Tag Archives: Ancient History

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 »

What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography?

Plutarch

Plutarch

Because so many NT scholars desperately want the gospels to be both Greco-Roman biographies and reliable histories, we could almost forget that these two forms of literature are not the same. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s what Plutarch said:

It being my purpose to write the lives of Alexander the king, and of Caesar, by whom Pompey was destroyed, the multitude of their great actions affords so large a field that I were to blame if I should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen rather to epitomize the most celebrated parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives.

And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever.

Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavour by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others. (Plutarch’s Alexander [emphasis and reformatting mine])

We could boil these comments down into the following points. A biography: read more »

Is history a trial?

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Image by mtkr via Flickr

History as most generally practiced is about interpretation of the “facts” (or data or evidence — the distinction is important and was discussed at some length in comments here).

Historians seek out evidence from sources of identifiable provenance: diaries, police records, government papers, newspapers, etc. The nature of the sources, the provenance of the sources, are important for the historian in knowing how to assess the reliability or biases of those sources.

The debate among historians of Australian history over the extent of massacres of aboriginal peoples is about interpretation of the “facts” — the facts being the tangible documentary evidence.

It is the same with ancient history. An ancient inscription may be very clear in the tale it tells, such as the rise of Syrian king Idrimi. But how should that tale be interpreted? Is it a true narrative or a piece of mostly fictional propaganda? External witnesses are brought in — what do other texts, remains or monuments indicate? What do we know of the literary style and its purposes elsewhere? read more »

Lazy historians and their ancient sources

Though I refer to “lazy historians” here, this piece is really written for “lazy readers” of “biblical history” — not that many are really lazy. But not all are aware that modern critical techniques applied to the Bible are not a reflection of anti-religious bias but are rather an application of modern critical historical tools to biblical texts. It is the biblical apologist who is often the one wanting specialist treatment of his texts, not the secular critic.

“Laziness is common among historians. When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events , they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation.” — Liverani, Myth and politics in ancient Near Eastern historiography, p.28.

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