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. 🙂

6 thoughts on “The onus/burden of proof

  1. Pingback: Hypotyposeis » Where the Onus of Proof Belongs

  2. Thanks for the links, Judy. You make good points about proof in gospel study. I like what Stephen Carlson says in his blog above, ‘Hypotyposeis,’ that the onus of proving something should be on oneself, in one’s own arguments.

  3. A wonderful rant, Juday, and so true. I have found that when someone pulls out the “onus is on you”, their argument is usually rather weak. Just an observation. Keep up the good work.

  4. Pingback: Biblioblog Carnival “according to Mark” « Euangelion Kata Markon

  5. Ehrman may well find it plausible to make a claim that Jesus existed, as atheist head of a University NT Studies department, such a claim would at least be self-serving. What Ehrman, or any other secular critic TLT et all psychologically cannot do is identify or even admit the possibility of the one NT source of apostolic witness to Jesus. The atheist stance effectively is a declaration that the Guild of NT studies is not a legitimate discipline.
    A viable historical solution to the “Jesus Puzzle” has taken place within the Guild of NT studies, the only discipline capable, not only of identifying our primary Scriptural source of apostolic witness to Jesus, but of appropriately interpreting this source as well. However, “few are they who find it” even among well-known NT scholars. Finding it, this historical solution, is “a task to which specialized knowledge in the areas of philology, form and redaction criticism, literary criticism, history of religions, and New Testament theology necessarily applies.” (Hans Dieter Betz). “Over the last two centuries, there gradually emerged a new access to Jesus, made available through objective historical research.” (James M. Robinson). Under the force of present historical methods and knowledge this new access was brought to a highly creditable understanding during the 1980’s. Schubert Ogden: “We now know not only that none of the Old Testament writings is prophetic witness to Jesus, but also that none of the writings of the New Testament is apostolic witness as the early church itself understood apostolicity. The sufficient evidence for this point in the case of the New Testament writings is that all of them have been shown to depend on sources, written or oral, earlier than themselves, and hence not to be the original and originating witness that the early church mistook them to be in judging them to be apostolic. [“The sufficient evidence” without the agonizing mythical detail of what the writings of the NT does contain, which now supplies the grist for the blogsphere mythicists’ mill] – – the witness of the apostles is still rightly taken to be the real ‘Christian’ (Jesus tradition) norm, even if we today have to locate this norm, not In the writings of the New Testament but in the earliest stratum of witness accessible to us, given our own methods of historical analysis and reconstruction.” Betz identifies this earliest stratum to be the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:3-7:27). “This source presents us with an early form – deriving from (the Jerusalem Jesus Movement, to date it around 50 CE) — which had direct links to the teaching the historical Jesus and thus constituted an alternative to Gentile Christianity (hence to orthodox Christianity) as known above all from the letters of Paul and the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the New Testament. [All are written in the context of imaging the Christ of faith, not the man Jesus]. If the Sermon on the Mount represents a response to the teaching of Jesus critical of that of (Pauline) Gentile Christianity, then it serves unmistakably to underline the well-known fact of how little we know of Jesus and his teaching. The reasons for our lack of knowledge are of a hermeneutical sort and cannot be overcome by an excess of good will (apologetics). The Gentile Christian authors of the Gospels transmitted to us only that part of the teaching of Jesus that they themselves understood, they handed on only that which they were able to translate into the thought categories of Gentile Christianity, and which they judged to be worthy of transmission. (More to the point they included no more than they thought sufficient to lend historical credence to their Pauline Christ of faith myth). – – from these texts his original teaching can neither be reconstructed nor abstracted in its entirety.” This calls for a new reconstruction of post-execution Jesus traditions. Ed Jones Dialogue -Vridar is such an attempt.

  6. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival LXVI: “According to Mark” « The Jesus Memoirs

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