Does silence on cases involving Jesus reveal a problem? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
One of the #1 arguments used by people like Christ-mythers is the argument from silence. Surely if Jesus was a historical figure, more people would talk about him! This was the Son of God! This was someone going around doing miracles! Why isn’t he being talked about everywhere?
Some people compare this to the modern world. If some great phenomenon happened, such as, say, a meteor hitting Mt. Rushmore and destroying it immediately, this would be talked about the world over immediately. You would suddenly have bloggers writing everywhere! News teams would swamp the area! Even as far away as the other side of the world, people would be talking.
Yes. Yes they would be. The problem is these modern comparisons fail. Let’s note some important differences.
First off, this all takes place after what Brent Sandy and John Walton have called in their book “The Lost World of Scripture”, the Gutenberg Galaxy. (The title is not original with them) Readers interested in The Lost World of Scripture are invited to listen to my interview with one of the authors, Brent Sandy, here and read my review of it here.
After Gutenberg everything changes. People can produce books much more quickly and efficiently. As a result, the number of books goes up and the cost to make them goes down. Because of this, literacy will go up as more books can be distributed to the public and there is in fact more leisure time rather than much time spent on the tedious task of copying a manuscript. Of course, it’s still not as efficient as today’s methods, but it is much more efficient.
Move forward to today and everyone can get their opinion out there. As soon as you see a story on the news, someone can comment on it and it can be anyone. Twitter is an excellent example of this. A news story takes place and people are immediately sharing it and in fact sharing links to it.
Over Thanksgiving while visiting the Liconas, we were watching a football game on Thanksgiving night. (I say we loosely. Allie and Mike were watching. I was reading more. Football just bores me honestly, but my wife and father-in-law are both Ravens fans.) Mike was getting tired and so was Allie and we all decided we’d just go to sleep.
Now this game was not played in the city where we were, but there was no doubt that when we woke up in the morning, we would be able to tell who won. In fact, immediately when the game was over, we could have been told who won. The age of mass communications has made this kind of knowledge much easier to come by.
Second, if literacy is up, then it turns out that the written word can often become the best way to spread information, though even this is not always the case. Today, we can use videos on YouTube or for news just go to a news broadcast. The visual is still a powerful aid to get the message out. Something that made the Vietnam War so different was we could really see the images of it. People who heard the Kennedy/Nixon debate for the most part said Nixon won. Those who watched for the most part said Kennedy won. The visual is definitely having an impact.
Third, when information is written down more and more, memory will take less and less place in society. An oral culture thrives on memory far more than we do and seeks to have all its information not so much in individual memory, but rather in collective memory. (Again, see Sandy and Walton above) You could change some secondary details in a story, such as some chronology, but the primary details had to stay the same.
We still do this today. If I have Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons visit me, I will certainly call my own parents to give an account of what happened, but my parents are not apologists so I give a basic account. When I call Mike then or my former roommate or write it out here, the account gets more and more detailed. Why? Because these are the people that know the language and I can communicate it to them in a different way.
It’s not for these reasons alone that written sources were not used the most in the ancient world. As alluded to earlier, cost was an issue.
Here is what one writer says about the issue who happens to have a PH.D.
“By the estimates of William Harris, author of Ancient Literacy (1989), only 20% of the population could read anything at all, fewer than 10% could read well, and far fewer still had reasonable access to books. He found that in comparative terms, even a single page of blank papyrus cost the equivalent of thirty dollars—ink, and the labor to hand copy every word cost many times more (p. 195). As a result, books could run to the thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars in value each. Consequently, only the rich had books, and only elite scholars had access to libraries, of which there were few.”
Of course, I already am sure that several out there are saying that this is just another Christian excuse for not having writing. It’s a convenient little remark that is meant to explain away a problem. For those who think that, there is a problem. Here is the source for this statement.
“Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness Without God, 2005. p. 232”
Carrier himself is a Christ-mythicist, but I have no problem with this here. To get just the papyrus of a single page could cost $30. Ink and labor would cost more. Add in as well that for these books someone else would have to deliver the book which would be a delivery charge and you’d have to make sure someone was there who could read the book. Usually, the deliverer would serve as a reader and he would have to know the content well enough to be able to explain it to the audience, properly read it with all the nuances in speech, etc. This was a costly enterprise!
So let’s compare these methods.
One method, writing, costs an exorbitant amount to produce and reaches only about 10% of the population at the most. Oral tradition, which in the ancient world was just as reliable if not more reliable, was absolutely free and could spread the word far and wide to everyone who could speak the common language.
Which one will be done? Decisions decisions….
Today we value the written word the most, but the problem is this is an anachronism on our part where we throw our modern mindset back into the ancient world. It is saying “We value writing today and seek to write things down immediately. Weren’t the ancients the same way?” No. No they weren’t.
Another point when it comes to Jesus is as I have written about elsewhere, Jesus would have essentially been a nobody in the ancient world. He could have been popular in some circles where he was, but that does not extend everywhere.
Many a town can have its own celebrities and such. Politicians in states can usually be known in their states, but unless they do something really big or have a scandal of some sort, that fame won’t likely extend much beyond that. A professional athlete who’s not that well-known can still be a celebrity in his own town.
Jesus lived in an area that was important as a trade route that connected three continents, but it was not viewed as important for its culture. The culture was certainly tolerated by the Romans due to it being old, but it was not something that they celebrated. What was Rome interested in? Power and glory. What were the Greeks interested in? Knowledge.
So who was Jesus?
Jesus was a rabbi. He was a preacher who supposedly did miracles (Oh who would believe in that stuff? Not an educated Roman). He never ran for political office. He never as an adult traveled outside of his own country. He never led any troops into battle. He was such a weak figure that it only took a small cohort to arrest him. The Romans didn’t have to call in an army or anything. The movement was put down in a weekend. (Of course, the resurrection did change that) Worst of all, He was crucified, the most shameful death of all, something that any Messiah and Son of God claimant would surely avoid.
It’s quite amusing to hear Jesus then being compared to other people at the time who we have records of such as, say, the Caesar on the throne. Yes. We all know that a Jewish rabbi should get as much attention as the reigning Caesar at the time. Let’s keep in mind that some who have made the mistake of thinking that the sources are equal have in fact admitted it was a mistake. See here for details. Of course, we all will make mistakes in our research from time to time. By all means, check all claims from everyone.
Yet we are told that there are no contemporary eyewitness accounts for Jesus. Indeed, there are none for Alexander the Great. Tim O’Neill at Armarium Magnum gives a comparison with this in using Hannibal. As he says:
“To highlight how easily a peasant nobody like Jesus could very easily pass without any surviving contemporary notice at all, I held up the example of someone at the other end of the scale of fame and significance to Jesus and who, despite this, also has zero contemporary references that have survived to us. Hannibal was about as far from a Jewish peasant preacher in terms of fame and significance as you could get in the ancient world, yet we have no contemporary references to him at all. None. This shows that the nature of ancient source material is such that we have contemporary references for virtually nobody, including people much more significant than Jesus. So making an argument about the existence of any ancient figure based on the lack or otherwise of contemporary references is patently ridiculous; doubly so for a peasant preacher.”
And once again, before someone writes this off as another Christian grasping at straws, please keep in mind Tim O’Neill is an atheist. He has no desire to promote Christianity, and while I disagree with him on his historical conclusions concerning who Jesus is and what He did, I have great respect for his methodology and for his also not putting up with atheists making bad historical arguments.
If Hannibal does not receive this then why should we expect such for Jesus?
In fact, all of this assumes that the gospels are not contemporary and are not eyewitnesses or based on eyewitness accounts. Luke explicitly says he spoke to the eyewitnesses. Few people in fact I see are actually responding to a work such as Richard Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” to see if it could be that the gospels are eyewitness accounts.
As for contemporary, I recently had Dr. Paul Maier on my show which can be heard here who said no scholar he knows of who studies the ancient world would accept the idea that only contemporary accounts are to be used. If we followed such an account, we would have to throw out much of ancient history. In fact, Carrier saying why he thinks the accounts of the crossing of the Rubicon are more reliable than that of the resurrection says the following:
“Fourth, we have the story of the “Rubicon Crossing” in almost every historian of the period, including the most prominent scholars of the age: Suetonius, Appian, Cassius Dio, Plutarch.” That can be found here. Little problem with this. Not one of those scholars is a contemporary.
Let’s consider Appian. From Livius.org, we get this. This tells us that Appian would have written in the second century A.D. Carrier dates the crossing of the Rubicon to 49 B.C. This means that Appian wrote at least 149 years later and unless he wrote when he was 5 years old, it could have been written around 200 years later.
Information on Suetonius is here.
What does this mean? Suetonius was born 120 years after the event and would have written later as well of course.
Cassius Dio is even worse. We are told he started his work in the 190’s and wrote the Roman History from 211-233. So let’s go with 211 being the date of the writing of the event just to be as generous as possible.
This is 260 years later!
Finally, there’s Plutarch. Plutarch’s information can be found here.
This means Plutarch was born 95 years after the event.
Now if all of these are acceptable to be seen as accounts of historians of the age writing about these events, then if the gospels are before 125 A.D. (30 + 95) then we should be on good grounds. In fact, most liberal scholarship today would date the gospels to around 80-95 A.D. This isn’t even counting the Pauline Epistles which speak of these events even earlier. If 95+ counts for Caesar, why does it not count for Jesus?
In fact, James Crossley has argued for an early date of Mark, perhaps going into the 40’s. Once again, I’d like to remind readers that Crossley is not a friend of evangelical Christianity. He is an atheist. See an interview here.
Another claim is that the gospels are anonymous. We are not told what this has to do with the price of tea in China. I suppose if every skeptic was immediately convinced of traditional authorship, then they would suddenly accept them as valid historical accounts.
Yet as Paul Maier told me on the show, this is really a weak argument. A large number of works from the ancient world are anonymous and we know about who wrote them from outside sources. Besides, even if there was a name on them, why think that would be accepted? The Pastorals have the name of Paul on them, but most critics do not accept Pauline authorship of those works. To establish authorship of a document requires more than having the name on the document. This will require a methodology of determining authorship. Unfortunately, most skeptics today have no such methodology and just want to shout out “anonymous!” as if that alone is an argument. For those interested, I plan on writing in the near future why I consider the gospels to be by their traditional authors. Those interested in more right now can look at my interviews with Dr. Tim McGrew and with Andrew Pitts.
Let’s also not forget something else. Much of the writing of the ancient world has sadly not survived. Some of it was destroyed intentionally unfortunately, but some of it is just lost due to the ravages of time, and this includes Christian writings. Much of what we could find about Jesus would be in the area of Jerusalem and yet we are told by Josephus that after its destruction one would never know a city had been there.
It is for all of these reasons that arguments from silence is weak. The principle to follow is that where we would expect silence anyway, the argument from silence is weak. The rest of the world would not have been interested in a failed Messiah who was crucified and never ran for office or led an army. Miracles would only be scoffed at.
What is required? Doing real history which will require real work, including reading as much as one can on an argument. Too many atheists for too long have been using simple arguments without doing the heavy lifting of real historical work. They may think they are damaging the Christian cause, but in reality, they are only hurting their own cause.