DH 19: Historicity 1

DH 19: Historicity 1 April 22, 2014

When examining the question of historicity, it is important to distinguish between ontological issues and epistemological issues.  Most non-historians (and many historians, for that matter), don’t understand this important distinction.  I’ll use Moses as an example to try to elucidate this topic, and reflect on methodological issues related to ancient history (which are often quite different from modern methodological questions).

Questions regarding “historicity” concern what “really happened.”  Ontologically, something clearly happened in the past.  Epistemologically the question is, how can modern twenty-first century observers come to know what “really happened” in the past.  These are two substantially different issues that should not be conflated.

Historians of antiquity generally seek three characteristics for reliable historical evidence: contemporaneity, consistency, and independence.  The more independent, consistent, and contemporary a piece of evidence, the more historians generally accept the accuracy of the evidence.  With ancient evidence, this acceptance is rarely absolute; it almost always reflects relative shades on a spectrum.

Thus absolute certainty is generally not attainable with ancient sources.  For example, we have a great deal of surviving ancient information regarding Cleopatra of Egypt.  However, most of the sources about Cleopatra were written by anti-Cleopatra Romans more than a century after she died (Suetonius {writing c. 100}, Plutarch {c. 100}, Appian {c. 150}, Dio Cassius {c. 200}).  Among her contemporaries, Cleopatra {d. 30 BC} is mentioned only once in Caesar’s Alexandrian War, despite her prominent role in that affair.  The prolific Cicero likewise mentions her once, not by name, but calling her “the Queen.”  Thus, despite her prominence in the events of this extraordinarily well-documented period (by ancient standards), most of the evidence for Cleopatra on the whole is neither contemporary, consistent, nor independent.  Historians of antiquity simply have to live with these types of uncertainties and limitations.

For ancient history the unfortunate reality is:  1- We have no evidence whatsoever most ancient events and people—only the elites, and precious few of them are ever mentioned.   2- Even where some records happen to survive, we generally have only a single source for most people and events.  3- Most of our surviving evidence is not contemporary with the events it describes.  In other words, ancient history has only meager and inadequate surviving evidence.  The further back we go in time, the more unsatisfactory the surviving evidence.  This does not change the ontological reality that something “really happened,” but it badly undermines our epistemological capacity to accurately understand what really happened.

I will discuss how this relates to the Documentary Hypothesis in my next post.

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