The Silence of Scripture: An Argument for Inspiration
J.W. McGarvey (1829-1911) was professor of sacred history in the College of the Bible at Lexington, Kentucky—where he taught for forty-six years. He was one of the most skillful defenders of the Scriptures of his day. His books on Christian evidences, and other topics, are still classics and should be circulated widely.
In the summer of 1893, McGarvey delivered a lecture on the “Inspiration of the Scriptures” before the Y.M.C.A. at the University of Missouri. His arguments mainly appealed to certain evidences, internal to the New Testament itself, which argue for the Bible’s supernatural origin. One of McGarvey’s points was this: the very brevity of the New Testament narratives is astounding. For example, in connection with some of the most dramatic episodes of the New Testament, where we would expect the writers to satisfy our longing for loads of details, the sacred narrative contains only abbreviated descriptions.
Consider the episode of Christ’s baptism. How many pages might have been consumed in describing this epochal event, had such been left to the literary skill of strictly human authors? God broke a verbal silence of fifteen centuries and audibly acknowledged his beloved Son. And yet, Matthew records the circumstance with but a dozen lines, Mark and Luke utilize about half that space, and John has only a sentence of about twelve words covering the occasion. McGarvey asked: “What man with a writer’s instinct could have stopped short of many pages in describing the scene so as to do it justice?” (n.d., 6).
The scholarly professor cited other equally impressive examples of the startling restraint employed by the New Testament writers. It is quite reasonable, he argued, to conclude that God himself was supervising the composition of the documents. The Bible was not designed to satisfy our inquisitiveness. Only such materials as were consistent with the Lord’s higher purpose were incorporated into the text.
McGarvey’s argument is very compelling. Moreover, we are convinced that it may be pursued even further. A strong case can be made in favor of the Bible’s inspiration on the basis of things that it omits altogether. In other words, the silence of the Scriptures—in areas where human curiosity clamors for information—is another internal evidence that reflects the heavenly origin of the biblical documents. Let us consider this matter.
No Origin for God
The Bible begins with the simple declarative, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Neither in Genesis 1, nor elsewhere in Holy Writ, are attempts made to explain the origin of the Creator of the universe. His self-existence is assumed as a primary truth. The prophets speak of his eternal presence without any adorning explanation. From everlasting to everlasting, he is the eternal God (cf. Psalm 90:2; Deuteronomy 33:27).
The religions of ancient paganism postulate bizarre origins for their deities. Egyptian theology
dwelt on the birth of the gods from Osiris, and told how he, the sun, brought forth the seven great planetary gods, and then the twelve humbler gods of the signs of the zodiac; they, in their turn, producing the twenty-eight gods presiding over the stations of the moon, the seventy-two companions of the sun, and other deities (Geikie n.d., 27).
How significant it is that Moses, who grew up in Egypt, incorporated no such foolishness into the Genesis record. A Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish, tells how pagan deities, Apsu and Tiamat, “procreated the other gods” (Mitchell 1988, 69). The mythology of India spoke of Brahma, “the father of all creatures,” being hatched from a great egg of golden splendor. The Greeks constructed genealogical tables chronicling the history of their gods, etc., but the Scriptures stand aloof from such absurdities.
No Description of God
The literature of heathenism is filled with representations of its gods. For instance, Baal, a Canaanite deity, frequently became a factor in the apostasy of the Hebrew people. Baal was a god of fertility. He is depicted on ancient monuments holding a lightning bolt in his hand (suggestive of his control of the weather); at other times his genital organ is prominently displayed because he was the “god of sex.” His mother, Asherah, the patron goddess of sex, is depicted in a vulgar fashion in the artwork of ancient Ras Shamra (Boyd 1969, 117-122). El, the husband of Asherah, is portrayed as an old man with white hair and a beard (Smick 1988, 411). Many other pagan gods likewise are graphically and grossly represented.
The God of the Bible, however, is never given any sort of a physical description. While it is true that anthropomorphic (meaning “man form”) language is employed frequently in Scripture to denote certain attributes of the Lord (e.g., the “eyes,” “hands,” etc., of the Lord)—because such figures are necessary to accommodate a human level of comprehension—nevertheless, the divine writers clearly stress that God is a spirit being and, as such, has no physical composition (John 4:24; Luke 24:39). He is invisible to human sight (1 Timothy 1:17; 6:16). If the Bible is a work of fiction, why is there no description of God?
No Description of Jesus Christ
When William Manchester wrote his acclaimed biography, American Caesar—Douglas McArthur, 1880-1964, he referenced descriptions of the illustrious military commander on more than seventy pages (1978, 781). By way of contrast (though Jesus Christ is the central character of the Scriptures, and is found either directly or indirectly in every book of the Bible), there is not one line in the New Testament giving a depiction of his physical attributes. In fact, the only remote reference to Jesus’ appearance is a vague allusion in the book of Isaiah, where the Savior is represented as having “no comeliness” that his fellows would consider desirable (53:2). Imagine that. No description is given of the most prominent person of the Bible, the founder of the Christian religion—only a passing prophetic remark that suggests he was less-than-handsome! What group of writers, desiring to ensure the success of Christianity, would have adopted such an approach?
The Silent Years
With the exception of the miraculous events connected with the birth of Jesus, we know little of the first thirty years of his life upon this Earth. When he was eight days old, he was circumcised according to Jewish law (Luke 2:21). Thirty-three days later he was presented in the temple (Luke 2:22-39). There is the account of the visit of those wise-men from the east (Matthew 2:1-12), and then the flight into Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod (Matthew 2:13-23). There is a general reference to his settlement finally at Nazareth (Matthew 2:23; Luke 2:39-40), and then the record of a visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve years old (Luke 2:41-50). Following this, there is a blank space in the narrative that covers eighteen years in the life of Christ. Other than the generic notation that he was advancing in wisdom, stature, and in favor with God and men (Luke 2:51-52), we know absolutely nothing of this timespan. Are we not curious? Would not an average human biographer have given some interesting data? That is a normal expectation.
It was this very circumstance that called forth a number of ancient spurious writings, known collectively as the Apocryphal Gospels. These extra-canonical documents arose because of the desire to have a fuller knowledge of certain periods of the life of Christ that the genuine Gospels omitted. Consider, for instance, the Childhood Gospel of Thomas. It depicts the boy Jesus making little birds out of clay and causing them to fly away. Again, when another boy accidentally bumped into him, Jesus supposedly caused him to die immediately (see Findlay 1906, 671-685). No such absurdities deface the New Testament.
In addition to the foregoing cases, there are scores of biblical contexts within which there are strange absences of information (i.e., from a purely human viewpoint).
Moses is the most prominent character of the Old Testament. He is mentioned more than 750 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, and approximately eighty times in the New Testament. At a very early age he was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter (a brilliant strategy by his mother to save her son’s life). He was thus reared as an Egyptian prince. The first forty years of his life were spent in the environment of Egypt’s splendor and power. Between Exodus 2:10 and 2:11, however, there is a silent gap of four decades. Only the book of Acts briefly says: “And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians; and he was mighty in his words and works” (7:22). What were those words and works? What exciting events occurred during that first third of Moses’ life? We long to know, but the Holy Spirit did not see fit to supply the information.
The most revered item of furniture in Israel’s sacred tabernacle was the Ark of the Covenant, that small wooden chest, overlaid with gold, which contained the tables of the ten commandments, a pot of manna, and Aaron’s rod that had budded miraculously. What happened to the ark? Sometime after the chest was placed in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 8:1-11), it simply vanished. Movies and television specials have speculated regarding its fate, but no one knows what happened to it. Surely a non-inspired literary genius would not have left the ark’s destiny shrouded in obscurity. Indeed, the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees has Jeremiah hiding it in a cave until the time when God would restore His people (2:4-8). Men cannot resist the temptation to speak where God has been silent.
Joseph of Nazareth was the foster-father of Jesus, and Mary was his mother. The benevolent character of Joseph is tenderly revealed in Matthew 1. He was willing to endure the scorn of his peers by taking his pregnant betrothed into his home. What happened to him? He simply disappears from the New Testament record following that journey to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve years old (Luke 2:41ff; cf. Matthew 12:46).
And what of Mary? Surely she was one of the noblest women God ever made. Apparently she was in the care of the apostle John following the death of her son (John 19:26-27). We find her in the company of the disciples following Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:14). But how did she eventually die? There is not a clue. What human biographer would have left these matters dangling?
Is it not most unusual that there are no descriptions of the Lord’s apostles in the New Testament, and, except for a few scant references (see Luke 4:38; 1 Corinthians 9:5), there is no information regarding their families.
The mission of John the Baptizer was to prepare the Jews for Christ. Accordingly, John immersed those who repented of, and confessed, their sins (Matthew 3:6-8). His baptism was “for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4), and those who rejected it were repudiating the very counsel of God himself (Luke 7:30). Unquestionably the Lord’s apostles submitted to John’s baptism, but where is the record of such? One can only infer it.
Furthermore, where, after the establishment of Christianity, is there any mention of the evangelistic work of Andrew, Simon the Zealot, Thomas, etc.? The labors of most of the apostles are missing from the record. Who in the world, following common literary impulses, is going to pass over things of this nature? Finally, with the sole exception of James (see Acts 12:1ff), there is not a word as to how the apostles died.
When Jesus died, following his six hours of agony on the cross, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, there was a tremendous earthquake, and, perhaps most shocking of all, the tombs in Jerusalem were opened,
and many bodies of the saints that had fallen asleep were raised; and coming forth out of the tombs after his resurrection they entered into the holy city and appeared unto many (Matthew 27:52-53).
Did these ex-corpses speak to folks on the street? What was the effect of this miracle upon the citizens of the city? What ultimately happened to those saints? Are we to be left hanging? Additionally, what was the impact of that severing of the temple’s veil? There is not a word concerning the panic that must have seized the Jewish leaders.
The book of Acts is one of the great adventure narratives of the New Testament. It tells of the establishment and growth of Christianity. A major component of that expansion was the ministry of the brilliant zealot, Saul of Tarsus (later to become known as Paul, the apostle). Paul’s conversion and his fruitful missionary campaigns are thrillingly detailed from Acts 9 onward. Towards the end of Acts, Paul is arrested as a result of Jewish harassment. Ultimately, he appeals his case to Caesar (the Supreme Court, if you will), and is taken to Rome. As the book of Acts concludes, Paul has been under house-arrest, daily chained to a Roman soldier, for two years. But Acts ends quite abruptly. When did Paul appear before Caesar (Acts 27:24)? What did he say? What effect was produced?
There is a considerable amount of extra-biblical evidence indicating that the author of the third Gospel was Luke, the physician (Colossians 4:14). This view was “universally believed” by the middle of the second century. No one “speaks doubtfully on this point” (Plummer 1896, xvi). Moreover, both external and internal evidence suggests that the author of the third Gospel also penned the book of Acts. The Muratorian Canon (a fragmentary list of New Testament books from the late second century A.D.) states that Luke compiled “the Acts of all the Apostles” for “most excellent Theophilus” (see Acts 1:1; cf. Luke 1:3). Luke was an associate of Paul on several of the apostle’s missionary journeys, and during the dramatic voyage to Rome. This circumstance is reflected in the “we” segments of the book of Acts (16:10-17; 20:5-21:18; 27:1-28:16).
The character of Luke’s writings reveals that he was a brilliant scholar and a devoted companion to Paul—to the very end of the great apostle’s life (see 2 Timothy 4:11). And yet, as valuable as his contributions were, the New Testament student knows absolutely nothing of his background (e.g., where he was born, his educational training, his family associations, his conversion, etc.). Nor is anything known of his death. He is the only Gentile writer of the Bible (his literary contributions comprising about twenty-five percent of the New Testament), yet he is ever discreetly in the background. He is named in only three places in the entire New Testament (Colossians 4:14; Philemon 24; 2 Timothy 4:11). Given the propensity of ordinary journalists, would any writer—who played such a prominent role in the affairs he chronicled—have so veiled himself? Surely, to the analytical person, this must suggest the superintendence of the divine Spirit of God.
What shall we make of these—and many other—puzzling omissions from the sacred text? Simply this: the Holy Spirit was the guiding hand behind the composition of the Bible. He incorporated into the sacred volume only such materials as were germane to the divine purpose. He did not cater to human curiosity. Thus, Bible inspiration is demonstrated as much by its exclusions as by its inclusions. The wide variety of evidence documenting the authenticity of the Holy Scriptures is truly profound.
- Boyd, Robert T. 1969. A Pictorial Guide to Biblical Archaeology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Findlay, A. F. 1906. Gospels (Apocryphal). A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels. Vol. 1. James Hastings, Ed. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.
- Geikie, Cunningham. n.d. Hours with the Bible. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Hurst.
- Manchester, William. 1978. American Caesar—Douglas McArthur, 1880-1964. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.
- McGarvey, J. W. n.d. Sermons. Cincinnati, OH: Standard.
- Mitchell, T. C. 1988. The Bible in the British Museum. London, England: British Museum.
- Plummer, Alfred. 1896. The Gospel According to Luke. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.
- Smick, Elmer B. 1988. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Vol. 1. Walter Elwell, Ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.