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«Edited by Mladen Popović LEIDEN • BOSTON © 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV CONTENTS List of Figures and Tables Preface List of Contributors The Jewish ...»

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Acceptance of witnesses does not ensure we have understood them, but it qualifies their statements as evidence. Maximalists are keenly aware that life is always full, even if the evidence is thin, and a regulated historical imagination may add sinews and flesh to the skeleton, based on what we know of antiquity and humanity. Both types of historian otherwise use the tools of the discipline evenhandedly (in theory), to seek out what can be known, and that means what can be proved to our satisfaction. Satisfaction and knowledge, however, are precisely the dispute: to use the adage (and book subtitle) of Jacob Neusner, ‘What We Cannot Show, We Do Not Know.’ It is a fact, however, that some people see things that others do not. Intuition and reading between the lines is a common practice in all forms of knowledge. The truth cannot be known from pottery shards and provable declarative statements only.

Maximalists err on the side of credulity; minimalists err on the side of caricature.18 No doubt Sandgren is right about the prominence of this debate, and he fairly reflects much of the underlying rationale. My perception is that many of those tagged as minimalists (perhaps also maximalists) would reject that label, but that is typical in all labeling exercises. At any rate, as a historiographical division the maximalist/minimalist construction presents many problems. Here are three.

First, if I declare myself a minimalist or maximalist, what question am I answering? It is not a historical question of the sort: “How was the Jerusalem area administered in the eighth century b.c.e.?” or “Who minted the bronze coins of the Judaean revolt in 69 to 70 c.e.?” I cannot reply to such questions, “Well, since I am a maximalist, I believe....” Surely, the distinction has to do with the kind of conclusions I prefer. But if I configure my inquiry beforehand so as to produce maximal or minimal results, I forfeit any claim to be taken seriously.19 Although Sandgren describes the choice as one of both method and conclusion, it is difficult to see how “maximal” or “minimal” can be predicated of one’s method. I cannot say that I will ignore germane evidence because I take a minimalist approach, or that I will accept more than is necessary because I am a maximalist. I must consider all L. D. Sandgren, Vines Intertwined: A History of Jews and Christians from the Babylonian Exile to the Advent of Islam (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2010), 3–4.

An extreme example is the banner of a website for “Associates of Biblical Research” (www.biblearchaeology.org): “Demonstrating the historical reliability of the Bible through archaeological research and related apologetic investigation.” But what do research and investigation mean where conclusions are determined in advance?

© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV what is history? 165

relevant evidence, and justify on public grounds my criteria for inclusion, exclusion, and weighting.

Second, the “hermeneutic(s) of suspicion” rejected by Sandgren seems to be adapted from Paul Ricoeur, who made the phrase famous.

In Ricoeur and those influenced by him, however, it has to do not with (doubting) the referential accuracy of biblical or other texts, but with the meaning and philosophical assessment of claims made by religious and other authorities. Ricoeur’s “masters of suspicion” were Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud, who saw a chasm between what the church claimed and its true motives.20 They were not concerned with the accuracy of texts.

Historians are by definition (see below) suspicious of their sources:

their authenticity, transmission, rhetorical effects, motives, character, style, possible duplicity, and so on. Systematic doubt lies at the heart of the enterprise.21 If suspicion were not necessary, we would not need history; tradition could bring its versions of the past to our door. Here

is Collingwood addressing history undergraduates in 1926:

It is puzzling and rather shocking to face the fact that the writers whom one has regarded as authoritative and incorruptible channels of truth are completely misapprehending the events which they describe, or deliberately telling lies about them; and when experienced historians assure us that all sources are tainted with ignorance and mendacity, we are apt to ascribe the opinion merely to cynicism. Yet this opinion is really the most precious possession of historical thought. It is a working hypothesis without which no historian can move a single step.... [W]e are by now agreed that all witnesses are discredited, in the sense that we are never justified in merely transcribing their narrative into our own without modification, and we are dealing with the question how to extract the truth from a witness who does not know it or is trying to conceal it.22 Third, Sandgren’s proposition that some (religious?) people are predisposed to be truthful sidesteps first the difficulty that we do not know the people who created our textual and material evidence, and the more basic problem that even slightly complex narratives, lacking neutral Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 32.

Cf. D. Stewart, “The Hermeneutics of Suspicion,” Journal of Literature and Theology 3 (1989): 296–307; B. Leiter, “The Hermeneutics of Suspicion: Recovering Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud,” in The Future for Philosophy (ed. B. Leiter; Oxford: Clarendon, 2004), 74–105.





Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 66–113 makes many incisive observations.

Collingwood, The Idea of History, 378. Emphasis added.

© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV166 steve mason

language, cannot be merely truthful no matter how well-intentioned their authors may be (further below).

Outside the worlds of biblical and religious studies it would be hard to find maximalism and minimalism recognized as “two approaches to historical investigation.” Profound differences among historians are plentiful. They turn on the old tensions between idealist and positivist inclination; on the suitable objects and appropriate methods for history (e.g., personal, institutional, social; event-or condition-based;

intellectual-interpretative or statistical); and on the evidence that should be included in a particular investigation and where the weight should rest. Degrees of suspicion are not real issues. Should a historian be accused of not being critical enough in relation to some piece of evidence—not an infrequent charge in reviews—the complaint means only that the author has not been sufficiently rigorous but has let her guard down in some particular case. The historian cannot say in response, “But I take a more trusting approach.” I.1.iv. History as Value-Free, Factual Record Many confusions in the field seem to be the legacy of historical positivism, which sought value-free facts and laws to derive from them.

This gave rise to what Collingwood disparaged as “scissors-and-paste” history, wherein it seemed possible to cull facts of different provenance and assemble them into a larger picture: a few statements from Josephus could be combined with some lines from Tacitus, or perhaps rabbinic sayings, and annotated with archaeological remains to create a coherent picture of some event or institution. In popular publications these accounts may arise from an unreflective “high-school” approach to history, which assumes that the facts are all recorded somewhere, from which lofty heights they call out and impose themselves on unhappy students as names, dates, and places to be learned.

In our professional field the great manual by Emil Schürer, published in several editions from the 1860s, entrenched something like the same outlook. Although it found new life after its revision by an Oxford-based team in the 1970s—the makeover consisted largely in a massive updating of the notes—and remains a first-rate collection of references and critical discussion of problems in the notes, its original approach is still visible in the main body. We read in Schürer’s narrative such statements as these: “Antipater was now all-powerful at court and enjoyed his father’s [sc. Herod’s] absolute confidence. But he was not satisfied. He wanted total power and could hardly wait for his

© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV what is history? 167

father to die.” Or, “But Sabinus, whose conscience was uneasy because of the Temple robberies and other misdeeds, made off as quickly as possible.”23 But how can we know that these men from two thousand years ago thought and felt these things, when we cannot hope to describe even the thoughts and feelings of our own contemporary leaders? Schürer simply took them over from literary sources, mainly from Josephus.

Schürer is by no means a unique example. Geoffrey A. Williamson, the accomplished scholar who translated Josephus’ War for Penguin in the 1960s, wrote The World of Josephus to provide students with relevant historical background.24 He described the Judean-Roman war in simply factual terms: “On the other [Judean] side was a motley host, torn by dissension and bloody strife, and led by rival self-appointed chieftains lusting for power.” For Williamson, Gessius Florus was “heartless, dishonest, disgusting; he filled Judea with misery, accepting bribes from bandits.” But this all merely borrowed Josephus’ dramatic narrative, translating the ancient writer’s highly charged literary choices into the truth of the matter. The same practice was common in manuals, surveys, and New Testament-background studies. Josephus’ narrative, notwithstanding the usual caveats about a “need for caution,” was considered—except where he described his own life or flattered Romans—a more or less neutral record.

I.1.v. Josephus as Research Assistant?

A more oblique manifestation of this master-record approach is the expectation that if something significant happened in first-century Judaea, it should have been mentioned by “our sources.” Because “we do not hear of X in our sources,” we may deduce either that X did not exist or that its existence was suppressed by an ancient author. If something was once real, that is, it should have been picked up by some source, and we may then exploit this presence or absence to write

historical narratives. Greg Woolf has identified the generic problem:

Modern historians who specialize in the Roman provinces have a bad habit of treating ancient authors as if they are research assistants....

The objections to this procedure are well known, if often forgotten. No E. Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 b.c.– a.d. 135) (3 vols.; rev. ed.; ed. G. Vermes, F. Millar, and M. Black; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1973–1987), 1:324, 332.

(Boston: Little, Brown, 1964). Quotations here are from pp. 17, 145.

–  –  –

list of witnesses could ever be comprehensive. Worse, more information does not always lead to greater understanding.... Worst of all, our ‘witnesses’ are not colleagues, their texts are not responses to our research questions, and at least some apparent resemblances between their texts and the products of modern scientific research are profoundly misleading.25 If we ask what “our sources” for pre-70 Judaea might be, the shadow falls invariably on Josephus. A widespread assumption is that, as our chief historian of the period, it fell to him to record everything important (to us), and in a conveniently proportional chronology. What he did not mention either did not happen or, if we have some reason to suspect that it did, he suppressed it for some reason.

The same methodological assumption turns up frequently, for example in an earlier volume of essays on the subject of the present book.

The editors write in their introduction (emphasis added throughout):

Phillip and his brother Antipas, Herod’s middle son, enjoyed quite successful reigns.... Neither were characterized in antiquity as either particularly brutal or prone to suppression, again as opposed to Herod.26 Whom from antiquity should we expect to have characterized these Herodians? Josephus is the only plausible candidate. But he says hardly anything about the nearly four decades of Antipas’ and Philip’s reigns—and incidentally, the little he reports of Antipas does happen to include a story of repression (A.J. 18.116–119; cf. Luke 3:19–20). How could we know about the lived reality of those decades? Josephus gives Philip an obituary that praises his good government (A.J. 18.106–108), it is true, but the content is formal—the tetrarch punished offenders and kept the peace—and tells us nothing about realities on the ground in particular years and months of those several decades. Philip must have had some disaffected subjects, and there must have been some disturbances, because every ruler faces some such problems. What they were in his case we have no way of knowing.

G. Woolf, “Pliny’s Province,” in Rome and the Black Sea Region: Domination, Romanization, Resistance (ed. T. Bekker-Nielsen; Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2006), 93–108 (93).

A. M. Berlin and J. A. Overman, eds., The First Jewish Revolt: Archaeology, History, and Ideology (London: Routledge, 2002), 4.

© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV what is history? 169

Later in the same volume, Seán Freyne ponders:

The question remains as to why Galilee would appear to have been the theatre for many of the incidents of brigandage that Josephus reports....



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