Historical Method: Hypothesis and Verification
Knowledge of the past is achieved through a method of hypothesis and verification. A hypothesis s: ‘is essentially a construct, thought up by a human mind, which offers itself as a story about a particular set of phenomena, in which the story, which is bound to be an interpretation of those phenomena also offers an explanation of them.’1 For a hypothesis to be a good hypothesis, and receive verification, it must
must include all the data
must construct a basically simple and coherent overall picture
prove itself fruitful in other areas
For Wright the ‘inclusion of data is ultimately the more important of the two criteria’2.
I want to ask, Can we ever include all the data?
A good hypothesis will find verfication from the data. Yet a hypothesis, about anything, cannot make sense of all the data, but makes sense of a selection of the data. This may be illustrated with the example of a detective looking for evidence in a house robbery. A detective may develop a hypothesis about the burglar which includes some data including footprints, a broken window. However bright, methodological or scientific this detective is she cannot include all of the data,but only needs to include the relevant data. The complexity of life, objects and historical artefacts, cannot be be known in totality, nor do we need to have all data available before us before a judgement. Wright is wrong to say that a hypothesis must include all the data for the establishment of data, in an exhaustive sense, is an infinite task. We simply can do history, whether it be historical Jesus research or WWII, without knowing the full, or even the knowable, arithmetic, spatial, kinematic, physical, biotic, sensitive, analytic, historical, lingual, social, economic, aesthetic, juridical, ethical or pistic aspects3. In historical Jesus research we may say off hand that we must include all the data, but we quickly realise that we simply mean the relevant data. For instance we may say Jesus must be understood against the geographical backdrop of Galilee4 yet this not mean that we need to pursue to a full extent topological and biotic data.
Wright accepts that the ‘stack of data to be included is vast and bewildering5 and accepts that ‘seeing and assembling the data is a monstrous task’. 6 This assembling, surely involves selection, which brings with it, even at the data level, an amount of subjectivity, for what is relevant data to one community is irrelevant to another.
4 As in Freyne, Sean. Jesus, a Jewish Galilean : A New Reading of the Jesus Story. London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004.