Bart Ehrman is fond of saying that if Jesus really said “Before Abraham was, I am” and “I and my Father are one” the Synoptic Gospels would’ve surely reported it. Since they don’t report it, Ehrman infers that it didn’t happen. The author of John’s Gospel made it up. He writes:
“If Jesus went around Galilee proclaiming himself to be a divine being sent from God . . . could anything else that he might say be so breathtaking and thunderously important? And yet none of these earlier sources [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] says any such thing about him. Did they (all of them!) just decide not to mention the one thing that was most significant about Jesus? Almost certainly the divine self-claims in John are not historical”
(How Jesus Became God, 125).
This is a textbook example of the argument from silence. In logic, an argument from silence is a pattern of reasoning in which the failure to mention a fact or event in a known source is used to draw an inference, usually to the conclusion that the supposed fact is false or that the supposed event didn’t actually happen. It’s not always necessarily fallacious, but at best it’s a pretty precarious way to argue.
Argument from silence fails
Exactly how reliable is our intuition at predicting whether a writer would mention a fact or event that did really happen? As it turns out, not great. By looking at some examples, I think you’ll see that we tend to vastly overestimate ourselves.
- In 41 AD, Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. Both the Jewish writers Josephus and Philo fail to mention it despite them both preserving tons of Jewish history. Acts and Seutonius are the only sources that describe it.
- Marco Polo explored China but never mentions the Great Wall.
- Civil War general Ulysses S Grant says nothing about the Emancipation Proclamation despite keeping an extensive diary of the war.
- Grafton’s Chronicles mentions the reign of King John but never mentions the Magna Carta.
- In his detailed biography of Constantine, Eusebius glaringly fails to mention the death of Constantine’s son Crispus and wife Fausta.
Are you starting to see the problem yet? It’s clear from these numerous, surprising examples that we need to pump our brakes and calibrate our expectations. Historically we shouldn’t reject testimony from one otherwise reliable source just because the absence of testimony from another source from the same period.
We don’t know why Matthew, Mark and Luke omit these sayings. Various scholars have floated different ideas, but all we can do is speculate.
High Christology in the Synoptics
I think we do see a high Christology in the Synoptics, however. My personal favorite example is in Mark 2:1–12. Jesus forgave the paralytic’s sins, and the meaning of this was not lost on his Jewish audience, as they immediately said he was blaspheming. Jesus’ audience said that only God can forgive sins.
Bart Ehrman recognizes this is a problem for his view, so he responds, saying: “With respect to the forgiveness of sins: when Jesus forgives sins, he never says “I forgive you,” as God might say, but “your sins are forgiven,” which means that God has forgiven your sins. This prerogative for pronouncing sins forgiven was otherwise reserved for Jewish priests in honor of sacrifices worshipers made at the temple. Jesus may be claiming a priestly, not a divine prerogative.”
But there’s a big problem here. First, that’s not what offended Jesus’ audience. Jesus isn’t claiming a priestly prerogative in the context, he says he has authority on earth to forgive sins because he is the Son of Man.
It was Jesus’ claim to be the Son of Man that caused Caiaphas to tear his garments in Mark 14:61–64 and accuse Jesus of blasphemy. In addition, Daniel 7:13–14 seems to strongly say that the Son of Man figure receives the highest form of worship, which only God receives. The passage says: “In my vision, at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
In Daniel 7:14, the Son of Man is described with the exact same language used to describe God in Daniel 6:26. In the passage Darius says “I make a decree that in all the dominion of my kingdom men are to fear and tremble before the God of Daniel; For He is the living God and enduring forever, And His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed, And His dominion will be forever.”
Another favorite yet underrated example of mine is Jesus’ response to the Jewish leaders after his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. According to Matthew, the children are singing “Hosanna to the Son of David!” in the Temple. Outraged by this, the leaders imply that Jesus should stop them. Jesus defiantly responds by quoting Psalm 8:2 saying “Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants you have perfected praise’?” This is a pretty clear claim that he is the proper recipient of the children’s praise. And Psalm 8 is obviously addressed to Yahweh So who does that make Jesus?
Jesus also receives the honors of worship in Matthew’s Gospel. When the Magi met the infant Jesus, we read that “they bowed down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11) The disciples also worshiped Jesus after he walked on the water in Matthew 14:33. The women who went to the tomb also worshiped Jesus after his resurrection in Matthew 28:9.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t rebuke them for their worship but rather he receives it. Contrast this to Paul and Barnabas, who refuse the worship from the people of Lystra after healing the crippled man. (Acts 14:9–11) Jesus goes on to say he has “all authority in heaven and on earth” and even commands future disciples to be baptized in both his name and the name of the Father.
Don’t be ashamed of John!
Here’s the rub, though. Scholars in both liberal and conservative camps debate exactly how high of a Christology these passages actually represent. But it’s impossible to reasonably disagree over what Jesus’ claims in John are. When Jesus says “before Abraham was, I am” and “I and my Father are one, these are outright claims to Deity. This is precisely one of the big reasons why liberal scholars question them. Therefore, I think it’s a mistake to limit ourselves to just the Synoptics.
Rather than trying to argue for Jesus’ divine self-understanding from passages that skeptical scholars will grant, why not just defend the historicity of John’s Gospel out of the gate? This is especially true if they are using weak arguments from silence to attempt to undermine John’s reliability.