Outside Corroboration as a Historical Criterion and the Validity of Arguments from Silence

A commonly misunderstood and complained about historical criterion among apologists is that of outside corroboration. “You do not demand that every single claim from every other ancient author outside of the New Testament be independently corroborated to trust their overall reliability!” This is both true and untrue. There are certain claims from Pagan and Christian authors alike that are dubious without outside corroboration and there are others that are perfectly believable, even if only one author reports them. Furthermore, apologists often dismiss any argument from silence out of hand as being fallacious, as if an argument from from silence is never valid. This response is itself fallacious, since arguments from silence can most certainly be valid under certain circumstances. For which historical claims should we demand outside corroboration in order to be trusted? Under what circumstances are arguments from silence valid?

There are at least three major circumstances under which outside corroboration should be sought. If no outside corroboration is found, then an argument from silence is a valid reason for doubting the historicity of the claim. All of these conditions vary by degree, where the more one of the conditions applies, the more outside corroboration is needed and the more an argument from silence carries force.

1. Multiple attestation would be expected, if the claim were true.

Imagine if I told you that a mile-long UFO flew over New York City yesterday in broad daylight before millions of people. Suppose then that you check the newspapers and discover that none have written about this incident, and thus I have no independent corroboration for my claim. Now suppose, when you tell me about this silence and say that you don’t believe me, because no one else had reported this incident, that I responded with, “Well, just because nobody else wrote about it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen! Nobody wrote about you waking up this morning, and yet you would expect me to believe that you did if you told me so!” Very obviously my response would not be rational, but what are the key issues that justify skepticism about my claim?

Certain events are of such a nature to attract public attention and be reported by multiple witnesses. Others, of a more mundane or less public nature, very often go unreported, or are only briefly reported by a single witness. I would be very skeptical if only a single author reported Julius Caesar invading Italy in 49 BCE, but whether Caesar happened to shave the morning he was assassinated is a mundane detail that could very easily be true, and yet no authors would report. For claims about events that would be very prominent and attract a lot of attention, a historian should demand that multiple witnesses report the event. If there is only a single source to report a claim that should have attracted more attention, especially when that source already shows signs of being unreliable (to be discussed further below), then an argument from silence is a legitimate reason for doubting, or at least being suspicious of, such a claim.

First, it should be made clear that the Gospels of the New Testament are not independent sources. Matthew directly borrows as much as 80% of Mark’s verses, and Luke borrows 65%. In fact, as a Classics Ph.D. student, who regularly reads other Greek and Latin literature from antiquity, I do not know of any other set of ancient texts that show more interdependence than the Synoptic Gospels. While John does not follow the ipsissima verba of the earlier Gospels, the author(s) demonstrate clear awareness of at least the Gospel of Mark [1]. This is very problematic for the historical reliability of the Gospels, since in many instances the authors merely borrow material from each other and thus do not independently attest to their shared claims.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the Gospels make many claims of a highly public nature that are not attested by any other ancient authors. For example, Mark 15:33, Matthew 27:45, and Luke 23:44 all claim that a three hour darkness at noon “covered the whole land” during Jesus’ crucifixion. This is indeed a very extraordinary claim and one of a very public nature. Matthew and Luke can be shown to derive this story from the Gospel of Mark, so they do not independently corroborate this event.

Given the public and incredible nature of this event, any historian worth her salt should seek outside corroboration. Do we have any for the three-hour midday darkness of the Gospels? In the Roman Empire there were hundreds of astrologers and natural scientists who would have immediately written about such an incredible event, and yet there is complete silence among contemporaries [2]. If there was such a darkness, we would expect several contemporaries or near-contemporaries to record it, perhaps most notably Pliny the Elder in the second book of his Natural History, where he documents other astronomical abnormalities and eclipses. And yet there is complete and total silence. This would be extremely unlikely, if the darkness had actually occurred. Instead, the alternative hypothesis, given that we only have one source for this claim, namely the Gospel of Mark, is that the author merely reported an unsubstantiated rumor or even made up the entire episode out of whole cloth. It should also be noted that there would easily be an incentive to invent such a story, in order to draw parallels to Old Testament verses that describe the “Day of the Lord” as a day of darkness (e.g. Joel 2:1-2; Amos 5:18-20; Zephaniah 1:14-15).

In the case of Mark’s three-hour darkness, an argument from silence is more than sufficient for doubting this historicity of the claim, given that silence would not be expected if the claim were true.

The Gospels are littered with fantastical stories, many of a public nature, that curiously did not even make a single blip on the radar screens of Jesus’ contemporaries. This embarrassing silence, sufficient by itself for doubting many of the miracles of Jesus, was perhaps described best over a century ago in the words of Annie Besant in The Freethinker’s Textbook (pgs. 193-4): 

“The most remarkable thing in the evidences afforded by profane history is their extreme paucity; the very existence of Jesus cannot be proved from contemporary documents. A child whose birth is heralded by a star which guides foreign sages to Judaea; a massacre of all the infants of a town within the Roman Empire by command of a subject king; a teacher who heals the leper, the blind, the deaf, the dumb, the lame, end who raises the moldering corpse, a King of the Jews entering Jerusalem in triumphal procession, without opposition from the Roman legions of Caesar; an accused ringleader of sedition arrested by his own countrymen; and handed over to the imperial governor; a rebel adjudged to death by Roman law; a three hours’ darkness over all the land; an earthquake breaking open graves and rending the temple veil; a number of ghosts wandering about Jerusalem; a crucified corpse rising again to life, and appearing to a crowd of above 500 people; a man risen from the dead ascending bodily into heaven without a concealment, and in the broad daylight, from a mountain near Jerusalem; all these marvelous events took place, we are told, and yet they have left no ripple on the current of contemporary history.”

While I do think that the later, non-contemporary sources we have are sufficient for establishing the relatively mundane claim of Jesus’ mortal existence, the paragraph above marshals a fatal argument from silence for doubting Jesus’ alleged miracles and the fantastical nature of his ministry described in the Gospels. For us to have no outside corroboration of these events, if they did actually take place, would indeed be a greater miracle than the events themselves! It would almost require a Cartesian demon to intervene to silence the Pagan contemporaries who would have corroborated such miracles in their midst and to suppress the evidence (very curious for a god who wanted us to know that he had intervened in history). Instead, the far more probable explanation is that they are merely later legends, which did not grace the papyri of contemporaries, since no such actual events occurred to be reported in the first place.

2. The claim is initially improbable or at tension with ordinary historical circumstances.

For events that are initially improbable, or of an extraordinary nature, outside corroboration can help overcome a low prior probability with greater expected evidence. This is a simple matter of Bayesian logic. If the prior probability of a claim is low, greater evidence will be needed to render its occurrence more probable. For certain well-established historical claims, if we did not have outside corroboration, we could no longer consider the claim to be as well-established or trustworthy as we do, given the low probability of such an event.

Let’s consider a non-biblical example:

A very interesting work to come down to us from antiquity is Lucian of Samosata’s Alexander the False Prophet (the introduction on the linked webpage even notes how outside corroborating material is crucial for trusting Lucian’s narrative). Alexander of Abonoteichus was a charismatic figure who managed to gather a following and start a new cult that worshiped a human-headed serpent named Glycon that was said to be the son of Apollo. Apparently, Alexander even had a large snake prepared for this charade that was trained to wear the puppet of a human head, in which there were pipes placed for people in concealment to channel their voice, so that it gave the impression that the snake was speaking.

Lucian reports many other incredible things about this Alexander, too numerous to elaborate on here, but one is that Alexander had even managed to convince the Roman emperor to mint coins of Glycon. This is very incredible indeed. Could an evangelizing, stage-show huckster like this really convince the Roman emperor to mint coins of his strange new snake deity? Lucian’s polemic might raise our suspicions, if it were not for the fact that we have actually independently corroborated his claim through a variety of archeological evidence. In fact, we have even found examples of the coins that were minted.

Glycon

Amaseia (Pontos), Antoninus Pius, AE, 158. Rev. Snake with human head (Glycon) on base l. RG 16var. From auction Gorny & Mosch, Munich 118 (2002), no. 1708.

For events that are initially improbable, or of an extraordinary nature, outside corroboration can help overcome a low prior probability with greater expected evidence. That a charlatan like Alexander could have duped even the Roman emperor is initially improbable and we should demand greater evidence. It turns out, however, that in Lucian’s case we do have the greater evidence needed for trusting him.

The same does not often hold true for many of the stories in the Gospels. The Gospels make many claims with low prior probabilities that are then not substantiated by greater evidence. Furthermore, the Gospels also make claims that are at tension with what we know of the ordinary historical conditions of the time and region, which demands that we treat them with greater scrutiny.

I discussed one such example in an earlier post about the trial of Jesus and the release of the violent criminal Barabbas in the place of Jesus in the Gospels. We have no outside corroboration that Pilate would customarily release any prisoner that the crowd asked for during the Passover festival. There are outside reported instances where Roman governors would release certain prisoners on special occasions, but certainly no case where the Roman governor would regularly release any prisoner, including a violent revolutionary, simply at the capricious volition of the crowd during a holiday. Such a practice would be extremely improbable. It is furthermore not at harmony with what we know of Pontius Pilate outside of the Gospels, where he is described as a ruthless and merciless governor. The lack of outside corroboration for this custom immediately demands our suspicion. This suspicion is then further strengthened (which I discuss in the linked article) by the clear allegorical elements that would provide a basis for Mark to invent such an episode and custom (namely to mimic the Yom Kippur sacrifice, where one goat was released and another sacrificed to atone for sins). In the case of Barabbas, an argument from silence about Pilate’s custom is a valid initial reason for being skeptical of the episode, further strengthened by the evidence for it being an allegorical invention.

Another almost certainly fictitious story is in the Gospel of Matthew (2:13-20), when Herod the Great orders that all of the young infant males in Bethlehem be slaughtered, simply because three Magi had reported a rumor that the King of the Jews had been born there. In the episode, baby Jesus escapes from this slaughter when an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to flee into Egypt. This is a very extraordinary event, indeed, and if Herod had committed such an atrocity, I would expect other contemporaries to write about it. And yet Josephus, who provides a long catalog of Herod’s other crimes, is completely silent about it.

The event is furthermore initially improbable as an actual historical event. We do know that Herod was a violent and paranoid king, but to massacre an entire city’s infant males, merely at some vague rumor from a couple of Magi, is very unlikely even for Herod. We would need great evidence to trust such an unlikely claim, and yet we only have the Gospel of Matthew, which is very poor evidence. Instead, once more, an allegorical root of the story can be found. By having Herod slaughter the infants in Bethlehem, the author of Matthew could draw a parallel with Exodus (1:22-2:1-10), in which Pharaoh likewise has the male infants of the Israelites slaughtered. In the episode, baby Moses escapes Pharaoh’s massacre, just as baby Jesus escapes Herod’s. The parallel is strengthened by the author of Matthew explicitly having baby Jesus flee into Egypt. That such a coincidental parallel would take place is very unlikely and we would need greater evidence, such as outside corroboration, to trust it, but failing this criterion, we have strong reasons for being suspicious of this story based on a valid argument from silence.

3. A particular source repeatedly makes extraordinary claims that are not corroborated.

Now consider the lesson that we learn from the boy who repeatedly calls wolf. Each and every time his story is not substantiated by an outside witness he loses more and more credibility. He eventually is so untrustworthy that nobody even hesitates to doubt him when he shouts that a wolf is coming.

In like manner, the more a particular source fails the criterion of outside corroboration, the more the criterion increasingly becomes relevant and arguments from silence increase in their strength. If a source is otherwise independently corroborated for most of its extraordinary claims, but lacks such outside evidence for one claim in particular, we can grant it the benefit of the doubt. But when a source repeatedly makes extraordinary claims without corroboration, each new tall tale demands that we be more and more suspicious of the source and doubt most of these claims, unless we have very good reason not to.

Stephen Law sums up this problem nicely by what he calls the Contamination Principle. This principle in part entails that the more a text becomes contaminated by extraordinary claims that are uncorroborated, the more we should doubt them (and even mundane claims), without independent verification. In effect, a source eventually loses all credibility and can only be tug-boated along by more credible sources.

The Gospels are rife with extraordinary claims that Jesus’ contemporaries were completely silent about: a crazed king slaughtering of a whole town of infants, violent criminals being set free as part of a holiday festival, a midday darkness that covered the entire land right when a messianic figure was being crucified, and many other tall tales about this same miracle worker feeding whole crowds of people with only a few morsels, escaping his execution through a miraculous resurrection (curiously, with no subsequent manhunt or investigation in Acts), and then flying into space in broad daylight. And yet we hear none of this from even a single contemporary. From sources so contaminated by such unsubstantiated claims, we have a cumulative case for being skeptical of their content, particularly in the case of extraordinary events, but even for the more mundane ones. In the case of such texts, outside corroboration is especially needed, and historians are correct to demand it. Lacking such independent verification, arguments from silence bear particular weight and validity.

In short, apologists can complain about historians seeking outside corroboration for the Gospels, but the practice is both necessary and valid. The same would hold true for any other ancient text under the same circumstances. If the Gospels had outside corroboration for their claims about public events that would have drawn the attention of multiple witnesses, if the more improbable stories found within them were backed up by greater evidence, and if they had a greater track record for being independently corroborated when we would expect it, then perhaps we could treat them with greater credence. But alas, the opposite holds true for all three of the conditions I discuss above. Accordingly, arguments from silence are perfectly valid for critiquing the Gospels and provide a compelling reason for why we should doubt many of their claims.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] For a in-depth analysis of how John’s whole Passion narrative is written in response to the Gospel of Mark, see Louis Ruprecht’s This Tragic Gospel.

[2] For information about how Thallus does not record the darkness, see Richard Carrier’s “Thallus and the Darkness at Christ’s Death.” Furthermore, even if Thallus had claimed that the darkness was an eclipse decades later in response to Christian propaganda, this would not be good evidence of the darkness. If the darkness was a legend, we would expect that maybe one or so Pagan authors might criticize the Christian propaganda. As Carrier demonstrates, however, we do not even have that meager evidence in the case of Thallus.

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43 Responses to Outside Corroboration as a Historical Criterion and the Validity of Arguments from Silence

  1. Peter N says:

    I think the apologist’s fallback position, when confronted with the total absence of corroborating evidence for the Gospels, is that their god is testing us — are we able to believe based on faith alone? I wonder what would happen if, say, a letter from a 1st-century Roman soldier repeating large chunks of the Gospel stories should finally turn up — would the Christian still shield his eyes, and say that independent evidence doesn’t matter?

    • Ha, that’s a good point. Someone only marginalizes outside corroboration when they don’t have it. It’s sort of like how only the fox who doesn’t get the grapes concludes that they are sour.

  2. MrHolbyta says:

    First, glad to hear you’re doing better. Keep that up. Now, to business:

    Are the arguments above really arguments from silence? When I think of such arguments I think of things like, “A Pharaoh was so angry at the Hebrew slaves & their Exodus that he ordered all record of them in Egypt destroyed.” While a potential explanation for the complete non-existence of such records in Egyptian archaeological finds, there is no source telling us this is the case, ergo e silentio.

    What you describe above is simply asserting that documents meeting the above criteria fail to meet the onus probandi for claims made in their text. To meet the onus, they require more evidence. This seems less an argumentum e silentio than a critique of argumenta e sussurri, for lack of a better term. After all, the onus is on the one making the claim, not on the skeptic.

    • Typically, an argument from silence is used when the absence of reference to an event in an extant source that would have presumably mentioned the event, if it had actually occurred, is used to cast doubt on the historicity of the event itself. When I point out that Pagan sources do not mention the miraculous events described in the New Testament, when they would be expected to, if such events were true, than this is an argument from silence.

      Here is a formal example of an argument from silence with the example of Pliny the Elder and the alleged three-hour darkness in Mark:

      Major Premise: If a three-hour midday darkness had occurred in 30CE or 33CE, then natural scientists who wrote about recent eclipses and unusual darknesses, such as Pliny the Elder, would have written about it.

      Minor Premise: Neither Pliny the Elder nor any other natural scientist writes about the three-hour midday darkness.

      Conclusion: The three-hour midday darkness probably then did not occur.

      That’s definitely an argument from silence. I think you may be correct that my second section in particular, dealing with improbable claims needing more evidence, might overlap with the onus probandi of making an argument for the occurrence of such an event. But in that circumstance outside corroboration might be needed in order to meet the onus, without which arguments from silence would still be relevant.

      • MrHolbyta says:

        I see what you’re getting at, but, since a properly employed argument from silence is always a negation of a claim, it still seems to me onus driven. If we break down your categories in Bayesian language they go thus.

        1) An event has moderate prior probability, but lacks expected evidence & is therefore likely false. I suppose one could argue that “likely false” makes it a claim, thus a positive argument from silence, but “unlikely to be true” works just as well and is a straightforward negation.

        E.g. Large population migrations happen from time to time (population of Americas over the land bridge, Manifest Destiny, Indo-European conquest, et al) so it’s reasonable that such a migration happened from Egypt to the Levant. Prior expectation is rare, but not unheard of. Expected evidence: archaeological sites where the migration camped for long periods of time, mentions in contemporary records, particularly in Egypt regarding loss of manpower, burn layers in Canaanite settlements, archaeological evidence of new culture in the Levant, et al. None of the expected evidence exists, ergo the claim there was a migration fails to meet its onus & is likely false.

        2) An event has extremely low prior probability, thus requires extraordinary expected evidence to be considered likely.

        E.g. A boy draws a sword from a stone and is made king of Britain. Necessary expected evidence: sword, stone, epigraphy, a place with a name linguistically related to Camelot or similar with a castle or stronghold, grave site, medieval recorrds of key battles, et al. The amount of evidence, if any, is insufficient to overcome the extremely low priors and thus the claim fails to meet its onus. It is likely false.

        3) A document contains many claims of the type described in 2 which drives down the priors on all its claims via well-poisoning. Even relatively reasonable claims are suspect because the text reads like fiction.

        E.g. The Mabinogian tells stories of magic, a cauldron which raises the dead, & otherworldly adventures. Necessary expected evidence for the existence of main characters like Bran the Blessed, Pryderi ap Pwyll, Arianrhod, etc: places affiliated with them such as strongholds with appropriate art, epigraphy, etc., grave sites, records in less fantastical texts, et al. There is no such evidence, ergo the expected evidence fails to overcome the extremely low priors. The claim cannot meet its onus and is likely false.

        I guess I have no problem calling these arguments from silence, but since they are not used to establish claims, but to negate them it just seems to be an extraneous catgory to me.

        • I get what you are saying. Thanks for the Bayesian analysis, btw. Indeed, I can see how these would also be arguments from insufficient evidence. Of course, establishing that insufficiency requires pointing out the silence among the sources that would be expected to corroborate the event, if it had occurred. I suppose the main benefit that it brings to the table is not only analyzing the positive evidence for a claim, but also the evidence that is lacking (and should not be lacking if the claim is true), and then weighing them.

          Another way of framing this issue is by how one responds to the claim “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Well, obviously it is evidence of absence, if such evidence were to be expected from such an event. Regardless, I think the main point is that we can’t just look at the positive source(s) that mention an event to affirm its historicity, if the testimony of other sources were expected. The silence of a relevant source can be just as compelling (and more compelling) for doubting a claim as the positive evidence that we have for it. Hence, giving the positive evidence a free pass by claiming that arguments from silence and outside corroboration are unfair/fallacious (as apologists frequently do) is merely an escape hatch to avoid a valid and relevant part of historical analysis.

          • MrHolbyta says:

            I think you just hit on the key moment when an argument from silence, while still used as a negation isn’t about failing the onus (I would guess mostly under your first category): situations where there is some positive & potentially compelling evidence, but some clealy expected evidence is missing. Let’s imagine there were a skeptical medieval scholar who was aware of the NT, Josephus, patriarchs, and Classical works. At this time, the gospels are considered simultaneously historical and allegorical. Both Josephus passages are considered authentic. The author may have realized, though, that the patriarchs, since they depend entirely on the NT are not independent sources. After reading the likes of Tacitus, Suetonius, Plutarch, et al he wonders about things like the contrast in Pilate’s character, the Passover ‘custom’, and then he considers the fact that the darkness is a story which the gospel authors drew from each other and doesn’t appear anywhere else. Natural philosophers, historians who love omens, a history of key ebents in the region, no one mentions this event. The silence is deafening. He concludes that the story was not historical, but purely allegorical.

  3. DagoodS says:

    I quite agree. I was once asked (in a “walk a mile in the other person’s shoes” sort of thing), “Assuming the events of the Gospels happened as recorded, what would you expect to happen in the decades following Jesus’ resurrection?” [Surprisingly, I think the result would be very similar to what we have—fracturing, competing belief, legend development, etc….but that is a discussion for another time.]

    What struck me at the time was if every event happened as recorded, how difficult it would have been to keep Jesus out of contemporary histories. As you know, most Christians are unaware regarding the social/economic situation of First Century Mediterranean countries. The child mortality due to illness; life expectancy due to illness, injury and famine; the sustenance living for the populace. And along comes a guy who can heal. Not just heal—but heal everything, including death itself. Who can provide food from a few bread crumbs. Who provides freely, without limit as to race, political affiliation, gender. Who requests no payment in return.

    Kings would scramble to either win him over, or capture him, or eliminate him from competing rulers. (A fellow who can heal AND feed thousands? Think of eliminating both your medical staff and supply personnel in your army.) He could not sleep, eat, speak or move without constant hounding from people begging to heal, be fed, and so on. Worse, once he demonstrated he could heal from a distance, as it were, it would only multiple his popularity.

    Frankly, it becomes inconceivable such an individual would be so powerful, and perform such miraculous actions, yet be so completely unknown.

    Don’t even get me started on Peter’s shadow’s capability to heal….

    • Great point. That gets into another issue that I discussed earlier about the type of evidence we would expect if these stories were true.

      Apologists always claim that we doubt the NT miracles because of “presuppositions” about miracles being impossible. But as you pointed out, these spectacular healing miracles don’t make sense in a historical context, even if miracles sometimes do happen. If Jesus and the disciples really could heal so many people, there would be huge lines that would spring up, political figures hunting down these people, and tons of contemporaries writing about such marvels in their midst. That’s the type of evidence that we would expect if the stories were true, but alas we have none.

      Don’t even get me started on Peter’s shadow’s capability to heal….

      Lol, for the briefest moment I thought you meant Peter Pan and had no idea what you were talking about, but then I remembered the apostle Peter’s healing shadow. Funny moment.

    • [DagoodS] “Kings would scramble to either win him over, or capture him, or eliminate him from competing rulers. (A fellow who can heal AND feed thousands? Think of eliminating both your medical staff and supply personnel in your army.) He could not sleep, eat, speak or move without constant hounding from people begging to heal, be fed, and so on. Worse, once he demonstrated he could heal from a distance, as it were, it would only multiple his popularity.”

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  4. Churchill says:

    Re Bethlehem: Was it not a small village? Thus the number would be around a dozen or two killed. It would pale in comparison to the other acts he [Herod] committed.

    • Ignoring the obvious allegorical parallel it is drawing with Exodus, the fact that Herod would have issued the order allegedly because of such an extremely ambiguous rumor, and the fact that he would still be hated for even killing a dozen of infants so capriciously. Apologists would sure love to have Josephus mention that slaughter. And yet, when he doesn’t, apparently it doesn’t matter.

      • Churchill says:

        “Ignoring the obvious allegorical parallel it is drawing with Exodus”

        >This would be injecting your interpretations- it’s simply not an argument. However, allegorical parallels are an interesting topic.

        1) “X” can be allegorically compared to “Y” (“Z”, etc.)

        2) Therefore “X” is made up

        >Abraham Lincoln is an interesting comparison. “Abraham” refers to the father of multitudes and is derived from [father] Abraham, in the Bible (Genesis 12). “Abraham” is a symbol of plentitude and fruitfulness. Applied to the Lincoln myth, “Abraham” refers to a founding father who creates new people or new nations through abolition (abolition -> abelition -> abelincoln). In this case, “Abraham Lincoln” describes the liberation of a slave class, thus he would be as a “father” to the people. “Lincoln” means “lake settlement”, which would make sense, as the state of Illinois (with Lake Michigan) is referred to as the Land of Lincoln. The picture is beautiful allegory, really, but not to be taken literally. It is no surprise that this Lincoln myth has it’s roots in the Bible, with America’s deep roots and background in Christianity.

        1) Abraham Lincoln is allegorically compared to Abraham of the Bible and his home

        2) Therefore, Abraham Lincoln is a mere fictituous allegory

        “Oh but the existence Abe Lincoln was deeply attested historically and he is real!”

        >How so? Contemporary documents? You might as well assert Percy Jackson and Batman are real. They are indeed “contemporary”. Pictures? We have pictures of Spiderman and Pikachu. His own writings? Oh, so can I point out Geronimo Stilton and “The Autobiography of Santa Claus”? His body? How do you know it is his? It could be Cecil Barnes (reasonsforgod.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/cecilbarnesandlincoln.jpg), Jefferson Davis (sphotos-a-lga.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ash4/s720x720/386558_139998462845605_727732114_n.jpg), Bill Nye (i.chzbgr.com/maxW500/1721354496/h7C3C1440/) or even our good friend Cliffe Knechtle (b.vimeocdn.com/ts/431/548/43154855_640.jpg)?

        “Then who freed the slaves? Who was the 16th president?”

        >Lincoln of gaps

        #hyperskepticismrefutesall

        “the fact that Herod have issued the order allegedly because of such an extremely ambiguous rumor”

        >

        “fact that he would still be hated for even killing a dozen of infants so capriciously.”

        >Again, it pales in comparison to everything else he did for the past 34 years.

        Your argument, in a nutshell:

        Major Premise: If the darkness occured, someone would note it.

        Minor Premise: Only the Gospel writers mention it (in writing) 20-30 years later.

        Conclusion: The darkness probably did not occur.

        Thus:

        Major Premise: If a volcano really “erupted”, destroying two major towns (well literate and wealthy) and seven others, some survivor would have at least mentioned it. Towns miles around would have also been shook considerably. It is estimated that anywhere from 16,000-60,000 were killed while 100,000-250,000 would have directly witnessed this event.

        Minor Premise: Only Pliny the Younger mentions it 30 years after the supposed event.

        Conclusion: The eruption probably then did not occur. After all, we should expect thousands of contemporary documents for an event like this.

        “All the archaeological ‘evidence!'”

        >Irrelevant. Completely. It’s outside the argument of silence. And once you start to inject other standards and exceptions, the argument starts to fall apart.

        1) “X” was an event that (Person Y decides) should have been widely noted (whether or not someone finds this important is purely subjective opinion)

        2) “X” should have been noted (by whomever Person Y deems worthy)

        3) Because “X” was not noted, “X” probably did not happen (according to Person Y)

        This argument is essentially just another “because I say so”

        • Well, it looks like you have decided to waste your time trolling this page. I am not going to waste my time in return responding to your absurdly false analogies (e.g. pikachu) and poor grasp over historical methodology. Honestly, your reply reads like a self-parody. You really think a volcano that is still there documented by an eyewitness and recent historians, such as Suetonius and Tacitus, is analogous to a worldwide three hour midday darkness mentioned nowhere outside of Christian propaganda that is drawing analogies to OT verses? I really can’t help you if you are committed to not understanding the article. If you are committed to believing in a bunch of blatantly fictional stories in the Gospels, no matter how poorly they are attested elsewhere, be my guest.

        • Churchill says:

          “You really think a volcano that is still there documented by an eyewitness and recent historians, such as Suetonius and Tacitus, is analogous to a worldwide three hour midday darkness mentioned nowhere outside of Christian propaganda that is drawing analogies to OT verses?”

          >Ah but remember; the argument of silence would dictate that Vesuvius never erupted.

          Other physical evidence is irrelevant.

          I believe “ge” is ambiguous as to whether or not it was a big or small plot of land. Nor does “skotos” have any connatations of the supernatural. “Skia” can refer to mere shadows, if I am not mistaken.

          • Churchill, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m really not interested in wasting my time with your trolling.

            You straw manned my analysis of outside corroboration and arguments from silence, which includes physical/archeological evidence (noted in the Alexander of Abonoteichus example). Again, if you really think that we have no outside corroboration of Vesuvius, I pity you.

            The verse sates ἐφ’ ὅλην τὴν γῆν (“over the entire earth”). That’s not a “small plot of land,” sorry.

            Now, I’m pretty sure that even you have better things to do with your time. Look, there are some butterflies over there! Go get ‘em!

          • Churchill says:

            eph’ holen ten gen

            “over all the land”

            Yes, “ge” could mean earth, however, I believe it could also mean “a country, land enclosed within fixed boundaries, a tract of land, territory, region, etc.”

          • Yep, which implies a very large amount of land. The emphasis that it happened at midday also emphasizes that it was a highly unusual event. And yet nobody independently attests it besides a couple of hagiographies, packed full of other unbelievable stories, all borrowing this detail from Mark.

            I don’t buy it, but if it is enough to convince you, feel free to believe in a massive darkness that no one else wrote about.

          • Churchill says:

            “You straw manned my analysis of outside corroboration and arguments from silence, which includes physical/archeological evidence (noted in the Alexander of Abonoteichus example). Again, if you really think that we have no outside corroboration of Vesuvius, I pity you.”

            >But that’s irrelevant.

            If “X” is an event worth mentioning, “X” should have multiple sources; otherwise, “X” did not happen.

          • No, it is not irrelevant, that’s why I mentioned it. Coins and archeological evidence are non-written “sources” for a particular event. They fall into the category of outside corroboration.

            Your analogy would be correct, if we could not find the volcano or buried cities and thus had no physical outside corroboration.

            Now, can you please stop hogging the page, Churchill? You’ve already posted more than half the comments and have gotten plenty of time to post your nonsense.

          • Churchill says:

            And yet nobody independently attests it [the eruption of Vesuvius] besides a mere letter, written 30 years after the supposed event.

            I don’t buy it, but if it is enough to convince you, feel free to believe in a massive eruption, which destroyed various cities, that no one else wrote about.

          • Suetonius, Tacitus, and Pliny, a known author and eyewitness (unlike the author of Mark), the volcano itself, and the buried cities.

            Vs.

            Nobody in the entire Roman world mentioning a massive midday darkness, beyond anonymous hagiographies composed as religious propaganda that copy each other.

            Sure.

          • Churchill says:

            “No, it is not irrelevant, that’s why I mentioned it. Coins and archeological evidence are non-written “sources” for a particular event. They fall into the category of outside corroboration.”

            >But I believe that the argument of silence is based on a lack of written, historical documents.

          • Good for you. That’s not what I wrote about in the article. Hence, a straw man.

            An argument from silence is based on a lack of any corroborating evidence. For example, it is an argument from silence to claim that Exodus is unhistorical, on the grounds there are no archeological remains of a large migration of people over the Sinai peninsula.

            My article refers to multiple forms of outside corroborating evidence, since historians look for more than written sources.

          • Churchill says:

            “An argument from silence is based on a lack of any corroborating evidence. For example, it is an argument from silence to claim that Exodus is unhistorical, on the grounds there are no archeological remains of a large migration of people over the Sinai peninsula.

            My article refers to multiple forms of outside corroborating evidence, since historians look for more than written sources.”

            >In this scenario, the only evidence would be written sources. Thus, the argument is if “X” happened, why did no one mention “X”? Thus, another open question would be “If Vesuvius erupted, why do we not have thousands of contemporary writings about the event?”

            Re Exodus: http://www.tektonics.org/af/exoduslogistics.html

          • Churchill, based on your Pokemon analogies, quote and complain comment style, and spam links to layman JP Holding’s website, I’m pretty sure that your new name is a sockpuppet standing in for your old name “Potato.”

            Vesuvius is not analogous to a worldwide darkness. For starters, it did leave corroborating physical evidence, so it is absurd to compare it to a darkness that didn’t.

            Volcanoes are rare, but normally occuring events, whereas midday darknesses of the kind described in Mark would never occur and immediately be documented by at least a few secular authors (I never said “thousands,” btw).

            We also have better written evidence for Vesuvius: an eye-witness writing a detailed description and at least two historians around the same time period. Versus only one anonymous, non historical source for the darkness drawing blatant analogies to OT verses.

            Now, even if you aren’t a sockpuppet, your spamming, trolling, and effort to waste my time dragging this out ad nauseam is more than enough grounds for concluding this discussion. Go waste your time somewhere else.

          • asiago steve says:

            To be fair, the traits you draw as similar to the “Potato” character are somewhat common.

            You have made anime analogies (can’t recall post ATM); someone (a skeptic) has linked you Tektonics on other posts; and the quote and comment style is common.

          • To be fair, it’s not always easy to catch sockpuppeting, but I’ve seen enough similarities with Potato’s obsessive post volume, disorganized writing style, and trollish behavior to be suspicious.

          • asiago steve says:

            Well, that Cornell fellow had some very long posts; the writing style is somewhat average; and this is the internet. Trolling is expected.

          • “..the writing style is somewhat average…”

            How dare you speak of the author of ‘The Gospel according to Cornelll’ like that! And I also can prove that he is probably the ‘Q’ source.
            What next?… that he wrote it after the Bar Kokhba revolt? Mythicist!
            sincerely,
            Bart Ehrman

  5. Evidence and the validity of numerous arguments about things that are purported to exist/existed
    Let’s come up with a baseline. Hard evidence is:
    1. A photo.
    2. A recording, either audio or video.
    3. Earlier man-made items, providing that there are several vectors that corroborate the truth about its origin and meaning. Example: The Glycon Coins.
    4. An impression upon a natural or quantum generator (information). Say a fossil, fingerprints, distant starlight, or deducing unseen mass (dark matter).
    5. A substance sample (fluid, dna, etc) that can be approximated as coming from the source in question. Example: the identification of Richard III’s body.
    6. Something physically detectable with a device that is proven to aid our senses. Also the device(s) must be demonstrated as genuine/untampered.
    7. An appearance before disinterested & unbiased observers. The more witnesses, their less bias, the more solid the evidence becomes.
    ====
    Unhard evidence is:
    Honest assertions that can be demonstrated as mostly conjecture.

    • 8. The Virtualized Fiction Exception. This pertains to characters, items, & events which are openly agreed upon as fictional outside of their own specific contrived narrative. Example: Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. If honest efforts to reveal such examples are blocked/omitted, then it may be characterized as a hoax or lie.
      Honest efforts are characterized by accepting the fact of truth vectors that run counter to one’s own assertion of events. For example: Holocaust denial take pains to obscure the truth of the Nazi Genocide of the Jews. As stated above, the effort becomes dishonest when revealing such assertions as actualities despite these truth vectors.

  6. Peter N says:

    Okay, Churchill has persuaded me — I can’t be certain that Abraham Lincoln is a real historical figure either. So am I any closer to believing in an historical Jesus?

    You know what might make be believe there really was a Jesus, and he really had superhuman characteristics? If he were still here. Maybe someone could tell me why he had to beam off Earth in such a gosh-darn hurry. Places to be? Things to do? I would think that an immortal, omnipotent being would have stayed and continued his ministry, if he were actually interested in saving us from hell. But he isn’t still here. That’s what I call an argument from silence!

    • Heh, it is rather peculiar that Jesus escaped death and achieved immortality, but didn’t bother to stick around and prove it.

      Instead, he is as much on earth as…well, every other dead person from the past. Hmm, why is it that Jesus is exactly like every other person that is dead?

      P.S. I can’t blame you for being convinced by Churchhill’s amazing argument. I mean, his point about cartoon pictures existing for Pikachu and Batman was a devastating analogy for the 19th century photographs we have of Lincoln.

      (On a serious note, I’m pretty sure based on his writing style and Pokemon analogies that he is just a using the name Churchill as a sockpuppet, who originally went under the name “Potato.” You can see equally erudite and well-written arguments from this Potato here: https://adversusapologetica.wordpress.com/2013/05/01/bible-contradictions-why-are-they-there-what-do-they-entail/comment-page-1/#comment-606)

    • You know what might make be believe there really was a Jesus..

      I’ll even throw-in three flavors!
      1. The Historical Jesus (who freaking knows!)
      2. The Real Jesus (white man, long golden hair, was very nice)
      3. Just the root ‘Jesus Story’
      a. A man is perceived as holy & a wise teacher.
      b. The man goes to the capitol city of the Old Religion.
      c. The man antagonizes the administrators of the Old Religion.
      d. The man is executed for his transgression against the Old Religion.

  7. I have responded to your Barabbas blunders on my blog and that is but a mere fraction of what could have been said. Of course arguments from silence can be used to raise suspicion on certain events, it does not follow that they should not be used to try and bludgeon your historical fetishes to death. This is just bad historiography.

    • Correction “does not follow that they should be used”

      • Here is this guy’s response to my Barabbas article. To tell the truth, the author spends more time badmouthing me than he does addressing the content. But he clearly wants people to see his response, so in the interest of fairness, here it is.

        • “…To tell the truth, the author spends more time badmouthing me than he does addressing the content”

          As Pilate asked Jesus one verse earlier, “What is Truth?” [John 18:38]

          Well I read DM’s blogpost and the only firm conclusion I arrived at was it’s background music:

          Franz Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz (Episode from Lenau’s “Faust”: The Dance in the Village Inn)
          – Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra 1956 SACD

          Added bonus: [thecosmicpinata] “In conclusion we venture to say that the custom arose during the turbulent years of civil war which marked the Hasmonean period, when political prisoners abounded in the land. At that time, the Jewish prince, in order to placate the people who had assembled in the holy city from Palestine and from the Diaspora for the celebration of the Passover, released a political prisoner as a gesture of the peace and good-will that were to reign during the holiday.”

          These very same people also quarter & boil their turkey for thanksgiving…

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