Speaking of Steve Mason’s historical inquiry into what we can reconstruct of the origins of the Jewish War from Josephus, here are some quotations I marked as I read his second chapter. I hope to post one more time on this book, sharing some specifics of how he approached Josephus’s writings as historical sources. I began an archive listing key posts on historical methods and the nature of history more generally but Ouch!, I see that I haven’t worked on it since the day I started it! I need another time out but not from illness or injury this time. I’ll be adding this post there before the archive is finished.
Anyway, here are the things Steve Mason has to say about principles of historical research. There’s nothing new here for many of us, but they are points worth keeping in mind and sharing with others who are less familiar with what it’s all about.
Don’t just dive into a historical source and grab hold of whatever statements in it look useful tidbits for telling us what happened. First examine the source, see what sort of writing it is. We can’t merely assume a work that looks like history really is what most of us think a work of history should be. In Mason’s words,
In principle all survivals from the past, material or literary, need first to be understood for what they are if we are to use them to answer other questions. (60)
Don’t dismiss literary analysis of a source as irrelevant to your search for historical information in a source. Literary analysis at some level must come first before one knows how to interpret what one reads. That’s true even at the most basic level: e.g. is our source a diary or a parable?
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. (61)
Here are “the most basic principles underlying this inquiry into the Jewish War.” The bolding and sometimes the layout are mine.
1. “Until someone can show otherwise, I am happy believing X. …”
1. Outside the academy, history seems most often to be equated with the past itself or with supposedly authoritative records. (61)
The past no longer exists. We need to interpret sources and with those interpretations re-imagine bits and pieces of the past and continue to revise our imaginations of the past as we learn more.
Each historian uncovers a new angle and offers it as a better key to understanding, but this very activity of constant reimagining means that we are not in a position simply to learn the facts and lessons of history. We are required instead to think, explore, and judge: not to hear what the past is itching to tell us but to investigate for ourselves.
History, then, is the process of methodical inquiry into the human past. (62)