Ancient historians at work: Polybius, Herodotus (cf Gospels, Acts)

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by Neil Godfrey

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

Observant strayed,
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?

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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Ancient historians at work: Polybius, Herodotus (cf Gospels, Acts)”

  1. It’s interesting that you should bring up Homer’s vividness, because one of the great Homeric scholars of this century, Wolfgang Schadewaldt, had something to say about this in relation to the Gospel of Mark:

    “As a philologist, someone who has acquired some knowledge of ‘literature’, I am particularly concerned here to note that when we read the Synoptic Gospels we cannot be other than captivated by the experiential vividness with which we are confronted. The conditions of their time stand before us: nature, the landscape of Palestine, the Sea of Galilee, places from the coast to the far side of the Jordan, and Nazareth with its sheer cliff. If only we read the text simply enough, we can imagine Jesus travelling here and there-a situation which we misunderstand if we see the repeated ‘othe way’-the most important words are spoken and actions performed ‘on the way’ as no more than literary decoration…I know of no other area of history-writing, biography or poetry where I encounter so great a wealth of material in such a small space.” (W.Schadewaldt in M. Hengel, “Studies in the Gospel of Mark”, p.102)

    But as for Homer’s vividness…why shouldn’t it be taken as a sign of personal experience, not of the events he is narrating, but other travel, wartime experiences, etc.? And I think you are caricaturing the ‘argument from vividness of detail’ again. The argument is not that ‘a work has vividness, so it must be factual’ but rather that ‘a work has vividness, so we should take seriously the possibility that it is eye-witness testimony, and see if this is confirmed by our other knowledge of this work’. For instance, with Homer, we have vividness (though according to Schadewaldt, not as much as with the Gospel of Mark), but since his account is epic poetry we should be more inclined to think that, even if some of the sea terms and travel details are evidence of personal experience, the tale as a whole is mythological. With Mark, however, when we take vividness as potential evidence for eyewitness testimony, we have corroboration in the earliest, unanimous testimony in the Fathers about Mark being Peter’s interpreter, the fact that he refers to names and events attested independently elsewhere (such as John and the letters of Paul), etc.

    More on explicit critical assessment of sources later.

  2. Hmm, it just occured to me that biblical historiography is probably a better model for Gospels and Acts in at least some respects. Here we have more or less ‘silent’ editing of sources, but still with a concern to transmit reliable knowledge of the past (Richard Friedman, who wrote extensively on the sources of the Pentateuch and Deuteronomistic history, thinks that editing and redaction notwithstanding, it is still very good history).

  3. JD Walters wrote: “And I think you are caricaturing the ‘argument from vividness of detail’ again. The argument is not that ‘a work has vividness, so it must be factual’ but rather that ‘a work has vividness, so we should take seriously the possibility that it is eye-witness testimony, and see if this is confirmed by our other knowledge of this work’.”

    No, the argument from the beginning has been that detail in Acts is evidence of historicity. You wrote earlier: “Here I would note again that it is question-begging to assume that the writer simply ‘went out of his way’ to obtain accurate middle 1st-Century information about ports, cargoes, etc. (which as I stressed in one of my previous posts was in any case hard to come by without first-hand personal experience). It is far simpler and more reasonable to suppose that the reason the author has knowledge of these things is that he was actually there.”

    Polybius says vividness is essential as part of the rhetoric of an historian in order to make the work of practical value — without details there is no way his elite readership can learn the practicalities that they should know about how to conduct various sorts of battles or speak in certain public situations. The addition of realistic details were also part of the literary training of authors — and a specific discussion of one aspect of this can be found in my notes on Rosenmeyer’s Epistolary Fictions. We also know of many scenes that lack vivid details but that this lack is by no means an indication that the scenes are written by eyewitnesses or not. Some people do portray some episodes of their lives with very sparse detailed filler, and some commentaries have pointed to the sparseness of details in certain gospel pericopes as evidence of their genuineness! And some people forget or make mistakes about certain details about otherwise real events.

    In other words, vividness of detail is neither here nor there as a criterion of historicity. There is no logical reason why anyone “should take seriously the possibility that it [vividness of description] is eye-witness testimony” of an historical event. We cannot validly use it (it is nothing more than a rhetorical or literary device) as a reason to favour the possibility of historicity.

  4. JD Walter wrote: Hmm, it just occured to me that biblical historiography is probably a better model for Gospels and Acts in at least some respects. Here we have more or less ’silent’ editing of sources, but still with a concern to transmit reliable knowledge of the past (Richard Friedman, who wrote extensively on the sources of the Pentateuch and Deuteronomistic history, thinks that editing and redaction notwithstanding, it is still very good history).

    Response: So talking asses and snakes and adam and eve and the tower of babel story are also very good history transmitting reliable knowledge of the past?

  5. “In other words, vividness of detail is neither here nor there as a criterion of historicity.”

    On its own, no. I made exactly that point in my first post here. But if we have other reasons to think that the author is reporting eye-witness testimony, we should only expect that the account should incidentally reveal realistic details and have experiential vividness. As such, it makes the eye-witness case more probable, if the other reasons are sound. Again we’re talking about a cumulative case here, which someone like Homer does not pass (as I said above) because we know he is writing epic poetry. If someone like Polybius took vividness alone as a clue to historicity, that’s his problem.

    “So talking asses and snakes and adam and eve and the tower of babel story are also very good history transmitting reliable knowledge of the past?”

    I knew you were going to spout that cliche when I mentioned that Friedman thinks the Bible records reliable history…IN SOME PLACES, the Deuteronomistic history in particular. And suppose someone thought they did hear a donkey speak. Does that mean that a report that they thought they heard a donkey speak has to be unreliable? For a person who thinks that they were mistaken, the report is a report of a mistaken perception of a donkey talking. Such things are not unknown. But in any case, you write that sentence from a typical Enlightenment prejudice in which the paranormal is impossible, so any account of its occurence is by definition unreliable. Note that what I am NOT doing here is simply accepting uncritically any and all miraculous reports as true. But your ‘observation’ was equally arbitrary and a priori.

  6. If something is neither here nor there as a criterion it cannot be used as part of a cumulative case. It can’t change its status from being a zero indicator to suddenly indicating probability simply because other things indicate probability.

    As for the donkey-talk episode, No, the story is not in any way about someone who might have thought he heard a donkey speak. The story consists of an all-knowing narrator informing readers that God or an angel really really truly did speak through a donkey and an angel suddenly appeared with dramatic consequences. But the talking donkey bit is no big deal since its an old joke that sites like this one (which incidentally echo many of your arguments) demonstrate that he still speaks through donkeys even today.

  7. But what is your game? You believe in miracles and arrogantly accuse me of all sorts of prejudice and biased reasoning for rejecting the supernatural from scholarly historical studies, and now you turn around and try to argue I should believe in this story because it is possible to rationalize that it is not really a miracle. How about some honest consistency! Either accept this as a miracle — or admit you really do believe it is a miracle after all and are just playing word games in order to find a new way to confront your “typical sceptic”, and thus at least be consistent with your belief in biblical claims for the miraculous.

  8. Vridar blog comment: My response in bold type — Neil

    There’s no inconsistency. For the person who believes in miracles (and I certainly do), the fact that a story contains a miracle does not BY ITSELF (I repeat, not by itself) lead him to conclude that the story is not historical, because he accepts the possibility that a miracle actually happened. But that should equally be the case for someone who does not believe in miracles, but for a different reason: that it could be the report of someone who thought they witnessed a miracle but were simply mistaken, or the story is historical but elaborated upon with legendary detail.

    This is part of the problem. You have been insisting I must believe in the bible, either literally or with qualifications, but still to believe. There are, however, good reasons for not believing that the bible is genuine history, and those reasons have nothing more to do with “prejudiced attitudes” than the reasons for not believing other pieces of ancient literature are genuine history.

    This point was in response to your implication that since the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomistic history contain stories about talking donkeys and snakes, they cannot possibly record reliable history. That implies that you believe that the presence of the supernatural in a story by itself implies that we are dealing with myth or legend. I think that this is an irrational, historically conditioned prejudice, for the reason I just outlined above.

    I know the work of Gregory Boyd and have indeed learned a lot from it, especially his “Cynic Sage or Son of God?”. Many of the points I have brought up are his. But I feel no special need to respond to your insulting him. If your responses to my summaries of his points are any indication, his work holds up just fine by itself.

    It’s beginning to look like we’re just talking past each other from our respective (believing and skeptical) standpoints, so maybe I’ll just give it a break for now.

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