Contra thematic and overly confident historiography

[T]he reader will doubtless ask why the writer chose to present this history chronologically rather than thematically. The answer is that I believe the first task of the historian to be the recovery of order and sequence. An interpretive essay may follow, but at the outset of a new inquiry, one needs to find out just what happened, and history is best understood when we see what came first and what came afterward. Nonetheless, I recognize that the reader may not find his task simple. He will find distressingly few final and definitive statements, and a large portion of conjecture, hypothesis, and sheer post facto interpretation. Given the nature of the sources, I do not believe I could have done otherwise. We know, as I have said above, very little. When sources are few, conjecture multiplies, as indeed it must. Furthermore, the reader may find tedious the relatively lengthy presentation of relevant Jewish sources, followed by hypothesis and historical interpretation. I could justify no other form. There are two stages in historical inquiry, as in archaeology. The first is to uncover the site; the second, to restore it. These stages must be kept separate, so that the artifacts may be studied and then brought together again, in a state closer to their original and living condition than that in which they were uncovered. In history also one needs to uncover and examine before one is able to restore and recreate. Here I have begun the first stage. I could not have written indicatively, therefore, when my evidence was doubtful and my interpretation of it conjectural, and hence the recurrent use of the subjunctive mood in its many forms. I have tried to find language appropriate to the level of historical knowledge which I believe to have been reached. There may be better ways, but this is the only one congruent to my understanding of the historian’s craft.

Jacob Neusner. A History of the Jews in Babylonia: I. The Parthian Period (Brill, 1969), from the Preface to the First Printing, pp xiv–xv.

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