The Argument from Silence, Part 4: Absence of Denials of Jesus’ Historicity as Evidence for Jesus’ Historicity

When one thinks about the historicity of Jesus and arguments from silence, one usually thinks of various arguments from silence against the historicity of Jesus. In this post, I want to sketch an argument from silence for the historicity of Jesus.

The Argument Formulated

B: The Relevant Background Evidence

B1.Both Christian and non-Christian sources in the first and second centuries refer to Jesus.

E: The Evidence to be Explained

E1. There is an absence of evidence that the historicity of Jesus was denied or even questioned by anyone until the 18th century.

H: The Proposed Explanatory Hypothesis and Its Alternatives

H: 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.)
~H: The non-historicity of Jesus, i.e., the New Testament Jesus is not based upon a real historical individual.

Argument

(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).
(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 true, i.e., Pr(H | B & E) > 0.5.

Defense of the Argument


Defense of (1)

We can divide potential sources of evidence that the historicity of Jesus was denied or questioned into two categories: Christian sources and non-Christian sources. I am not aware of any Christian source in the first 1800 or so years which even hints that the historicity of Jesus is a controversial issue. Similarly, I am not aware of any non-Christian source in the first 1800 or so years which denies or even questions the historicity of Jesus. Consider some of Christianity’s earliest critics: Celsus, Hierocles, and Porphyry. Although their works were destroyed by Christians, their works “remain attested in the defenses written by Origen, Eusebius, and Macerius Magnes.”[1]

Robert E. Van Voorst, in his book Jesus Outside the New Testament, discusses one hint of a doubt of the historicity of Jesus in an early writer.

The only possible attempt at this argument known to me is in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, written in the middle of the second century. At the end of chapter 8, Trypho, Justin’s Jewish interlocutor, states, “But [the] Christ — if indeed he has been born, and exists anywhere — is unknown, and does not even know himself, and has no power until Elijah comes to anoint him and  make him known to all. Accepting a groundless report, you have invented a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake you are unknowingly perishing.” This may be a faint statement of a nonexistence hypothesis, but it is not developed or even mentioned again in the rest of the Dialogue, in which Trypho assumes the existence of Jesus.[2]

Defense of (2)

If H is true, the historical Jesus could have been just a normal human being without supernatural significance. If He is true, Jesus could have been the Son of God who was resurrected from the dead. In other words, H is logically compatible with both metaphysical naturalism and supernaturalism. Thus, the alleged supernatural deeds attributed to Jesus are not a valid reason for assigning a low prior probability to H. Furthermore, I can think of no other reason why H should be much less intrinsically probable than ~H. Therefore, I conclude ~H is not intrinsically much more probable than H, i.e., Pr(~H | B) is not much more probable than Pr(H | B). In plain English, there simply is nothing epistemically improbable about the mere existence of a man named Jesus.

Defense of (3)

Van Voorst sums up the support for (3) nicely. Those who deny H “cannot explain to the satisfaction of historians why, if Christians invented the historical Jesus around the year 100, no pagans and Jews who opposed Christianity denied Jesus’ historicity or even questioned it.”[3]

Objections

Richard Carrier has pointed out to me that 2 Peter 1:15-19 and the Ignatian letters (early 2nd century, esp. Trallians 9, middle recension) cast doubt on (1).  The question is whether these authors were arguing against Docetism or mythicism. Carrier points out that “these texts could be arguing against a strain of Christianity teaching that the Gospel (terrestrial) Jesus was just an allegorical myth.” Furthermore, the fact that Trypho says something like “if ever did exist,” Carrier argues, is “an expression of doubt that may reflect an actual one more widely expressed, but it’s notable that this proves no information was available on the matter by then (so doubts had to be ad hoc at that point, even if by chance they were right). That was c. 160 A.D.”[1]

Assessment

(To be continued…) 

Notes

[1] Richard Carrier, private correspondence.

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

    You may find my "Note on Trypho" relevant here:

    http://www.christianorigins.com/trypho.html

    It supports your first premise, at least insofar as this source is concerned.

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

    Thanks!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    I must say I have often thought along the same lines. Christianity had become a troublesome movement within a few decades from the alleged crucifixion event, i.e. within the living memory of many thousands. Similarly, documents which mentioned Jesus’ life in some detail were already circulating. If Jesus had not really existed then the enemies of that movement would have raised a ruckus pointing out this fundamental factual error in Christianity’s claims, an error to which many witnesses would attest.

    What’s more, dozens of the leaders of the early movement claimed in their speeches to have known Jesus personally. If that weren’t true then certainly their relatives and friends would know, and at least some of them who disagreed with Christianity would have testified to that effect. And these testimonies would have been used by the enemies of the Christian movement: “you claim the miraculous resurrection of somebody who hasn’t even been born, haha”.

    Finally the historical success of the early Christian movement is extraordinary enough without assuming that it is based on a non-existing founder.

    Anyway, as long as it is the case that even most atheist historians hold the historical existence of Jesus to be certain I suppose a theist need not concern herself with the on its face wild-eyed claim that Jesus did not exist.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10614359270170296077 ultrablue

    Actually it might be easier to make up Jesus. Here is my line of thinking. Do you know everyone that lives your region? Answer: No. Do you know the goings on with everyone in your region? Answer: No. Do you care about the going on of everything and everyone within your region? Answer: No. So you can see if I made up a story about a fictional Jesus of who you dont know or heard of, you are probably are just going to ignore it. Another thing I would like to state if there was a Jesus, how many people who actually knew him? Was it thousand or just a few hundred? Can we trust the Gospels writter didn't embellish aspect of the story for a purpose of converting people to follow Christ? Could people say they know him, but only spiritually like Christians do?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14346653995659723361 Phillip Moon

    I have been on both sides of this argument, and my current position is that if Jesus lived, he was in no way related to the Jesus they turned him into. The writers of the Gospels were propagandists and had very real goals in mind. They expanded on basic stories (if such stories existed) and created others from whole cloth. And they were scavengers who took freely from each other and used material without concern for continuity. I have no issue with the likely fact that they made up all the miracle stories, too.

    In short, we really don’t know who this guy was. We don’t know which stories were even close to the truth. Enough has probably been made up about him, that we are within our rights to call this myth busted and move on to more pressing issues. That said, I enjoy reading all of these article even when I don’t agree with them all.


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