Outside Corroboration and the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius

A bizarre slogan that is making the rounds in Christian apologetics is to claim that there is no outside corroboration for Pliny the Younger’s account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius dating to the 1st century CE, nor any mention in ancient literature of the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum until Vesuvius picturecenturies later. Apologists make this claim to retort to the observation that many of the extraordinary events in the Gospels (e.g. the midday three hour darkness at Jesus’ crucifixion, Herod’s slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem, etc.) have no contemporary outside corroboration from authors outside the New Testament. I say that this slogan is “bizarre,” since (obviously) we have located the volcano, unearthed the cities, and proved that Pliny’s account is accurate. But I suppose what the apologists are attempting to do is to create a reductio ad absurdum of the historical criterion of outside corroboration by arguing that, despite Vesuvius being a massive event that killed thousands of people, only Pliny writes about it.

The logic goes that, in light of this comparison, it would be a double-standard to demand outside corroboration for the claim of the three hour darkness at Jesus’ crucifixion and Herod’s slaughter of the infants in the Gospels, since events as extraordinary as the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum went uncorroborated.

This argument was made in a comment on my article about the criterion of outside corroboration, as well as a Bible.com note that claims:

“The lack of other sources cannot be used as evidence that the event did not occur since authors routinely ignore events in their writings. For example, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of Herculaneum and Pompeii in AD 79 is mentioned by no first century sources…”

I have demonstrated before on this blog how apologists are often woefully wrong when they pretend to know something about Classics in order to exaggerate the evidence for Jesus in my articles “Ten Reasons to Reject the Apologetic 10/42 Source Slogan” and “Yet Another Case of Apologetic Dishonesty in Lee Strobel’s ‘The Case For Christ’.” In the case of Mount Vesuvius, apologists have once more failed to do basic research and made a very poor comparison.

Do we really have no 1st century attestation of the eruption of Vesuvius? Nope. One thing that apologists fail to point on when making this argument is that most of the prose historical works written during the Flavian Dynasty (the period during which the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius took place) have been lost due to the bottleneck of Pagan texts that perished during the Christian Middle Ages. I have discussed previously in my article “Leveling a Mountain of Manuscripts with a Small Scoop of Context” how the numerical quantity of Christian texts to survive from antiquity is superficial and inflated due to to a sample bias in the works that were copied by Christian monks for roughly a thousand year Scribes and Scholarsperiod. For more information about this bottleneck, see Reynolds and Wilson’s Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature. There was no special interest in specifically preserving works that mentioned the eruption of Vesuvius during the Middle Ages, while, in contrast, the whole apparatus of textual transmission in Europe had been turned towards preserving Christian works about Jesus. Despite this sample bias, no contemporary work or work written within 10 years of Jesus’ death has been preserved (indicating that there probably were none), but nevertheless our earliest surviving source to mention of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius is within only 10 years of the event!

Although Christian monks did not preserve the valuable prose histories of the Flavian era, nevertheless, the works of a number of poets have come down to us from that period. These poets would occasionally allude to contemporary events, which provide us with valuable contemporary sources for the Flavian period. For example, the epic poet Statius alludes to the emperor Domitian’s campaigns along the Rhine and against the Dacians in his Thebaid (1.18-22). The fact that these events were alluded to in poetry shows that they were certainly recorded previously in various forms of prose, which shows that many contemporary written sources did in fact exist, but were simply not preserved by later copyists.

The same is true for Mt. Vesuvius. Within only about 10 years of Vesuvius’ eruption (79 CE), the contemporary poet Valerius Flaccus (writing c. 90 CE) makes reference to the the volcano twice in his Argonautica (3.209; 4.507). Likewise, the contemporary poet Martial (writing c. late 80’s or early 90’s CE) refers to the eruption of Vesuvius in his Epigrams (4.44). Flaccus and Martial were almost certainly not the first ancient authors to record the eruption, but nevertheless, out of the few Pagan Classical texts that survived during the Christian Middle Ages, they both independently preserve testimony about the event within only a decade of its occurrence in the 1st century CE.

In addition, the Jewish historian Josephus is another 1st century CE witness to the eruption of Vesuvius. In his Antiquities of the Jews (20.141), Josephus mentions the volcanic eruption only about 15 years after the event (c. 93-94 CE), and even adds that Drusilla (the daughter of Herod Agrippa) died during the eruption along with her son Marcus Antonius Agrippa.

These three independent sources are earlier to the event than even the first written mention we have of Jesus in antiquity (let alone the later legendary miracles attributed to him the Gospels), despite the fact that a thousand years of biased textual transmission was in place for Jesus [1]. This shows that, despite an inflated number of Christian works surviving the Middle Ages, there are still earlier sources for real historical events, like the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, that had no sample bias in favor of their survival. Furthermore, in terms of later sources for Vesuvius, the historical biographer Suetonius Tranquillus also mentions the eruption in his Life of Titus (8.3), writing about 40 years after the event in the 120’s CE.

So we have three very early and independent sources for Vesuvius, all written within 15 years of the event. But what about the quality of the evidence? The best account we have of Vesuvius’ eruption is Pliny the Younger’s two detailed letters, written as eyewitness accounts, to the historian Tacitus (both were written only about 25 years after eruption of Vesuvius in the early 100’s CE). Do I even need to state how poor the Gospels are as evidence in comparison? Perhaps it will be best to show it.

Here can be found Pliny’s two letters describing the eruption of Vesuvius (6.16; 6.20). After reading through those, see here the evidence for the three hour darkness at Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44) and here the evidence for Herod’s slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-18).

Here are a couple of ways in which Pliny’s account is vastly superior:

First, Pliny is writing an eyewitness account, whereas the Gospels are all anonymous and their authors never claim to have witnessed the three hour darkness or the slaughter of the infants at Bethlehem. Furthermore, Pliny’s account is extensive and detailed, whereas the Gospels are far shorter, more vague, and ambiguous in their claims.

Second, Pliny’s account has very strong outside corroboration, since the poets Valerius Flaccus and Martial, and the historians Josephus and Suetonius, all mention the eruption within 10-40 years of the event. While the author of Mark first mentions the three hour midday darkness at about 40 years after Jesus’ death, there is no independent corroboration for this account [2]. The three Synoptic Gospels all mention the darkness, but they are heavily dependent upon each other’s material (Matthew copies 80% of Mark’s material, and Luke 65%). In fact, the dependence is so nakedly obvious that the Greek between these passages is nearly verbatim identical, with only a few trivial grammatical variations. So we only have one source, the Gospel of Mark, with no outside corroboration for the three hour darkness at Jesus’ death. Likewise, only the Gospel of Matthew claims that Herod slaughtered infants in Bethlehem (Josephus is oddly silent, despite cataloging many of Herod’s other crimes) about 80-90 years after the event. Nevertheless, for the eruption of Vesuvius we have multiple independent authors writing about the event as early as 10 years after its occurrence.

Third, there would be no obvious reason for Valerius Flaccus, Martial, Josephus, Pliny the Younger, or Suetonius to invent the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. A disaster simply occurred, and as independent sources writing in different styles for different reasons, they all mention the event in their different narratives. However, it is very obvious that the Gospels invented the stories about the darkness and the infant massacre for scriptural reasons in order to draw parallels with the Old Testament. By inventing the three hour darkness, the author of Mark was able to allude to several passages of the OT (cf. Joel 2:1-2; Amos 5:18-20; Zephaniah 1:14-15). Likewise, the story of the infant slaughter in Bethlehem was invented partly as a reference to Jeremiah 31:15 (the author of Matthew even lists the passage), as well as to draw a parallel between Jesus and Moses. In Exodus (1:22-2:1-8) the Pharaoh in a very similar fashion orders the slaughter of Hebrew male infants, from which Moses barely escapes. To draw one of the many parallels between Moses and Jesus found in the Gospel of Matthew, the author simply invented a similar story in which the unpopular king Herod slaughtered infants, just like the Pharaoh, so that baby Jesus’ escape could serve as an apt allegory and allusion to the OT.

So the evidence for the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius is better in every conceivable way. But what about the evidence for the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum? While he does not claim that Pliny is the only source for the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, apologist Tim McGrew has an odd way of nitpicking the evidence for the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum:

“For comparison, the catastrophic burial of the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79 goes unremarked by both Pliny the Younger, an eyewitness who wrote an extensive account of the eruption, and Suetonius, who also mentions the eruption. The first written record of their destruction that survives today is by Dio Cassius, who not only did not witness it but in all probability had never spoken to anyone who had. So what?”

This is more than a little nitpicky. To begin with, skeptics are not asking that every single detail be corroborated by an independent source. Imagine if Josephus had said something like this about Herod’s slaughter of the infants: “Herod became so paranoid that, upon the rumor of a group of Magi about a future king, he even slaughtered a whole score of infants in the hope of thwarting this prophecy.” Now, I would never respond to this by arguing: “Ah, but he doesn’t say that they were slaughtered in Bethlehem!” Obviously an outside account can corroborate a claim without mentioning every single detail. The problem is that no plausible contemporary outside reference exists for this event, nor for Jesus’ miracles, period.

Furthermore, in mentioning a massive volcano in Campania, Pliny certainly implied that many nearby towns were destroyed. In fact, in his second letter (6.20) Pliny even describes the disastrous effects that the volcano upon the town of Misenum, across the Bay of Napes, where Pliny was staying :

“By now it was dawn, but the light was still dim and faint. The buildings round us were already tottering, and the open space we were in was too small for us not to be in real and imminent danger if the house collapsed. This finally decided us to leave the town. We were followed by a panic-stricken mob of people wanting to act on someone else’s decision in preference to their own (a point in which fear looks like prudence), who hurried us on our way by pressing hard behind in a dense crowd. Once beyond the buildings we stopped, and there we had some extraordinary experiences which thoroughly alarmed us. The carriages we had ordered to be brought out began to run in different directions though the ground was quite level, and would not remain stationary even when wedged with stones. We also saw the sea sucked away and apparently forced back by the earthquake: at any rate it receded from the shore so that quantities of sea creatures were left stranded on dry sand. On the landward side a fearful black cloud was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame, and parted to reveal great tongues of fire, like flashes of lightning magnified in size.”

Misenum is located further away from Vesuvius than both Pompeii and Herculaneum. If, across the Bay of Napes, Misenum was struck so hard, as Pliny’s eyewitness account clearly documents, one can reasonably infer a fortiori that Pliny’s letter also entails that other nearby cities were damaged/destroyed.


But furthermore, it is not even correct that there is no reference to the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum until the time of Cassius Dio (3rd century CE). The historian Tacitus, writing c. 109 CE in his Histories (1.2), clearly refers to the burial of these cities in his praefatio about the Flavian period:

“Now too Italy was prostrated by disasters either entirely novel, or that recurred only after a long succession of ages; cities in Campania’s richest plains were swallowed up and overwhelmed.”

This reference was written only 30 years from the event, and it is not even the earliest source to mention the eruption of Vesuvius. Now, Tacitus does not explicitly state “Pompeii” and “Herculaneum,” but put the pieces together. Pliny is writing a detailed eyewitness account to Tacitus about the eruption of a volcano in Campania. Tacitus then, in the opening of his history, alludes to cities being completely swallowed up and destroyed in Campania (just as we have unearthed them at Pompeii and Herculaneum). This is more than sufficient corroboration for the destruction of the cities, which was recorded earlier to the event than the miraculous claims in the Gospels. Likewise, Tacitus alludes to the volcanic eruption itself elsewhere in his Annals (4.6). Furthermore, most of Tacitus’ Histories has been lost in textual transmission, along with other valuable Classical texts that perished during the Christian Middle Ages. We only have the first few books of Tacitus’ Histories (his fuller account of the eruption of Vesuvius, where he no doubt described the burial of Pompeii and Herculaneum in more detail, was in the later books, which were not preserved), but even in his opening remarks Tacitus refers to the destruction of the towns.

So, we may compare the evidence as follows:

The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius The Midday Three Hour Darkness Herod’s Slaughter of the Infants
Earliest Written Record: 10 years 40 years 80-90 years
Physical Evidence: Yes No No
Eyewitness Account: Yes No No
Outside Corroboration: Yes (6 independent accounts in 10-40 years) No (3 dependent accounts in 40-70 years) No (1 uncorroborated account after 80-90 years)
Biased Selection of Textual Evidence: No Yes Yes
Reason to Invent the Story: No Yes (cf. Joel 2:1-2; Amos 5:18-20; Zephaniah 1:14-15) Yes (cf. Jeremiah 31:15; Exodus 1:22-2:1-8)

I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether the contemporary written evidence for Vesuvius is in any way comparable to the later legendary miracles and extraordinary claims in the Gospels.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] The apostle Paul is the first written source to make mention of Jesus, writing about 20-30 years after his death. However, Paul was not an eyewitness of Jesus and also makes very few references to his life. Paul says nothing about the three hour midday darkness, nor the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem. These claims instead post-date Paul and are probably later legendary developments. NT scholar Bart Ehrman discusses how Paul does not corroborate the extraordinary claims in the Gospels in his blog series “Why Doesn’t Paul Say More About Jesus?.” For the minimal historical details that I do think can be said about the historical Jesus, based on Paul’s testimony, see here.

[2] For information about how Thallus does not record the darkness, see Richard Carrier’s “Thallus and the Darkness at Christ’s Death.” Furthermore, even if Thallus (whose date of writing is unknown, but may have been as late as the 2nd century CE) had claimed that the darkness was an eclipse, it would have been in response to Christian claims and propaganda. This would not make Thallus an outside or independent source, since his knowledge of the darkness would be dependent upon previous Christian claims. What is actually far more likely, however, is that Julius Africanus, trying to find an outside reference for the legendary darkness at Jesus’ death, falsely connected an irrelevant passage in Thallus about an eclipse and earthquake in Bithynia in 32 CE (also recorded by Phlegon) with the rumored darkness in Jerusalem in 30 or 33 CE. This merely means that Africanus made an error, or, worse, was completely unable to find an outside reference for the darkness, and thus had to misrepresent Thallus’ statement. Either way, Thallus does not by any stretch count as an independent reference for the darkness, which was almost certainly invented by the authors of the Gospels, to draw an allusion to OT verses (cf. Joel 2:1-2; Amos 5:18-20; Zephaniah 1:14-15).

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14 Responses to Outside Corroboration and the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius

  1. Where are you getting the time frame of 50-60 years for the slaughter of the infants?

    If Matthew was 80-90, shouldn’t it be 80-90 years after the event?

  2. apologianick says:

    The issue at hand is not referring to the event (If that’s the case, the epistles and Revelation refer to the resurrection) but rather eyewitnesses to the event. How many of those do we have? Outside corroboration and eyewitness accounts are two different animals. How many eyewitness accounts do we have of Vesuvius and the destruction of the two cities?

    Also, Tim McGrew says the following:

    Being accused of nitpicking by someone who boasts that his modus operandieven in secular matters is finding ways to get around the explicit statements of all of the primary sources is really rather amusing. (http://celsus.blog.com/2013/03/31/history-probability-and-miracles/) Throw in a bit of misdirection, and you have all the makings of fact-free history.

    The event in question is not the eruption of Vesuvius but the destruction of two towns. It is a hard fact for the fan of arguments from silence that their destruction is not mentioned by the contemporary sources. If Ferguson is now going to retreat to saying that any reference to a broader fact (like the eruption of Vesuvius) will do for confirmation of the more specific one (here, the destruction of Herculaneum and Pompeii), then I see no reason not to apply this principle to the case of the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem. We have plenty of evidence regarding Herod’s superstitious mind and his sanguinary ways of dealing with every possible threat (real or perceived) to his throne. Nothing is more plausible than the story told of his reaction to the news that a king was to be born in Bethlehem.

    All of this was supposed to be handled in Bayesian fashion. But a Bayesian analysis requires that P(E|H) be fairly high, or the argument from silence will have little traction. We have here no particular reason to think Josephus would have given written notice of this event out in the boondocks, even supposing that he was aware of it. P(E|H) is therefore not very high. P(~E|H) is therefore rather high. P(~E|~H)/P(~E|H) is therefore (at most) only a little larger than 1. And the argument from silence requires that ratio to have a value considerably higher than that for the argument from silence to have much significance.

    Such is the common fate of these arguments. A high P(E|H) is supported by nothing but airy assertions, and when those evaporate under inspection, the argument collapses.

    • Hey Nick,

      Thanks for your feedback and Tim’s. I am busy working on a seminar paper for the quarter finals and I don’t have time to respond. However, people are welcome to read your comment, my article, and your recent post, and to decide the matter for themselves.

      Just as a note about your recent post, there did seem to be a misleading statement in it. You say:

      “If we followed such an account, we would have to throw out much of ancient history. In fact, Carrier saying why he thinks the accounts of the crossing of the Rubicon are more reliable than that of the resurrection says the following:

      “Fourth, we have the story of the “Rubicon Crossing” in almost every historian of the period, including the most prominent scholars of the age: Suetonius, Appian, Cassius Dio, Plutarch.” That can be found here. Little problem with this. Not one of those scholars is a contemporary.”

      However, in the article, Carrier also states that there are contemporary sources for the Rubicon crossing:

      “First of all, we have Caesar’s own word on the subject. Indeed, The Civil War has been a Latin classic for two thousand years, written by Caesar himself and by one of his generals and closest of friends. In contrast, we do not have anything written by Jesus, and we do not know for certain the name of any author of any of the accounts of his earthly resurrection.

      Second, we have many of Caesar’s enemies, including Cicero, a contemporary of the event, reporting the crossing of the Rubicon, whereas we have no hostile or even neutral records of the resurrection until over a hundred years after the event, which is fifty years after the Christians’ own claims had been widely spread around.”

      You are welcome to disagree with Carrier on the subject, but the wording in your article makes it seem like Carrier was relying exclusively on non-contemporary sources. Just a note. Have a happy holidays!

  3. DagoodS says:

    The reference to a broader fact provides confirmation for a specific fact if the specific fact necessarily follows from the broader fact. (Perhaps one could even extend the principle to “reasonable inference.”) It would seem to reasonably follow from Vesuvius blowing up and causing damage to cities far away (Misenum) significant damage would occur to cities closer (Pompeii.) Additionally the specific fact more than one city was “swallowed up and overwhelmed” follows from the Tactitus broader statement regarding plural cities.

    However, simply because Herod the Great was paranoid and willing to kill potential rivals for the throne—it does not necessarily follow as a specific fact regarding every claim he did so. Worse, the Matthean account with its running away from Herod the Great, and hiding away from Herod Archelaus is contradicted by the nonchalant Lukan approach of Jesus’ family annually travelling to Jerusalem. (Luke 2:41) It would be odd they run in fear to another country, followed by the Slaughter of the Innocents, only to return every year to Herod Archelaus’ jurisdiction. Indeed, the very reason Matthew has them in Galilee is to avoid Judea—not return to it every year and cause a commotion!

    Is there an account, contemporary, non-contemporary, eyewitness or not claiming Pompeii survived?

    While every argument of silence rises and falls on its own particular facts, I do think this claim the “silence” to Pompeii is the equivalent to the “silence” to the Slaughter of the Innocents is not very persuasive.

    • @DagoodS: The Argument from Silence is very valid I feel, commonsense and mostly inescapable. Maybe in a book like ‘1984’ can it be compromised like an apologist would have it. My2c, and I commented such over at Deeper Waters.
      ps. We our fortunate that the GOSPAN (and the whole of the bible) is in NO WAY slanted towards a common indicia & footnoting… these are folkstories for Chrissakes.
      (Just sticking up for the storytelling like you do for Luke/Matt).

  4. Blood says:

    Apologists don’t really care if their claims have any merit or truth to them. Having no credibility, they have no standard or personal ethic to protect. The whole purpose is just to throw something out there that might sound plausible to an uneducated person, therefore justifying their authority as apologists. Don’t waste too much time on this stuff. It never ends.

    • I concur Blood, but better to learn all this ‘stuff’ just in case…. in your face MWF.
      [MWF] “But I suppose what the apologists are attempting to do is to create a reductio ad absurdum of the historical criterion of outside corroboration by arguing that, despite Vesuvius being a massive event that killed thousands of people, only Pliny writes about it.”
      Yes exactly for our historian. But for us joe bible counter-apologist this is all an attempt at our opponents trying to have their cake and eat it as well. Throughout the GOSPAN and Acts there is always a level of renown that completely escapes actual historical reality and MOST importantly, what people contemporaneously would call an “unforgettable” event. Eruptions are pretty thrilling, but a zombie apocalypse is EVAH more buzzworthy.
      Make the apologist sleep in their ‘eyewitness’ narratives bed that they’ve made.
      Love the chart of course. Doesn’t Carrier do that? (grin). Keep up the great work.

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  6. Henry Fitzgerald says:

    There’s also the point that the destruction of Pompeii – if you were for some reason to consider it a separate event from the erruption of Versuvius – necessarily involved the death of most relevant witnesses. Anyone far enough from Versuvius to be able to write about it the next day would say: “Versuvius erupted”. Anyone in a position to say instead: “Pompeii just got destroyed” would be dead.

    By contrast the purported miracles in Jerusalem would, had they happened, have had close-up eyewitnesses who survived.

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  9. I later conversed with epistemologist and philosopher of religion Evan Fales about the reasoning used in Tim McGrew’s comment above, and we both agreed that he is not accurately representing why scholars doubt stories such as the slaughter of the infant boys in Bethlehem. Below is my correspondence with Fales:

    “A while back Tim McGrew posted a comment on my blog, in which he challenged the Bayesian validity of arguments from silence.

    The context of the discussion was the fact that neither Josephus, nor any other Jewish or Pagan source from the 1st century CE, corroborates Herod’s slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem in Matthew 2:16. Since nobody else seems to have known of this event, it seems perfectly plausible that the author of Matthew could have invented it, in order to draw a parallel to Jeremiah 31:15 and Exodus 1:22-2:1-8.

    The common apologetic retort that McGrew responded with was that we should not expect Josephus (or anyone else) to corroborate the event, because a) they might not have known of it, or b) they might have just not included it in their account. In other words, McGrew argues that such outside corroboration is not part of the expected evidence for the hypothesis that Herod’s slaughter of the infants was a real event, and thus the absence of such corroboration in no substantial way lowers the probability of its occurrence.

    Here is what McGrew wrote:

    “All of this was supposed to be handled in Bayesian fashion. But a Bayesian analysis requires that P(E|H) be fairly high, or the argument from silence will have little traction. We have here no particular reason to think Josephus would have given written notice of this event out in the boondocks, even supposing that he was aware of it. P(E|H) is therefore not very high. P(~E|H) is therefore rather high. P(~E|~H)/P(~E|H) is therefore (at most) only a little larger than 1. And the argument from silence requires that ratio to have a value considerably higher than that for the argument from silence to have much significance.

    Such is the common fate of these arguments. A high P(E|H) is supported by nothing but airy assertions, and when those evaporate under inspection, the argument collapses.”

    I think that McGrew’s response is, for the most part, a strawman of the logic behind arguments from silence relating to dubious stories in the New Testament like this.

    Here is why:

    The argument from silence against the historicity of Matthew 2:16 is not based solely on the fact that nobody else mentions the event, so ergo it must have been fabricated.

    Instead, the argument proposes two alternative hypotheses for what may have produced the report in Matthew 2:16:

    H1: The event historically took place, and the author of Matthew recorded it.

    H2: The event was fabricated to draw a parallel to OT scriptures, such as Jeremiah 31:15 and Exodus 1:22-2:1-8.

    The reason that the probability of H1 is low is not just because nobody else mentions the event; it is low because the probability of H2 is high enough to reduce the probability of H1 being the best explanation.

    Now, here is why arguments from silence are relevant:

    If someone like Josephus had corroborated the slaughter of the infants, and described it as a historical event, this might not be expected evidence under H1; however, it would substantially reduce the probability of H2. The likelihood that the story was invented would decrease substantially if an outside source, independent of Matthew, recorded the event as historical.

    So, the reason why arguments from silence are relevant is not because they reduce the probability of H1, but because the absence of silence would reduce the probability of H2. If the probability of H2 decreases, H1 will increase, and thus become a better explanation.

    So, arguments from silence do affect the probability of H1, but not for the reason that McGrew claims. It is not because outside corroboration is highly expected evidence for H1; it is because such outside corroboration would be highly unexpected for H2, and would thus affect the probability of H1, by lowering the alternative probability of H2.”

    Fales wrote back the following in response to me:

    “Right. If H1 and H2 are the only substantive hypotheses in the competition, P(H1 & H2 / E) ≈ 1 and any evidence that favors one w/o equally favoring the other requires that the posterior of the former increases at the expense of the posterior of the latter. It seems especially ironic to me that Tim would argue in this way, in view of his own fatuous argument that each of Jesus’ disciples would have only a small probability of testifying that he’d risen from the dead if he had not (I forget, but maybe one in ten), then assumes that each testimony is indep. of the others, or even that they’d be less likely so to testify in view of the testimony of the others if they knew it, and proceeds to get a likelihood on this evidence that Jesus wasn’t raised of something like 10 ^ -10 (I may be mis-remembering the argument, but it was something along these lines).”

    Historian Richard Carrier also weighed in on the discussion, and provided the following reason for why Josephus would have likely known of this event, if it had really occurred, based on is use of Nicolaus of Damascus, Herod’s court historian, as a source:

    “You are right. But also: A mass murder of children in Bethlehem would not be the boondocks. That’s right close to Jerusalem, just four miles away, a third of a day’s walk. Josephus also records numerous atrocities and crimes of Herod, and used as a source (among other things) Herod’s personal court historian, Nicolaus of Damascus, who would have had to write some defense for the event, as it would have been a widespread story of horror. It is inconceivable that Josephus would think this story, one of the most appalling of his reign, didn’t warrant inclusion. So to suggest that his silence is likely is preposterous and is perhaps yet another reason McGrew should just admit he is not a historian and is not competent to make judgments like this about historical facts of a particular period.”

  10. Canaris says:

    Thank you so much for your research.

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