I think we’ve all heard this platitude before: Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. It’s a common argument(sic!) trotted out by apologists when atheists say “There’s not enough evidence to believe in God.”
I want to mention the argument in a slightly different context. I’ve been sucked in yet again to the John Loftus claim that Jesus most likely existed. I try not to get into this because I really don’t have a firm position, but I hate it when people who shouldn’t have firm positions do anyway. I’m going to briefly outline — in obscenely broad strokes — the things that pretty much all credible scholars agree on:
1) There is absolutely no contemporary evidence for Jesus. That is, there is not one shred of literature written by or about Jesus while he was alive. There are no artifacts pointing to his existence. There are no records, Jewish, Roman, or otherwise, with any reference to anyone who could be reasonably called Jesus. There is nothing.
2) There is scant evidence within perhaps 50 years of Jesus alleged death. The only legitimate evidence is literary. Again, there are no artifacts with his picture, or alleged possesions of his, or anything. Nothing. The only literary evidence is in the form of two sets of documents — the Gospel(s) and the Pauline Epistles. The Gospel reads like fiction even though it’s set in the recent past. The Epistles are written by a man who claims that his knowledge of Jesus came in a vision.
3) After the first century C.E. there’s a ton of literature mentioning Jesus. However, it should be pointed out that a skeptic must realize that this is evidence that lots of people believed in Jesus — not that Jesus existed.
That’s it. That’s the evidence for Jesus. Jesus historians spin various scenarios in which the various pieces of literary evidence seem to point to credibility as historical documents. The mythicists spin it the other way and say the evidence points to ahistoricity.
Ok, with all that in mind, let’s examine the phrase: Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. What exactly does that mean?
Epistemologically, it is patently false. The way we know something is by evidence. If there is no evidence for a thing, we can say nothing about it whatsoever. We can’t postulate its existence, nor can we assert its nonexistence. If I ask you to speculate on the existence of schpimble, you have no epistemic rights to do so since you have no evidence indicating what it might be.
When historians use the phrase, however, it takes on a slightly more nuanced meaning. (Beware: I normally hate the word “nuanced” in discussions of this sort. It usually is just a subtle jab, as if to say “You aren’t smart enough to understand.”) When a historian looks at a particular figure for which there is a question of historicity, he cannot, strictly from a paucity of evidence, rule out his historical existence. To put it precisely, there is evidence for Jesus, or we’d have never heard of him. The question is threefold: Is there evidence for a historical or mythical Jesus, how should the evidence be weighed, and how reliable it is?
Unfortunately, this particular truth is often misappropriated for arguments which are not sufficiently supported. This is particularly true, in my opinion, of Jesus historians. It seems that every treatise on the historical Jesus that I read makes this mistake. They say essentially that all this later reference to Jesus makes a case — a conclusion with which I take issue — and then they say that a mythicist cannot use the lack of evidence as a positive argument.
Let me make this clear. Epistemically, the lack of evidence doesn’t prove a mythicist’s case, but it absolutely can be used within certain boundaries as evidence against historicity. The question a historian ought to be asking is this: “With a character like Jesus, would we find it startling if there was no contemporary record of his existence?”
For some characters, even if they were historical, we’d be surprised to find anything written by or about them during their lives. For instance, in the family tree of John Doe, we might find a posthumous reference to Baby Jack Doe, John Doe’s great-great-great-great uncle who died in infancy at sea, born to an illiterate sailor moving his itinerate family to a new home. We should be rather shocked to find anything of the baby’s, because nobody would bother to keep a swaddling cloth or a locke of hair. Babies died all the time. The circumstances of his life and death were insignificant historically, but we find that someone a couple of generations later decided it was important to record the oral memory. Thus, we can have a perfectly legitimate case for a historical figure for whom there is no record for fifty years.
What of Jesus? I don’t know the answer to this, but in the case of John Loftus account, Jesus was a charismatic and apparently well known apocolyptic preacher, at least somewhat reminiscent of the Gospel Jesus. I say this because John appears convinced that even with the overwhelming majority of the stories containing magic, mysticism, gods, and demons, there is a factual basis for this man. If that is so, is it reasonable to conclude that he was famous, or at least that he influenced a lot of people? Was he a magician? A political up and comer? A malcontent?
The point is that the more contemporary importance we ascribe to a historical Jesus, the more difficult it becomes to reconcile fifty years of silence with regard to his existence. Jesus historians occupy the unfortunate position in which they shoot themselves in the foot every time they elevate Jesus in importance! Are they vehemently arguing for a Jesus who was historically irrelevant? If so, they may have a very strong case. But… why? If we’re looking for an itinerant preacher, there are thousands of those we can find. What makes this one so important? So what if he was the inspiration for a gospel. Was the gospel about him? Clearly not because we’ve just admitted that he wasn’t important!
On the other hand, if we are going to claim that Jesus was a very important figure, important enough that a religion sprung up around him, the burden of proof shifts to us to provide a plausible explanation for fifty years of silence in the face of his very significant existence!
Again, let me emphasize that I’m not claiming that Jesus did or did not exist. Hell, I have no idea who most Jesus historians are claiming to have existed. If you read ten different authors, you get ten different figures. (This, by the way, demands an explanation as well, don’t you think?) The point I’m making is that historians don’t get to play both sides of the field — or as Dan Dennett says, they don’t get to put the net up on our serves and return with the net down. The lack of evidence is not proof of ahistoricity, but it is surely not a help for the case of historicity! I feel like many historians throw this in the face of mythicists as if such a banal platitude does anything but muddy the waters.
Finally, I’d like to return to something I’ve recently chided John about on his blog. I think he is very well meaning in his discussions about his beliefs. I think he feels he has a very strong case. What I am not sure of is whether or not he has the epistemic right to make the claim. Perhaps I am wrong about this, but I am led to believe that John Loftus is not a historical scholar, nor an archaeologist, nor a linguist, nor a textual critic. He has degrees in divinity unless I am mistaken. He is certainly a well read man, and I do not mean to malign his status as a thinker. I do think it worthy of mention that even the most well read Jack of All Trades must be careful to claim only what he can legitimately claim. I write in broad generalizations about well established theories of evolutionary and human science. I do this because I know better than to make specific scientific claims I am not prepared to back up. We’ve all heard of Jesus, and most of us know a bit about first century Palestine, but the fact is, unless we have spent our lives in textual criticism or some related field, we don’t have the professional chops to make pronouncements about this matter.
In the same way that someone who has read every book Richard Dawkins has written is not prepared to teach a college class on evolution, I’m afraid neither John Loftus or I am qualified to make an authoritative statement on Jesus’ historicity. It is a hotly debated topic among people who have devoted their whole lives to its intensive study. I declare myself agnostic with regard to Jesus existence, though I am quite capable of realizing the terrible burden of proof for those who claim he did. As a skeptic, I must weigh the lack of evidence carefully, making sure not to build a case for mythicism entirely on its shoulders, but recognizing its ability to seriously undercut any argument for historicity.
So, until more evidence comes in, I must remain, as with all things…. skeptical.