Gospel Critics and the Argument from Silence
by Michael Kruger
“You can’t say everything.” This is one of the refrains I often cite to my students as we discuss historical documents. When ancient authors put quill to papyrus (or parchment), we need to remember that they had a limited amount of space, a limited amount of time, a limited number of goals, and often a very specific purpose for which they wrote.
Inevitably, therefore, an historical account will include some things that other historical accounts (of the same event) might omit, and they might omit some things that other historical accounts might include.
This reality is particularly important to remember when the Gospel accounts are analyzed and compared with one another. Differences aren’t (necessarily) the same as contradictions. Each author inevitability gives a limited perspective on the whole. They can’t say everything.
Unfortunately, in Bart Ehrman’s recent book, How Jesus Became God–The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (HarperOne, 2014), this particular principle goes unheeded. In order to demonstrate contradictory Christologies in the New Testament (particularly amongst the Gospels) Ehrman leans heavily on what the Gospel authors don’t say. Put directly, Ehrman uses an argumentum ex silentio (argument from silence).
This discussion of Ehrman’s use of the argument from silence will be the final installment of a series of posts interacting with and responding to his new book (for the prior post see here, here, and here).
For Ehrman, a central example of contradictory Christologies comes from comparing Mark with Matthew and Luke. Mark, he argues, believes Jesus became divine only at his baptism, and was a mere man prior to that point. Matthew and Luke, in contrast, present Jesus as divine even from birth (since he was born to a virgin).
But, how does Ehrman know that Mark rejects the virgin birth, and therefore rejects the higher Christology that goes with it? Simple: Mark doesn’t mention it…