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
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.
 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.
 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;
 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.
 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:
We may admire Herodotus’ combinatory ingenuity; but we have seen how weak is the chain of inference on which his narrative of Sesostris’ conquests depends. Its reassuring air of coherence undoubtedly derives in part from the illusion of autopsy [eyewitness accounts] though Herodotus does not claim in plain terms to have seen either the Thracian stelae or the Karabel monument, his authoritative manner creates the presumption that he speaks of what he has himself observed. What we have seen of his procedure here should make us cautious in dealing with other passages which give the impression of first-hand observation, where we have no such control. (West, p. 302)
2. Timaeus on the Locrians according to Polybius
We know of the historian Timaeus (ca 350 – ca 260 BCE) through Polybius’s criticisms of him. Timaeus strongly disagree with Aristotle’s assertion that the Locrians originated as a settlement of runaway slaves and others seeking escape from justice and Polybius accuses Timaeus of lying, of claiming to have seen documents that don’t really exist, to support his case. From Book 12 of Polybius’s Histories:
9 1 Let us now look at Timaeus’s own deliberate statement, and compare with Aristotle’s the account he himself gives of this identical colony, so that we may discover which of the two deserves such an accusation.
2 He tells us, then, in the same Book, that he investigated the history of the colony, no longer applying the test of mere probability, but personally visiting the Locrians in Greece proper.
3 He states that in the first place they showed him a written treaty, still preserved between them and the emigrants, with the following phrase at the outset, “As parents to children.”
4 In addition there were decrees that citizens of either town were citizens of the other. When they heard Aristotle’s account of the colony they expressed astonishment at that author’s recklessness.
5 Proceeding afterwards to the Italian Locri he says he found their laws and customs also were such as beseemed not a pack of rascally slaves but a colony of freemen.
6 For certainly there were penalties fixed in their code for kidnappers as well as for adulterers and runaway slaves, which would not have been the case had they been aware that they themselves sprang from such men.
10 1 In the first place we are in doubt as to which of the Greek Locrians he visited for the purpose of inquiry.
2 For if the Greek Locrians, like the Italian, were confined to one city we should perhaps not entertain any doubt, but the matter would be perspicuous.
3 But since there are two sets of Locrians in Greece proper, we ask to which he went and to which of their cities and in whose possession he found the inscribed treaty; for he gives us no information on the subject.
4 And yet Timaeus’s special boast, the thing in which he outvies other authors and which is the main cause of the reputation he enjoys, is, as I suppose we all know, his display of accuracy in the matter of dates and public records, and the care he devotes to such matters.
5 So it is most surprising that he has not informed us of the name of the city where he found the treaty or the exact spot in which it is inscribed, or who were the magistrates who showed him this document and with whom he spoke, so that no cause of perplexity would be left, but the place and the city being identified, those in doubt would have the means of discovering the exact truth.
6 The fact that he neglects to inform us on all these points is a clear proof that he knew he was deliberately lying. For that, had Timaeus got hold of such information, he would not have let a word of it escape, but, as the phrase is, would have held on to it tight with both hands, is evident from the following consideration. . . .
We don’t know from Polybius’s accusation if Timaeus really was lying about having seen such a treaty but Polybius obviously did not find it incredible to think that a historian would lie about documentary evidence that contemporaries could in theory check for themselves.
Polybius likewise claims to have made use of documentary sources and Stott observes two functions they serve in his historical work:
On the one hand, he recognizes the value of documentary material as a source of information and as a means of supporting his argument. On the other hand, however, various citations reflect the tendency among classical historians, as exemplified by Herodotus, to use written documents merely as a confirmatory device, rather than a source of evidence. (Stott, p. 37)
We will return to this point. The desire to “prove” or confirm an account is a strong motives that we may suspect would lead an ancient historian to make such false claims.
3. Livy on Augustus Caesar’s find in the Temple
Temples are good places for a ruler or priest to find long-lost evidence that suddenly becomes very serviceable for immediate political and economic needs. We recall the timely discovery of the Book of Deuteronomy that gave King Josiah his mandate to effect his political reforms.
In Livy’s history of Rome, Book 4 chapter 20, we read that the emperor himself had seen the written evidence that a hero-of-old (Cossus) held the office of consul at the time he offered a special war-offering in a Temple of Jupiter.
 In stating that Cossus placed the spolia opima secunda in the temple of Jupiter Feretrius when he was a military tribune [= lower than a consul] I have followed all the existing authorities.
 But not only is the designation of spolia opima restricted to those which a commander-in-chief has taken from a commander-in-chief —and we know of no commander-in-chief but the one under whose auspices the war is conducted —but I and my authorities are also confuted by the actual inscription on the spoils, which states that Cossus took them when he was consul.
 Augustus Caesar, the founder and restorer of all the temples, rebuilt the temple of Jupiter Feretrius, which had fallen to ruin through age, and I once heard him say that after entering it he read that inscription on the linen cuirass with his own eyes.
There has been much discussion surrounding Livy’s account as can be seen from one of its footnotes at the Perseus site.
Augustus has told Livy that the dedicatory inscription by Cossus in the temple of Jupiter Feretrius on his spolia opima, namely the linen corslet of the king of Veii, proves that Cossus was at that time consul. H. Dessau has detected the contemporary political motivation that led to this particular forgery. Livy’s own heavy emphasis on the contradiction with the rest of the tradition, which he first follows in his account, may lead one to think that he only reluctantly fell in with Augustus’ assertion and accepted the modification. (Fehling, p. 171)
That political motivation was for (the “emperor”) Augustus to deny Crassus the right to offer the same offering in the Temple after his conquest of a Dacian tribe, the Bastarne, and thereby minimize any risk that Crassus would attain popularity at the expense of the emperor. As we read in Dio Cassius (51:24.3-4)
Crassus himself slew their [the Bastarne’s] king Deldo and would have dedicated his armour as spolia opima to Jupiter Feretrius had he been general in supreme command.
The argument goes that Augustus wished to remove from history the memory that a lower ranking general had once been allowed to offer the prestigious offering to Jupiter. After all, when Cossus did make that offering so long ago Livy noted that his fame outshone for a time the supreme ruler (dictator) of Rome at that time:
Successful in all directions, the Dictator returned home to enjoy the honour of a triumph granted him by decree of the senate and resolution of the people.
 By far the finest sight in the procession was Cossus bearing the spolia opima of the king he had slain.
 The soldiers sang rude songs in his honour and placed him on a level with Romulus. He solemnly dedicated the spoils to Jupiter Feretrius, and hung them in his temple near those of Romulus, which were the only ones which at that time were called spolia opima prima. All eyes were turned from the chariot of the Dictator to him; he almost monopolised the honours of the day.
 By order of the people, a crown of gold, a pound in weight, was made at the public expense and placed by the Dictator in the Capitol as an offering to Jupiter.
Augustus was taking no chances that Crassus would repeat the performance and happily found in the temple the inscription that demonstrated Cossus was not such a lowly subordinate after all.
Dylan Sailor in an article “Dirty Linen, Fabrication, and the Authorities of Livy and Augustus” (Transactions of the American Philological Association, 136 (2006) 329-388) goes further and finds grounds for believing that Livy was subtly depicting Augustus’s fortuitous discovery as a divine miracle so that the more educated persons of a sceptical bent would immediately recognize Livy’s cynicism towards the emperor’s claim. Sailor finds rhetorical parallels with earlier episodes of miraculous events in the History where Livy scoffed at the way the uneducated believed such things.
Many have argued that there is something fishy about Augustus’s story, or that Livy means us to think there is, or both. I mean to show that Livy’s presentations of Augustus’s dubious method of inquiry and the suspicious circumstances of his discovery, in combination with the sacralizing language in which Livy couches Augustus’s version, allow us to think this passage alongside instances of religious fabrication early in his work. Augustus’s discovery becomes like Numa’s fictitious nocturnal meetings with the goddess Egeria, like the story of Romulus’s deification, and like the Romans’ attribution of their own origins to the god Mars. (Sailor, p. 335)
What interests me here is Sailor’s identification of another means by which the reader is given a right to suspect a fabricated source. When describing Augustus’s discovery Livy slips into the rhetorical style more typical of his narration of myths.
4. Ctesias and “royal leather records”
The 5th century BCE Greek historian Ctesias wrote a history of the Assyrian, Babylonian and the Persian empires. We know of his treatment of Persia, the Persica, through summaries by Photius and scattered references in other works. Stott cites Robert Drews for her negative assessment of Ctesias’s reliability and honesty as a historian and I quote here from Drews’ Greek Accounts of Eastern History [link is to 11 MB PDF]:
[Ctesias’s] imagination accounted for 95 percent of the first four books of the Persica.
The same can be said for his books on the Medes. With the exception of Astyages, none of the Median kings whom Herodotus enumerated appeared in the Persica. Ctesias claimed that he had discovered the real kings of Media in “the royal leather records,” and presented the following list:
2. Mandaces (50 years)
3. Sosarmus (30 years)
6. Artaeus (40years)
7. Artynes (22 years)
8. Astibaras (40years)
In Ctesias’ reference to the “royal leather records” some find proof that the Persians kept archives which contained kinglists, epics, and other forms of literature. But the unlikely existence of such writings must depend on other evidence, for it is certain that Ctesias did not find his information in any “royal leather records.” With the exception of Astyages, none of Ctesias’ kings ever ruled the Medes. His list should be considered as important evidence that there was no recorded canon of Median kings. The names which he presented are Median names, and perhaps represent the ancestors of various Median families prominent in the fifth and fourth centuries. (Drews, p. 111)
5. Historia Augusta (Augustan History)
Some thirty-five historians and biographers nowhere else on record happen to be cited in the HA. They fall into line and fill out the picture of a genial impostor who avows the tastes and training of a grammaticus. That is to say, a teacher of the classics. Most of them are seen at once for what they are, being shown up, like other bogus characters, by the shape of a name, by the context in which they occur, by their conformity with the known habits and predilections of their creator. The accumulation reveals and condemns. Furthermore, given the nature of the HA as a whole, sound method (or better, common sense) tells what is to be done. It cannot remain in doubt where the onus probandi lies in any single instance. (Syme, p. 99)
So one of the tell-tale signs is that the supposedly cited sources contain the same style as the author. Another is the happy convenience of them appearing to support incredible claims. Yet one more is the appearance of the name chosen. We see all of these sorts of traits in biblical works, too, so one ought not be accused of singling out the Bible for special criticism if we find the same standards applied to nonbiblical works.
Comfort for a few scholars
But note especially here another point that that should comfort many biblical scholars. They are not alone in their frequent naivety and laziness in the way they read their source documents:
The treatment accorded those figments by scholars in the recent age (since 1889, the epochal year) will prove variously instructive. Some have accepted the lot. Motives may be discerned or surmised. In the first place, the reluctance of veterans (and of veteratores) to admit the alarming truths established by young Dessau, then deference to authority, the reverence for tradition – or, more simply, a distaste for taking pains. ‘Audentis Fortuna iuvat, piger ipse sibi obstat’ [“Fortune favours the brave” is from Virgil’s Aeneid, but Seneca completed the line by adding “The lazy man stands in his own way”]. And credulity persists. Others essay a selection, decreeing which are authentic, according to the dictates of fancy or on criteria not valid even had they been made explicit. (Syme, p. 99)
Ouch. How familiar that regretfully sounds to anyone who has waded through so much biblical apologetics masquerading as scholarship. I can no longer say they stand alone in academia.
Another classicist adds:
In addition to 36 otherwise unknown source citations, the Historia Augusta cites hundreds of forged letters and other documents, not to mention the fact that the six author names among whom the work itself is apportioned are bogus, complete with the implied biographies attached to them. Some of the source citations seem to be more jokes than serious attempts to deceive. . . (Cameron, p. 125)
Katherine Stott notes (2008: 49) various grounds upon which critics have concluded that the various documents cited as sources in the Historia Augusta are forged:
- They abound in factual errors so serious that it is impossible to imagine them to be genuine documents
- They often display characteristics of style “uncannily resembling” that of the author citing them
Alan Cameron concludes:
For while a prosecuting attorney would not hesitate to accuse both writers of deliberate, bare-faced forgery, a more sympathetic critic might conclude that they were just pushing to a different level a tendency common to mythographers, paradoxographers, and collectors of curiosities like Aelian alike: citing sources they had not seen and knew no one would check.
One of the main results of this investigation is the discovery that the majority of source citations in all the mythographers are, if not bogus, at any rate something less than fully authentic. Even in the best case, Ps-Apollodorus, most of his citations were either copied, unverified, at second hand, or taken from summaries of early works rather than original texts. As for the Narrationes, while Hesiod certainly existed, there is something amiss with all seven Hesiod citations. Merkelbach and West were right to classify them among their Dubia rather than Spuria. Narrator did not make them up, but for all the value they are as evidence for Hesiod, he might just as well have done so. (Cameron, pp. 159-160)
That last sentence reminds me how I sometimes wonder how the fourth century evidence we have for the second century Papias is able to withstand the enormous weight of so many hypotheses standing upon it.
Why do it?
Learned citations were a highly visible indication of literary culture. It would be impossible to overestimate the prestige of erudition for its own sake in the world of the early Roman empire. (Cameron, p. 121)
We are moving away here from the Hebrew Bible citations with which I began this post and moving into the world of the New Testament writings, thinking especially of Luke-Acts. Again, this does not mean that the biblical authors made up sources but it does entitle us to test their claims when they cite letters, speeches and traditions.
Wouldn’t the authors have been caught out?
Cameron again, embracing ancient historians other than the author of the HA, such as Pseudo-Plutarch,
It might well seem hard to credit that Ps-Plutarch really invented 50 odd bogus writers and more than one hundred bogus works. But those inclined to give these otherwise wholly unknown and highly improbable writers and books the benefit of the doubt have paid too little attention to the way Quintilian’s long discussion of historiae concludes. The abuses [Roman rhetorician Quintilian] deprecated were chiefly found, he says, in mythical stories (in fabulosis) [including those that took the form of ‘history’ and ‘biography’], and
sometimes carried to ludicrous and even scandalous extremes. In such cases the more unscrupulous writers have such full scope for invention that they can lie to their heart’s content about whole books and authors without fear of detection. For what never existed can obviously never be found, whereas if the subject is familiar the careful investigator will often detect the fraud.
It is worth dwelling on the final sentence. Quintilian’s point (a good one) is that if I falsely cite (say) Homer or a play of Euripides as my authority, I may get away with it among the unlearned, but sooner or later someone willing to take the trouble to check such well-known and accessible texts will expose me. But if I cite, to take a couple of Ps-Plutarch’s inventions, Agatharchides of Samos, Persica book 2, or Aretades of Cnidos, Macedonica book 3, no one will be able to prove they don’t exist. . . .
Could anyone expect to get away with outright fraud of this nature, the modern critic is tempted to ask? But it depends what is meant by “getting away with.” Some of the more alert early readers of Ps-Plutarch and Ptolemy Quail may have been sceptical, but evidently not all. We have already seen that Clement of Alexandria quotes three of Ps-Plutarch’s stories one after another, in each case complete with source reference. But we should not lightly accuse such readers of gullibility. Given the very limited availability of books (especially Hellenistic prose literature) it was simply out of the question for anyone in antiquity to verify more than a fraction of the citations he came across in his reading, whatever his suspicions. If challenged, Ps-Plutarch could no doubt have produced private collections of his own excerpts that included his forged names! This is all the proof that could really have been expected in the circumstances. What the success (if we may so style it) of Ps-Plutarch’s bogus citations really proves is that, given the impracticability of verification, most people perforce took interesting citations they came across on trust. (Cameron, pp. 125-126)
A significant indication (one stressed by Katherine Stott) that we are looking at fraud is when an author fails to use a source to add any substantive information to his narrative but rather makes the claim for no obvious reason other than to assert the authenticity of his tale.
Another indicator is that the style of the quoted source fits too neatly with the style of the quoting author.
Also significant is our inability to find external independent attestation for the existence of the sources. This becomes especially weighty when the citation contradicts what can be independently verified.
When the author making the citation fails to provide details of how he came by his source and if the claim it is used to verify is unconventional or even in the realm of the miraculous then we are entitled to be suspicious.
I will probably recall more after I post this and will add them here as I do.
The point of this post is to provide an understanding of another aspect of how historical writing was too often carried out in ancient times. Its importance is in giving us another facet of the wider literary context in which the biblical texts were written. I will be able to refer back to this post in future essays when I discuss the Old Testament citations with which I began and also other NT works.
Cameron, A. (2004), Mythography in the Roman World, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Fehling, D. (1989), Herodotus and His ‘Sources’, Francis Cairns, Leeds.
Drews, R. (1973), Greek Accounts of Eastern History, Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington D.C.
Sailor, D. (2006), “Dirty Linen, Fabrication, and the Authorities of Livy and Augustus“, Transactions of the American Philological Association, 136, pp. 329-388
Stott, K. (2008), Why Did They Write This Way?, T&T Clark, New York.*
Syme, R. (1983), Historia Augusta Papers, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
West, S. (1985), “Herodotus’ Epigraphical Interests“, The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 2 pp. 278-305
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