Friday, April 15, 2011

The City of Nazareth and why Arguments from Silence are a bad idea

The basic idea behind an argument from silence (argumentum ex silentio), is to argue for a conclusion based on lack of evidence. Of course, given that this is the skeptic's favorite form of argument, we shouldn't be surprised to see it cropping up often. In fact virtually any argument can be made based on silence or lack of evidence (or supposed lack of evidence) - which is exactly why skeptics love it so much. Now, an argument from silence can be a good argument under the right circumstances. For example, if you had an exhaustive list of U.S. Presidents, then you could prove that Benjamin Franklin was never the President of the U.S. by pointing to the fact that his name is not on that list. That would be a good argument from silence.


One skeptic I saw tried to "prove" that there was no Nazareth at the time of Jesus (a rather popular skeptical argument, especially among the looney-tune "Jesus was a myth" crowd) by means of various arguments from silence. The arguments for this are that 1) Nazareth is not mentioned in the OT, 2) historical sources from the time of Jesus don't say anything about Nazareth, 3) Josephus doesn't mention Nazareth, but does mention 40-50 cities and towns of Galilee. Notice that all three of these are forms of argument from silence - some particular source doesn't say anything about Nazareth, therefore we conclude that Nazareth didn't exist at the time that source was from.

For the moment we'll leave aside the archaeological evidence that Nazareth was a city which was populated during Jesus' time. I'll get to that at the end. Let's just consider these arguments on their face.

1) The fact that Nazareth is not mentioned in the OT means absolutely nothing. The last of the OT was written 400 years or so before Jesus was born, so even if we could read into the silence of the OT on Nazareth, it wouldn't mean that there was no city of Nazareth in Jesus' day. This is an awful argument from silence, completely brainless. Strike one.

2) In fact we do have historical sources from that time period that talk about the city of Nazareth - namely Luke and Matthew. While the skeptic might want to say that these don't count, in fact they count just as much as any other historical source from the time period. Elsewhere I've presented some of the copious amounts of evidence for Luke's accuracy as a historian. Even in many cases where scholars thought Luke made this or that error, it later turned out that Luke was right and the critics were wrong.

Now, the skeptic might be tempted to argue that this is circular reasoning - to use the Gospels to prove that the Gospels are accurate. But this is a separate question than simply asking whether there was a city of Nazareth in the time of Jesus. It would be completely bogus, for example, to take a historical source that talks about some city, and say that this particular source doesn't count in determining whether that city existed. And in this case you have four sources saying that Jesus was from Nazareth, two of them saying that Nazareth was a city (polis). In any other context, this would be about as conclusive as you can get that Nazareth existed in Jesus' time (keeping in mind that the argument is not whether there was a city of Nazareth, but whether it was populated in the time of Jesus or not).

So this second argument fares little better than the first one, particularly given the archaeological corroboration. Strike two.

3) This third argument sounds more plausible on the surface. Josephus never mentions Nazareth, and he was the governor of Galilee for awhile. He mentions by name 45 cities and villages from Galilee, and yet Nazareth is not among them. Could this be a good argument from silence?

To answer that, the first question we have to ask is whether or not he mentioned all or even most of the cities and villages of Galilee. It was actually in trying to find the answer to that question that I came upon a discovery. Josephus himself, governor of Galilee, tells us how many cities and villages there were there. In his autobiography (The Life of Flavius Josephus), 45th chapter, he writes that there were 240 cities and villages in Galilee. He wrote this in a letter to one of his enemies, saying he would be willing to meet him in any of those places except for two of them which were in league with him.

This simple fact changes what looks like a plausible argument from silence into an utterly disastrous one. While it might sound like a big deal that Josephus mentions 45 cities and villages in his writings, that's not quite so impressive when you realize that that is less than 19% of the total. In other words, more than 80% of the cities and villages of Galilee have not been mentioned by him, or 4 out of every 5. It isn't even necessary to argue that Nazareth wasn't a very big city in his time to explain why it might not have been mentioned by Josephus - the majority of them weren't mentioned. This likewise renders moot the related argument sometimes used by skeptics that Nazareth is not included among the 63 Galilean cities and villages mentioned in the Talmud, either. Even 63 is only about 25% of the total. Even if you assumed that the ones mentioned by Josephus don't overlap at all with the 63 mentioned in the Talmud (which seems pretty unlikely though I haven't seen an actual comprehensive list of either), that would still be less than half! It would still only be 45%. So neither of these arguments are actually any good, in spite of their apparent plausibility (and the fact that they get widely repeated on the internet by skeptics who simply copy and paste bad arguments from each other). Strike three. That's called a strikeout.

Finally, a word about archaeology. The following three links deal with recent archaological finds in the area around Nazareth. Some scholars have suggested that it was inhabited at the time of Jesus, but was a small village. In that case, Jesus still could have been from Nazareth, but calling it a city would have been a mistake. However, as the last two links show, evidence of an early Roman bath house in Nazareth suggests that it may have been larger than believed. As the article in the Guardian (that well-known fundamentalist rag [irony alert]) notes, there actually hasn't been much archaeological work done in Nazareth for some reason, which is all the more reason why arguments from silence based on lack of archaeological evidence from Nazareth is a bad idea.

http://www.israel21c.org/briefs/house-from-jesus-time-excavated

http://www.nazarethbathhouse.org/en/AboutNazareth.htm

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/oct/22/research.artsandhumanities


The skeptic will likely argue that the archaeological evidence doesn't count for this or that reason, such as the fact that it involves religious artifacts and could be a boon to tourism. Well, certainly finding a bath house that Jesus might have used (though that would be difficult to prove) would be a boon to tourism, but that has nothing to do with the authenticity of the find. Virtually any important archaeological find is going to be a boon to tourism for somebody. And while I don't suggest that these finds are conclusive proof (history rarely works that way), they certainly give enough reason to say that the conclusion of the skeptic that Nazareth didn't exist at the time of Jesus is unwarranted to put it mildly. So remember this the next time some skeptic repeats one or more of these bad arguments.

5 comments:

Tommy said...

I don’t believe this is a very well thought out argument. Your example of a “good” argument from silence wouldn’t be a missing person from a list of past Presidents because as many Christians argue we may have not found the evidence yet that Franklin was President. The argument that Nazareth is an example of this type is I think incorrect also. This “skeptic” is obviously misinformed so it’s not an argument from silence necessarily, but this person’s lack of knowledge, which we could call an argument from stupidity. Now, a good argument from silence is the lack of evidence of god. Because there is no evidence of a god is good evidence of his non-existence.

John Fraser said...

Hi Tommy, thanks for the comment.

You said, "Your example of a “good” argument from silence wouldn’t be a missing person from a list of past Presidents because as many Christians argue we may have not found the evidence yet that Franklin was President."

You'll notice if you read it again that I specified that an exhaustive list of U.S. Presidents (ie. one which included every U.S. President in history) would constitute a good argument from silence that Benjamin Franklin was never the President of the U.S. If the list is exhaustive, then there couldn't be any evidence which had not been found to show that he was President unless the list is incorrect. One could try to show that that's the case, but such lists are readily available and verifiable by corroboration from multiple sources. You would have to have positive evidence to overcome that, you couldn't simply say, "maybe there's evidence that we haven't uncovered yet." Thus it remains a good argument from silence.

You said, "The argument that Nazareth is an example of this type is I think incorrect also."

I have said that the Nazareth is an example of a bad argument from silence, and I have explained why. I don't really understand your objection.

You said, "This “skeptic” is obviously misinformed so it’s not an argument from silence necessarily, but this person’s lack of knowledge, which we could call an argument from stupidity."

Again I'm not sure what you mean. The argument is that because Josephus (as well as the Talmud and other sources) do not mention Nazareth, therefore it didn't exist. This is an argument from silence, which is drawing a conclusion based on something which is absent from a particular source or sources. If you're saying that this isn't an argument from silence, you are most assuredly mistaken. Try Googling "argument from silence" and you will find the definition of this.

You said, "Now, a good argument from silence is the lack of evidence of god. Because there is no evidence of a god is good evidence of his non-existence."

Then I have one question for you: what kind of evidence are you expecting? Try reading this and see what you can come up with:

http://missionaryjourneyarchives.blogspot.com/2008/11/what-evidence-were-you-expecting.html

XAtheistX said...

What would I expect? I'd expect god to tell me himself he exists. I'd expect the bible to have numerous verifiable accounts. I'm aware that there are some accounts that have been confirmed some of the most important like the Exodus or Jesus's resurrection are short on evidence. I would expect prayer to be answered. There are a few of the things I would expect were Christianity true.

John Fraser said...

XAtheistX,

Welcome. You said, "I'd expect god to tell me himself he exists."

And how would that happen?

You said, "I'd expect the bible to have numerous verifiable accounts."

That's one thing that it does have:
http://fraserfamilyblog.blogspot.com/2011/02/on-authenticity-of-gospels-and-acts.html

You said, "I'm aware that there are some accounts that have been confirmed some of the most important like the Exodus or Jesus's resurrection are short on evidence."

The Resurrection is certainly not short on evidence, and I have discussed some of it here on my blog. We do have multiple reliable source for the eyewitness testimony of the Resurrection, including the earliest source found in 1 Cor. 15 which predates all of the Gospels, and about which I have written some here:
http://fraserfamilyblog.blogspot.com/2008/11/eyewitness-testimony.html

Tim and Lydia McGrew have done a Bayesian analysis of the testimony, showing that the evidence is such as to be able to overcome a prior probability of 10^-40 and still have a posterior probability of .9999 - nearly certain. Thus the evidence for the Resurrection is actually tremendously strong.

As for the Exodus, the evidence is not as strong but it is still not bad. I would refer you to K.A. Kitchen's book, On the Reliability of the Old Testament for now, as space does not permit a more extended discussion.

You said, "I would expect prayer to be answered."

I have seen many answers to prayer myself and I have spoken with many others whose prayers have been answered in ways that are inexplicable as mere coincidence or some of the skeptic's other favorite explanations. If you mean that you would expect ALL prayers to be answered, that is simply indefensible. The Bible certainly does not claim that all prayers are answered, and actually gives various requirements for prayer to be answered, including: faith (James 1:6), asking according to God's will (1 John 5:14-15), asking with right motives (James 4:3), asking in Jesus' name (John 14:13-14), and seeking God's kingdom first above earthly things (Matt. 6:33).

You said, "There are a few of the things I would expect were Christianity true."

I think you meant to write "these". The only one of the bunch which you have listed here that I cannot affirm with evidence is God telling you himself that he exists since you haven't said how you expect that to happen. However, I would also say that God has told everyone that he exists in various ways, including through the created order:

Rom. 1:20 - "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse."

We also know of God through the moral law, of which all people are aware.

And the truth is that the vast majority of humanity believe in the existence of a divine being of some kind. In fact, a lot of evidence indicates that belief in a single supreme being is universal. There are many other beliefs as well, but atheism is the belief of only a small percentage of people. I'm not saying that this by itself proves that God exists, but it does call into question the claim that God has not revealed himself explicitly enough or directly enough, which I think is what you're trying to say.

XAtheistX said...

You said “The Resurrection is certainly not short on evidence, and I have discussed some of it here on my blog. We do have multiple reliable source for the eyewitness testimony of the Resurrection, including the earliest source found in 1 Cor. 15”

The Gospels are not independent sources. They have all been copied from Mark with a few changes thrown in here and there. 1 Cor. 15 is a late source since it was written so much later than the date of the alleged resurrection. In Cor. 15 Paul mentions “scriptures” as his only source for his knowledge of this event. This isn't reliable evidence for the resurrection at all.

You said “I have seen many answers to prayer myself and I have spoken with many others whose prayers have been answered in ways that are inexplicable as mere coincidence or some of the skeptic's other favorite explanations. If you mean that you would expect ALL prayers to be answered, that is simply indefensible.”

There is an enormous logical blunder with your argument. Taking someone's word that their prayer was answered isn't an objective set of criteria for determining the success or failure of prayer. Several experiments have been conducted by major universities and each have come to the same conclusion: prayer doesn't work. I refer to you just one example:
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/health/31pray.html

You said “I think you meant to write "these". The only one of the bunch which you have listed here that I cannot affirm with evidence is God telling you himself that he exists since you haven't said how you expect that to happen. However, I would also say that God has told everyone that he exists in various ways, including through the created order:

Rom. 1:20 - "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse."

We also know of God through the moral law, of which all people are aware.

And the truth is that the vast majority of humanity believe in the existence of a divine being of some kind. In fact, a lot of evidence indicates that belief in a single supreme being is universal. There are many other beliefs as well, but atheism is the belief of only a small percentage of people. I'm not saying that this by itself proves that God exists, but it does call into question the claim that God has not revealed himself explicitly enough or directly enough, which I think is what you're trying to say.”

Yes I did. Thanks for catching my typo. Here again are several logical blunders. 1) The “created order” can be explained through natural laws like gravity (the order and motion of the planets) and evolution (the existence, order and complexity of all living species). 2) Quoting the bible is irrelevant. 3) The appeal to the fact that most people believe in a creator of some sort is a logical fallacy: argumentum ad populum. Historically speaking humanity has believed in a multitude of gods but this fact didn't make their gods any more real. 4) The “moral law”? This is another logical blunder. As with a previous argument, this can be explained through natural laws as even animals have a moral sense of some sort. What about psychopaths? Where are their morals? Did god forget to “insert” the “law” onto their “hearts”? Morality is both biological and cultural. There is no need to appeal to the supernatural.

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My ministry in Hungary involved teaching theology and training Hungarian church planters. I have a great interest in apologetics as well as missions.