.

That makes the eruption of Vesuvius an unsurprising, perhaps even mundane event. The story of that “one Jewish rabbi” is supposed to be the remarkable one.

Suetonius the historian

IP wants to declare any appeal to the Argument from Silence to be flawed, so let’s consider an example outside the gospels. You’re probably familiar with the term “cross the Rubicon” to mean a major, irreversible step. This expression comes from the time of Julius Caesar, when no general was allowed to bring his army into Italy. When in 49 BCE he and his army did cross the northern border—identified by the river Rubicon—he in effect declared war.

But Caesar had some divine help. As he paused at the river’s edge before making the leap, an apparition “of wondrous stature and beauty” urged him to cross. He did, this triggered a civil war, he won the war, and he became dictator of Rome.

We know about the spirit because of one historian, Suetonius, whose work is mined by Christians for hints of Jesus. Must we conclude that this actually happened? Or perhaps we can (dare I say it?) use the AfS to say that without corroborating sources, this remarkable claim is not historical. And also throw in that a supernatural claim, such as this one, has a much bigger burden of proof.

This makes IP’s position difficult. If the AfS can be used, we can get rid of Suetonius’s apparition, but then it can be used to argue that the remarkable claims and supernatural deeds of Jesus didn’t happen. If the AfS can’t be used, we have one fewer arguments by which to argue that the apparition wasn’t historical (h/t commenter Lex Lata).

Contemporary historians who could’ve mentioned Jesus

And there were historians of the time who could have plausibly heard of the stories of Jesus as news rather than anecdotes filtered through the gospels. Ignoring mentions of Christians (but not Jesus) and additions made by others (like the Testimonium Flavianum, added to Josephus’s writings), candidate historians are Seneca, Tiberias, Philo, Pliny the Elder, Josephus, Plutarch, Tacitus, Suetonius, and more.

Concluded in part 2.

You can’t leave footprints in the sands of time
if you’re sitting on your butt.
And who wants to leave butt prints
in the sands of time?
— Bob Moawad

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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...