Understanding Historical Evidence

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by Neil Godfrey

Steve Mason

This post is a presentation of a few of the key points set out by Steve Mason in his 2016 study A History of the Jewish War, AD 66-74. The points are taken from the first part of his second chapter titled Understanding Historical Evidence. I found his explanation a most enjoyable read because it coheres so closely with the explanations of other historians I have posted about here and it offers a strong correction to the way so many historians, especially those in theology departments, have tended to do history.

Most of the post is a paraphrase or quotation of some of Mason’s points except where I have introduced my own voice or given examples relating to Christian origins or the historical Jesus and the uses of the gospels as sources. I have sometimes reformatted Mason’s text and any bolding added in the quotes is my own; italics are original. So let’s start.


It is mistake to pick up a primary source like Josephus’ War or Plutarch’s Lives or the Gospel of Luke and think we can just “extract raw facts” from them “while ignoring their nature, structures, and themes.” Before we can take anything as a fact we need to understand what, exactly, our sources are and if they are even capable of answering questions we would like to put to them. But too often

Historians are often impatient with theory. We feel that we know what we are doing, and abstract philosophizing can get in the way. We should just get on with the hard work.

(Mason, 61)

Too often historians and their readers think that all that is required is to follow wherever the evidence leads in order to produce an authoritative account of the past. If a historian or philosopher of history starts talking about analysing literary sources as literature before using those sources to elicit facts to tell us what happened in the past some voices will protest that such a procedure is only for the “literary types” and not relevant to the historian. Mason’s warning is worth taking seriously:

In the final months of preparing this book I have heard professional historians express such views as these: History is the past or an authoritative account of it; historians must follow the evidence and avoid speculation; history concerns itself with elite literary texts and neither material evidence or the life of ordinary folk, which are the province of archaeologists; historians are either maximalists or minimalists, realists or postmodernists, left-wingers or conservatives, or they fall in some other two-kinds-of-people scheme. A problem relevant to this chapter is the notion that those who care about the meaning of texts must be literary types unconcerned with the actual past. And these positions are held by historians. If we include more popular ideas about history, including those espoused by political leaders and school boards, the picture becomes bewildering.


Mason cites a reviewer of one his own works to illustrate the point. I can cite a critic of my approach studying the gospels who makes the same point graphically:

McGrath, James F. 2008. The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith. BookSurge Publishing. p. 57

(I was surprised to see that even Matthew Ferguson appears to accept that stark division of labour between historical and literary approaches to a source text so I have to suspect that this misleading concept is more prevalent than I would hope and that Mason acknowledges.)

Our job description

A common belief is that history can be discovered by a painstaking effort to sort through sources and extract the facts of the matter from them. Sometimes the sources will be contradictory and then we need to make a judgement about which set of facts to follow. The point that is taken for granted is that the point of the inquiry is to come to know what actually happened. Historians are expected to be able to give an authoritative account of the past. But there is a but: in ancient history the nature of the evidence simply does not allow us to “know” in the way we would like.

Ancient historians must make their peace with uncertainty because that is where the nature of surviving evidence requires us to live much of the time. Our job description is to investigate responsibly, not to know what happened.

(ibid, 63)

From time to time we come across someone addressing a narrative in a historical document and saying that he or she can see no reason to doubt the account. We hear of the danger of “hyper-scepticism”. Mason, however, has a different perspective that I think is right approach:

Another consequence of understanding history as methodical inquiry is that we must receive all claims about the past, whether ancient or modem, with skepticism and methodical doubt, kicking their tires and looking for their limitations in relation to the questions we are pursuing.


And when, after that process, we propose a view that seems to be the most probable explanation, we don’t set it on a sacred shrine and set out to defend it. All conclusions are provisional.

When a historical argument survives scrutiny and is thought to explain a range of overlapping, independent evidence better than other hypotheses, our acceptance is only ever provisional. We then look for ways to connect it with other provisional scenarios, constantly comparing and revising our views of whole and part to see what needs refinement or complete rethinking. The human past itself cannot change, of course. It is truly finished. But history understood as the critical investigation of that past changes without rest. Popular and schoolbook images of history as something fixed, standing outside us and seeking to instruct us, do not reflect the real world.

(ibid, 63f)

Even the idea itself of “doing history” is not so simple. Consider the question Mason points us to (p.64):

(a) Because the past itself does not exist, what can we study?

(b) What is the relationship between surviving evidence and the real past as it was once lived?

(c) What is the intellectual justification for studying the past, especially the remote past?

(d) How sure can we be of our results – and does this matter?

(e) Are some ways of studying the past more legitimate than others? (f) Is knowledge of the past possible, and if so in what sense?

On Minimalists, Maximalists and the “hermeneutics of suspicion”

In historical studies of the history of “biblical Israel” we have come across the “minimalists” and the “maximalists”, with the latter deploring the former for harboring an “unhealthy ‘hermeneutic of suspicion'”. The terms “minimalist” and “maximalist” are ultimately of no point, and suspicion is a quality every serious inquirer ought to cultivate:

If history means disciplined inquiry into the human past . . . , then we investigate problems by interpreting and explaining whatever evidence is available, all of it but no more than that. Methodical doubt of all claims, our own as well as others’, is the animating principle of critical inquiry. R. G. Collingwood (1926) rightly called it “a working hypothesis without which no historian can move a single step.” From this perspective, maximalism and minimalism have no useful meaning.

As for the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” which is a term of opprobrium in these discussions, Paul Ricoeur most famously used it to express his view of language, as both concealing and revealing.

Language is our medium of thought and communication, but we should never imagine it to be simply revelatory. We should be duly suspicious. Ricoeur’s “masters of suspicion,” a term of respect, were Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud — not people who doubted the accuracy of ancient texts, but great thinkers alert to what language could and could not say.

(ibid, 68, my formatting)

The role of archaeology

When archaeologists unearth an artefact that matches a detail we read in Josephus or the gospels it is all too easy to jump to the conclusion that whatever we read in those literary sources is “confirmed as true”. It is too easy to look at our texts and artefacts and think the evidence “speaks for itself”. But evidence does not “speak for itself”. It is always us who find a congenial way to interpret the evidence and impute a meaning into it.

That impression is a mirage, however. Finds in the ground, like literary texts, have no voice to declare their meaning and significance. All survivals require interpretation:

What are they and what might they mean for various kinds of investigation?

That is why debates persist about the interpretation of even the famous remains at Qumran or various inscriptions, coin symbols and legends, and even tableware. These finds do not come with manuals explaining their meaning. Much less do they solve our investigative problems for us. Just as philology interprets textual survivals, so archaeology interprets material remains. Papyrology, epigraphy, ceramic studies, numismatics, art, and architecture are among the subspecialties that study classes of archaeological finds together in catalogues of coins, inscriptions, or monuments from certain regions and periods.

(ibid, 69)

How to do history

The first step is to establish a problem to be investigated and begin with that. The sources at hand, the evidence we are using, requires interpretation. It does not “speak for itself”. We need to attempt to imagine how the evidence came into existence. We cannot simply assume that an ancient person with us in mind kindly set out to write the facts that we want to know.

Much like a detective, the historian is an investigator who imagines and test possibilities against the evidence.

(ibid, 70)

We try to imagine what produced the evidence we are examining and consider a range of possible scenarios. Not all scenarios will be equally plausible. And our reconstructions must always be answerable to the details of the evidence itself.

The scenario we will finally decide to adopt will be the one that explains most of the details of the evidence with “the smallest investment of assumption and supposition.” Mason uses the example of diagnosing a head-ache (p.70).

This preference for economy is also basic to scientific thinking. Although it is possible that a person with a headache has a brain tumour, physicians cannot send everyone with a headache for expensive scans, because tumours are rare in comparison with other causes of headache. Only when they have ruled out common causes can doctors justify tests for what is rare.

Relevance to the study of the Judean War

In somewhat the same way, although it is possible that all Judaea was charged with messianic fervour through several generations, that Romans harboured a unique and irrational hatred of the Jews over the same period, or that Simon bar Giora was possessed of a frenzied messianic consciousness, we should turn to such possibilities only if there is evidence that does not yield to explanations from more common human experiences.

(ibid, 70)

Relevance to the study of Christian origins

I paraphrase the above:

In somewhat the same way, although it is possible that all the leading followers of Jesus believed he had risen from the dead and was so exalted in heaven that contrary to all previous expectations about both Jesus and the place of “messiahs” and went out persuading more and more others of this faith, we should turn to such possibilities only if there is evidence that does not yield to explanations from more common human experiences.

That is, before interpreting the gospel and Acts narratives to sift them for facts beneath their surfaces, it is necessary to study the narratives and from their details, and in relation with other evidence that was part of their world, try to understand what might have led persons unknown to have composed them as they did. Literary sources need to be analysed as literature if the historian is to get a handle on how he or she should go about interpreting their narratives.

Avoid becoming like the southern sheriffs

The act of formulating a problem about the real past requires that we have already thought about some possibilities, and most historians probably begin with hunches. But if we are to avoid becoming like the southern sheriffs of film and song, who know what happened without needing to investigate, we must recognize the interpretation and explanation of evidence as a separate exercise from our free imagining. . . . We must accept that the evidence may not be amenable to our hunches and be willing to adjust course throughout our investigation.


Let us recapitulate

  1. History means above all the methodical investigation of the human past. Without investigation we cannot know the past, in a historical sense.
  2. Because history is a method, the chief requirement of a historical inquiry is that it be transparent and in principle repeatable by others.
  3. Whether enough evidence has survived to support confident results is not our responsibility. That depends on force majeure and the accidents of transmission and discovery. Our task is to investigate our problems responsibly. In our control are the formulation of those problems, the construction of the inquiry, the interpretation of evidence, and our willingness to imagine and test explanations.
  4. Historical investigation requires two distinct modes of thinking: interpreting remains from the past that interest us and imagining scenarios that would explain this evidence as it bears on our investigation.

(ibid, 71)

To step aside from Mason one final time, the recent posts on this blog addressing the work of scholars such as Russell Gmirkin and Philippe Wajdenbaum are in fact attempts to understand how the evidence of the Primary History (Genesis to Kings) in the Bible came into being. The theories of reconstruction are being tested against the details of that evidence. Only after we have a satisfactory understanding of how our sources came into being can we proceed to move to the next step of establishing the sorts of questions they may be able to answer. That is, we will only then be able to answer the question, What sort of history can they yield?

Mason, Steve. 2016. A History of the Jewish War, AD 66-74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



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4 thoughts on “Understanding Historical Evidence”

  1. What sort of history can Genesis to Kings reveal? Double nought, blank, sod-all. Palestine is probably the most dug over ground on earth, the time is long past when this fantasy can be taken seriously. We might get more plausible story-telling but I doubt even that.

    Berossus and Manetho are in their remains full of fantastical manglings, and yet they were writing about still-largely intact cultures with written traditions and the deeds of kings upon the walls, the remains of which are largely how we can assert the fantastical manglings and retrieve a somewhat reliable history. Given the large amount of fantastical rubbish, the impossible, and blatant making-shit-up that we can detect in the first half-two thirds of Genesis-Kings; why put store in any of it or the rest of the Tanakh? That we can draw parallels between Greek sources and Genesis-Kings hardly has to mean that is where it came from; serious parallels can be found in Polynesian mythology but the Bible hardly comes from Aotearoa!

    The Tanakh’s writer(s)/redactor(s)/editor(s) invented a past and they did it using what was lying about in their’s and adjacent cultures, that much we can say. Beyond that is just going to be plausible speculation not rising to any particular probability, let alone the significant, as far as I can see ie. not History at all. Unless some tranche of documents a la Qumran or Elephantine crops up, which I don’t discount but is becoming increasingly unlikely.

      1. That bears on Genesis-Kings being of historical worth how? There is no denying it is literature and other literature in the same oevre riffs on it.

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