In the first post we cited ancient authors on the meaning of myth. Two more authors that M. David Litwa cites:
A fable (mythos) is a fictitious story giving an image of truth . . .
Aelius Theon, 1st C CE (Kennedy 2003. Progymnasmata)
A myth aims at being a false tale, resembling a true one; therefore it is far removed from actual events, if a tale is but a picture and an image of actuality, and a myth is but a picture and image of a tale. And thus those who write of imaginative exploits lag as far behind historians as persons who tell of deeds come short of those that do them.
Plutarch, On the Fame of the Athenians, 348.4
Let us hope that Fable may, in what shall follow, so submit to the purifying processes of Reason as to take the character of exact history. In any case, however, where it shall be found contumaciously slighting credibility, and refusing to be reduced to anything like probable fact, we shall beg that we may meet with candid readers, and such as will receive with indulgence the stories of antiquity.
Plutarch, Life of Theseus, 1.5
Continuing from part 1a …
M. David Litwa’s interest is exactly what I was hoping for. As he explains (p.3),
Whether or not the evangelists did report actual events is a separate question and is not my concern.
Good. It is the history-like narrative of the gospels themselves that interests me. Why are they written that way? He continues:
Evidently they thought they did. At any rate, my focus is on how the evangelists used historical tropes to convince readers that they spoke of real—and thus “true”—events.
Some readers might quibble over that way of expressing the problem. Can we really know the thoughts of unknown authors? But the task can be reframed as an exploration of what makes the gospels function as history-like narratives.
Since the line between myth and history can often look quite blurry at times Litwa makes the excellent point that the two genres are in reality “ideal types”. As an “idea”, “pure history” only relates actual events, and “pure myth only “mythical/fantastical/impossible/unhistorical” events so are not always found in their pure, or “ideal”, forms:
In actual literature they mixed and blended without apology or sense of contradiction.
(For a more detailed explanation of the technical term ideal type see the post On (Dying and Rising Gods and) IDEAL TYPES).
Certainly our earliest accounts by Christians make it clear that they did not consider their beliefs to be mythical. Litwa cites Origen’s Contra Celsus (2.58; 3.27) in which Origen declaims that the resurrection is certainly historical and “proves” the point by reminding us that disciples died for that belief, after all. Further, we even have New Testament epistles:
For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1:16)
They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:4)
. . . pay no attention to Jewish myths . . . (Titus 1:14)
and so on. Myths stood opposed to Christian truth.
Truth and history
So what of history, or the writing of history, the practice of historiography?
The quotations here are from classicists cited by Litwa (Luce, Woodman) but the quotations are my selection.
All bolded highlighting is my own.
One meaning of “truth” for the historian in ancient times was what we would call objectivity. If the historian could claim to be writing neither to flatter nor to unjustly condemn, but to be free from such biases, then his account could be considered “true”. T. J. Luce in an article in Classical Philology explains:
The Greeks and Romans usually spoke of the absence of favoritism or hatred. Today the desideratum is often given as a positive and particularized virtue, “objectivity” or “impartiality,” for which the ancients had no special vocabulary, speaking simply of the “truth,” . . . . What historical truth was, and how it could be attained, were questions seldom addressed (Polybius is the chief exception), partly because, no doubt, the concept of historical truth seemed obvious, and partly because the concept was so often couched in negative terms: when favoritism and hostility are removed, truth is the residuum.
(Luce, p. 17)
In T. P. Wiseman, another classicist discussed elsewhere on Vridar, explains of ancient historiography:
Being ‘like the truth’, veri similis, was one of the three qualities required of narratio in the rhetorical handbooks. (The others were clarity and brevity.) Plausibility was what mattered. Even if the orator’s narration w׳as true, he must still make sure that it sounded plausible, and not open to any a priori objection on grounds of inherent improbability; if his facts w׳ere invented, of course, this was all the more necessary.
But [the fictitious stories of] Popillius the parricide and blinded Metellus were accepted as historical fact within two generations of their invention in the schools [of rhetoric], and acceptance was even faster when the fiction originated with an historian who could be cited as if he were a real authority.
(Wiseman, p. 34, 33)
In other words, as Litwa makes clear,
It is only the persistent rhetoric of truth telling that is important for my purposes. This rhetoric is enough to show that the ancients generally wanted historiography to function in their culture as a discourse coded as “true.”
(Litwa, p. 6)
Next post we’ll take a closer look at how ancient Greco-Roman historians worked.
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Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Luce, T. J. 1989. “Ancient Views on the Causes of Bias in Historical Writing.” Classical Philology 84 (1): 16–31.
Wiseman, Timothy Peter. 2010. Clio’s Cosmetics: Three Studies in Greco-Roman Literature. Bristol: Bristol Phoenix Press.
. . . .
Aelius Theon from Kennedy, George Alexander. 2003. Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.
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