Recently I have argued that the academic study of the Bible is best served by a commitment to historicism not because our methods are objective and free of bias, but because this approach provides the best checks-and-balances for discussing the Bible in a context that isn’t shaped by religious commitment (see “Historiography, historical method, ‘the past,’ and biblical studies”). Let me be clear, I am not saying one can fully bracket their faith commitments when approaching the text, but that is part of the aim of doing good historical work. There are some who suggest that this approach is essentially “modernistic,” and I understand the point that they are making, especially if someone suggest that their methods allow them to be objective researchers. But we should confuse the desire to correctly narrate past events with modernism.
I was reminded of this while reading the first part of Josephus’ The Wars of the Jews where he says that his work is meant to be different than those who write “either out of a humor of flattery to the Romans, or of hatred towards the Jews (Preface, 1).” Essentially, Josephus is saying that these others who recorded events did so with a heavy bias. He aims to correct them. As students of Josephus are aware he is bias as well and that proves my point in another sense: no one is free of bias. Yet it should be observed that the very pre-modern Josephus was quite concerned with “setting the record straight” if you will.
Josephus continues his critique saying, “It is true, these writers have the confidence to call their accounts histories; wherein yet they seem to me to fail of their own purpose, as well as to relate nothing that is sound; for they have a mind to demonstrate the greatness of the Romans, while they still diminish and lessen the actions of the Jews…(Preface, 2). Again, not modernist objectivity, but an effort to tell the story correctly and to avoid the particular blind spots of others. Josephus claims to be able to avoid their mistakes writing, “However, I will not go to the other extreme, out of opposition to those men who extol the Romans, nor will I determine to raise the actions of my countrymen too high; but I will prosecute the actions of both parties with accuracy (Preface, 4).”
What is quite amazing about Josephus is he does go on to remind his readers that these events have impacted him emotionally. It was his people who were overrun and his nation that was destroyed. He reminds his readers that he must be allowed to “indulge some lamentations upon the miseries undergone by my own country (Preface, 4).”
Anyways, one can quickly read through the Preface to Wars to understand what I am saying. It is helpful to remember that a concern for truth and accuracy isn’t a modernist problem. Sure, there are modernist elements to our current historical work that make us different from folk like Josephus, but the pursuit of truth is usually the same even if the rules are slightly altered at times.