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

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by Tim Widowfield

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?

Irreverent people like you and me started asking the question, “What if we continue not finding artifacts because there’s nothing there to find?” To such questions, the very fine people who act as gatekeepers for knowledge in Western society responded by nodding thoughtfully and saying that was a fine question and they needed to rethink their conclusions.

I’m kidding, of course. Those very fine people with degrees in theology who pose as historians were livid. They accused so-called minimalists of trying to destroy history, of having a grudge against God, of being antisemites, of having a tenuous grip on sanity. They engaged in creative conjecture as to why anyone would doubt the Exodus, the Battle of Jericho, or the existence of Galilean synagogues in 30 CE. What personal moral failings would cause people to doubt the existence of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

Between insults, they would repeat their favorite rallying cry: “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!” Yes, we’ve heard that many times before. And yet we can’t help but recall other instances in archaeology in which the fact that we did not find something is taken as evidence for its nonexistence.

When is absence suitable as evidence?

When we speak of the Pre-Columbian Era, we refer to that period in the Americas after the earliest human migration and before 1492. How do we determine the earliest date of migration? Well, it must have occurred some time before the first physical evidence of humans in the Americas. But that leaves a long period of possible crossing dates. Some archaeologists opt for a rather late date, say, 14,000 years ago. Others think migration began much earlier. Notice that the estimated dates for a late migration theory coincide with the known evidence. We have secure knowledge of artifacts from about 13,000 years ago. We don’t have secure knowledge for earlier finds. (We have claims, but no consensus.)

The lack of trusted evidence of human habitation in the Americas 14,000 BP is literally “the absence of evidence.” But it is considered as evidence for the absence of human habitation. No one would call it absolute or conclusive evidence. It merely informs a model of migration that says people probably crossed at a given date, and posits that the most likely reason we haven’t found human skeletal remains, tools, etc., before a certain date is that they aren’t there. Such discussions normally occur without fist fights breaking out.

Things are different in Palestine, where every discovery or lack thereof is fraught with meaning and identity. And while you may have been aware that minimalists had recently found a seat at the table after years of wandering in the wilderness (leaving traces, ironically), you may not have been aware of the recent reactionary responses to the move toward minimalism.

History, the handmaiden of religion or its shoeshine boy?

In “The Death of Biblical History” (pp. 485-504 in Far From Minimal: Celebrating the Work and Influence of Philip R. Davies), Keith Whitelam reviews the recent crop of histories based on the Bible writes:

Does the commercial success and rising tide of academic opinion guarantee that biblical history is in rude health? Appearances, of course, can be deceptive. Despite their erstwhile attempts to proclaim the vitality and relevance of biblical history, these volumes unwittingly sound the death knell of the very thing they wish to preserve. For what lies at the very heart of the death of biblical history debate is not just an argument about methodology — particularly the relationship of the biblical texts to archaeology — but a stark choice about the nature of history and what counts as history. (Whitelam, p. 487, emphasis mine)

Biblical history is just different. Neil and I both have a background in history, and as we’ve said many times, we continually marvel at just how different biblical history is from “normal” history — as well as how differently poser historians in biblical studies operate.

These volumes illustrate that “biblical history” is not a genre that would be recognized by most professional historians since they are an odd mixture of prolegomena and commentary on the biblical traditions. Although they might justify the adjective “biblical,” their attempts to represent the ancient past are very limited in scope and can hardly be described as history. What Provan, Long, and Longman, and many of those responding to the rallying call of an end to scepticism, offer is a retreat to a pre-Enlightenment situation in which orthodoxy, authority, and tradition are the arbiters of meaning. (Whitelam, p. 487, emphasis mine)

The magic of plausibility

Whitelam is referring to A Biblical History of Israel, unapologetically apologetic, and now in its second edition. In it, as in many of today’s conservative writings, the authors place a heavy emphasis on “plausibility.”

If you’ve come across references to “the plausible Jesus” as a solid historical concept, you’ll be familiar with this sleight of hand. A story we might in any other context consider legendary is described as plausible (if not “perfectly plausible,”) which is then rendered as probable and thus, barring any extraordinary reason for doubt — historical. To argue otherwise would show unwarranted hostility to the “innocent” text.

Here’s an example from Provan et al. In a section entitled “Is the Biblical Account of David’s Rise to Power Historically Plausible?” (pp. 225 ff.) they spar with other recent authors who have tried to write “plausible” accounts of David’s life, especially Steven McKenzie (the author of King David: A Biography. After a tortured discussion about the “true” reasons that King Saul fell out with David, they write:

McKenzie’s principles of historical reconstruction discussed earlier (analogy, cui bono, etc.), and his conclusions may follow quite seamlessly and logically. As we argued earlier, however, there is a danger of reductionism in McKenzie’s principles. Does not the principle of analogy as defined — “people of all time have the same basic ambitions and instincts” — run the risk of excluding from history all exceptional individuals behaving in exceptional ways? And might not the principle of cui bono — who benefits? — run the risk of implying that good fortune never simply happens but, rather, is always the result of the machinations of those who ultimately benefit? (Never mind the fact that the text’s own explanation of David’s good fortune is that “the LORD was with him” [e.g., 1 Sam. 18:12, 14, 28].) Taken together, might not such principles suggest, for example, that persons in power have always arrived there the same way? Or that if Saul is afraid of David, David (and not some other circumstance) must have given cause? There is a measure of truth and wisdom in McKenzie’s principles, of course, and he would probably not want to endorse them presented as baldly as above, but it is hard to avoid the impression that they have tipped the scales against the biblical narrative and in favor of the coup theory. Our own contention is that the biblical narrative, in its current sequence and configuration, offers a perfectly plausible explanation of Saul’s and Jonathan’s disparate reactions to David. (Provan et al., pp. 226-227, emphasis mine)

Whenever apologists toss out reductionism as an insult, I always wonder whether they fully understand what they mean by it, or if instead they’re swearing phonetically. No matter. Let’s assume they mean that McKenzie has broken down the narrative into supposedly logical bits, but in a naive, clumsy way. What stands out more to me, of course, is the appeal to scripture as reasonable proof of God’s divine favor. How are we to evaluate such “evidence”? With logic, mathematics, or prayer?

In the end, Provan, Long, and Longman would rather stick with what the scripture tells them, because it’s all “perfectly plausible.” But by doing so repeatedly, what are they offering, other than a plot summary of the Bible with commentary that concludes, “Well, it sounds reasonable to us”? Whitelam reminds us that Philip R. Davies called this sort of history-scribbling little more than “midrashic paraphrase.”

An enchanted multi-layer plausibility burrito

Provan et al. try to have it both ways, where the Tel Dan Stele represents slam-dunk evidence of David, his empire, and all the characters in the story. Yet by necessity, it must have been a “mini-empire,” given the rather surprising lack of ruins or coinage or rudimentary signs of habitation. And they wrap themselves up in a multi-layer plausibility burrito, insisting that the minimalists have failed to disprove the Davidic Empire.

But as Whitelam laments, it isn’t clear, given the rules of the apologists’ game, how exactly we could satisfy their strict requirements.

But equally, once the mantra of “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is invoked, it is impossible to imagine what might constitute evidence to falsify the claims of the text. The lack of a major city as the administrative centre of the empire or the lack of evidence of centralization before the eighth century are dismissed as irrelevant. The biblical materials become immune from critical examination. Plausibility, despite being a mark of the novelist as well as the historian, appears to be the arbiter of historical veracity since their conclusion is that the stories about David “have a ring of truth about them,” Jerusalem “could have been a city worth conquering in David’s day,” and David “could have established an ‘empire’ such as the Bible ascribes to him” [Provan, Long, and Longman 2003, p. 237]. However, after the discussions of these problems, the failure to provide a historical reconstruction of the period only serves to emphasize that the claim to be writing history is vacuous. (Whitelam, pp. 494-495)

Is this even history?

Provan has elsewhere even suggested that not taking the Bible at face value and presuming its truth is a kind of madness, “a sign of mental or emotional imbalance.” But the nonsensical notion that the text is “innocent until proven guilty” makes a mockery of real history.

Such a principle, as advocated by the defenders of “biblical history,” would have far-reaching consequences for the writing of history. It would mean that our major sources for the history of ancient India would have to be the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna’s speech on the battlefield, including the Mahabarata, the great Sanskrit epic with its description of conflicts between kings, seers, and gods, unless the accounts can be falsified. Closer examination of the way in which they employ this principle shows that in order to be effective it has to be accompanied by the mantra that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

So, in order not to be condemned as irrational and confined to a mental institution, any “right thinking” person would have to accept the claim in Num 22:28–30 that when Balaam struck his ass, it responded indignantly, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?,” and then later, “Am I not your ass, upon which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Was I ever accustomed to do so to you?”

It is possible to produce any number of asses that cannot talk. Yet the response of the historian guided by this principle is that either Balaam’s ass was extremely gifted, modern-day asses have lost the ability to talk, or that they are just naturally shy. When it is protested that overwhelming evidence of hundreds of non-talking asses has been produced, the historian simply recites the mantra, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Thus the biblical text becomes immune from critical analysis and comparison. On the basis of the employment of this double principle — the falsification and absence principles — it is difficult to conceive of what evidence would look like which could be taken to falsify the claims in the text. On the basis of this logic, we have to accept the “plain meaning” of the text. (Whitelam, p. 492, emphasis and reformatting mine)

And if that’s all there is, what is the point of writing biblical history?

An ancient phantom that haunts our present

Whitelam correctly points out that writing apologetic history that treats scripture as invariably true is a dead end.

The concept of a “biblical history” as advocated by Provan, Long, and Longman and many others is less like the windmills, which have some substance, at which Don Quixote tilted than Samuel’s shade that is conjured up from the grave by the medium of Endor but would rather be left to rest in peace. “Biblical history,” despite the countless volumes dedicated to its praise, is but a ghostly figure that disappears as soon as Provan, Long, and Longman or anyone else tries to grasp it. While they believe that the patient is only sleeping [p. 6] and can be resuscitated — they even use the term “resurrected” [p. 3] — I believe that the corpse deserves a decent burial rather than being hawked around like some latter-day indulgence, which promises the purchaser some privileged access to the divine. Yet, unfortunately, the continuing pursuit of this ghostly apparition has deadly consequences that spread far beyond the confines of our own academic pursuits. (Whitelam, p. 500, emphasis mine)

The ghost of biblical history fills the minds of Evangelical Christians and other conservative religious people. For all the humor in the absurd treatment of the Historical Balaam’s Ass as a subject worth contemplating, millions believe these things are historically true. We are stuck with the shadow of David and Solomon’s empire which cannot possibly have existed the way it is envisioned in the Western tradition.

King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

Jerusalem in the news

And so as President Trump moves the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, shouting to the world that Jerusalem is the rightful capital, and proclaiming that the entire city belongs to the state of Israel now and forever, millions of Americans picture the luxurious palace of Solomon (above) and his fabulous Temple. Never mind the other people who lived in the land for centuries. They don’t count.

If a childish belief in a legendary past leads to the shutting out of one people in favor of another, then we should welcome its demise.

In pronouncing the death of “biblical history” I do so not only because I do not believe that it offers us access to the ancient past — as Provan, Long, and Longman unwittingly demonstrate, it has been the pursuit of a ghostly phantom — but because the constant repetition of such a history as though it is self-evident has such deadly consequences in our own world. An integrated history of Palestine, in which the Iron Age and other periods associated with the Bible are not cut adrift as though they are somehow unique or stand outside time, should be a celebration of humanity and diversity. The death of biblical history in this sense is not something to be lamented but celebrated; it is to accept that notions of identity, culture, and our understanding of the past are not objects that are reified, primordial, and unchanging, but are open to constant negotiation, are unruly, and dynamic. (Whitelam, p. 502, emphasis mine)

Whitelam has argued for years that we should embrace an ecumenical history, one the celebrates the past of all who live and have lived in Palestine. “It is a rejection,” he writes, “of the notion that any one group is more important than any other or that the processes of history can be explained by ‘immaculate causation.'”

But I worry that the steps my country is about to take will extinguish any hope of peaceful reconciliation in the region let alone the acceptance of an integrated history of Palestine that celebrates diversity. I fear we are too late. I dread the coming decades of war, hatred, darkness, and ignorance.

Other Vridar posts mentioning Keith Whitelam’s work:


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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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9 thoughts on “Dealing with Silence and the Absence of Evidence in an Age of Resurgent Orthodoxy”

  1. I believe absence of (any) evidence is (good) evidence of absence. We humans act on this principle all the time. The legal profession, medicine and other fields, indeed society as a whole, operate on this principle all the time. It is only theological special pleading and intellectual dishonesty that countenances the opposite.

    1. It’s not just special pleading – it is a broken meme everywhere that the statement “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence ” is a true statement. It is, indeed, a false statement. Perhaps, somewhere, someone originally said “the absence of evidence is not *proof* of absence “, and then the nuance got lost.

  2. When I first read that there was no genocide in Palestine, I was very happy and somehow I celebrated this. But soon I stopped and fell in sadness again as I found out that more people are willing to repeat “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!”. Many people even jumped on a very fearful apologetic rhetoric by trying to explain to me that this genocide was a rightful genocide and a necessary one! From this I realized that I cannot be an atheist and if I want to stay true to myself I must act as an antitheist.

    One more thing I want to point out. The meaning of the word apologetic is changed. Previously it was used to say why their god chose the Jews and etc. Now it is a straight forward attack to critical historiography. I personally believe that O.T. was created around the blanks of Greek historiography and the N.T. used similar but altered stories to point out that humans are unable to write history. Both “books” are trying to disprove that “Man is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not.”

  3. Good comments on the role of evidence. But I think you are misquoting Trump’s announcement.
    Trump did not say that Jerusalem was the ‘rightful’ capital, rather the ‘de facto’ capital of Israel. Furthermore, he spoke at some length to explain that this decision did not mean that all of Jerusalem belonged to Israel; he empasized that the boundaries of Israel’s sovereignty needed to be agreed between Israel and the Palestinians.

  4. Excellent essay Tim, and very relevant to the recent dust up Neil has had with Larry Hutardo. Hutardo is adamant that the absence of evidence that Paul knew of Jesus’ ministry as portrayed in the gospels, is not evidence that Paul knew nothing about that ministry or the human life of Jesus. He even thinks that Paul might have met Jesus and wouldn’t have necessarily mentioned it in his letters.

    1. Thanks, Paxton. I enjoy reading academic works dealing with OT subjects, if only as a respite from the hysterical silliness that often surrounds “Jesus History.”

      What’s interesting (I think it is, anyway) is to search the web for references to these arguments and find out who’s using them — and why. After a time, you’ll notice that they apparently don’t even have the energy to reword what they find elsewhere. Apologia is a copy-and-paste enterprise.

  5. If absence of the abence of evidence is taken as evidence then every crazy belief is equally valid.

    Or as one of my favorite movies puts it,

    Boone: Then it’s true.
    Peloquin: Everything is true. God’s an Astronaut. Oz is Over the Rainbow, and Midian is where the monsters live.

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