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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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Were they wasting their time because their conclusions turned out to be wrong? Of course not. Pursuing inquiries, interpreting evidence, and trying to explain it is the essential work of history. But conclusions come and go. They erred in claiming too much for their reconstructive hypotheses. We do well to remember, when we find ourselves becoming attached to some conclusion or other, that our reconstructions have not even the tiniest effect on the actual past.

I.2.iii. Finding Evidence Once we have a productive problem in hand, we begin to identify and gather relevant evidence. We never know in advance—or ever—all of the potential evidence. But we must follow a method. The case of the Pharisees is cautionary, for when scholars used to regard everything from the Psalms of Solomon and the Damascus Document to the Babylonian Talmud as primary evidence for the Pharisees, they got nowhere collectively as each worked from private or parochial assumptions. A publicly accountable method requires that we begin with evidence undoubtedly bearing on the problem under investigation, moving to other possible evidence only when we have some working hypotheses in place based on this control material. In the case of the Pharisees, this meant resolving to begin with the evidence of the New Testament, Josephus, and the earliest rabbinic literature.82 T. Reinach, Jewish Coins (trans. M. Hill; London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1903).

This change came in the 1970s when the very different studies by J. Neusner (From Politics to Piety [Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1973], 4: “But for now, the only reliable information derives from Josephus, the Gospels, and rabbinical literature, beginning with the Mishnah”) and E. Rivkin (A Hidden Revolution [Nashville: Abingdon, 1978], 31: “Josephus, the New Testament, and the Tannaitic Literature are the only sources that can be legitimately drawn upon for the construction of an objective definition of the Pharisees”) began from a shared premise.

© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV190 steve mason

I.2.iv. Interpreting Evidence—For What It Is Next we must try to understand our evidence for what it is, by itself and in its own contexts, without yet trying to exploit it in answer to our historical questions. D. A. Russell wrote concerning Plutarch’s


And yet it should be obvious that, for the very historical purposes for which the book is now chiefly studied, it is misleading and dangerous to use what is plainly one of the most sophisticated products of ancient historiography without constant regard to the plans and purposes of its author.83 The same could be said of Josephus’ works or any ancient narratives— the need to interpret Pausanias’ Description of Greece before exploiting it historically has also been a relatively late development84—as of material survivals from antiquity. Whether it is literary or material, as we have seen, potential evidence does not speak for itself. It always requires interpretation by criteria relevant to its kind and nature. This step of interpretation is the most important part of academic history, I venture to suggest, because (a) we cannot go further until we understand our evidence and (b) this is the only part of our investigation over which we enjoy some control, with the prospect of verification.

It is also what distinguishes the discipline from tradition, on the one hand, and a naive “scissors-and-paste” construction of the past on the other. Neither of those recognizes evidence-interpretation as a separate step, distinct from the forming of judgements about the past.

Since the point is important and yet easily misunderstood, I elaborate. Collingwood writes:

We no longer think that in reading Livy or Gibbon we are face to face with the early or late history of Rome; we realize that what we are reading is not history but only material out of which, by thinking for ourselves, we may hope to construct history. From this point of view, Livy and Gibbon are no longer authorities, but sources merely: they are not to be followed, but to be interpreted.85 D. A. Russell, “On Reading Plutarch’s Lives,” GR 13 (1966): 139–54 (139).

A watershed was Christian Habicht’s 1982 Sather Lectures, published as Pausanias’ Guide to Ancient Greece (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985). See now the exploratory essays in S. E. Alcock, J. F. Cherry, and J. Elsner, Pausanias: Travel and Memory in Roman Greece (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Collingwood, The Idea of History, 382–83. Emphasis added.

© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV what is history? 191

Oakeshott concludes a section on interpreting evidence, as diverse as “the Gospel according to St Mark, a Persian carpet, Hobbes’ Leviathan, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the score of Figaro, a parish register of marriages, Fountains Abbey [a twelfth-century monastic base in

Yorkshire], a field path or a song,” with this:

Historical enquiry, then, begins in a present composed of objects recognized as exploits which have survived; each is a fragment of a bygone present.... The immediate concern of the enquiry is to understand performances recognized as survivals in terms of the transactional relationships which constitute their characters as performances, to discern their conditionality [i.e., the concrete conditions of their character as sources] and thus to determine the ‘authenticity’ of their utterance. How arduous an undertaking this may be will depend on the opacity of the object....

[N]o object which has survived yields its authentic character to mere observation, and its worth in further historical enquiry depends upon an understanding of its authentic character.86 Applied to Roman Judaea these observations remind us that all of our evidence, material and literary, greets us as a mystery, and if we imagine that we understand it intuitively we should think again. Just as material objects were created for specific purposes that had nothing to do with us, so Philo, Pliny, Josephus, Tacitus, and Dio wrote in their own languages and for their own reasons, not to serve our needs.

Their work cannot be taken over for our purposes, therefore, without careful prior exploration of their own aims, interests, and perspectives in writing.

Collingwood illustrates the need to interpret evidence with a fable based on his detective analogy. A detective is investigating the death of John Doe. A young woman comes forward and declares “I killed John Doe.” Although she was not a person of interest, her assertion immediately becomes relevant evidence. But what does the detective do with her plain assertion of guilt? The wrong, if tempting approach would be to conclude the investigation and say “We have our culprit!” Rather, the investigator must reflect: “This woman is telling me that she killed John Doe. Why is she telling me that? What does her statement mean?” There are many reasons why a person might confess to a crime, only one of which is that she did it. She might be shielding the culprit. She might have a mental disorder that causes her to Oakeshott, “On History,” 56. Emphasis added.

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confess what she has not done. In a jurisdiction with capital punishment, she might be looking for a way to end her life. She might have been coerced. Since these are all possible explanations of a confession, it cannot simply be taken to mean what it says. It is another datum that asks to be understood first by itself, in its own context apart from the question of who killed John Doe.

For the ancient historian, interpreting the evidence is necessary in relation to physical and literary remains alike. Coins, inscriptions, and bones are no more self-interpreting than literary texts. To take a famous case involving Herod’s coins, figuring out which year is represented by his large “year three” issue (37 b.c.e., 34, or later?) and the correct identification of the symbols on it—a hemispherical, brimmed military helmet with crest, straps, and cheek-pieces, or a conical Dioscuri cap associated with cult of Kore?—are obviously prior conditions for investigating relevant aspects of Herod’s reign.87 With literary evidence, problems of interpretation are no fewer or easier. Where did Josephus get his Herod material from, in the rather different versions of the War and the Antiquities, and what might have been the interests of his various sources? Why and how does Josephus write about Herod in each of his major works? How did he reshape his sources to serve his varied literary interests (not assumed to be theses)? And so forth. All evidence needs both interpretation and explanation before it can be used profitably for the historical Herod.

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It seems that my work has occasionally been misunderstood precisely on this point. In the study of Roman Judaea many scholars do not seem to see the Favouring the Dioscuri interpretation are, for example, J. Magness, “The Cults of Isis and Kore at Samaria-Sebaste in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods,” HTR 94 (2001): 157–77 (165–70); D. M. Jacobson, “Herod the Great Shows His True Colors,” Near Eastern Archaeology 64:3 (2001), 100–104; idem, “Military Helmet or Dioscuri

Motif on Herod the Great’s Largest Coin?” Israel Numismatic Research 2 (2007):

93–101; M. Bernett, Der Kaiserkult in Judäa unter den Herodiern und Römern: Untersuchungen zur politischen und religiösen Geschichte Judäas von 30 v. bis 66 n. Chr.

(Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007), 95–97. Dissenters include Y. Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coins from the Persian Period to Bar Kokhba (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi, 2001), 64 (augur’s hat), 220 (military helmet) and S. Brenner, “Coin of Herod the Great: Star or Crest?” The Celator 14:10 (2000): 40–41 (47); idem, “Herod the Great Remains True to Form,” Near Eastern Archaeology 64 (2001): 212–14; D. Hendin, A Guide to Biblical Coins (5th ed.; New York: Amphora, 2010), 229–32.

© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV what is history? 193

need for interpreting evidence in its own right, or know where to place it in their scheme of history. Most of my work to date has been at the bottom end of the historical pyramid, dealing with the interpretation of potential literary evidence and questions of method. I regard the historical interpretation of major literary texts (especially Josephus) as formally comparable to the work of archaeologists, papyrologists, epigraphers, and numismatists. We all work in the “auxiliary disciplines” that provide the basis for historical reconstruction, by trying to understand our material first for itself. Whether our objects are ancient sites, pottery, coins, inscriptions, or historical narratives, we try to understand them according to the operative conventions, comparing like with like and classifying our material accordingly.

Although my views have changed on many things in the past quarter-century, my dissertation and first book resulting from it were already written in this framework, as historical philology in the service of history and invoking a Collingwoodian approach.88 The problem of the historical Pharisees, then much discussed, would require a thorough examination of Mark, Matthew, Luke–Acts, John, Paul, and early rabbinic literature, but that was beyond the scope of my study. As I explained in the introduction and repeated in the conclusion:89 The purpose of the foregoing study has been to develop a framework against which to interpret Josephus’s testimony about the Pharisees.... And since Josephus is probably our most valuable witness to the history of the Pharisees, an interpretation of his evidence and his biases is already a major preliminary step toward the recovery of that history.

Interpreting evidence in its literary and historical contexts remained basic to my approach, as my preface to the Josephus commentary from Brill indicates:90 The commentary aims at a balance between what one might, for convenience, call historical and literary issues. ‘Literary’ here would include matters most pertinent to the interpretation of the text itself. ‘Historical’ would cover matters related to the hypothetical reconstruction of a reality outside the text. For example: How Josephus presented the causes of the war against Rome is a literary problem, whereas recovering the actual causes of the war is the task of historical reconstruction.

S. Mason, Flavius Josephus on the Pharisees: A Composition-Critical Study (Leiden: Brill, 1991), 1–17.

Ibid., 372, 375 (emphasis added). J. Neusner and B. Chilton, eds., In Quest of the Historical Pharisees (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2007), now offers in-depth studies of each account separately as the basis for historical reconstruction.

E.g., in S. Mason, Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary, Volume 1b:

Judean War 2 (Leiden: Brill, 2008), xi.

© 2012 Koninklijke Brill NV194 steve mason

Although the commentary cannot anticipate various scholars’ inquiries in the latter connection, the thousands of notes in the volumes on the post-biblical periods include a large number discussing the historical significance of the passage in question. So too in the excursus preceding the commentary on the Essene passage (B.J. 2.119–161) it seemed important to emphasize this point:91 Before proceeding with the commentary, it seems helpful to pause and consider the function of this famous passage in Josephus’ work. This is especially so because the standard treatments of War’s Essenes begin from the assumption that the people in question were the group(s) who produced and cherished the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), found in the vicinity of Khirbet Qumran from 1947 onward. Such studies therefore understand the meaning of Josephus’ text to be discernible only by comparison with the DSS.... Since that procedure ignores literary-contextual clues to Josephus’ meaning..., it conflicts with the interpretative principles that underlie this commentary.

Consistently, my goal was to interpret Josephus’ evidence contextually without yet asking about the historical Essenes, much less assuming conclusions

about them. In essays on Josephus’ Essenes I have made the same point:

I do not imagine that trying to understand Josephus’s Essenes could possibly settle the historical problems of either Essene or Qumran identity.

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