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The evidence of ancient historians

by Neil Godfrey

Is it “hyper-critical” to approach ancient historians like Livy, Plutarch, …. with caution? In response to my previous post on why I do not think of myself as a “Jesus mythicist” one person insisted that we have every right to accept the words of Tacitus and Josephus about some incident that they say happened a couple of generations earlier. Here is my detailed response.

Why can’t we simply take at face value the statements we read in Tacitus and Josephus about Jesus? (Formatting and bolding in all quotations is my own.)

Let’s set aside for a moment the evidence that the references to the Christ are interpolations and assume they are genuine. Read what one prominent historian of ancient history wrote about the surviving works of ancient historians:

Yet a Livy or a Plutarch cheerfully repeated pages upon pages of earlier accounts over which they neither had nor sought any control. . . . Only Thucydides fully and systematically acknowledged the existence of a dilemma, which he resolved in the unsatisfactory way of refusing to deal with pre-contemporary history at all. . . . .

Where did they [ancient historians like Tacitus and Josephus] find their information? No matter how many older statements we can either document or posit – irrespective of possible reliability – we eventually reach a void. But ancient writers, like historians ever since, could not tolerate a void, and they filled it in one way or another, ultimately by pure invention. The ability of the ancients to invent and their capacity to believe are persistently underestimated. . . . .

I suspect that Ogilvie’s slip reflects, no doubt unconsciously, the widespread sentiment that anything written in Greek or Latin is somehow privileged, exempt from the normal canons of evaluation. . . .

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

So when men came to write the history of their world, Greek or Roman, they found great voids in the inherited information about the past, or, worse still, quantities of ‘data’ that included fiction and half fiction jumbled with fact. That is what modern historians, unwilling for whatever reason to admit defeat, to acknowledge a void, seek to rescue under the positive label, tradition (or oral tradition). Few anthropologists view the invariably oral traditions of the people they study with the faith shown by many ancient historians. The verbal transmittal over many generations of detailed information about past events or institutions that are no longer essential or even meaningful in contemporary life invariably entails considerable and irrecoverable losses of data, or conflation of data, manipulation and invention, sometimes without visible reason, often for reasons that are perfectly intelligible. With the passage of time, it becomes absolutely impossible to control anything that has been transmitted when there is nothing in writing against which to match statements about the past. Again we suspect the presence of the unexpressed view that the traditions of Greeks and Romans are somehow privileged . . . .

There is no guarantee that the tradition has not arisen precisely in order to explain a linguistic, religious or political datum; that, in other words, the tradition is not an etiological invention . . . .

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

For reasons that are rooted in our intellectual history, ancient historians are often seduced into two unexpressed propositions. The first is that statements in the literary or documentary sources are to be accepted unless they can be disproved (to the satisfaction of the individual historian).

That’s all from Finley, M. I. (1999). Ancient History: Evidence and Models. Chapter 2

That’s what I posted on the BC&H Forum. Finley is not a lone voice, however.

The Christmas cake view of history

The historian of ancient documents needs first to study the nature of those documents and to try to understand what they are capable of revealing. That means literary criticism.

To see some posts in which I have addressed other work by Woodman discussing the creative imaginations of ancient historians, see

To quote A.J. Woodman . . . :

‘Our primary response to the texts of the ancient historians should be literary rather than historical since the nature of the texts themselves is literary. Only when literary analysis has been carried out can we begin to use these texts as evidence for history; and by that time . . . such analysis will have revealed that there is precious little historical evidence left.’ . . . . 

Modern historians naturally dislike such views, because they challenge the very basis of ancient history as an intellectual discipline, since the ‘evidence’, at almost all periods, consists overwhelmingly of literary texts. While most historians concede that ancient historiographical texts are in some senses ‘literary’, they nevertheless insist that this ‘literary’ aspect is detachable and there is solid fact underneath. On this view, ancient works of historiography are like Christmas cakes: if you don’t like almond icing, you slice it off, and you’ve still got a cake—a substantial object uncontaminated by icing.


Compare “the nugget theory” of ancient history.

Later in the same chapter . . .

Do ancient historiographers sometimes say things they know to be factually untrue? Emphatically, yes. The accusation of deliberate fabrication is made repeatedly. Herodotus is dubbed the father, not only of history, but of lies; Polybius castigates historians not only for incompetence, but falsehood; Lucian tells of historians who claimed to be eye-witnesses of things they could not possibly have seen; invention and manipulation of factual material is (I believe) demonstrable in Herodotus and Plutarch, as well as Hellenistic tragic historians. The motives vary: some, of course, crudely political — propaganda, flattery, denigration; literary rivalry (to trump one’s predecessors, of which we have seen examples even in Thucydides); the desire to spin a good yarn (often important in Herodotus and other historians of the exotic); sometimes (surely) historiographical parody; sheer emotional arousal or entertainment; the need to make moral points or bring out broader patterns or causes behind complicated sequences of events.


Why then do Herodotus and Plutarch behave in this way? Serious ancient historians (which both Herodotus and Plutarch intermittently are) face the problem of the eternal see-saw of history: the need to generalize from specifics. No serious ancient historian was so tied to specific factual truth that he would not sometimes help general truths along by manipulating, even inventing, ‘facts’. Of course, the requisite manipulation could sometimes be achieved through the medium of ‘what-is-said’ material, to whose historicity the ancient historian did not commit himself. But there were some occasions when the issues were so serious that it was rhetorically necessary, even at the risk of attack, to maintain the illusion of strict historicity. On those occasions the historian could never admit to manipulation or invention. Such is the tyranny of factual truth.

J.L. Moles, “Truth and Untruth in Herodotus and Thucydides” in Lies and fiction in the Ancient World edited by Christopher Gill and Timothy Peter Wiseman, University of Exeter Press, 1993. — pages 90, 115, 120

It takes no great effort to refute him — he’s a historian.

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How Ancient Historians Constructed Dramatic Fiction: Thucydides and the Plague

by Neil Godfrey

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. His book can be found online at Scribd.

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The Best of Ancient Historians Following Homer and the Epic Poets

by Neil Godfrey
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This continues from my previous post on A.J. Woodman’s argument. His book can be found online at Scribd.

History ain’t what it used to be. It is all too easy for us moderns to read a work by an ancient historian, say Josephus or Tacitus or Thucydides (some would even add a few biblical authors), and think that by making allowances for pre-modern naïvety and a few mythical tales that we are reading a regular account of the past not so very different from what we would expect from our own modern historical works.

Historical works are nothing like epic poetry. At least to us. Historians are trying to get the facts right and record what they believe really happened. Ancient historians, however, did not quite work like that. We have seen in the previous two posts that even that reputably most “modern” and “scientific” of ancient historians, Thucydides, looked upon Homer as a historian-predecessor of his. If the Iliad is what Thucydides understood as “history” then perhaps we should be a little more cautious in the way we approach his own historical work, and indeed historical works of all the ancients.

How prose trumped poetry

Thucydides rejected poetic presentation. Plain prose was his tool. We saw in the previous post that his rejection of the poetic with all the embellishments that poetry brings with it was not because he believed such a medium was inappropriate for a “historical work”. Rather, it was because he wanted to convince his audience that the subject matter about which he was writing was itself of such grand and superior importance that poetry was superfluous.

The topic or theme was impressive enough on its own merits. In this, the greatness of his subject, his work surpassed that of his predecessors, including Herodotus and Homer.

Thucydides made poetics sound like a cheap way to enhance the greatness of one’s chosen topic.

Below we have a closer look at that prose style and will see that even ancient readers saw something rather poetic about it anyway. Thucydides’  prose was far from pedestrian.

(Pause: Did similar thoughts run through the mind of the author of Luke-Acts? What greater subject to write about than the coming of Christ and the origins of the Church? How to surpass the predecessors?)

Thucydides “the disaster drama” entertainer

In the previous post we saw that Thucydides expressed regret that readers “may seem” to find his work “less entertaining” because it would lack the tales of the fabulous and legendary that were found in The Histories of Herodotus. Woodman’s translation draws attention to what he believes are key details in the Greek that tend to be overlooked by many readers, including scholars. Thucydides, he argues, is not saying that his work will not be found entertaining. He is saying that it will lack the entertainment that comes from the mythical and fabulous narratives since those sorts of stories won’t be a part of his work.

We must infer that he did expect his work to be entertaining in all other respects, which is certainly the impression we derive from 23.1-3, where he returns to the thesis . . . that [his subject matter] the present war is the greatest of all. (p. 28)

Here is 23:1-3

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Ancient Historians: Thucydides, historian of realism, not reality

by Neil Godfrey

Professor of Classics, A.J. Woodman

This continues from my previous post on A.J. Woodman’s argument. His book can be found online at Scribd.

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:


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

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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.


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 »


Is Luke Among the Lying Historians?

by Neil Godfrey

GillWisemanOne of my earliest posts asked what Josephus might have said about the worth of the Gospels as history had he read them. In preparation for my final post on historical-critical methods with Stephen’s martyrdom as a case study I have come across (as another commenter also did) a chapter in Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World titled “Lying Historians: Seven Types of Mendacity” by T.P. Wiseman.

The reason for this post is to enhance awareness of one aspect of the nature of ancient historical writing whenever we think about Acts of the Apostles (or even the Gospels) as histories of sorts. (All bolding in all quotations is mine.)

Wiseman begins with line from Seneca, of the first century CE, where he dismisses a theory about comets by a certain Ephorus:

It takes no great effort to refute him—he’s a historian. (p. 122 in Lies and Fiction; original in Quaestiones Naturales, 7.16.1f)

Seneca explains why he has such a dim view of historians of his day:

Some historians win approval by telling incredible tales; an everyday narrative would make the reader go and do something else, so they excite him with marvels. Some of them are credulous, and lies take them unawares; others are careless, and lies are what they like; the former don’t avoid them, the latter seek them out.

What the whole tribe have in common is this: they think their work can only achieve approval and popularity if they sprinkle it with lies.

Seneca at another time parodied historical writing as the narrator of Apocolocyntosis (The Pumpkinification of Claudius):

I want to put on record the business transacted in heaven on 13 October . . . No concession will be made to umbrage taken or favour granted. This is the authentic truth. If anyone inquires about the source of my information, first, I shan’t reply if I don’t want to. Who’s going to compel me? . . . If I do choose to reply, I’ll say whatever trips off my tongue. Who ever demanded sworn referees from a historian? But if it is obligatory to produce the originator of the account, let the inquirer ask the man who saw Drusilla on her way to heaven.

Classical historians ought to have learned from the Christians that the criterion of embarrassment would have compelled belief in a resurrection if the eyewitness had been a woman and not a man. Seneca’s jibe would then have fallen flat, no doubt. Meanwhile, anyone in a seminary who has been fed the argument that detailed dates (compare Luke 3:1-2) and claims to be telling the truth (Gal. 1:20; Luke 1:1-4) are all indicators of an honest account might easily become the butt of Seneca’s joke.

Seneca’s historian joke hangs upon the principle that historians were “supposed” to always be telling the truth and nothing but the truth. This is found in what Wiseman describes as “the only theoretical discussion of historiography that survives from antiquity”, Lucian’s How to Write History (mid second century CE):

The historian’s one task is to tell it as it happened . . . the one particular characteristic of history is this, that if you are going to write it you must sacrifice to Truth alone. (p. 122)

The context of this maxim, however, would appear to limit the “Truth” to avoidance of both tall-tales or myths (which are more appropriate to poetry) and obsequious flattery of rulers and other persons of power.

The reputation of historians had not improved by the fourth century CE. We read from that period in the Historia Augusta the following conversation:

Tiberianus maintained that much of [historian] Pollio’s work was brief and careless. I protested that as far as history was concerned there was no author who had not lied about something. I went so far as to cite the places where Livy, Sallust, Cornelius Tacitus and even Trogus were refuted by clear evidence, at which he yielded to my argument and jokingly held up his hand. ‘All right then,’ he said, ‘write what you want. You can safely say whatever you like, and you’ll have those admired masters of historical style as your companions in mendacity.’ (p. 124)

The subtitle of Wiseman’s chapter is “Seven Types of Mendacity”. So what are the seven types of lies historians of the day were prone to tell?

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Jesus and Dionysus in The Acts of the Apostles and early Christianity

by Neil Godfrey

euripides-bacchaeJesus and Dionysus in The Acts of the Apostles and early Christianity” by classicist John Moles was published in Hermathena No. 180 (Summer 2006), pp. 65-104. In the two years prior to its publication the same work had been delivered orally by John Moles at Newcastle, Durham, Dublin, Tallahassee, Princeton, Columbia, Charlottesville and Yale.

The names Moles thanks for assistance with this work are many: Loveday Alexander, John Barclay, Stephen Barton, Kai Brodersen, John Dillon, Jimmy Dunn, Sean Freyne, John Garthwaite, Albert Henrichs, Liz Irwin, Chris Kraus, Manfred Lang, Brian McGing, John Marincola, Damien Nelis, Susanna Phillippo, Richard Seaford, Rowland Smith, Tony Spawforth, Mike Tueller and Tony Woodman.

John Moles begins his article with two questions. The first of these is a dual one:

Is Acts influenced by Dionysiac myth or ritual and does it quote the play Bacchae?

Old questions, yes, but they are still being raised in the literature, as Moles indicates with the following list:

E.g. Nestle (1900); Smend (1925); Fiebig (1926); Rudberg (1926); Weinreich (1929) ; Windisch (1932); Voegeli (1953); Dibelius (1956) 190; Hackett (1956); Funke (1967); Conzelmann (1972) 49; Colaclides (1973); Pervo (1987) 21-2; Tueller (1992); Brenk (1994); Rapske (1994) 412-19; Seaford (1996) 53; (1997); (2006) ch. 9; Fitzmyer (1998) 341; Dormeyer-Galindo (2003) 49 ff.; 95; 365; Hintermaier (2003); Lang (2003); (2004); Weaver (2004); Dormeyer (2005).

The second question is the one that is the main point of the article and the one given the most space in answering:

If the answers to the above are affirmative, what are the consequences?

I have it on authority that John Moles is not a mythicist so those who read this blog with a jaundiced eye can look elsewhere for material that serves their agenda.

Broad thematic parallels between Acts and Bacchae

John Moles lists the following:

  1. the disruptive impact of the ‘new’ god
  2. judicial proceedings against the ‘new’ god and his followers
  3. ‘bondage’ of the ‘new’ god or his followers
  4. imprisonments of the ‘new’ god’s followers
  5. their miraculous escapes from prison
  6. divine epiphanies
  7. warning that persecution of the ‘new’ god or his followers is ‘fighting against god’
  8. a direct warning by the unrecognized ‘new’ god to his persecutor
  9. ‘fighting against god’ by the ‘new’ god’s persecutor
  10. ‘mockery’ of the ‘new’ god or his followers
  11. general human-divine conflict
  12. kingly persecutors
  13. a kingly persecutor who arrogates divinity to himself
  14. divine destruction of impious kingly persecutor
  15. rejection of the ‘new’ god by his own, whom he severely punishes
  16. the destruction of the palace/temple
  17. adherence of women to the ‘new’ religion
  18. Dionysiac ‘bullishness’

Though some of these parallels need justification, as Moles points out, it is clear that the two texts “share numerous important themes”. The possibility that the Bacchae influenced Acts is thus not implausible.

Detailed thematic parallels between Acts and Bacchae

Moles lists three “crucial cases”. read more »