Sunday, February 14, 2010

Adele Reinhartz on historical reconstruction

At the end of her essay, "We, You, They: Boundary Language in 4QMMT and the New Testament Epistles" (Text, Thought, and Practice in Qumran and Early Christianity [Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 84; Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009], 89–105), Adele Reinhartz states clearly and concisely the perils that face any historian of antiquity who attempts to move from historical observation to historical hypothesizing. This shouldn't deter us from attempting both global (or synthetic) and local (or specific) theorizing, whether we're dealing with what became canonical biblical texts or with other texts from antiquity. But it should warn us to remember that what we think we know about the ancient world is like archipelagos amidst the vast ocean of missing and non-extant data we would like to know. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid-twentieth century makes very clear that when the ocean of our ignorance recedes just a little bit the entire topography of our knowledge of antiquity may find itself in need of remapping.
As always, it is helpful to keep in mind [Lawrence] Schiffman's comment that the historian of Judaism has evidence for what was only a small part of the canvas of Jewish history in late antiquity. While it is important to examine our extant sources for clues to the meaning and context of MMT, we cannot rule out the possibility that MMT may allude to individuals, groups and events that are not present in the corpus of literature that has survived to our own days. Thus moving from any set of observations to a historical hypothesis is fraught with danger. (Reinhartz 2009: 104)

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