The argument from silence can be formulated as follows:
P1. If we don’t see numerous contemporary records of Jesus, then he probably did not exist
P2. We don’t see numerous contemporary records of Jesus
C. Therefore it is probable that Jesus did not exist
The conclusion of this argument is that Jesus did not exist, rather than anything relating to his claims of being the Messiah etc.
The first point to be made is that the overwhelming majority of scholars and historians agree that Jesus did exist. While there is a movement which claims Jesus was a myth, this is a very small fraction of those who study this field and are the subject of much criticism.
Analysis of P1
This seems a very controversial premise when we look at applying it to other historical figures. Atheist Tim O’Neill said:
Our sources for anyone in the ancient world are scarce and rarely are they contemporaneous – they are usually written decades or even centuries after the fact.
Worse still, the more obscure and humble in origin the person is, the less likely that there will be any documentation about them or even a fleeting reference to them at all.
For example, few people in the ancient world were as prominent, influential, significant and famous as the Carthaginian general Hannibal. He came close to crushing the Roman Republic, was one of the greatest generals of all time and was famed throughout the ancient world for centuries after his death down to today. Yet how many contemporary mentions of Hannibal do we have? Zero. We have none. So if someone as famous and significant as Hannibal has no surviving contemporary references to him in our sources, does it really make sense to base an argument about the existence or non-existence of a Galilean peasant preacher on the lack of contemporary references to him? Clearly it does not. 1
Premise 1 is certainly dubious however for the sake of argument we can continue.
Analysis of P2
So is it true that we don’t see numerous contemporary records of Jesus? Gary Habermas has argued that there are over 42 sources within 150 years after Jesus’ death which mention his existence and record many events of his life (2)
There are a few types of records that speak of Jesus either written within his lifetime or relatively shortly after:
- Canonical books
- Early Christian commentary/writings
- Non-canonical books
- Secular records
The Bible contains nine sources of the historical Jesus. The Bible is a collection of writings rather than a single document so should be treated as such. The writings of the authors below were all written at different times:
- The Author of The Hebrews
We can also include the Book of Mormon of which the best explanation is that it is a translation of an ancient document. In the Book of Mormon, the historicity of Jesus (rather than prophecy) is recorded in 3 Nephi.
Early Christian commentary/writings
There are numerous early Christian commentary/writings that speak of Jesus:
1. Clement of Rome (35 AD – 99 AD) – Clement’s writings are believed to be written before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (70 AD). Early Christian author Tertullian and St. Jerome both record that Clement was a disciple of Peter, an eye witness of Jesus.
2. Ignatius of Antioch (35 AD – 107 AD) – Ignatius is reported to be a disciple of Peter, Paul and John, and was executed by the Romans around 100 AD. Ignatius, wrote extensively on the historical Jesus in Trallians, Smyrneans 1, and Magnesians xi.
3. Polycarp (AD 69 – AD 155) – Letter to the Philippians was composed around AD 110 to 140. Irenaeus reports that he had been a disciple of John the Apostle.
- Martyrdom of Polycarp
- Shepherd of Hermas
- Fragments of Papias
- Justin Martyr
- Aristo of Pella
- Melito of Sardis
- Gospel of Peter
- Apocalypse of Peter
- Epistula Apostolorum
There are numerous non-canonical books such as:
- Gospel of Thomas – Scholars propose this was written as early as 40 AD or as late as 140 AD.
- Gospel of Truth
- Apocryphon of John
- Treatise on Resurrection
There are numerous secular records of Jesus:
1. Josephus (Jewish historian) – Josephus Flavius affirms in Antiquities 20 v.9 (95 AD) that James, the brother of Jesus, was martyred:
“…and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned”.
According to the world’s leading Josephus scholar, Louis Feldman this reference to Jesus is “almost universally acknowledged”.
The second reference to Jesus by Josephus in the Testimonium is accused of interpolation however, scholars almost unanimously agree that Josephus mentions Jesus in the original copy before it was altered. Therefore Josephus mentions the historical Jesus twice within 60 years after he lived.
2. Tacitus (Roman historian) – Tacitus refers to Jesus, Pontius Pilate, Jesus’ execution and the existence of early Christians in Rome in his final work, Annals (written 116 AD).
“… called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin”
Here Jesus is mentioned by a hostile, independent source within 85 years.
3. Suetonius – References Jesus, and early Christians in his work “Lives of the Twelve Caesars” (121 AD). He writes:
“He expelled from Rome the Jews constantly making disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.”
Robert Van Voorst, says that there is “near-unanimous” agreement among scholars that the use of Chrestus refers to Christ (3)
4. Serapion – Serapion was a stoic philosopher Syria who refers to Jesus. The letter dates between 73 and 200 AD although according to Van Voorst, most scholars date the letter shortly after 73 AD. The letter reads:
“What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished…But Socrates is not dead, because of Plato; neither is Pythagoras, because of the statue of Juno; nor is the wise king, because of the “new law” he laid down.”
James Bishop notes:
Bruce Chilton, scholar of early Christianity and Judaism states that Bar-Serapion reference to the “king of Jews” may be related to the inscription on the cross of Jesus’ crucifixion, as recorded in the Gospel of Mark. Also, Serapion mentions the “new law” of which might refer to Jesus’ resurrection after his crucifixion 2
5. Pliny the Younger (Roman politician) – Pliny was a Roman governor of modern-day Turkey, in around 112 AD he wrote in Epistulae X.96 to Emperor Trajan on dealing with Christians:
“They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up.”
The genuineness of the passage is accepted; Van Voorst notes that the “style matches that of the other letters” in the same book, and the letters “were known already by the time of Tertullian (196-212 AD).”
- Phlegon of Tralles
- Lucian of Samosata
- Celsus (Roman philosopher)
So in summary, there certainly are numerous contemporary records of Jesus. But what about those who should have written about Jesus but didn’t?
There were certainly many writers who did not write about Jesus, however again from atheist writer Tim O’Neill:
Virtually no writers in the ancient world had any interest in early first century Jewish preachers, prophets or Messianic claimants. So not only are none of the ones we know of mentioned in any sources contemporary with their lives, they are also mentioned by virtually no writers at all. In fact, we know of almost all of them thanks to just one writer – the Jewish historian Josephus. So to expect any other writers of the time to mention any of them, including Jesus, makes no sense. Of all the ancient historians, only Josephus had any genuine interest in these figures. And Josephus does mention Jesus – twice (Ant.XVIII.3.4 and XX.9.1). 3
The overwhelming majority of scholars agree that Jesus existed. There are lots of accounts of Jesus in the following areas, Biblical books, Early Christian commentary/writings, Non-canonical books, Secular records.
For those who did not write about Jesus it is difficult to claim this is evidence of absence and would overwhelm the number of accounts that do speak of Jesus. The argument would be much stronger if:
- there were no genuine records of Jesus (which is not the case even using Josephus’s writings alone)
- there were any early writings which claimed that Jesus did not exist of which there are none.
- there were an overwhelming amount of writers who should have written about Jesus (perhaps shown through writing about similar figures in the area) but did not
Bart Ehrman who is well known for his criticisms of the New Testament’s reliability said:
One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate 4
We cannot conclude from the argument above that Jesus did not exist.
- Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford University Press: 2011), pp. 261-2