The onus/burden of proof

Over at Peje Iesous, Chris Skinner recently commented about Charles Hedrick talking about the ‘onus of proof’ being on those who claim that Thomas is dependent on the Synoptics, which reminded me of how irritating I find this kind of statement. We both agreed that Hedrick is not by any means the only person to use these words –  Simon Gathercole, Nicholas Perrin and Robert McIver use them, or ‘burden of proof’, too, as do others – and we also both agreed that the onus of proof is on anyone who makes an assertion, not those who wish to disagree with her or him. This is especially the case in the area of Thomas studies where there is very little scholarly consensus on anything.

I would go further than that, though, I think. I find it really difficult to see how scholars can talk about proof at all when all that we have in the way of evidence is three Greek manuscript fragments that nobody realised were from Thomas for half a century after they were found, one more or less full manuscript in Coptic and a few quotes or paraphrases, generally disparaging, from various of the church fathers. I am not even convinced that we can talk about proof when dealing with the canon, given that everyone recognises that the content was not written down until several decades after the events and teachings that they portray. We may have theories that fit the facts, or theories that fit the facts better than other theories – although the fit of the latter usually depends on what weighting you want to give to various pieces of evidence – but we really don’t have proof!

Honesty, I would suggest, would compel us to acknowledge that the best we can really do is to propose a series of more likely possibilities and make choices between them on the basis of what fits best with our particular world view and view of Scripture. Typically, when someone says “the burden/onus  is on you to disprove what I have said” they are standing on one side of a divide which is caused by disagreement over basic, underlying principles. The words make me want to look very carefully for holes in the argument being propounded.

This kind of problem becomes very clear when you watch debates between Richard Dawkins and whoever the local favourite Christian leader is. The atheists in the audience are generally sure that Dawkins has won and the conservative Christians in the audience generally think that the Christian leader has won, but since Dawkins’ arguments are based on the premise that there is no God and the Christian leaders’ are based on the premise that God created the world and everything in it, neither is going to find the arguments of the other convincing.

Unless we find more old manuscripts of Thomas, I think that the best we can realistically hope for is to outline the problems that our particular solutions solve and those they raise and accept that some Thomas scholars will agree with us and others will not be convinced at all. We need to learn to live with the fact that we probably can’t be generally acknowledged to be right, but we can be rigorous and we should all strive to be interesting. 🙂