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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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language, perhaps to distance his work from his predecessor’s taint but also showing that the word had not yet become identified with the study of the past. Thucydides nevertheless employed a rich vocabulary for eyewitness testimony, evidence, and cross-examination (μαρτυρία, τεκμήριον, ἔλεγχος).70 For the “writing up” of his results he borrowed a verb ([ξ]συγγράφω) from the technical writing of manuals: he would avoid the frills of drama and stick to the facts.71 Forms of this root would, along with Herodotus’ ἱστορία, come together as the common property of later historians such as Josephus.

Thucydides’ account is undeniably impressive in its exacting socialpsychological analysis, though his chosen form of authoritative narrative rarely hints at the means by which he obtained his knowledge.

Exposing his procedure might have invited challenge. Thucydides, on completing his inquiries to his own satisfaction, pulled up the ladder and severed the mooring-lines, launching his work as a self-contained vessel and leaving audiences to be persuaded or not by his authority.

Though more than successful in winning admirers across the millennia, he has been accused of not being a true historian at all, given his penchant for diagnosing political ills according to immutable laws of human nature rather than focusing on change, and for composing speeches with little regard for their concrete situations.72 But confidence is attractive, they say. Thucydides’ apparent rigour, exclusion of ostentatious drama and embellishment, and cold assessment of political realities made his work the acknowledged standard.

This is not the place for a review of history’s fate, either over the long trail from antiquity or from its establishment as a university discipline in the modern world. It is enough to observe that the root conception of history as active inquiry into the human past remains fundamental, though the tension between methodological openness and authoritative narrative has been present from the start. When Martyrion: 1.8.1, 33.1, 73.3; 3.11.4, 53.4; 6.82.2. Tekmērion: 1.1.3, 20.1, 21.1, 34.3, 73.5, 132.5; 2.15.4, 39.2, 50.2; 3.66.1; 6.28.2. Elenchos and cognate verb: 1.132.1, 135.2;

3.38.4, 53.3, 61.1, 86.1. For analysis see Hornblower, Thucydides, 100–107.

Thucydides 1.1.1; 2.70. 4, 103.2; 3.25.2, 88.4, 116.3; 4.51.1, 104.4, 135.2; 6.7.4, 93.4; 7.18.4; 8.6.5, 60.3. The verb is distinctively characteristic of his work: in these fourteen cases, including the decisive opening sentence, it is used formulaically with the subject “Thucydides.” He predicates it only three times, two of these in nonhistorical senses, of others.

So Collingwood, The Idea of History, 30: “Thucydides is... the man in whom the historical thought of Herodotus was overlaid and smothered beneath anti-historical motives.”

© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV what is history? 185

writers ancient or modern have retailed old stories in an uncritical spirit, critics have jumped up to insist that this is a betrayal of history.73 Josephus already postured as such a critic, when he thundered against his contemporaries: “The industrious man is not the one who merely remodels another person’s arrangement and order, but the one who, by speaking of recent things, also establishes the body of the inquiry as his own” (ἀλλ᾿ ὁ μετὰ τοῦ καινὰ λέγειν καὶ τὸ σῶμα τῆς ἱστορίας κατασκευάζων ἴδιον; B.J. 1.15). In amongst all the modern debates, the basic notion of relentless and rigorous probing for answers to our questions, in contrast to the passive reception of what has come down to us unbidden, remains basic to the name of history—and accounts for whatever prestige the discipline may have.

Because of its nature as inquiry, history can be unsettling to tradition and to those with interests in perpetuating familiar stories. Like science, history has often seemed threatening. That is why so many historical studies of sensitive subjects were published anonymously or posthumously in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and some authors found themselves in prison.74 It can be a dirty business rummaging through old texts and material evidence, asking questions about matters on which tradition has imposed a trustworthy narrative.

Even within academia, scholars may become pariahs by asking questions about what others regard as settled.

We come, then, to the programme or procedure of historical investigation. Collingwood, though a great philosopher of history, disarmingly found the essential principles of historical method embodied in the work of detectives, who every day are called upon to launch inquiries into the human past, work through the evidence, imagine and fairly weigh all possibilities, and produce a careful accounting—all without investment in a particular conclusion.75 The historian is not like a detective in all respects, of course, as he fully conceded. Criminal inquiries have their own hierarchies of personnel, rules of evidence, and relationships among investigators, prosecutors, defence attorneys, and judges, which vary from one jurisdiction to another. His point Lucian of Samosata’s second-century How to Write History is filled with criticisms of contemporary historians for their lack of true knowledge based on exacting inquiry.





One example is the British apostate clergyman, Rev. Robert Taylor (1784–1844).

In the Oakham Gaol while serving his first imprisonment for blasphemy he wrote The Diegesis: Being a Discovery of the Origin, Evidences, and Early History of Christianity (London: R. Carlile, 1829).

Collingwood, The Idea of History, 266–82.

© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV186 steve mason

was that a proper criminal investigation is an application of sound historical principles. Because its practical stakes are higher when the liberty or lives of people are in the balance, criminal investigation may even offer checks on the way history is practised in more sophisticated academic circles.

I.2.i. Our Default Position is Not Knowing As the autonomous investigation of the human past, history begins from the premise that we do not know the past except by means of the impending investigation (i.e., through historia), and that ignorance remains our default position. Should our methodical inquiry prove inconclusive or altogether unsuccessful, we cannot advance from the position of not knowing. This is the truth captured in Neusner’s dictum, “What we cannot show, we do not know.”76 The point may seem obvious but it is widely ignored. Scholars frequently claim that they are entitled to believe X unless someone can disprove it, which is almost always an impossible task, or someone has a better explanation of the (meagre) evidence, or even because some surviving account is the only story we have.77 And so the burden of proof is tossed about indiscriminately.

But this is one point on which we may be clear. If history is the methodical inquiry into the human past, without which we cannot know it, then the burden rests always, entirely and exclusively, on the investigator who has the courage to conduct the inquiry and try to establish a case. No one has required them to do this. If other scholars find their case weak or the evidence insufficient, or see explanatory possibilities other than those they have considered, the case fails and we return to not knowing—until and unless another attempt is made. To suppose that critics must themselves have worked out a Neusner used this oft-repeated saying as the subtitle of his Rabbinic Literature and the New Testament (Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity, 1993).

I offer one old and one recent example: “In any case we cannot profitably abandon all the traditional history of this early period as legendary merely because we are unable to check its accuracy in more than one source or because the sources themselves are much later in date. Such action, though perhaps based on better historical method, would leave the ancient historian a small framework upon which to build in future years” (N. C. Debevoise, A Political History of Parthia [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938], xxvii); “But unless or until fresh evidence emerges, we must make a choice [among Plutarch, Suetonius, and Tacitus as sources for Otho]” (G. Morgan, 69 A.D.: The Year of Four Emperors [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006], 290).

© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV what is history? 187

more convincing case is a category-mistake. History does not require us to believe something, anything. Such a quasi-religious expectation would be anti-historical. Our task is to pursue problems only as far as we can with available evidence, then to report honestly on the state of affairs.

We might as well accept that, of the untold millions of questions we might pose about the lived reality of the ancient world, even within the confines of Roman Judaea during a given decade, we shall only be able to explore a tiny proportion of them with any significant evidence, and even in those few fortunate cases (say, the ten- or eighteen-year prefecture of Pontius Pilate) that evidence will be severely limited and full of problems. We mainly do not know what happened. That is our reason for being historians, the starting point of any investigation, and the wolf that remains always at our door.

I.2.ii. In the Beginning is the Question In order to launch an investigation, then, like the detective the historian must first specify the problem to be investigated. This is crucial because the problem determines the shape of the inquiry, the scope and nature of the evidence to be examined from this perspective, and the operative criteria. If my problem concerns Pilate’s reported construction of an aqueduct for Jerusalem and the opposition it created, I will construct the inquiry—for example, studying ancient aqueducts in general, material evidence for Jerusalem’s aqueducts, other local evidence for Pilate’s tenure—in a very different way from one that sought to recover how Josephus’ Roman audiences would have understood his accounts of the prefect. Identifying a problem for inquiry also demonstrates the autonomy of the historian. We may think up any questions we wish, and these are unlikely to correspond closely to the prepossessions of ancient authors such as Tacitus and Josephus (examples in Part II).

The need for a generative question is often overlooked. We see this in the student who wishes to explore a topic in a research essay: Hammurabi, say, or Alexander. “What about him?” we might ask. The student assumes that the facts are all out there to be gathered and summarized, and that this is research. Here is Collingwood on the

importance of the question:

Francis Bacon, lawyer and philosopher, laid it down in one of his memorable phrases that the natural scientist must ‘put Nature to the question.’ What he was denying... was that the scientist’s attitude towards nature

© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV188 steve mason

should be one of respectful attentiveness, waiting upon her utterances and building his theories on the basis of what she chose to vouchsafe him.... Here, in a single brief epigram, Bacon laid down once for all the true theory of experimental science.

It is also, though Bacon did not know this, the true theory of historical method. In scissors-and-paste history the historian takes up a preBaconian position. His attitude towards his authorities, as the very word [‘authorities’] shows, is one of respectful attentiveness. He waits to hear what they choose to tell him, and lets them tell it in their own way and in their own time.... The scientific historian reads them with a question in his mind, having taken the initiative by deciding for himself what he wants to find out from them.78 Or as Momigliano put it, the historian “has to assess the value of his evidence not in terms of simple reliability, but of relevance to the problems he wants to solve.”79 Scholars discover inscriptions, ossuaries, building and pottery remains, coins, and so forth, then classify, draw, photograph, and catalogue them. But the items do not sit there talking to us from their storage facilities. It is only when an investigator comes along with a question, say on the relevance of the inscriptions from Urbs Salvia (modern Urbisaglia) for the important dates in Flavius Silva’s career, that they become evidence and begin to yield up their secrets. The investigator gets nowhere by staring at the stones and waiting for them to speak. The Urbs Salvia inscriptions did not tell us anything until Werner Eck brought his skillful questions to them, reasoning from his knowledge of both epigraphical conventions and the conditions of Roman elite careers that Flavius Silva could only have gone to Judaea in 73 c.e., too late for Masada to have fallen in April of that year.80 The generative question defines not only the shape of the inquiry, but as importantly the inquiring mindset of the historian. Because we are perpetual inquirers, we must never be invested in conclusions.

The early twentieth century was a time of great certainties. Théodore Reinach showed that the beautiful silver coins proclaiming Jerusalem “holy,” in a dated series of “year one” through to “year five,” must have come from the last five years of Simon the Hasmonaean’s rule Collingwood, The Idea of History, 269.

A. Momigliano, “Historicism Revisited,” in Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography (Oxford: Blackwell, 1977), 365–73 (368–69).

Eck, “Die Eroberung von Masada”; idem, Senatoren von Vespasian bis Hadrian (Munich: Beck, 1970), 93–111.

© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV what is history? 189

(139–135 b.c.e.)—not from the war with Rome, as we must now conclude.81 Scholars of that time knew an enormous amount about the Pharisees, without hesitation assigning to them works ranging from the Psalms of Solomon and Jubilees to the Damascus Document that had been found in the Cairo Geniza. They knew that the war against Rome ended in 73 c.e. and that the Diaspora Revolt began in 115, and could cite all the evidence for these conclusions. Nowadays their certainties have evaporated—though, to be sure, others have sometimes rushed in to take their place.



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