Rule #1 (from Mark Day's The Philosophy of History, 2008, pp. 20-21) addressed the necessity of prioritising primary sources.
Primary sources here are understood to be the documents and other material artefacts that belong to the period being researched.
So coins minted by a king are primary sources for the reign of that king; a written account of that king that looks back on his reign subsequent to his death is a secondary source. A monument or decree written by order of the king that survives today is a primary source. A later historical work asserting claims about what the king wrote or decreed is a secondary source. (These are common definitions of the terms that have been in use since the nineteenth century. There is some fluidity among historians about how they use the terms but I have set out how they are used by Mark Day in his rules of historical reasoning.)
But what happens when the historian has no primary sources? That is, when no documents from the person/period being studied survive although the historian does have much later purported copies of primary sources?
For example. Josephus writing in Roman times quotes what he claims is correspondence between the second century BCE Seleucid persecutor of the Jews, Antiochus IV (Epiphanes), and Samaritans. Is it legitimate for a historian to use Josephus's "record" of this correspondence as primary source material for the actual events of the second century BCE?
The answer, I believe, is found in Elias Bickerman's analysis of Josephus's narrative, "A Document Concerning the Persecution by Antiochus IV Epiphanes" in Studies in Jewish and Christian
History, 2007, pp. 376-407.
Bickerman goes into very detailed argument to establish a reasonable case that the historian is indeed justified in using Josephus's record as a genuine copy of original correspondence dating from the time of Antiochus IV. His arguments is based on several lines of evidence:
- archaeological evidence supporting originality of the correspondence in Josephus's work and providing details highly unlikely to have been known in the time of Josephus;
- misunderstandings by Josephus in his use of the letters that demonstrate an ignorance of practices alluded to in the letters that passed from usage in the Roman era;
- anachronistic references by Josephus that demonstrate a failure to understand the original context of the correspondence;
- other examples of genuine and forged correspondence used as controls in Bickerman's argument;
- the extraordinary difficulties a forger would have had in getting specific details correct -- formulae appropriate to a narrow geographical and chronological range; accurate dating despite many potential chronological traps such as years beginning differently from one city to another, -- as they are in the correspondence cited by Josephus.
In other words, Bickerman is very aware of the absolute necessity to establish a source as a "primary source" in order to use it as a basis for a historical reconstruction of the period being investigated.a forger was skilful enough to fabricate, one or two hundred years later, an impeccable document dated to 166 B.C.E. His diligence would not have done him any good; indeed, it would actually have detracted from the plausibility of his work, because if his readers were to be tricked into accepting it, they needed a document drawn up in the terms with which they were familiar, i.e. in the style of their own historical period. This explains the remarkable fact that forgers in antiquity normally employed the official formulae of their own period when they produced their texts.
I confess I was at first very suspicious of Bickerman's historical methods. The first work of his I read was God of the Maccabees in which he baldly stated, at one point, that we have various sources from the Seleucids pertaining to the Maccabean revolt. It was only after reading his justifications for this claim (as in the article discussed in this post) that I backed down and gave his argument some credence.
What Bickerman has given historians is a very solid argument. He has not given them primary sources. But he has given historians reasons to have some degree of confidence that they do have access to primary sources. That means any argument based on these primary sources must necessarily remain hypothetical, always with awareness that the sources upon which the argument is based are conclusions of argument, hypotheses, and not the "hard facts" as we have with coins or stone monuments or preserved clay tablets, etc. Bickerman's "primary sources" will, like any and all primary sources, remain open to question and challenge. After all, that's what Mark Day (like many other historians) calls for: a constant testing and evaluation of the historian's source material.)
Bickerman's use of the documents as cited in Josephus are not a shoddy licence to make easy excuses for "making do with what we have or else we cannot do the history we want to do" type of unprofessional, unscholarly approach.