What Is ‘Evidence’?

One of the great problems in learning exegesis is that ‘evidence’ is not what you think it might be.† Or — to be more precise — most students don’t apply themselves to learning how to formulate a convincing exegetical argument; while student papers show many sorts of weakness,* I find the leading exegetical problem to involve how my students handle evidence in exegetical argument.
There’s a strong cultural reflex to treat the notion of ‘evidence’ as (pardon me) self-evident. When a much-publicised trial hinges on whether this or that item is admissible as evidence, many civilians feel outrage (or relief) based on our prior determination of whether the accused should be found guilty; if we know she did it, we wnt the knife to be counted as evidence (indeed, we usually simply assert that it is evidence), or if we know she’s been wrongfully accused, we feel certain that the knife doesn’t count as evidence (or that its implications as evidence is uncertain). All the more so do students typically approach the question of evidence in exegesis as a matter of justifying their prior intuitions (or convictions).
There’s surely no way to extirpate our intuitions and convictions from the way we weigh evidence, but if we don’t begin with a shared understanding what counts as evidence in biblical-interpretation discourses, and how that evidence functions, then we’re practically guaranteed to speak at cross-purposes. Imagine a courtroom in which prosecution and defence operated without any shared definition of ‘admissible evidence’; the judge would have some intractable challenges in evaluating their respective cases (and would quite likely fall back on exactly the unevidenced intuitions and convictions we’re trying to escape). If exegesis amounts to nothing more, it must amount to broadly agreed-upon conventions concerning ‘evidence’.
So, among the rules of evidence for biblical scholarship, one might enumerate the following:
Nothing can simply be taken at face value. Whether it be an evangelist’s report of what Jesus did or said, Pauline authorship of a letter, the function of the aorist participle, or the superscriptions of the gospels, or any other thing, one may not simply take it as a settled question. Quickly following this point: if you have [exegetical] reasons for taking your point for granted (that’s what footnotes are for), or if you’re addressing an audience that recognises a given point as sufficiently agreed-upon that it doesn’t require further justification (at the Evangelical Theological Society, one does not have to justify the assumption that Paul wrote Ephesians; at the Society of Biblical Literature, you need at least to note that you’re aware that most of your interlocutors don’t think Paul wrote Ephesians), then go ahead. One doesn’t have to footnote every observation. But once you’re aware that you can’t simply take it for granted that Paul wrote Ephesians, once you’re ready to do the work to back up that assumption with arguments, then you’re already working along exegetical lines.
But too many students substitute special pleading (or ignorance) for argument. ‘But Matthew was there!’ they cry — not because they’ve read Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, but because they simply haven’t caught the point that maybe Matthew’s Gospel is an anonymous text to which an apostle’s name was affixed retrospectively. To hark back to the judicial comparison, ‘Matthew saw it’ is hearsay; ‘The early church ascribed this claim to an eyewitness, so an eyewitness saw it’ won’t convince a judge any more than ‘My neighbour said that someone witnessed AKMA dumping a half-ton of garbage off a fifteen foot cliff at the bottom of which there was another pile of garbage, so AKMA must have done it’ will convict me of littering and creating a nuisance. But under ordinary circumstances, 27 eight-by-ten colour glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one will convince the same (clear-sighted) judge. We don’t have any direct evidence (comparable to photographs, which themselves might be staged anyway) from the first century — but we have numerous almost-universally-agreed premises,** the knowledge of which marks one essential step toward participating in exegetical discourse.
If there are some claims that function within exegetical discourses as taken-for-granted, there are also what we might call “second-degree premises’ — claims that are not held by a majority of scholars, but which are well-accepted enough to be recognised without causing a fuss. If important exegetical leverage depends on such a second-degree premise, though, one should be prepared for those who do not share it to count that reliance as a weakness to the claim.
This is getting too long, but I should not break off before I mention the topic of how exegetes work with evidence. I’m unsure about what to say in this regard; a great deal seems to be implied by the pattern of first-degree premises that a particular collective abides by. All such patterns have internal inconsistencies of oe sort or another, that will seem inexplicable to a novice and irritating to an outsider, especially an outsider student. The outsider and the novice will have internal inconsistencies, too, though, and the odds heavily favour the likelihood that the academic inconsistencies are better worked out than the intuitive inconsistencies of the unschooled outsider. In any case, students need to learn not just “what counts as evidence’, but also what are the licit uses to which evidence can be put. Hard as it is for me to describe this in a general way, it’s all the more difficult for someone who hasn’t spent the last dozen or so years thinking about the nature of evidence in biblical argument‡ — so most of the time, the student will have to learn by following an instructor’s example and internalising those patterns, or by reading a great deal of scholarly literature and absorbing from those writings the sorts of moves one can make. If I can come up with a better way of learning the appropriate uses of evidence, I promise I’ll write about it.
Now, though, it’s getting late, and I want to watch a TV show.


† One of my favourite books, one that I would lvoe to teach in a postgraduate seminar someday, is Questions of Evidence in the Critical Inquiry special symposium series (I mentioned it in my ‘Syllabus of my Imagination’ post). Questions takes the kind of discussion I open up here and shoots it into the intellectual stratosphere.
* To wit: bad spelling; weak sentence structure; incorrect use of words; lazy, inconsistent, bibliographic style; incoherent paragraphing; stream of semiconsciousness composition; utter absence of elucidating structure (related to preceding weakness). Note that none of these is an exegetical problem! If you want to write a better exegesis paper, begin by making sure you’re writing to the best of your abilities.
** Of course, the specific range of ‘almost-universally-agreed premises’ varies somewhat from pool of exegetes to pool of exegetes; the agreed premises at Birmingham aren’t the same as the agreed premises at Aberdeen, and the agreed premises will vary somewhat even at the same school, depending on who staffs a particular department. Likewise, the agreed premises of a given school of exegetes will be subject to change over time as some arguments lose the strength of their predominance, or as they gain adherents (taking changes in the status of Q as an example). Students whose intuitions and convictions do not match those of their instructors may need to stretch their analytical capacities to granting their instructors’ premises on a provisional basis, if only better to understand the ways that they handle evidence and arguments. Provisional insight into others’ arguments need not amount to a case of ‘welcoming one who does not walk in the truth’, but more precisely to ‘becoming all things to all people, that you may win the more’. Or just the basic rhetorical common sense that if you want to persuade someone of something, it usually works better if you argue on their terms.
‡ Either it will be difficult, or it will be described easily on the basis that ‘what we do is correct, and this is how to do it’, without the crucially important consideration that other top-rank scholars do things differently elsewhere.

3 thoughts on “What Is ‘Evidence’?

  1. Parish ministry is a wonderful laboratory for exploring what is “not” evidence in biblical exegesis. Thank you for your insights.

  2. Hi, I am from Australia.
    Please find a reference by a Radiant Being who was thoroughly familiar with all of the recent scholarship re the origins of the Bible and the Christian tradition altogether.

    He quite often humorously (and quite seriously too) asked where is the Polaroid evidence and/or unambiguously solid documentary evidence for any of the so called “reports” of the life and teaching of Saint Jesus of Galilee. There are of course none at all.


    Plus a reference which describes how conventional exoteric religion is psychicly and Spiritually dead, and therefore entirely God-less.


    Plus this shocking reference too.


  3. Umm – shouldn’t you have attributed the relevant text to Arlo Guthrie? After all, you don’t want to be done for plagiarism, do you? 🙂

    The other thing that needs to be taken into account is that even if Matthew *was* there and *did* see it, there is no guarantee that the detail of what he remembered 30 or so years on is totally accurate.

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