Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Positive Absence

The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This is a basic historiographical principle. It is one that requires some qualification, as there is a notable exception: except when one should reasonably anticipate to find evidence of presence. We could go more into the various permutations involved, but the question that interests me here is what happens when the evidence to be sought is literally absence. I'm thinking here of aniconic worship in ancient Israel. Joshua 8:30-35 mentions that Israel under Joshua built an altar to YHWH at Mt. Ebal, and there sacrificed various offerings. Combined with ancient Israelite aniconism and the supposition that the book of Joshua contains at least some usable data relevant to understanding the conditions in ancient Canaan c. 1200 BCE, we can on the basis of this text predict that we will find at Mt. Ebal the remains of a cultic installation dating from around that time that contains evidence of animal sacrifice and an absence of images. And that is precisely what has been found, and it is in fact quite unique among Canaanite sites of the time. Whether this cultic installation has anything to do with Joshua or not is a different story, but the current state of the evidence seems to stand as confirmation of the Deuteronomistic History's report that some but far from all residents of Canaan at the close of the Bronze Age and the transition to the Iron were already engaged in patterns of worship that included an absence of images.

But we are left with a situation wherein the absence of evidence constitutes evidence of presence: the absence of images has confirmed the presence of aniconism, and this because aniconism is precisely the absence of images. It does so however only because we have reason to anticipate an absence of images. That is to say, absence of images on its own is probably not enough to posit aniconic worship. It is the combination of reports that aniconism was practiced by a certain people in this time and place with material remains that are consistent with aniconism which allows us to conclude with reasonable confidence that Mt. Ebal represents a form of aniconic worship present in Canaan c. 1200 BCE. Every time that one finds such convergence in the data one is reminded of the perils of thinking that it is reasonable to think that in an area for which we have such a rich literary tradition it makes sense to ignore that tradition in thinking about its history (and note that it does not follow from this that one should simply affirm that everything in the biblical text is true. The statement "The biblical texts contain data relevant for the study of pre-monarchic Israelite history" hardly entails such a maximalist conclusion, just as the statement "Not everything in these texts pertains to the time that they purportedly describe" entails the minimalist conclusion that there is no data there of relevance for our understanding the pre-monarchic or any other period).

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