How Jesus Christ outclassed Julius Caesar

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by Neil Godfrey

One of Jesus’ more impressive tricks was to command a raging storm at sea to be quiet and go away so his disciples could continue their sea crossing without fear. Many readers of this tale are reminded of another about Jonah who, like Jesus, was caught sleeping in the boat while the crew were desperately bailing out water. The captain wakes Jonah up, words are exchanged, and the storm immediately ceases — the moment Jonah was tossed overboard.

But there was another very popular story about Julius Caesar attempting something similar, but not quite succeeding.

It was long the literary fashion for authors to show the superiority of their particular hero to other well-known heroes from older stories. The Roman poet Virgil composed an epic about Aeneas, father of the Roman race, basing many of  his adventures on those of the earlier Greek hero Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. Where Odysseus fell foul of monsters and lost his crew, Aeneas more prudently (or with more favourable divine blessings) avoided such dangers and brought his crew to their destination, thus demonstrating his more masterful leadership qualities to those of the well known Odysseus.

But while the Jesus story of stilling the storm borrows a few details from Jonah’s adventure, it is nonetheless a wild leap from one hero commanding the storm to cease and another begging to be sacrificed.

But then I read Wendy Cotter’s citation (Miracles in the Greco-Roman World) setting the Jesus story alongside another that was evidently very popular throughout the Roman world around the era the Gospels were composed. Julius Caesar was famously reported to have disguised his identity, clambered into a boat and demanded its pilot to take him to the opposite shore. When storm and winds threatened their safety, Caesar declared his real identity and commanded the crew to have no fear, but to know that with Caesar on board the storm could do them no harm and that they would make it safely to their destination. Unfortunately for Caesar’s ego, the storm refused to cooperate and the boat was forced to return to safety. Continue reading “How Jesus Christ outclassed Julius Caesar”


Those Odd Endings of Mark’s Gospel and Herodotus’ Histories

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by Neil Godfrey

Bust of Herodotus. 2nd century AD. Roman copy ...
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Compare the seemingly inconclusive ending of Mark 16:8 with the following discussion by Sara Mandell and David Freedman on the Histories by Herodotus:

Neither Herodotus nor his implied narrator has to depict the catastrophe, only the exemplar that demands it. (The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History, 1993, p.55)

Mandell and Freedman are here observing that Herodotus leaves the catastrophic ending that his plot demands up to the reader’s imagination. What Herodotus has done is depict many examples of cities and persons rising, falling victim to hubris (proudly thinking too highly or exclusively of oneself) and being brought low by the gods or fate as a consequence. These are enough to inform the reader that when the book concludes at the point of Greece’s exalted victory over Persia, the reader knows what is to follow.

The message to readers is to humble themselves to avoid that inevitable fate.  

Herodotus thus leaves his Histories hanging at the end. Nothing dramatic or rounded seems to happen at the end. The Persians go home and there is a seemingly irrelevant comment on how they once loved the simple life and were advised by Cyrus not to seek a life of ease.

In the final chapters leading towards this ending that seems to flat to modern readers, Herodotus changed his style to present the illusion that he was dispassionately narrating a strictly historical-factual account of the war between Greece and Persia. But in fact, the tale of Greece’s victories in the way, especially at the Battle of Marathon, are not intended as genuine history by modern standards. The events are a religious paradigm. They are constructed to teach a religious moral. What these final chapters depict in graphic detail, in anecdote after anecdote, is Greece going the way of the nations before her. The Greeks, too, are on the cusp of falling into their own destruction.

Herodotus probably considered the initial rounds of the Peloponnesian Wars as the imploding calamity of the Greeks. He finished off his Histories with Greece at its height as it expelled the Persians. And height means hubris. The gods must cut them back down to size.

The Relevance of Herodotus’ Histories to Biblical Literature Continue reading “Those Odd Endings of Mark’s Gospel and Herodotus’ Histories”


Comparing the evidence for Jesus with other ancient historical persons

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by Neil Godfrey

Julius Caesar and wife Pompeia
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(This theme is surely past its ‘use by’ date, but it’s one I’m working through from a number of angles at the moment, so here goes once more.)

While it is often said that there is as much, even more, evidence for Jesus than for other ancient historical figures, this is simply not true.

Historical Evidence for Alexander and Julius Caesar

For Alexander the Great we have coins and other epigraphy as primary evidence. We also have a number of mythical narratives of Alexander. But the primary evidence testifies to his real existence nonetheless. With that primary evidence in mind, we can have confidence that not all literature about Alexander is necessarily fictional. I have compared the character of the five historical accounts of Alexander with the Gospels in an earlier post, Comparing the Sources for Alexander and Jesus.

For Julius Caesar, we also have coins and monuments with relevant epigraphy. There are many literary works that attest to be by contemporaries of Caesar (and that refer to Caesar), such as Cicero, and even works claiming to be by Caesar himself. I don’t think these are forgeries, but even if they were, the primary evidence alone would keep Julius Caesar “real”. That is before we even get to ancient historical works proper about him (Plutarch, Cassius Dio, Suetonius, Arrian).

Knowing or Believing? Continue reading “Comparing the evidence for Jesus with other ancient historical persons”


Does Crossan think McGrath is an unethical historian?

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by Neil Godfrey

The Unexplained Book Release Poster
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James McGrath, biblical scholar, historian and Christian, has written that historical studies of Jesus cannot explain what happened that gave rise among early Christians to the belief in the resurrection. Whatever they experienced — and clearly he believes the evidence confirms that they certainly experienced something unusual — is beyond the ability of history to explain. The reason is, simply, that history deals with “the ordinary” (to use McGrath’s words), and the resurrection is not an ordinary event.

Result: Historians must simply not touch this topic of the resurrection. They cannot. It is left to be a mystery. One of the unexplained or unanswered questions historians so often have to face. McGrath in blog comments has literally insisted that this “inexplicable” is no different from a host of other questions historians in any field cannot answer! I suggest that historians in other fields do not construct models that can only be explained by a miracle.

One might say that his is a bit like wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too. One tries to sound like a “man of the world” for whatever reasons, and to prove to others that one is a “man of the world”, but at the same time one secretly believes that one is really a part of another world.

But John Dominic Crossan has written that this approach (and McGrath is representative in this of very many of his peers, I am sure) is unethical. Before citing Crossan, here are McGrath’s words from The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith Continue reading “Does Crossan think McGrath is an unethical historian?”


What Josephus might have said about the Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

The Jewish historian Josephus had a bit to say about the nature of historiography, and why he believed his historical writings were more truthful than those of Greek historians. His criticisms of Greek histories have some interest when compared with modern questions about the historical reliability of the Gospels. . . . Continue reading “What Josephus might have said about the Gospels”


Doherty discusses the Tacitus’ Annals Renaissance forgery question

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by Neil Godfrey

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This can be found on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board here [Link no longer active, 19th August 2015, — Neil. See below for the pdf version of this discussion.]

His argument is that the notion that the whole of Annals was a Renaissance forgery should be put to rest.

I’m pleased. I really do squirm at the thought that there was once a medieval monk who had an obsession for writing hundreds of pages of fictitious turgid Tacitean prose.

See the attached discussion, Is the Forgery of Tacitus’ Annals in the Renaissance an Untenable Position? led by Early Doherty . . .  Continue reading “Doherty discusses the Tacitus’ Annals Renaissance forgery question”


The literary genre of Acts. 6: style and content

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing notes from Pervo’s Profit with Delight: the Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles — with a few additional references and citations of my own . . . .

However the structure and design of Acts may resemble monographs or other writings, the criteria of style and content must be taken carefully into account. Legitimate pieces of historiography needed, like all literary works, to reflect unity of style, vocabulary, and syntax, as well as proportion and balance. Minor skirmishes had no right to pose as the battle of Marathon. Speeches were to be appropriate to the circumstances, and all reporting should be suitable to its station in human affairs. Acts does not suit such requirements! Its inconsistent style and inclination to treat insignificant happenings as world-historical events would offend learned readers. (pp.6-7, Pervo)

The following is also from Pervo’s book, the main focus of this series.

What was expected of ancient historians? Continue reading “The literary genre of Acts. 6: style and content”


The literary genre of Acts. 5: a note on “prophetic history”

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by Neil Godfrey

Robert Hall in Revealed Histories compares Luke-Acts with the works of Josephus as being similar prophetic histories. This does not affect the literary genre of Acts, however. Prophetic history is one of many thematic types of history. Compare economic history, political history, existentialist history, social history, “black arm band” history, whig history, marxist history, feminist history.

Josephus saw prophets like Joshua as historians since their prophetic gift gave them insights into the past as much as their present or future. This was not an unusual concept in ancient times. Even Homer among others called on divine spirits to inspire him with an accurate knowledge and understanding of history. How else could he know anything about the Trojan war and the acts of Achilles?

Josephus saw in history the working out of God’s will. So also Herodotus saw in the history of the Greeks the working out of the will of Apollo. (I have begun, still to continue it, a comparison from Mandell & Freedman of Herodotus’ Histories and Israel’s Primary History here.)

Comparisons between Acts and Josephus as “prophetic history” are a separate issue from the literary genre of history itself. Robert Hall discusses the content of speeches and interpretations of scripture, but Acts is a narrative in which those things are embedded. Literary genre comparisons look at the whole picture — the speeches as well as the narrative details and plot structure. That’s what I have been doing here and hope to continue in further depth.


The literary genre of Acts. 4: Historian’s Models – comparing Josephus

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by Neil Godfrey

(revised 1.15 pm)

Continuing notes from Pervo re the genre of Acts.

Pervo compares the genre of Acts with the genre of the works of other ancient historians. Below I’ve summarized Pervo’s comments but have added much more by way of illustration from Price and Feldman. I have also just received a copy of Revealed Histories by Robert Hall which I want to read before concluding this discussion. Till then, hope to discuss comparisons with historians other than Josephus in follow-up posts.

Imitation of the Masters

The Jewish historian Josephus attempted to imitate the “classical” historians, especially Thucydides. Imitation of the masters, even attempting to emulate or surpass them, was a mark of literary skill and good taste among ancient writers of the Hellenistic and early Roman imperial era, historians included. As Pervo writes (p.5), “Style was essential, not peripheral.” To be taken seriously historians would demonstrate in their works that they knew and were attempting to imitate the best in the ancients such as Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon. Thucydides was particularly in fashion in the time of the early Empire.

To illustrate this literary custom in particular among historians, — a few examples from Josephus: Continue reading “The literary genre of Acts. 4: Historian’s Models – comparing Josephus”


The literary genre of Acts. 3: Speeches

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by Neil Godfrey

“We cannot name any historian whom . . . Luke has taken as a model” (Dibelius, 1956, 183-185)

Pervo cites Dibelius as one scholar unimpressed with claims that the speeches in Acts are necessarily attributable to historiographical intent. Certainly ancient historians crafted lengthy speeches for historical characters, and certainly the speeches in Acts are not like those in the gospel of Luke. But it does not follow, as is sometimes argued, that therefore the speeches in Acts demonstrate the author’s intent to write real history. Anyone who has read ancient novellas would immediately recognize the speeches in Acts as just one of the many features found in fiction. Lengthy speeches were tools of historians and fiction writers alike. They were used to convey information about characters and situations, both historical and fictional.

Examples are too numerous to mention, so I would simply suggest to anyone who doubts this claim to find a collection of ancient novels (such as Reardon‘s collection) in a library or on the net (some are linked in my Prologue post) and read a couple. They are not very long and quite entertaining as insights into ancient cultures, interests and humour.

For this post I opened my copy of Reardon’s collection at random and the first page opened was 206 in the middle of the story of Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius. There at paragraph 37 begins a lengthy speech on the beauty of women. I flip over to pages 340-1 to fine Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe and on each page are speeches equal to the length of anything in Acts.

But one need only recall the emphasis on rhetoric in ancient education and the popularity of tragic drama to quickly guess the need of scepticism over claims of the relationship between speeches and historicity.

I will in time give more specific discussions here on the different types of speeches in Acts, the legal defences, the exhortations, and their structures and comparisons with their counterparts in other forms of literature.

I often felt some resonance in the fictional literature somewhere when reading the long speech of James at the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. I seemed to hear echoes from somewhere each time I read its stylized account of preliminary short speeches followed by Jame’s lengthy decision-pronouncing finale. I don’t know why it took me so long to notice how similar the structure and pattern of the speeches and speech situation was to the speeches delivered in the grand royal assemblies in Homer’s Iliad. I suppose what we have been trained to associate from very early years with religious truth and fact is not easily recognized when we view it through the perspective of literature with which its author would certainly have been familiar, if only from his education in learning how to write Greek.

A crisis in the war needs to be dealt with. An assembly of the notables is called. Names of renown stand up to express their views while the king listens in silence. After the to and fro debating has finished the king rises to deliver his decision and the course that all must follow. The pattern is a regular one, and the assembly in Acts 15 is only one of its many echoes.

Next: Use of historical models



Lazy historians and their ancient sources

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by Neil Godfrey

Though I refer to “lazy historians” here, this piece is really written for “lazy readers” of “biblical history” — not that many are really lazy. But not all are aware that modern critical techniques applied to the Bible are not a reflection of anti-religious bias but are rather an application of modern critical historical tools to biblical texts. It is the biblical apologist who is often the one wanting specialist treatment of his texts, not the secular critic.

“Laziness is common among historians. When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events, they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation.” — Liverani, Myth and politics in ancient Near Eastern historiography, p.28.

Continue reading “Lazy historians and their ancient sources”


Ancient forgeries — by lawful decree

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by Neil Godfrey

Emperor Justinian needed historical precedents for his new codification of law to command the respect of both his citizenry at large and the legal profession in particular.

Sometimes controversy rages over the question of whether biblical works have been rewritten, interpolated, redacted, forged . . . In this context it is interesting to observe what happened — and why — in a well known case “by law”. Understanding the culture of ancient minds can often add enlightenment in many directions. Continue reading “Ancient forgeries — by lawful decree”


Ancient historians at work: Polybius, Herodotus (cf Gospels, Acts)

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by Neil Godfrey

For what it’s worth, I’m posting a few excerpts from a couple of nonbiblical historians, mainly for benefit of those following some of the posts and discussion re my Bauckham and Acts 27 (Paul’s sea voyage/shipwreck) reviews. The point is to compare nonbiblical historical methods, approach, critical analysis, with what we read in the Gospels and Acts. For those familiar with the Gospels and Acts I invite where possible any comparisons with the following methods we find among two prominent ancient historians: Continue reading “Ancient historians at work: Polybius, Herodotus (cf Gospels, Acts)”