Jonah and Making Big Evidence Claims

Reading through our text for this week and this paragraph stood out to me,

The book of Jonah identifies neither the author nor the date of composition. The historical value of the book is necessarily related to the dating of the book. Some, as early as the Babylonian Talmud (b. Bat. 14b-15a), have argued that a postexilic writer authored it. However, the language does not demand this dating. Identifications of Aramaic influences are not as persuasive as the were fifty years ago, before the discovery of a much more common presence of Aramaic during the Iron Age. Nor does this expression “king of Ninevah” guarantee that the book is an anachronistic re-creation of a fictional past. Scholars now recognize that there are many gaps in their understanding of Assyria during the first half ot the eight century BC. it is possible that (1) an Assyrian monarch could have been known by this title; (2) Ninevah could have been a significant city at this time, where the king might have stayed; or (3) a writer in Israel could have interpreted the king of a region by its major city. For the latter, Sihon is called king of the Amonites (Deut. 1:4; 3:2; 4:46) and king of Heshbon (Deut. 2:24, 26, 30), and Jabin can be called king of Canaan(ites) (Judg. 4:2, 23, 24) and king of Hazor (Judg. 4:17). (pp 240-41, emphasis added).

The emphasized phrase above is an important remainder to all of us that we shouldn’t be too dogmatic about something just because we don’t yet possess evidence for or against it.

I’ll hear comments like, “There’s no evidence for [X].” As if the entire catalog of antiquity is in our possession. Fun fact: it’s not.

Archaeologists pull things out of the dirt on a pretty regular basis. Present scholarship not being aware of a piece of evidence is not the same as there not being such a piece –especially when it relates to matters taking place over two millennia ago.

I’m sensitive to this because, as the above quote demonstrates, I also seem to hear a lot of, “Well, scholars used to think X until Y was discovered.”

Statements like that always make me smile because it’s more properly stated, “Scholars PRESUMED a possible hypothesis until somebody found a scrap of something that blew out their theses.”

As Daniel Wallace quotes William Lane, “An ounce of evidence is worth a pound of presumption.”

So my recommendation is that we say, “We don’t have” or “We don’t yet have” such and such –a much more measured way of arguing than saying, “There is no X.”

It also has the added pedagogical benefit of maybe inspiring people to follow, appreciate, or even participate in archaeology or manuscript work. Every generation needs a group of dedicated people to go dig around and find the evidence. We’ll only raise up that group if we cultivate a culture that anticipates and treasures such discoveries.