Posted on behalf of Yehudah Gellman
Sometimes, absence of evidence for p does not count as evidence for not-p. So, there being an absence of evidence for, say, that there are 1.2 billion ants in Jerusalem does not count as evidence that there are not 1.2 billion ants in Jerusalem. At other times, however, absence of evidence for p does count as evidence for not-p. So, that there are no signs of footprints in the mud is not only an absence of evidence that somebody has just recently walked in the mud, but is evidence that nobody has walked there. The difference seems to be this:
The absence of evidence for p is evidence for not-p when – were p true, then there would be evidence for p.
The more evidence there should be for p and there is not, the more evidence there is that not-p.
In what follows I will refer to natural evidence, independent of religious authority as simply “evidence.”
The conclusion I want to argue for is that regard to the biblical story of the stay of the Israelites in Egypt, and their exodus from Egypt, their sojourn in the desert, and invasion of Canaan, (hereafter: The Exodus Story) we have strong evidence that the story did not take place. And the argument is this: If the story did take place, we would have strong evidence in its favor. But none of the evidence that should exist does exist. Therefore, we have strong evidence against the truth of the story.
My argument begins with noting that we have massive, detailed records from ancient Egypt from the era that the Exodus story would have taken place. These include military records, commercial records, court records, and royal records, as well as art and archeological locations. The Exodus story is such that if it were true, then evidence of its truth would appear in those records and artefacts. But it does not appear. Hence, it did not occur. Here are the details of the argument:
- Population experts conclude that the population of ancient Egypt could not have been more than 5-7 million people. If the Exodus story were true, there would have been 2-3 million Israelites, a sizable segment of the whole population. If this were true, then they would have to appear in commercial, military, Royal, and court records to be sure. Yet, there is no mention of Israelites in any of that. The term “Hapiru” was once claimed to be a reference to the Israelites, but that has been disproved.
- If what became 2-3 million ethnic people living in a centralized way in a part of Egypt, Goshen, for a few hundred years, there should be a record of that in archives and in archeology. Egypt has been extensively studied by archeologists. No evidence of such a thing has ever been found.
- If 2-3 million people suddenly departed Egypt there should be records of enormous economic upheaval and readjustment within Egypt. Commercial records show not even a blip in the economic life of Egypt at the time. Nothing. Royal records should show signs of reorganizing of labor, of supplies, etc. etc. Nothing shows up there. Military records should reflect the aftermath of a roundly defeated army, even if we should not expect a statement of the defeat. There should be records of large-scale reassignments and rebuilding, of a shortage of trained soldiers, etc. Nothing of that sort exists. Military records go on as usual.
- If 2-3 million people lived for 40 years in the desert, almost all of it at one spot, and if a similar number died in the desert, there should be considerable evidence of their presence. Mass burial grounds, encampments, various artefacts, jewelry, pottery, and the like. Nothing of the sort has ever been found, despite extensive archeological surveys of the Sinai desert. Sites of small ancient Beduin encampments HAVE been discovered in that desert. Nothing of the Israelites.
- If Pharoes’ army perished at a waterway, we should expect some evidence of it in a waterway somewhere, remains of chariot parts, weapons, etc. Nothing of the sort has ever been found.
- Had the Israelites invaded Canaan in the numbers reported, there would be archeological evidence of that presence. The country has been closely studied by archeologists, and the evidence is of only a small Israelite presence in the hill area. If there had been a massive presence, by now it would have been discovered.
- Perhaps one can find here and there snatches of some minor evidence in favor of the Exodus story. But that remains so minimal as to be trampled by the other considerations.
Taken all of this together, I conclude that there is strong evidence that the Exodus story never occurred.
In reply, it might be said that the Exodus story occurred and God prevented the creation of any evidence for the Exodus story, or that God made all the evidence that was there to disappear. Why God would do that is a mystery, but in any case God’s actions are often inscrutable. Hence, one can believe in the Exodus story since one has an explanation for why there is no evidence to be found for it.
This leads us to the question of what justifies a belief in the Exodus Story. If I believe it simply because I took somebody’s word for it, or on the basis of “tradition,” then the massive evidence against the story, ie. the absence of massive evidence that should be there, should be more than enough to prohibit me from continuing to have that belief.
But perhaps my belief in the Exodus story was formed when I was reading the story in the Bible, and had the sense that God was telling me that the story was true. A “Divine Sense” formed the belief in me in an analogous way to how a perceptual sense forms in me the belief that the sun is shining. Beliefs formed in this properly basic way are resistant to evidential challenges. They are intrinsic defeaters of counter-evidence. You might have evidence on paper that the sun is not shining now, but I see that it is shining, and my seeing trumps your counter-evidence. Just so, my experience when reading the biblical account of the Exodus story formed in me a properly basic belief in the truth of the story, a belief that trumps counter-evidence.
There are a few problems with this response:
- Properly basic beliefs are not immune from being defeated by evidence. A point can come when the counter-evidence is so strong that the properly basic belief must be given up. That seems to be the case in the present instance.
- The appeal to properly basic beliefs should be held back for a last-ditch response. As an early response it is to be discouraged. That is because the appeal to such beliefs will stop all discussion, and can turn into a refuge for epistemic criminals. It can become an insidious tool of a protective strategy for ignoring massive evidence against one’s cherished beliefs. The appeal to properly basic beliefs as defeaters should be held back for a doomsday weapon.
- It is an open question how many readers of this blog can say honestly that their belief in the Exodus story is a properly basic belief. If so, it is an open question to what extent religious Jews are in their epistemic rights to believe that the story of the Exodus is true.
One might reply, as someone has to me, that it is a matter of one’s identity that there was an Exodus. One should not have to give up one’s identity because of counter-evidence. That would be too damaging to the self. So there is a practical justification for continuing to believe in the Exodus in the face of counter-evidence.
In reply, I question whether it is the truth of the Exodus story or the narration of the story and thinking in terms of the narration which is constitutive of a self-identity, whether or not its truth is believed. It might be, that the shift from believing true to thinking in terms of, will retain self-identity, even if playing havoc with one’s belief structure.
I conclude with some questions: Do you believe in the truth of the Exodus story? If so, do you deny the evidence I have brought? Do you think the evidence is defeated by other considerations? If so, what are they?