For what it’s worth, I’m posting a few excerpts from a couple of nonbiblical historians, mainly for benefit of those following some of the posts and discussion re my Bauckham and Acts 27 (Paul’s sea voyage/shipwreck) reviews. The point is to compare nonbiblical historical methods, approach, critical analysis, with what we read in the Gospels and Acts. For those familiar with the Gospels and Acts I invite where possible any comparisons with the following methods we find among two prominent ancient historians:
Polybius (12.25h-i) on “vivid detail” being evidence of “true experience” in history writing:
We miss in them the vividness of facts, as this impression can only be produced by the personal experience of the author. Those, therefore, who have not been through the events themselves do not succeed in arousing the interest of their readers. Hence our predecessors considered that historical memoirs should possess such vividness as to make one exclaim when the author deals with political affairs that he necessarily had taken part in politics and had experience of what is wont to happen in the political world, when he deals with war that he had been in the field and risked his life, and when he deals with private life that he had reared children and lived with a wife, and so regarding the other parts of life. This quality can naturally only be found in those who have been through affairs themselves and have acquired this sort of historical knowledge. It is difficult, perhaps, to have taken a personal part and been one of the performers in every kind of event, but it is necessary to have had experience of the most important and those of commonest occurrence. That what I say is not unattainable is sufficiently evidenced by Homer, in whose works we find much of this kind of vividness.
Homer’s epic poetry was read as “history” by Polybius and most other ancients up till and beyond the time of Polybius. The ancient historian Polybius considered Homer’s vividness of detail as evidence that Homer had himself experienced the things of which he wrote.
Few historians or literary critics today would consider vividness of detail in Homer as anything more than literary (and encyclopedic) skill. Few would consider it evidence of historical factuality. Yet some biblical scholars do appear to consider such vividness of detail evidence of historicity in Acts 27, despite the sea voyage in that chapter displaying many overlaps with Homer’s sea voyage adventures.
The ideal historian according to Polybius is a man of action, one who travels to make enquiries, and Homer’s Odysseus is for Polybius 12.27 the historical model!:
Homer has been still more emphatic on this subject than these writers. Wishing to show us what qualities one should possess in order to be a man of action he says:
The man for wisdom’s various arts renowned,
Long exercised in woes, O muse, resound,
Wandering from clime to clime;
and further on
Their manners noted, and their states surveyed:
i.e. Odysseus is in effect held up as the model historian by Polybius! (Odyssey I. 1-3) Shipwrecks involving terrible loss of life were also part of Odysseus’s experience but they scarcely served the same pratical value in the retelling for historians writing for military leaders, as was Polybius.
Polybius above all believed history had to be of practical value. That meant an historian had to write knowledgably about warcraft and politics or rulership because such topics were the topics of practical benefit to his readers. Shipwrecks were scarcely part of this repertoire. There are many passage from Polybius addressing this point, so I have selected but one of many (Polybius 12, 25g) to illustrate here:
It is neither possible for a man with no experience of warlike operations to write well about what happens in war, nor for one unversed in the practice and circumstances of politics to write well on that subject. So that as nothing written by mere students of books is written with experience or vividness, their works are of no practical utility to readers. For if we take from history all that can benefit us, what is left is quite contemptible and useless.
It need scarcely be added that this explains the ancient historians’ penchant for vivid detailed accounts of sieges and battles, details that could instruct a reader in advance. The vagaries of shipwrecks scarcely served any such purpose. The former offered practical information for the benefit of the upper class reader, the latter none.
On critical appraisal of sources and previous historians, Polybius 7, 7 writes bluntly and explicitly (i.e. not just quietly without comment re-writing an earlier gospel):
Some of the historians who have described the fall of Hieronymus have done so at great length and introduced much of the marvellous, . . . and describing in tragic colours the cruelty of his character and the impiety of his actions, and finally the strange and terrible nature of the circumstances attending his death, so that neither Phalaris nor Apollodorus nor any other tyrant would seem to have been more savage than he. And yet he was a boy when he succeeded to power, and lived only thirteen months after. In this space of time it is possible that one or two men may have been tortured, and some of his friends and of the other Syracusans put to death, but it is hardly probable that there was any excess of unlawful violence or any extraordinary impiety.
The historian does not quietly re-write the wrong accounts of the earlier versions, but explicitly pronounces where he finds fault and makes corrections over his predecessors. He is not quietly improving on an account or writing an alternative theological interpretation. He is literally correcting an earlier account and makes it plain where he does so. He is From Polybius 12, 4c:
But from all this it is evident that the account he gives of Africa, of Sardinia, and especially of Italy, is inaccurate, and we see that generally the task of investigation has been entirely scamped by him, and this is the most important part of history. For since many events occur at the same time in different places, and one man cannot be in several places at one time, nor is it possible for a single man to have seen with his own eyes every place in the world and all the peculiar features of different places, the only thing left for an historian is to inquire from as many people as possible, to believe those worthy of belief and to be an adequate critic of the reports that reach him.
So the interviewing of eyewitnesses is a fall-back necessity that results from lack of abundance of written testimonies?
What of the “Father of History”, Herodotus, for “critical appraisal” of sources?
There is, however, another tale, which is this: when Xerxes came in his march from Athens to Eion on the Strymon, he travelled no farther than that by land, but committed his army to Hydarnes to be led to the Hellespont. . . . . This is the other tale of Xerxes’ return; but I for my part believe neither the story of the Persians’ fate nor any other part of it. For if indeed the pilot had spoken to Xerxes in this way, . . . . (Histories, VIII, 118-119)
As the people of Abdera say (but for my part I wholly disbelieve them), (Histories, 120)
I think–if it is necessary to judge the ways of the gods–that the goddess herself denied them entry, since they had burnt her temple, the shrine at Eleusis. (Histories, LXV, 1)
As for the body of Mardonius, it was removed on the day after the battle; by whom, I cannot with certainty say. I have, however, heard . . . (Histories, LXXXIV, 1)
Now in the above two historians we see “critical appraisal” of sources at work. Eyewitness reports vary and the historians have no problem informing the reader of this. Are we to assume that in the case of Jesus there were no variant reports at all? And vividness of detail is important but only where it can be plied for practical purposes among an elite readership. How much, if anything, ought one make of the sparseness of details in Mark, then, and the near Homeric-level detail sometimes found in Acts?
So when someone like Bauckham today argues that the Gospel authors were part and parcel of the “best practice” of ancient historical writing, these are the sorts of explicit expressions of that “best practice” that one should expect to see. Yes?
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
- Bearing False Witness for Jesus - 2022-01-18 01:12:46 GMT+0000
- Why Did Written Stories of Jesus Take So Long to Appear? - 2022-01-17 05:02:14 GMT+0000
- Nero – Followup #2 - 2022-01-15 12:17:08 GMT+0000
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!