Known & Unknown Unknowns
[This is the fourth part of an article on historical method. The first part is here.]
It is a story full of contradictions – but what does it matter! Are not historians always confronted by such contradictions? True. However, that is not the point of this article. It is not about the Revolt of the Maccabees but how the historian deals with contradictory sources.
When our sources contradict each other, we have to question which of them is the more reliable. Frequently it will be a choice between different variants. For example, were Judas’ first opponents Samarians or Mysians? Who won and who lost? Was Judas’ second opponent called Seron or Geron? Or, less trivial, which of the Books of the Maccabees gives the correct sequence of events? In the examples just mentioned, it is not possible for both sources to be right: at least one contains incorrect information.
There are also cases in which the historian can plausibly reconcile two conflicting sources. Such as with the question of whether the Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ decree was the cause or the result of the disturbances in Judea.
One of the most-frequently used methods – but also the one involving the most risks – is to trust that when two independent sources say the same thing, it must be true. According to this criterion, Judas would have been able to depend on the support of the Jewish people, since this is stated in both the First and Second Books of the Maccabees. The Book of Daniel illustrates how misleading congruence can be.
Up to this point, we have been concerned with what the former American Minister of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, so aptly expressed as known unknowns. However, just suppose we did not have Daniel at our disposal. In that case, would it have entered our heads that Judas could not depend on the support of the whole population?
Furthermore, what leads us to ask critical questions when there is only one source available? That was the situation before Antiochus’ decree, when all we could use was the Second Book of the Maccabees. There must be many inaccuracies in the first part of this article, which we cannot recognize as such because conflicting information is missing. Here, we are confronted with unknown unknowns (this type of situation is known as testis unus, testis nullus).
Because there is a desperate lack of sources, thinking about unknown unknowns constitutes the core of the study of the ancient world. The value of the study of antiquity lies not in the reconstruction of facts, which, after all, only have a currency in the eyes of nationalists, religious cranks, and other quack historians. Nor is the historiographic discussion important. The study of Antiquity is mainly practical because the lack of empirical basis forces the historian to think long and hard about the logic of his arguments.
- J.D. Grainger, The Syrian Wars (2010)
- P.F. Mittag, Antiochos IV. Epiphanes. Eine politische Biographie (2006)
[translated by Marie Smit-Ryan]