The limitations of physical evidence
Published: 9 June 2012 (GMT+10)
Derek B, Australia, wrote in with the question:
Are you aware of any physical evidence for the talking snake of Genesis?
Lita Cosner replied:
The short answer to your question—as you may be aware, there is not one shred of physical evidence for the talking snake—we wouldn’t expect there to be, and it’s not a problem in the least to believe that there was a talking snake while acknowledging the complete lack of physical evidence. To explain why, it requires a bit of understanding about the nature and limitations of various forms of evidence.
Physical evidence only exists for a very limited number of things. You see, physical evidence, by definition, is a physical object here in the present. Some claims by nature have no physical evidence because the claims aren’t physical in nature—for instance “We can only have eternal life through Jesus”, “I love you”, and so forth—things that are spiritual, emotional, or cerebral in nature have no physical evidence because they’re not physical claims.
Some things once had physical evidence, but we’ve lost access to that evidence. For instance, a very high proportion of first-century men in Israel were named Yeshua, but we’ve lost all evidence for most of them—if you lived in the first century, the physical evidence would have consisted of going around and seeing them, and inscriptions talking about this one or the other (and all but one would not be the Yeshua that we now know as Jesus in the English-speaking world). The further back one goes, the more likely it is that the vast majority of the physical evidence has been lost through sheer entropy. For instance, we know through documentary evidence that every Roman governor kept detailed records, and each Roman soldier got ‘pay slips’ detailing their wages, yet not one scrap of physical evidence remains for any of this. And the physical evidence for many historical events is ephemeral by nature. Once in a while physical evidence that was lost is recovered—for instance, the pool of Siloam was uncovered in Jerusalem, and its layout nicely matched the documentary evidence in the Gospel of John.
Other things have physical evidence, but the interpretation of that evidence varies so widely that we’re often not sure quite what the evidence is telling us. For instance, for a long time paleontologists classified some dinosaur fossils (a type of physical evidence) as different species, when in fact they were different growth stages of one species of dinosaur—see Dinosaur ‘puberty blues’ for paleontologists.
Because physical evidence is so limited, it’s fortunate that there are other forms of evidence that are crucial to ‘fill in the gaps.’ One key form of evidence is documentary evidence—when someone who had access to physical evidence (which may or may not still exist) or who witnessed an event tells us about it. Some of the well-known people who did this in ancient times were Josephus, Philo, and Tacitus, but really, any written document that tells us about something that happened is claiming to be documentary evidence. Now, this evidence varies in quality, and it’s all biased towards the view of the author, but without documentary evidence, we wouldn’t know about the crossing of the Rubicon, the Trojan war, or the worship of the Pantheon in Greece and Rome, just to take a few examples off the top of my head. Documentary evidence ‘fills in the gaps’ by giving us a context for interpreting the physical evidence, and giving us information that the physical evidence itself couldn’t possibly tell us.
Another form of evidence is scientific—if someone claims, for instance, that there was a solar eclipse on a certain day, then we can do calculations and tell with a fair degree of accuracy whether there was, in fact, an eclipse. This sort of evidence is limited and only covers phenomena which we can test or repeat. For instance, there is no scientific evidence, per se, of the crossing of the Rubicon. And miraculous events claim to defy scientific laws (even in ‘pre-scientific’ times, people knew that animals generally didn’t speak, whether donkeys or snakes, that axeheads didn’t float, that virgins didn’t normally conceive, and that the dead generally stayed dead), so to say “that’s not scientifically possible!” when talking about miracles is beside the point because the whole claim is that God has acted to do things that aren’t normally possible.
So we have to ask in a particular situation: What evidence would we expect to have been produced by a certain event, and to have survived to the present day? With a lot of ancient events, and particularly what we would call miraculous events, not a lot of physical evidence would be produced in the first place, and most of what might have been produced would be lost over the thousands of intervening years. Generally in these cases, what survives is documentary evidence—the Bible happens to be one source of documentary evidence. Now, it is the only source for the talking snake we have (in reality, the Bible is 66 different pieces of documentary evidence put together in one binding, because each book can be reckoned as an independent witness. But the only documentary evidence for the talking snake is in Genesis—when Paul references it in his epistles, and John in his Revelation, that’s evidence that they thought that Genesis was a reliable witness to the talking snake, but since they’re about 4,000 years afterwards, I wouldn’t call them, in and of themselves, documentary witnesses to the talking snake). But would we expect more than that? Given that the amount of documentary evidence for any ancient event is minimal, I don’t think so. Of course, one may choose to accept or reject the documentary evidence, but there is no ground for rejecting an event for having insufficient evidence when physical evidence wouldn’t be expected in the first place.
I hope this explanation is helpful.