Jesus never said….

An argument from silence is a rhetorical device designed to be a convincing argument in a simple and straight forward way. It often, on the surface, is. There are numerous inherent flaws in an argument form silence however. This becomes important in theology as arguments from silence are, and have been, used to try and form persuasive arguments as well as having become part of the basis for theological stances. For the next little bit, I want to talk about the argument from silence, the flaws inherent in it, and how to break it down. You will often encounter this type of rhetorical device from “red letter” type Christians and activists more interested in advancing a cause than with meaning of scripture as a whole. You will also often find this in Christians who have not been taught well, those young in the faith, or even those who have become seduced by the simplicity of the statement. It most often is presented as the end all be all of a discussion. I will be speaking from a theological perspective here, though with a small amount of adaption I am confident that it can be translated to other aspects of life if you so desire.

To begin, let’s start with the easiest of the lot. An argument from silence can support the contradictory opinion. One could easily say that Jesus never directly spoke about good stewardship of the Earth. That statement is accurate, and because of that, it gains the illusion of authority and has the ring of truth to it. From this, one could then surmise that Jesus did not find environmental concerns to be terribly important, so we should not either. After all, if Jesus did not say it, it is not of a primary importance. You can also surmise the exact opposite opinion. Because Jesus did not say anything directly about proper stewardship of the Earth, one can reasonably surmise that He, like other first century Jews, understood that this was an important part of the faith so it did not bear mentioning as it was agreed upon with near universal consent of first century Jews as a duty. This is the first real problem with an argument from silence. This is also the easiest way to counter the argument. I personally have encountered this particular rhetorical device in discussions about environmental issues, the death penalty, homosexuality, and same sex marriage, though it can be used for a multitude of issues. Another useful tactic is to mention that Jesus never mentions a good many things that were problematic in his day. A not exhaustive list of these things includes child molestation, human trafficking, capital punishment, alcoholism, drug addiction, and the list just goes on and on. Dare we say that Jesus does not care about such things?

A second issue, that is related to the first, often encountered is the idea that Jesus did mention many things, so shouldn’t we focus on those instead. The power of this argument lies in the original statement again being not only true, but nearly universally agreed upon. Of course we should focus on things that Jesus said. Jesus cared a great deal for the poor, and so should we. We ignore the poor only at our peril. The problem with this approach is that it requires ignoring things Jesus did not say, that is to say that it requires us ignoring real social issues that affect real people. To say that we should focus only on those issues that Jesus directly addressed is to say that we should ignore people and issues. That does not remotely sound like the Jesus of scripture. This approach also assumes the falsehood that if we care about one thing, we can not care about another. That simply is not true. If you are married, you can easily care for your spouse and your child at the same time. For example, I am quite capable of caring about sexual morality, the poor in general, doing what I can in my own neighborhood to help the poor, criminal asset forfeiture, the political scope of the nation, etc. All of us can.

A third issue is that the argument from silence assumes that all Jesus said and did is recorded in the four gospels. We now from the Gospel of St. John that this is simply not the case. “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). I am comfortable that John is using a bit of hyperbole here, but the point should be well taken. We simply do not know if Jesus said anything about the issue, whatever the issue, at hand. This does leave  a door opened however to speculation. If we don’t know if Jesus said it, we can then craft a hypothetical scenario where he may have and in that justify our action because there is silence. What to do about this? I’m glad that you asked. As Wesley intimated, we consult the whole tenor of scripture.

Our fourth issue is linked to the rest of them of course, and that is that the argument from silence about Christ ignores the rest of scripture. Th number of words that Christ spoke is remarkably small when compared to the rest of scripture. If we focus on the words of Christ to the exclusion of the rest of scripture, we are ignoring over 90% of the Bible. Contextually, we need to understand that Jesus was a first century Jew. In a very real way, what we now refer to as Christianity was a Jewish reform movement. We often tend to think that Christ came to start a new religion, but that is not the case at all. Because that is not the case, we need to understand how those reforms affect what is Christianity, but that is beyond the scope of this particular piece. What needs to be understood is that both the Old Testament and the New Testament in whole form the Christian faith. An argument from silence in this case ignores over 90% of what makes up the Christian faith. It also means that we ignore 90% of what makes up what Jesus thought on a multitude of things. Any argument that ignores 90% of the available evidence and material is likely to be a bad one.

We have here four problems with the arguments from silence. More are coming shortly, so be on the look out for them. Apologetic style matters. A part of that style is certainly knowledge of the faith, but also the way in which you use that knowledge matters as well. Understanding the rhetorical devices commonly used matters so that you can effectively counter them systematically with the truth. I hope that this is a good starting point for doing so, and stay tuned for more to come.

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19 Replies to “Jesus never said….”

  1. Very well said. As a pastor, I have confronted this issue for years. An overly simple response to a complicated issue is often not sufficient. So many people who quote a half a verse or a ‘Jesus never said’ statement to a complicated issue, believe it is a ‘gotcha’ statement! In other words, they believe that the truth is so clear, any further discussion is pointless – ‘Gotcha’!! True depth of theology can rarely be settled with an overly simple ‘gotcha’ statement…

  2. Great job Scott! argumentum ex silentio is bad enough in any field, but in theology it acquires an even more terrible and even the ominous quality of driving people to error. Most, however, argument from silence is actually argument from ignorance and argument of opportunism. Jesus obviously, without mentioning a particular word about some of the examples you used in your articles, did clearly mentioned them and only ignorance prevents people from noticing it. He said that He came to “fulfill the law… not destroy it…” and the law included many of the things about which people say that Jesus never spoke about, including homosexual intercourse. Now, this may be inflammatory and many will stop reading this comment or any article that refers to the words of Jesus in that particular way, but it does not cancel the fact that the argument based on silence is out of ignorance.
    The other aspect is the “timing” aspect and how anachronistically people try to, in a rather “nowistic” way, transfer problems that 1 – It was not the purpose of the Bible or the Gospel to address, and 2 – It was not necessarily a problem on those days to be addressed directly. In terms of environmental issues Jesus speaks fondly of nature all the time, but to make a connection to what is claimed today by the extreme environmental movement with the care that Jesus had for nature is rather out of timing; it is an exaggeration and taking advantage of words that were spoken without even a thought on the problem which one particular group or another want to address.
    So, argument of silence can be both argument of ignorance or argument of opportunism.
    This is my half a cent worth…

  3. Scott–while your point is well taken, it is good to remember that on occasion the argument from silence has some merit, at least it appears that way from the thought development found in Hebrews 7:11-16 (note v.14). Thoughts?

    1. You are going to have to help me along here. I am not seeing what you are in this passage. Which part are you finding an argument from silence and why?

    2. I don’t necessarily buy into one side or the other, on the main topic Scott is discussing.
      But clearly, the verse Heb 7:14 “For it is evident that our Lord hath sprung out of Judah; as to which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priests”, reflects a Moses’ position of “argument from silence”, for priests coming from the tribe of Judah, (Jesus).
      Which, in fact, only supports Scott’s position. Moses was wrong (assuming silence is wrong). And people today (or in the time of the writing of Hebrews), using Moses’s “argument from silence”, to argue that Jesus was not a valid “Priest”, would be wrong. It’s like saying, “Jesus wasn’t descended from the tribe of Levi, so he can’t be a priest, since Moses didn’t say anything about it”.

      Then Hebrews goes on to give many reasons why a Moses’ “argument from silence” is wrong.

      1. Thanks to Gary, I think that I understand where this is going now. To fully understand what is going on here, I think that we need to start at the beginning of the chapter, and really back into chapter six, as this particular section is a continuation of what starts there.
        We see a comparison of the priesthood of Melchizedek (which contains all of two people, him, and Christ, though there is a strong argument that Melchizedek was an early revelation of Christ, but that is a different rabbit hole) and the priesthood of Aaron. This sets our context. Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek, not of Aaron. The author of Hebrews is making the contention that Jesus and the priesthood of Melchizedek is greater than the priesthood of Aaron and is and even greater than Abraham himself. So, in this case, the person making the argument is the author.
        Hebrews is a complex book with many different themes, but I think it safe to infer that one of it’s primary purposes is to convince those still following the Jewish faith to reform and instead follow the faith that Christ taught. So we have the audience, the purpose, and the author. The author does not make an argument from silence here. What he says in vs 14 is not an argument from silence, it is a statement that Christ is not descended from the priestly line. Just as Melchizedek was a priest without “proper” genealogy, so too was Christ. Not an argument from silence, but a declarative statement meant to help prove the point.
        There is no argument from silence when this section is taken as a whole. Our author simply recognizes what is true, that Moses never said anything about Christ’s family being a part of the priesthood. The overall theme is establishing the priesthood of Melchizedek, thus the priesthood of Christ as not only superior to that of the priesthood of Aaron, but also as being eternal in contrast to the priesthood of Aaron that is temporary.

        1. Gary/Scott–thanks for the replies and perspective–quite helpful. But–a few replies:

          Gary–Moses wasn’t wrong. He was told by God that the tribe of Levi was to be the source for the OT priesthood system, and that is exactly what was done. It is interesting that God doesn’t go through the entire list of tribes and tell Moses that priests were not to come from Ruben, Simeon, Judah, …but only that the priests were to come from the tribe of Levi. That ‘argument from silence’ is exclusionary for all other tribes, is it not? Moses does speak of a (new) prophet that would come that all people must attend to (Acts 3:22f), but he was not mistaken concerning which tribe was the source for all the priests during his time on earth.

          Scott–the flow of argumentation involves the author explaining why there are two necessary changes: a new priesthood, which in turn necessitates a change of the law/covenant (7:12). Since the new high priest Jesus came from the tribe of Judah, and since Moses had excluded Judah from the priesthood–not by direct command, but by silence (i.e., not endorsing any other option/tribe from which priests could come under the old law/covenant), then Jesus’ authority to serve as a (high) priest must come from both a different order of priesthood than Aaron’s did (Melchizedek) and that then requires a new “law” or covenant (see Heb 8).

          I think Scott we both end up in the same place, but I follow a bit different line of thinking as I believe it reflects the type of argument the Hebrews author is using to convince his readers of the superiority of the new High Priest/-hood.

          I might ask: when God told Noah to build an ark out of gopher (or cypress) wood, was that exclusionary in nature or could Noah have decided to add some other types of wood per his choice, and that would have been fine with God? If your wife gave you $20 and asked you to go to the store and pick up a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, and a box of butter–and you came back with those items — and a couple of bags of candy and some peanuts, was that what your wife asked you to do? Did she not exclude in her request other possible purchases by naming what she needed? Did she have to tell you not to buy candy and peanuts–or is that the law of silence we understand and use in our daily talk? Just wondering…

          I think there is a law of silence — but as you have said earlier, that can be abused in a variety of ways. I just don’t think we need to throw out the baby with the bath water.

          1. An argument from silence assigns meaning to the silence. No meaning is assigned in the examples that you have given. A declarative statement does not make an argument from silence unless it assigns meaning not evident to the silence. So, build an ark out of gopher wood is simple a declarative command. If we were to say that God did not find other wood worthy of such an important endeavor as the ark, that would be an argument from silence as we have assigned meaning not evident to the silence. In the case of the Levites as priests, God gives reason why they are to be the only ones. Check out Numbers 3 around verse 9 or 10 I think it is. God explains that He has taken the Levites in the place of all the first born of Israel. There is not a silence there, God explains exactly why he has done it. In your example of the wife, surely I can buy those things. If the wife were to become angry at the purchases because she told me to get milk and eggs, etc. then she would be employing the argument from silence as she applied meaning to her silence, in this case the meaning being “only”. So, “Did she have to tell you not to buy candy and peanuts”. No she does not. If however she meant buy only milk and eggs, then becomes angry if you buy more, then yes, she did need to tell you, else she has employed an argument from silence to support her claim. I am unaware of any place in scripture that an argument from silence is employed beneficially. It may indeed be there, but scripture, at least in the vast majority of times, speaks to us, it does not remain silent.
            Keep in mind also, I have set this in the realm of rhetorical devices. As a persuasive method, arguments from silence are some of the weakest arguments that can be made.

          2. Gary–Ha! Love your response…and yes, understand the “handful of Snickers bars” rejoinder!! BTW, I am married, and my wife likes to have her change back from a $20 bill… just sayin’. If I were to ask any person on earth who is aware of the 2016 election who is the President of the United States, they would tell me Mr. Trump is. They would not say–“well, of course I don’t know who you are, and you didn’t say you weren’t the POTUS, so maybe you are a/the POTUS also.” I’m asking for you and Scott to think about the practicality of the argument from silence. We do this all the time. “Son, hand me a 5/8″ wrench please.” So–I hand him 6 wrenches, none of which are 5/8″ wrenches. “Son, did I ask you to bring me 6 wrenches? I need the 5/8″ wrench.” Is the father mean to the son in this exchange? Is the father unfair or unclear in his request? No to both–he simply excludes the rest of the wrenches by his request. He doesn’t have to say, “Son bring me the 5/8″ wrench and do NOT bring me any other wrench.” We talk this way all the time. The law of silence generally or even occasionally serves as an exclusion. To not recognize this is simply to ignore our common vernacular. Is this ‘law of silence’ a week argument? Can be–in certain settings. But can it be useful and clear in meaning? Yes, I believe so.

            Scott: Num 3 provides the rationale for choosing the priests from the tribe of Levi. It tells Moses the tribe from which the priests are to come. It does not say that God told Moses: “there shall not be any other priests that come from any other tribe.” That is clearly understood–and thereby, creates a law of exclusion from silence. What happens when priests are appointed or attempted to be appointed from other tribes than Levi? See 1 Kings 12:31f; Ezra 2:59, 62.

            You said, “I am unaware of any place in scripture that an argument from silence is employed beneficially.” And I would say that this type of argument is indeed found in Scripture from time to time. Look at 1 Sam 2:15. The NIV Study Bible note concerning “roast” is as follows: “Boiling is the only form of cooking specified in the law for the priest’s portion (Num 6:19-20). Roasting this portion is nowhere expressly forbidden in the law, but it is specified only for the Passover lamb (Ex 12:8-9; Deut 16:7). The present passage seems to imply that for the priests to roast their portion of the sacrifices was unlawful.” Why unlawful? Because it strictly prohibits it elsewhere? No–because it specifies what is to be done–and anything beyond that is excluded (by silence).

            Here’s my point: can the hermeneutic of arguing from silence be abused or weak? Absolutely–and both you and I have heard poor thinking/arguments from this type of thought. But…can there be a type of ‘law of silence’ that is in fact recognized by its exclusionary nature? I think the Hebrews passage as well as these other examples show that to be the case.

            BTW–I’ve copied/pasted your two blogs re: the silence argument and its potential weaknesses into a file because you are exactly right concerning the mishandling of this approach. But I would hasten to say that properly used, there is a role for a law/understanding from silence and it should not be summarily dismissed entirely, even if it is often misused.

            Keep writing Scott–I really enjoy following your blogs.


          3. “That ‘argument from silence’ is exclusionary for all other tribes, is it not? ….. but he was not mistaken concerning which tribe was the source for all the priests during his time on earth.”

            Moses wasn’t around when Hebrews was written. So, the argument from silence back in Moses time was…”Levites are priests, silence about all others”. That’s like today saying “Trump is president, silence about you and me”! Therefore, today’s argument from silence might mean that both you and I are also presidents of the United States. After all, there is silence about our status as president. Therefore, we might be/must be presidents too. I hope you see that “argument from silence” is a rather weak approach to take.

          4. “If your wife gave you $20 and asked you to go to the store and pick up a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, and a box of butter”,

            She needs to tell me to bring back the exact change, and a receipt showing what the other items cost. Otherwise, I’am afraid I’d be tempted to buy a six pack of beer. Eggs, butter, and milk doesn’t cost that much.

            Arguments from silence can be dangerous.

          5. I can tell you must not be married 🙂

            My wife knows better to give me $20, and not expect me to spend it all. I’d at least get a hand full of Snickers Bars.

          6. Steve,

            You said “To not recognize this is simply to ignore our common vernacular. Is this ‘law of silence’ a week argument? Can be–in certain settings. But can it be useful and clear in meaning? Yes, I believe so.”

            Actually, I agree (in some cases). Example. Although my argument is weak. But I believe it… I call it a “red letter” test. Look at the sayings of Jesus in Paul. Not much. Look at the “red letters” in the Gospels. Vast amounts. If you compare dates of Paul’s texts, and dates of Gospel texts, you find very little sayings of Jesus from 33~60+AD. But you have an explosion of Jesus quotes post 68AD. So there is effectively a black hole of Jesus quotes in text from 33AD to 68AD. I find this convincing enough, that Paul didn’t provide more of Jesus’ direct teachings in text, other than obvious oral stories, that Q actually existed during this time as a source of Jesus’ teachings. An example of “argument from silence” that I find difficult to deny.

    1. Yes – all the scholarly arguments about Q, is whether Matthew and Luke used it to write their Gospels, which is OK from a scholarly point of view. But actually has nothing to do with whether Q actually existed or not. Common sense tells me that some educated person would have written the Jesus sayings down someplace between 33-68AD. Seems like even Paul would have been interested in compiling the sayings before he died. If he didn’t, someone did. Silence from that period is pretty much unbelievable.

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