An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally

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by Neil Godfrey

Moses I. Finley (1912-1986)

What do ancient historians think of the efforts of biblical scholars to inquire into “the historical Jesus” and the origins of Christianity?

M.I. Finley was an influential historian of ancient history who found time out from his studies on the classical (Greco-Roman) world and methodological problems in ancient history more generally to write a handful of articles on problems facing biblical scholars attempting to reconstruct Christian origins. Finley compiled three of these articles into a single chapter, “Christian Beginnings: Three Views of Historiography” in his small volume, Aspects of Antiquity: Discoveries and Controversies (1968).

Interestingly (to me, certainly) Finley zeroes in on the same methodological problems faced by scholars of Jesus and Christian origins that I have often addressed on this blog and in other online forums. It is nice to find agreement in a scholar so highly regarded as Finley was.

Vridar and related discussions of Maurice Goguel:

In the second part of his chapter and in the course of discussing Maurice Goguel’s methods in arriving at some detail about the historical Jesus, Finley comes across an all too common point in the work of another well-known name, A.N. Sherwin-White:

An Oxford historian, Mr A. N. Sherwin-White, has recently insisted that the life of Christ as told in the Gospels and the life of Tiberius as related by Tacitus or the account of the Persian Wars in Herodotus are all of a kind, subject to the same tests and having the same general aims. ‘Not‘, he adds, ‘that one imagines that the authors of the Gospels set to work precisely like either Herodotus or Thucydides.’ (Aspects, p. 177)

One is reminded of works by Richard Burridge and Richard Bauckham attempting to show how similar the gospels are to ancient biographies and histories. But Finley knows better than to allow Sherwin-White’s statement a free pass (my own bolding in all quotations):

Not precisely? Not at all. He has forgotten that the Greek verb at the root of ‘history’ is historein, to inquire, which is what Herodotus set out to do, and what the authors of the Gospels (or the apologetic writers and theologians) did not set out to do. The latter bore witness, an activity of an altogether different order. (Aspects, p. 177)

So we see that Finley called out the rhetorical sleights of hand we find are in fact all too common in the works of too many biblical scholars.

Finley then turned to another historian’s work exploring the nature of history:

In R. G. Collingwood’s justly famous dictum,

theocratic history … means not history proper … but a statement of known facts for the information of persons to whom they are not known, but who, as worshippers of the god in question, ought to know the deeds whereby he has made himself manifest

The real difficulty begins if one agrees with Collingwood. Once the existence of a process of myth-making is accepted, the question is, How does one make a history out of such historiographically unpromising materials? There are no others. A handful of sentences in pagan writers, wholly unilluminating, and a few passages in Josephus and the Talmud, tendentious when they are not forgeries, are all we have from non-Christian sources for the first century or century and a half of Christianity. It is no exaggeration to say that they contribute nothing. One must work one’s way as best one can with the Christian writings, with no external controls(Aspects, p. 177)

“With no external controls”? That is the very phrase I have been using in my own criticisms of the methodology at the heart of historical reconstructions based on the gospels. To verify that claim type the words external controls and/or independent controls in the Search Vridar box in the right-hand column of this blog page.

Finley expands on this problematic point in other essays collated in The Use and Abuse of History (1975) and Ancient History: Evidence and Models (1999) but before I address any of that elaboration let’s keep with his focus on Goguel as an example. Goguel worked before terms like “criteria of authenticity” became commonplace but he understood and worked with the same principles or methods. He might call them “logical and psychological” tests (= criteria of coherence, plausibility…) applied to gospel passages to “uncover” probable “facts” about the historical Jesus.

One simple example will suffice. When asked by the Pharisees for ‘a sign from Heaven’, Jesus replied, ‘There shall be no sign given unto this generation’ (Mark viii, 11-12). Goguel comments:

This saying is certainly authentic, for it could not have been created by primitive Christianity which attached a great importance to the miracles of Jesus … This leads us to think that Jesus did not want to work marvels, that is to say, acts of pure display.

It follows that stories like those of Jesus walking on water are ‘extremely doubtful’. His healing, on the other hand, may be accepted, and, in conformity with the beliefs prevailing at the time, ‘it is true that these healings were regarded as miracles both by Jesus himself and by those who were the recipients of his bounty.’

This application of the ‘psychological method’ is neat, plausible, commonsensical. But is the answer right? Not only in this one example but in the thousands upon thousands of details in the story upon which Goguel or any other historian must make up his mind? I do not know what decisive tests of verifiability could possibly be applied. The myth-making process has a kind of logic of its own, but it is not the logic of Aristotle or of Bertrand Russell. Therefore it does not follow that it always avoids inconsistency: it is capable of retaining, and even inventing, sayings and events which, in what we call strict logic, undermine its most cherished beliefs. The difficulties are of course most acute at the beginning, with the life of Jesus. One influential modern school, which goes under the name of ‘form-criticism’, has even abandoned history at this stage completely. ‘In my opinion,’ wrote Rudolph Bultmann, ‘we can sum up what can be known of the life and personality of Jesus as simply nothing.’ (Aspects, p. 178)

It does not appear that Finley was prepared to go along with the methods, let alone conclusions, of biblical scholars in their efforts to establish what was historical about Jesus. A gospel narrative is merely a gospel narrative. We have no way of testing whether any of its narrative was genuinely historical or based on historical memory.

Sometimes one hears how accurate are the details of geography or social customs in the gospels as if such details add any weight to the historicity of the narrative. Finley responded to that rejoinder in the third part of his chapter in Aspects of Antiquity. He begins with a reminder of the point just made above:

[T]he Gospel accounts . . . are the sole source of information about the Passion – that cannot be said often enough or sharply enough – and all four agree on the responsibility of some Jews. . . .

What, then, actually happened? Not even the Synoptic Gospels provide a clear and coherent account, and there are added confusions and impossibilities in the Fourth Gospel. There is one school of thought, to which I belong, which holds that no reconstruction is possible from such unsatisfactory evidence. (Aspects, p. 182)

Finley then returned to Sherwin-White’s misleading comparison of the gospels with Greek histories:

Even if one could accept the view recently re-stated with much vigour by A. N. Sherwin-White in Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, that the Acts and Gospels are qualitatively no different as historical sources from Herodotus or Tacitus, one does not get very far. Mr Sherwin-White has been able to demonstrate that the New Testament is very accurate in its details about life at the time, whether about geography and travel or the rules of citizenship and court procedures. Why should it not be? It is made up of contemporary documents, regardless of the accuracy of the narrative, and so reflects society as it was. That still does not tell us anything about the narrative details, and they are what matters. For that Mr Sherwin-White must, in the end, select and reject, explain and explain away, just as every other scholar has done for as long as anyone has felt the urge (and the possibility) of a historical reconstruction of the Passion. (Aspects, pp. 182f)

And that’s exactly what we read so often even among biblical scholars — that background details somehow lend historical credibility to the gospel narrative.

He is probably right, but it still does not follow, as he seems to think, that the veracity of the Gospel narrative has thereby been substantiated, or even been made more probable in a significant sense.

Far be it from me to suggest, no matter how faintly, that it is ever unimportant to get the historical record right. But the feeling will not go away that there is an Alice-in-Wonderland quality about it all. (Aspects, p. 183)

Enter the deus ex machina of oral tradition to strengthen faith in the literary sources . . . 

Don’t think that M.I. Finley is targeting biblical studies, however. He is applying the same standard to gospels as historical sources that he argues must guide the ancient historian generally in approaching any ancient literary sources. Finley faulted his own peers, ancient historians working with the Greek and Roman “histories”, too. They were too ready to take on trust what they read in Livy or Polybius or Herodotus for fear that if they did not, they would have to confess that they did not know anything about critical moments in history. If a single source filled with obviously fictional detail was all they had and even if there was no way to verify any of the account, then historians had to take the basic narrative on faith. Biblical scholars were not the only ones guilty of this sin:

So when men came to write the history of their world, Greek or Roman, they found great voids in the inherited information about the past, or, worse still, quantities of ‘data’ that included fiction and half fiction jumbled with fact. That is what modern historians, unwilling for whatever reason to admit defeat, to acknowledge a void, seek to rescue under the positive label, tradition (or oral tradition). Few anthropologists view the invariably oral traditions of the people they study with the faith shown by many ancient historians. . . . Again we suspect the presence of the unexpressed view that the traditions of Greeks and Romans are somehow privileged . . . . (Evidence, p. 16)


Some of the supposed data are patently fictitious, the political unification of Attica by Theseus or the foundation of Rome by Aeneas, for example, but we quickly run out of such easily identified fictions. For the great bulk of the narrative we are faced with the ‘kernel of truth’ possibility [italics original], and I am unaware of any stigmata that automatically distinguish fiction from fact. . . . (Evidence, p. 18)


One example is the touching faith in the oral tradition of the Greeks and Romans, which no one shares who has to deal with oral traditions in other societies, and which does not stand up to scrutiny the moment other evidence is available. Defective sources cannot be ‘rescued’ by hard thinking alone, not even those written in the ancient classical language. (Myth, p. 104)

The first question to ask of any written source, Finley reminds us, is “why was it written? why was it ‘published’?” (Myth, p. 105)

Yet too many historians have too readily been “seduced” into fundamentally fallacious methods or assumptions, the key one of which Finley says is

that statements in the literary or documentary sources are to be accepted unless they can be disproved (to the satisfaction of the individual historian). (Evidence, p. 21)

Yet we have no justifiable grounds for this approach. Even in cases where it is evident that an ancient Greek or Roman historian relied to some extent on “oral traditions” the historian today must confess agnosticism. The question “who benefits?” applies just as much to oral traditions as to any other source. The answer is invariably

the enhancement of prestige or the warranty of power or the justification of an institution. (Myth, p. 298)


There is no guarantee that the tradition has not arisen precisely in order to explain a linguistic, religious or political datum; that, in other words, the tradition is not an etiological invention – the rape of the Sabine women, for example. (Evidence, p. 17)

Greco-Roman historians very often filled in gaps in their knowledge of the past with myth, with poetic licence, with creative imagination. The more plausible, the more “realistic” or cloaked in the rhetoric of verisimilitude, very often the better. But mythical tales were rarely completely out of place, either.

Where did they find their information? No matter how many older statements we can either document or posit – irrespective of possible reliability – we eventually reach a void. But ancient writers, like historians ever since, could not tolerate a void, and they filled it in one way or another, ultimately by pure invention.

The ability of the ancients to invent and their capacity to believe are persistently underestimated. (Evidence, p. 9)

If you are wondering what historians do with the periods before the fourth century if the sources are so problematic, Finley offers the following assurance:

The exceptions are on the one hand in the history of ideas, specifically in the history of philosophy and science, of rhetoric, poetry and historiography, and on the other hand in the history of art and technology. (p. 11)

That leaves huge gaps in our ability to reconstruct the history of the ancient world. Finley admits that and argues that all historians have to accept that limitation:

it is our incurable weakness that we completely and absolutely lack primary literary sources for Roman history down to about 300 bc and that we have very few available to us for another century. (Evidence, p. 10)

Unless something is captured in a more or less contemporary historical account, the narrative is lost for all time regardless of how many inscriptions or papyri may be discovered. (Evidence, p. 11)

[T]he lack of primary sources for long stretches of time and for most regions of the Mediterranean creates a block not only for a narrative but also for the analysis of institutions. (Evidence, p. 12)

It is in the end not very surprising that university students of history, with some knowledge of the sources for, say, Tudor England or Louis XIV’s France, find ancient history a ‘funny kind of history’. The unavoidable reliance on the poems of Horace for Augustan ideology, or in the same way on the Eumenides of Aeschylus for the critical moment in Athenian history when the step was taken towards what we know as Periclean democracy, helps explain the appellative ‘funny’. But the oddities are much more far-reaching, extending to the historians themselves in antiquity, in particular to two of their most pervasive characteristics, namely, the extensive direct quotation from speeches and the paucity of reference to (let alone quotation from) actual documents, public or private. (Evidence, pp. 12f)

[O]ne must consider seriously abandoning some of the most interesting and seductive sections of Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Caesar, Sallust, Livy, Tacitus, Dio Cassius and the rest as primary or secondary sources. There is no choice . . . (Evidence, p. 13)

. . . and outraged cries of hyper-criticism when the assumptions are method are challenged

Ettore Pais

Unable to abide a major void in the past and a loss of faith in their classical texts studied in specialist languages, one hears in response to the above criticisms

outraged cries of ‘hyper-criticism’ and ‘shades of Ettore Pais‘. (Evidence, p. 9)

Or as some biblical scholars say,  a “hermeneutic of suspicion”.

Finley, M. I. (1999). Ancient History: Evidence and Models. ACLS History E-Book Project.

Finley, M. I. (1972). Aspects of antiquity : discoveries and controversies. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin.

Finley, M. I. (1965). Myth, Memory, and History. History and Theory, 4(3), 281–302. https://doi.org/10.2307/2504346 (Also in Finley, M. I. (1975). The Use and Abuse of History. New York: Viking Adult.)




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19 thoughts on “An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally”

  1. The ability of the ancients to invent and their capacity to believe are persistently underestimated. (Evidence, p. 9)

    Common sense that’s extremely rare.

    1. The problem isn’t that common sense isn’t common, it is common, too common, and too commonly wrong. We practically take it for granted that if people believe something on common sense that it is certainly wrong.

      Common sense is what started us off with a flat earth, newtonian mechanics, what?

      That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

    2. I loved Finley’s line,

      This application of the ‘psychological method’ is neat, plausible, commonsensical. But is the answer right?

      It so often comes down to the foundations on which we construct our “commonsensical” edifices.

  2. If the Harvard editions of the classics weren’t so expensive, I’d have the Latin, and could check the original word for the word “fiction” in the following translation from Livy’s history of Rome, Book 1. In the passage, Romulus’ successor, Numa Pompilius, wants to instill awe of the gods into “a multitude ignorant and uncivilized.” “But as it could not sink deeply into their minds without some fiction of a miracle, he pretends that he holds nightly interviews with the goddess Egeria. . .” [who directs sacred rites, appointment of priests, division of calendar into 12 months, etc. This goes to the question of the nature of “belief” in the ancient world, which I believe was something much more supple and fluid–not necessarily more credulous–than our post-Enlightenment concept of hard fact/fiction.

    1. Do check archive.org — https://archive.org/details/LivyBooks1and2

      Qui cum descendere ad animos sine aliquo commento miraculi non posset, simulat sibi cum dea Egeria congressus nocturnos esse ; eius se monitu, quae acceptissima diis essent sacra instituere, sacerdotes suos cuique deorum praeficere.

      Clarke, you will be able to inform us more reliably, but till then here are some web clues re commentor/commento:

      See Ainsworth’s free Latin dictionary

      and Corrigan’s College Latin

      the online World of Dictionary

      the WordSense.eu Dictionary

      and see the Latin links in Wiktionary here and here

  3. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah…John 20:31. John plainly states why he is writing. He (and the other gospels and Acts) have been written with the sole purpose of inculcating faith in the faithless. It is that simple. They are not historical records.

  4. I recently read a paper by Steve Mason highlighting that some scholars maybe to trusting of the works by Josephus, on many occasions Josephus is our only source for the information and should be treated as such. The paper is a great read (not sure if it is still available).

  5. Great sources, Neil, thanks. The definitions of verb “commentor” vary, but the very FIRST one in Ainsworth was “to devise, feign or forge a false story.” Later definitions were closer to the English “comment.” The Corrigan’s said simply, “study, think over, compose, write, invent.” So another definition of the phrase might be “. . .without some miraculous composition he could not [do it], he pretended” etc. I think the word “fiction” is a much later linguistic invention, and yet the meaning is clear that Numa is making up false stories about Egeria. My Latin is not good enough to fully see the “multitude ignorant and uncivilized” in the words above. It may be simply my fault, or it may be they are in the passage leading to this one; or it may be [less likely]the work of the translator.

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