Category Archives: Ancient historiography


2015-07-24

Ancient Historians Fabricating Sources

by Neil Godfrey
The Book of the Generations of Adam
The Book of Jasher
The Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah
The Book of the the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel
The Book of the Deeds of Solomon

Throughout the books of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian’s “Old Testament”) one finds assurances for readers that the stories (or histories) being told are detailed in other written sources. Readers are further assured in a number of cases in the books of Kings and Chronicles that even more details can be found in outside sources.

That sounds authoritative. Surely only a “hyper-sceptical” cynic would insist that such source citations were fabricated and the narratives have no credible foundation whatsoever.

But there is a more prudent alternative to having to choose between either/or. We have no independent evidence for the existence of these cited sources but of course that does not mean they never existed.

Are we going a step too far, however, to wonder if they never existed at all and that our biblical authors really did fabricate at least some of them? How could we possibly know?

No, we are not going too far to seriously ponder the question because scholars do have good reasons for believing that in the ancient world historians of the day did indeed sometimes pretend to cite real sources that in fact did not exist.

If I begin to set out reasons for suspecting that in some cases the biblical authors were making up sources I run the risk of being accused of having some sort of hostile agenda against the Bible and religion generally. So let’s examine the evidence for other ancient historians fabricating their sources. If we start with the extra-biblical world then we can show that we are analysing the Bible by the same standards we apply to other ancient texts and every reasonable person will happily acknowledge our even-handedness.

One more caveat. Merely identifying grounds for the possibility that source citations are fictions does not mean they “probably” are. What it does mean is that no secure argument or conclusion for a narrative’s reliability can be built upon the presence of source citations.

This post elaborates with a few in depth case-studies on the point I made earlier where I listed examples demonstrating that it was not unusual for ancient historians to fabricate their source-claims.

1. Eyewitness to two monuments of a Pharaoh in Asia Minor

karabel04

Karabel relief. From http://www.hittitemonuments.com/karabel/

Herodotus writes in his Histories (book 2):

As to the pillars that Sesostris, king of Egypt, set up in the countries, most of them are no longer to be seen. But I myself saw them in the Palestine district of Syria, with the aforesaid writing and the women’s private parts on them. 

[2] Also, there are in Ionia two figures of this man carved in rock, one on the road from Ephesus to Phocaea, and the other on that from Sardis to Smyrna

[3] In both places, the figure is over twenty feet high, with a spear in his right hand and a bow in his left, and the rest of his equipment proportional; for it is both Egyptian and Ethiopian; 

[4] and right across the breast from one shoulder to the other a text is cut in the Egyptian sacred characters, saying: “I myself won this land with the strength of my shoulders.” There is nothing here to show who he is and whence he comes, but it is shown elsewhere. 

[5] Some of those who have seen these figures guess they are Memnon, but they are far indeed from the truth.

There are indeed two statues still to be seen at the Karabel Pass on the old road from Ephesus to Smyrna. Unfortunately for Herodotus’s credibility

  • The script on these statues is not Egyptian hieroglyphics but Hittite (“a misstatement that cannot be explained away as a simple error, since to anyone who has seen the former once or twice they are completely unmistakable” – Fehling, p. 135)
  • The better preserved of the statues depicts a Hittite war-god, not Sesostris
  • The inscription does not run across the shoulders but is set to the right of the head

I have taken the above from Katherine Stott’s Why Did They Write This Way? The main inspiration for this post and the five specific case-studies are based on Stott’s chapter 2 of that book. (I should stress that Stott’s interest is not to suggest fabrication of sources was the general rule.)

Stephanie West in “Herodotus’ Epigraphical Interests” (The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 2 (1985), pp. 278-305) writes:

Herodotus here describes the well-known reliefs of the Karabel pass, which depict a Hittite war-god of extremely un-Egyptian appearance. . . .

If Herodotus had seen even a fraction of the Egyptian monuments he claims to have done, he could never have supposed the Karabel reliefs to be Egyptian had he actually visited the site. (West, p. 301)

I like West’s comment on the way illusory way Herodotus so easily persuades readers that he writing an authoritative and reliable account: read more »


2015-06-17

The Positive Value of Scepticism — and Building a Negative Case — in Historical Enquiry

by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 8.37.57 pmTo continue the theme of fundamental principles of historical reasoning this post selects points from Historical Evidence and Argument by David Henige (2005). They all come from the fourth chapter titled “Unraveling Gordian Knots”.

Pyrrhonist scepticism

To begin, notice what scepticism means to Henige. He explains:

Skepticism takes many forms—I am concerned with pyrrhonist skepticism. In theory, and often in practice as well, the pyrrhonist doubts but seldom denies. Instead, he prefers to suspend judgment about truth-claims on the grounds that further evidence or insights might alter the state of play. Pyrrhonists demand that, to be successful, all inquiry must be characterized by rhythms of searching, examining, and doubting, with each sequence generating and influencing the next in a continuously dialectical fashion.7

As a result, issues are visited and revisited as often as needed. The result can be to strengthen probability or to weaken it — odds that might seem too risky for those who believe that progress must be inexorable.

The considered suspension of belief does not ordinarily pertain in matters that are self-evident or trivial, but expressly applies to cases where more than one explanation is possible.8

Given this caveat, the practical advantages of pyrrhonism are patent.

The most important is that declining to accept or believe keeps questions open as long as necessary. Practitioners learn to flinch when they meet terms like “certainly,” “without doubt,” “of course,” or “prove/proof” in their reading, seeing them as discursive strikes designed to persuade where the evidence, or its use, prove insufficient. They have learned that, since new evidence and new techniques are constantly coming forth, they are sensible to withhold final judgment.

7 Discussions of pyrrhonism include Naess, Scepticism; Vansina, “Power of Systematic Doubt;” Wlodarczyk, Pyrrhonian Inquiry.

8 For such practical limitations see Ribeiro, “Pyrrhonism.”

(My formatting and bolding in all quotations)

Anathematizing of doubt and doubters

In scolding his most persistent critic, Marshall Sahlins asks: “[w]hy, then, this stonewalling in the face of the textual evidence?

Probably because [Gananath] Obeyesekere’s main debating game is a negative one, . . . the object being to cast doubt.

cookDebate.001

I’m sure anyone who has read some of the intemperate responses of scholars outraged by Christ Myth or “mythicist” challenges to the traditional reading of Paul’s letters will hear clear echoes here. I’m also reminded of Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology Larry Hurtado’s complaint that my questions were only designed to sow doubt and served no constructive function.

Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere draw upon the same body of evidence — the accounts of the various eyewitnesses among Cook’s crew that were published on their return to England. read more »


2015-03-11

The Difference between Story and History in the Bible

by Neil Godfrey
James Barr

James Barr

In 1980 the influential biblical scholar James Barr produced a “seminal essay” that classified “the narrative complex of the Hebrew Bible as story rather than history” and contributed to “[many retreating] into an historiographic scepticism”(Whitelam, 1987, 2010). The focus of Barr’s essay (and Keith Whitelam’s reference to it) is the Old Testament. It is important to understand, however, that “historical nihilism” is not the inevitable destination if we find our sources are more story than history.

Certainty is not a prerequisite to understanding. It is the will to understand rather than simply the will to know for certain that is the driving force for the inquiry to be undertaken here. (Whitelam, p. 20.)

I think that the same principles carry over to the New Testament’s Gospels and Acts, too. That’s too controversial for many today, however. The Gospel narratives must stand firm as grounded in historical memory of some kind. Whitelam in his 2010 edition of his 1987 book lamented the failure of the critical potential to blossom in the field of Old Testament studies:

The rise of the biblical history movement and ‘new biblical archaeology’ means that the project envisaged a quarter of a century ago is even further away from realization today than it was then. (p. xiii)

How much further away we must be from applying the same critical questions to the stories of Jesus!

Following is how Barr explained the differences between history and story. It comes from “Story and History in Biblical Theology: The Third Nuveen Lecture” in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 1-17. Published in Explorations in Theology 7, 1980.

Old Testament narratives cannot be described as “history” but rather as containing “certain of the features that belong to history”. Examples: read more »


2014-02-16

How Ancient Historians Worked — Summary

by Neil Godfrey

I’ve decided to wrap up this series with this post. The book I have been discussing is online for anyone interested in following up the issues in more depth. In the future I may have time to discuss how the same points about Thucydides can be found to apply to other ancient historians like Tacitus, Josephus, Polybius, and so forth, too.

ancient-historians

Here are the key points:

  1. A historian may inform readers he is relying upon eyewitness testimony and personal investigations in order to encourage readers to have confidence in the superiority of his narrative, but the reality may in fact be quite different. In fact the historian may well be re-creating historical scenes from other literature (epics, plays, works of other historical times and places) that are vividly realistic mental images for the reader.
  2. It was believed important for historians to select noble topics to write about. Their historical narratives were meant to serve the interests of both education and entertainment.
  3. Educational and inspirational messages were in the form of setting before readers actions that demonstrated the noble or right way to act in various circumstances, or conversely illustrating cases where the ignoble or foolish course of action brought disaster and shame. In this sense historiography belonged to what rhetoricians called the epideictic function. The point was to praise (and sometimes to praise the good by demonstrating the converse) what was good and noble in the past as an inspiration for contemporary audiences.
  4. Truth was a matter of what was plausible given all we know of the human nature and the natural world. Hence gaps in historical knowledge could be validly filled in by the historian creating scenes that were “true to life”. Historical facts were those details or events that fulfilled the purpose of the historian’s narrative. read more »

2014-02-13

How Ancient Historians Constructed Dramatic Fiction: Thucydides and the Plague

by Neil Godfrey
painting1

Plague of Athens by Neapolitan School

The plague of Athens is one of the most detailed, vivid and life-like accounts of any event from ancient times. The historian who penned it (Thucydides) assures all readers that he relied upon eyewitness reports and that he personally investigated what had happened in order to be sure of leaving a record that would be of use (as well as interest) to posterity.

But how historically true is it? Is it hyper-sceptical to even ask that question?

I ask because a few New Testament scholars who study Christian origins claim that those who raise doubts that the author of the two-part prologue to Luke and Acts was really relying upon eye-witness testimony as he appears to be claiming are “hyper-sceptical” and unreasonably biased against the Bible. This post is part of a series showing that such critical questions are indeed applied to works other than those in the Bible and that they are perfectly legitimate and gateways to deeper understanding of the texts.

Further, among ancient historians and classicists we find the rule that we can never be certain of the historicity of a narrative without external or independent corroboration. This, too, is another detail dismissed as “hyper-scepticism” among some New Testament scholars who have built “bedrock history” upon their biblical sources.

Before resuming with Woodman’s discussion of the way the historian Thucydides worked it’s worth pausing to consider an extract by Henry R. Immerwahr from the Cambridge History of Classical Literature:

The close association of history and literature produced a distinctive manner of presentation which creates difficulties for anyone who tries to use the ancient historical works as source materials. Especially through the influence of epic and drama Herodotus and Thucydides set a style followed by almost all ancient historians, which may be called mimetic, that is, they write as if they had been present at the events they describe. (An exception is the Oxyrhynchus historian who aims at a more dispassionate narrative.)

When Herodotus describes the conversations between Gyges and Candaules or the feelings of Xerxes after Salamis we can hardly believe that this is based on evidence; it is rather an imaginative, ‘poetic’, reconstruction aiming at authenticity in an idealized sense.

The same is true of Thucydides when he supplies motives for actions by delving, so to speak, into the minds of the participants (e.g. the feelings of Cleon and the assembly in the discussion of Pylos, 4.27*1″.) without mentioning his informants.

The use of speeches is only the most obvious device of the mimetic method; it reaches into the smallest narrative details and tends to destroy the distinction between ‘fact’ and interpretation. This factor, more than any other, gives ancient historiography its unique character. (CHCL – pp. 456-7)

It is often forgotten that Thucydides is our only evidence for the plague, as for so many other events of the war. It is not mentioned by Aristophanes or in any contemporary medical writing. It is mentioned by Plato (Symp. 201d), but many years later. (The contemporary Sophocles makes no mention of it.) Woodman, p. 66

This post does not argue that there was no plague in Athens during the Peloponnesian War — although see the side box for the status of the evidence for its historicity.

What this post examines is Professor of Classics A.J. Woodman’s case for Thucydides having constructed a fictional scene based upon that apparently historical event. We will see the way “historical” writing was conceived in the Hellenistic, Roman and Jewish worlds in the Classical-Hellenistic-Roman eras.

I am focusing on Thucydides because he is generally considered the historian to be most like the moderns, taking scrupulous care to establish the certainty of any fact he writes, avoiding any mythical or miraculous tales, striving for an almost modern form of “scientific accuracy”. If it can be shown that this image of Thucydides’ work is accurate then we may indeed read ancient historical works in hopes of finding that others, too, have at least to some degree written the same way, especially those for whom we have evidence that they aspired to be compared with Thucydides in some way. Thinking specifically here of Josephus and the author of Luke-Acts.

This continues from my previous post on A.J. Woodman’s argument. His book can be found online at Scribd.

read more »


2014-02-07

The Best of Ancient Historians Following Homer and the Epic Poets

by Neil Godfrey
Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail

A.J.Woodman

This continues from my previous post on A.J. Woodman’s argument. His book can be found online at Scribd.

History ain’t what it used to be. It is all too easy for us moderns to read a work by an ancient historian, say Josephus or Tacitus or Thucydides (some would even add a few biblical authors), and think that by making allowances for pre-modern naïvety and a few mythical tales that we are reading a regular account of the past not so very different from what we would expect from our own modern historical works.

Historical works are nothing like epic poetry. At least to us. Historians are trying to get the facts right and record what they believe really happened. Ancient historians, however, did not quite work like that. We have seen in the previous two posts that even that reputably most “modern” and “scientific” of ancient historians, Thucydides, looked upon Homer as a historian-predecessor of his. If the Iliad is what Thucydides understood as “history” then perhaps we should be a little more cautious in the way we approach his own historical work, and indeed historical works of all the ancients.

How prose trumped poetry

Thucydides rejected poetic presentation. Plain prose was his tool. We saw in the previous post that his rejection of the poetic with all the embellishments that poetry brings with it was not because he believed such a medium was inappropriate for a “historical work”. Rather, it was because he wanted to convince his audience that the subject matter about which he was writing was itself of such grand and superior importance that poetry was superfluous.

The topic or theme was impressive enough on its own merits. In this, the greatness of his subject, his work surpassed that of his predecessors, including Herodotus and Homer.

Thucydides made poetics sound like a cheap way to enhance the greatness of one’s chosen topic.

Below we have a closer look at that prose style and will see that even ancient readers saw something rather poetic about it anyway. Thucydides’  prose was far from pedestrian.

(Pause: Did similar thoughts run through the mind of the author of Luke-Acts? What greater subject to write about than the coming of Christ and the origins of the Church? How to surpass the predecessors?)

Thucydides “the disaster drama” entertainer

In the previous post we saw that Thucydides expressed regret that readers “may seem” to find his work “less entertaining” because it would lack the tales of the fabulous and legendary that were found in The Histories of Herodotus. Woodman’s translation draws attention to what he believes are key details in the Greek that tend to be overlooked by many readers, including scholars. Thucydides, he argues, is not saying that his work will not be found entertaining. He is saying that it will lack the entertainment that comes from the mythical and fabulous narratives since those sorts of stories won’t be a part of his work.

We must infer that he did expect his work to be entertaining in all other respects, which is certainly the impression we derive from 23.1-3, where he returns to the thesis . . . that [his subject matter] the present war is the greatest of all. (p. 28)

Here is 23:1-3

read more »


2014-02-06

Ancient Historians: Thucydides, historian of realism, not reality

by Neil Godfrey
woodman

Professor of Classics, A.J. Woodman

This continues from my previous post on A.J. Woodman’s argument. His book can be found online at Scribd.

There are good reasons for approaching the Book of Acts and other historical writings of the Bible from the perspective of the wider literary culture of their day. Thucydides, the Greek historian of the Peloponnesian War, is generally thought of as an outstanding exception among ancient historians because of his supposedly well-researched and eyewitness accounts of the facts. Classicist Professor A.J.Woodman reminds us, however, that we may be advised to reconsider why we should ever think of anyone as being an exception to the ethos and culture of one’s own day.

Through these posts I am exploring the nature of ancient historiography, and by implication re-examining the assumptions we bring to our reading of the Bible’s historical books. Beginning with Herodotus and Thucydides is relevant because we will see that Jewish historians, in particular Josephus, were influenced by them. We will see that by understanding Greek and Roman historians we will also understand more clearly and in a new light the nature of the works of Josephus. And by understanding the nature of ancient historical texts we will read Acts and other historical books in the Bible with fresh insights and improved critical awareness.

The first thing to note about Thucydides is that, for all his differences from Herodotus, he wanted his own work to be read with reference to Herodotus’ Histories. He borrowed directly from Herodotus to demonstrate to readers the superiority of his own work.

Herodotus advertized the greatness of his topic. Thucydides did the same and more so. Herodotus announced that the Persian Wars were a large-scale event? Thucydides responds by greatly exaggerating the extent of the Peloponnesian War to a far greater scale.

Far from being disengaged or objective, Thucydides has deployed standard rhetorical exaggeration in order to demonstrate the superiority of his own work and subject over those of Herodotus. (p. 7)

The translation reflects the original Greek words borrowed:

thycyherod1

We will see that this — the choice of a most important or great topic — is a recurring theme in all historical writings. Ditto for intertextuality.

Homer the historian

read more »


2014-02-05

How History Was Done in Bible Times: Myths about Herodotus and Thucydides

by Neil Godfrey

Was it acceptable for Greek, Roman and Jewish historians to invent accounts of the past?

Did even historians imitate and creatively reproduce entire passages from the great epic poems and tragic plays of their day?

Can we trust ancient historians who declare they relied upon eyewitness reports?

How does our understanding of history differ from the ancient concept of “historia”?

What implications do the answers to these questions have for the way we interpret the historical books of the Bible?

Thucydides has long been reputed to have been the first “scientific historian”. In his introduction he clearly indicates that his account of the Peloponnesian War is to be based on eyewitness reports and his own personal observations. He will eschew all myth and fable. His prose is austere, complex and compressed. He is accordingly judged to be a sober, critical, authoritative historian.

woodman

A.J. Woodman

Classicist A. J. Woodman in a 1988 publication, Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: Four Studies, showed us that these views of Thucydides were in fact myths. Moderns have naively taken Thucydides’ words at face value or sometimes misinterpreted them in the light of modern ideals of how history should be written. We have also failed to recognize that even this “founder of scientific history” is in fact writing creative fiction that very often has more in common with Homeric epics and Greek tragedies than dry, scientific history.

So how is this possible? And if we can err in attributing our ideas of historical interests to Thucydides can we be sure we are not making the same mistakes with, say, Luke-Acts?

Before Thucydides we have Herodotus. Woodman begins by pointing out a few important details about this “father of history” that we will soon see carry over to Thucydides despite the many obvious differences between these two historians. read more »


2008-10-26

What Josephus might have said about the Gospels

by Neil Godfrey

The Jewish historian Josephus had a bit to say about the nature of historiography, and why he believed his historical writings were more truthful than those of Greek historians. His criticisms of Greek histories have some interest when compared with modern questions about the historical reliability of the Gospels. . . . read more »