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What Is Historiography?

Historiography means, literally, the representation or the writing of history. So this already introduces a distinction. History literally means investigation. Historia, in Greek means research or inquiry. Historiography raises the question: right, now you’ve got what you want to say, you think you know something about the past—how do you represent it?

And that’s not as easy a question to answer as we might think because we have this idea that historians should just tell the truth, tell what happened; but that’s not possible because if you start to say well this happened and that happened and that happened, that doesn’t have any meaning; so you realize you need to fill it in some way.

Now there are two basic options; modern historians write up their research, usually in the form of a report or an essay, an argumentative essay. So they’ll lay out for the reader: here was my question, here’s the evidence that I looked at, here’s what I made of that evidence, and here’s what I concluded from the evidence. In the ancient world you hardly ever find traces of that kind of thinking because history is written from this moral perspective and, so instead, people write up stories and they mean these stories to be authoritative stories. So Thucydides, who’s a model historian, never tells us where he gets his evidence from, he never tells us how he knows what he thinks he knows; he just says, “this is the way it was and here is my analysis of it,” so it’s that moral analysis.

Well, how do you do that then? Even if you find out, even if you’re confident that certain things happened—like Jerusalem fell to the Romans in the year 70 or the wartime leaders of Jerusalem produced silver coins—those are kind of peaks in the story, but how do you then tell the story? You have to fill in a lot of gaps and that’s where historiography comes in, the question of how you write about things, connecting all the dots.

You have the problem, for example, of motivation. So [while] you can figure out that certain things happened, it’s not so obvious who did them and why and from what motives or from what outlooks. What’s their view of the world that led them to do these things? Why did Jerusalem fall? Was it a result of Roman policy to destroy Jerusalem? Or was it a series of unfortunate events, for example, that led to its fall? These are the ingredients of historiography and you need to think very seriously when you set out to write history: how am I going to do it?

  • Steve Mason

    Steve Mason is Professor Emeritus of Ancient Mediterranean Religions and Cultures at the faculty of theology and religious studies of the University of Groningen. He is an expert in the history and literature of the eastern Mediterranean under Roman rule, especially Roman Judaea, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, and Christian-Jewish-Roman relations. He has authored and edited numerous books on Josephus.