The Argument from Silence, Part 3: Peter Kirby’s Second Argument from Silence Against the Empty Tomb

Now that I have evaluated Peter Kirby’s first argument from silence against the historicity of the empty tomb of Jesus, I now want to consider his second argument from silence against the historicity of the empty tomb of Jesus (hereafter, “Kirby’s second argument”). According to that argument, the absence of evidence that Christians venerated Jesus’ burial place is evidence against the historicity of the empty tomb.

Kirby’s Second Argument Formulated (as an Explanatory Argument)

We are now in a position to formally state Kirby’s argument. 

B: The Relevant Background Evidence

B1.The historicity of Jesus, i.e., the New Testament Jesus is based upon a real historical individual. (Note: this proposition should not be interpreted as making any claims about the various deeds attributed to Jesus.)
B2. Jesus died by crucifixion.

E: The Evidence to be Explained

E. There is an absence of evidence (in both the New Testament and other earliest Christian writings) that Christians regarded the place where Jesus had been buried as having any special significance (i.e., practice of tomb veneration, meeting for worship at Jesus’ tomb, etc.).

H: The Proposed Explanatory Hypothesis and Its Alternatives

H: Jesus’ tomb was empty after his death and burial.
~H: Jesus’ tomb was not empty after his death and burial.

Kirby’s Argument Formulated

(1) E is known to be true, i.e., Pr(E | B) is close to 1.
(2) H is not intrinsically much more probable than ~H, i.e., Pr(H | B) is not much more probable than Pr(H | B). [Note: Kirby doesn't address the intrinsic probability of H at all, but I am adding this to be maximally charitable.]
(3) E is antecedently much more probable on ~H than on H, i.e., Pr(E | ~H & B) >! Pr(E | H & B).
(4) Therefore, other evidence held equal, H is probably false, i.e., Pr(H | B & E) < 0.5.

Kirby’s Defense of (3)

In defense of (3), Kirby writes this.

I agree that it would be most reasonable to conclude that early Christians did not know that Jesus was resting in his tomb because we would then expect tomb veneration. I agree that this is evidence against knowledge of a full tomb. But I would state further that this is equally evidence against knowledge of an empty tomb. It is plain to see that the site of the tomb of Jesus would become a site of veneration and pilgrimage among early Christians regardless of whether it were full or empty. The factors of nagging doubt, pious curiousity, [sic] and liturgical significance would all contribute towards the empty tomb becoming a site of intense interest among Christians.

Let’s make a distinction between two related but distinct hypotheses:

H1: Jesus’ tomb was empty after his death and burial.
H2: Early Christians knew the location of Jesus’ tomb.

And H2 can be decomposed into at least two sub-hypotheses:

H2.1: Early Christians knew the location of Jesus’ full tomb.
H2.2: Early Christians knew the location of Jesus’ empty tomb.

With this distinction in mind, then, let’s parse Kirby’s defense of (3).

I agree that it would be most reasonable to conclude that early Christians did not know that Jesus was resting in his tomb because we would then expect tomb veneration. I agree that this is evidence against knowledge of a full tomb.

In other words, Pr(E | H2.1) > Pr(E | ~H2.1).

But I would state further that this is equally evidence against knowledge of an empty tomb. (italics mine)

In other words, Pr(E | H2.1) = Pr(E | H2.2).

It is plain to see that the site of the tomb of Jesus would become a site of veneration and pilgrimage among early Christians regardless of whether it were full or empty. The factors of nagging doubt, pious curiousity, [sic] and liturgical significance would all contribute towards the empty tomb becoming a site of intense interest among Christians.

In other words, Pr(E | H2.2) > Pr(E | ~H2.2).

Thus, Kirby’s defense of (3) may be formulated as follows.

(5) Pr(E | H2.1) > Pr(E | ~H2.1).
(6) Pr(E | H2.1) = Pr(E | H2.2).
(7) Pr(E | H2.2) > Pr(E | ~H2.2).
(8) Therefore, E is antecedently much more probable on ~H1 than on H1, i.e., Pr(E | ~H1 & B) >! Pr(E | H1 & B).

As this formal analysis makes obvious, the argument is a non sequitur. Not only does the conclusion not follow from the premises, but H1 isn’t even explicitly included in the premises! As it stands, then, Kirby’s defense of (3) is, at best, incomplete. Indeed, in light of (6), one obvious reply to Kirby’s argument is that Pr(E | H) = Pr(E | ~H). In plain English, if E is “equally” evidence against both early Christians having knowledge of a full tomb and early Christians having knowledge of an empty tomb, then why isn’t it also the case that E is “equally” probable on both an empty tomb and its denial? (For the record, I’m not claiming that I believe this inference is a good one; rather, I’m simply pointing out that Kirby says nothing regarding this reply.) I conclude that Kirby’s defense of (3) is, at best, incomplete.

On the other hand, I do wonder if there is an inductively correct argument from silence (regarding tomb veneration) against the empty tomb. In other words, although I think Kirby’s second argument (as currently written) fails, I do not rule out the possibility that there may be another version of the argument which succeeds. Perhaps in a future post I can try to reformulate Kirby’s argument in an attempt to strengthen it.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16724603345241200742 Peter Kirby

    I think you've allowed the abstractness of your formulation confuse you.

    The second-to-last paragraph says, "why isn't it also the case that E is 'equally' probable on both an empty tomb and its denial?"

    Would you really ask this question when stripped of the symbolic varnish?

    I said that tomb veneration was equally probable under the hypothesis of a known, empty tomb and a known, occupied tomb of Jesus. This makes sense based on our understanding of human nature and the reverence with which his followers held Jesus.

    I don't say it out of some confused sense that they should be equal because of the symmetry of it or anything equally without basis. I say it because I think we know it.

    On the other hand, it is only in the confused appeal to the argumentative symmetry of it that you attempt to explain a retort that would say that tomb veneration would be equally probable whether there was a known tomb and whether there was no such known tomb for his followers to venerate.

    To the contrary, I would say again that our knowledge should allow us to say that tomb veneration *is* significantly more probably if there were a known tomb to venerate, where his followers were aware that Jesus had been lain and which were subsequently empty or which continued to hold his body.

    If there were no such known tomb, then tomb veneration would only be possible after one was invented for it. Such invention is not a certitude, although you can say that it had a significant probability for each decade that passed after the death of Jesus. Eventually, in the fourth century, it did come to pass, when Constantine's mother designated a site for tomb veneration.

    This leaves the evidence of the previous three centuries when there is no record of tomb veneration. Absence of tomb veneration during this time is significantly more probable if there were no known tomb that could be venerated than if there were one that were known to early Christians. That you have been lead to conclude otherwise makes me wonder if your formalization of the arguments is actually helping you to understand them.

    best regards,
    Peter Kirby

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    I still owe Peter Kirby a reply to his comment.

    In the meantime, I just discovered that John Loftus criticized Kirby's argument here.


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