Understanding Historical Evidence

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by Neil Godfrey

Steve Mason

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)

Yes, indeed.

As historians, that is, we cannot claim to know what happened unless we can show colleagues how we acquired this knowledge, and we can only do that after a systematic investigation. This point is often neglected. Historians either feel compelled to believe something (“Until someone can show otherwise, I am happy believing X. …”) or the public expects us to believe things, as though not knowing what happened were a moral failure. But belief is the province of religion, not history. 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.

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. They will have limitations, and so there is never a prospect of declaring any ancient source adequate or “reliable” for our inquiry. This lesson was hard to leam when the great Thucydides and Livy were knocked off their pedestals as “authoritative” accounts. It remains a problem in areas of ancient history with religious connections (#3 below). But history, as one application of critical thinking, must rest on ceaseless probing, questioning, and therefore doubt about what has been given. (63)

I read in a history discussion in an online forum today one of the participants saying that he “ardently” believed Jesus was a historical figure. I can understand one concluding that Jesus very likely existed after sifting the evidence, but to put oneself in the company of the faithful as a result of historical inquiry into ancient sources seems a very strange step to me.

Popular and schoolbook images of history as something fixed, standing outside us and seeking to instruct us, do not reflect the real world. (64)

Yes. History is not like ghosts who continue to walk and act and speak in a parallel dimension so that all we have to do is find a way to see through to other side and see what is or has been going on all this time.

2. history presents real conceptual challenges

2. Although many historians would agree on this much, principled disagreements among them create other fissures. Some of this has to do with changing trends, some with personal taste, background, and influences, and some with one’s areas of research. The kinds of history one can attempt for ancient Parthia or Galilean village life in the first century B.C., for example, will be different from research into World War II or British trade unions in the 1980s, for which we have abundant written, material, and probably audiovisual evidence. But enduring differences of historical philosophy are also a factor. (64)

Yes, but notice what is the difference between ancient and modern history. Sources are abundant in the latter and scarce in the former. That does not mean (this is me speaking here but I think Mason would not object) we lower standards for the study of the ancient world or decide we’ll change the rules to make it easier to find facts we want to find. It means we have to ask different sorts of questions that the state of the evidence will allow us to explore.

As soon as we give it serious thought, history presents real conceptual challenges,

(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? (64)

Those are important questions. Take (c), “what is the intellectual justification for studying the past”? Often the reason we are interested in a particular time and place or person in the past is the meaning that time, place or person has for us today, for us personally, for us nationally, for us religiously, and so forth. That’s not a bad thing. It’s probably inevitable. But when we reflect on its meaning then we should learn to become more aware of lurking biases that are guiding our interest and the questions we ask and the answers we are going to re-imagine. But this is overlapping a little with Mason’s third point below.

A. J. Toynbee

When I was in high school our senior history teachers engaged us in debates over Arnold Toynbee’s thesis of “challenge and response”. History, Toynbee theorized, was about nations being challenged with crises and having to find appropriate ways to respond to those crises. It was an idea that required us to look at “the big picture”, large-scale political and social movements, for instance. What were the “laws” governing history, we wondered. Steve Mason addresses such an approach to historical inquiry when he writes,

The convention Carr has in view is an inheritance from the mid-nineteenth century: a quasi-scientific perspective on the past, which we might call positivist . . . .

E. H. Carr

(I have addressed E.H. Carr’s book What Is History? several times, or at least twice in some introductory way.) Applying this discussion to his study of Josephus, Mason continues…

A history restricted to social forces would place out of bounds the unique situations and decisions of Gessius Florus, Cestius Gallus, John of Gischala, Josephus, or Simon bar Giora, who will all be important individual actors in our investigation . . . Equally difficult is Carr’s view that only what endures in retrospect from a given period is worthy of historical investigation. He dispenses with mere chance events, considering only those that subsequently prove to be revealing of social forces worthy of the historian’s time. . . . Equally difficult is Carr’s view that only what endures in retrospect from a given period is worthy of historical investigation. He dispenses with mere chance events, considering only those that subsequently prove to be revealing of social forces worthy of the historian’s time. (64-65)

Mason attributes this approach to historical inquiry to the desire in the academy to put history on an intellectual par with the natural sciences. (65)

Historians as a whole have become a much more variegated lot today. They study small and large societies, small and large economies, individuals, small groups and masses. (Some might be interested in an account of the challenges historical inquiries have faced in recent decades and the many changes that have ensued in Richard Evans’ In Defense of History. There are many such books expressing a wide range of views but I like Evans’ approach for its justification of history as a meaningful pursuit.)  While no longer seeing history as a search for “laws”, I do find myself thinking of some anthropological and sociological studies of modern terrorist movements, of religious groups, and so forth, as forms of historical inquiry. But back to Mason. He concludes this point with words of Marc Bloch,

The word [history] places no a priori prohibitions in the path of inquiry, which may turn at will toward either the individual or the social, toward momentary convulsions or the most lasting developments. It comprises in itself no credo; it commits us, according to its original meaning, to nothing more than “inquiry.”

3. all historical research is shaped by modern contexts

3. Finally, all historical research is shaped by modern contexts, and the study of Roman Judaea is no exception. Contemporary political, social, and religious concerns can shape discussions in ways both obvious and subtle. For one thing, scholars who specialize in this field do not uniformly work in departments of history or classics, as historians of other parts of the Roman empire usually do. Their departmental homes are just as likely to be in religious studies, Jewish studies, archaeology, biblical studies, or theology. If even those who understand themselves to be historians and nothing else differ significantly in method, the potential for disagreement over aims and methods is likely to be all the greater in this field. On top of that lie all the potential stakes in this period held by Jews and Christians of various kinds, religious and non- and anti-religious scholars, Zionists, post-Zionists, and anti-Zionists. (67)

Mason gives two examples. I will add a third and fourth.

Consider two examples of what might seem innocuous debates about semantics, which can both create misunderstandings of a kind not found in the study of Roman Egypt or Britain.

He begins with a couple of controversies that we have discussed before on this blog: maximalism and minimalism, and the hermeneutics of suspicion.

First is the spillover of concerns about the Bible and its authority. Only in this area do we encounter debates over what are styled maximalist and minimalist approaches to ancient history. These categories extend disagreements about the usefulness of biblical accounts for Israelite history to involve the post-biblical and “New Testament” or even later periods. Minimalists are said to nurture what their opponents consider an unhealthy “hermeneutic(s) of suspicion,” a failure to trust sources that have done them no harm and do not merit suspicion.

These debates cause confusion to no purpose. If history means disciplined inquiry into the human past (above), 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. (67-68)

I’m pleased to see Mason restore Paul Ricoeur to his rightful place in this discussion. Some years back I found myself incensed enough to post about certain biblical scholars twisting Ricoeur’s ideas out of context.

Another gust of fresh air comes with Mason’s observation on the way archaeology is so often misunderstood and misapplied in discussions of history.

A second special impediment in our area of history is a kind of dependence on the tag-team of archaeology and Josephus’ works. It is often assumed that if Josephus tells a story and we can “check” it with archaeology, or conversely if an archaeological find can be “confirmed” by Josephus, then little remains to be done. Josephus’ master narrative should be doubted when it concerns himself or the Flavians, the thinking goes. But when archaeology supports his factual accuracy, this formidable pair pushes history out of the ring, making it superfluous.

. . . Whereas historians like the smell of old books, archaeologists are out in the fresh air before the crack of dawn to study real life. In popular perception and to an extent in academic work, the sunkissed science has the decisive edge in this relationship, its political uses providing an even glossier sheen of prestige. Although most questions that people ask about the ancient past are by definition historical, history often seems to be a guest in the house of the more vigorous archaeology. This is understandable in popular culture, given the spectacular achievements of archaeology over the last half century in Israel and Palestine. On a dig one can certainly get the exhilarating feeling that excavation brings the past immediately to life. It is as though Lazaruses were popping out of their tombs everywhere, hungry for dinner and ready to tell their stories.

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: (68-69)

A third example would be “the history wars” in western societies built on an imperial past. Suddenly debates about what counts as evidence of a massacre, how to interpret police records and newspaper reports, for example, become politically charged as political and other social voices argue over whether or “how much” inhumanity lies at the foundation of our nations.

A fourth, of course, is the Jesus myth debate. Does anyone know of any online forum where this question is discussed civilly, with nothing but a genuine and exclusively scholarly interest on all sides? I gave up looking for one long ago.

Much like a detective but not like the southern sheriffs

Image via Wikipedia

Investigation begins with the formulation of a problem. Much like a detective, the historian is an investigator who imagines and tests possibilities against the evidence. (70)

. . . I would stress two points.

First, our constant reimagining of what we cannot see, which is the basis of progress in science, does not mean that all scenarios are equally plausible. We imagine so that we do not overlook what might actually have happened to create our evidence, and our scenarios remain answerable to the evidence.

Second, we will prefer a scenario that explains the most with the smallest investment of assumption and supposition. 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. 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. (70)

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. This is something that Lord Acton (1862) got right: “The absence of a definite didactic purpose is the only security for the good faith of a historian.” We must accept that the evidence may not be amenable to our hunches and be willing to adjust course throughout our investigation. (70)

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. (71)

I shall add this post to my list of others on historical method and refer back to it from time to time in future discussions.

Most directly the points Steve Mason presents here are those that bear directly on his study of the causes of the Jewish War. (See the previous post)

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


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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Understanding Historical Evidence”

  1. This was very helpful. I find the search for historical laws stemming mostly from wishful thinking. That one will find patterns is not surprising, history seems to repeat itself, but “laws” would mean that dependable predictions would become possible. Such laws could only exist of some underlying forces were in play responsible for those laws and that idea smacks of religion to me.

    1. I posted something recently in relation to George Friedman, a “futurologist”. In his book The Storm Before the Calm (not the subject of my post) he argues that the United States has a healthy, strong future ahead of it after it weathers the inevitable storms of the next decade. His argument is based on an analysis of the interplay among the various geographical-socio-economic regions of the United States, saying that they periodically go through crises as they shift their positions in relation to one another but that they always settle down in the end and everything gets along fine once more. I keep thinking about that analysis and wonder if it is another form of imputing “laws” into history. It does not allow for the contingent events or personalities. Friedman would say it doesn’t need to because the “laws” are bigger than any of those. But if he’s right, I have to wonder if it is possible for that theory to ever allow for the United States to come to a point where it “has had its day”.

      History, and thinking about history, is not dead yet.

  2. This post, and indeed Mason’s entire book, is a breath of fresh air. And Mason’s writing style is exceptionally clear, making this book suitable both for specialists (there are probably thousands of footnotes) and the general public.

    In my research, I “prefer a scenario that explains the most with the smallest investment of assumption and supposition.” That gets rid of “oral traditions” right away and suggests Jesus mythicism. Why? The simplest scenario for the provenance of the gospels, which are literary and show knowledge of Scripture, in Greek, is well-educated Hellenized majority-Judean congregations capable of producing writers and listeners/readers of these texts. Which rules out any influence by a historical Jesus. Because if oral traditions existed there would be traces in the textual record of competing biographies of Jesus. And there are not–the gospel story is the only one. And well-educated Hellenized Judean writers would be inclined to spiritualize their messiah and Joshua/the new Moses, not tie these figures to a recent human being.

    1. Indeed. Steve Mason was interviewed online recently and I know he discusses the historicity of Jesus there. I am looking for an opportunity to listen to that interview in full and perhaps write more about it here.

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