Exploring Our Matrix
The Blog of Dr. James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, Indianapolis
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Via AWOL I learned of this useful online collection of Neo-Assyrian inscriptions made available by the University of Pennsylvania. Duane Smith is also excited about it.
Help me out here. Somewhere along the way I’d heard that the total amount of written evidence from ancient times was so small that scholars could read it all. But the Assyrian inscriptions alone seem to be quite lengthy.
Just how large is the corpus of written evidence from ancient times? After printing, I assume, it gets to be overwhelming. What about before then?
I should add: I heard of a professor who taught the history of Greece/Rome who told his students they should assume he had read ALL the extant written evidence. Is it true of ancient historians that all the documentary evidence can be read by them?
Nice site, “To the west, Sennacherib personally led his armies along the Mediterranean coast. Some rulers submitted without a fight, but others, including Hezekiah of Judah, fought back with support from Egypt and Nubia. The Assyrians defeated Egyptian and Nubian auxiliary forces, returned the pro-Assyrian ruler of the city Ekron to his throne, captured forty-six Judean cities (including Lachish), and laid siege to the city Jerusalem. The defenses of the Judean capital held firm, but Hezekiah, whom the Assyrians confined “like a bird in a cage,” was forced to strike a costly deal with Sennacherib before the siege was lifted; the bribe worked, as Hezekiah was permitted to remain in power.”
I think the disconnect may be the reduced amount of reading that today’s typical students (at least undergraduates) expect to be asked to read. It may also depend on whether you are talking about the ancient world (it was still a big planet then!) or some particular civilization in a particular time period. It also depends whether one is focused solely on historical records (such as royal inscriptions and historical accounts) or is including other literature, which may not be accounts of historical events but are still important evidence about the history and culture that produced them. But to answer your question, JChalmers, if someone is a historian of Greece and Rome, for instance, I would indeed expect them to have read widely and deeply in the primary sources and secondary literature. This doesn’t mean the literature is not extensive, it means that historians and scholar’s need to read extensive amount of literature. That’s what we do. But whether the professor in question had read every piece of Greco-Roman literature, or was being hyperbolic, or was emphasizing that if he was teaching about it, he had read the relevant texts himself, I couldn’t say. But I certainly think that the history of Greece and Rome encompasses much earlier and later periods than is sometimes included in surveys of Greece and Rome, and would technically include all the Jewish literature produced in that period too, presumably, and so it also depends how broadly or narrowly one is defining the scope of one’s survey. But I think it is to be expected that a historian or scholar will have read and become profoundly familiar with all the literature and inscriptions that relate directly to their area of research, or to a specific ourse they are teaching, and that they will beyond that be broadly familiar, not necessarily with every single piece of literature or inscription produced by that culture or in that period in history, but at the very least with representative examples.
It does seem that modern times have made the historian’s task very much more daunting. In a Civil War history I read recently that there are millions–millions–just of letters sent home by soldiers at the front. Nobody could read but a fraction just of them, and that’s only a small fraction of the totality of the documentary evidence. I’ve also been struck that we have minute by minute accounts of Luther’s “Here I stand” (well, something close to that) moment at Worms. Can anything in ancient history come close?
Having more sources presents the challenge of reading them all. Having few presents the challenge of not knowing whether the things that were lost would significantly change our impression.
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