February 15, 2018

Steve Mason's "What is History?" (Excerpt and Link)

If you've not yet had the great pleasure of reading Steve Mason's most recent books, A History of the Jewish War A.D. 66-74 (Cambridge, 2016, $112 hardcover) and Orientation to the History of Roman Judaea (Cascade, 2016; $10 on Kindle or $30 paperback from Cascade online), this might whet your appetite to do so. The great one himself has uploaded to Academia.edu a much shorter piece, "What is History? Using Josephus for the Judaean-Roman War," (chapter in a collected volume by Brill, 2011) which presents a lot of Mason's key ideas in nuce.

With these promotional ideals, therefore, I hereby take the liberty of excerpting a few paragraphs from the introduction of Mason's "What is History?" It should go without saying - because I'm blogging this here - that reflecting upon this material might offer particular benefits for my friends in Biblical Studies.

Be enlightened. Be challenged. Enjoy!

   My general thesis is that the different views of history held by those of us who study Roman Judaea is a sizable but mostly neglected problem. In other explorations of the Roman Empire, in spite of many differences of perspective among investigators, the methodological situation seems a bit clearer, even as conclusions are less tightly embraced. Lacking narratives comparable to those of Josephus, historians of Roman Africa, Asia Minor, Spain, Britain, or Arabia are in a mostly shared predicament, which they recognized from the outset. With little hope of recovering many specific events, causes, and motives from a given week, month, year, or decade, many prefer to stay with the kinds of social, economic, and demographic history that can draw from evidence over long periods and different sites...
   In the case of Judaea, Josephus' detailed narratives and essays in thirty volumes, which include seven substantial books on the war and its contexts, tantalize us with the lure of a different approach. Along with Josephus, of course, we have a treasury of other post-biblical literature including the Qumran Scrolls. Intensive archaeology in Israel and Palestine has turned up spectacular sites, small finds, and inscriptions. Much of this material is still being discovered, classified, and interpreted. Still, because most post-biblical literature is intramural and assumes rather than explains its context, while the archaeological finds illuminate moments in the stratigraphy of a site but not usually political motives or the meaning of events, Josephus continues to provide the interpretative spine for the period from about 200 B.C.E. to 75 C.E., when his narrative ends.
   Because we have this uniquely rich resource in Josephus, it is a nearly overwhelming temptation to lean on it, to begin our study of anything he mentions by looking first to his account and asking: How reliable is it? This orientation need not entail the naive quotation of Josephus as historical fact, though that has been the most common way of writing Judaean history, and it continues unimpeded in popular works. Josephus-dependence might take the form of more critical exercises, such as trying to extract his sources (as though undigested) or setting logical traps to shake loose low-hanging factual fruit from his narrative tree, even if that tree is admitted to be nourished by his "apologetic" concerns. Josephus-dependence might even take the form of a systematic mistrust or rejection of Josephus in principle, coupled with the attempt to rescue from his tendentious presentation the supposedly uncomfortable truths that he mentioned in spite of himself. But however we do it in fine, when we take any of these approaches we still treat Josephus' writing as our authority, map, or guide. We begin our investigation with his narratives and try to find some way of converting them (if we cannot simply accept them) into a mirror of the lived past.
   I shall argue that such dependence on any ancient text cannot be justified by a defensible historical method, let alone in view of the particular nature of Josephus' narratives, and that clinging to this approach severely handicaps our conception of history, our procedures, and therefore our results. Our good fortune in having Josephus does not change the basic conditions of historical research, which require that we treat his works the same way we handle other, less comprehensive ancient accounts. That he wrote elaborate histories makes no difference to the essential historical predicament, which we have also where Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Livy, or Tacitus is our main guide.
   . . .
   Especially in biblical and religious studies, whose professors are among those most interested in Roman Judaea, there is a notable tendency to see history as a matter of conclusions or beliefs, no matter how those conclusions are reached. Do you believe that the Pharisees were the most influential pre-70 sect, that there was a standing Sanhedrin, that the James ossuary is genuine or a forgery, or that the Essenes lived at Qumran? These kinds of questions one encounters all the time, though it is difficult to imagine similar camps forming in other areas of ancient history: over the reasons for Tacfarinas' revolt in Africa or debating whether Boudica was motivated more by financial or sexual outrage. I do not know where this inclination comes from, but it seems to me inappropriate to history and indeed anti-historical, for reasons I shall try to explain...

Read the rest of Steve Mason's brilliant discourse over over at Academia.edu and then go buy all his books, starting with the most recent.


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