Lying Eyewitnesses — Always With Us

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by Neil Godfrey

It ain’t necessarily so, the things that you’re liable to read in Bible, or in Der Spiegel, or in the ancient histories.

Three weeks ago I posted

“Now we know” — how ancient historians worked

There I wrote:

In 1935 the foreign correspondent of a certain English newspaper, finding himself without much material to report, despatched to England stories which supposedly dealt with the build-up to the Abyssinian war but which were in fact derived from an old colonel’s military reminiscences, published several years previously in a book entitled In the country of the Blue Nile. The correspondent’s newspaper was delighted with the reception given to these stories by its readers, and accordingly sent him a series of congratulatory telegrams – whereupon a colleague remarked to him: ‘Well, now we know, it’s entertainment they want!41 The colleague had only then come to realize what had been known long ago to Tacitus, to whom the foreign correspondent’s technique would have seemed very familiar.

41 For a full account of this amazing and instructive story see Knightley (1975), 176—7 (whose book should be recommended reading for those who wish to understand how ancient historians worked). The reporter who deceived his newspaper and the public on this occasion assumed (quite rightly) that no one could check his stories on account of the distance involved. The same is even more true of ancient historians (see above, p. 153), who lived in a world where communications were so much more difficult.

Woodman, Tony. 1980. “Self-Imitation and the Substance of History. Tacitus, Annals 1.61-5 and Histories 2.70, 5.14-15.” In Creative Imitation and Latin Literature, edited by David West and Tony Woodman, 155, 235. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

I picked up a copy of Phillip Knightleys’ The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker, and the morning after I read the first chapter the following story on the news confronted me:

  • Der Spiegel reporter Claas Relotius sacked over ‘invented’ stories

    German news magazine Der Spiegel has sacked an award-winning staff writer after accusing him of inventing details and quotes in numerous stories.

    Claas Relotius “falsified articles on a grand scale and even invented characters”, Der Spiegel said.

    Among the articles in question are major features that had been nominated for or won awards, the magazine added.

  • The Relotius Case  Answers to the Most Important Questions
    In recent years, DER SPIEGEL published just under 60 articles by reporter and editor Claas Relotius. He has now admitted that, in several instances, he either invented stories or distorted facts.Claas Relotius, a reporter and editor, falsified his articles on a grand scale and even invented characters, deceiving both readers and his colleagues. This has been uncovered as a result of tips, internal research and, ultimately, a comprehensive confession by the editor himself.

Just like Tacitus. And just like the war reporters I have been reading about in Knightley’s book. The newspapers are in business to make money. Their hired reporters know they need to provide stories that assist the money-making goals of their news media.

Pliny’s Letter 7:33 begins . . .

I venture to prophesy – and I know my prognostics are right – that your histories will be immortal, and that, I frankly confess, makes me the more anxious to figure in them. For if it is quite an ordinary thing for us to take care to secure the best painter to paint our portrait, ought we not also to be desirous of getting an author and historian of your calibre to describe our deeds ? That is why though it could hardly escape your careful eye, as it is to be found in the public records – I bring the following incident before your notice, and I do so in order to assure you how pleased I shall be, if you will lend your powers of description and the weight of your testimony to setting forth the way I behaved on an occasion when I reaped credit, owing to the dangers to which I exposed myself.

Here is what Woodman wrote of the Roman historian Tacitus:

However foreign it may be to us today, historians in the ancient world were expected to provide their readers with entertainmentdelectatio lectoris a responsibility of which Tacitus expresses himself only too well aware (cf. Annals 4.32.1, 33.2-3). Battle-scenes such as that at Histories 5.14-15 were a particularly common method of supplying this delectatio, as Tacitus knew full well (Annals 4.33.3 . . . . and if by some remote chance a writer of his calibre failed to realize the potential effect of an episode like Histories 2.70, there was always his friend the younger Pliny to supply him with ‘feedback’ (see Letters 7.33). Naturally this suggestion cannot be proved; but I think it is significant that, as is generally recognized, Tacitus’ account of events in Germany in Annals 1 is quite out of proportion to their historical importance: he seems to have ‘written up’ these sections because he enjoyed them and because he knew from experience that they would entertain his readers.

(p. 154)

The “Father of History”, Herodotus, pioneered the way. On his discussion of a royal monument in Asia Minor that Herodotus compared with an aspect of Egypt, Detlev Fehling observed the following misstatements:

In 2.106 Herodotus mentions two rock reliefs in Asia Minor, which are still in existence; and what he says about them is obviously wrong on several points. The most important point is that he states quite incorrectly that the inscription runs across the shoulders. Furthermore, he describes the script, again quite incorrectly, as Egyptian hieroglyphics (in fact it is an example of the so-called Hittite hieroglyphics), 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. To this second point we must then add a further misstatement obviously intended to fit in with it, that the figure is wearing a mixture of Egyptian and Ethiopian armour. Not that there is any point in asking what type of equipment Herodotus could have identified as Ethiopian, as commentators do. Herodotus certainly was not worried. He simply gives a general description suitable for Sesostris of Egypt, who, according to 2.110.1, was the only Egyptian king to rule over Ethiopia. . . . Herodotus never set foot in this remote place, we may be sure; what possible business could he have had there?

(p. 135)

The war reporters Knightley writes about were more careful to avoid fabricating news stories when at one point General Joseph Hooker enforced a rule that all their stories in the newspapers had to bear their names.

[Hooker] issued orders that all dispatches had to be published under the correspondent’s name. Robbed of the anonymity that had protected their speculation, inaccuracy, and comment, the correspondents with Hooker became much more discreet.

(p. 28)

What were the names of the authors of our canonical gospels again? And what was the reason for our emphasis on the need for eyewitness reports?

Nothing can beat corroboration of accounts by genuinely independent sources. We know by now that we cannot even trust supposed eye-witness accounts simply on the basis that they are reputed to be eye-witness reports. Even claims to eyewitness status need to be supplemented with additional information that helps us to accept them.

Fehling, Detlev. 1989. Herodotus and His Sources: Citation, Invention and Narrative Art. Leeds: Francis Cairns.

Knightley, Philip. 2003. The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq. London: Deutsch.

Woodman, Tony. 1980. “Self-Imitation and the Substance of History. Tacitus, Annals 1.61-5 and Histories 2.70, 5.14-15.” In Creative Imitation and Latin Literature, edited by David West and Tony Woodman, 155, 235. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.


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12 thoughts on “Lying Eyewitnesses — Always With Us”

  1. In light of Relotius’ dismissal I really think we should posthumously dismiss Tacitus, and the entire corpus of unknown biblical authors.
    I would also like to nominate Eusebius for posthumous firing.

  2. This has a lot to do with my thesis. Whereas I think most people, including many mythicsits, envision the Gospel writers as recording existing beliefs, i.e. that the Gospels, even if they are all false, are records of beliefs that real people held prior to their writing, I view the Gospels as the source of the beliefs.

    What we see in the real world is that false published accounts, either intentionally fabricated or inadvertent, are the drivers of widely held false beliefs.

    1. And note that nobody disputes that the Gnostic texts are simply the writer’s beliefs and interpretations of the scriptures. Nobody tries to make a case for “oral history” undergirding the Gnostic texts. Why wouldn’t Mark be the same?

    2. false published accounts, either intentionally fabricated or inadvertent, are the drivers of widely held false beliefs.

      With the gospel of Mark being based on both reworking of some of the Pauline epistles and some of the Hebrew Scrptures, and reflecting aspects of The War; and the Pauline texts also largely being reworkings of aspects of the Hebrew Scriptures: these first Christian texts would not have been welcomed by the Jewish authorities as they were at least contemplating and beginning to rethink and document their Oral Torah/laws, etc.

      It would be interesting to know how different Jewish communities and their leaders felt about them.

  3. O yes, and while we are cleaning out our historical drawers(pun intended) let us go ahead and remove all the ancient writers form every where, all the great Philosophers and those lying Greeks and all the writers of every nation. Let’s just throw it all out. If it happened before our life time, somebody somewhere is lying. If we didn’t see it with our own two eyes, we are not gonna believe it……… Unless we agree with it and it supports our position!

  4. The Mishnah (‘published’ around 180-200 AD) distorts history by talking about the Jewish Temple as if it’s still standing –

    … in the world described by the Mishnah the Temple still exists and the laws that governed it are expressed in the present tense … the Mishnah itself ignores the events of the Roman occupation of the land of Israel. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/mishnah/

    Maybe other concurrent or later Jewish texts do too. I think it’s likely this influenced early Christian authors and the texts they produced.

    It is only now that the veracity of such texts and their critics, such as Jacob Neusner, mentioned here, are being better unpacked, eg. –

    The Mishnah’s ritual narratives are a series of texts of varying length – from one or two sentences to a whole tractate – embedded in the Mishnah’s continuous discourse that describe in vivid detail how rituals were performed in the Temple, in relation to the Temple, or in the court of law …

    In the past, the Mishnah’s ritual narratives have been studied in one of two ways. Traditionally, they were treated as transparent historical accounts which provide the historian or the scholar of religion access to historical events and to rituals performed in the time of the Second Temple. Jacob Neusner took the opposite approach, arguing that the Temple-oriented ritual narratives (like all Temple material in the Mishnah) were pure fantasies created by rabbis of the Ushan generation (mid-second century CE), living after the destruction of the Temple. According to Neusner, the rabbis created a utopian fantasy in which the sacred center of Judaism, the Temple, continued to exist within the religious imagination of its authors. Both of these approaches, which are problematic in their extreme stances toward the narratives, took important steps in describing the ritual narratives as a collectivity.

    In this dissertation I break with the earlier approaches and treat these narratives neither as transparent history nor as total fantasies, but as far more complicated and nuanced texts with characteristic narrative shape and thematics. My approach is informed by a multidisciplinary perspective incorporating insights from the study of the Mishnah, the study of narrative, and the study of ritual, and I build on recent scholarly work on the Mishnah, especially works on the historical context of the Mishnah and on the Mishnah’s narrative. Similarly, I build on the recent studies of Beth Berkowitz and Ishay Rosen Zvi, who treat individual narratives from a culture-critical perspective.

    From The Ritual Narrative Genre in The Mishnah: the Invention of the Rabbinic Past in the Representation of Temple Ritual, a Dissertation in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations presented to the Faculties of the University of Pennsylvania by Naftali S. Cohn in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy 2008

    From the abstract –

    the rabbinic narration of past ritual can best be treated as collective memory. By remembering the [Temple] Court in a position of authority over temple ritual, the rabbis are imagining this past institution in the image of the legal-ritual role they are attempting to construct for themselves in their present. This memory of the Courtgives meaning to and orients the rabbinic present. And it makes a claim for rabbinic authority over ritual law and practice in post-temple times.

  5. Some of us seem to have missed the key point that the post has for historical researchers. We DON’T just throw everything out and forget about doing history. We read judiciously, carefully, always looking for corroboration and motives. That’s what the best historians do and keep in mind it was one such historian, a classicist, who was the inspiration for this post.

    The alternative I was implicitly opposing was this common notion, particularly among biblical scholars though not exclusively biblical scholars, is this approach to texts that says, “I see no reason to disbelieve it” or “We should accept the testimony until we find it contradicted at some point”.

  6. People interested in the Resolutius case might consider reading


    authored by people in a small city he described in detail. I am not necessarily at one with them in all their social or political perspectives, but I personally am inclined to believe pretty much every single detail of their account of their town as contrasted to his apparent depiction of it (which however I confess I have not read).

    If they are correct, he did not just blur over details or create little things here and there for convenience. He made up lots of big things adding details to them. He seems to have assumed that if he concocted a picture that confirmed the most grotesque biases against mid-US white deplorables he would be creating a picture in keeping with the biases of his readers, who would see pure realism in his Journalism.

    I have long wondered about Journalism.

    (Again we can see in this case that just because an account contains details in keeping with everyday life of a certain era does not necessarily make it true, contrary to the arguments of some biblical scholars.)

    1. If the account in the medium.com piece is correct and I understood and remember it correctly, Mr Resolutius had a really nice touch in his fiction. He took some real Mexican-Americans from the small city, mixed up their identities, somewhat misidentified one of them in a photograph’s caption, and best of all created a fake sickness for one of them causing her to have been harmed by Obama’s health care policies. Thus in his fiction it is not a clear black-and-white story. His fictionalized Mexican-Americans in this deplorable city may have come to circle the deplorable redneck ideological drain in a fashion somewhat contrary to his readers’ biases and ideology. Perhaps he had read about the criterion of embarrassment that shows that a narrative containing things that run counter to what one would like to be the case is likely to be true.

  7. In more recent history we can recall the stories put about regarding incubator babies supposedly thrown to the floor by Iraqi troops in Kuwait and non-existent weapons of mass destruction as excuses to generate war fever. The lies never stop. Because it works.

    We don’t have to ‘throw out’ these hoaxes and pretend the stories were never pushed on the public, but we have to acknowledge them and understand the role they play in molding our perception of our world.

    “All governments lie” is the pithy summation by investigative journalist I F Stone. We forget this at our peril.

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