The Dead Sea Scrolls, the Book of Esther, and the Argument from Silence

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

March 25, 2024

When we want to know how the New Testament canon developed, we have a number of sources at our disposal. Most fundamentally, we have patristic sources—the writings of the church fathers—which can show us when books were known, read, and cited.

We also have archaeological evidence at our disposal. We continue to find manuscripts of the New Testament, particularly at the site of Oxyrhynchus among other places, showing that early Christians knew and used these books in some fashion.

But what do we do when a particular book is missing from either of these sources? For example, Irenaeus does not mention (or quote from) the book of Philemon. Should we conclude that he didn’t know it or value it? Or consider the early second-century writer, Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. If you study his writings, it seems clear that he knows the books of Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and 1&2 Timothy. So, should we conclude that Polycarp had just a 7-book Pauline canon?

Here’s where we are faced with a problematic trend in canon studies that I have observed over the years. Some scholars will conclude that if an author doesn’t use/cite a book that he doesn’t know it or value it. Or if a manuscript of a certain book is not discovered at a certain locale, then some will conclude that that particular community must not have known or valued that book.

The problem with this line of reasoning, however, is that it is a form of the argument from silence. And the argument from silence is regarded as fallacious for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that we simply don’t have enough information to reach a conclusion one way or another. After all, we have only a limited sample of a church father’s writings, and we have only limited samples of New Testament manuscripts that survive. Therefore, no certain conclusions can be reached by what is not present.

As a parallel example, consider Paul’s discussion of Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor 11:23-26—a topic he never discusses anywhere else. Now imagine for a moment that (for some reason) we didn’t have 1 Corinthians. Let’s say we only had twelve letters of Paul. We might conclude that Paul didn’t know about Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper; indeed we might even conclude that Paul didn’t believe in the institution of the Lord’s Supper. And we would be flat out wrong.

The problem with the argument from silence is exemplified in discussions of whether the Old Testament book of Esther was read by the Dead Sea Scrolls community. Around Easter every year, there are fake announcements of a new archaeological discovery that says Esther had been discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. While these announcements are satire, they do demonstrate the significance of Esther’s absence from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Why would the discovery of Esther among the Dead Sea Scrolls be so significant?  The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of manuscripts found in caves near the northwest corner of the Dead Sea in 1947. They range in dates from the 2nd century BC to around 70AD. Ever since the discovery of the scrolls, scholars have been eager to learn which Old Testament books were represented in the manuscripts discovered there. And it turns out that we have a manuscript from every single book from our Old Testament except one. The book of Esther.

As a result, the absence of Esther has led to all kinds of scholarly speculation over the years about why the Qumran community (presumably the community associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls) did not have that book in their Old Testament canon. What could explain why their canon was different than other Jewish groups? Why did they leave Esther out?

Even though such Esther announcements aren’t real, they still highlight the point being made here. What if a scroll of Esther were actually discovered? It would reveal that all our prior declarations about the canon of the Qumran community would have been mistaken after all. Put simply, we can’t make certain declarations about things that are not present.

So what lesson can we learn here about the way we do canonical studies? In short, we should use language that reflects the limitations of what we know (and don’t know). So, when it comes to the example of Polycarp above, we shouldn’t say he has only a 7-book canon of Paul. Instead, we should say he has at least a 7-book canon of Paul. He may have had more Pauline books, we just don’t know.

Likewise, when it comes to Irenaeus and the book of Philemon, we shouldn’t say that Irenaeus rejected the book of Philemon. We simply don’t know that. Rather we should say we don’t have enough available evidence to know what Irenaeus thought about Philemon one way or the other. He may have accepted it. He may have rejected it.

Once we take these factors into account, we realize there may not have been as much canonical diversity in early Christianity as first supposed.  Rather than concluding that Ireneaus’s canon must be different than, say, Clement of Alexandria’s canon, we should say instead that they may have been different. Then again, they may have been exactly the same.

Put succinctly, “disagreements” between the canons of various church fathers may not necessarily be disagreements after all. It may just be about the lack of evidence at our disposal.

 

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