It’s Christmas time, and I can already hear the choruses. No, I’m not talking about Christmas carolers. I’m referring to the chorus of biblical critics and skeptics poo-pooing the Christmas narratives found in the Bible. A favorite argument of skeptics is that there’s scant mention of the virgin birth in the New Testament. It’s Matthew and Luke against the world.
For example, here’s an older quote from NT scholar Geza Vermes: “Considering the importance of the Virgin Mary in Christianity, the historian is struck by the scarcity of supporting evidence in the New Testament. St Paul never speaks of the virginal conception. All we learn from him is that Jesus had a Jewish mother.”
And here’s textual critic Bart Ehrman: “[Jesus] was already adopted to be God’s Son at the very outset of his ministry, when John the Baptist baptized him. This appears to be the view of the Gospel of Mark, in which there is no word of Jesus’s pre-existence or of his birth to a virgin. Surely if this author believed in either view, he would have mentioned it.” ( How Jesus Became God, p. 238)
Both of these scholars are using textbook examples 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
Why is that? Well, the argument assumes that we know that if the fact in question were true, the author in question surely would’ve noticed it, mentioned it and that the record of it would’ve survived to us living in the present day. But often our expectations and reality are two very different things. 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 that great. By looking at some examples, I think you’ll see that we tend to vastly overestimate ourselves. (Many of these examples come from Tim McGrew’s awesome paper on The Argument From Silence):
- Neither Herodotus nor Thucydides provides any report about Rome or the Romans in their histories of ancient Greece. That seems to be quite the oversight.
- In Thucydides’s History, Socrates isn’t mentioned. This is despite the fact that he may be considered one of the most important characters in Athens during the 20 years covered in his work.
- Thucydides himself doesn’t appear in Aristotle or Xenophon; we have to wait 250 years for Polybius to mention Thucydides.
- In two long letters to Tacitus, Pliny the Younger describes the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in great detail. However, weirdly, he doesn’t mention the destruction of the cities of Herculaneum or Pompeii. 60000 people died!
- Suetonius, Hadrian’s secretary, also discusses Vesuvius but neglects to refer to the destruction of these towns. Dio Cassius (Roman History 66) named them about a century after Pliny, who wasn’t even an eyewitness and also probably never spoke to one.
- 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.
- In his detailed biography of Constantine, Eusebius glaringly fails to mention the death of Constantine’s son Crispus and wife Fausta.
- Shakespeare and Francis Bacon were near contemporaries, both ridiculously prolific writers, but neither acknowledged the other in any of their writings that we have recorded.
- Civil War general Ulysses S Grant says nothing about the Emancipation Proclamation despite keeping an extensive diary.
Are you starting to see the problem yet?
The silence of Paul regarding other historical facts about Jesus
But let’s take this a step further. Since Geza Vermes used the silence of Paul to argue against the virgin birth, let’s take a look at what else Paul doesn’t mention in his letters: He omits that Jesus was baptized. For that matter, he fails to mention John the Baptist. Jesus was a well-known parable teller. Paul fails to quote a single parable of Jesus or mention that he used them. Virtually every historical scholar on the planet believes that Jesus cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem, including Vermes. Paul never talks about it in his letters. He also fails to mention that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, specifically that Judas betrayed him, or that Peter denied him three times. He never mentions Jesus’ exorcisms or healings, only his own miracles and those in the churches in Corinth and Galatia.
As a reputable biblical scholar, Vermes has acknowledged virtually all these historical facts about Jesus. But he didn’t mistake Paul’s silence about these events as evidence that they didn’t happen. So why does he do it with the virgin birth?
It’s clear from these numerous, surprising examples that we need to pump our brakes and calibrate our expectations. The fact is that Paul’s surviving letters are occasional — when he writes it’s to explain Christian doctrine or correct errors that were creeping in the churches. He’s writing letters, not narratives. And nowhere in his epistles does Paul contradict the virgin birth.
The silence of Mark?
So what about the supposed glaring omission of the virgin birth in Mark’s Gospel mentioned by Bart Ehrman? It is, after all, the earliest gospel, as we are so often told. Wouldn’t Mark have said something? But as we’ve already seen from the examples, we can’t say that Mark’s omission of the virgin birth is some kind of proof that he doesn’t believe in the virgin birth. And it surely isn’t a reason to think that he doesn’t share Matthew and Luke’s Christology like Bart also often suggests.
There are many teachings and stories that Mark leaves out that the other Gospels include. Should we assume that he wasn’t aware of them? Historical records are always limited in scope and design. An author can’t include every detail. So we shouldn’t draw clear-cut conclusions from what an author didn’t include.
It seems from the very first verses of his Gospel, Mark had a definite object in his narrative: to describe the events of Christ’s ministry within the limits of the common Apostolic testimony, which, as we know, began with the baptism of John, well into Jesus’ adulthood. So Mark gives no record of Christ’s birth at all. How then can his Gospel be said to contradict Luke and Matthew’s testimony, which do give circumstantial information on this subject? Ehrman makes the same argument from silence again in arguing against the virgin birth. This time, he wants to show that Matthew and Luke don’t share John’s view of Jesus’ pre-existence. He writes:
“I should stress that these virginal conception narratives of Matthew and Luke are by no stretch of the imagination embracing the view that later became the orthodox teaching of Christianity. According to this later view, Christ was a pre-existent divine being who ‘became incarnate through the Virgin Mary.’ But not according to Matthew and Luke. If you read their accounts closely, you will see that they have nothing to do with the idea that Christ existed before he was conceived. In these two Gospels, Jesus comes into existence at the moment of his conception. He did not exist before.” (p 243)
Notice the last line: “He did not exist before.” Um…how exactly does Bart know that Matthew and Luke didn’t believe Jesus existed before? Do they say that anywhere? No, they don’t. Ehrman is just assuming this because Matthew and Luke are silent on the matter of Jesus’ pre-existence.
Ultimately, the repeated use of the argument from silence suggests that critics like Ehrman and others are just bent on finding variations and omissions and calling them contradictions. If we give the historical documents the benefit of the doubt and don’t assume that omission of a fact is equivalent to the denial of a fact, then the Gospel accounts and Paul’s letters actually prove to be complementary in their conception of Jesus as God’s holy Son. This supposed early silence regarding the virgin birth isn’t a good argument against it.