Category Archives: History and Biography

Works by and about ancient authors of historical and biographical type works. Homer was regarded as a historian in ancient times but is not included here.

Two (More) Reasons Ancient Historians Fabricated History

Do ancient historiographers sometimes say things they know to be factually untrue? Emphatically, yes. The accusation of deliberate fabrication is made repeatedly. — John Moles
  • 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.

(Moles, 115 — my bolding and formatting in all quotations)

John Moles

Those last two points Moles illustrates in some depth.

The Need to Make a Moral Point

Plutarch (ca 46 – 120 CE) knew that a famous meeting between the famous Greek philosopher Solon and the King Croesus of Lydia was more than likely a fiction but that did not matter when it served a moral point:

As for [Solon’s] interview with Croesus, some think to prove by chronology that it is fictitious. But when a story is so famous and so well-attested, and, what is more to the point, when it comports so well with the character of Solon, and is so worthy of his magnanimity and wisdom, I do not propose to reject it out of deference to any chronological canons, so called, which thousands are to this day revising, without being able to bring their contradictions into any general agreement. (Plutarch, Solon 27.1)

Moles comments:

[H]ere historical fact is sacrificed to Plutarch’s need to expound universal moral truths. (Moles, 120)

Plutarch was also quite willing to place persons from mythical times alongside those well known to be historical for the same reason:

Just as geographers, O Socius Senecio, crowd on to the outer edges of their maps the parts of the earth which elude their knowledge, with explanatory notes that ‘What lies beyond is sandy desert without water and full of wild beasts,’ or ‘blind marsh,’ or ‘Scythian cold,’ or ‘frozen sea,’ so in the writing of my Parallel Lives, now that I have traversed those periods of time which are accessible to probable reasoning and which afford basis for a history dealing with facts, I might well say of the earlier periods ‘What lies beyond is full of marvels and unreality, a land of poets and fabulists, of doubt and obscurity.’

But after publishing my account of Lycurgus the lawgiver and Numa the king, I thought I might not unreasonably go back still farther to Romulus, now that my history had brought me near his times. And as I asked myself, ‘With such a warrior’ (as Aeschylus says) ‘who will dare to fight?’ [=it seemed to me that I must make the founder of lovely and famous Athens the counterpart and parallel to the father of invincible and glorious Rome.]

May I therefore succeed in purifying Fable, making her submit to reason and take on the semblance of History. But where she obstinately disdains to make herself credible, and refuses to admit any element of probability, I shall pray for kindly readers, and such as receive with indulgence the tales of antiquity. (Plutarch, Theseus, 1:1-3)

Lucian (ca 125-180 CE), as we have seen in earlier posts, appeared to have fabricated his teacher, Demonax, likewise for edification. See two posts from 2017 for the classicists’ interpretation of the evidence:

I want to focus particularly on Thucydides here because he is reputed to be the most “scientific” of historians, the one who eschewed all myth in his history of the Peloponnesian War and thus set himself as far apart from Homer and Herodotus as one can imagine — according to his reputation. If we find knowing falsehoods in Thucydides then what hope will any other ancient historian have? We will see that Thucydides created scenarios in politics and on the Sicilian battlefields from raw material he found in Herodotus’ account of the Persian War and among Homer’s characters in the Iliad. read more »

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

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

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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.


 

Review, pt 1d: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa (Gospels as Mythic Historiography)

I have been slow posting with the first few pages of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History but I hope the time I’ve taken with the foundations (see various recent posts on ancient historians) will pay off when I get into the main argument. A reason I have taken a detour with readings of ancient Greco-Roman historians is the difficulty I have had with some of Litwa’s explanations in his introductory chapter. Was I reading contradictions or was I simply not understanding? I’m still not entirely sure so I’ll leave you to think it through.

Litwa will set out a case that educated non-Christians would have read the gospels as a certain type of history:

I propose that educated non-Christian readers in the Greco-Roman world would have viewed the gospels as something like mythical historiographiesrecords of actually occurring events that nonetheless included fantastical elements. . . . There was at the time an independent interest in the literature of paradoxography, or wonder tales.67 Literature that recounted unusual events especially about eastern sages would not have been automatically rejected as unhistorical.

Even as the evangelists recounted the awe-inspiring wonders of their hero, they managed to keep their stories within the flexible bounds of historiography. They were thus able to provide the best of both worlds: an entertaining narrative that, for all its marvels, still appeared to be a record of actual events. In other words, even as the evangelists preserved fantastical elements (to mythödes) in their narratives, they maintained a kind of baseline plausibility to gesture toward the cultured readers of their time.

67 – the citation is to mid-second century records

(Litwa, 12. Bolding and formatting are mine in all quotations)

I interpret this particular comment to mean that the gospel narratives were similar to other historical writings of the time insofar as they sprinkled a tale of “normal” (i.e. plausible) human activities with stories of miracles and wonders. That is, the main (“normal”, “plausible”) narrative (represented by green blocks) flows independently of the sporadic wonder tales (purple with sun disc). The wonder tales add entertainment but the story itself does not depend on them. They can be omitted without any damage to the main narrative.

Examples in Greco-Roman histories: where an author inserts a tale that “they say” but leaves it open to the reader whether to believe it or not. For some examples, see The Relationship between Myth and History among Ancient Authors. Usually the “wonder story” is only loosely integrated into the larger realistic account by rhetorical devices such as “they say” or “there is a story that” or “poets have written” or “a less realistic account that is well known…” etcetera.

Examples in noncanonical gospels: Jesus being “born” by suddenly appearing beside Mary after a two-month pregnancy (Ascension of Isaiah); Jesus causing clay pigeons to come alive (Infancy Gospel of Thomas). . . . Tales of wonder that entertain as interludes rather than drive the plot.

In the canonical gospels, on the other hand, miracles are an essential part of the respective plots. To see how true this is, try reading the Gospel of Mark after first deleting or covering up the episodes of the miraculous, the divine or spirit world, mind-reading, and other supernatural inferences. One is left with a story that makes no sense. Was it because of an argument over unwashed hands that Jesus was crucified, for example? In the canonical gospels, the miracles are essential to the plot development: they are what bring notoriety to Jesus and identify him as the one whom the priests must, through jealousy, get rid of. The gospel narratives simply don’t work as stories without Jesus’ ability to perform miracles and demonstrate (though he is not obviously recognized as such by the human actors) his divine nature. The Greco-Roman histories would lose some entertainment value by omitting certain miracles but their fundamental narratives would still survive.

The tales of wonder in the gospels are (1) rich with theological meaning (e.g. feeding multitudes in the wilderness represents a “greater Moses” or shepherd role of Jesus) and (2) integral to the plot (e.g. the miracles set in train the events that lead to the atoning death of Jesus).

Hence I find Litwa’s thesis difficult to accept in the light of what we know of Greco-Roman histories. In the gospels, the tales of wonder themselves must be understood as the historical events, essential to the historical narrative, not optional entertainment along the way. There are not “two worlds” in the gospels, mundane and wonders, but one world in which the wonders are as essentially historical as the preaching and the debates.

A Better Comparison?

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Two Ways of Defining Greco-Roman Historiography

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.


 

Mythistory — History and/or Tradition

I found the following take on Livy‘s history of early Rome of interest. I reproduce a translation of his own words and conclude with the words of another Roman historian, Arrian (born in the last decade of the first century CE), who likewise found reason to maintain without critical comment myths and divine agents in a history.

Livy’s introduction to his work addresses overlaps of myth and history:

Such traditions as belong to the time before the city was founded, or rather was presently to be founded, and are rather adorned with poetic legends than based on trustworthy historical proofs, I propose neither to affirm nor to refute.

It is the privilege of antiquity to mingle divine things with human, and so to add dignity to the beginnings of cities . . . .

(B.O. Foster translation)

Events before Rome was born or thought of have come to us in old tales with more of the charm of poetry than of a sound historical record, and such traditions I propose neither to affirm nor refute. There is no reason, I feel, to object when antiquity draws no hard line between the human and the supernatural: it adds dignity to the past, and, if any nation deserves the privilege of claiming a divine ancestry, that nation is our own; and so great is the glory won by the Roman people in their wars that, when they declare that Mars himself was their first parent and father of the man who founded their city, all the nations of the world might well allow the claim as readily as they accept Rome’s imperial dominion.

(Livy Book 1.1. De Sélincourt translation)

Let the myths be myths; let them add their grandeur to the story of Rome’s origins. Whether Mars was literally the father of the Romans matters not; that people believe he was is right and proper. The stories are myths? What is your point? Such myths have enabled and maintain Rome’s rightful dominion. That’s what Livy appears to be saying.

What is important are the moral lessons we can all learn. The past is our textbook to teach us the lessons of right and wrong.

These, however, are comparatively trivial matters and I set little store by them. I invite the reader’s attention to the much more serious consideration of the kind of lives our ancestors lived, of who were the men, and what the means both in politics and war by which Rome’s power was first acquired and subsequently expanded; I would then have him trace the process of our moral decline, to watch, first, the sinking of the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed to lapse, then the rapidly increasing disintegration, then the final collapse of the whole edifice, and the dark dawning of our modern day when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them. The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see; and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings; fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.

(Livy 1.1)

Myths, therefore, embody a value that far exceeds the magic of the supernatural:

Livy knew and explained to the reader that in Roman life and history, such exempla, especially those that pertained to the most crucial period of the foundation of the city, were inevitably historical myths, fabulae rather than monumenta, and thus, by his own account, untrustworthy (corrupta) for historical reconstruction. And yet, the fact that he went on to recount these myths indicates that he found them in some way “trustworthy” – if not for historical reconstruction, then at least for historical interpretation of “what life and morals were like in ancient times. 

(Mali, 37)

Mali’s ensuing discussion of the death of Romulus is most interesting. First, Livy’s account

One day while [Romulus] was reviewing his troops on the Campus Martius near the marsh of Capra, a storm burst, with violent thunder. A cloud enveloped him, so thick that it hid him from the eyes of everyone present; and from that moment he was never seen again upon earth.

The troops, who had been alarmed by the sudden storm, soon recovered when it passed over and the sun came out again. Then they saw that the throne was empty, and, ready though they were to believe the senators, who had been standing at the king’s side and now declared that he had been carried up on high by a whirlwind, they none the less felt like children bereft of a father and for a long time stood in sorrowful silence. Then a few voices began to proclaim Romulus’s divinity; the cry was taken up, and at last every man present hailed him as a god and son of a god, and prayed to him to be for ever gracious and to protect his children. However, even on this great occasion there were, I believe, a few dissentients who secretly maintained that the king had been torn to pieces by the senators. At all events the story got about, though in veiled terms; but it was not important, as awe, and admiration for Romulus’s greatness, set the seal upon the other version of his end . . . . 

(Livy 1.15-16)

Joseph Mali’s comment makes explicit what you might be half-consciously wondering about Livy’s words:

Wikipedia: Carracci, Romolo appare a Proculo, (16c.) Palazzo Magnani, Bologna

. . . . but it was not important, as awe, and admiration for Romulus’s greatness, set the seal upon the other version of his end, which was, moreover, given further credit by the timely action of a certain Julius Proculus, a man, we are told, honoured for his wise counsel on weighty matters. The loss of the king had left the people in an uneasy mood and suspicious of the senators, and Proculus, aware of the prevalent temper, conceived the shrewd idea of addressing the Assembly. ‘Romulus,’ he declared, ‘the father of our City, descended from heaven at dawn this morning and appeared to me. In awe and reverence I stood before him, praying for permission to look upon his face without sin. “Go,” he said, “and tell the Romans that by heaven’s will my Rome shall be capital of the world. Let them learn to be soldiers. Let them know, and teach their children, that no power on earth can stand against Roman arms.” Having spoken these words, he was taken up again into the sky.’

Proculus’s story had a most remarkable effect; the army and commons, cruelly distressed at the loss of their king, were much comforted once they were assured of his immortality.

(De Sélincourt trans.)

Livy is obviously skeptical of the official story of Romulus’s disappearance. But, whereas a modem historian would seek to refute this story, Livy chooses to repeat it. Moreover, as we read further in the account we realize that Livy is not really concerned with a historical reconstruction of the event as much as with a historical reconstruction of the story. Leaving aside, and unresolved, the question of what really happened to Romulus then and there, whether he vanished by the storm or by the hands of the senators, Livy concentrates on what happened to him ever after: his deification “as a god and god’s son, the King and Father of the Roman City.” Livy duly notes that this common, semiofficial “version” of Roman tradition prevailed over the “rumor” of assassination by the senators, not because it is more credible but rather because it is more credulous: “owing to men’s admiration for the hero and the intensity of their panic.” And these experiential and memorial impressions surrounding the event were, for him, more significant than the actual circumstances in which it occurred, because they initiated a tradition of deification down to his own time. His seemingly innocuous comment that the rumor of Romulus’s assassination was rife “even then” tacitly refers to the more recent case of Julius Caesar, in which, in a similar fashion, a ruler who “had been rent in pieces by the hands of the senators” was transfigured into a god. He goes on to describe how this story “gained new credit” through the “shrewd device [consilio]” of Proculus Julius [see inserted box], whose testimony before the assembly on Romulus’s godlike reappearance (apotheosis) from heaven with this message to the Romans — “let them cherish the art of war, and let them know and teach their children that no human strength can resist Roman arms” — proved decisive for the moment and for a whole new movement in Roman history. Livy concludes: “It is wonderful what credence the people placed in that man’s tale, and how the grief for the loss of Romulus, which the plebeians and the army felt, was quieted by the assurance of his immortality.” 

Such comments imply that Livy was well aware of what is now called “the invention of tradition,” in this instance that the deification of Romulus was initially a political manipulation of the masses, a fabrication perpetrated by the ruling authorities to masquerade their own deed (the assassination of the king) through symbolic rites of unity and continuity. But Livy was equally, and more acutely, aware of the historicity of tradition, of the fact that traditional beliefs and stories like those concerning Romulus’s apotheosis had long passed into and made up Roman history.

(Mali, 38f)

The historical events, or at least what is written up as a historical event, is, Livy infers, poetic tradition, mere fable, but it matters not, since

the alleged consequences of these events — their memories — were historical facts. 

(Mali, 39)

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

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.


Once More — Homer, History and the Gospels-Acts

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.

 

 

The Relationship between Myth and History among Ancient Authors

Here I discuss ancient historians that are cited by M. David Litwa as part of his attempt to demonstrate that our canonical gospels conformed to a popular type of historical writing that included “fantastical elements”. (I will discuss Litwa’s comments on these ancient authors in a future post and refer readers back to this post.)

Diodorus Siculus

Heracles and Geryon

Diodorus Siculus (= of Sicily) belonged to the first century BCE. In Book 4 of his Library of History he informed readers that he would have to rely upon “writers of myths” for his account of the life of Heracles.

[W]e shall . . . relate his deeds from the beginning, basing our account on those of the most ancient poets and writers of myths. This, then, is the story as it has been given us . . . . .

(Book 4.8-9)

So was Diodorus blending myth and history here? Not really. Earlier Diodorus listed four reasons why myth was not genuine history:

For, in the first place,

  • the antiquity of the events they have to record, since it makes record difficult, is a cause of much perplexity to those who would compose an account of them;
  • and again, inasmuch as any pronouncement they may make of the dates of events does not admit of the strictest kind of proof or disproof, a feeling of contempt for the narration is aroused in the mind of those who read it;
  • furthermore, the variety and the multitude of the heroes, demi-gods, and men in general whose genealogies – must be set down make their recital a difficult thing to achieve ;
  • but the greatest and most disconcerting obstacle of all consists in the fact that those who have recorded the deeds and myths of the earliest times are in disagreement among themselves.

For these reasons the writers of greatest reputation among the later historians have stood aloof from the narration of the ancient mythology because of its difficulty, and have undertaken to record only the more recent events.

(Book 4.1.1-4. Formatting and bolding is mine in all quotations)

So why does Diodorus admit to using mythical sources for his biographical account of Heracles?

Diodorus uses mythical material but at the same time he clearly distinguishes it from the rest of his historical narrative. Mythical sources might be all he has for Heracles but Diodorus relates them in a way that indicates he is critically removed from the content. The reader can see immediately Diodorus’s change in rhetoric and understand that what he or she is reading is something Diodorus is merely passing on “for what it’s worth”.

Footnote 50 is a brief citation that leads us to a passage in another work that I will quote in full here.

Diodorus maintains a careful narrative manner both in his accounts of the Greek gods in Book IV and more generally in the first six books as a whole: long passages are given in indirect discourse governed by ‘they say’, ‘it is said’, ‘the myth writers say’, and the like. Such a manner shows Diodorus to be maintaining a critical distance (like Herodotus’ manner in his Book II) from what he relates; and although he does not usually call into question the material that he narrates, he nevertheless shows himself aware of the different nature of this material by a different and distancing narrative style; no other section of the preserved portions of the Library reveals the same narrative manner.

(Marincola, 121)

But, as the passages noted above show, Diodorus realizes that myth cannot be approached in the same fashion as history, and that a degree of uncertainty needs to be accepted about mythical tales. Occasionally he reminds his readers of this: “in general the ancient myths do not give a simple and consistent account; therefore it is no wonder if we should come across some ancient accounts which do not agree among all the poets and historians” (. . . 4.44.5–6). Accordingly, Diodorus is very careful throughout the first five books, and presumably in the lost sixth book, to indicate what he considers to be mythical material. In the process he also grapples with the problem of where “history” begins and myth ends in a universal history. When he wants to mark off a narrative as mythical, he places it in indirect discourse and introduces it with a verb, frequently μυθολογεῖν without a subject.50 This is especially important in the first three books, which mix “mythical” narratives with the ethnography and legitimate early history of “barbarians.” For example, at 1.9.6, as he begins the account of the Egyptian gods, he justifies his decision to start with Egypt on the grounds that “the genesis of the gods is said in myth to be in Egypt” (. . .  1.9.6). The Egyptian theogony that follows is then given in indirect discourse through chapter 29. In contrast, the historical narrative of the Egyptian kings (1.45–68) is given primarily in direct discourse.

(Muntz, 105-106)

To illustrate:

The beginning of the account based on mythical accounts (1.9 ff)

9. And since Egypt is the country where mythology places the origin of the gods, where the earliest observations of the stars are said to have been made, and where, furthermore, many noteworthy deeds of great men are recorded, we shall begin our history with the events connected with Egypt.

10. Now the Egyptians have an account like this: When in the beginning the universe came into being, men first came into existence in Egypt . . .

11. Now the men of Egypt, they say, when ages ago they came into existence, as they looked up at the firmament and were struck with both awe and wonder at the nature of the universe, conceived that two gods were both eternal and first, namely, the sun and the moon, whom they called respectively Osiris and Isis,” . . .

12 . . . And they say that the most renowned of the Greek poets1 also agrees with this . . .

13. And besides these there are other gods, they say, who were terrestrial, . . .

14. Osiris was the first, they record, to make man-kind give up cannibalism . . .

Similarly for the history in Book 4 of Heracles:

9. This, then, is the story as it has been given us . . . .

Compare the beginning of the historical narrative (1.45, 68) read more »

Herodotus and Miracles — Material for a Gospel Comparison

My god, look at the price I paid for my old copy of Herodotus, new — $1.45!

There are two types of miraculous tales in Herodotus’ Histories and Herodotus handled them differently. It is worth having a closer look at how he framed each type.

Gods, Miracles and Wonders

Gods appearing on earth

The Greeks have never been simpletons; for centuries past they have been distinguished from other nations by superior wits; and of all Greeks the Athenians are allowed to be the most intelligent: yet it was at the Athenians’ expense that this ridiculous trick was played. In the village of Paeania there was a handsome woman called Phye, nearly six feet tall, whom they fitted out in a suit of armour and mounted in a chariot; then, after getting her to pose in the most striking attitude, they drove into Athens, where messengers who had preceded them were already, according to their instructions, talking to the people and urging them to welcome Pisistratus back, because the goddess Athene herself had shown him extraordinary honour and was bringing him home to her own Acropolis. They spread this nonsense all over the town, and it was not long before rumour reached the outlying villages that Athene was bringing Pisistratus back, and both villagers and townsfolk, convinced that the woman Phye was indeed the goddess, offered her their prayers and received Pisistratus with open arms. (Book 1.60)

and

The shrine contains no image and no one spends the night there except (if we may believe the Chaldeans who are the priests of Bel) one Assyrian woman, all alone, whoever it may be that the god has chosen. The Chaldaeans also say – though I do not believe them- that the god enters the temple in person and takes his rest upon the bed. (Book 1.182)

To Hades and back

Another story I heard about Rhampsinitus was, that at a later period he descended alive into what the Greeks call Hades, and there played dice with Demeter, sometimes winning and sometimes losing, and returned to earth with a golden napkin which she had given him as a present. . . . Anyone may believe these Egyptian tales, if he is sufficiently credulous; as for myself, I keep to the general plan of this book, which is to record the traditions of the various nations just as I heard them related to me. (Book 2.122)

Immortals

I myself have heard a very different account of Salmoxis from the Greeks who live on the Hellespont and the Black Sea. According to this, he was a man like anyone else, . . . . he used to entertain the leading men of the country with much liberality, and endeavour to teach them that neither he nor they, who were his guests, nor any of their descendants, would ever die, but would go to a place where they would live in perpetual enjoyment of every blessing. All the time that he was trying to promulgate this new doctrine, he was occupied in the construction of an underground chamber, and when it was ready he entered it and disappeared from sight. For three years he lived in this room underground, and his fellow countrymen missed him sadly, and mourned for him as if he were dead; then in the fourth year he reappeared, and in this way persuaded the Thracians that the doctrine he had taught was true. For my part I neither put entire faith in this story of Salmoxis and his underground chamber, nor wholly disbelieve it . . . . (Book 4.95-96)

From Wikipedia

That famous phoenix

Another sacred bird is the phoenix; I have not seen a phoenix myself, except in paintings, for it is very rare and visits the country (so at least they say at Heliopolis) only at intervals of 500 years, on the occasion of the death of the parent-bird. To judge by the paintings, its plumage is partly golden, partly red, and in shape and size it is exactly like an eagle. There is a story about the phoenix: it brings its parent in a lump of myrrh all the way from Arabia and buries the body in the temple of the Sun. To perform this feat, the bird first shapes some myrrh into a sort of egg as big as it finds, by testing, that it can carry; then it hollows the lump out, puts its father inside and smears some more myrrh over the hole. The egg-shaped lump is then just of the same weight as it was originally. Finally it is carried by the bird to the temple of the Sun in Egypt. I give the story as it was told me – but I don’t believe it. (Book 2.73)

Magic power and werewolves

It is not impossible that these people practise magic; for there is a story current amongst the Scythians and the Greeks in Scythia that once a year every Neurian turns into a wolf for a day or two, and then turns back into a man again. Of course, I do not believe this tale; all the same, they tell it, and even swear to the truth of it. (Book 4.105)

Kneeling statues

. . . until an extraordinary thing happened. Personally I do not believe it, though perhaps somebody may – but the story is that each statue fell upon its knees, and in that attitude both have remained ever since. (Book 5.86)

Miracles authenticate the young and new

The Scythians say that they are the youngest of all nations, and the following is the account they give of their origin. The first man to live in their country, which before his birth was uninhabited, was a certain Targitaus, the son of Zeus and of a daughter of the river Borysthenes – I merely repeat the tradition, and do not myself believe it. Targitaus had three sons, Lipoxais, Arpoxais, and Colaxais, the youngest; and during their reign in Scythia there fell from the sky a golden plough, a golden yoke, a golden battle-axe, and a golden cup. The eldest of the three was the first to see these treasures, and as he went to pick them up the gold caught fire. At this he retired, and the second of the brothers approached; but the gold caught fire and blazed, just as before. Lastly, when the two elder brothers had been kept off by the flames, the youngest came along, and this time the fire went out, so that he was able to pick up the golden implements and carry them home. The elder brothers accepted this as a sign from heaven and made over the whole kingdom to Colaxais. (Book 4.5)

and so forth and so on.

Omens, Signs from God – Apollo of Delphi

The Gospels are prophecy driven narratives. They open with prophecies that Jesus is to come and perform God’s will. Prophecies declare a change in direction when the time comes for him to be crucified and then rise again. read more »

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

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 »

Review, pt 1b: How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

In the first post we cited ancient authors on the meaning of myth.  Two more authors that M. David Litwa cites:

A fable (mythos) is a fictitious story giving an image of truth . . .

Aelius Theon, 1st C CE (Kennedy 2003. Progymnasmata)

A myth aims at being a false tale, resembling a true one; therefore it is far removed from actual events, if a tale is but a picture and an image of actuality, and a myth is but a picture and image of a tale. And thus those who write of imaginative exploits lag as far behind historians as persons who tell of deeds come short of those that do them.

Plutarch, On the Fame of the Athenians, 348.4

Let us hope that Fable may, in what shall follow, so submit to the purifying processes of Reason as to take the character of exact history. In any case, however, where it shall be found contumaciously slighting credibility, and refusing to be reduced to anything like probable fact, we shall beg that we may meet with candid readers, and such as will receive with indulgence the stories of antiquity.

Plutarch, Life of Theseus, 1.5

Continuing from part 1a …

M. David Litwa’s interest is exactly what I was hoping for. As he explains (p.3),

Whether or not the evangelists did report actual events is a separate question and is not my concern.

Good. It is the history-like narrative of the gospels themselves that interests me. Why are they written that way? He continues:

Evidently they thought they did. At any rate, my focus is on how the evangelists used historical tropes to convince readers that they spoke of real—and thus “true”—events.

Some readers might quibble over that way of expressing the problem. Can we really know the thoughts of unknown authors? But the task can be reframed as an exploration of what makes the gospels function as history-like narratives.

Since the line between myth and history can often look quite blurry at times Litwa makes the excellent point that the two genres are in reality “ideal types”. As an “idea”, “pure history” only relates actual events, and “pure myth only “mythical/fantastical/impossible/unhistorical” events so are not always found in their pure, or “ideal”, forms:

In actual literature they mixed and blended without apology or sense of contradiction. 

(For a more detailed explanation of the technical term ideal type see the post On (Dying and Rising Gods and) IDEAL TYPES).

Certainly our earliest accounts by Christians make it clear that they did not consider their beliefs to be mythical. Litwa cites Origen’s Contra Celsus (2.58; 3.27) in which Origen declaims that the resurrection is certainly historical and “proves” the point by reminding us that disciples died for that belief, after all. Further, we even have New Testament epistles:

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1:16)

They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:4)

. . . pay no attention to Jewish myths . . . (Titus 1:14)

and so on. Myths stood opposed to Christian truth.

Truth and history

So what of history, or the writing of history, the practice of historiography? read more »

Another request

I seem to be asking for a lot of help, lately. This time, it’s for those with access to the Greek text of Polybius’s book 12 of his History and with the means of locating without much trouble the word συμπλοκή

The occasion is the following passage about ancient historians:

The existence of different voices or interpretations of a past which have the “right” to exist side-by-side shows that the accurate reporting of past events was not necessarily on the agenda of societies and their authors in Antiquity. Leaving to readers the decision of what really happened tells us much about the nature of the societies we are dealing with (Polybius, who expresses a rationalistic approach to the past, knew how to tackle this by suggesting that history should be viewed as a symploke, [intertwining]; see his Book 12).

Mendels, Doron. 2008. “How Was Antiquity Treated in Societies with a Hellenistic Heritage? (And Why Did the Rabbis Avoid Writing History?).” In Antiquity in Antiquity: Jewish and Christian Pasts in the Greco-Roman World, edited by Gregg Gardner and Kevin Osterloh, 132–51. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. (p. 142)

I read Book 12 in an English translation and failed to notice any discussion of the sort of idea I think Doron Mendels is addressing. What would help if I knew what passage(s) in Book 12 Polybius uses συμπλοκή or some form of it.

The idea that I thought Mendels is addressing is the recording of inconsistent versions of events in historical narratives. I know that some ancient historians do this, but it appears from the reference to Polybius that I should find a discussion by an ancient historian on the fact that historians do set side by side contradictory (or at least inconsistent) narratives.

Anyone able to help with this one?

Thanks.

 

Can We Find History Beneath the Literary Trappings?

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 »

Can the Gospels be “True Fiction”? Did Ancient Historians Have a Different Understanding of “True”?

A few days ago someone thoughtfully sent me a link to a Westar video interviewing Professor Arthur Dewey, author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus Was Remembered. Dewey begins by addressing the prevalent belief that the Passion story of Jesus is essentially true history. He says:

Unfortunately, not just people who are literalists who read the Bible assume this to be the case when we come to the Passion, but also many biblical historians. The reason for that is the assumption that the text is document and is reflecting what actually happened. 

Of course regular readers will know that it is that assumption that we regularly question here. But Dewey, his interviewer and Westar generally are addressing a different audience and I like to think that that is the reason they seem to couch arguments in a way more appealing or acceptable to a certain kind of Christian believer, in something of a “liberal apologetic”, than I like to do.

I have not read his book (there does not seem to be a copy available either commercially or in any library in Australia, not even digitally) so my comments here are entirely my reactions to the interview.

Arthur Dewey begins by pointing out that ancient historians were primarily interested in “truth” as “insight” into the meaning of events for their audiences. He does not say that they were not interested in “facts”, too, but that their main focus lay elsewhere. There is a certain truth to this as (again) we have discussed many times when posting on the methods of ancient historians. What niggles me when I encounter a biblical scholar elaborating on this point (Dewey is far from the only biblical scholar to present this “truth as insight” characteristic of ancient historians) is that I think the other side of what ancient historians were all about is lost. I think they too easily overstate the case in the interests of attempting to keep the gospels relevant at least for the more liberally minded believers. I hope that’s not too harsh or unfair but it is how it comes across to me. read more »