Category Archives: Ancient Literature

Original intention was to include here all non-Jewish works. Should this separation stand? What of Ezekiel the Tragedian or Artapanus of Alexandria and other similar Jewish authors in a “secular/Hellenistic” world? Is the subsequent breakdown into children categories justified?

The Question of Historicity Need Not Be Raised

The question whether Orpheus himself existed or not need not be raised. There was, in general, no doubt of it in the ancient world. Indeed, it makes very little difference in the history of human thought whether the great and influential personalities ever actually lived in human bodies. Personalities like Zeus, Odysseus, and Zoroaster, and even Hamlet and Don Quixote, have been more important in the world than millions of men who have lived and died. Their reality is the reality of an idea, and the best that we can know about them is what men have thought about them. The reality of Orpheus is to be sought in what men thought and said about him. 
Linforth, Ivan M. 1973 (c 1941). The Arts of Orpheus. New York: Arno Press. xiif
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Death of Orpheus (1494) by Dürer

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.

 

When a God Passes By

In olden times it was not unknown for gods to pass by their devotees, showing their awesome power in some limited way, and eliciting the awed responses one would expect from those privileged to see them.

https://www.tes.com/lessons/YWK7_gG8Ld4Q3A/apollo

But at that time of day when heavenly light has not yet come, nor is there utter darkness, but the faint glimmer that we call twilight spreads over the night and wakes us, they [=Jason and his Argonauts] ran into the harbour of the lonely isle of Thynias and went ashore exhausted by their labours. Here they had a vision of Apollo on his way from Lycia to visit the remote and teeming peoples of the North. The golden locks streamed down his cheeks in clusters as he moved; he had a silver bow in his left hand and a quiver slung on his back; the island quaked beneath his feet and the sea ran high on the shore. They were awe-struck at the sight and no one dared to face the god and meet his lovely eyes. They stood there with bowed heads while he, aloof, passed through the air on his way across the sea.

Apollonius of Rhodes. 1959. The Voyage of Argo: The Argonautica. Translated by E. V. Rieu. 2nd ed. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Classics. (91f)

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. . .

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http://thewholebook.blogspot.com/2015/07/217-face-of-death.html

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. . . . But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by.  Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” . . . . .

So Moses . . . went up Mount Sinai early in the morning. . . . Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,  . . . Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped.

(Exodus 33-34)

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. . .

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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Po_vodam.jpg

Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and [Jesus] was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.

(Mark 6)

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 »

Stories of Walking on Water — Looking for Sources

In The History of the Synoptic Tradition by Rudolf Bultmann there is the following passage beginning page 236. But there’s a catch. I have not had the opportunity to track down any of the references I have cast in bold type — removing the bold as we locate them as per the comments. If you happen to be a person with an opportunity to identify any of those bolded references and point to where I can locate/read/translate them you are more than welcome to share that information in the comments section below.

Dio Chrysostom: “Socrates,” said he, “you know perfectly well that of all men under the sun that man is most powerful and in might no whit inferior to the gods themselves who is able to accomplish the seemingly impossible — if it should be his will, to have men walk dryshod over the sea, to sail over the mountains, to drain rivers dry by drinking — or have you not heard that Xerxes, the king of the Persians, made of the dry land a sea by cutting through the loftiest of the mountains and separating Athos from the mainland, and that he led his infantry through the sea, riding upon a chariot just like Poseidon in Homer’s description? And perhaps in the same way the dolphins and the monsters of the deep swam under his raft as the king drove along.”

There must also have been stories of walking on water in Hellenism. Admittedly it is hyperbole when Dio Chrysost. speaks of the power of Xerxes, that when he so wishes he is able πεζεύεσθαι μέν την θάλατταν, πλεϊσθαι δέ τά δρη. But the capacity to do so is often attributed to demons. P. Berol., I, 120 thus describes the power of the δαίμων πάρεδρος: πήξει δέ ποταμούς καί θάλασσα[ν συντ]όμως(?) καί οπως ένδιατρέχης (Reitzenstein, Hellenist. Wundererzaehlungen, p. 125). Also A. Dieterich, Abraxas, p. 190, 13: εγώ είμι ό έν ούρανω σχολήν έχων φοιτώμενός τε έν ύδατι, and on another tablet (Rhein. Mus., 55, 261, cp. 264): qui solus per mare transis. But according to Lucian, Philops., 13 the same things are reported of human wonder workers: είδες . . . τόν Ύπερβόρεον άνδρα πετάμενον ή έπ’ι τοϋ ϋδατος βεβηκότα. Further material may be found in A. Gercke, Jahrb. f . Philol. Suppl. X X II, 1895, pp. 205ff.; A. Abt, ‘Die Apologie des Apuleius von Madaura und die antike Zauberei’, Religionsgesch. Vers, u. Vorarb., IV, 2, 1908, pp. 129, 2. We may add from the Christian tradition: Hist. Aegypti monachorum XI, 18, p. 58; cp. XX, 16, p. 75, Preuschen; Ps. Cypr., Confess., 12.1 Indian parallels also come up for consideration in this regard, and there are stories of walking or flying over the water, which could even have influenced Hellenistic literature: cp. R. Garbe, Indien und das Christentum, 1914, pp. 57f. Most notable is a Buddhist parallel to Matt. 14 28-31 (the text is in J. Aufhauser, Jesus und Buddha, Kl. Texte, no. 157, p. 12). It tells of a disciple ‘who wanted to visit Buddha one evening and on his way found that the ferry boat was missing from the bank of the river Aciravati. In faithful trust in Buddha he stepped on to the water and went as if on dry land to the very middle of the stream. Then he came out of his contented meditation on Buddha in which he had lost himself, and saw the waves and was frightened, and his feet began to sink. But he forced himself to become wrapt in his meditation again and by its power he reached the far bank safely and reached his master.’ (Garbe, pp. 56f. and Buddhist. Maerchen, pp. 46f.) Garbe thinks that the gospel story was borrowed from the Buddhist tradition.2

Jesus Walking on Water
Jesus Walking on Water (Ivan Aivazovsky)

1 In the language of Christian edification this miracle motif may have attained a symbolic significance and the walking on the water become the treading of the mythical waters of death, which Christ and his mystic followers achieve. Cp. Dibelius (Formgeschichte, p. 86) who adduces Od. Sol. 39: ‘He walked and went over them on foot, and his footprints stayed on the water and were not obliterated. . . . And a path was prepared for those who followed him.’ What the relation of Mand. Ginza R., II, 1, pp. 4ggf. Lidzb. is to this (Christ the seducer says, ‘I walk over the water, Come with me; you shall not drown’) can well be left undecided here.

2 Cp. W. Brown, The Indian and Christian Miracles of Walking on the Water, 1928. Saintyves, who again traces these stories to cultic origins (initiation rites) amasses a wealth of material, [P. Saintyves,  Essais de Folklore Biblique, 1923], pp. 307-63. Cp. also Indianermaerchen aus Nordamerika, p. 31; Turkestan. Maerchen, p. 69; Muellenhoff, Sagen, etc., p. 351.

I did locate the reference to Brown, Indian and Christian Miracles… — it is available on archive.org –  http://archive.org/details/MN40274ucmf_2


Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. 1963. The History of the Synoptic Tradition. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Dio Chrysostom. n.d. “Discourse 3.” LacusCurtius. Accessed March 13, 2019. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dio_Chrysostom/Discourses/3*.html#ref11.


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 »

Ancient Historiography and Historians — Vridar Posts

For the background to this post see Vridar Maintenance.

I am listing here the posts that are categorized or tagged as “Ancient Historiography“. This list is for my own editing purposes but I am making it public because I know it’s a topic that if of particular interest to some readers, so they can share my pain in trying to sort them out.

From this list I will be looking for anything that

  • does not really come under “ancient historiography”,
  • is better tagged or categorized with some other label.

Maybe “ancient historiography” itself is too broad, narrow, or unclear as to precise meaning.

(Other posts not listed here but paralleling the themes and content of posts here will be added and sorted out in good time.)

Interested readers are welcome to make suggestions.

  1. What Josephus might have said about the Gospels — 2008-10-26
  2. How History Was Done in Bible Times: Myths about Herodotus and Thucydides — 2014-02-05
  3. Ancient Historians: Thucydides, historian of realism, not reality  — 2014-02-06
  4. The Best of Ancient Historians Following Homer and the Epic Poets  — 2014-02-07
  5. How Ancient Historians Constructed Dramatic Fiction: Thucydides and the Plague — 2014-02-13
  6. How Ancient Historians Worked — Summary — 2014-02-16
  7. The Difference between Story and History in the Bible — 2015-03-11
  8. The Positive Value of Scepticism — and Building a Negative Case — in Historical Enquiry — 2015-06-17
  9. Ancient Historians Fabricating Sources — 2015-07-24
  10. Are theologians rationalizing myths and miracles as ancients rationalized their myths? — 2017-05-28
  11. What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography? –2017-06-07
  12. How and Why Plutarch Expanded His “Lives” — 2017-06-14
  13. Ancient vs. Modern Biographies: Didn’t Bultmann Know the Difference? — 2017-08-02
  14. An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally — 2017-10-31
  15. The evidence of ancient historians — 2017-12-10
  16. How Historians Study a Figure Like Jesus — 2018-10-21
  17. “Now we know” — how ancient historians worked — 2018-11-30
  18. Ancient History, a “Funny Kind of History” — 2019-01-21
  19. Luke-Acts Explained as a form of “Ideal Jewish History” (Part 1) — 2019-02-02
  20. Luke-Acts as form of history-writing (Luke-Acts Explained . . . Part 2) — 2019-02-03

Then there are additional posts currently attached to a label “Ancient historians“. Some of the above posts also have “ancient historians” as a label but I am avoiding double up here.

  1. Comparing the sources for Alexander and Jesus — 2007-04-22
  2. Ancient historians’ accounts of shipwrecks — 2007-04-27
  3. Ancient historians at work: Polybius, Herodotus (cf Gospels, Acts) — 2007-05-08
  4. The literary genre of Acts. 4: Historian’s Models – comparing Josephus — 2007-11-27
  5. The Bible’s “Historical” Writings: Histories or Historical Novels or . . .? — 2009-09-24
  6. Comparing the evidence for Jesus with other ancient historical persons — 2010-05-01
  7. Reading an ancient historical narrative: two fundamental principles — 2011-02-24
  8. Correlations between the “Histories” of Herodotus and the Bible’s History of Israel — 2011-02-24
  9. What if the Gospels did cite their sources and identify their authors? — 2012-09-18
  10. Is Luke Among the Lying Historians? — 2013-12-03
  11. Signs of Fiction in Ancient Biographies — & the Gospels — 2017-06-06
  12. What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography?— 2017-06-07
  13. Distinguishing between “fiction” and “history” in ancient sources — 2017-06-18
  14. Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist? — 2017-08-09
  15. It works for Esther. Why not for Jesus? — 2017-12-19
  16. Doing History: How Do We Know Queen Boadicea/Boudicca Existed? — 2018-05-07
  17. How a Fairy Tale King Became Historical — 2018-05-08
  18. Doing History: Did Celts Ritually Kill Their Kings? — 2018-05-09
  19. Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History” — 2019-01-24
  20. Midrash: A Message from God, though not historically true — 2019-01-25

Then other posts, link is “ancient history

  1. Is history a trial? — 2011-10-25
  2. Dealing with Silence and the Absence of Evidence in an Age of Resurgent Orthodoxy — 2017-12-08

Then more under “ancient biographies

  1. Did Demonax Exist? The Historicity Debate ‘Rages’ — 2017-08-15
  2. Ad Hoc explanations for all those different biographies of Jesus …. (or Socrates) — 2017-12-03
  3. Why the “Biographies” of Socrates Differ — 2017-12-05

ancient forgeries

  1. Ancient forgeries — by lawful decree — 2007-09-06
  2. Forgery in the ancient world — 2009-07-04
  3. Was forgery treated seriously by the ancients? — 2017-09-19
  4. The Problem of Forgery in the Bible: 10 Myths to Justify False Authorship — 2017-03-01

ancient sources

  1. Miscellaneous point — Mount Vesuvius and the argument from silence — 2018-090-18
  2. A scholarly hankering…. — 2018-09-21
  3. “Under Tiberius All Was Quiet” : Or — No, Jesus was not “one of many” — 2018-10-25
  4. Lying Eyewitnesses — Always With Us  — 2018-12-21

ancient literature

  1. The literary genre of Acts. 1: Ancient Prologues — 2007-11-12
  2. Ancient prologues: Conventions and an oddity of the Acts preface — 2007-11-13
  3. The literary genre of Acts. 10: historical novels – ancient cyrogenics and lost cities — 2008-02-09
  4. Literary criticism, a key to historical enquiry (Nehemiah case study) — 2010-07-01
  5. The Popularity of Resurrection — 2010-07-17
  6. The Classical and Biblical Canons — & the importance of identifying authors — 2017-11-29
  7. Another example of that bookend structure in ancient literature — 2018-10-30
  8. A New Genre for the Gospels? It’s not so unusual. And Imitation and Intertextuality? A necessity! — 2018-12-09

ancient novels

  1. Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels — 2012-11-17
  2. Greek Novels Casting Light On New Testament: Part 2 of “Why NT Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels” — 2012-11-28

Okay, that’s a start. Over 60 posts to be sorted here.

. . . .

But wait, some more: “Greco-Roman Biographies

  1. Michael Licona Asks, “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?” — 2017-05-31
  2. One Key Difference between Gospels and an Ancient Biography — 2017-06-08
  3. How and Why Plutarch Expanded His “Lives” — 2017-06-14
  4. Did Aesop Exist? — 2017-08-08
  5. Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 1 — 2017-08-10

And it is at this point where we are beginning to overlap with the Gospel Genre posts.

And still more (to be periodically updated):

Plutarch

  1. Dog resurrection — 2009-12-30
  2. Ancient mythicist-historicist role reversal — 2010-03-10
  3. Scholars undermining scholars on questions fundamental to historicity of Jesus — 2011-01-04
  4. Another Bart Ehrman mis-reading of Earl Doherty’s book — 2012-03-29
  5. One Difference Between a “True” Biography and a Fictional (Gospel?) Biography — 2017/04/30

Suetonius

  1. R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Suetonius and Chrestus — revised — 2007-01-16
  2. Scholars undermining scholars on questions fundamental to historicity of Jesus — 2011-10-04
  3. 5. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: A Roman Trio — 2012-04-23
  4. “Is This Not the Carpenter?” – References to Jesus outside the Christian Sources — 2012-08-21

Pliny the Younger

  1. R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Pliny’s letter about the Christians — revised — 2007-01-17
  2. New Testament allusions in Pliny correspondence with Trajan? — 2007-01-17
  3. Fresh Doubts on Authenticity of Pliny’s Letter about the Christians — 2016-02-17

Tacitus

  1. R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Tacitus and the Christians – revised — 2007-01-16
  2. O’Neill-Fitzgerald: #5, Should We Expect Any Roman Records About Failed Messiahs? — 2014-01-01

Julius Caesar

  1. How Jesus Christ outclassed Julius Caesar  — 2010/08/21
  2. The Gospels Are “Only Parables” ABOUT Jesus: Crossan (Part 2 of 3) — 2013-01-11

Can Historians Develop a Valid “Feel” for a Reliable Source?

Ruth Morse

While preparing my next post on the Trump movement’s analogues to cult experiences I tripped over a page by another historian, Ruth Morse, addressing what modern readers need to understand whenever reading works of pre-modern historians. Once again anyone aware of the methods of New Testament or early Christianity historians must surely wonder why historians of medieval and ancient times don’t embrace the methods of NT historians (e.g. criteria of authenticity, memory theory) or why NT scholars don’t ditch their own methods and emulate those of their peers in other history departments.

‘Common report’, essentially rumour, has never been thought to be an accurate source or a sceptical witness, and historians have always known this.

But don’t biblical historians, or more specifically, historical Jesus historians, have criteria and tools to enable them to dig down and assess with some measure of reasonable probability how common reports (biblical historians use the term “oral tradition” which perhaps connotes a more stable notion of what is being passed on) have mutated over periods through memory refractions and back to something close to an original saying through various criteria of authenticity? Have other historians not yet caught up with these “advanced techniques’?

Loathe to lose any remnant of evidence, loathe to relinquish a way of inserting non-authorized opinions which could be attributed to anonymous sources, medieval historians themselves argued about ‘common report’ and how it might be used. Even sceptical historians might accept that if oral traditions offered nothing else, they gave important testimony to what people had traditionally believed (which itself presented a topic for discussion, because such beliefs could be weighed and compared, where comparing might offer an opportunity to the rhetorically alert).

Yes. Oral reports do tell us what the people sharing them were saying to one another. Were they telling stories of Robin Hood, or Jesus? What grounds do historians have for concluding that those tales had any decades old historical basis?

Would a historian ever rely upon suspect sources?

An allegiance to truth never precluded the use of suspect material; nor did history exclude certain embellishments of that material. One embellishment might be an ostensible rejection of suspect material which, by its very existence, retained precisely what it pretended to discard. What kind of representation of what understanding for which audience are essential questions to ask when evaluating medieval and renaissance history. How far it is either any more than testimony to current opinion, or whether it can be trusted as a reliable account are questions which raise other issues.

But cannot historians develop some sort of sense or feel for what is a reliable source?

Most modern historians of the Middle Ages develop what they characterize as a ‘feel’ for when medieval historians can be trusted.

But did not early historians, ancient and medieval, know how to apply their learning in rhetoric to draw out sympathy and confidence in readers to that they would feel loathe to question the truth of what was being written?

Since the encouragement of some kind of intuitive sympathy was itself one of the rhetorician’s goals, early warnings about ethos may help readers coming to medieval historians for the first time. The seductive experience of wanting what a favourite medieval historian says to be true sometimes to the detriment of one’s better judgement continues to be part of the experience of many case-hardened researchers.

Or perhaps a careful study of historians of old (and medieval historians did learn and emulate the techniques and aims of ancient historians) will alert modern readers to the possibility that much of what they encounter may indeed by fiction.

By analysing individual topoi and situating them within a system of rhetorically manipulated reference, I hope to demonstrate how pervasive ‘literary’ habits of embellishment were, that ‘realism’ is a constantly shifting style which is constantly remade, not a guarantee of a true depiction, and that however convincing, charming, fresh, or intelligent an account, it may be no more (but no less) than a plausible construction which refers to known patterns of human character, behaviour, and event. The styles chosen by historians involve multiple reference: to the particular past narrated; to earlier models of writing history; to other, early literary models (like epics or fictions, or poems of many kinds); and to over-arching (or perhaps underpinning) eschatological ideas of human history.


Morse, Ruth. 2005. Truth and Convention in the Middle Ages: Rhetoric, Representation and Reality. Cambridge England; New York: Cambridge University Press. 95


 

From Adapa to Jesus

Adapa Sumerian deity of healing, with healthy catch of fish
Creative Commons Attribution

That the gospels recycled themes, motifs, sayings, can be found across the Middle East from Mesopotamia to Egypt and stretching back millennia to before the Neo Babylonian empire and even before the time of any Jewish Scriptures will be of no surprise to anyone who has read The Messiah Myth by Thomas L. Thompson.

Of the myth of Adapa and the South Wind “the earliest known version is a Sumerian text from Old Babylonian Tell Haddad”, made available by Cavigneaux in 2014. I have part translated, part paraphrased the opening section of Cavigneaux’s French translation of the often broken Sumerian text, and added a distinctive note on one comment that I found particularly interesting.

In those distant days …

After the Flood had swept over,

and brought about the destruction of the land …

The world is reborn

A seed of humanity had been preserved …

Four legged animals once again widely dispersed …

Fish and birds repopulated the ponds and reedbeds …

Herbs and aromatic plants flowered on the high steppe …

The state is born

An and Enlil organized the world …

The city of Kish became a pillar of the country …

Etana becomes king

Then the elected shepherd …

Founded a house …

The South Wind during his reign brought blessings …

Humanity without a guide

Humanity did not have a directive …

[Nobody knew how to give or follow orders]

The Story of Adapa begins

[A loyal devotee of Enki he goes fishing in the quay to supply his master’s temple in Eridu.]

In later exorcistic texts … the quay (Akk. kārum) is a trope for the liminal space between worlds.

At the New Moon he went up to go fishing

Without rudder he let the boat go with the flow

Without pole he went up the stream

On the vast lagoon …

[He is capsized by the South Wind]

He curses the South Wind …

And broke the wings of the South Wind …

Jesus stills storm. Interestingly the South Wind was said to be beneficial; it appears to me that Adapa’s technology, apparently directed by the power of his words, was being frustrated by the South Wind.

The narrative is thus a reference to the destruction of the old world and the restoration of the new, through a Flood or through water bringing about the end of one world and nourishing the emergence of the new. As Thompson observes in The Mythic Past new worlds emerge through parting waters (Creation, Noah, Exodus, Elijah-Elisha, Jesus’ Baptism/heavens divided).

Adapa has a special gift. Though mortal, he has power over words, or rather his words have power over the world. Adapa will become the great mythical sage of scribes, of all who can with the magic of words change the face of the earth and the organization of society: engineers, architects, legislators, ….

We are familiar with astronomy and astrology being all one branch of knowledge in these times; similarly magic and medicine were indistinguishable at this stage. The skills of the scribes, the amazing feats they accomplished with words, appear to have been supernatural gifts.

After Adapa by merely speaking causes the wind to cease the supreme god is astonished and invites him up to heaven. Adapa’s personal god, however, warns Adapa not to accept certain gifts [bread, drink, a coat] that will be offered to him there but to only accept an anointing. The chief god laughingly tells Adapa that he has just refused the gifts that would have given him eternal life.

And so forth.

We see here a story opening with the water, a flood, separating the old and the new. We see the wise hero wielding power over the elements, even stilling a “storm”, by his mere commands. Others are amazed at his ability. In this case, it is the gods who are amazed.

The plot of the story begins with the sage “going fishing”, a scene that is found to have mythical or metaphorical significance of life and death, entering a space between two worlds.

I find such literary comparisons interesting. I’m not saying the evangelists were adapting the myth of Adapa, of course. I am thinking about the way certain mythical tropes have been recycled and refashioned through changing human circumstances and experiences.


Cavigneaux, Antoine. 2014. “Une Version Sumérienne de La Légende d’Adapa (Textes de Tell Haddad X).” Zeitschrift Für Assyriologie Und Vorderasiatische Archäologie 104 (1): 1–41. https://www.academia.edu/26276183/Une_version_sum%C3%A9rienne_de_la_l%C3%A9gende_d_Adapa_Textes_de_Tell_Haddad_X_

Sanders, Seth L. 2017. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck. 42


 

Luke-Acts as form of history-writing (Luke-Acts Explained . . . Part 2)

Continuing from Luke-Acts Explained as a form of “Ideal Jewish History” (Part 1)

The reasons Luke-Acts has been considered a form of ancient history writing:

  1. Like other ancient historiography the work begins with a prologue announcing its superiority over what has gone before;
    • Steve Mason notes that unlike the preceding gospels Luke-Acts, as a two volume work, narrates a changing or developing historical movement (see p. 9 of the article for details; I think of the way the author has restructured the events in the gospels in order to )
  2. Like Xenophon, Plutarch, Tacitus and others the author of Luke-Acts fuses “biography with a quasi-biographical history”;
  3. Like other historical writing of the day Luke-Acts constant changes of scene, notes on geographical and  political details, episodes of high drama such as storms at sea and encounters with murderous enemies, and speeches.

Mason addresses works of Richard Pervo (Profit with Delight) and Loveday Alexander (The Preface to Luke’s Gospel) — there are posts on Pervo and Alexander here and here — that dispute the ‘historical’ character of Luke-Acts. In response Mason observes that the line between ancient historiography and ancient novels may not be so easy to discern given, in addition to the nature of ancient historiography, the difficulty in “defining” the ancient novel. Perhaps, but I think that’s another question for another chapter or article. In short, to Mason nothing can be gained by assigning Luke-Acts to another genre since writers were simply too willing to innovate and mix elements that we think of as belonging to separate genres.

The reasons against considering Luke-Acts as a form of historiography:

  1. The prologue of Luke-Acts does not identify the author and anonymity defeated the whole point of ancient prologues to historiography. The point was establish “the author’s character and unique moral assessment of the past.” (I have set out my view that the historian used his identity in order to establish confidence among readers of his work that he was in a position to know and to give his work authoritative status.)
    • Josephus did not identify himself in the prefaces to his later works but he certainly did “introduce himself magnificently” in his first work (and again in his closing section). The author of Luke-Acts does nothing like that.
  2. The next point has long been decisive for me: “The effect of the missing author-identification in Luke-Acts is greatly compounded by the complete absence of historia-language, or Thucydides’ preferred συγγράφω and cognates, along with any suggestion of knowledge from open-ended inquiry—if we leave aside the prologue’s covering reference to the author’s careful observation—or the political analysis that was history’s reason for being. Even though the author shows himself well aware of political conditions in the eastern Mediterranean, and is happy to use them as furniture, this is simply not a work of political or historical analysis comparable to other histories. By comparison with any other histories, Luke-Acts is far removed from historiography in both its characteristic language and its prevailing ethos: the stories of Peter and Paul proclaiming Christ’s resurrection.” It is rare to read an article acknowledging this start difference between Luke-Acts and other histories.
  3. I quote in full (p. 11, my bolding as always):
    • In place of normal historical analysis, the author boldly announces his subject matter as ‘the deeds that have been fulfilled among us’ and the observation and reception of truth by those who were ‘eyewitnesses and servants of the word/teaching’ (1.2-3). Historians were not supposed to be anyone’s servants or emissaries, a posture antithetical to history’s purpose of truth-seeking inquiry. The anonymous author does briefly stress his efforts to get the story straight, in the prologue, but the story itself comes from revelation. The work’s many episodes of heavenly and angelic visitation as revelatory of the most important truths undercut any notion of a historian’s authority, which derives from rigorous inquiry and his own moral character. Of this there is no trace in the anonymous Luke-Acts.
    • That the most important truth comes via revelation is reinforced throughout the two-volume work at all crucial junctures: infancy narrative, explanatory angelic appearances at Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and the decisive revelations to Peter, Paul, and the early community. Equally, the account is driven by wondrous deeds beyond the ken of historical inquiry, from Jesus’ divine birth through his many miracles and resurrection to the signs and wonders performed by his emissaries.

It is at this point that Steve Mason parts company with the critical studies that have sought to understand Luke-Acts as a form of history writing by focusing on details in common with works of Greco-Roman historians. Yes, the comparisons are significant, but at the same time we ought not to lose sight of “the highly distinctive atmosphere and content of Luke-Acts.”

We should not, then, become so fixated on the parallels with Graeco-Roman historiography, as I would suggest Cadbury, Lake, and Foakes Jackson were, that we miss the highly distinctive atmosphere and content of Luke-Acts.

Reconciling the historiographical and non-historical features of Luke-Acts

It is here that Steve Mason finds Josephus useful for understanding Luke-Acts and its mix of historical and even “anti”-historical features. read more »

Luke-Acts Explained as a form of “Ideal Jewish History” (Part 1)

TL;DR
The author of Luke-Acts was following an ideal that Josephus had presented as a superior feature of Jewish historical writings: that history learned from revelation (e.g. works of Moses) was superior to the uncertain and often disputed historical inquiries of the Greeks.

I think Steve Mason has nailed Luke-Acts. I think, as a specialist in Josephus, he has identified something crucial in Luke-Acts that appears to have been more generally overlooked.

Up till now I have posted at length scholarly proposals that Acts is a work of ancient fiction, that its prologue follows the pattern found in technical medical or military or mathematical treatises rather than those found in works of ancient historians, and I have even ventured to suggest that Josephus would have deplored the gospels, and by extension Acts, as serious history – a post I now see is badly flawed in places. Most recently we looked at some findings from the Acts Seminar Report.) Well, having read Steve Mason’s paper I now think the author of our canonical version of Luke-Acts was more in tune with Josephus’s ideals than I had suspected. (Some readers will know of Steve Mason’s earlier book, Josephus and the New Testament, which includes a chapter offering reasons to think the author of Luke-Acts knew the Antiquities of Josephus. We have also posted, and plan to post further in depth, on Mason’s newer work, A History of the Jewish War A.D. 66-74.)

Steve Mason

The following is taken from a paper Mason has just uploaded on academia.edu, Luke-Acts and Ancient Historiography.

When Biblical Scholars Took the Lead in Critical Studies

I was fascinated and sobered to learn that there was a time when biblical scholars took the lead over their classicist peers when it came to critical study of their literary sources.

So we should not imagine that biblical studies merely followed classical trends. In fact, critical study of the Old and New Testaments largely paved the way for critical history as a discipline, including ancient history. It was not until the late 1970s through the 1990s that such authors as Livy, Polybius, Diodorus, and Pausanias were subjected to searching study as genuine authors, who had crafted their narratives to serve their moral and thematic purposes, rather than as mere transmitters of data. This post-Hippie period corresponded roughly to that in which redaction- and composition-critical research flourished in OT and NT studies.

(p. 4)

I had not appreciated the full extent to which the studies in Acts by Cadbury, Foakes Jackson and Lake had been so ground-breaking.

To write the important second volume, they enlisted the controversial Quaker, classicist, pacifist, and agnostic Henry Joel Cadbury, later of Harvard but then at Andover Seminary. Cadbury agreed with Foakes Jackson and Lake about the need to understand Acts in light of ancient historiography, and letting the theological chips fall where they may

. . . . 

He was ahead of his time in calling for scholars to pay more attention to the nature of ancient historiography. In order to responsibly understand and use this crucial account of Christian origins, he was saying, one needed to understand how people generally wrote about the past 2000 years ago (BC 2.7–8). Understanding Acts this way, as ancient historiography, was not merely different from proving is historicity. It required a different mindset because it directed scholars’ attention to how things were being said rather than to the underlying facts.

. . . .

So, having laid out this rather bracing summary, by 1920 standards in the Anglophone world, Cadbury began comparing the Lucan double-work with other creations of ancient historiography. And he found Luke-Acts—to which he compared the Jewish historian Josephus—to be in general agreement with contemporary historiographical practice. In the 1920s, this was a huge advance. In many respects, Cadbury was far ahead of his time. I say that because even in the field of Classics, although a few scholars were thinking about the artistic qualities and literary freedom of some historians, it would take another half-century—after the ‘literary turn’ in the humanities— before such perspectives were broadly applied. The historian and philosopher R. G. Collingwood told his Oxford undergraduates in 1926 that ‘the average professional historian is far less critical in his attitude to Herodotus than the average professional theologian in his attitude to St. Mark’.

read more »

The Sons of Jacob and the Sons of Heracles

We used to be taught that the first invasion of a Greek people into the Greek peninsula was the Dorian invasion. (Today that event appears to be generally regarded as mythical.) The Dorians of Greek myth were the Heracleidae, the descendants of Heracles, who undertook an “exodus” from the Peloponnesus and some generations later returned to reclaim and conquer their “promised land”. (Image from Wikimedia)

How reliable as historical records are the genealogies of patriarchs and the different tribes of Israel?

1977 saw the publication of Robert Wilson’s thesis, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World, a work that set the main framework for further studies of biblical genealogies. Wilson used two different studies of genealogies as a basis for comparing and understanding what the biblical ones were all about:

  1. Anthropological studies of oral tribal cultures, African and pre-Islamic Arabian;
  2. Amorite dynastic lists of Babylon and Assyria.

The genealogies found among African and Arab oral cultures were considered relevant because the biblical genealogies were believed to have derived from oral traditions. Wilson concluded that such genealogies preserved historical memories:

Although we have seen no anthropological evidence indicating that genealogies are created for the purpose of making a historical record, genealogies may nevertheless be considered historically accurate in the sense that they frequently express actual domestic, political relationships.7

7 Genealogy, p. 189

The use of oral traditions among current and recent tribal societies as a doorway into the biblical genealogies was rejected by John Van Seters who set out his reasons in several works. In In Search of History, for example, he wrote in response to Wilson’s Genealogy

It is, to my mind, highly questionable whether functional explanations of variations in genealogies based on anthropological analysis of oral societies can also apply to literary variations. Wilson does not examine the many contemporary literary genealogies in the Greek world.

(p. 48n)

If you took no notice of the title of this post then the predicate in the last sentence just alerted you to where this post is headed, at least if you are already aware of this blog’s interest in the relationship between the “Old Testament” and Greek literary culture (e.g. posts on books by Gmirkin, Wajdenbaum, Wesselius…). Expect in coming months another author to be added to those, Andrew Tobolowsky, author of The Sons of Jacob and the Sons of Herakles.

Andrew Tobolowsky

Tobolowsky points out that there is a significant structural difference between Babylonian and Assyrian royal genealogies on the one hand and those genealogies found in Genesis and the books of Chronicles on the other, is that the former are “linear”, that is, lists from father to son, while the latter are “segmented”, that is, following “multiple lines of descent, forming a kind of family tree.”

As Van Seters points out specifically about Wilson’s treatment:

On the one hand his Near Eastern linear genealogies, which derive from highly structured literate societies, bear very little resemblance to the segmented genealogies found in the book of Genesis. On the other hand, his discussion of the segmented genealogies and their comparison with Genesis is based upon anthropological studies of oral traditions in illiterate societies and this has created an artificial social and form-critical dichotomy.

Abraham Malamat, who generally embraces Wilson’s formulation, nevertheless adds:

Biblical genealogies represent a unique historical genre within the literature of the ancient Near East. I have here in mind not the so-called vertical lines of individuals such as the royal or priestly pedigree, which are common anywhere, but rather the ethnographical tables contained in the Book of Genesis… even more so… the ramified and wide-spread genealogies of the various Israelite tribes, assembled in the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles. All these have no equal anywhere else in the ancient Near East.

As a result, as Van Seters pointed out and others have since confirmed, the better comparison with biblical genealogical discourse, especially as it is found in the book of Genesis, is neither the traditions of preliterate cultures nor linear king lists but the complex, literary genealogies that were particularly popular in the world of Greek myth.

(p. 4 — my highlighting)

Tobolowsky dates the creation of these biblical genealogies to the late Persian period. I suspect Russell Gmirkin whose books we have discussed here would suggest a later time, that of the Hellenistic era.


Tobolowsky, Andrew. 2017. The Sons of Jacob and the Sons of Herakles: The History of the Tribal System and the Organization of Biblical Identity. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Van Seters, John. 1983. In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History. New Haven: Yale University Press.


 

Ancient History, a “Funny Kind of History”

It is in the end not very surprising that university students of history, with some knowledge of the sources for, say, Tudor England or Louis XIV’s France, find ancient history a ‘funny kind of history’. The unavoidable reliance on the poems of Horace for Augustan ideology, or in the same way on the Eumenides of Aeschylus for the critical moment in Athenian history when the step was taken towards what we know as Periclean democracy, helps explain the appellative ‘funny’. But the oddities are much more far-reaching, extending to the historians themselves in antiquity, in particular to two of their most pervasive characteristics, namely, the extensive direct quotation from speeches and the paucity of reference to (let alone quotation from) actual documents, public or private. The speeches are to us an extra ordinary phenomenon and they produce extraordinary reactions among modern commentators. We have no good reason for taking the speeches to be anything but inventions by the historians, not only in their precise wording but also in their substance. Certainly that is how they were understood in antiquity: witness the discussion in his long essay on Thucydides (ch. 34-48) by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the most acute and most learned of ancient critics and himself a prolific composer of speeches for his multi-volume Roman Antiquities.

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 . . . . 

The above extract is from pages 12-13 of M. I. Finley’s Ancient History: Evidence and Models. Finley made significant contributions to the field of ancient history. He knew what he was talking about.

Unfortunately a good many authors who think of themselves as historians, some may even be professional academics in university history departments, are not so mindful of the limitations of their methods. One of their more sober colleagues wrote:

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.

That was Mario Liverani, p. 28 of Myth and Politics in Ancient Near Eastern Historiography.

I could quote many more and have done over many posts. But two recent comments have prompted me to post again, to accept how widely the field of ancient history is misunderstood. If too many of its practitioners are too romantic in their interests to understand the fundamentals of critical inquiry and treatment of their sources, then it is no wonder many of us lay public also misunderstand what is required.

Here is part of one of the comments that I think many of us can relate to:

I know senior historians teaching ancient history at Macquarie Uni in Sydney, through my membership of the SSEC (Society for the Study of Early Christianity), who point to the Babylonian Talmud as strong evidence for Jesus’ existence. What would be your response to that view ?

My response to that view is what you would imagine Liverani’s response would be. Some ancient historians get carried away with love of their narratives and lose their critical acumen. Finley also discussed how writing history is a form of ideology, and a good number of historians write as advocates of pet ideologies — including Christian origins.

Another comment expressing an idea one hears especially among biblical scholars, in particular those looking at Christian origins and the historical Jesus:  read more »

An interesting website for Greek Myth lovers

From Stephen Fry’s Mythos (which I have just finished reading)

The one website I would most heartily recommend is theoi.com – a simply magnificent resource entirely dedicated to Greek myth. It is a Dutch and New Zealand project that contains over 1,500 pages of text and a gallery of 1,200 pictures comprising vase paintings, sculpture, mosaics and frescoes on Greek mythological themes. It offers thorough indexing, genealogies and subject headings. The bibliography is superb, and can lead one on a labyrinthine chase, hopping from source to source like an excited butterfly-collector.