Search Results for: thucydides


2014-02-13

How Ancient Historians Constructed Dramatic Fiction: Thucydides and the Plague

by Neil Godfrey
painting1
Plague of Athens by Neapolitan School

The plague of Athens is one of the most detailed, vivid and life-like accounts of any event from ancient times. The historian who penned it (Thucydides) assures all readers that he relied upon eyewitness reports and that he personally investigated what had happened in order to be sure of leaving a record that would be of use (as well as interest) to posterity.

But how historically true is it? Is it hyper-sceptical to even ask that question?

I ask because a few New Testament scholars who study Christian origins claim that those who raise doubts that the author of the two-part prologue to Luke and Acts was really relying upon eye-witness testimony as he appears to be claiming are “hyper-sceptical” and unreasonably biased against the Bible. This post is part of a series showing that such critical questions are indeed applied to works other than those in the Bible and that they are perfectly legitimate and gateways to deeper understanding of the texts.

Further, among ancient historians and classicists we find the rule that we can never be certain of the historicity of a narrative without external or independent corroboration. This, too, is another detail dismissed as “hyper-scepticism” among some New Testament scholars who have built “bedrock history” upon their biblical sources.

Before resuming with Woodman’s discussion of the way the historian Thucydides worked it’s worth pausing to consider an extract by Henry R. Immerwahr from the Cambridge History of Classical Literature:

The close association of history and literature produced a distinctive manner of presentation which creates difficulties for anyone who tries to use the ancient historical works as source materials. Especially through the influence of epic and drama Herodotus and Thucydides set a style followed by almost all ancient historians, which may be called mimetic, that is, they write as if they had been present at the events they describe. (An exception is the Oxyrhynchus historian who aims at a more dispassionate narrative.)

When Herodotus describes the conversations between Gyges and Candaules or the feelings of Xerxes after Salamis we can hardly believe that this is based on evidence; it is rather an imaginative, ‘poetic’, reconstruction aiming at authenticity in an idealized sense.

The same is true of Thucydides when he supplies motives for actions by delving, so to speak, into the minds of the participants (e.g. the feelings of Cleon and the assembly in the discussion of Pylos, 4.27*1″.) without mentioning his informants.

The use of speeches is only the most obvious device of the mimetic method; it reaches into the smallest narrative details and tends to destroy the distinction between ‘fact’ and interpretation. This factor, more than any other, gives ancient historiography its unique character. (CHCL – pp. 456-7)

It is often forgotten that Thucydides is our only evidence for the plague, as for so many other events of the war. It is not mentioned by Aristophanes or in any contemporary medical writing. It is mentioned by Plato (Symp. 201d), but many years later. (The contemporary Sophocles makes no mention of it.) Woodman, p. 66

This post does not argue that there was no plague in Athens during the Peloponnesian War — although see the side box for the status of the evidence for its historicity.

What this post examines is Professor of Classics A.J. Woodman’s case for Thucydides having constructed a fictional scene based upon that apparently historical event. We will see the way “historical” writing was conceived in the Hellenistic, Roman and Jewish worlds in the Classical-Hellenistic-Roman eras.

I am focusing on Thucydides because he is generally considered the historian to be most like the moderns, taking scrupulous care to establish the certainty of any fact he writes, avoiding any mythical or miraculous tales, striving for an almost modern form of “scientific accuracy”. If it can be shown that this image of Thucydides’ work is accurate then we may indeed read ancient historical works in hopes of finding that others, too, have at least to some degree written the same way, especially those for whom we have evidence that they aspired to be compared with Thucydides in some way. Thinking specifically here of Josephus and the author of Luke-Acts.

This continues from my previous post on A.J. Woodman’s argument.

read more »


2014-02-06

Ancient Historians: Thucydides, historian of realism, not reality

by Neil Godfrey
woodman
Professor of Classics, A.J. Woodman

This continues from my previous post on A.J. Woodman’s argument.

There are good reasons for approaching the Book of Acts and other historical writings of the Bible from the perspective of the wider literary culture of their day. Thucydides, the Greek historian of the Peloponnesian War, is generally thought of as an outstanding exception among ancient historians because of his supposedly well-researched and eyewitness accounts of the facts. Classicist Professor A.J.Woodman reminds us, however, that we may be advised to reconsider why we should ever think of anyone as being an exception to the ethos and culture of one’s own day.

Through these posts I am exploring the nature of ancient historiography, and by implication re-examining the assumptions we bring to our reading of the Bible’s historical books. Beginning with Herodotus and Thucydides is relevant because we will see that Jewish historians, in particular Josephus, were influenced by them. We will see that by understanding Greek and Roman historians we will also understand more clearly and in a new light the nature of the works of Josephus. And by understanding the nature of ancient historical texts we will read Acts and other historical books in the Bible with fresh insights and improved critical awareness.

The first thing to note about Thucydides is that, for all his differences from Herodotus, he wanted his own work to be read with reference to Herodotus’ Histories. He borrowed directly from Herodotus to demonstrate to readers the superiority of his own work.

Herodotus advertized the greatness of his topic. Thucydides did the same and more so. Herodotus announced that the Persian Wars were a large-scale event? Thucydides responds by greatly exaggerating the extent of the Peloponnesian War to a far greater scale.

Far from being disengaged or objective, Thucydides has deployed standard rhetorical exaggeration in order to demonstrate the superiority of his own work and subject over those of Herodotus. (p. 7)

The translation reflects the original Greek words borrowed:

thycyherod1

We will see that this — the choice of a most important or great topic — is a recurring theme in all historical writings. Ditto for intertextuality.

Homer the historian

read more »


2014-02-05

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

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.

woodman
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. read more »


2019-11-16

Review, pt 1e (e for Exceptions!) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

by Neil Godfrey

There are other types of Greco-Roman historical works that have received less attention in M. David Litwa’s introductory chapter but that may yet be closer to the gospel narratives. Litwa did refer to these but with less elaboration in his introduction so I’ll address them here. Overall, we will see that these types of historical writings were not held with much respect among educated readers.

Josephus, a Jewish historian and contemporary of the evangelists, also complained that many historians turned to fantastical tales (mytholegein) to win a reputation as successful historians.

(Litwa, 12)

The Roman author Lucian satirized these types of historical works in True History (or True Story). One passage, to give you an idea of the flavour of the whole:

The rich men have garments of glass, very soft and delicate : the poorer sort of brass woven, whereof they have great plenty, which they enseam with water to make it fit for the workman, as we do our wool. If I should write what manner of eyes they have, I doubt I should be taken for a liar in publishing a matter so incredible : yet I cannot choose but tell it : for they have eyes to take in and  out as please themselves : and when a man is so disposed, he may take them out and then put them in and see again : many when they have lost their own eyes, borrow of others, for the rich have many lying by them.

(Lucian, True History, 71)

The same Lucian also wrote a more serious work in which he detailed the faults of many pop historians of his day and explained more seriously how history should be written. The hacks, Lucian pointed out, wrote for personal fame. They did not write anonymously. They sought to out-entertain their rivals. They capitalized on major news stories sweeping through the empire.

. . . from the beginning of the present excitements — the barbarian war, the Armenian disaster, the succession of victories — you cannot find a man but is writing history; nay, every one you meet is a Thucydides, a Herodotus, a Xenophon. . . .

If rumours about Jesus were popular throughout Syria and Jordan at during his lifetime then one can compare Lucian’s observation that popular news created a ready market for relevant histories.

. . . Another is a keen emulator of Thucydides, and by way of close approximation to his model starts with his own name — most graceful of beginnings, redolent of Attic thyme! Look at it: ‘Crepereius Calpurnianus of Pompeiopolis wrote the history of the . . . .

Yet the persons who wrote the gospels did so anonymously. (Compare many of the books of Jewish scriptures and other Second Temple novellas.)

. . . Another thing these gentlemen seem not to know is that poetry and history offer different wares, and have their separate rules. Poetry enjoys unrestricted freedom; it has but one law — the poet’s fancy.

. . . The vulgar may very likely extend their favour to this; but the select (whose judgement you disregard) will get a good deal of entertainment out of your heterogeneous, disjointed, fragmentary stuff.

Are the “poetic fancies” in the gospels presented as sheer entertainment or as something more?

Returning to Josephus. We began with Litwa’s mention of his essay against the views of Apion. Here is what Josephus wrote:

It is, then, the absence of any previously deposited record — which would have both instructed those who wished to learn and refuted those who lied — that accounts for the extent of the disagreement among the writers.

But a second reason must be added to this: those who hastily set about writing did not bother about the truth — although they were always quick to make this their promisebut displayed their literary prowess, and in whatever way they thought they could outshine others they adapted themselves in accordance with this, some turning to recount mythology, others seeking favor by praising cities or kings; others set out to criticise historical actions or the historians, thinking that their reputation would shine in this way.

In short, what they continue to practice is the complete opposite of history. For it is evidence of true history if everyone both says and writes the same things about the same (events). They, on the other hand, think that they will seem the most truthful of all if they describe the same things differently.

(Josephus, Against Apion, 1.23-26)

I wrote more fully of what Josephus might have thought of the gospels as works of history in What Josephus might have said about the Gospels. By Josephus’s ideal standards, at least as he professed them, we might conclude that he would have had a very poor view of our gospels as supposed works of history or biography.

To order a copy of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here or visit www.footprint.com.au

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.

There is one more exception, one not explicitly brought out in Litwa’s Introduction, and that is historians’ accounts of omens that precede historical turning points. I discussed this exception to the rule only recently so I will not elaborate again here: see Herodotus and Miracles — Material for a Gospel Comparison. A comparison with gospel material would be limited to the unexpected darkness enveloping the land at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus and the earthquake, the tearing of the temple veil, and perhaps even Matthew’s corpses of saints rising from their graves and wandering the streets of Jerusalem.


Litwa, M. David. 2019. How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

-o-

Josephus, Flavius. 2007. Against Apion. Edited by Steve Mason. Translated by John M. G. Barclay. Vol. 10. Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary. Brill.

Lucian of Samosata. 2016. “The Way to Write History.” In Works, by Lucian, translated by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler, Web edition. The University of Adelaide: eBooks@Adelaide. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lucian/works/chapter24.html.

Lucian of Samosata. 1894. Lucian’s True History. Translated by Francis Hickes. London : Privately printed. http://archive.org/details/lucianstruehisto00luciiala.

Origen. 1869. “Contra Celsum.” In The Writings of Origen. Vol. 2, translated by Frederick Crombie. Edinburgh : T. & T. Clark. http://archive.org/details/writingsoforigen02origuoft.


 


2019-11-12

Two Ways of Defining Greco-Roman Historiography

by Neil Godfrey

141. The comparison concludes with the following exchange between Cicero and his brother Quintus (1.5): Q. ‘I understand that in your opinion different laws obtain in historiography and poetry’. M. ‘Yes. In history most things have their basis in veritas, whereas in poetry they have it in pleasure, although in both Herodotus, the father of history, and Theopompus there are countless fabulae.’ Cicero’s reply here has naturally been used by those scholars who wish to assert that his views on historiography are similar to our own . . . ; yet I am certain that they are misinterpreting the word veritas here. The context, and in particular the reference to fabulae, suggests that veritas=‘real life’, . . . That is: veritas embraces the verisimile and is contrasted with fabula, . . . Cicero is drawing a comparison between ‘credible’ texts on the one hand, a category into which historiography normally falls, and the far-fetched Roman stories . . . on the other, with which the fabulae of Herodotus and Theopompus have everything in common.
. . .

147. Dion. Thuc. 9 refers to histories as ῥητορικάι ὑποθέσεις an extremely interesting combination of words . . . , though he elsewhere (Ep. Pomp. 3=2.384 Usher) refers to the works of Herodotus and Thucydides as ` ` ` ` Pliny (Ep. 5.8.9) says that ‘historiography and oratory have, of course, much in common’; Hermog. De Ideis 417.28–418.1 says that ‘historians should be set alongside panegyrists, as is in fact the case, I think: their aims are amplification and entertainment’ etc.
. . .

150. 1.70 ‘The poet is a very close relative of the orator’, 3.27 ‘poets have the closest relationship with orators’; further examples in Kroll on Or. 66.
. . .

154. Quint. 12.11.4. Cf. Theon 70, who says that training in rhetoric is required by an historian.
. . .

156. Arist. Or. 49, Marc. Vita Thuc. 41.

It is, I think, significant that Atticus’ remark arises immediately out of a comparison between historiography and poetry.141 When we recall the close connections between Homer and both Herodotus and Thucydides (above . . .), it can be inferred that historiography was originally seen in terms of poetry and that there was a continuing debate as to their precise relationship and proximity. Thus Aristotle in the fourth century BC and Polybius in the second each maintained that there were differences between historiography and poetry, while much later Quintilian stated the opposite, that ‘historiography is very close to poetry and is rather like a poem in prose’. Yet by Aristotle’s time the historian Ephorus had also begun to compare historiography and oratory, something in which he was followed by the historian Timaeus. . . . Dionysius in the first century BC was followed by Pliny the younger and Hermogenes in the second century AD in seeing historiography as closely allied to oratory.147

There were thus two main alternative ways of defining historiography, and it is hardly surprising that Cicero, the outstanding Roman orator, should prefer the latter definition to the former. After all, it is clear from numerous passages that he seriously contemplated writing history himself.148 But since the earlier discussion in the De Legibus concerned the relationship between historiography and poetry, quidem (‘at least’) at 1.5 is merely Atticus’ acknowledgement that Cicero belongs with those who prefer the alternative definition of historiography as oratory.

Lest it be imagined that there is some essential contradiction between these two definitions, two passages of the De Oratore, where oratory is seen in terms of poetry, show that this is not so.150 Though we today see poetry, oratory and historiography as three separate genres, the ancients saw them as three different species of the same genus — rhetoric. All three types of activity aimed to elaborate certain data in such a way as to affect or persuade an audience or readership. So when in Cicero’s Brutus (43) Atticus says that the historians Clitarchus and Stratocles ‘were able to elaborate Themistocles’ death in a rhetorical and tragic manner [rhetorice et tragice]’, the two terms represent, not a contradiction, but alternative ways of describing the same phenomenon.

Moreover, the Roman system of education encouraged young men to study and emulate the works of famous orators, historians and poets, with the result that future orators, historians and poets were all reared in the same system. Indeed the sixth-century AD historian Agathias claimed that in his youth he had concentrated exclusively on poetry but that a friend encouraged him to write history by saying that ‘there is no great gulf between poetry and historiography: they are close relatives from the same tribe and separated from each other only by metre’. And in exactly the same way Quintilian was able to say that when an orator retires from his profession, he can devote himself to the writing of history.154 It was thus perhaps the educational system as much as anything which ensured that the debate on the real nature of historiography continued. Aristides in the second century AD maintained that historians ‘fall between orators and poets’, while four centuries later the biographer of Thucydides, Marcellinus, said that ‘some people have ventured to demonstrate that the genre of historiography is not rhetorical but poetic’.156

(Woodman, 99f)


Woodman, A. J. 2004. Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: Four Studies. London : New York: Routledge.


 


2019-11-09

Three Lessons from Classics for Biblical Studies?

by Neil Godfrey

Some interesting points I came across while reading A. J. Woodman’s Rhetoric in Classical Historiography and some of his references:

Initial eyewitness claims not followed up

Earlier in this same chapter Thucydides drew a distinction between events which he experienced himself and those which were reported to him by others (22.2). Although  he never gives us any indication of how many, or indeed which, events fall into each category . . . 

(p. 26)

The implication is that Thucydides’ rhetoric is designed to impress; there is no evidence of any truth to the claim. Indeed, works demonstrating Thucydides’ reliance upon literary sources (e.g. Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristarchus of Syracuse) — sources that Thucydides attempted to deny — are listed. That reminded me that we never read in Luke-Acts which events are derived from the “eyewitnesses” apparently referenced in the prologue.

Poetic devices appearing in prose

Herodotus often echoes the rhythms of poetry, and some passages of his prose can actually be turned into verse without too much difficulty. . . . . [Thucydides] . . . concludes, perhaps significantly, by reproducing the hexameter rhythm of an all but complete line of epic verse.

(pp. 3, 9)

Prose authors periodically break into poetic rhythms. That makes me wonder if there are similar practices in philosophical or epistolary literature from the era of the Pauline letters. Paul is sometimes said to be incorporating earlier hymn verses into his letters; what is the likelihood he authored such passages himself?

Grounds for suspecting interpolation

To be considered for inclusion in the category of ancient interpolations in Aristophanes a word, phrase or passage must satisfy two conditions: first, there must be grounds for thinking that Aristophanes did not write it, or at least not with the intention that it should stand where it now stands in the text; and secondly, there must be grounds for thinking that it was present in at least one copy of the text earlier than the dark age which separates late antiquity from the Photian renaissance.

Sounds reasonable. The criteria would open floodgates of possible interpolations into the NT texts, though.


Dover, Kenneth J. 1977. “Ancient Interpolation in Aristophanes.” Illinois Classical Studies 2: 136–62.

Woodman, A. J. 2004. Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: Four Studies. London : New York: Routledge.



2019-11-08

How Historiography Began, and What History Meant in the Greco-Roman World

by Neil Godfrey
Though we today see poetry, oratory and historiography as three separate genres, the ancients saw them as three different species of the same genus — rhetoric. All three types of activity aimed to elaborate certain data in such a way as to affect or persuade an audience or readership. — Woodman, p. 100
A. J. Woodman

We often hear the fifth century BCE author of Histories, Herodotus, described as the “father of history” — an epithet borrowed from Cicero. We usually hear how Herodotus was titillated by stories of the spectacular and he loved to blend rumours and fables with his researched facts. Then we often hear how his younger contemporary, Thucydides, advanced the craft of historiography by eschewing all myth and hewing steadily to “facts” he was able to confirm through direct oral testimony: we have come to accept Thucydides as the “father of scientific history”.

The question addressed in this post has significant implications for how we interpret the canonical gospels and Acts.

But I think there is a far stronger argument for viewing both Herodotus and Thucydides as the “sons of Homer” and what both of them wrote was far closer to Homeric epic than anything that we moderns understand to be history.

Is not Homer a prose work, though? How is it in any way similar to Homer’s epics? And what has Thucydides to do with Homer? Answer: Much, in every way!

How Herodotus imitated Homer

Both at the openings of their works (Iliad and Histories) grab an audience’s attention by declaring the unsurpassed greatness of the theme they are about to relate and speaking of gods behind the scenes who were responsible for the conflict. Similarly, Herodotus echoed Odysseus in boasting how he visited the cities of “many men”.

Compare also in each work

  • the battle scenes and heroic temper
  • methods of narrative and digression
  • frequent use of direct speech
  • the dialect, the rhythms

There are “many Homeric words and phrases in Herodotus”.

Herodotus regarded Homer as a historian who wrote about the “historical” war with Troy.

We know from archaeological and other evidence that Herodotus did not personally visit many of the places he claims to have seen:

Rather, [Herodotus] has adapted his information from the literary tradition. (p. 4)

Imagine a modern historian today boasting that he adapted his methods of narrative from Paradise Lost. Woodman notes that we “would presumably become very worried indeed” if our historian admitted as much.

How Thucydides imitated Homer (and Herodotus!)

Thucydides borrowed directly words and phrases from Homer to outline his theme.

As Herodotus had emulated Homer in declaring his theme to be about the greatest war of all time, so did Thucydides. Thucydides even declares that the Peloponnesian War was a “global” or “world war”.

Thucydides seeks to emulate and surpass Homer by pointing out that, unlike Homer, he does not need to resort to poetic flourishes to dramatize and magnify the greatness of his theme.

[Thucydides] will refrain from the embellishments of poetry; but that is simply because he wishes to suggest that the greatness of his own war does not require such embellishments and to distract attention from the embellishment which, as we shall see below, he does indeed employ. (p. 9)

The lengthy speeches written out by Thucydides are poetic or rhetorical emulations of the speeches in Homer’s Iliad. They are not “general gist” recollections.

When Thucydides declares that his narrative carefully distinguishes between the author’s personal witness and the testimony of other eyewitnesses he is drawing the same distinction as Homer’s Odysseus. (It is evident that contrary to his claim to have been a witness of certain events that the facts are sometimes otherwise. His sources are literary, not personal visits; and his digressions serve to entertain, not inform.)

Thucydides explicitly rejected the mythical element from his narrative but this had more to do with his aim to rival and surpass his predecessors in poetic and rhetorical prowess than it did with modern notions of rational inquiry. The contrast Thucydides makes is not between myths and facts, but between myths and vividness of detailed narrative that drew audiences into experiencing the colourful narration of his world, of his battles, plagues, and other events. The aim of Thucydides was “realism”, not “truth”. Or if “truth”, “truth” only in an idealistic sense of what is “true to human nature” and “true to how things are known to happen”, and therefore, true to what is certain to happen again in human experience. And being told with such vivid (realistic) details events that Thucydides in fact took from other literary sources have been mistaken as being derived from genuine eyewitness evidence.

For Thucydides, his theme of the Peloponnesian War was presented through the perspective of the epic poet: it was a tale of widespread sufferings, destructions of cities, plagues, refugees, earthquakes, solar eclipses, famines, and so forth. Homer opened his epics with songs of sufferings to come.

Homer mentioned sufferings in the overtures to his poems because it was a subject which fascinated and appealed to his audience. Thucydides is following Homeric practice and for the same reason. (p. 29)

Like Homer, Thucydides is “writing a ‘disaster narrative’ of the most vivid and dramatic type.” (p. 30)

Thucydides structures his story in terms of epic and dramatic reversals, tales of hubris and subsequent destructions.

–o0o–

Professor Woodman discusses all of the above at some length with illustrative material to support each of his theses. I can perhaps elaborate on a few details in future posts as I have already done in past ones on Thucydides.

The point is that history as practised by ancient Greco-Roman authors was never close to what we think of as historical writing. It was a form of rhetoric, along with poetry and oratory, written with the purpose of entertainment, yes, but also (at least for the serious practitioners) to teach, to shape and reinforce honourable traditions, piety, and other lessons to better prepare readers for the present and future.


Woodman, A. J. 2004. Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: Four Studies. London : New York: Routledge.



2019-11-06

Once More — Homer, History and the Gospels-Acts

by Neil Godfrey

I know some readers find it difficult to accept that our canonical gospels and Acts were seriously influenced by the epics of Homer, the Iliad and Odyssey.

Here is something (two things, actually) to think about.

Thomas Rosenmeyer

We think of “history” as a genre of literature that is meant to convey the idea of facts, truth, “what essentially happened”. But after reading an essay by classicist Thomas Rosenmeyer I suspect that that notion is not applicable to those we think of as historians in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Rather, what ancient authors were attuned to was emulation of a forefather — e.g. Homer — who set the standard.

Finally, there is one factor that I am inclined to think doomed any genre thinking from the start. This is the ancient critical commitment to the operation of zelos, aemulatio. I suspect that if one were to ask an ancient dramatist or a writer of epic why he was working in his medium and not in another, and which model he was following, he would cite his allegiance to the protos heuretes, the founder of the fine in which he was engaged. . . . Instead of genre criticism, the ancients practiced model criticism. Their allegiances and affiliations connect, not with a mode or a kind, but with a father, a personal guide. If they ally themselves with a work, it is identified as the work of a revered author, the precipitation of a literary act, not a fatherless text or a textual segment or a generic idea. Like the Pythian priestess inspired by her god, writers and critics are inspired by the effluences, aporroai, that stream into their souls from the sacred mouths of great models (Longinus, On the Sublime 13. 2). Where genre thinking is scientific, inferred from a sufficient sampling of texts and their properties, model thinking is, as it were, moral, and triggered by predecessors.

(Rosenmeyer, 435-36)

John Marincola

But Homer? What does Homer have to do with history? Here we scan an article by John Marincola in The Homer Encyclopedia

As in other areas of ancient literature, the influence of Homer on the Greek and Roman historians was profound and abiding. . . . 

The Odyssey exerted a strong influence on early investigators into other cultures (Montiglio 2005, 118–146), and the figure of Odysseus himself was important in many foundation myths of Greek colonies (Malkin 1998). . . . 

The other important area of Homeric influence was on the historians themselves. The developed genre of historiography took from the Homeric poems many features of epic: a mimetic, largely third-person narrative of deeds, interspersed with the speeches of historical characters in direct discourse; a concern to articulate the causes of actions and to pinpoint responsibility; an elevated style appropriate to “great” deeds; and a concern to immortalize those deeds for posterity and to draw from them important lessons about life and human action. The historians were also influenced by Homer in their choice of “suitable” subject matter: from the Iliad, the story of great deeds and struggles . . . from the Odyssey, an interest in foreign lands and places, in the guile and cunning of leaders, and in the pleasures of narrative itself. . . . 

The early historians were particularly influenced by and engaged with Homer. Herodotus plays a key role here, and was recognized already in antiquity as “most like Homer” . . . [I]t was Homer who offered him an intelligible model for the presentation of those enquiries: how to construct a large-scale narrative, with (sometimes expansive) shifts in time and space; how to subordinate individual episodes and digressions within a larger, unified narrative structure; and how to present the events of the past with immediacy and clarity. Herodotus unites both epics within his work, since his thematic conception – a great war between East and West – is indebted to the Iliad, while his own travel, enquiry, interest in marvels, and preoccupation with reversals of fortune owe much to the Odyssey. . . . 

Yet even while imitating Homer, Herodotus challenged him . . . “correcting” and “improving” him . . . 

Even Thucydides followed Homer’s trail:

This twin legacy – emulation and challenge – was bequeathed to Thucydides, who maintains the general epic features imported into historiography by Herodotus. . . . Thucydides’ narrative technique follows Homer more closely than Herodotus, especially in the suppression of the ubiquitous “I” of Herodotus work in favor of a more “unintrusive” Homeric narrator (Rengakos 2005, 2006). And ancient critics saw Thucydides too as one who “vied with Homer” (Marcellinus, Vit. Thuc. 35–37): Thucydides’ consistent emphasis on the magnitude of the sufferings in war is thoroughly Homeric (Woodman 1988, 28–34).

Historians thereafter continued to look to Homer for inspiration. . . . .

In the Hellenistic world, Polybius shows great respect for Homer . . . , and argues at length that Homer even cre ated a figure of the ideal historian: Odysseus, who united in his person both the practical skill of a general and leader of men, and the intellectual interest of the explorer and traveler . . . .

Ancient historians, Greek and Roman, consistently looked to Homer to infuse their narratives with an elevated tone and a “heroic” cast. . . . Thucydides’ narrative of the Sicilian Expedition in Books 6–7 is suffused with Homeric motifs and themes . . . . as is Livy’s account of the battle of Lake Regillus, where several incidents are modeled directly on Homer . . . . Likewise, speeches of generals before battle show a long tradition of Homeric influence . . . . Although scholars frequently refer to a “contamination” of history by epic, we cannot forget that the Homeric poems and characters were present to the ancients in an immediate and profound way, often serving as exempla, and it is perhaps just as likely that some, if not many, of the reminiscences of Homer in the Greek and Roman historians reflect the enormous influence that the Iliad and Odyssey actually had in the real world.

(Marincola, 357-59)

All of that would lead one to expect a priori Homeric influence in the Gospels and Acts, yes?


Marincola, John. 2011. “Historians and Homer.” In The Homer Encyclopedia, 2:357–59. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Rosenmeyer, Thomas G. 2005. “Ancient Literary Genres: A Mirage?” In Oxford Readings in Ancient Literary Criticism, edited by Andrew Laird, 321–439. Oxford Readings In Classical Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

 


2019-11-03

Review, pt 1c: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa (Looking like history?)

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from part 1b …

M. David Litwa’s opening chapter of How the Gospels Became History is an overview of ancient history-writing looked like, including its frequent allowance of myth, and how the canonical gospels fit in with this type of literature. So far we have been moving slowly as we take note of what ancient writers themselves said about the connection between history and myth, truth and fiction, with the implication that the gospels are part and parcel of the world of ancient historiography.

Not all scholars have agreed and Litwa takes up the challenge of Richard C. Miller who argues that the gospels are far removed from the genre of Greco-Roman history. I’ll quote a little more of Miller’s argument that does Litwa:

[T]he panoply of early Christian gospel texts appears more or less disinterested in conforming to any particular narrative of Christian origins and instead exhibits an all-but-whimsical freedom, an astonishing prose creativity in depiction and variance in the telling and ordering of scenes. Of the hundreds of Christian works that survive from the first three centuries of the Common Era, no reliable histories exist aside perhaps from fragments of the five books of Papias. Of these hundreds, setting aside the various epistles and apologies, thus focusing on the narratives, we find a single unifying feature: the early Christian narratives were all fictive in modality. Whether one considers the collection of early Christian gospels, the various apostolic acta, the assortment of apocalypses, or the burgeoning stock of hagiographa, until Eusebius’s fourth-century Historia Ecclesiastica, itself a myth of Christian origins, though intended to be read as a history, one encounters nothing deserving of the genus “historiography”; one finds only legends, myths, folktales, and novelistic fictions. Albeit, considering the characteristic gravitas of these texts, one would be mistaken to dismiss them merely as works of aesthetic entertainment. As all of these works exclude the requisite signals distinguishing ancient works of historiography, that is,

  • no visible weighing of sources,
  • no apology for the all-too-common occurrence of the supernatural,
  • no endeavor to distinguish such accounts and conventions from analogous fictive narratives in classical literature (including the frequent mimetic use of Homer, Euripides, and other canonized fictions of classical antiquity),
  • no transparent sense of authorship (or even readership) or origin,

the ecclesiastical distinction endeavored by Irenaeus of Lyons et alii to segregate and signify some such works as canonical, reliable histories appears wholly political and arbitrary.

(Miller, p. 133. Bolded highlighting and dot point formatting is mine in all quotations)

I have reservations about Litwa’s attempt to meld the gospels into the same apparel as ancient historiography. My understanding and recollection are that as a rule, Greco-Roman historians introduced their tales of the miraculous with “apologies” of sorts. They would comment that the tale was “what was reported” by others, or express some sympathy with readers/auditors if they found the tale hard to believe, and so forth. Only in biblical narratives (and satirical put-downs of hack Greco-Roman historians) do we find a prose history-like narrative that declares the miraculous as fact without any hint of self-conscious possibility of doubt by the author. I will present another post with examples to illustrate.

As for the evangelists being careful selectors of their material I suggest that Litwa is relying more upon conventional assumptions and interpretations than clear evidence to that effect. See, for example, various posts discussing other scholarly views of the Luke-Acts prologue.)

Litwa responds with the following objections:

  • Yet simply by writing in sober, nonpoetic forms, the evangelists distinguished their accounts from the dominant mythoi found, for instance, in Homer and Euripides.
  • They did not, moreover, need to apologize for describing miraculous events since these events were a regular feature of ancient historiography.
  • Finally, the evangelists weighed their sources in the sense that they strongly valued eyewitnesses over hearsay (Luke 1:2) and were careful selectors of material to include and exclude from previous texts.43
    • 43 Although the evangelists did not cite sources, they certainly used them and, in the case of Luke, gave the impression that they used eyewitness reports (Luke 1:2).

(Litwa, pp. 7, 228)

Litwa further claims that Miller has misunderstood the character of ancient historiography.

At a deeper level, Miller’s comments reveal a misunderstanding about how most ancient historiographies were written. Ancient historiography did not have a single form with a single set of lofty standards.

(Litwa, p. 7)

For example, Litwa explains, the “father of history”, Herodotus, was well-known for including many tall-tales and myths in his history of the free-ranging background to the Greco-Persian wars. Many later historians likewise felt free to entertain their audiences with mythical tales, too. Then there was Thucydides, known as “the father of scientific history”, who wrote a no-nonsense, straightforward, factual account of the Peloponnesian War — or so he tells us and so many believe. Thucydides certainly shunned all hint of ostensible myth. Yet, and Litwa overlooks this point, though it supports his larger argument, even Thucydides is known to have fabricated scenes of “what would have happened” and to have done so through dramatic genre and sources unrelated to historical specific events as we have seen in previous posts:

But Thucydides was different in his avoidance of the fabulous tales. Litwa is quite correct to point out that

As a genre, historiography was sometimes different from mythography more in its rhetorical conventions than in its content.

(Litwa, p. 8)

Plausibility and entertainment value were high priorities for Greco-Roman historians. At this point, Litwa appears to bring out a point I made in the above insert box that for the sake of plausibility a historian would often need to couch his account of the miraculous with some hint of an apology:

They could pass off a fantastical story as something they heard of and did not subscribe to, or they could give two different versions of a story: one miraculous, the other rationalizing.

(Litwa p. 8)

So those who wrote our first surviving narratives of the life of Jesus used a genre that was associated with genuine — believable — historical or biographical accounts even is spiced up with stories of miracles. (Another detail that Litwa may bring out later in the book is his suggestion that the historical/biographical genre was in part used to appeal to more educated people who were apparently joining the flocks.)

One caveat I have: Litwa is comparing the gospel narratives with Greco-Roman histories and biographies: that the evangelists were modelling their narratives as much on the conventions of other stories in Jewish literature, especially what we classify as their Scriptures, is not mentioned, at least not in this chapter. Yet it is that latter comparison that I find draws attention to a closer match to the rhetoric of how the miraculous events were introduced, as I have attempted to indicate above.

Sources and tropes

read more »


2019-10-26

Review part 9: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (Case for Mythicism – the Evidence)

by Neil Godfrey

The third part of Raphael Lataster’s Questioning the Historicity of Jesus is where he presents his case for mythicism, and since his case is essentially a review of Richard Carrier’s arguments in On the Historicity of Jesus, this post is a review of a review.

Lataster has is differences from Carrier and several times points to areas where he wished Carrier had approached a point differently and so forth, but in the end he concedes that all of his criticisms make no real difference to the core of Carrier’s argument:

It is surely an endorsement for Carrier’s book, that my most significant criticisms reveal an intent to raise mostly petty objections, which pose no problems whatever to his case.

(Lataster, p. 392)

Another use for Bayes – Q

One such disappointment Lataster expresses is Carrier’s failure to elaborate on the tendency of many historical Jesus scholars to rely upon “imaginary sources” such as Q. In turn, however, I would like to comment on what I think is to some extent an over-reach by Lataster with respect to “imaginary sources” at least with respect to the Q source — the hypothetical source of Jesus sayings that the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke are said to have shared. Quite some years ago now I was preparing to dismiss the notion of Q and look more favourably on arguments that the author of the third gospel instead knew and adapted sayings (and other) material from the first gospel, but in personal correspondence Earl Doherty convinced me that I had not investigated the arguments for the Q hypothesis diligently enough to justify setting it aside so easily. Doherty challenged me with detailed arguments I had not thought through carefully before and I soon saw that I needed to study the detailed works of John Kloppenborg and Burton Mack and others to know what it was I was “against”. It is a little unfair to dismiss Q as an “imaginary” source because it is in fact a serious hypothesis subject to various tests. What I think would be an interesting approach to the debate between the Q hypothesis and the Goodacre-Farrer hypothesis (that the author of Luke used both the Mark and Matthew has sources) would be a Bayesian analysis of the evidence for underlying each hypothesis and to see which one emerges the more probable.

But I am digressing. As both Lataster and Carrier would acknowledge, even if Q were a highly probable source for both the first and third gospels it would bring us no closer to a determination of whether Jesus originated as a historical or mythical person.

An important reminder – a fortiori

Lataster rightly emphasizes throughout his discussion of Carrier’s treatment of the various sources for Jesus that Carrier argues a fortiori, always preferencing the odds in favour of historicity wherever possible. Lataster further stresses that Carrier even counts the evidence of the Pauline epistles, the references to James the brother of the Lord, as favouring the hypothesis of historicity. Examples — of which critics of Carrier’s book should note, and which should lead readers of certain critical reviews of Carrier’s arguments to pause and reconsider the intellectual honesty of some of what they have read:

So again, though he thinks Paul’s failure to distinguish biological from fictive brothers of Jesus is evidence against historicity, he nevertheless still counts it as evidence for historicity, and thus against mythicism. . . . .

Despite thinking that the evidence from the Pauline and non-Pauline epistles is at least 16 times more likely on minimal mythicism, Carrier very charitably decides that the consequent probabilities should here favor historicity instead, effectively claiming that the Historical Jesus is 3 times more likely.209

209 Carrier (OHOJ), pp. 594–595.

(Lataster, pp. 426, 427)

On avoiding unhelpful responses

Back to “mostly petty objections”, I do find somewhat jarring certain terms like “mentally disabled” and “lying” (fortunately appearing only occasionally) when speaking of recipients and authors of visionary experiences. I would prefer consistent use of language that opened up the mental horizons of the ancients to moderns rather than introducing modern analyses that cloud a modern reader’s grasp of the historical culture. Another term, one taken over from Carrier, is the expression “cosmic sperm bank” in discussing the ancient beliefs in how God might preserve a Davidic line across and beyond human generations. Such anachronisms invite ridicule. Lataster even refers to the Zoroastrian belief that a certain lake contained the sperm of Zoroaster so that a virgin bathing in it would be impregnated and bear a messianic figure. The scholar of Second Temple Judaism owes it to readers to explain the thought-world of the ancients and avoid misleading anachronisms. Lataster attempts to smooth over the conceptual difficulties with read more »


2019-09-08

Plato and the Hebrew Bible (Gmirkin)

by Neil Godfrey

1. Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible (2016-10-16)

Russell Gmirkin in his new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible draws attention to striking similarities between the Pentateuch (the first five books of the “Old Testament”) on the one hand and Plato’s last work, Laws, and features of the Athenian constitution on the other. . . . . The key to this close linkage is the Great Library of Alexandria.

The main stimulus for Gmirkin’s new study is a desire to examine more closely some of the parallels presented by Philippe Wajdenbaum in Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. (Again, see earlier Vridar posts on Argonauts.) According to the Acknowledgements in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible it was Thomas L. Thompson who suggested this study to Russell Gmirkin, and Gmirkin explains that his focus was on Wajdenbaum’s discussion of the parallels between Plato’s Laws and the Pentateuchal laws as the most persuasive section of his book.

–o–

2. The Pentateuch’s Debt to Greek Laws and Constitutions — A New Look (2016-10-16)

Compares Greek and Judean constitutions and governing institutions as documented in their respective literature. Examines the specific  interests within this distinctive Greek form of literature with the topics of interest in the Pentateuchal law codes as well as the sorts of narratives in which they were embedded. Table format for easy comparison.

–o–

3. David, an Ideal Greek Hero — and other Military Matters in Ancient Israel (2016-11-12)

Compares the attributes of David with those set out for an ideal Athenian. In table format sets out striking similarities between tribal and military organization of as per the Greek and Hebrew literature, as well as specific details of soldiering and battles.

–o–

4. Some preliminaries before resuming Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible (2016-12-15)

A discussion on how circular reasoning and naive assumptions can close our minds to the possibility that the Hebrew Bible could possibly be a later Hellenistic work.  References are made to Dale C. Allison, Philip R. Davies, Niels Peter Lemche.

–o–

5. The Tribes of Israel modeled on the Athenian and Ideal Greek Tribes? (2016-12-16)

Demonstates that the biblical tribal structure of Israel is unknown elsewhere in the ancient Near East but does reflect the Greek tribal system.

–o–

6. The Bible’s Assemblies and Offices Based on Greek Institutions? (2017-1-22)

A table setting out comparisons between Greek and Biblical councils and assemblies, their memberships and responsibilities.

–o–

7. Similarities between Biblical and Greek Judicial Systems (2017-1-28)

A table comparing Greek and Biblical judicial systems from local through to “national” levels.

–o–

8. The Inspiration for Israel’s Law of the Ideal King (2017-02-09)

The Law of Moses placed limitations on the king that are “without parallel in the ancient Near East.” The limitations are found in Greek literature and customs.

–o–

9. Bible’s Priests and Prophets – With Touches of Greek (2017-02-22)

Evidence that the Bible’s account of priests and prophets contains hints of borrowing from the Greek world. (Not that those Hellenistic features mean we have to jettison entirely sources and influences closer to the Levant.)

–o–

10. Primitive Democracy in Ancient Israel (2017-04-04)

This post addresses an objection from a Vridar reader to Gmirkin’s argument for Greek institutions being the model of the Bible’s assemblies and offices.  I bring in support for the Gmirkin’s case from other publications by Thorkild Jacobsen, Abraham Malamat, Yves Schlemiel and M.L. West, with particular reference to the Epic of Gilgamesh.

–o–

11. Mosaic Laws: from Classical Greece or the Ancient Near East? (2017-06-02)

If the Pentateuch was authored at the Great Library of Alexandria, then we would have a ready explanation for the international setting of Deuteronomy 4:6-8. All the law codes and discussions of constitutions and principles of the framing of ideal laws were housed there. It is not unreasonable to argue that the Mosaic laws were composed in dialogue with this literature. Greek influence was conceivably mediated most easily through Egypt’s centres of learning and Great Library.

–o–

12. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Homicide Laws (2017-06-05)

Compares biblical homicide laws with those in Near East codes and principles set out by Plato. Specifics covered:

    • state of mind,
    • exile,
    • pollution of the land,
    • duty of relatives,
    • temple sanctuary,
    • stoning,
    • the goring ox.

–o–

13. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Law-Giving Narratives as Greek-Inspired Literature (2017-070-26)

Gmirkin gives the most attention in his comparative discussion of historical narrative backgrounds to the institution of law codes and political institutions to Hecataeus but I am interested in exploring how well other material also relates to his central thesis, so bring in Plutarch’s narrative of Theseus for comparison.

–o–

14. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Legal Narratives (esp. Panegyrics), continued (2017-07-26)

Demonstrations of narrative background to lawgivers found in the literature of Thucydides, Herodotus, Isocrates and Aristotle and their similarities with the biblical narratives.

–o–

15. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Legal Narratives continued . . . Solon and Atlantis (2017-07-27)

I compare a section in Plato’s Timaeus and its relevance to Gmirkin’s thesis.

–o–

16. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Greek Foundation Stories and the Bible (2017-07-28)

Identifies the common elements of Greek (and Roman) foundation stories (Cyrene, Heraclidae) and notes their occurence in the biblical foundation myths as well as in a Judean foundation myth independent of the biblical account (Hecataeus of Abdera).

–o–

17. Comparing the Rome’s and Israel’s Foundation Stories, Aeneas and Abraham (2017-07-29)

With reference to Moshe Weinfeld’s The Promise of the Land: The Inheritance of the Land of Canaan by the Israelites we  extend Gmirkin’s comparison to Roman foundation stories. Weinfeld explains the relevance of the comparison by noting that the Roman myth originated centuries prior to its more famous versions in the Augustan age.

–o–

18. Postscript on Rome’s and Israel’s foundation stories (2017-07-31)

Quotations from Moshe Weinfeld’s book (see #17 above) that explain his justification for his comparisons.

–o–

19. Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Political Evolution in Literature (2017-08-05)

Looks at one more type of narrative that is found in common between Greek literature and Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings). The point is that the same type of story is said to be alien to Near Eastern literature so apparently the only known model for the biblical narratives is found in the Greek writings of Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle.

–o–

20. The argument so far: Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible (2017-08-11)

Outlines the main arguments of the first five chapters.

–o–

21. Ten Commandments: Where Did they Really Come From? (2017-08-30)

Comparing the ten commandments with sayings of Greek sages and the commandments of Delphi.

–o–

22. Table Comparing Homicide Laws: Biblical, Mesopotamian and Greek (2017-09-06)

As per the title: a table making it easy to see the similarities and differences among Biblical, Greek and Mesopotamian laws concerning

    • homicide
    • and the goring ox.

–o–

23. Biblical assault and theft laws compared with Mesopotamian and Greek counterparts (2017-09-07)

Another table setting out clearly the similarities and differences among Biblical, Greek and Mesopotamian laws, this time focusing on

    • assault,
    • two men fighting who injure a pregnant woman nearby,
    • and theft.

–o–

24. Comparing Biblical Laws on Marriage, Inheritance and Sexual Relations with Other Ancient Codes (2017-09-07)

Tables marking similarities and differences among Biblical, Greek and Mesopotamian laws concerning

    • marriage and inheritance
    • permitted sexual relations
    • prohibited sexual relations

–o–

25. Slavery and Social Welfare (if any) Legislation in the Biblical and Neighbouring Worlds (2017-09-11)

Tables comparing the laws from the three provenances concerning

    • slavery
    • debt and freeborn slaves
    • chattel slaves
    • social welfare legislation

–o–

26. Plato’s Influence on the Bible’s Property and Agricultural Laws (2017-09-12)

Table comparisons (Bible, Greece, Mesopotamia) of laws on

    • trespassing
    • passers-by eating from the fields
    • boundary stones

–o–

27. Deuteronomy’s Military Law — So Very Greek (2017-09-13)

This post delves into a secondary source used by Gmirkin in his discussion of military law as set out in Deuteronomy. The extracts are from Anselm C. Hagedorn’s Between Moses and Plato: Individual and Society in Deuteronomy and Ancient Greek Law.

–o–

28. The Law of Moses, a Reflection of the Law that Condemned Socrates and Other Greek Philosophers (2018-01-09)

Even the biblical laws relating to impiety, sorcery, blasphemy, that many of us associate with religious barbarism find their counterparts in “more enlightened” and “philosophical” Greek literature.

–o–

29. Socrates as Anti-Hero according to Biblical Law (2018-01-09)

Continuing directly on from the previous post this post covers the two most well-known Athenian trials that mirror the Pentateuchal laws against private and innovative religious practices and deities:

    • against Alcibiades
    • against Socrates

–o–

30. Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible – review (2018-10-05)

Looks at a review by Stéphanie Anthonioz of Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible that was posted on The Bible and Interpretation. Anthonioz opens up an interesting discussion over different possible explanations for the clear and striking similarities between Plato and the Pentateuch that Russell Gmirkin has detailed.

–o–

31. Hebrew Bible of Hellenistic Origin – Gmirkin responds to Anthonioz’s review (2018-10-12)

As per the title: Gmirkin’s response to Anthonioz’s review.

–o–

32. Rome’s and Israel’s Ancestor Traditions: How Do We Explain the Similarities? (2018-10-26)

Again addressing Moshe Weinfeld’s The Promise of the Land: The Inheritance of the Land of Canaan by the Israelites. The post covers a typological comparison of the roles of the ancestors of Rome and Israel. I have tried to capture the main outline.

    1. A Man Leaving a Great Civilization and Charged with a Universal Mission
    2. Gap Between Migration of the Ancestor and the Actual Foundation
    3. Promise at Stake
    4. The Pious Ancestor
    5. The Ancestral Gods
    6. Burial Place of the Founder
    7. Canaan versus Aram, Rome versus Carthage

–o–

33. Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible – Post #32 (2018-11-13)

A list of all the posts I have completed so far on Russell Gmirkin’s book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. including a link to an extended abstract or chapter by chapter outline by Gmirkin himself on his academia.edu page.

–o–

34. How Plato Inspired Moses: Creation of the Hebrew Bible (2018-11-18)

After having demonstrated the many details, themes and values that the books of the Hebrew Bible share with Greek literature, practices and ideas, Russell Gmirkin concludes with a chapter examining how closely the biblical canon appears to match Plato’s recommendations for a national curriculum. There are certainly Canaanite and Mesopotamian fingerprints in the “Old Testament” but these Scriptures are unlike anything else produced in the ancient Near East. The Hellenistic heritage explains that difference.

–o–

35. Correction to my latest post on Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible (2018-11-20)

I have made a correction to a serious error in my recent post How Plato Inspired Moses: Creation of the Hebrew Bible. In that post I took credit for identifying many parallels between the Hebrew Bible and Plato’s Laws prior to reading Russell Gmirkin’s book. I should have acknowledged — and I have now made the correction — that my interest in Plato’s Laws was sparked by Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analsysis of the Hebrew Bible.

–o–

–o–

The following posts bring Russell Gmirkin’s thesis into engagement with a more mainstream view set out in other posts covering Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch:

36. Who Influenced Biblical and Second Temple Jewish Literature? (2019-09-02)

I have been posting on points of interest in Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon and have reached a point where I cannot help but bring in certain contrary perspectives from Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible.

–o–

37. More Thoughts on Origins of Biblical and Pseudepigraphical Literature (2019-09-03)

Further comparisons between a conventional view of Mesopotamian-Biblical influence and the alternative view that the Greek world is a better explanation for the Biblical content.

 


2019-06-23

“I don’t find that argument persuasive”

by Neil Godfrey

I intend to pause and try to analyse, in future, exactly what is going on when I read a scholar responding to an explanation, a hypothesis, an alternative viewpoint by saying “I don’t find that persuasive”. My reason for taking on this hope is partly the result of having begun to gain some notion of the main ideas that I first read in

(I further skimmed much of the book but have yet to read it thoroughly.)

Very often the “I don’t find it persuasive” is all that is said, apparently on the understanding that it is all that needs to be said, to not accept an argument or attempt at a different explanation for the evidence at hand.

What I am currently wondering is the extent to which the “not persuasive” retort may be derived from the need or desire to have a story, a narrative, that expands or builds one’s own larger story idea of how things are or should be. If the rejection of the new idea were based on a cold, hard study of the data then we would expect the response to be more along the lines of: “but how does your idea explain this or that?” and so forth. It would be a critical response with the data under review.

I said I am raising this question “partly as “the result” of reading Alex Rosenberg’s discussion of narrative and their place and function in human society. The other part of the reason is having begun a review of Vridar posts as I begin to recategorize, re-organize and re-label them. I am somehow gobsmacked at the amount of deplorable personal attacks, including outright misrepresentation and slander, that has characterized so many biblical scholars engagements not only against amateur outsiders who question their assumptions but even against each other when new paradigms or finds are introduced into the field. And above all, I find it depressing to be confronted in such a concentrated span of time and focus on the extent to which so many core arguments of too many (not all) biblical scholars are illogical, self-serving, contradictory, ill-thought-through, merely speculative, simply very bad. It is difficult to accept that so many of these particular scholars are actually employed as scholars in the first place. On the other hand, I need to add that there are also many excellent biblical scholars putting out very fine research. I find myself wishing that those latter would leave their faculties and departments of theology or biblical studies and apply to join the history and classics departments of their universities. Anyway, enough of the rant. Where was I?

Alex Rosenberg appears to be suggesting that narrative stories function to bind us into our preferred groups. They enable us to see ourselves as part of those stories and in the narratives with those we like or need to get along with. As such, they also have the yin side of their yang. They exclude others, they even have the power to cause us to denigrate and hate others, the outsiders, who take the adversarial role in our narratives. Strifes between races, tribes, countries, are fueled by narratives of the past that get in the way of simply getting together and addressing current needs and issues.

Scholarship at its best, when it’s working professionally as intended, works with ways to analyse the data, to make predictions and test them, etc. It is not narrative based in the same way as much of (by no means all) of biblical studies is. Take, for example, the view that the gospels, or even the historical books of the Hebrew Bible, are said to sourced via oral traditions. Really, that’s a narrative model. I think that a good number of biblical scholars (and this is understandable given the faith biases of many of them) see themselves as part of that same story, personally as part of that same story, that began with a “scientifically unexplainable” event that evolved into the “Easter myth” and was passed on through oral tradition . . .  until today, . . . — you get the picture.

That, I think, appears to be the framework through which a huge bulk of biblical scholars are working. They are, at bottom, finding ways to elaborate and discover more exciting details of that narrative. They approach their subjects of interest very like the way ancient historians (even Thucydides) approached their narrative histories, with mixes of myth and fact, and with even the facts being interpreted in ways to add to the story they wanted to tell either as a lesson for others or for their entertainment. Either way, the narrative histories functioned to help build or cement group bonds. “This is our history that tells us where we come from and where we fit in.”

Few of them approach the foundations of their field in the way critical scientists might start from scratch with the data and whose explanations are almost entirely critical-analytical as distinct from narrative story. Yes, of course, there is much critical-analytical study among most biblical scholars but I find myself thinking that most of that real scholarship functions to add new or revised details to the larger narrative that they are really endorsing.

I don’t believe one has to be religious to do this, either. Jesus is a cultural icon for Western societies generally and is not reserved only for his faithful devotees. Recall images of Che Guevara evocative of a passionate and suffering Jesus. John Lennon produced a hit The Ballad of John and Yoko with its unforgettable searing line, “Christ you know it ain’t easy, they’re gonna crucify me.” Even a contemporary atheist biblical scholar published a book with an image of a stereotypical Jesus’ face on the cover that looks very much like that scholars’ own image. (I should avoid embarrassing him with an identification in this context.) Jesus is not just for the religious. (Evangelical apologists narcissistically preach that “the whole world” is either “for or against” Jesus — simply on the grounds that everybody has reason to make some comment about one of several foundational cultural figures in our society and not, as the fundamentalists like to think, because they tremble and fear or tremble and love him.)

This post is only introducing an idea that has been playing around in the back of my head for at least 24 hours now. I hope I haven’t been too gauche in making this initial foray into jotting it down for future reference, elaboration, exploration.

 


2019-04-06

How To Do (and not do) History – by Historians Biblical and Non-Biblical

by Neil Godfrey

I said I needed to add a complementary post to Can We Find History Beneath the Literary Trappings?, one that presented the positive side of historical research showing what is a valid approach by way of contrast with the often fallacious methods and unjustified assumptions of much scholarly research into Christian origins and the historical Jesus.

But soon afterwards I remembered that I have already set out that post and pinned it as one of the Pages in the right hand column of this blog: HISTORICAL METHOD and the Question of Christian Origins. There is little more that I can add to what I wrote there.

Christoph Heilig

As for the question or relevance of Bayesian analysis in historical research reasoning I recommend a post by Christoph Heilig, author of Hidden Criticism? The Methodology and Plausibility of the Search for a Counter-Imperial Subtext in Paul, What Bayesian Reasoning Can and Can’t Do for Biblical Research on the Zürich New Testament Blog. (Of course there is Richard Carrier’s book, Proving history: Bayes’s theorem and the quest for the historical Jesus, and I do get the impression that compared with responses to On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt, few critics have actually engaged with that presentation by Carrier. So if you are one of those who are ad hominem focused so that you treat anything by Carrier as wrong I suggest you read Heilig’s discussion instead.)

Historical research methods are really not difficult in principle, though. Niels Peter Lemche sums it all up most succinctly in something of his that I quoted in another post:

The question about historical information in the OT is a classical historical-critical issue. Here the only demand is that any investigation must be complete and take into consideration every piece of evidence, and there is no question that should not be asked (such as the alleged historicity of David and Solomon). 

This should be rather evident, and it is remarkable that is to many people is not, and then begins another project: to find out why it is so difficult for many biblical scholars to go all the way with their critical studies which in this way turn out to be not critical at all but faith based.

Lemche, Niels Peter, 2019. “28392SV: [biblical-studies] What is Minimalism?Biblical Studies – Yahoo Groups.

That was posted on a scholarly biblical studies discussion list. I cannot help but strongly suspect that had Lemche also referenced the words of his recently departed peer, Philip R. Davies, and included the name Jesus beside David and Solomon, his post would not have been accepted so quietly there.

Philip Davies

[S]urely the rather fragile historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth should be tested to see what weight it can bear, or even to work out what kind of historical research might be appropriate. Such a normal exercise should hardly generate controversy in most fields of ancient history, but of course New Testament studies is not a normal case and the highly emotive and dismissive language of, say, Bart Ehrman’s response to Thompson’s The Mythic Past (recte: The Messiah Myth) shows (if it needed to be shown), not that the matter is beyond dispute, but that the whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked, ad hominem, as something outrageous. This is precisely the tactic anti-minimalists tried twenty years ago: their targets were ‘amateurs’, ‘incompetent’, and could be ignored.Philip Davies, Did Jesus Exist, 2012

Just one final point. Lemche has also pointed to the unscholarly tone of certain criticisms:

. . . .  in creating an image of a scholar who does not know his stuff. It can be done in a gentle way, as in Long’s introduction. It can be sharpened as in the quote by J.K. Hoffmeister, cited in Long’s introduction, or it can be rude as found in several publications by W.G. Dever and other scholars on the same line like G. Rendsburg. The meaning is the same: do not discuss the points made by these people; just say that they are incompetent.

Richard J. Evans

Those words came to mind yesterday as I was reading a work by a well respected historian of modern Germany, Richard Evans. He is addressing the work of another historian (or amateur) who lacked formal scholarly qualifications and here is how he explained his approach. It was not sufficient to sneeringly dismiss David Irving as a “Holocaust Denier”:

Despite all this, Irving had never held a post in a university history department or any other academic institution. He did not even have a degree. He had started a science degree at London University but never finished it. “I am an untrained historian,” he had confessed in 1986. “History was the only subject I flunked when I was at school.” Several decades on from his self-confessedly disastrous schoolboy encounter with the subject, however, Irving clearly laid great stress on the fact that the catalogue of his work demonstrated that he had now become a ‘reputable historian’:

As an independent historian, I am proud that I cannot be threatened with the loss of my job, or my pension, or my future. Other historians around the world sneer and write letters to the newspapers about ‘David Irving, the so-called historian’, and then they demand, ‘Why does he call himself a Historian anyway? Where did he study History? Where did he get his Degree? What, No Degree in History, then why historian or not? Was Tacitus? Did he get a degree in some university? Thucydides? Dihde get a degree? And yet we unashamedly call them historians – we call them historians because they wrote history which has done (recte: gone) down the ages as accepted true history.

This was true. Irving could not be dismissed just because he lacked formal qualifications.

Evans, Richard J. 2002. Lying About Hitler. New York: Basic Books. 5f

How many tenured scholars in biblical studies have the same approach as the one Richard Evans recognized was important for public perceptions in a debate related to the Holocaust?


2019-04-04

Can We Find History Beneath the Literary Trappings?

by Neil Godfrey

We have seen that the hypothesis that the Jesus of the gospels was in some way modeled on the story of another Jesus, Jesus son of Ananias, does have scholarly cachet and is by no means considered a fatuous instance of “parallelomania”. Jesus son of Ananias is a figure we find in Josephus’s account of the Jewish War of 66-70 CE. One scholar, Ted Weeden, advanced the thesis in considerable depth and even went further than exploring the “striking similarities” between Jesus ben Ananias and aspects of the Jesus narratives in all four of our canonical gospels: he even concluded that the Jesus prophet in Josephus’s Jewish War had no historical basis but was entirely a literary construct based on Jeremiah.

Now that conclusion was a step too far for some scholars, one of whom was Bob Schacht of the University of Hawaii who in 2005 on a scholarly forum raised the following objection:

As much as I admire my friend Ted Weeden’s scholarship, which is considerable, the whole of these arguments here posted seems to be a literary paradigm that rests on the assumption that all history takes place within literature, without any necessary or inconvenient ties to what people did outside of that literary frame in their lives. Ted does a masterful job of tracing literary connections, and he uses such phrases as “creator(s) of the story” to suggest that the people and events described therein are not historical. Ted’s arguments work very well within his literary paradigm, but do they really help us that much with history? The implications seem to be to subtract from historical knowledge, moving mountains of literary data from the domain of history into the domain of fiction.

The reductio ad absurdam here is that history didn’t really happen. Only literature happened, somehow existing outside of time and space except insofar as literary source A is considered prior to literary source B. I know this is a parody of Ted’s argument, but sometimes parodies can make a useful point.

. . . . . I don’t think that the authors of the gospels were trying to write a best-selling novel; I think they were trying to understand and explain things that happened a generation or two earlier, using the best tools they had to tell the tale.

Schacht, Bob, 2005. “Re: [XTalk] Essay, Part II: Jesus-Ananias=Latter-Day Jeremiah & Markan Jesus” XTalk: Historical Jesus & Christian Origins – Yahoo Groups. https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/crosstalk2/conversations/messages/18152.

I know Schacht’s concerns are not his alone; I find them expressed in different ways in many quarters whenever the question of literary contexts and paradigms are raised in discussions of works by ancient historians.

Moses I. Finley

The difficulty is not unique to biblical scholars. The prominent historian of ancient history, Moses I. Finley, sympathized with those who were left perturbed by the conclusions that must necessarily follow from an informed awareness of how ancient historians worked:

Modern writers find themselves in difficulties. Not only does the position of a Dionysius of Halicarnassus seem immoral – it has been said that one would have to regard Thucydides as ‘blind or dishonest’ – but, worse still, one 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: if the substance of the speeches or even the wording is not authentic, then one may not legitimately recount that Pericles told the assembled Athenians in 430 BC that their empire ‘is like a tyranny, seemingly unjust to have taken but dangerous to let go’ (Thucydides 2.63.2). I have no idea what Pericles said on that occasion but neither have the innumerable historians who repeat from a speech what I have just quoted. Except for Thucydides and perhaps Polybius, there is no longer any serious argument, though the reluctance to accept the consequences is evident on all sides . . . . 

pages 12-13 of M. I. Finley’s Ancient History: Evidence and Models.

I copy a section from an earlier post of mine: read more »