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PAPERS AND PROCEEDINGS
JUNE AND DECEMBER, 1883.
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The Argument E Silentio,
BY PROF. C. A. BRIGGS, D.D.
HE Argument from Silence is frequently used on all sides, and
yet there is general distrust as to its validity. This is certainly an unsatisfactory state of affairs. If the argument be invalid, scholars ought to abandon it. If, however, it be valid, its validity should be clearly established and generally recognized. The uncertainty as to this argument is due to a lack of consideration of the merits of the question and the absence of discriminating definitions. From a sense of the need of such definitions in our own studies, we propose to beat our way into this difficult investigation, in hope that others will correct our mistakes, and improve upon our results. We are assured with Robert Boyle (Some Considerations touching the Style of the H. Scriptures, Lond., 1661, p. 11), “ There is such a fulnesse in that book that oftentimes it sayes much by saying nothing; and not only its expressions, but its silences are teaching, like a Dyall, in which the shadow as well as the light informs us."
(1) Silence is, in many cases, a lack of evidence, for the reason that the matter in question did not come within the scope of the author's argument. To determine whether this be so or not, may not always be easy, but it is a necessary preliminary to any use of the argument from silence. We must first determine exactly what the author does say in its organic connection, together with the design and the scope of his argument, before we can draw any safe conclusions with regard to that which lies outside of his limits, and the silence that he maintains with respect to the matters of our inquiry. Thus, in the question as to the "men of the Great Synagogue," it is argued by many critics, - such as Budde, Kuenen, Robertson Smith, and others, that the Great Synagogue had no real existence, but was a fiction of Talmudic writers. In the discussion of the subject, attention is called to the silence of Josephus, Philo, the Apocalypse of Ezra, I. Maccabees, and the Apocryphal literature generally, as to any such body. Prof. Wright, in his Book of Koheleth, Lond., 1883, pp. 7 sq., says: “The silence of the Apocryphal books as well as of Josephus and Philo, with respect to the men of the Great Synagogue,' is neither strange nor remarkable. It is well known that the Jewish annals, from the death of Nehemiah (circa 415 B.c.) down to B.C. 175, are almost a complete blank. The writers of the Apocryphal books had no occasion at all to refer to the acts of the men of the Great Synagogue,' and Josephus appears to have been almost totally devoid of information with respect to the Jewish annals during the period referred to. That writer has, indeed, been clever enough to prevent this gap in his history from being perceived by ordinary readers. Although he may have been fully aware of the existence of such a body as the men of the Great Synagogue,' and may have often heard of the difficulties which that body felt with respect to certain books of the Canon, such facts were scarcely those which Josephus would have cared to record in his Antiquities, when he had no further incidents to adduce which bore on the history of the period in question. In writing against Apion, Josephus had every reason to pass over such facts in silence. His silence, too, is not so inexcusable ; as the facts known, while not really opposed to the conclusion at which he arrived, would readily have placed convenient weapons in the hands of an unscrupulous antagonist” (pp. 7–8). Here we have several explanations of the argument from silence, e.g., it was beyond the scope of the Apocryphal books; it was owing to ignorance in part, and in part to intention and policy in the case of Josephus. And yet our author, on p. 476, says : “But little weight is to be assigned to the silence of Josephus, as such a point scarcely comes within the scope of his history." We would ask of Dr. Wright which of the two positions he means to hold against Kuenen. If he hold as on p. 476, that the mention of "the men of the Great Synagogue" was without the scope of Josephus, then he cannot maintain that the silence was owing to ignorance, or partial knowledge, or policy in argument, or to prevent the reader of his history from knowing the disputes about the Canon among the Jews. Prof. Kuenen notes that I. Maccabees xiv. 28 speaks of “a great assembly of the priests and people and rulers of the nation and elders of the land," and yet is silent as to “the men of the Great Synagogue.”
The latter would seem to have been within the writer's scope as well as the former, The whole question, then, depends upon the first inquiry whether the mention of “the men of the Great Synagogue," if such a body existed, fairly came within the scope of these writers. This must be tested in every case ere a valid argument can be made.
We shall now mention a few cases in which, as it seems to us, certain things were beyond the scope of the writers. Thus, in the Book of Esther, there is no mention of the divine Name, and no conception of divine Providence. This seems, at the first glance, very strange. The history of Esther would be as fitting to illustrate divine Providence as the story of Joseph. We should expect that the divine names would have been frequently in the mouths of the heroes of the story. And yet, on closer examination, it appears that the Book of Esther was written with a very different purpose from the story of Joseph. It was the work of a patriotic Jew who wished to give the origin of the Feast of Purim, and enforce fidelity to Jewish nationality. The author's scope was political rather than religious, doctrinal, or ethical. Hence, while the name of the Persian monarch appears 187 times, the name of God does not occur. Persian decrees, and the fidelity of Esther to her nation, and skill in overcoming the intrigues of its enemies, take the place of the divine Providence. The same is true in the Song of Songs. Its scope is entirely ethical, to show the victory of marital love over all the seductions that may be employed to constrain it toward others than the rightful object of it. The author had no occasion to use the divine Name, or to speak of religious themes. In the prophets Joel, Hosea, and Ezekiel, there is no reference to the doctrine of Creation. The plan of these prophets, and the scope of their argument, lie in other directions. There is no reference to the doctrines of a future life in the prophets Amos, Joel, Jeremiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. While it is not so clear in these cases that this subject was beyond their scope, yet we do not see that it was in the path of their writings in such a manner that they would have been obliged to mention it. There is no Messianic prophecy in the Wisdom Literature, e.g., Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. These writings are ethical, and the Messianic idea was clearly beyond their scope.
Other instances might be added, but these are sufficient for the establishment of our first proposition. They show that silence in many cases is to be explained from the reason that the matter was beyond the scope of the writer's argument.
(2) Silence is concurrent testimony where the matter would have