One of the many things that I appreciated about Markschies book Christian Theology and Its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire is his willingness to refrain from speculation where there isn’t any evidence. Many times he would begin to say something about the lack of evidence for something and I would expect him to then give some sort of qualified speculative guess only to be sadly disappointed. I was shocked to see someone just stop and admit that we don’t—and probably—can’t know.
A German friend said that this is not uncommon for German historians. A lack of evidence is where a German historian ends and where German biblical scholars begin. He was joking—I think. Anyways, what to do with absence of evidence is a constant struggle that I have not only as I do history but also in life in general. I find that I am daily confronted with a striking absence of evidence from which I am supposed to draw some sort of conclusion. How should I go about that? Or, is there a point at which I must stop and say, “this far and no further”? A little bit of evidence is a dangerous thing if one does not know how to move from that little bit of information to conclude something for which one has no direct evidence.
Of course, this has been a problem since the beginning of time (sorry, currently grading papers…). Actually, I should say this is a problem that has been addressed in various ways in classical Greek literature. The first that comes to mind is the eikos argument in the rhetorical tradition. I’ve written on this before, but briefly put, the eikos argument is an argument from probability. Is it more likely that so and so, being of a certain character type, did X than Y? An early example of this is Homer’s Hymn to Hermes, in which he relates a story of Hermes stealing some cattle from Apollo who subsequently takes him to court (i.e., before Zeus). In an elaborate speech, Hermes characterizes himself as a small and weak child, asking the judge if he looks like (ἔοικα) a mighty man who herds cattle. Hermes is arguing that he couldn’t have stolen the cattle because only a mighty man could do such a thing, and he looks nothing like a mighty man. We might think this type of reasoning is weak and rhetorically manipulative, but it’s a persistent form of argument that is not difficult to find. I think the contemporary title for it is “the internet.”
This question was also addressed extensively by the philosophical schools. James Allen, in his book Inference from Signs: Ancient Debates about the Nature of Evidence, gives good summaries of how various philosophical schools (Aristotle, the Epicureans, the Stoics, the Skeptics, and the medical schools [Rationalists and Empiricists]) answered this question. I’m excited to jump into this book and see the different approaches to “inference from signs.” I’ll blog about it if I’m able.