Do mythicists rely on arguments from silence and too many assumptions?

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by Neil Godfrey


This is another common charge against arguments that Jesus was mythical, and it likewise seems to be circulated among those who show little evidence of having read much in the way of mythicist publications.

(I am responding here to remarks made in a comment to McGrath’s post, Why I find mythicism disturbing, since the remarks are repeated often enough to be addressed separately.)

I look firstly at where the argument from silence really does stand within mythicism, and then at a comparison of historicist and mythicist a priori assumptions.

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Arguments from silence

I do not recall if I have ever read a mythicist argument that relies on silence.

An argument from silence is used to compare one hypothesis against another. It can be useful to show that there is no real warrant (there is too much silence) for accepting the disputed hypothesis.

But the arguments FOR the earliest Christian record speaking of a nonhistorical Christ (at least the ones I have read) all focus on reading what the documents DO say. What they don’t say (the silence) is only the corollary.

Doherty on the argument from silence

Since Doherty appears to be the main bête noir of many of those more viscerally than rationally opposed to the Christ myth arguments, it will be useful to refer to his own position on the argument from silence.

Firstly he refers to the conclusions one can legitimately draw — and for which he argues extensively — from a reading of the New Testament epistles with no prior assumptions derived from the later Gospels’ narratives.

If we had no other documentary record than the New Testament epistles, we would probably regard the Son of God preached by apostles like Paul as a divine being like all other gods of the day, or indeed of any day: confined to the supernatural dimension and communicating with believers and spokespersons through inspiration, visions and other spiritual manifestations. This is the way gods have been perceived to interact with the world from time immemorial. Paul’s Christ would have been no different and no more difficult to comprehend. (Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 25)

The basis of his particular Christ myth argument is a study of the NT epistles and what they do say without Gospel presuppositions. The question of silence only arises in response to opposing “historical Jesus” claims that do rely on the assumption that the NT epistle authors did indeed know of the narratives found only in the Gospels that are generally acknowledged as later than the epistles.

But if, on the basis of the later Gospel record, it is claimed that Paul and his colleagues are speaking of a human man who was recently on earth and set the new faith in motion, how is one to account for their silence on such a man and his life? We might, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, suggest that this silence is so profound that it could only be explained as a deliberate, universal conspiracy.

Is an argument from silence ever valid?

To continue Doherty’s own discussion on this . . . . It all depends.

How compelling to the writer would the subject have been? . . .

[T]he more we have reason to expect that something would be mentioned and yet it is not, the more we are invited to conclude from the silence that the subject is not known to the writer.

So if a NT writer urges his readers to follow a certain rule or way, and Jesus himself, the recent founder of their faith, is known to have taught or lived that very thing, then we should expect at least a passing reference to Jesus’ authority and example on the point.

But further,

If that strange and unexpected silence extends to many different writers and many documents, indeed to all writers and documents available from that period, if it extends to a multitude of elements on the subject, the greater becomes the evidential force of that silence. If the silence covers every single element, the conclusions to be drawn become compelling.

Doherty uses an analogy to demonstrate when an argument from silence is clearly valid. If the family of a deceased man claimed he won the lottery, yet there was no record of that win, no large entry in his bank statements, no mention of it in his diary or any of his correspondence, no memory of a spending spree, and if on his deathbed he told his family that he never had a break in his life, then the argument from silence is compelling. We can be confident that the claim of his lottery win is mistaken.

And further still,

But what if we could go further and see that the way the writers speak of certain things virtually excludes any room or note for the subject in question? In other words, we not only have a negative silence, we have filling it, occupying its space, a positive picture which is sufficient in itself a picture which by its very nature precludes the things it is silent on. In that case, logic would compel us to postulate that the subject, in these writers’ minds and experience, could not have existed. (p. 26)

In other words, the argument from silence is only the back side of the front argument.

Too many assumptions?

Well, what I think I have covered this in the above discussion. The historical Jesus argument hangs heavily on the assumption the NT epistle authors knew the basic narrative that was later set down in the Gospels; and the assumption that this narrative itself was historical.

I have discussed the circularity of the historical Jesus arguments several times. A keyword search on circular reasoning and Davies will pull out a fair selection of these. Also my Sanders posts demonstrate how the foundation of HJ studies is built on assumptions rather than the sorts of evidence that is the basis of most nonbiblical historical scholarship.

It is the one opposed to mythicism who is the one who is multiplying a priori assumptions to argue the case for historicity.

  1. The assumption that the NT epistle authors knew the basic narrative we only find in the later gospels;
  2. The assumption that NT epistle authors are consciously alluding to slightly similar Jesus sayings even when the authors attribute their sayings to Scripture or the Spirit;
  3. The assumption that the interpolations of any kind in the NT epistles are extremely unlikely despite what we know of their prevalence in both the Classical and Christian literature, and the manuscript history;
  4. The assumption that the original recipients of the earliest non-gospel Christian literature knew of the gospel narrative;
  5. The assumption that the narratives in the Gospels and Acts have a historical basis;
  6. The assumption that the Gospel narratives are derived from oral tradition traceable back to historical events;
  7. The assumption that only one concept of a Jewish Messiah was dominant in the Second Temple Period;
  8. The assumption that a set of human experiences inexplicable or unknown was at the heart of the origin of Christianity;
  9. The assumption that Jews by their thousands could be persuaded to convert to beliefs diametrically opposed to all they had identified with, and that had no precedent in recorded human experience.

My own preference for certain arguments for mythicism is because they dismiss with these unsupported assumptions.

In their place, I suggest:

  1. that the more parsimonious explanation for literary, philosophical and theological similarities among texts (in their images and structures of narratives, treatises and apocalypses) is the usual pattern of influence and borrowing;
  2. that the more plausible historical explanation is one that is explicable in terms of common human experience.
Occam’s Razor back label: Image by Shishberg via Flickr


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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Do mythicists rely on arguments from silence and too many assumptions?”

  1. I’m sure someone out there with a degree in psychology can supply the name for the phenomenon I’m about to describe. In rhetoric, it manifests itself as the post hoc fallacy. If you perform some action that causes me to react (e.g., to become emotionally upset), then I may fallaciously assume this was your primary intention. But consequence does not prove intent.

    Many apologists and supposed secular historians assume that since they find mythicism upsetting, that must be its ultimate purpose. I’ve read several arm-chair psychiatric evaluations of Price and Doherty. For Price, they assume he is lashing out against Christianity because of some deep-seated emotional problems. Oh, how quickly they degenerate into ad hominem and generative fallacies. “Price is a crank. Doherty doesn’t have a PhD.” It’s childish and insulting.

    They also assume that mythicists start with their conclusions and work backward, discarding evidence they don’t like. In other words, they assume all mythicists start from a position of intellectual dishonesty. Hence, it’s perfectly fine to dismiss them all out of hand. Of course, they miss the point. Doherty is putting forth a hypothesis that seeks to make sense of the evidence at hand. It’s a new conceptual framework that deserves to be addressed. If he is incorrectly judging the evidence, explain how!

    The fact that historicists choose not to engage mythicists with respect and rational arguments might lead one to make some assumptions… but that would be unfair.

  2. I just finished reading the Jesus Myth by Wells and it seems to make a decent case that Paul thought of Jesus as a pre-existent spiritual being who became man at some unspecified time and place, did nothing worthy of note during that time, was crucified, and was then exalted to the spiritual realm. If I read Paul without any knowledge of any other New Testament writings, I don’t think I would conclude that Paul thought Jesus was always “confined to the supernatural dimension.”

    1. Do you think it’s possible that for Paul the “unspecified time and place” might exist outside time and space? I’m thinking of the orthodox doctrine of the Son being “eternally begotten of the Father.” In some way that’s hard to fathom, Jesus is God’s son and is always becoming God’s son.

      So — and I swear I’m not high — perhaps the crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation have happened, are happening, and will continue to happen in the spiritual realm. Since the sacrifice of the Son took place outside our universe, from our perspective the event is occurring now. And this is how sins are continually forgiven; because the crucifixion is always imminent, ever present, in the spiritual domain.

      1. Tim,

        I think it’s possible, but it’s not what naturally occurs to me when I read Paul’s letters. “Eternally begotten” is a much later formulation whose roots seem more to be in the Gospel of John. I also think that the rapidity with which the gospels were accepted makes more sense if the evangelists are merely fleshing out a Jesus who was already thought to be a man who walked the earth than if they are relocating him from a heavenly dimension to an earthly one.

      2. Marcionism apparently understood Jesus as walking the earth. And Marcionism claimed the revelation opened up through Paul as their authority.

        But on the other hand Paul’s stress on revelation from the Jewish scriptures is most un-Marcionite. How reliable is our surviving evidence? Are we mad for not throwing up our hands in despair and studying something for which we have more substantial evidence?

  3. Interestingly, Professor James McGrath writes in a comment on his blog ‘….you won’t find that in the earliest sources.’

    Arguments from silence are incredibly powerful, provided you are a Professor.

    1. I have recently had the misfortune to backtrack on a few posts by Associate Professor James McGrath and was struck by the consistency with which he can make sweeping assertions about “mythicists”, Doherty, and (I think a few times) me, that are most damnable yet at the same time without a shred of specific reference to support a single allegation. His arguments against mythicism itself, I think it might be discovered with a little effort, are founded entirely upon silence — complete absence of any specific evidence to support a single claim.

      (Perhaps my own idiosyncratic interest in supporting details prompted me to notice this, since I was at the time in the process of collecting all the posts he has delivered in the past year explaining the process of how biblical historians work: I did this because in a recent post he complained that he has attempted many times to explain the process of biblical historiography for pinheads like ourselves. I will publish the results of his efforts that he complains others have been too dense to appreciate some time, I think, when complete.)

  4. Steven: “Arguments from silence are incredibly powerful, provided you are a Professor.”

    They’re also powerful if you’re an apologist with a divinity degree. Drs. John Ankerberg and John Weldon in “The Historical Reliability of the New Testament Text” wrote:

    Fact six (corroboration from enemies’ silence).

    The complete inability of the numerous enemies of Jesus and the early Church to discredit early Christian claims (when they had both the motive and ability to do so) argues strongly for the veracity of the early Christian claims in light of the stupendous nature of those claims (Christ’s Messiahship, deity and resurrection) and the relative ease of disproof (Jesus’ failure to fulfill prophecy; producing Jesus’ body).


    I had no idea until today that the failure to produce Jesus’ body could be conceived of as a strong argument. “Hey, if Enoch didn’t really ascend into heaven, then where’s his grave, Mr. Smartypants? Huh? Anyone? . . . I didn’t think so!”

  5. In high school I could never understand why teachers were asking us to analyze characters in Shakespeare’s plays, or to discuss “what if” scenarios, or “who was really responsible for X”, etc. As far as I was concerned they weren’t real, so what the hell did it matter? It was just a story, wasn’t it? It took me some years to appreciate what the study of literature was really all about.

    I was going to say something about comparisons with the way biblical historians seem often enough to treat the gospel stories. . . .

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