Thursday, April 11, 2013

Thought for the Day

Inexplicably, I have been recently been fascinated with
J. Warner Wallace , bringing me to converse on Stand to Reason’s blog ). I was particularly struck by the comments in that blog entry referring to an Argument from Silence (if a historical document would be expected to record an event but does not, the event probably didn’t occur. Think of it this way—because our newspapers record momentous events, and there is no record the Statute of Liberty blew up yesterday, we can reasonably determine the Statute of Liberty did not blow up yesterday.)

The concern being an argument from silence would be utilized to state, “The canonical gospels do not record their authorship; therefore they were not authored by the claimed individuals.”

The first comment starts off with, “To make a case from silence on a particular issue, such as they never said they were eye witnesses, seems flimsy at best.” O.K. Not sure I agree we can broadly say all arguments from silence are flimsy, but I understand what this person’s position is. He goes on to say, “We know the book of acts was from 62 A.D 2 years before the martyrdom of Paul and 3 before Peter placing it within the life of eye witnesses.”

What?! Does he understand this dating of Acts of Apostles is explicitly based upon the Argument of Silence? Namely Acts is silent as to Peter and Paul’s death, so it must be prior to 64 CE? The irony is strong in this one—in the first sentence to claim arguments from silence are flimsy, and in the second, utilize an argument from silence!

However, we see he indicates he is a novice at apologetics, so perhaps we give it a pass. On a brighter note, another Christian apologist recognized this inherently inconsistent approach:
One of the primary methods by which the Gospels are dated is based on the lack of mention of the deaths of Peter and Paul in Acts, along with the lack of any mention of the destruction of Jerusalem.

On one hand, I agree with this reasoning. It makes sense. But on the other hand, isn't this a classical "argument from silence"? We (as apologists) frequently reject arguments from silence when they are presented by critics of the New Testament. But here we are MAKING an argument from silence in our dating methods!

Aha! A bright light of intelligent question! Alas, the next response immediately quashes our hope: “Nathan, I don't think this argument from silence, but a logical inference.”

Eh….right….a “logical inference” from what? The…uh…silence…maybe?

I asked, “What is the difference between a ‘logical inference’ from an author’s silence and the Argument from Silence?” but unfortunately, my question was deleted by moderation for being off-topic.

What hope for Christian apologetics when they don’t even understand or deal with their own rationalizations?


  1. Inexplicably, I have been recently been fascinated with J. Warner Wallace, bringing me to converse on Stand to Reason’s blog.

    It's like picking at a scab. You know you should leave it alone, but you just can't resist.

  2. DagoodS,

    More great stuff. Reading through the comments in the STR blog you linked to just tells me that the Christian Disinformation Campaign has been extremely successful, at least with some poor souls. It reads like a deluge of unwarranted assumptions happily accepted as “sound reasoning” by folks who would suddenly be transformed into experts in critical thinking when a non-Christian’s argument is introduced into the fray. Don’t they ever realize that they come across as just a little too eager to swallow the whole party line in one gulp? The rationalizations they invent to “justify” this are not really intended to validate what they believe, but rather to keep their noses from poking outside the tent. I find them particularly unpersuasive.

    I cringe when I read apologist retorts such as the following:

    AJG wrote: “There is no corroborating evidence this happened other than church tradition established in the second century C.E.”

    WisdomLover retorted: “Early in the second century A.D. In other words, the church 'tradition' was established during the lifetimes of people who knew many of the 11.”

    I find it almost difficult to maintain hope for the human race if it’s true that someone would find WisdomLover’s comment here at all persuasive on the matter. Writing is initially a very private endeavor, and only once a piece of writing is published is it available for wider audiences. But even if we grant that the writings which were eventually fixed in church tradition were published “during the lifetimes of people who knew many of the 11.” So what? To say that this is precisely when those accounts became church tradition is quite a stretch in itself. It took decades if not centuries for “church tradition” to solidify, and it certainly was not a monolithic affair in the 2nd century. We cannot just casually assume that what was accepted as tradition in Palestine was identical to what was accepted as church tradition in Ephesus, or Bithynia, or Rome. There was no centralized authority and there was certainly no ready means of transmission or mass communication (e.g., no e-mail blasts). If someone wrote a story about the apostle Andrew, for instance, how would anyone who might have known Andrew personally become aware of it? The apologists seem to assume that all of Andrew’s surviving acquaintances would have automatically become aware of anything someone wrote about Andrew. But that doesn’t even happen today. So why suppose it happened back then? They also assume that none of these alleged acquaintances (we don’t know who they were, their names, their birthdates, when they died, where they lived, if they could read, what language they spoke, etc. – all these details are lacking) may have become aware of such writings without challenging them if they thought they were wrong. Worse than a flimsy argument from silence – it’s assumption from silence. But even then, it misses the fact that it’s very easy for a piece of literature to come under challenge and yet continue to be published as though it were true. For example, Lee Strobel’s The Case For Christ. Utter reprehensible garbage, and many published reviews have challenged virtually every page of it, but it’s still out there being sold as if it were the unvarnished truth. Happens today, I see no reason why it could not have happened back then. How easy it would it have been for a bishop to tell his deacons, “Get him out of here. He claims he knew Andrew. He doesn’t know anything. Banish him from the flock!”

    Apologists need to grasp the fact that this was a religious movement, and people promulgating a religious movement have a vested interest in increasing its size, its momentum, its influence over a community. Apologists today demonstrate that they are not willing to let facts get in their way, so why should we think that the church leaders back in the 2nd century were going to revise their traditions once they had been accepted?


  3. Bahsen Burner,

    I quite agree. What is frustrating about discussing topics with Christian apologists is the lack of control, protocols, or even cohesive parameters whereby we can limit or exclude certain claims. In a court, we have a judge who will not allow claimants to go outside the rules of evidence, for example. Or the scientific community utilizes peer-review to limit people writing anything they want and it being published.

    Yet Christian apologists can say anything about anything by just about any means possible and there is no means to exclude or endorse their arguments. It all—ALL—comes down to “I think _____” and as long as it is a remote possibility, that underline can be filled with anything. Apologia has evolved from a defense of Christianity to, “Gee…at least Christianity might be remotely possible…right?....right?”

    And, due to the fracturing of Christian beliefs, just about any position—from YEC to theistic evolution; inerrancy to inspiration—will find some supporters so the Apologist can thump their own chest and feel important by repeating what others want to hear.

  4. DagoodS,

    Having my coffee and thinking about all this as I read through some of the comments on the STR blog.

    The gospels record many lengthy speeches and conversations which were supposedly spoken by the characters they depict. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew is some 2500 words. No one claims that Jesus himself wrote this down while he was alive. And yet, we are expected to believe that, word for word, he gave this sermon exactly as we find it in our bibles today (various translations notwithstanding).

    But it’s always puzzled me how one could be certain that an “eyewitness” would accurately recall a speech of such length, right down to the tiniest particle, even if he were writing it down 20 minutes after he heard it. I know I could not do this, and I’d like to meet someone who could. But even the most conservative apologists allow that a period of years if not decades had passed before the speeches and discourses in the gospels were written down.

    Let’s review the “facts” as scholars generally view them to be:

    Various references in the gospel narrative put the crucifixion around 30-33 AD and Jesus’ ministry in the years leading up to this time. The gospels themselves were written decades later – Mark, commonly held to be the first extant gospel, written at the earliest in the 60s, most likely after 70 AD, the other three in the final decades of the first century. (Many conservatives argue for earlier dates, but even then they allow for the elapse of two or three decades.)

    So there’s at least a 30-year gap here between the events in question and, for all we know, the first attempts to put them into writing. Apologists claim that the gospels were written either by eyewitnesses themselves who were present at one or more of the events they describe (it would be dubious if they held that such a writer was present for everything recorded in any gospel) or at any rate by persons who had been in communication with eyewitnesses or associates of eyewitnesses (the prologue in Luke 1:1-4, the only gospel to say anything about its composition process, gives the impression that the story started with eyewitnesses and then was passed down, through an unstated number of hands, finally arriving at the writer).

    Now how do they explain how any contributor could possibly meet the tremendous demands this puts on the memory of an eyewitness? How could anyone recall a speech word for word after such a long period of time? Presumably the eyewitnesses heard any speech only once. And even if the speech were only 200 words, say, it seems quite far-fetched to suppose that anyone could remember an entire speech, let alone a whole narrative full of speeches. I would think that it would be even more difficult in the case of a conversation between two people – who said what in what order? I remember having conversations just a month ago, but I would not be able to record them word for word today. The claim that the gospel accounts are entirely accurate and inerrant seems to call for super-human mental faculties, and thus puts itself outside the realm of rational credibility.

    If apologists say that the speeches and dialogues were passed down via oral tradition, it seems they would be abandoning the claim that eyewitnesses or colleagues of eyewitnesses wrote them. And if they came to the writer in the form of an oral tradition, what would guarantee that what eventually reached the writer was what was actually said decades earlier?

    Any thoughts on this?


  5. I always have thoughts.

    1) We must be careful to avoid falling into the same traps and thinking as Christian apologists. Sometimes we become so used to arguing their points—assuming arguendo--we forget their claims are unfounded.

    Jesus was most likely a teacher/rabbi/philosopher in Galilee who eventually attracted the attention of Roman leadership in Judea (in a bad way) and was crucified for sedition. How long he taught is unknown—1 month, 1 year or 10 years. Mark was written with a particular purpose—“A year in the Life of Jesus” if you will and could have easily been condensing Jesus’ ministry into roughly a year with no intention of necessitating it had to be just the one year. Christians get caught up in the one (or three) year ministry as definitive time; in First Century Mediterranean culture, such an adherence to time wouldn’t be mandated. (For example, if I recall correctly, two different biographers of Julius Caesar record his viewing Alexander the Great’s statute at two different times, more than 10 years apart. Each had their own purpose in doing so, and thought nothing of “moving” the event. The recipients of the biographies would likewise understand.)

    Further, Jesus would have repeated his routine numerous times. We simply don’t know how many times the Sermon on the Mount (or other sayings) was told—again, could be none to 100’s of times. If Jesus’ disciples had heard it numerous times, they could probably recall it fairly closely.

    2) But so what? The idea stories and claims grow over time is so embedded in human nature it is clichĂ©—“Joe, I swear your ‘fish-that-got-away’ gets 2 inches bigger every year!” We all exhibit revisionist memory, recalling events more favorable to our own belief. And this is not speculation—we can observe it in Matthew’s sanitizing issues and concerns in Mark. We observe it in Luke’s further sanitization of Matthew and Mark. We see it in later non-canonical works as other areas of concern (What of Mary’s virginity? What happened to the 500 witnesses? What happened to Joseph of Arimethea? How did Andrew, Peter, Paul and John die?)

    We can see the story of Jesus grow. Even Christian apologists eventually cry, “Enough! This story about Jesus is speculative myth.” Some of us simply reach that point sooner in the chronology.

    Again, I must emphasize—in our culture these modifications are frowned upon—in first century culture this was perfectly acceptable. If Jesus needed to be different for a Galilean community as compared to a Judean community, a modified Jesus story to fit the recipient’s expectation would be fine.

    3) I wish people would read Josephus. (And Tacitus, Suetonius, Philo, etc.) To understand the writings of the times. Read some battle account of Josephus—how the glorious Roman captain called his men to arms with a rousing speech, and with only a handful of soldiers took on entire garrisons of enemies. Shot through with dozens of arrows, and struck multiple times, the glorious Roman captain pushed through (by sheer courage and fortitude) to the point even the enemy was amazed and fell from his sweeping sword before the captain expired from his wounds. Then the next battle with another Roman captain doing the same…and another battle with another hero…etc. Eventually it starts to read like a superhero comic book!

    But that was First Century writing. And Josephus was writing history, arguably expected to be more factually grounded than bios--the Gospels’ genre.

    No historian today believes Josephus’ accounts are totally accurate—we understand the culture, expectation, genre, etc. Yet somehow when it comes to the Gospels, Christian apologist desire to equate them to our culture’s expectations of historical accounts.

    So what if these were written or sourced by eyewitnesses? The eyewitnesses were free (even expected!) to glorify the accounts. The writers were free (even expected) to glorify the accounts.

    We should be reading these in light of the genre of the times—not like some instruction manual from a god.