Monday, September 24, 2012

The absence of evidence proves everything

It is a common meme in our modern age that history is written by the winners. That is, the paper trail of evidence we have is there because those who won the battles and controlled the empires made it say what it said for their purposes.  Of course this is a little broad, as we sometimes have alternate versions of history from sources clearly outside the dominate viewpoint.  Nonetheless, it's a popular narrative, and it is the milk and honey of modern scholarship, especially the very agenda driven scholarship today that does not seek to follow the evidence, but seeks to make sure the evidence conforms to what we already know should be true.

The ease with which this narrative allows us to rewrite anything from the past is almost breathtaking. After all, we reason, if the history was written by the winners, that suggests strongly that the history cannot be trusted. And in our era of rebels without a cause, we're going to assume anyone fighting the machine was the good guys who were right.  This is especially true if the ones fighting the machine were advancing something I support.  So from here it takes modern scholars no time at all to say that clearly historical narrative X is false, and rather Z is true, even if we have no evidence for Z, because X was only written to oppress the masses.  X clearly is false.

Now, thinking people who were smart enough to avoid college will step back at this point and say, "Wait a minute.  Maybe X is false.  But how do you know Z is true?  Just because X is false doesn't mean Z is true.  Heck, just because X was written by the winners doesn't necessarily mean X is false.  And again, even if it is, you can't say Z is true unless you have evidence, can you?"

Well, our intrepid observer sans college degree is correct.  First off, just because history was written by 'the winners' does not, in itself, mean that the history written was false.  It may have been slanted, focused on certain things, but maybe not entirely false.  Or heck, it might have been true. Should we assume that just because our society venerates Martin Luther King, Jr., and celebrates the Civil Rights era, that I should dismiss anything it says?  After all, Civil Rights is celebrated by all the vendors of public information, and if the narrative is correct, doesn't that mean we might only be getting select versions of MLK and the Civil Rights era?  Should we dismiss that?  Hmmm?

So just because something is the narrative of the established culture or society or political power or whatever, doesn't  mean it's necissarily wrong.  But even if it is, even if we find out that the 'official story' was warped and twisetd and a string of lies, then what?  Especially if we follow with the popular examples of the powerful destroying and wiping out evidence of any competing ideas.  I mean, we just can't say something is true unless there is evidence.  Why, there could be missing evidence that suggests neither official paper trail X, or alternate theory based on my own views Z are true.  Correct?

All this is to say, the recent media storm about the fragment of papyrus that maybe could possibly suggest there might be a chance that Jesus was married goes to show one thing: don't trust the media to learn about scholarship.  But it also shows something else.  In a piece for the New York Times, the always reliable Ross Douthat breaks down why this was much ado about nothing.  Fine.  It's a great read.

When you are done with his sensible, and quite honestly correct, take on the story, read the comments.  Look at how often people invoke the 'Constantine and Rome and the Catholic Church won, they got to write the story their way, the other real story was never known.'  Look at the assumption in some of those arguments that because the Church emerged as the official version, it is necessarily wrong.  Look at those who assume there is really some other actual version of the Real Jesus, even if there is no other evidence to suggest another real Jesus.  Look at the intellectual laziness that has come to define the internet age, where people are commenting simply based on fad scholarship, with no real evidence or clue that evidence is needed.

It's an eye opener.  For the record, the only thing we know is that the earliest and most reliable documents we have about Jesus comes from the books gathered into the New Testament.  As of now, those are it.  Of course they could be lies.  They could be wrong. They could be made up fantasies.  But right now, unless you want to dismiss them outright and leave it at that (and by extension, dismiss two thirds of what we think we know about the ancient world which as far less evidence to support it), you can say nothing else.  There is simply no evidence for these hippy, secular, post-sixties cultural revolution models of Jesus.  They might be funny things to listen to, but there is not a scrap of evidence to support them.  Therefore, our good non-college graduate might be inclined to say "I'm staying with the paper trail we have unless I see another paper trail that clearly suggests the original paper trail was wrong.  I'm sure as heck not going to believe a theory that has no other evidence except to say the winners wrote the history, so the official story must be wrong."  And our faithful observer would be wise indeed to approach this, and most of what you hear regarding such theories, with the same cautioned skepticism.

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