Friday, July 22, 2011

Argument from Silence on Dating of Acts

In dating ancient documents, we attempt to determine a terminus a quo (point after which the document was written) and a terminus ad quem (point before which the document was written.) Absent direct internal dating by the author (“In the third year of Tiberius’ reign” for example), we generally determine the terminus a quo by the last chronological date within the document, and the terminus ad quem by the date the document was referenced and quoted.

For a simplistic example, if the last event in a book was Pearl Harbor and the book was referenced by another author in 1950, we would date the book from 1941 – 1950. Obviously in ancient documents, the ranges tend to be larger.

Utilizing New Testament documents, Mark references the Jewish revolt in Mark 13, so we date the work—the terminus a quo--at the fall of Jerusalem. Being 70 CE. And, for purposes of this blog entry only, we can see Papias referencing a Gospel written by Mark in his writing of 110-140 CE. for our terminus ad quem. Therefore (if this was any other work) we would date Mark 70 – 140 CE and think nothing of it. A scholar who discussed Mark as having been written in 71 CE would be on equal footing as one who indicated 140 CE. (Imagine that!)

It should be noted, though, determining when the Gospels were referenced is not that simple. See Dr. Carrier’s excellent blog entry regarding just how convoluted this can become.

However, for many Christian apologists—they see this as a problem. They want the Gospels to be earlier. “The Earlier, the Better” is their battle cry. The problem being, the Gospels themselves do not indicate when they were written. So we have to analyze it; and simple analysis comes up with dates much too inconvenient.

Matthew copies Mark, but Matthew doesn’t provide us with any information regarding when IT was written. (For example, if Matthew dated its own work to 90 CE, we would then derive a 70 – 90 CE date for Mark. Since Matthew referenced Mark.) Luke also uses Mark. Luke also fails to provide us with any limiting information. So we are still left with this 70 CE – 140 CE (or more) dating for the Gospels.

Mmm….how to get around this? *snaps fingers*

Luke wrote a second book—Acts. (We know it is the second, because in it he refers to his previous book: the Gospel. Acts 1:1-3) If we can date the second Book, then the first book—Gospel of Luke—must come before it. First comes before second. And if we can date the Gospel of Luke, as Luke copies Mark, we can date Mark.

Date Acts to 65 CE, then Luke has a terminus ad quem of 65 CE and Mark would have a terminus ad quem of 65CE. (We can’t know how long it was before one followed the other, or one copied the other, so traditionally we use the same date. Extrapolating “10 years” or “5 years” is merely an apologetic tool, and should be abandoned in light of what historians actually do.)

But…unfortunately…Acts also doesn’t provide any internal dating either. We are left with the same problem as the Gospels. Leaving us the same general dating: 70 – 140 CE.

This is where the Argument from Silence comes in. The apologist attempts to show an event occurred where we know the dating, and if the person fails to list it, presumably the document was written before that date.

For another simplistic example. If we found a document referencing the greatest wars in history, and it failed to list World War II, we would presume—under an Argument of Silence—the document was written before 1941.

Understand an Argument from Silence is NOT a logical fallacy. As we like to say in the legal world, “It goes to weight, not relevance.” It may not be very credible, but it is not, in and of itself, a fallacy.

The apologist generally uses 2 (sometimes 3) events which they indicate MUST have been included in Acts if it was written after those events, and therefore Acts (and Luke and Mark) were written prior to those events:

1) Paul’s death;
2) Jewish revolt; and
3) (sometimes) the outcome of Paul’s trial.

Since these events occurred before 64 CE (so the apologist claims), Acts (and Luke and Mark) must have been written before 64 CE. Giving us a terminus ad quem for all three of 64 CE.

Let’s break down the elements of an Argument from Silence—we need a minimum of two items:

1) What it is the author is silent about; and
2) The purpose of the writing itself.

Take the claim, “Tiger Woods shot a hole-in-one in last week’s Golf Tournament.” (“1” in our list above.) Now I claim it could not possibly have happened, because it is not listed in the magazine I hold in my hand. The magazine is silent; by virtue of the Argument from Silence…didn’t happen.

But what magazine am I holding? If I am holding Cosmopolitan the Argument from Silence is not very strong. Because the nature and purpose of Cosmopolitan has nothing to do with golf scores, whether Tiger Woods did or did not shot a hole-in-one—indeed whether he even played golf that weekend—would not be included within the Magazine.

Obviously, if I am holding Golf Digest then the Argument of Silence has great weight—the nature and purpose of Golf Digest IS to report such things as Tiger Woods shooting a hole-in-one.

Again, we need two things: 1) what fact is claimed missing and 2) whether the document’s purpose would include such a fact.

Continuing with our Tiger Wood’s example, what if our fact was that Tiger Woods defined the new personage that teenage girls found attractive? In that Argument of Silence, whether Cosmopolitan reported it holds greater weight than Golf Digest.

What I often see, in the Argument of Silence from apologists regarding the dating of Acts, is one or both of these elements overlooked. The apologists just keeps repeating, “Acts would have reported Paul’s death if it had happened. Acts would have reported Paul’s death if it had happened. Therefore it was written prior to his death.” Yet the apologist fails to plug Paul’s death in the two essential elements.

The first thing we have to look at. When and how did Paul die? And immediately we have a problem.

The author of 1 Clement (60 -140 CE) knows Paul is dead. He does not say when. He does not say how. Acts of Paul indicates (as tradition) Paul was beheaded under Nero, but Tertullian claims it a forgery. Leaving the apologist in a bit of a quandary—do they rely upon a forgery, because it says what they want to hear? Or do they reject the other items contained in Acts of Paul, because it is a forgery?

We don’t know how Paul died. We don’t know when. How can we say the author of Acts would certainly include Paul’s death, if we don’t even know how and when he died? Would the author have included it if Paul died by shipwreck? By disease? By a knife fight in an alley? By being martyred? By other Christians?

The apologists want to assume Paul died a glorious death, without first doing the hard work of proving how Paul died.

As to the second element, scholars have noted numerous purposes under Acts whereby Paul’s death would not be listed. It is also important to note the author of Acts, at the time of the writing, knows Paul is dead. Acts. 20:25-38.

The outcome of Paul’s trial is equally problematic. Did he win? Did he lose? Did it even happen? Again, if Paul died from disease prior to the trial, this makes perfect sense why it wasn’t listed. Or if he lost. We simply don’t know, and to speculate what happened adds silence upon silence, removing all but a feather’s weight of credibility.

(Sometimes people claim Luke wrote so much about the trial leading up to the ending and he wouldn’t have mentioned it at all if Paul lost. Not true—if Paul lost, that is all the MORE reason to give the long-winded substantiation. In my practice, at times, I ask the question, “Have you been convicted of a felony?” I receive two answers:

1) “No.”
2) “Let me tell you what happened….”

No one says outright, “Yes, I was convicted”—first they want to give an explanation. Like Luke does for Paul.)

Paul’s death and Paul’s trial are extremely weak Arguments from Silence, as we don’t know the underlying facts, let alone why the author would choose or choose not to include it. But that’s not true for the Jewish Revolt. THAT event we DO know about. Why didn’t Acts include it?

Which brings us back to purpose. Why would Acts include it? Acts is about the conflict Early Christians had with the Jewish leaders, an explanation of the missionary work, and a demonstration regarding the continuity between first generation Christians (disciples) and the third-generation Christians (recipients) via the second-generation Christian Paul.

The Jewish Revolt has no bearing on the missionary work, or the doctrinal continuity, and therefore would have no need to be included. The typical reason listed would be to paint the Jews in a bad light under the first purpose listed.

However, we have to look at Acts itself. It discusses Jews vs Christians as compared to Romans vs. Christians, painting the Romans in a positive, receptive light, and the Jews as the belligerent, confrontational type. The entire book deals with Christians interacting with others.

The Jewish revolt had to do with internal Jewish problems (conservative v more modernistic) and Jews vs. Romans. The Revolt had NOTHING to do with Christianity.

I have always been curious, to the people who claim Acts would have mentioned the Jewish Wars if it was written in 90 CE.


Where would Acts include the Revolt, and how would it work its way into the passage? The book ends in approximately 62 CE—is the apologist claiming the author would have extended the book on to include the events of 70 CE? Why?—there were no Christians involved! The recipients would state, “That is nice and all, but what does it have to do with us?” Absolutely nothing.

Is the apologist stating the authors would have included it a prophetic statement? Luke already did in his first book, copying Mark 13.

Other than the apologist’s compelling need to date Acts early, there is no reason for the revolt to be included. It is outside the purview of the book.

The Argument of Silence is too weak to overturn the basic principles in dating ancient texts.