Posted by: cjobrien | 18 February 2008

Of Syro-Palestinian Archaeology, Turkeys and Negative Evidence

 I belong to a couple of discussion listservs, the “Biblical Studies” and “Jesus Family Tomb” among them, and have been monitoring the conversations regarding various aspects of theology and archaeology – the latter of course interesting me the most. I have yet to post responses (largely because I am unfamiliar with the format and don’t want to wander awry of the rules for posting). However, today I caught several discussion segments in the “Jesus Family Tomb” thread on the role of archaeology in demonstrating the “truth” of biblical theology. The discussion apparently started with regard to Jesus’ relationship to Jerusalem and its people but the last several posts have strayed into an argument over what archaeology says about the bible. As usual, the discussion reflects more the popular perception of archaeology with non-professionals rather than serious methodological and theoretical issues of the science itself. I would not normally elevate a listserv discussion to a blog post, but there are several comments that I feel need further elucidation with a wider audience and can illustrate some broader points.

As a place of departure, let me start with a portion of “Toli’s” post:

There is a consensus among archeologist that the archeological record does not support what is in the Tanakh.  Simply put

o  There was no exodus from Egypt

o  There was no Passover

o  There was no Moses

o  The story of the development of the priesthood in Israel through Aaron is not true

o  There was a Northern and Southern Kingdom, but there was never a United Kingdom

o  The Northern Kingdom was completely independent from the Southern Kingdom

o  There may have been a David, but he never ruled over the Northern Kingdom

o  There is no evidence that Solomon existed

o  There is no evidence that there was a temple in Jerusalem

o  There was a strong rivalry between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms

“Toli” predominately cites Finkelstein and Silberman’s The Bible Unearthed but also mentions William Dever’s Who Were the Israelites and Where did They Come From? as well as a plethora of additional authors, all of whom are well versed in issues of “biblical” archaeology. So far, so good – I would only add the caveat that I am not sure Dever totally buys into all of the points Toli outlined, but nonetheless, the broader point is made: there are numerous biblical stories for which we have absolutely no convincing archaeological evidence and the general explanation among scholars is that these represent oral histories and mythology passed through generations.  They were significantly modified (even exaggerated) to include people and events that have little or no historical substance. At best, the stories are so far removed (generationally) from the original event that may have spawned their telling, and have been significantly embellished with personal motivations by subsequent storytellers and authors, as to  only “minimally” (sorry, I know that opens a can of worms) reflect actual history.

Toli’s comment is part of a longer exchange with “Patty”, who is apparently familiar with Finkelstein and Silberman’s book but cannot accept its conclusions. In a previous message, Patty writes:

I have this book and say that must be taken with a grain of salt. The authors have an agenda, are biased and unobjective. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Do we have evidence of when Native Americans came to America? Can we say because of this lack of evidence that there were no Native American kingdoms, chiefs, etc?

This book is ONE (or should I say two) opinions and is by not means the final authority on everything.

Patty’s opinion is clearly stemming from a particular theological perspective that, in her mind, cannot possibly be wrong, therefore any and all evidence to the contrary must, by default, be “biased”, “un-objective” or be driven by an “agenda”. Patty is clearly a “maximalist” – one who accepts that the biblical narratives as completely accurate and any lack of supporting archaeological evidence must be explained by anything other than the idea that there is little or no actual history behind the narrative. That is simply not the way archaeology works in every other part of the world, except (apparently), the Middle East.

It is interesting that Patty questions evidence for Native Americans. We absolutely have evidence of when Native Americans came to the New World – lots of it, in fact. Both archaeological and genetic evidence is very telling, and although the specifics of the story have changed with new techniques, new sites and new data, the basic outline remains the same. Patty seems to think that there is a lack of evidence and yet North American archaeologists tell the appropriate story anyway. Absolutely not. The story is told on the basis of the archaeological evidence we have, and is not derived from Native American myths and legends (most of which, by the way, depict the same kind of heroes or other prominent figures, refer to events or locations, and exhibit similarities with other cultures through time and across space – just like biblical narratives). Of course, many Native Americans prefer their own oral history explanations over the archaeological evidence just as Patty seems to prefer a more literal interpretation of biblical texts over the conclusions of those who have studied the actual ground. In North and South America archaeology has confirmed kingdoms, chiefdoms and in some cases, their actual kings and chiefs – but only because the archaeological evidence is there. In many cases, such as among the Mayan city-states in Central America, we have written evidence as well as the archaeological evidence regarding the rise and decline of particular kingdoms as well as the bodies of their individual rulers. But we also know the written word exaggerates Mayan claims and more importantly, fails to completely capture information that can be accounted for archaeologically. Similarly we know many chiefdoms occurred archaeologically in North America for which we have no oral tradition today among native peoples. The oral (or written) traditions today reflect only a fraction of the past – in most cases they leave out considerable information; in many cases they offer contradictory information; in some cases the written information is just false; in a few cases, archaeological data accord well with what is written.

As a side note, I am also continuously fascinated by the constant association of verifiable locations with the historicity of the bible among “maximalists” – this theme seems to run throughout many of the discussion threads at the “Jesus Family Tomb” listserv. The bible says Joshua brought down the walls of Jericho with trumpets; Jericho is a real location; ergo, trumpets really did bring the walls down and the bible is “proved” correct. (I can imagine, a thousand years from now, a group of Trekkian “maximalists” favoring the historicity of the Roddenberry “texts” by pointing out that since San Francisco features prominently in passages discussing the Federation and since San Francisco was a real place, the rest of the texts must necessarily be historically accurate. These same Trekkians will certainly be able to claim that “no archaeology to date has ever refuted the Roddenberry texts as historically accurate”! ).

I have a particular issue with Patty’s use of the old canard, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” (or its biblical archaeology corollary, “absence of evidence is evidence the positive proof just hasn’t been found yet”). While there is some validity to the statement, the caveat is that it remains true only if certain methodological criteria have not been met. It is true that archaeologists continually search using new methods and theories just like any scientist, and new information can always arise where it is least expected. But “negative evidence” is also a vital tool for demonstrating that we are really on the wrong path or that other explanations are better for fitting the data at hand. It is not necessarily a sound logical leap to claim that something must exist even though we have not found evidence of it. Unless there are good reasons to expect that we’ve looked in the wrong place (or there is some other methodological inconsistency) if we’re not finding something it’s generally OK to assume…it’s not there.

Historian D.H. Fischer (Historian’s Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought – 1970) notes

The nonexistence of an object is established not by nonexistent (negative) evidence but by affirmative evidence of the fact that it did not, or could not exist.

Following Lyman (White Goats, White Lies – The Abuse of Science in Olympic National Park – 1998) who cites Fischer extensively, the fallacy of negative proof occurs whenever a researcher declares that there is no evidence for X event and then affirms that the “not-X event” must be the case. However, Fischer argues this is a false conclusion and the only proper way to assess negative evidence is to demonstrate it empirically:

…the only correct empirical procedure is to find affirmative evidence of not-X – which is often difficult, but never in my experience impossible (Fischer 1970:47; emphasis mine).

Patty’s concern is the opposite side of this argument. She would, no doubt, key in on Fischer’s argument (and has, in fact) and argue that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. But “absence” alone is not the argument.  The key that’s missing here is whether or not there is “positive” evidence to suggest that the “negative” evidence is actually telling you something.

Let me try to illustrate with two polar examples of “negative evidence” that come to mind. I have mentioned before that I am currently researching the historical ecology of wild turkeys (genus Meleagris) in California. The argument here is the age-old “absence of evidence” argument (almost context-for-context the same problem Lyman is addressing in White Goats, White Lies) and it goes something like this: we know turkeys were present in the Pleistocene in southern California but we do not find them elsewhere in California during this time and we do not find them archaeologically in the Holocene. Therefore, turkeys are not native to California and we should not be re-locating them anywhere in the state. I was perfectly willing to accept the “turkeys are not native” argument on the basis of “absence of evidence” – and assumed there was “positive” data to support this. I would have expected to find lots of archaeological sites rich in avian faunal remains from upland environments with absolutely no evidence of turkeys (positive evidence in support of negative evidence). As it happens, few archaeological sites appear to have good faunal collections; those that do have not been adequately sampled; of those that have been adequately sampled few have avian remains of any kind; of those that have been sampled adequately and have avian remains, I have yet to find any that sample the kinds of environments where you would expect to find turkeys. In this case, I have serious doubts about the “absence of evidence” argument.

However, let’s consider this in terms of biblical accounts and archaeological evidence. The problem for Patty is the exact opposite of the “turkey question” in California. Syro-Palestinian archaeologists are not simply digging randomly here and there and not finding support for biblical events – they are actively looking in locations and at time periods where you would expect to find evidence of such events and finding nothing. As an example, consider evidence for the mass of people supposedly fleeing Egypt during the biblical account in Exodus. Archaeologists have been hard pressed to find any archaeological evidence of such a massive migration. Arguments have been made that Bedouin-like nomads (to whom the escaping Hebrews have been compared in terms of lifestyle) do not construct significant houses and would not leave much in the way of an archaeological signature. But significant numbers of people leave considerable traces on the ground: hearths are made, tools are broken and discarded, food is eaten and tossed aside, animals die and pottery breaks. Even a small band of hunter-gatherers leaves considerable debris in its wake. Archaeologists have looked for the right material in the right places and produced “positive” evidence that the absence of an Exodus archaeologically is probably just what is: an absence of an exodus. The biblical passages are probably incorrect, either in scale, time, details or some multiple combinations of these plus other errors. It could even be that Exodus is later story, created sometime well after the time frame suggested by the bible. All of these would make sense from an archaeological and historical standpoint.

That it doesn’t make sense from a literalist biblical perspective is a problem only for those who hold a maximalist position.



  1. It’s the old Unicorn problem. So long as you can’t possibly not find a Unicorn everywhere at the same instant, you cannot say anything but that there is very high probability that Unicorns do not exist. And within that exceedingly slim opening lies all the belief by certain little girls that Unicorns do exist after all.

  2. I have a particular issue with Patty’s use of the old canard, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”

    Except that absence of evidence *is* evidence for absence. That is to say when you have a mythology that says one thing and an archaeological record that shows the evidence to be “absent” again and again, then this can only be used as evidence of an overall absence.

    The archaeological record looks exactly as we might expect if the Bronze and Iron Age authors of Biblical mythology made heave use of literary license to pen oral stories that were evolved from various cultural traditions within Mesopotamia and the Near East.

    Arguments have been made that Bedouin-like nomads (to whom the escaping Hebrews have been compared in terms of lifestyle) do not construct significant houses and would not leave much in the way of an archaeological signature. But significant numbers of people leave considerable traces on the ground:

    I would find it hard to believe that the equivalent to the population of Vancouver didn’t leave behind mounds of broken pottery, hearths, latrines, and well-worn trails trodden by thousands of men, women, and children. Not to mention ovicaprid remains like teeth and bone. And not a single wandering Jew left graffiti on rock faces near their encampments? They generated no waste at all? The city of Vancouver should be so lucky.

  3. Good points Carl, particularly those about leaving waste behind – the smallest hunter-gatherer groups leave signficant traces behind, even for ephemeral camps. There’s only one conclusion: archaeologists have looked for traces of the exodus and found none, because it either did not occur, or did not occur as the bible describes.

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