December 10, 2007

Absence of Evidence

Against my better judgment, I left a comment over on Contentions noting my discomfort with Biblical archaeology. "Biblical Archaeology, which begins by looking for physical evidence consistent with narratives that may have been first written down long after the events they describe, uses an inherently flawed procedure. Researchers put a premium on finding what supports the narrative they seek to prove, and similarly tend to ignore anything the contradicts it," I wrote. However, absence of evidence never seems to persuade the faithful to revise their opinions of the holy texts.

I have a tremendous fondness for Plutarch -- I read most of the Lives in 10th and 11th grade and thought then that they were more accurate than inaccurate (if they were good enough for Shakespeare...). But there are two reasons, my excellent Latin teacher warned me, to be cautious about taking Plutarch with anything less than a softball-sized grain of salt. First, he wrote of many events as distant from his own lifetime as the Renaissance is from our own. And second, he wrote his lives with the didactic purpose of providing moral instruction rather than merely to relate what had happened.

It appears that Plutarch might have been wildly wrong, if we credit this this report:

The Greek myth that ancient Spartans threw their stunted and sickly newborns off a cliff was not corroborated by archaeological digs in the area, researchers said Monday.

After more than five years of analysis of human remains culled from the pit, also called an apothetes, researchers found only the remains of adolescents and adults between the ages of 18 and 35, Athens Faculty of Medicine Anthropologist Theodoros Pitsios said.

"There were still bones in the area, but none from newborns, according to the samples we took from the bottom of the pit" of the foothills of Mount Taygete near present-day Sparta.

"It is probably a myth, the ancient sources of this so-called practice were rare, late and imprecise," he added.

Meant to attest to the militaristic character of the ancient Spartan people, moralistic historian Plutarch in particular spread the legend during first century AD.

Plutarch is not diminished by this revelation (any more than Shakespeare's Julius Caesar or HBO's Rome should be judged solely on the basis of their historical accuracy); we can even concede that he might well have been working from inaccurate source matter, and chose to include it because it seemed to him to have the ring of truth, or, less charitably, to be too good to check. But what of the Bible?

Zahi Hawass, a fairly cautious scholar and a first rate archaeologist, told the New York Times that the Exodus story--well--"Really, it’s a myth.". That's his considered opinion as an archaeologist:

“If they get upset, I don’t care,” Dr. Hawass said. “This is my career as an archaeologist. I should tell them the truth. If the people are upset, that is not my problem.”

Biblical archaeologists would like us to revise our opinions of the Bible based on their findings. Will they in turn revise the Bible on the basis of the absence of evidence for its historical accuracy?

Posted by Ideofact at December 10, 2007 11:28 PM

Sea of Reeds. The Hebrews did not cross the Red Sea. That is the myth and the mistranslation by Christians of our Bible.

Plenty of archeological evidence is being found in Israel to support Biblical stories. And there is also much evidence of Muslims suppressing proof that Jerusalem was the city of David. I would not be in the least bit surprised to find that Egyptians are doing the same.

I am not convinced by one article, and one archeologist. Would you be convinced by the same in reverse?

When did you become an atheist, Bill?

Posted by: Meryl Yourish at December 11, 2007 09:34 AM

The notion that the Egyptians are suppressing or ignoring evidence did occur to me, but Hawass, by making the definitive statement he's making, is saying that not only is the Pentateuch inaccurate as far as the archaeological record is concerned, so is the Koran. Book 7, verses 100 to 157, covers some of Exodus--the confrontation with Pharaoh, the famines and plagues, the destruction of the Egyptian army in the sea while the Israelites safely cross it, and so on. Hawass' rejection of a Jewish presence in Egypt based on archaeological evidence is a rejection of the Koran as much as it is of the Bible.

I recognize that any number of Palestinian apologists argue that there is no historical connection between Jews and Israel, and obviously that's contradicted by a rich archaeological record that includes, among other things, Hebrew inscription, Hebrew coins, and so on, and a good deal of contemporaneous history, including Roman historians who had precious little sympathy for those crazy monotheists in their midst.

But your argument suggests why Biblical Archaeology as a field is inherently problematic. The persistent holding out for evidence despite overwhelming evidence of absence (see, for example, this work is not good archaeological practice, and ends by drawing serious archaeologists like Hawass into irrelevant, unproductive arguments. Should we also assume that, just because archaeological evidence entirely contradicts the Book of Mormon, that new discoveries (including horse skeletons, swords, chariots, and so on) are just around the corner that will vindicate old Joe Smith?

Posted by: Bill at December 12, 2007 02:04 AM

I've got to get around to writing on this. But recent political discourse makes the subject too revolting.

Full disclosure: I'm actually a Christian, but a very heterodox one.

The Jewish literary tradition strongly suggests that there was so much irony, sarcasm, double entendre, and figurative narration, that it's actually very unclear what the biblical text meant anyway UNLESS one has some understanding of the source material, which of course is demanding an awful lot.

Bear in mind that an alternative to the Exodus story is found in the Apocryphal book of Judith, in which the Israelites came from the opposite direction--that they were Chaldeans. The Book of Judith made the Jerusalem Canon, but not the Alexandrine one (Jerusalem canon - Alexandrine canon = "Apocryphal Old Testament").

Pointing this out came as a tremendous relief for this recovering fundamentalist evangelical, because it now became clear that the REAL Christianity of the Bible was a lot closer to a profound and coherent message, than the terrifying congeries I'd grown up with. I personally hope that Christianity undergoes a reformation from the magical thinking that has plagued it at the margins for centuries.

Posted by: James R MacLean at December 18, 2007 11:57 PM

Sorry, neglected to make this point: the term "atheist" is not very meaningful since so much depends on one's conception of what God means. I could be mistaken, but I believe the notion of God as omnipotent or omniscient (with those terms as mathematical absolutes) entered the Abrahamic religious traditions around 300 CE or so, largely as a result of Eirenus. Prior to that time, "God" was a concept that had gradually merged with Hellenic concepts of a complex population of different spiritual entities; a sentient being with immense powers and immense wisdom, but subject to impersonal laws (represented symbolically by such terms as "the Fates").

So when the notion of God was so reduced to something posing endless moral dilemmas, and burying the whole question of atonement (as in, "Why?"), it created this void that was only addressed by heresy and blasphemy. In that sense, "atheism" is a revival of authentic piety.

Posted by: James R MacLean at December 19, 2007 12:06 AM