Silences: Evidence of absence?

July 2007

A member of the Internet Infidels Discussion Board going by the screenname TedM has a Web site——on which he has posted a response to Earl Doherty's "Top 20" New Testament silences regarding a historical Jesus. He discusses each of the 20 in turn and then states, in a concluding essay, "the 20 silences are for the most part not surprising." We shall see whether his analysis justifies that conclusion and whether, even if it is, we might be justified in disregarding whatever lesser part of the 20 Ted agrees are indeed surprising.

(Update 7/16/09: Ted has posted a partial response on his site:

Let us first clarify what the discussion is about. It is often said that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. That is not a fact of logic. It is a fact of epistemology, and it is a contingent fact: It is true in some circumstances and false in others. There are events that cannot occur without leaving lots of evidence. Suppose a friend tells me that terrorists detonated a nuclear bomb in downtown Los Angeles this afternoon. If I go to Los Angeles tomorrow and observe that all the downtown buildings are still intact, then I am seeing an absence of evidence for a nuclear explosion, and if I am reasonable, I will then infer that there was in fact no nuclear explosion the previous day.

Now, if my friend had told me that someone set off a firecracker in downtown Los Angeles, I would be wasting my time looking for evidence of that. That is not because firecrackers leave no evidence when they are detonated. There will be powder residue and pieces of paper strewn about. But the evidence is easily made to disappear. And even if whoever set off the firecracker made no effort to clean up the evidence, if all I knew was that he set it off somewhere in downtown Los Angeles, I would have scant hope of finding the incriminating paper scraps and powder residue.

It is generally agreed, both by Christians and their adversaries, that whatever else one may reasonably believe about Jesus of Nazareth, if there was such a man, one undisputable fact is that he was executed by Pontius Pilate. If that event never occurred, then there is nothing left of a "real Jesus" to sensibly talk about. The best evidence for such an execution would be a document signed by Pilate himself: a death warrant noting Jesus' name, stating the crime of which he was convicted, and ordering his crucifixion. Assuming Jesus' historicity, we may presume that such a document once existed. We may not, however, reasonably suppose that it would still exist or that any other surviving document would mention its existence. Routine government paperwork of that sort, once produced, is rarely seen again and doesn't usually have much of a historical shelf life. Most documents of all kinds in Jerusalem were likely destroyed during the city's destruction at the end of the Jewish War. It is unlikely that Pilate made a copy of the death warrant, and even if he did, it probably went to Rome, and it was probably destroyed during the Neronian fire. So, Jesus' death warrant is one bit of evidence whose absence tells us absolutely nothing.

It is Doherty's argument, though, which I find cogent, that there is other evidence that we justiably should expect to have been produced and to have survived. We should keep in mind, I think, that what remains of the ancient historical record is highly filtered. Most ancient documents, no matter the circumstances of their origin or what they were about, have been forever expunged from humanity's collective memory. The difference between those that survived and those that didn't was to some extent a matter of pure chance. Documents that got hidden someplace and then forgotten in a dry climate had some chance of lasting 2,000 years. But preservation of that sort makes no difference unless somebody serendipitously comes across the place where they were hidden and then, intentionally or otherwise, does whatever has to be done to get the documents into the hands of scholars.

In general, the only documents we know about nowadays were those that orthodox Christians considered worth preserving. For many centuries after the collapse of the Roman empire, the church was the sole guardian of ancient history. Throughout Europe during that period, with rare exceptions, only monks and clergymen were literate, and the only libraries were church libraries. No document got copied unless the church thought there was a good reason to copy it. We may reasonably expect, then, that whatever survived to the present day either supported orthodoxy or at least was not obviously contrary to it. There could have been exceptions, but we cannot presuppose that there were any. Writings that presented viewpoints contrary to orthodoxy did not have to be deliberately destroyed. Without positive action to preserve them, time alone would destroy them.

On the other hand, we should reasonably expect positive action to have been taken to preserve documents that did support orthodoxy. Writings from any source, Christian or pagan, that apologists could have used in defense of any dogma would not likely have been allowed to disappear. This would not have been guaranteed in every case, but it needs to be considered in any discussion about what we may reasonably expect to find in the historical record.

In somewhat formal terms, the argument from silence goes like this:

The New Testament and the earliest noncanonical Christian writings present a special case of this argument. The documents exist. They were written by certain people we would expect to have written things about Jesus. But, they don't say certain things we should expect them to have said about a founder who had lived in Palestine during the early first century. Ted says our expectations are erroneous. We shall now examine that proposition.

1. Jesus' godly attributes

2. The mystery revealed

3. Whose gospel?

4. Teaching about love

5. Turn the other cheek

6. Apostolic authority

7. God our savior

8. The day of salvation

9. Witnesses to the resurrection

10. Patience in suffering

11. John the Baptist

12. The last supper

13. Judas

14. The government

15. Developing tradition

16. Arrival of the kingdom

17. The Second Coming

18. Foundation of faith

19. Healer of the sick

20. Holy places and relics

21. Conclusions

Back to site home

This page last updated on August 4, 2010.