Tag Archives: Minimalism

Dealing with Silence and the Absence of Evidence in an Age of Resurgent Orthodoxy

In the world of biblical studies, scholars and laypeople alike tell us over and over that the absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence — and with good reason. Actually, they have two good reasons. First, it is true, in a technical sense. They are not identical propositions. And second, they have to keep telling us, because we keep not finding evidence.

Scholars of ancient history have long had to deal with the lack of evidence, and to determine what, if anything, it means. They ponder especially over expected evidence that refuses to be found.

What is and what is not

Consider, for a moment, what we mean by “describing” something. Its Latin root scribus, to write, reminds us that we’re writing down (de-) what something is. Yet each time we commit to writing what something is, we imply what it is not.

The act of describing is the act of drawing a circle on a Venn diagram. Things inside the circle are “X”; things outside the circle are not “X.” Recall that the Indo-European root of scribus is the word for “cut, separate, or sift.” To describe something is to scratch mentally a circle in which X resides.

Imagine that objects of type X are red. Therefore, a green object cannot be an X. We may find such statements a bit too dogmatic, and so we soften them — “All known objects of type X are red.” “We do not expect to find green instances of X.”

The Battle of Jericho — History?

You will recognize this immediately as an inductive argument, as we’re trying to build a model that accounts for and describes the properties of objects of type X, via a process of investigating known instances. In the real world, people used to say that all swans are white, which led to the classic “surprise” at finding the first black swan.

What did you expect?

However, I would again draw your attention to a key concept in this discussion: expectation. People expected the next swan they saw would be white, because all previous swans they had encountered were white. European and American archaeologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries expected to find lots of tangible evidence for the United Kingdom of David and Solomon. The books they held to be true history (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles) led them to expect it.

But then the unexpected happened. They kept not finding evidence. What did that mean? Did the evidence disappear? Were we extremely unlucky in our searches? read more »

Some Thoughts on the Nature of the Evidence and the Historicity of Jesus

You have the right to remain silent

Over on The Bible and Interpretation web site, James McGrath once again takes up his jousting lance to do battle against the big, bad mythicists. He raises an interesting point:

If we were to combine a number of recent and not-so-recent proposals related to Jesus, we could depict him as a gay hermaphrodite mamzer, conceived when his mother was raped by a Roman soldier, who grew up to pursue multiple vocations as a failed messiah, a failed prophet, a magician, and/or a mediocre teacher of Stoic ethics. From the perspective of traditional Christian dogma, one imagines that for Jesus never to have existed would be slightly easier to stomach (or at least, no more difficult) than some of the claims made by those who are convinced that he was a historical figure, and propose interpretations of the historical evidence which disagree with and even undermine the traditional claims of Christian creeds and piety. (emphasis mine)

Immanuel Kant, Prussian philosopher

Immanuel Kant, Prussian philosopher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So here’s the question: Is a mythical Jesus more palatable than a historical reconstruction that imagines Jesus as something other than the Son of God and savior of the world? To answer that question, we might consider the difference between descriptions of an object versus the question of its existence. Emanuel Kant’s refutation of the ontological argument comes immediately to mind. Kant claimed existence is not a predicate, but is categorically different from other properties.

You may not agree with Kant, but more practical considerations come to mind. The historicity of Jesus, whether argued for or merely presumed, must precede the discussion of who or what Jesus was. It necessarily forms the foundation of the ensuing arguments. If we cannot demonstrate that Jesus probably existed, all subsequent arguments are moot. Hence, Christians may intensely dislike reconstructions of Jesus that would tend to “undermine the traditional claims of Christian creeds and piety,” but I think they would dislike even more the idea that the evidence calls into question his very existence as a historical figure.

A story problem

And so, here we are again. All roads lead back to the question of the nature of the evidence. If you will indulge me for a minute or two, I’d like to present a parable.

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