The Argument from Silence, Part 4: Absence of Denials of Jesus’ Historicity as Evidence for Jesus’ Historicity

When one thinks about the historicity of Jesus and arguments from silence, one usually thinks of various arguments from silence against the historicity of Jesus. In this post, I want to sketch an argument from silence for the historicity of Jesus.

The Argument Formulated

B: The Relevant Background Evidence

B1.Both Christian and non-Christian sources in the first and second centuries refer to Jesus.

E: The Evidence to be Explained

E1. There is an absence of evidence that the historicity of Jesus was denied or even questioned by anyone until the 18th century.

H: The Proposed Explanatory Hypothesis and Its Alternatives

H: The historicity of Jesus, i.e., the New Testament Jesus is based upon a real historical individual. (Note: this proposition should not be interpreted as making any claims about the various deeds attributed to Jesus.)
~H: The non-historicity of Jesus, i.e., the New Testament Jesus is not based upon a real historical individual.


(1) E is known to be true, i.e., Pr(E | B) is close to 1.
(2) ~H is not intrinsically much more probable than H, i.e., Pr(~H | B) is not much more probable than Pr(H | B).
(3) E is antecedently much more probable on H than on ~H, i.e., Pr(E | H & B) >! Pr(E | ~H & B).
(4) Therefore, other evidence held equal, H is probably true, i.e., Pr(H | B & E) > 0.5.

Defense of the Argument

Defense of (1)

We can divide potential sources of evidence that the historicity of Jesus was denied or questioned into two categories: Christian sources and non-Christian sources. I am not aware of any Christian source in the first 1800 or so years which even hints that the historicity of Jesus is a controversial issue. Similarly, I am not aware of any non-Christian source in the first 1800 or so years which denies or even questions the historicity of Jesus. Consider some of Christianity’s earliest critics: Celsus, Hierocles, and Porphyry. Although their works were destroyed by Christians, their works “remain attested in the defenses written by Origen, Eusebius, and Macerius Magnes.”[1]

Robert E. Van Voorst, in his book Jesus Outside the New Testament, discusses one hint of a doubt of the historicity of Jesus in an early writer.

The only possible attempt at this argument known to me is in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, written in the middle of the second century. At the end of chapter 8, Trypho, Justin’s Jewish interlocutor, states, “But [the] Christ — if indeed he has been born, and exists anywhere — is unknown, and does not even know himself, and has no power until Elijah comes to anoint him and  make him known to all. Accepting a groundless report, you have invented a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake you are unknowingly perishing.” This may be a faint statement of a nonexistence hypothesis, but it is not developed or even mentioned again in the rest of the Dialogue, in which Trypho assumes the existence of Jesus.[2]

Defense of (2)

If H is true, the historical Jesus could have been just a normal human being without supernatural significance. If He is true, Jesus could have been the Son of God who was resurrected from the dead. In other words, H is logically compatible with both metaphysical naturalism and supernaturalism. Thus, the alleged supernatural deeds attributed to Jesus are not a valid reason for assigning a low prior probability to H. Furthermore, I can think of no other reason why H should be much less intrinsically probable than ~H. Therefore, I conclude ~H is not intrinsically much more probable than H, i.e., Pr(~H | B) is not much more probable than Pr(H | B). In plain English, there simply is nothing epistemically improbable about the mere existence of a man named Jesus.

Defense of (3)

Van Voorst sums up the support for (3) nicely. Those who deny H “cannot explain to the satisfaction of historians why, if Christians invented the historical Jesus around the year 100, no pagans and Jews who opposed Christianity denied Jesus’ historicity or even questioned it.”[3]


Richard Carrier has pointed out to me that 2 Peter 1:15-19 and the Ignatian letters (early 2nd century, esp. Trallians 9, middle recension) cast doubt on (1).  The question is whether these authors were arguing against Docetism or mythicism. Carrier points out that “these texts could be arguing against a strain of Christianity teaching that the Gospel (terrestrial) Jesus was just an allegorical myth.” Furthermore, the fact that Trypho says something like “if ever did exist,” Carrier argues, is “an expression of doubt that may reflect an actual one more widely expressed, but it’s notable that this proves no information was available on the matter by then (so doubts had to be ad hoc at that point, even if by chance they were right). That was c. 160 A.D.”[1]


(To be continued…) 


[1] Richard Carrier, private correspondence.