There is dirt archaeology. If you want to find Troy, you dig at Hissarlik, and several layers down, there it is. Of the Seven Cities of Troy, Homer's is Troy VI. The limitation of archeology is that, save for the occasional inscription, its stones are mostly mute. For useful detail, we need texts.
There is also text archaeology. If you want to find Homer, you dig down in the Iliad, and there he is. Indications in the text suggest that, of the many stages in its formation, Homer is to be found somewhere around Iliad III. The art of detecting the history behind a text is what we are here calling "philology." (Another name is "Text Criticism").
If a text comes down to us in several manuscripts, then typically these will differ at one or more places. The scribes who produced them were only human, and made mistakes. The kind of mistakes scribes typically make are now well known. These differences must be compared, and the erroneous reading (or the intentional enhancement) must be identified. This process is called the Lower Criticism. It aims to arrive at the earliest reachable manuscript version: the archetype. This is not necessarily the original, because our earliest manuscript may be centuries later than the original, and already subject to scribal corruption. Anyway, it is the best we can do with the manuscripts. Then the work of the Higher Criticism begins. This second phase seeks to recover the formation history that may lie behind the text we know. There are two aspects to that earlier history:
Growth. With modern texts, we can usually assign an author and a date, but for ancient texts, the "date" is likely to be a span, and the span can sometimes extend to centuries. The "author" of a growth text is likely to be a succession of people, the proprietors of some school or affinity group. Most ancient texts function as authorities. Perhaps the best example of an authority text, whether ancient or modern, is a law code. If it does not keep up with recent rulings, or with new social conditions, a law code soon becomes obsolete. The laws of the Cretan city of Gortyn were inscribed on the stone walls of the hearing chamber. Then a set of modifications was added. And still later, another set. We know that this third group of prescriptions was later than the others. How? Because we possess the actual stones, and this third group of laws is written in a different hand.
So any ancient text must be examined for signs of internal growth, whether by the addition of new matter at the tail (less often, the head) of the text, or as insertions (interpolations) in the middle. Both are detected simply by their lack of agreement with the rest of the text, or by a reader's sense of discontinuity. The final test of an addition is that, when you experimentally remove it, the rest of the text works better. It closes over, consistently, like your finger when you take a splinter out.
Interaction. Few ancient texts were written in a social vacuum. Most existed in a community of different opinions, sometimes in open disputation with other texts. In the Chinese scene, Sywndz and Mencius argue over human nature. The Analects responds with spirit to some anti-Confucian satires in the Jwangdz. The statecraft texts labor to discover the ideal form of the new state that was emerging in the classical period, and other texts deplore the new state as such. The military texts show how to win at the new kind of warfare, and opposition texts deplore all warfare. In another hemisphere, Ezra deplores foreign wives as defiling the Chosen People, and demands that they be divorced; Ruth reminds everyone that ancestors of the honored King David included a mixed marriage. Solomon, in the very act of dedicating the Temple, pauses to doubt that God lives in any one place. Here we have an argument even within the same paragraph.
The key question to ask of any two seemingly related texts is, which is responding to which? Or are both responding to some third thing? This is the directionality question. And if the stimulus for an opinion is an event, a famous battle or the accession of a new ruler, then the text's response gives us that much desired thing, a positive date for at least that segment. In this way, a system of interrelated texts is built up, and is anchored at some points to specific years. At that point, if it can be reached, we begin to be in possession of the wider historical past.
Let it be added, in conclusion, that the extensions, the interpolations, and even the forgeries, are themselves part of history. They merely belong to a later part of history than the core of that text, or the other texts of that period. History includes everything, but it is only true to its mission of recovery if it sorts out the past, and puts all the pieces in their proper places in the ongoing succession of the years.
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