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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Evidence and the Falsification Principle

The crisis of confidence in reconstructing Israelite history by relying principally on the Hebrew Bible has been brought about by a convergence of factors: the lack of agreement on the dating of biblical texts and a consequent lack of agreement on the social production of this literature and its reception, the increasing archaeological data, the impact of the social sciences on the study of the Bible, and the increasing influence of literary studies of biblical narratives. This has led to a situation in which Provan, Long, and Longman (2003: 51) claim that scholars ‘feel the need to justify the acceptance, rather than justify the rejection, of biblical testimony in particular’. They ask:

Why should not ancient historical texts rather be given the benefit of the doubt in regard to their statements about the past unless good reasons exist to consider them unreliable in these statements and with due regard (of course) to their literary and ideological features? In short, why should we adopt a verification rather than a falsification principle? Why should the onus be on the texts to ‘prove’ themselves valuable in respect of history, rather than on those who question their value to ‘prove’ them false? (Provan, Long, and Longman (2003: 55)

It is this principle of falsification, allied strongly with the claim that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’, which distinguishes their attempts to write a ‘biblical history of Israel’ from standard volumes of the 1980s and onwards. Thus the complete lack of archaeological evidence for Jerusalem in the tenth century BCE is not allowed to undermine the biblical picture of this as the capital of David's and Solomon's kingdom. The employment of the falsification principle and the claim that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence means that there is nothing which can count against the ‘testimony’ of the biblical traditions about David. However, the counter-claim that Jerusalem was little more than a small rural town in the tenth century and that the traditions in Samuel do not offer a reliable picture of the past is falsifiable. If archaeologists reveal extensive tenth-century levels, pottery, monumental architecture, or even texts, then historians who currently question the standard picture of an extensive Davidic monarchy or even ‘empire’ will be forced to re-evaluate their conclusions. However, on the basis of the present state of knowledge, with clear evidence for occupation before and after the early Iron Age, the silence is very significant and cannot be dismissed as some form of prejudice against the biblical traditions. It is an important factor in weighing the biblical sources as evidence for the period.

The acceptance of the double principle—the principles of falsification and absence—means that the historian must accept the testimony of the Iliad or Odyssey in writing a history of Greece or of the Bhagavad Gita when producing a history of ancient India unless it is possible to falsify their claims. What evidence could be produced to falsify the story of the Trojan horse, the death of Achilles, or the fantastic tales of the Bhagavad Gita? It is difficult to see what evidence could be produced to falsify the claim that Balaam's ass could talk (Num. 22: 23–30). Any number of non-talking donkeys could be produced, only to be refuted by the mantra that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. Thus the ancient text would have to be given the benefit of the doubt. For, as they claim, ‘there is no good reason to believe, either, that an account which describes the unique or unusual is for that reason to be suspected of unreliability’ (Provan, Long, and Longman 2003: 70). This is important for Provan, Long, and Longman, since they wish to leave space for the surprising, including divine action within history.

The adoption of this double principle leads to an even more disturbing situation. Suppose that historians in the future, due to some cataclysmic event in the past, are left only with the writings of David Irving on the Second World War and the Holocaust. Are they to be condemned to accepting his accounts of Hitler, the Nazis, and the Holocaust because they could not be falsified?8 See Evans (2001) on the use of archive materials in order to challenge Irving's accounts in the famous libel case brought against Deborah Lipstadt. The judge accepted that Irving had manipulated the documentary evidence. Evans argues strongly that the central issue in the trial was the way in which historians find out about the past through the critical examination of the evidence. All history is about comparison and judgement. History, however, is about comparison and probabilities, not the certainties of verification and falsification. Elton (1983: 100) made the point that all history writing is contingent and open to revision as more evidence is found, questions are reformulated, and adjacent areas undergo development. Major historical problems do not reach definitive solutions, ‘and this is because a term like verification has virtually no usable meaning in history’. It is this problem of contingency and revision which is at odds with a theology of divine action in history and certainty.

The key question for the historian is how to judge between the competing claims of various sources. Provan, Long, and Longman (2003: 53) assert that ‘we “know” what we claim to know about the history of Israel, we assert here, by listening to testimony, to interpretation, and by making choices about whom to believe.’ Yet how are these judgements to be made? Their assertion is that the ancient texts should be accepted unless they can be falsified. Yet they appear to confuse verification with certainty, and claim that those they label as sceptics are looking for certainty. However, as Bloch (1954: 124) pointed out half a century ago:

For doubt to become the tool of knowledge it is necessary, in each particular case, that the degree of probability of coincidence can be weighed with some exactitude. Here the path of historical research, like that of so many other disciplines of the mind, intersects the royal highway of the theory of probabilities.

Notes:

8 See Evans (2001) on the use of archive materials in order to challenge Irving's accounts in the famous libel case brought against Deborah Lipstadt. The judge accepted that Irving had manipulated the documentary evidence. Evans argues strongly that the central issue in the trial was the way in which historians find out about the past through the critical examination of the evidence. All history is about comparison and judgement.

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