2018-09-18

Miscellaneous point — Mount Vesuvius and the argument from silence

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

I was following up PZ Myers’ interest in a particular claim by Tim O’Neill in a larger criticism of Jesus mythicists —

….. in particular his rebuttal to the “argument from silence”, which claims that Jesus should have been mentioned in many historical sources if he had existed, but he isn’t, so he didn’t. Most telling was his listing of the feeble number of brief mentions of the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in classical records — if the Romans didn’t leave us many documents of this colossal disaster in their backyard, why should we expect them to have mentioned some minor Jewish preacher off in some provincial backwater? He also points out how rare it was for any writings to have survived from 2000 years ago, which lit up a lightbulb floating above my head.

This is exactly the same as the common creationist argument that if evolution were true, we ought to be neck deep in tyrannosaur and stegosaur and diplodocid bones, and because the fossil record is so spotty and incomplete, evolution is false. Never mind that taphonomy shows that finding the bones of a dead animal surviving for even a decade is rare and requires unusual conditions.

It turned out that PZ had unfortunately misread Tim’s point and Tim, even though he joined the commenters at the end of PZ’s post, failed to correct PZ’s misconception. In fact Tim lists five surviving ancient references to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. What he claims to be the significant silences for his argument is the failure in the ancient record to mention the names of the two major urban areas (Pompeii and Herculaneum) destroyed by the eruption. If those towns were not major political and cultural icons in the ancient world then I would suggest that the failure to find accounts of their burial mentioning them by name is not particularly surprising. It would, indeed, have been surprising if we lacked some reference to the eruption of Vesuvius itself.

A quick reading of Tim’s essay has led to the impression that if the ancient records failed to leave us a trace of such a major event as the eruption of Vesuvius then how much less likely is it that we should find a reference to an obscure preacher, Jesus, in Galilee. That is not the actual argument of Tim, however, so that rhetorical point about the particular argument from silence regarding Jesus does fail.

But the question that does arise is an important one.

What sorts of things did people write in documents, books, etc? Who or what institutions had an interest in preserving what sorts of documents, records, literature, etc?

No doubt chance plays its part. But it is a mistake to assume that what has survived has done so entirely by chance. As with dinosaur fossils, special conditions, not merely chance alone, account for the preservation of some and not others.

Tim’s list of mentions of the volcanic eruption:

Our ancient references to the eruption of Vesuvius consist of:

(i) Two detailed descriptions by Pliny the Younger in letters to Cornelius Tacitus – Letters VI.16 and VI.20.

(ii) Two passing references to the volcano and its eruption in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica, III.209 and IV.507, written circa 90 AD.

(iii) One longer mention of the disaster in Martial’s Epigrams, IV.44, witten in the late 80s or early 90s AD:

“Observe Vesuvius. Not long ago it was covered with the grapevine’s green shade, and a famous grape wet, nay drowned the vats here. Bacchus loved the shoulders of this mountain more than the hills of Nysa [his birthplace], satyrs used to join their dances here. Here was a haunt of Venus, more pleasant than Lacedaemon to her, here was a place where Hercules left his name. It all lies buried by flames and mournful ash. Even the gods regret that their powers extended to this. “

The mention of “… a place where Hercules left his name” seems to be an rather oblique reference to Herculaneum and the closest thing we have to a mention of the two destroyed cities.

(iv) One reference to the disaster by Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XX.141, that says that the grandson of Herod Agrippa and his wife died in the disaster:

” … that young man (Agrippa), with his wife, perished at the conflagration of the mountain Vesuvius, in the days of Titus Caesar … “

He says he will detail this later in his work, but unfortunately he does not actually do so.

(v) Suetonius mentions the disaster in passing in his short biography of the emperor Titus:

“There were some dreadful disasters during his reign, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Campania, a fire at Rome which continued three days and as many nights, and a plague the like of which had hardly ever been known before.” (Titus, VIII.3)

All of these references mention the eruption but none of them make any explicit mention of Pompeii, Herculaneum or any towns being destroyed. The closest any of them come to this is the part in Pliny’s first letter where he says “this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated”. Beyond that there is only one general reference to towns being buried (in Tacitus) and no direct mention of Pompeii or Herculaneum by name at all.

11 Comments

  • 2018-09-19 01:28:36 UTC - 01:28 | Permalink

    Yeah, well, what about the silence in the letters of Paul and the epistle of James and even Hebrews. Even the people who WERE writing about Jesus didn’t write about Jesus! lol

    I’m actually working on a 2nd edition to my book and I go into more detail on the Epistle of James. I think James is a really damning letter actually, and I’m surprise more people haven’t talked about it.

    • MrHorse
      2018-09-19 02:42:41 UTC - 02:42 | Permalink

      Are you surprised more scholars in general don’t talk about the the Epistle of James, or just a particular group, such as mythicists?

  • db
    2018-09-19 02:33:50 UTC - 02:33 | Permalink

    Of the five cities destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius (Herculaneum, Pompeii, Stabiae, Oplontis and Villa Boscoreale—a hunting reserve):
    • Stabiae, as the location of Pliny the Elder’s death where “buildings were being rocked by a series of strong tremors, and appeared to have come loose from their foundations and to be sliding this way and that” and where rocks “were coming down, light and fire-consumed”, is noted in Pliny the Younger’s Vesuvius “Letters” (6.16 and 6.20).

  • MrHorse
    2018-09-19 02:50:32 UTC - 02:50 | Permalink

    The argument from silence is valid if one would expect the opposite i.e. information that would support the proposition – in this case information about Jesus or Christian communities before the papyri document fragments that have been found and supposedly 2nd century Church Fathers’ commentaries.

    One might expect things other than texts, such as archaeological evidence before the fourth century (or even later) like art, church sites, etc.

  • db
    2018-09-19 14:01:05 UTC - 14:01 | Permalink

    Tim certainly likes to have his cake and eat it. Noting that it is expected to have lacunas of historical events, he also argues:

    [Per the belief that Jesus existed as a historical person] If there really was an original form of Christianity that didn’t believe this, as all versions of the “Jesus Myth” idea require, then it makes no sense that there is no trace of it.

    • Cite: Tim O’Neill (31 May 2017). “Did Jesus Exist?“. History for Atheists.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2018-09-20 11:12:57 UTC - 11:12 | Permalink

      It’s called kettle logic. On PZ’s blog Tim did engage me in discussion and when I pointed out that a particular rhetorical question he raised was a particular informal logical fallacy he robustly replied that he could ask any question he liked! 🙂 Logical consistency is not a priority with him.

      • Pofarmer
        2018-09-20 12:44:24 UTC - 12:44 | Permalink

        O’neill like an apologist. He has his conclusion and by golly he’s going to stick to it.

  • Bob Jase
    2018-09-19 14:24:59 UTC - 14:24 | Permalink

    Considering the tendency of later Christians to destroy or neglect to destruction anything written that ws not about their god, its impressive that anything survived.

  • 2018-09-19 15:59:25 UTC - 15:59 | Permalink

    Christian “scholarship” is to convoluted and messed up, they can’t even figure out who to expect writings from. Let’s look at some very basics that they have wrong, that play fundamental roles in how they assess texts:

    1) Peter. They think Peter “is a fisherman” because the Gospels say so, not even recognizing that his designation as a fisherman is symbolic. They use the fact that Peter was a fisherman to determine that various texts couldn’t have been authored by him because the Greek is that of an educated person, which a fisherman wouldn’t be. But there is no real evidence that Peter was ever a fisherman, and the way Paul describes him it doesn’t make sense that he would have been a fisherman.

    2) James. They are so confused about who James is. The whole “brother of the Lord” has thrown them for a loop. Again, they claim that the epistle of James probably was NOT written by the “real James” because the writing is that of an educated person, which a brother of Jesus wouldn’t have been as they came from a poor family, according to Matthew and Luke (though their narratives are obviously totally fabricated).

    But “the real James” was surely NOT a brother of Jesus and would likely have been educated because he was clearly the leader of some religious movement and thus surely would have been someone who had studied the Torah and likely had some standing in the community. I would expect James to have been able to read and write. I mean if Paul could read and write, surely James could. And how on earth do they think James could have become an esteemed leader if he couldn’t read and write?

    So, despite what modern Christian scholars now claim, the Epistle of James actually could have been written by “the real James”, who wouldn’t be a brother of Jesus. The fact that they haven’t figured out yet the James wasn’t a brother of Jesus is baffling, its quite obvious. I mean when you look at the early literature, basically not one single thing gives the impression that the James Paul was talking about was a brother of Jesus, except 3 words, yet in opposition to those three words there are dozens of pieces of evidence that show this person wasn’t a brother of Jesus.

    And if this person WAS a brother of Jesus, and he presumably learned to write at all (how else could be lead a movement and do all the other things attributed to him?) then why didn’t he ever write anything about his brother Jesus?

    As as Christian would have it, Jesus had a literal brother, who knew him since childhood, and who became a leader of his movement after he died, yet this person never wrote a single thing about him. Not one description, one anecdote, one lesson from Jesus’s works, nothing. And they try to cover for this by claiming, “Well, this guy was probably too uneducated to write anything.” I mean come on…

    So if you want to talk about arguments from absence, the absence of any description of Jesus by his own brother is a pretty big one… (because of course Jesus didn’t have a brother because he never existed).

    I think the Epistle of James was written by the real James, and the only mentions of Jesus in that letter call him “the Lord Jesus” and describe him as a heavenly being who will come to judge the world and rid it of the evil rich oppressors. (BTW, this James was also apparently a Marxist. The Epistle of James reads like the Communist Manifesto).

  • Roger Lambert
    2018-09-21 07:26:55 UTC - 07:26 | Permalink

    “The argument from silence is valid if one would expect the opposite i.e. information that would support the proposition – in this case information about Jesus or Christian communities before the papyri document fragments that have been found and supposedly 2nd century Church Fathers’ commentaries.”

    I had saved this text about references from Josephus who alone informs us of nineteen rabble rousing guys named Jesus precisely or roughly coincident in place and time as the historical Jesus , but I have have lost the source:

    “Josephus, the first century Jewish historian mentions no fewer than nineteen different Yeshuas/Jesii, about half of them contemporaries of the supposed Christ

    01. Jesus, son of Phabes – High priest. Ant 15.322
    02. Jesus, son of Ananus – Common man prophesied destruction of the temple. War 6.300
    03. Jesus, or Jason – High priest. Ant 12.239
    04. Jesus, son of Sapphias – Governor of Tiberias. War 2.566, War 2.599; Life 1.066, Life 1.134
    05. Jesus, brother of Onias – High priest. Ant 12.237, Ant 12.238, Ant 12.239
    06. Jesus, son of Gamaliel – High priest. Ant 20.213, Ant 20.223
    07. Jesus, no patronym – Eldest high priest after Ananus. War 4.238, War 4.316, War 4.325
    08. Jesus, son of Damneus – High priest. Ant 20.203
    09. Jesus, son of Gamala – High priest & Josephus’ friend. War 4.160; Life 1.193, Life 1.204
    10. Jesus, [or Joshua] son of Nun – Successor to Moses. Ant 03.049, Ant 03.308; Ant 4.459
    11. Jesus, son of Shapat – Principal head of a band of robbers controlling Tiberias, sallies against Vespasian’s messenger Valerian. War 3.450
    16. Jesus, no patronym – Captain of those robbers who were in the confines of Ptolemais, allies with Josephus. Life 1.105
    12. Jesus, son of Thebuthus – One of the priests, delivers to Titus precious things deposited in the temple. War 6.387
    13. Jesus, son of Josadek – High priest. Ant 20.231, Ant 20.234
    14. Jesus, no patronym – Galilean at head of a band of 600 followers, sent by Ananus & Jesus to depose Josephus. Life 1.200
    15. Jesus, no patronym – Condemned to cross by Pilate. He was [the] Christ. Ant 18.063
    17. Jesus, brother of Jacob – Called the Christ. Ant 20.200

    Ant.
    03:049 (numerous) Jesus [Joshua] son of Nun.
    11:298 Jesus, (son of Eliashib), brother of John – friend of governor Bagoses.
    11:299 Jesus, [son of Eliashib] – slain by brother John, the High priest.
    11:300 Jesus, [son of Eliashib]
    11:301 Jesus, [son of Eliashib] – slain by brother John, the High priest.
    12:237 Jesus, brother of Onias III – High priest.
    12:238 Jesus, brother of Onias III – Deposed as High priest in favor of Onias = Menelaus
    12:239 Jesus, younger brother of Onias = Menelaus – High priest.
    12:239 Jesus, brother of Onias III – Renamed Jason. Revolts against Onias = Menelaus.
    15:041 Jesus, (brother of Onias III)
    15:322 Jesus, son of Phabes – High priest.
    17:341 Jesus, the son of Sie – High priest.
    18:063 Jesus, no patronym – Condemned to cross by Pilate. He was [the] Christ.
    20:200 Jesus, brother of Jacob – Called the Christ.
    20:203 Jesus, son of Damneus – High priest.
    20:205 Jesus, [son of Damneus] – High priest.
    20:213 Jesus, son of Gamaliel – High priest.
    20.213 Jesus, son of Damneus – Deposed as High priest.
    20:223 Jesus, son of Gamaliel – High priest.
    20:234 Jesus, son of Josadek – High priest.

    War
    2:566 Jesus, son of Sapphias – Governor of Tiberias.
    2:599 Jesus, son of Sapphias – Governor of Tiberias.
    3:450 Jesus, son of Shapat – Principal head of a band of robbers controlling Tiberias.
    3:452 Jesus, [son of Shapat]
    3:457 Jesus, [son of Shapat] – Departs Tiberius to Taricheae
    3:467 Jesus, [son of Shapat]
    3:498 Jesus, [son of Shapat]
    4:160 Jesus, son of Gamala – Best esteemed, with Ananus ben Ananus, of High priests.
    4:238 Jesus, no patronym – Eldest high priest after Ananus.
    4:270 Jesus, no patronym – [Eldest high priest after Ananus].
    4:283 Jesus, no patronym – [Eldest high priest after Ananus].
    4:316 Jesus, no patronym – [Eldest high priest after Ananus].
    4:322 Jesus, no patronym – [Eldest high priest after Ananus].
    4:325 Jesus, no patronym – [Eldest high priest after Ananus].
    4:459 Jesus [Joshua] son of Nun.
    6:114 Jesus, no patronym – High priest, deserts to Vespasian.
    6:300 Jesus, son of Ananus – Common man prophesied destruction of the temple.
    6:387 Jesus, son of Thebuthus – One of the priests, deserts to Titus.

    Life
    1:066 Jesus, son of Sapphias – Governor of Tiberias.
    1:067 Jesus, son of Sapphias – [Governor of Tiberias.]
    1:105 Jesus, no patronym – Captain of those robbers in the confines of Ptolemais.
    1:108 Jesus, no patronym – [Captain of those robbers in the confines of Ptolemais.]
    1:109 Jesus, no patronym – [Captain of those robbers in the confines of Ptolemais.]
    1:110 Jesus, no patronym – [Captain of those robbers in the confines of Ptolemais.]
    1:134 Jesus, son of Sapphias – Governor of Tiberias.
    1:178 Jesus, no patronym – Brother of Justus of Tiberias.
    1:186 Jesus, no patronym – Brother of Justus of Tiberias.
    1:193 Jesus, son of Gamala – High priest & Josephus’ friend.
    1:200 Jesus, no patronym – Galilean at head of a band of 600, sent to depose Josephus.
    1:204 Jesus, son of Gamala – High priest & Josephus’ friend.
    1:246 Jesus, no patronym – Owned a house big as a castle. Governor of Tiberias?
    1:271 Jesus, no patronym – Governor of Tiberias.
    1:278 Jesus, no patronym – [Governor of Tiberias.]
    1:294 Jesus, no patronym – [Governor of Tiberias.]
    1:295 Jesus, no patronym – [Governor of Tiberias.]
    1:300 Jesus, no patronym – [Governor of Tiberias.]
    1:301 Jesus, no patronym – [Governor of Tiberias.] “

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.