Is Luke Among the Lying Historians?

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by Neil Godfrey

GillWisemanOne of my earliest posts asked what Josephus might have said about the worth of the Gospels as history had he read them. In preparation for my final post on historical-critical methods with Stephen’s martyrdom as a case study I have come across (as another commenter also did) a chapter in Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World titled “Lying Historians: Seven Types of Mendacity” by T.P. Wiseman.

The reason for this post is to enhance awareness of one aspect of the nature of ancient historical writing whenever we think about Acts of the Apostles (or even the Gospels) as histories of sorts. (All bolding in all quotations is mine.)

Wiseman begins with line from Seneca, of the first century CE, where he dismisses a theory about comets by a certain Ephorus:

It takes no great effort to refute him—he’s a historian. (p. 122 in Lies and Fiction; original in Quaestiones Naturales, 7.16.1f)

Seneca explains why he has such a dim view of historians of his day:

Some historians win approval by telling incredible tales; an everyday narrative would make the reader go and do something else, so they excite him with marvels. Some of them are credulous, and lies take them unawares; others are careless, and lies are what they like; the former don’t avoid them, the latter seek them out.

What the whole tribe have in common is this: they think their work can only achieve approval and popularity if they sprinkle it with lies.

Seneca at another time parodied historical writing as the narrator of Apocolocyntosis (The Pumpkinification of Claudius):

I want to put on record the business transacted in heaven on 13 October . . . No concession will be made to umbrage taken or favour granted. This is the authentic truth. If anyone inquires about the source of my information, first, I shan’t reply if I don’t want to. Who’s going to compel me? . . . If I do choose to reply, I’ll say whatever trips off my tongue. Who ever demanded sworn referees from a historian? But if it is obligatory to produce the originator of the account, let the inquirer ask the man who saw Drusilla on her way to heaven.

Classical historians ought to have learned from the Christians that the criterion of embarrassment would have compelled belief in a resurrection if the eyewitness had been a woman and not a man. Seneca’s jibe would then have fallen flat, no doubt. Meanwhile, anyone in a seminary who has been fed the argument that detailed dates (compare Luke 3:1-2) and claims to be telling the truth (Gal. 1:20; Luke 1:1-4) are all indicators of an honest account might easily become the butt of Seneca’s joke.

Seneca’s historian joke hangs upon the principle that historians were “supposed” to always be telling the truth and nothing but the truth. This is found in what Wiseman describes as “the only theoretical discussion of historiography that survives from antiquity”, Lucian’s How to Write History (mid second century CE):

The historian’s one task is to tell it as it happened . . . the one particular characteristic of history is this, that if you are going to write it you must sacrifice to Truth alone. (p. 122)

The context of this maxim, however, would appear to limit the “Truth” to avoidance of both tall-tales or myths (which are more appropriate to poetry) and obsequious flattery of rulers and other persons of power.

The reputation of historians had not improved by the fourth century CE. We read from that period in the Historia Augusta the following conversation:

Tiberianus maintained that much of [historian] Pollio’s work was brief and careless. I protested that as far as history was concerned there was no author who had not lied about something. I went so far as to cite the places where Livy, Sallust, Cornelius Tacitus and even Trogus were refuted by clear evidence, at which he yielded to my argument and jokingly held up his hand. ‘All right then,’ he said, ‘write what you want. You can safely say whatever you like, and you’ll have those admired masters of historical style as your companions in mendacity.’ (p. 124)

The subtitle of Wiseman’s chapter is “Seven Types of Mendacity”. So what are the seven types of lies historians of the day were prone to tell?

1. Tendentiousness

We all know this one and how it is always been found in histories of every age.

The early second century historian Tacitus complained in the introductions to both his Annals and his Histories that lesser historians were prone to the “twin vices of adulation and malice — flattery of a living emperor, execration of a dead one”. Lucian bluntly calls the panegyric a lie or falsehood (pseudos):

The panegyrist has only one concern–to commend and gratify his living theme some way or other; if misrepresentation will serve his purpose, he has no objection to that. History, on the other hand, abhors the intrusion of any least scruple of falsehood . . .

Josephus conversely calls the malice of the historians lies:

Many have written the history of Nero. Some have been favourable to him, careless of the truth because he benefited them. Others, out of hatred and hostility towards him, have behaved like shameless drunkards in their lies, and deserve condemnation for it. I am not surprised at those who have lied about Nero, since even in their accounts of events before his time they have not preserved the truth of history.

Let them write as they like, since that is what gives them pleasure. As for me, I am aiming at the truth.

Truth, for Josephus here, clearly means “impartiality”. (p. 127)

2. Myths and Miracles

Theseus and Pirithoüs Clearing the Earth of Brigands, Deliver Two Women from the Hands of their Abductors

Wiseman informs us that Roman authors could despise Greek writers who introduced myths into their works. So the Roman Valerius Maximus wrote:

Let Greece talk of Theseus entrusting himself to the kingdom of Father Dis in support of the base loves of Pirithous. Only a knave would write such stuff, only a fool would believe it . . . These are the monstrous lies of a race given to deceit.

Wiseman cites another instance, one by Pliny the Elder, scoffs at Greek claims that the site of a Roman colony had been the place of a wrestling match involving Hercules and a grove where dragon-snakes had once guarded golden apples.

The objection to such stories was that they involved miracles . . . . Men do not go alive to the Underworld, trees do not bear golden fruit. (p. 128)

How did the Greeks respond to this criticism? With the same sorts of answers as we find today among theologians justifying Acts as “history”:

  1. great deeds of gods and heroes were invented for the sake of adding special interest to the story, to keep the readers entertained;
  2. the miraculous events could as often as not be rationalized as exaggerations of something that was a fundamentally natural event.

And so today biblical stories of the rising up from the Underworld are rationalized as graphic dramatizations of some sort of inner “Easter” conviction that Jesus was still somehow with the disciples.

3. Travellers’ tales

Odysseus telling traveler tales
Odysseus telling traveler tales

Historians have always loved the exotic and tales of distant lands have always been popular. Lucian begins his satirical True History with

Ctesias of Cnidos in his work on India and its characteristics gives details for which he had neither the evidence of his eyes nor of hearsay . . . Many other writers have adopted the same plan, professing to relate their own travels, and describing monstrous beasts, savages, and strange ways of life. The fount and inspiration of their buffoonery is the Homeric Odysseus, entertaining Alcinous’ court with his prisoned winds, his men one-eyed or wild or cannibal, his beasts with many heads and his metamorphosed comrades; the Phaeacians were simple folk, and he fooled them totally.

And it is in the islands of Cyprus and Malta where Paul confronts wild demons and encounters fickle barbarians. No doubt true history; not for Christian Luke to imitate the pagan Lucian’s line, “I humbly solicit my readers’ incredulity.”

Of course one may well insist (and rightly) that these stories (without their miracle embellishments) really did happen to Paul. To which I might reply, If there were no miraculous embellishment what would have been the point of telling the stories? Are not the miracles the whole point? But if one insists, then yes, we can all say that it is quite possible that Paul was wrecked on Malta and met some hospitable natives there; it is equally possible the story is not true. Without controls of some sort we simply have no way of knowing. But if in the absence of any such control the only evidence is literary and it works at a literary level than surely we have a right to lean towards a literary origin of the story.

To go one step further, if at the time Acts was written, let’s say the early second century, Jerusalem was laid waste and desolate, I would wonder if tales set in that city in its hey-day might also have been classed as tales from at least a bygone era, a time erased from living memories.

4. Docu-drama

The techniques of history-writing, oratory and poetry (especially tragic drama) overlapped and affected each other in various ways:

Though we today see poetry, oratory and historiography as three separate genres, the ancients saw them as three different species of the same genus—rhetoric. All three types of activity aimed to elaborate certain data in such a way as to affect or persuade an audience or readership.

(p. 133, quoting A.J. Woodman)

An orator might well choose to select the most dramatic of competing versions of deaths of famous figures in order to present a most dramatic and persuasive point for his audience. We would not expect a modern historian to do likewise, but it was different back then. To depart for a moment from Wiseman’s book and turn to a work of one of his peers, A. J. Woodman, in Rhetoric in Classical Historiography:

Moreover, the Roman system of education encouraged young men to study and emulate the works of famous orators, historians and poets, with the result that future orators, historians and poets were all reared in the same system. Indeed the sixth-century AD historian Agathias claimed that in his youth he had concentrated exclusively on poetry but that a friend encouraged him to write history by saying that ‘there is no great gulf between poetry and historiography: they are close relatives from the same tribe and separated from each other only by metre’. And in exactly the same way Quintilian was able to say that when an orator retires from his profession, he can devote himself to the writing of history. It was thus perhaps the educational system as much as anything which ensured that the debate on the real nature of historiography continued. Aristides in the second century AD maintained that historians ‘fall between orators and poets’, while four centuries later the biographer of Thucydides, Marcellinus, said that ‘some people have ventured to demonstrate that the genre of historiography is not rhetorical but poetic’. (p. 100 of Rhetoric)

The historian Polybius (2.56.10-12) strongly disapproved with the way other historians failed “to distinguish between history and tragedy”:

It is not a historian’s business to startle his readers with sensational descriptions, nor should he try, as the tragic poets do, to represent speeches which might have been delivered, or to enumerate all the possible consequences of the events under consideration; it is his task first and foremost to record with fidelity what actually happened and was said, however commonplace that may be. For the aim of tragedy is by no means the same as that of history, but rather the opposite. The tragic poet seeks to thrill and charm his audience for the moment by expressing through his characters the most plausible words possible, but the historian’s task is to instruct and persuade serious students by means of the truth of the words and actions he presents, and this effect must be permanent, not temporary.

Wiseman comments that the standards of Polybius were “unusually austere”, however.

Wiseman further points out that

It is important to remember that episodes of Roman history were regularly presented in the theatre . . . The historians themselves were sometimes conscious of the danger of taking as historical something that had been invented for the stage.

Polybius (3.47-48) deplored historians — and he writes of them as if they were very common or well known — who wrote more like “tragedians” when they introduced supernatural elements such as getting Hannibal over the Alps as a result of guidance from “supernatural apparitions” in order to help their plot.

5. The Worthy Story

The idea of “inquiry”, of “finding out by [the author’s] own enquiries and taking responsibility for the result”, is what fr0m the beginning (from the era of Herodotus) set history apart from other types of writing. But it always went hand in glove with the art of “the story”.

When Arrian, the historian of Alexander, found himself having to choose between contradictory versions of an event or person, he explained that he always opted for

the version which seemed to me more worthy of belief and also more worthy of telling . . . (p. 136)

Wiseman explains the word used here:

The word Arrian uses for ‘more worthy of telling’ (axiaphegetotera) is constructed out of aphegesis, which means narrative, the act of relating. Like its synonym diegesis (which is now a technical term in modern literary theory), aphegesis is derived from the verb ‘ to lead’: the narrator, as it were, ‘conducts’ the listener ‘through’ the story, or ‘from’ one event to the next. The origin and truth-status of the events—whether they were discovered or invented—is neither here nor there. Aphegesis is simply ‘story’.

Diodorus Siculus of the first century BCE spoke of a natural harmony between facts and their literary expression. It does not occur to him to ask how the facts are achieved. Recall that Seneca himself said that historians are merely story-tellers and story-tellers are liars. (pp. 136-137)

Today we are fed information through journalistic reporting. Journalists did not exist in the ancient world but Wiseman cites Woodman to remind us that much of what happened in the Greek and Roman works of history happens for us today in the media — via journalism. Wiseman quotes a professional journalist:

Newspapers had lied to entertain, to compete with each other, to propagate their political convictions, and to persecute those with whom they disagreed. And when there was no other obvious reason, journalists continued to lie simply out of habit. (p. 139)

Each of these motives are commonplaces in ancient historiography:

  • To entertain — always accepted as a legitimate aim of history
  • To compete — historians admit they compete with their predecessors and contemporaries
  • To propagate political views — (and religious ones?) (Luke as pro-Roman)
  • To persecute — (Luke as anti-Jewish)
  • Habit — Seneca accused all historians of lying out of habit

Along with journalism, the other modern genre that ancient histories substituted for was the novel with its graphic, exciting descriptions of events, or what is called today “good television”.

6. Inventing details to add verisimilitude

Polybius (3.33.17) condemned other historians for their propensity to write like novelists when they created imaginative details to make the story come alive with flourishes of realistic details.

Here is where our modern expectations of historiography and the ancient norms collide. (Polybius, Wiseman repeats, stands out as “a rarity in the ancient world”.) Orators were taught the importance of “inventio

which the handbooks defined as ‘the devising of matter true or probable [verum or veri simile] which will make a case appear convincing.’ (p. 142, quoting Cicero)

And historians were trained in oratory with history classified as a part of the larger genre of what they were engaged with.

The historian Ephorus explicitly stated that the “believability” of an account increased as more detail (sometimes said to be “accurate detail”) was added to its narrative. The exception was with events of the very distant past when readers would not expect details of happenings and speeches to have been preserved.

Many historians, including the famous Dionysius of Halicarnassus, were not too worried about this chronological distinction and freely added details to the stories of the long ago. Indeed, a story full of “accurate details” (actually mere creative elaboration) was said to enhance the value of any historical writing. History was for many essentially a rhetorical art; its goal was to persuade and entertain and inspire noble thoughts. It never crossed Dionysius’ mind to stop and ask “How do my sources know this?”

For the rhetoricians, this technique was a means of achieving enargeia, the vividness that compels belief. Quintilian explains in his Institutio Oratoria (6.2.31-2)

I am complaining that a man has been murdered. Shall I not bring before my eyes all the circumstances which it is reasonable to imagine must have occurred in such a connection? Shall I not see the assassin burst suddenly from his hiding-place, the victim tremble, cry for help, beg for mercy, or turn to run? Shall I not see the fatal blow delivered and the stricken body fall? Will not the blood, the deathly pallor, the groan of agony, the deathrattle, be indelibly impressed on my mind?

From such impressions arises that enargeia which Cicero calls illustratio and evidentia [=”vivid illustration“] which makes us seem not so much to narrate as to exhibit the actual scene, while our emotions will be no less actively stirred than if we were present at the actual occurrence.

. . . . With evidentia, there was no need for argument: you could simply see the thing was true. And you achieved that end by making explicit ‘all the circumstances which it is reasonable to imagine must have occurred’. That is, the invention of circumstantial detail was a way to reach the truth. (pp. 145-146)

Doesn’t a little detail like this make theologians whose intellectual horizons seem to be confined to the walls of seminary look a little silly when they make pompous assurances about the historicity of the Gospels and Acts?

7. Absence of elaboration

Perversely we have here the opposite of the addition of realistic details — accounts too spare and sparse. If the way to “truth” was to create a scene that “vividly showed how it was”, then the opposite style of writing was “far from the truth” indeed.

Returning to our quotation above from Historia Augusta, Wiseman relates:

The Prefect complains about ‘Trebellius Pollio’ for writing too often in a brief and careless manner (breviter, incuriose). But all historians lie about something, the pseudo-biographer protests. Lying was brevity and carelessness, because truthful narrative consisted of elaborate detail—what for us the historical novelist supplies. (p. 146)


So, with that little extra background, is there any part of Acts of the Apostles or any of the Gospels that we might want to assess with new questions?

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Is Luke Among the Lying Historians?”

  1. I have been tangentially involved with two events that were deemed newsworthy by the local papers. One had a dozen errors in three sentences including one that made it newsworthy. I suspect the errors may have been in the police reports in those cases.

    But sometimes the journalist will write a story then interview the people involved to support the preconceived viewpoint. A friend took his family to Cozumel but they had to be relocated to the mainland because of a hurricane. The travel company put them up in a 5 star hotel and he considered it the best vacation he ever had (and he goes down there every year). The TV news interviewed his wife among others when they got off the plane coming home. The only quote they used was when she said “No” to the question of whether they had travel insurance, which was the main point of the story.

    I doubt that the collection of accurate information was better 2000 years ago. But it doesn’t seem to have improved with the addition of audio and video recording.

    1. ggwizz,

      Your story mirrors an experience I had a few years ago. In a second-hand bookshop I came across the biography of some famous figure who used to live in the house which later became my sister’s home.

      I found a short paragraph in the book mentioning the house and, although the paragraph was only four or five lines long, it contained five errors of fact. Extrapolating for the entire book would make over 6,000 errors.

      It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten although I have to admit that the more outrageous the claim in any book or article the more inclined I am to want to believe it.

  2. “Only a knave would write such stuff as a ‘gospel,’ only a fool would believe it . . . ”

    OK, I paraphrased. Valerius Maximus would not have objected. After all, didn’t Justin Martyr say that the Jesus story was no different than that of Perseus?

    You’re really getting to the heart of the matter now. I hope you keep plugging away on this theme. I don’t recall any of these books, ideas, or authors you’ve mentioned lately being cited by the McGraths, Hurtados, Ehrmans, or Wattses of the Biblical world. Such ideas simply never intrude into their highly compartmentalized thought-worlds. And mind you, books like “Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World” are highly critical of the *historians* of the ancient world. The theologians, i.e. the people writing texts like those in the Bible, don’t even need a refutation. They’re to be classed with the mythographers and pseudologoi.

  3. “Because of not knowing the truth about the distant past, we can make the false as like the true as possible, so as to make it useful.”

    Plato, Republic 382d1-3. Cited in Christopher Gill’s essay, “Plato on Falsehood — not Fiction,” reprinted in Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World.

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