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

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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.

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.

Historiography’s debt to Homer

Firstly, Herodotus “wanted his own works to be seen in terms of Homer’s work, and his subject in terms of Homer’s subject.” (p. 3). Ancient writers recognized that Herodotus was striving to imitate (in prose) the great epics of Homer. Like Homer, and with specific repetition of key words and phrases, Herodotus

  • grabbed readers’ interest by declaring the greatness of his theme
  • spoke of the need to praise the glorious deeds of men
  • seeks to explore the cause of two peoples coming into conflict with each other
  • speaks of investigating the cities of men
  • draws attention to a great power marching from Asia to Greece/from Greece to Asia

So far we may think all this is “harmless enough”:

After all, what does Herodotus’ imitation consist of? ‘There are many Homeric words and phrases in Herodotus’, says D.A. Russell, ‘but the judgement [that Herodotus imitated Homer] might just as well be based, say, on

  • Herodotus’ battle scenes and heroic temper,
  • his methods of narrative and digression,
  • his frequent use of direct speech,
  • his dialect,
  • or his rhythms.’

From the historical point of view these manifestations of imitation do indeed seem harmless. But only at first sight. Let us look at some of them more closely. (p. 3, my bolding as in all quotes and formatting)

Woodman reminds us that language and narrative style are inseparable from historical interpretation. Stop and ask what our response would be if we learned that a modern historian, say Tom Holland or Niall Ferguson, (or for those of us with more biblical interests, say N. T. Wright or Paula Fredriksen) had adopted methods of narrative — including battles scenes, direct speech, rhythms — that derived from Dante’s Divine Comedy or Scott’s Lady of the Lake?

We would presumably become very worried indeed.

To cover all that can be said about Herodotus and his implications for Biblical literature would take several posts so I am confining myself to Woodman’s chapter in this post.

The implications of Herodotus’ imitation of Homer are rarely faced by scholars, either because they ignore the imitation itself . . . or because they merely pay lip-service to it. (p. 4)

One other point is most important. Herodotus regarded Homer’s work as history. Homer’s Trojan War was history.

If Herodotus regarded Homer as history (which he did), that has far-reaching implications for the nature of his own history . . . [It means] that he did not distinguish between the narratives of epic and history and hence between the realism of the former and the reality which we today associate with the latter. (p. 4)

Tim Widowfield’s post, History and Verisimilitude: “Real” vs. “Realistic”, comes to mind. We know well that some New Testament academics naively fail to make the same distinction.


Herodotus gives readers every impression that he traveled far and wide and wrote about things he personally witnessed and learned. Yet, . . .

O.K. Armayor has argued convincingly, from archaeological and other evidence, that there are many occasions where Herodotus is most unlikely to have seen what he claims to have seen and indeed may never have made the requisite journeys in the first place. Rather, he has adapted his information from the literary tradition. (p. 4, )

So we have a gulf between what Herodotus claimed to be his method of acquiring information and how he really used sources.

The fact that he is able to present the latter [how he really used sources] in terms of the former [what he claimed to be his method] argues for an attitude towards historical writing which is totally alien to everything we take for granted today. (p. 4)

Why is Thucydides the exception?

Okay, so if Herodotus fails us we still have Thucydides, yes? He has always been regarded as the pioneer of “standards of objectivity, accuracy and truth”.

Yet a moment’s thought should remind us just how unusual it is to talk about a classical author in these terms.

Woodman reminds us that when we usually think of classical authors we think of them in relation to their literary tradition. In the case of Thucydides this would mean we should think of him in relation to Herodotus and Homer. Why is Thucydides so generally thought of as exceptional in the ancient world?

Woodman goes on to show that Thucydides truly is much closer to Herodotus and Homer than he is to modern historians. Like Herodotus, he imitates Homer. He also imitates Greek tragedy. His most famous “eyewitness” report of the plague of Athens is just one instance of his use of literary sources — that the vivid details have been taken as eyewitness accounts shows how well he mastered his rhetorical craft.

Thucydides and Herodotus in fact represent two sides of the same form of rhetorical narrative, epideictic or praise/blame rhetoric. To simplify, Herodotus praises and Thucydides blames Athens. But in future posts I hope to show just how artificial and literary Thucydides is as an historian. We will see that he is not doing history at all in the way we understand that term. Nor, we will see, are Polybius, Tacitus or Josephus. We will see that plausibility of a narrative in order to teach certain values and instil a praiseworthy sense of identity or to censure other universal behaviours is more important than reporting actual facts and events.

So I’ll take a break from analysing Acts or the Gospels and try to get proper bearings within the wider literary culture from which our biblical books emerged. (This is all part of my round about way of getting back to my earlier posts on Acts. First I need to get to the bottom of the “what is history?” question. This will include posts I have long wanted to do on different modern approaches to history, too.)

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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “How History Was Done in Bible Times: Myths about Herodotus and Thucydides”

  1. Herodotus described fantastic events, such as a mare giving birth to a hare. Thucydides limited himself to inventing speeches which would have been appropriate from military leaders to the troops, not having access to the actual words. “Historia” is indeed the key, because it is a pre-modern concept, and included storytelling more generally. The ancients did not have the same concept of a scientific fact that we have had since the Enlightenment. Their more common distinction was between truth and falsehood, but truth was a deep truth that could include fabulation.

  2. Woodman shows us that Thucydides invented a whole lot more than just the speeches. His disavowal of the fabulous was part of his program to present his work as superior to that of Herodotus.

  3. The danger of exposing ancient historians as rhetoricians is that you will be accused of arguing that all history is rhetoric. But that’s not what we’re saying. We’re saying that to assume that ancient historians approached history as we do today is to inject an anachronism into the discussion that prevents us from understanding what ancient historians were actually saying (and why). The word “history” is iconic: it means different things to different people, and the differences are amplified as generations pass. “History” was the propaganda of ancient times, but it is far less so today (although still important to defining expectations that influence decision-making).

      1. I think Scot Griffin is right, and that our entire system of genre classification is anachronistic when superimposed on the ancients. You can see the problem when you see modern historiographers classifying Homer as a historian (of course, they realize his “history” was nothing like modern history). Then read Lucian of Samosata, who ridicules the poets for inventing what we would call “fictions” and passing them off as “true” stories, i.e., what we would call histories. Today, of course, no poet would make any similar type of fact claim to begin with, but Lucian’s assumption suggests it was common in the ancient world. What does the Logos mean, if not that wordsmiths claimed a special entitlement?

        1. Ancient philosophy embraced what today would be classified as cosmology and chemistry etc. Rhetoric likewise was the matrix of a host of what today are specialist studies. Ancient astronomy was as much astrology by today’s standards.

          It is the same with ancient historiography, I think. Even the supposedly “most modern” and “scientific” of ancient historians, Thucydides, is shown to be more like Homer and the poets in his treatment of the Peloponnesian War than any professional historian today. (Will be posting again on the work of Woodman showing how this case is made.)

          Agreed, today’s genre classifications match very few, if any, equivalents in an ancient culture.

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