An argument from silence is a logically fallacious argument that argues from the silence, or absence, of evidence.
“I cannot find my wallet, have you seen it?” I ask you.
You remain silent and shrug your shoulders.
“I knew you took it,” I say. “Where is it?”
I just reached a conclusion based on your silence. That is fallacious. Obviously, just because you are silent does not mean you took my wallet.
You see this fallacy pop up a lot with respect to historical investigation. Most recently, I argued that the claim “the Gospels were originally anonymous” is almost always founded upon arguments from silence.
The YouTube comment section lit up a bit with responses from numerous skeptics. Many sought to correct my ignorance. If only I was aware that I was in the minority, with respect to modern scholarship. If only I knew that there were Christians who “admitted” that the Gospels were anonymous.
I even had someone send me two articles to correct me which outline the majority scholarship consensus as to why they believe the Gospels were originally anonymous. Of course, I’ve read the consensus’ reasons, which is why I made the article and corresponding video in the first place.
To be a bit redundant let’s take a closer look at the arguments put forward by the majority position that the Gospels were originally anonymous.
The argument is quite simple and easily boiled down to two major points. Which actually plays in its favor.
- The manuscripts that we have that attribute the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are 2nd century fragments and 4th century codexes.
- The earliest Christians quote the Gospels anonymously.
- Therefore, it is most likely that the titles were added later.
If you feel I have misrepresented, or that this is over-simplified, I’m sorry.
First, it should be pointed out that to claim “the titles were added later” would require you to compare the later manuscripts (with titles) to earlier manuscripts (without titles). However, no such earlier manuscripts (without titles) exist. That is why the entire argument is from silence. Every manuscript we do have includes the titles. So, if you were going to infer anything about the originals, it would be that they too would have the titles.
“If the earliest manuscripts included the titles, why did the earliest Christians quote the Gospels anonymously?”
To point out what should be obviously by now, this argument, or question, is based on what some early Christians did NOT say. You should be able to recognize by now that this too is an argument from silence.
Why didn’t the earliest Christians explicitly say who the Gospels were attributed to? Why didn’t they say a lot of things? Perhaps, it didn’t matter to them. Perhaps, they assumed everyone already knew.
Justin Martyr references the Gospels “anonymously” when he quotes them and calls the writings “the Memoirs of the Apostles.”
First of all, that isn’t anonymous, not formally at least. Martyr is insinuating that the Gospels are the memoirs of the Apostles, meaning they reflect the Apostles’ testimony. That isn’t exactly anonymous.
Secondly, perhaps it was more important to Martyr to point out whose testimony the Gospels reflected, than to point out who wrote them, or a single individual to whom they could be referenced. Perhaps, a lot of things. Perhaps, he didn’t really know and the earliest manuscripts really were anonymous. That is logically possible.
The point is this: you cannot infer from someone’s silence that the Gospels were originally anonymous because silence doesn’t mean anything. You cannot infer from someone’s silence anything!
You are arguing from something that does not exist.
I was reminded, as if I was unaware, that the consensus of scholarship is that the Gospels were originally anonymous.
I was also reminded, as if I was unaware, that even some Christian scholars “admit” the Gospels were originally anonymous.
Here’s my response: It doesn’t matter to me how many people make an argument from silence. Likewise, the religion of such people doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is good evidence and argumentation and that is all that should matter to you as well.
The problem with this argument isn’t the facts, or evidence. It is true that we would like to have earlier manuscripts, titles or no titles. So, what? I’d like video evidence. We have what we have. Arguing from what we do not have is fallacious.
It is also true that some early Christians don’t say exactly who wrote the Gospels when they quote them. So, what? What you would actually need, as I pointed out in the previous article, is contradictory attribution. If one early Christian said Matthew’s Gospel was written by Peter and another said it was written by Matthew, then we would have contradictory attribution, which would bolster the argument for anonymous originals. We have this kind of contradictory attribution with the book of Hebrews which is why we believe it to be anonymous in its original. People didn’t know who wrote it, so they attributed it differently.
With the Gospels, every early Christian who actually does name an author of the Gospels, names the same four – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – without contradiction. The silence of others means nothing.
“Well, we aren’t saying that their silence necessitates that they were originally anonymous. We are saying that based on these silences, they were most probably originally anonymous.”
The point is that you cannot infer anything from silence. Silence doesn’t move the probability one way or the other.
What you need to argue for anonymous originals of the Gospels is what we have for Hebrews: (1) an early anonymous manuscript, and (2) contradictory attribution.
As it is, we have neither for the Gospels. What we have are arguments from silence.
No matter how many scholars sign up for an argument from silence, no matter the religion of such people; nothing will change the fact that it is an argument from silence.