When an Argument from Silence Becomes Utterly Meaningless
Jun 16, 2009 by Craig Blomberg | 6 Comments
Not long ago an unsolicited e-mail asked me to comment on a skeptic’s blogsite that had posted a list of about twenty “historians” from the Jewish, Greek or Roman worlds of around the time of Christ. Not one of them ever mentioned Jesus, the blogger pointed out. Surely that should cast serious doubt on whether the Jesus Christians worship ever even existed.
It was an intriguing list. There were a few names I didn’t recognize that I had to look up, but most were indeed ancient writers from one of those three cultures. The trouble was that only about a third of them could be legitimately called historians. One was an ancient taxonomist who wrote about flora and fauna. A couple were writers on medicine or ancient science. Two were geographers. Several were poets and playwrights.
Of those who were truly historians, several did indeed live “around the time of Christ” but just a little bit before him. Gee, I wonder why they never mentioned him! Several others were actually second- or third-century writers not writing about life in Israel at all but about other parts of the Roman empire. In short, there wasn’t a single name on the list for which there would have been good reason for Jesus even to have been mentioned.
At least this blogger had the wherewithal to acknowledge that the first-century Jewish historian does twice refer to Jesus and that early second-century Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius do too. He obviously just had no idea who all these other folks were, and, in fact, acknowledged that he had taken the list from some obscure book published early in the twentieth century.
In our age of growing disinterest in history and classics (i.e., Greek and Roman language, history and literature) more generally, his faux pas isn’t surprising I guess. What is surprising to me, but perhaps it shouldn’t be either, are the number of people who ask why, even granted these late-first- and early-second-century witnesses, historians who wrote closer in time to Jesus’ ministry (probably 27 or 28 through 30 A.D.) didn’t refer to Jesus.
The question I always want to ask is “And which individuals are these who you think should have referred to Jesus?” The fact is that we no longer have in existence the writings of a single Jewish, Greek or Roman historian who wrote about life in Israel during the first third of the first century. And even those whose names we know about, because later authors refer to them, are precious few in number, and we typically know little if anything of the contents of their writings. It’s hard for non-existent sources to reference Christ, or anyone else for that matter.
So why do so many atheists “buy” this meaningless argument from silence without even questioning whether sources exist in which we should expect to find something about Jesus but don’t. The only answer I can think of is that they really aren’t interested in learning truth, only in challenging it, and that without even being curious to find out what they don’t know that they don’t know!
G. K. Chesterton put it well a century ago. When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing. They believe in anything!