Review, parts 7 and 8. Litwa on Birth and Childhood Stories of Jesus – Widespread Cultural Tropes Recycled as “History”

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing a discussion of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. . . .  All Litwa review posts are archived here.

This post covers chapters 7 and 8, “Magi and the Star” and “Child in Danger, Child of Wonder”. Even though I often disagree with Litwa’s interpretations and conclusions I do find the information he presents and questions raised to be very interesting and informative.

Litwa’s theme is that even though the authors of the canonical gospels composed narratives that to moderns are clearly mythical, by ancient standards of historiography such “mythical” episodes were part and parcel of “what happened”. Similar fabulous happenings are found in serious works by ancient historians, Litwa claims. Such types of events belonged to the “thought world” of that broad culture throughout the Mediterranean and Levant.

[I agree: ancient historical works do contain “mythical” elements but I have certain reservations about authorial intent and gullibility since, in my reading, they generally found ways to distance themselves from any suggestion that they were committed to the veracity of those sorts of stories.]

Ancient authors meant for readers to understand them as part of history, not myth, Litwa insists: the stories were indeed fabricated but their presentation was in the form of historical narrative. Ancient readers would have accepted them as historical — which is exactly what the authors intended.

So in the case of the virgin birth, Litwa points out that ancient Persians, in their Zoroastrian beliefs, had a similar myth about a future saviour figure. The Magi are Persian figures, so it is interesting that in Matthew we find a story of a virgin birth of a saviour with magi present. No, Litwa is not saying one story directly derived from the other and he notes significant differences between them. That is Litwa’s point, recall. These sorts of stories were part of the cultural backdrop in the world that produced our gospels.

Litwa refers to Mary Boyce’s study and for interest’s sake I will copy a relevant section from one of her books:

The original legend appears to have been that eventually, at the end of “limited time”, a son will be born of the seed of the prophet, which is preserved miraculously in a lake (named in the Avesta Lake Kąsaoya), where it is watched over by 99,999 fravašis of the just. When Frašō.kǝrǝti is near, a virgin will bathe in this lake and become with child by the prophet, giving birth to a son, Astvat.ǝrǝti, “he who embodies righteousness”. Astvat.ǝrǝti will be the Saošyant, the Saviour who will bring about Frašō.kǝrǝti, smiting “daēvas and men”; and his name derives from Zoroaster’s words in Y. 43.16: astvat ašǝm hyāt “may righteousness be embodied”. The legend of this great Messianic figure, the cosmic saviour, appears to stem from Zoroaster’s teaching about the one “greater than good” to come after him (Y. 43-3)21, upon which there worked the profound Iranian respect for lineage, so that the future Saviour had necessarily to be of the prophet’s own blood. This had the consequence that, despite the story of the Saošyant’s miraculous conception, there was no divinisation of him, and no betrayal therefore of Zoroaster’s teachings about the part which humanity has to play in the salvation of the world. The Saviour will be a man, born of human parents. “Zoroastrianism … attributes to man a distinguished part in the great cosmic struggle. It is above all a soteriological part, because it is man who has to win the battle and eliminate evil”.

(Boyce, 282)

Magi and births of future kings


The Greek historian Herodotus tells a tale of Magi interpreting a dream to mean a future king has been born:

Astyages had a daughter called Mandane, and he dreamed one night that she made water in such enormous quantities that it filled his city and swamped the whole of Asia. He told his dream to the Magi, whose business it was to interpret such things, and was much alarmed by what they said it meant. Consequently when Mandane was old enough to marry, he did not give her to some Mede of suitable rank, but was induced by his fear of the dream’s significance to marry her to a Persian named Cambyses, a man he knew to be of good family and quiet habits – though he considered him much below a Mede even of middle rank. 

Before Mandane and Cambyses had been married a year, Astyages had another dream. This time it was that a vine grew from his daughter’s private parts and spread over Asia. As before, he told the interpreters about this dream, and then sent for his daughter, who was now pregnant. When she arrived, he kept her under strict watch, intending to make away with her child; for the fact was that the Magi had interpreted the dream to mean that his daughter’s son would usurp his throne.

(Herodotus, 1.108)

With this second dream the king is fearful enough to order the murder of the infant. The infant survives, however, and when the king learns his order has been defied he brings the magi in again for consultation. The king accordingly slew the innocent child of the servant who had disobeyed him.

Litwa identifies similar structures in the accounts of Herodotus and the Gospel of Mattew concerning

  • magi who inform a king that a child is born who will replace him,
  • the king ordering the child to be killed,
  • the child “miraculously” escaping,
  • and the king subsequently killing an innocent.

What interests Litwa, though, is that both “accounts are presented as historiography” (p. 107). Herod was known to be cruel, so even though there is no evidence that he did order the massacre of infants in Bethlehem, the tale in Matthew’s gospel “sounded enough like historiography to be accepted as true” (p. 107)

That sounds reasonable enough on its own, but what are we to make of the fact that Pilate was also known for his cruelty but all the evangelists, Matthew included, present him — most UNhistorically — as benign and soft when he meets Jesus and is cowered by the Jewish priests and mob into doing their will against his own will? Yet that story has also been accepted as true: despite what was known of Pilate’s character, it also “sounded enough like historiography”.

Litwa addresses other ancient tales involving magi (Plutarch, Quintus Curtius, in relation to Alexander the Great), informing us that those tales, too, are implausible to moderns (no persons can predict the future of an individual from dreams), so if the story of the magi in the Gospel of Matthew is likewise implausible, no matter, since that’s what the historical narratives of ancient historians looked like. There certainly are many accounts of dream interpretation in various historical works but they are “add-ons” and the overall narratives of historians are not one series of miraculous events after another, as we find in the gospels.

Magical guiding stars

Litwa finds ancient stories of guiding stars to be more useful explanations for the star of Bethlehem that led the magi to Jesus than the various extant attempts to identify astronomical observations of that period. Again, Litwa is not arguing for direct “mimesis” but a more general influence of stories and concepts that were “in the air” throughout the Mediterranean cultural world.

We read of ancient sources that speak of magi interpreting dreams of astral bodies in ways that spoke of rulership; of the historian Pompeius Trogus writing of an unusual star appearing at the birth of Mithridates, the king of Pontus who would challenge Rome, and again at his ascension to the throne. What I found of most interest in Litwa’s discussion is not his thoughts on “long-haired stars” or comets but his references to stars that were said to point to very specific places on earth — as per the star being said to stand over the house where the infant Jesus was to be found.

  • A sword-shaped star hung over Jerusalem just prior to its fall to the Romans (Josephus)
  • The Torch of Timoleon, a fiery “star” that led the fleet the Corinthian general Timoleon before falling down to mark the exact part of Italy to be beached (Plutarch)
  • The scholar Varro interpreted Virgil’s poetic account of the goddess Venus guiding Aeneas to Italy as Aeneas being led by the planet Venus (Servius)

(Source-author links are to the relevant passages describing the events.)

Many ancient people believed in omens and yes, they found their way into “history” books. Omens were even more integral to mythical stories and other forms of fiction. That point raises questions about the strength of Litwa’s attempt to explain why the gospels were believed to be historical by certain readers but not all.

Chapter 8

Jesus is part of a crowd of famous infants in danger

Continue reading “Review, parts 7 and 8. Litwa on Birth and Childhood Stories of Jesus – Widespread Cultural Tropes Recycled as “History””


Review, part 6bi: On That Exception in Litwa’s Favour. A (Qualified) Correction.

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by Neil Godfrey

This post is a correction to the conclusion of what I wrote in Review, part 6b. Litwa on “Mythistorical” Prophecies, Biblical and Greco-Roman

I concluded my most recent review of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths with the concession that when writing of Augustus Suetonius expresses none of the distancing of his own views from his accounts of miracles that we find typical in other historians. There is no expression of doubt. It is all told as simple matter of fact. Comparable, that is, to the telling of any other poetic myth or even the gospel narratives of Jesus. I wrote:

* The Greek hero Heracles is clearly categorized as mythical—especially by modern people. Yet the mytho­logical template exemplified by Heracles played out in the lives of figures still deemed historical: Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus, and Jesus himself. When historiography follows a mythic pattern, however, it is no longer simply a record of past events. It is what we are calling mythic historiography. (Litwa, p. 101)

An Exception in Litwa’s Favour

In the above quotation* mention is made of Caesar Augustus. Earlier Litwa had informed readers of the Roman historian Suetonius’s account of the prophecies relating to Augustus’s birth. In this case the evidence Litwa is claiming for his thesis is more secure. Suetonius did often (not always) write of many bizarre events (including human ones, not only supernatural prodigies) that read more like a scandal rag’s gossip than serious history. Here is Suetonius on the prophecy about Augustus:

On the day Augustus was born, when the conspiracy of Catiline was being discussed in the senate house and Octavius stayed away until late because his wife was in labour, Publius Nigidius, hearing why he was delayed, when informed of the hour of the birth, asserted (as is generally known) that the master of the world was born. When Octavius, who was leading an army through remote regions of Thrace, sought guidance concerning his son at some barbarian rituals in the grove of Father Liber, the same prediction was made by the priests, for so great a flame had leapt up when they poured wine on the altar, that it passed beyond the peak of the temple roof and right up to the sky, a portent which had only previously occurred when Alexander the Great offered sacrifice at that altar. And on the very next night thereafter, he dreamed he saw his son of greater than mortal size with a thunderbolt and sceptre and emblems of Jupiter Best and Greatest and a radiate crown, on a chariot decorated with laurel drawn by twelve horses of astonishing whiteness.

When Augustus was still a baby, as is recorded in the writings of Gaius Drusus, he was placed one evening by his nurse in his cot on level ground but the next morning he had disappeared. He was only found, after a long search, in a tower of great height where he lay facing the rising sun. When he first began to speak, he ordered some frogs to be silent who happened to be croaking in his grandfather’s villa and they say that from that time no frog croaked there. . . .

So Litwa can rightly say that some historians wrote of prophetic pronouncements in the same way as did poets, novelists and the evangelists.

Augustus (the Divine)

I confess I was surprised a little when I re-read Suetonius’s “Life of Augustus” because it did indeed, on this particular point, stand as an exception to the rhetoric of quite a number of other Roman and Greek historians I have read. So I did a little digging to try to see what explanations were out there for this exception.

The Exception that Proves the Rule (contra Litwa)?

The answer I was looking for was found in a 2012 article by D. Wardle, “Suetonius on Augustus as God and Man”, in The Classical Quarterly. Wardle himself points out that Suetonius writes of Augustus in a manner quite different from how he writes of any other Roman emperor. That is, Suetonius’s account of Augustus is not only an apparent exception to the way many other surviving ancient historians wrote, but it is an exception even to how Suetonius himself normally wrote. Suetonius really did accept as “seriously true” the divinity of Augustus Caesar.

Suetonius’ Divus Augustus, by comparison with the other divi, appears to be a deity whom Suetonius is encouraging his reader to take seriously. His deliberate framing of Augustus’ life by passages that place great emphasis on the real divinity of Augustus is unique in the Lives. While this might be put down to a desire for variety, other Lives do share similar structures. And it seems likely that for Suetonius Augustus’ divinity was qualitatively different from those of the other divi. There is not the slightest hint in Suetonius of the equivocation that marks the culmination of Pliny’s discussion of the misfortunes of Augustus: in summa deus ille caelumque nescio adeptus magis an meritus. In the biographer’s presentation of Augustus the material that involves the emperor’s godhead demonstrates a vital element of what the emperor was to the world over which he ruled and had ruled.

Wardle appears to be saying that Suetonius’s presentation of Augustus is different from his biographical accounts of other emperors because he (Suetonius) believed Augustus was a literal god.

Historians of that era sometimes mocked the notion that any mortal was declared to be a god. But Wardle finds significance in the way Suetonius emphatically presents Augusts as a veritable divinity before he embarks on narrating his very mortal and fallible human career. Never does Suetonius at any moment suggest any doubt about the divinity of Augustus. In the cases of other emperors, Suetonius does write like other historians — expressing a certain personal detachment from the “facts” he is narrating. Suetonius

The expression of his face, whether he was speaking or silent, was so calm and serene that one of the leading men of Gaul confessed to his fellows that he was so impressed and won over that he abandoned his plan to throw the emperor over the cliff, when he was admitted to his presence as he was crossing the Alps. His eyes were clear and bright; he liked it to be thought that they revealed a godlike power and was pleased if someone who regarded him closely then lowered their gaze, as though from the sun’s force. . . . 

It is said that his body was mottled with birthmarks spread out over his chest and stomach which in their shape, number, and arrangement resembled the constellation of the bear. 

(Suetonius, Deified Augustus 79-80)

Wardle explains the significance of that bear constellation:

The constellation of Ursa Major was recognized by the ancients as the axis around which the universe rotated . . . . 

(Wardle, p. 318)

Signs abound, and without any intellectual distancing in the telling. Egyptians, Greeks, they all worshipped Augustus as divine while he was with them and were right to do so, just as right as to genuinely believe that he continued as a divinity post mortem.

More Names with Puns

Continue reading “Review, part 6bi: On That Exception in Litwa’s Favour. A (Qualified) Correction.”


The Myth of Embarrassment over a Humble Hometown Like Nazareth

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by Neil Godfrey

It has become a mantra in almost any book that raises the question: Why did the evangelists insist Jesus was from Nazareth unless it happened to be an undeniable historical fact known to all? The mantric response: Because no-one would make up such a datum; no-one would make up the notion that the great and saving Jesus came from such a tin-pot village. The criterion of embarrassment screams against the very idea.

I have never jumped on board with that response because I have never encountered any evidence that demonstrates why it would be too embarrassing for anyone to imagine that the Lord who taught the overturning of the social order so that the last would be first and the first last, who taught that God will exalt the humble and bring low the mighty, — that it would be too embarrassing for anyone to write down for posterity such a detail unless it were historically true and widely known.

I have always considered that response to be ad hoc. It is a speculative opinion but nothing more — pending evidence to buttress its presuppositions.

Then yesterday I read in the work of an ancient historian about the humble birthplace of a Roman emperor, the humble birthplace of a man who was decreed to be a god. The detail is presumably factual. The historian said it was well-known so there was no point trying to hide it. But there’s a catch, a catch that overturns the premise of the above ad hoc and almost universal explanation among scholars for the reason the evangelists might not have fabricated Nazareth as the hometown of Jesus. Here is the passage from the Roman historian Suetonius:

[The Roman emperor] Vespasian was born in a little village in the Sabine land just beyond Reate, known as Falacrina. [Deified Vespasian, 2]

Was this historical record an embarrassment to Vespasian? It seems not, since

even when he was emperor, he would frequently visit his childhood home, where the house was kept just as it had been so that he would not miss the sight of any familiar object. And he so cherished the memory of his grandmother that on religious and festival days he would insist on drinking from a small silver cup which had belonged to her. [Deified Vespasian, 2]

But wait, there is more:

In other matters he was from the very beginning of his principate [emperorship] right up until his death unassuming and tolerant, never attempting to cover up his modest background and sometimes even flaunting it. Indeed, when some people attempted to trace the origins of the Flavian family back to the founders of Reate and a companion of Hercules, whose tomb stood by the Salarian Way,* he actually laughed at them. [Deified Vespasian, 12]

Humble beginnings of a person who rose to high status could well be interpreted as evidence of special divine favour.

Even the great Augustus, the one emperor Suetonius took the most seriously as a divinity, is noted for his humble place of birth. Not the slightest hint of embarrassment is evinced in Suetonius’s reporting of it:

Augustus was born a little before sunrise eight days before the Kalends of October in the consulship of Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Antonius, at the Ox Heads in the Palatine district, on the spot where he now has a shrine, established shortly after he died. For, according to senate records, one Gaius Laetorius, a young man of patrician family, in an attempt to mitigate a penalty for adultery, which he claimed was too severe for one of his age and family, also drew to the attention of the senators the fact that he was the possessor and, as it were, guardian of the spot which the Deified Augustus first touched at his birth, and sought pardon for the sake of what he termed his own particular god. It was then decreed that this part of the house should be consecrated.  To this day his nursery is displayed in what was his grandfather’s country home near Velitrae. The room is very modest, like a pantry. [Deified Augustus, 5-6]

Suetonius introduces the above passage after having portrayed other indicators of Augustus’s humble early years and even detailing accusations of Augustus’s enemies about his origins:

In the first four chapters the biographer has compiled an account of the Octavii and the Atii, the gentes of Augustus’ natural parents, which sets out the comparative humbleness of his origins: the princeps’ own claim that his paternal line was an old equestrian family is juxtaposed with the claims of M. Antonius that it was tainted with the servile and banausic – a great-grandfather who was an ex-slave and a grandfather who was a money dealer. As to the maternal line, against the claims of senatorial imagines, Antonius alleges a potentially non-white ancestor and more of the banausic – a great-grandfather of African origin who moved into the baking business after running a perfume shop. This section of the life ends with an extract from a letter written by Cassius of Parma, assassin of Caesar and notorious victim of Augustan revenge, which combines both strands of Antonius’ attack and adds a sexual dimension:

. . . . Your mother’s meal came from the roughest bakery in Aricia; a money changer from Nerulum pawed her with his hands stained from filthy pennies. [Deified Augustus, 4.2]

Although Augustus’ ancestry was not the obvious stuff of gods, the next chapter, which begins the Life of Augustus proper, marks a transfer of focus: . . . .

[See the Suetonius passage above: Augustus was born a little before sunrise . . . .]

It begins by recording that Augustus (Suetonius deliberately uses the anachronistic name) was bom in a modest part of Rome, but then qualifies that by ubi nunc habet sacrarium, which begins a series of references to his divinity. (Wardle, 323-24)

Now we may accept the above accounts as likely historically true, but the point is our historian betrays not a hint of embarrassment. The tone suggests that there is nothing inappropriate about one destined to become a god should be born in humble or obscure circumstances.

I know, I know, there are a dozen spin-off questions relating to the above post. But I have chosen to focus on just one point.

Suetonius. 2008. Lives of the Caesars. Translated by Catharine Edwards. Reissue edition. Oxford etc.: OUP Oxford.

Wardle, D. 2012. “Suetonius on Augustus as God and Man.” The Classical Quarterly 62 (1): 307–26.


Review, part 6b. Litwa on “Mythistorical” Prophecies, Biblical and Greco-Roman

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing a discussion of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths . . . 

Allow me to round off with a few tidbits from Litwa’s discussion of the appearances of prophecies in history and biography type narratives. We have covered much of the main idea in the previous post on dreams. I’ll begin here with Litwa’s conclusion so we can, I hope, think the argument through with some attention to detail.

Don’t forget that prophecy-driven narratives were probably even more common in ancient fiction. See Prophecy Driven Narratives in Ancient Fiction. Litwa, however, focuses on prophecies found in historical or biographical literature and concludes the ancient reader would have associated prophecy with historical-type literature. He does not discuss (as far as I am aware at this stage) the reasons audiences would have been at least as likely to have associated prophecy with fictional narratives.

By telling the stories of great heroes as mythic historiography, ancient au­thors made their stories recognizable and rhetorically effective in the minds of their audiences. As we have seen, the evangelists were no exception. They used the same mythistorical patterns to highlight the transcendent greatness of their hero, even while he was a tiny baby. Yet their practices best resemble those of ancient historians who wrote historical accounts reporting supposedly real events. (pp. 62 f)

Here is how Litwa compares the “mythistorical patterns” in Greco-Roman historical or biographical literature and in the gospels.

We start with Pythagoras

Mnesarchus, father of Pythagoras, learned from Apollo that his wife “would bring forth a son surpassing all who previously lived in beauty and wisdom and who would be the greatest benefit to the human race.” (Iamblichus, Life) An angel tells Mary, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the son of the Most High” (Luke 1:31-32).

Now that certainly sounds like the story of a divine prophecy of the birth of Pythagoras was told in a manner very similar to that in the gospels about the birth of Jesus.

But I am never satisfied with reading second and third-hand summaries and always crave to check the original as closely as possible, either in the Greek or a reputable translation.

IT is said, therefore, that Ancaeus who dwelt in Samos in Cephallenia, was begot by Jupiter, whether he derived the fame of such an honorable descent through virtue, or through a certain greatness of soul. He surpassed, however, the rest of the Cephallenians in wisdom and renown.

[Ancaeus founds a new colony when commanded to do so by a prophet of Apollo.]

Unlike ancient fiction, historical fiction (including Luke-Acts), and certain popular historical works that were ridiculed by satirists and serious historians, notice that Iamblichus, in relating the traditions about descents of famous persons from gods, distances himself from them. He does not write of them as straightforward facts but begins, “it is said that…”. Iamblichus attempts an explanation that might have given rise to the stories.

Of course, we have no comparable distancing or critical assessment of similar narratives in the gospels.

It is said, therefore, that Mnesarchus and Pythais, who were the parents of Pythagoras, descended from the family and alliance of this Ancaeus, who founded the colony. In consequence, however, of this nobility of birth being celebrated by the citizens, a certain Samian poet says, that Pythagoras was the son of Apollo. For thus he sings,

Pythais fairest of the Samian tribe,
Bore from th’ embraces of the God of day
Renown’d Pythagoras, the friend of Jove.

Iamblchus continues to express his distancing from the information he is relaying. He makes it clear that he is writing what ‘is said’ by others.

The direct claim that Pythagoras was born from Apollo comes from a poet who is evidently looking back on the life and reputation of Pythagoras. Again, we have Iamblichus’s personal distancing from the claim itself.

It is worth while, however, to relate how this report became so prevalent. The Pythian oracle [= oracle of Apollo] then had predicted to this Mnesarchus . . . that his wife was now pregnant, and would bring forth a son surpassing in beauty and wisdom all that ever lived, and who would be of the greatest advantage to the human race in every thing pertaining to the life of man. . . . [W]e must not regard the assertions of Epimenides, Eudoxus, and Xenocrates, who suspect that Apollo at that time, becoming connected with Parthenis, and causing her to be pregnant from not being so, had in consequence of this predicted concerning Pythagoras, by the Delphic prophet: for this is by no means to be admitted.* Iamblichus wants to bring readers along with possible explanations for the reputation of Pythagoras being a son of Apollo. Here we encounter the prophecy that Litwa has compared with Luke 1:31-32 but notice the quite different contexts and functions of the two prophecies. One is told as fact; the other is told as a tradition that calls for explanation

Iamblichus rejects outright that such a story can possibly be literally true. Yes, some writers have written of it in a way that sounds like a god had sexual intercourse with a human but “this is by no means to be admitted.”

Indeed, no one can doubt that the soul of Pythagoras was sent to mankind from the empire of Apollo, either being an attendant on the God, or co-arranged with him in some other more familiar way: for this may be inferred both from his birth, and the all-various wisdom of his soul. And thus much concerning the nativity of Pythagoras. * The translator (Thomas Taylor) adds a lengthy explanation of the understanding behind Iamblichus’s words. In brief, the gods themselves were pure (impassive and pure) and as such could have no direct dealings with humans who were the opposite: “passive and impure” (the terms reflect their meanings in the year 1818). But there can be no vacuum so other beings must populate the distance between gods and humans. These other beings also come from the gods: they are “daemons”, “heroes”, “nymphs”, “and the like”. The lowest powers of these beings have compassion for the corporeal world: daemons for humans, nymphs for trees and other forms of nature, and so forth. Through such beings a spirit of the divinity can be imparted to a human, as at birth. In the same way Plutarch and Apuleius explained the “divine origin of Plato”.

After reading the prophecy that Pythagoras would be born a son of Apollo in Iamblichus I find less reason to maintain interest in Litwa’s comparison of it with the angel’s prophecy about Jesus to Mary.

I am not saying that Litwa’s discussion is not worth reading. I think it is given the numbers of detailed citations, sources, comparisons of Greco-Roman literature with the gospels. So many more such comparisons than I was aware of keep emerging page after page. Some of them are closer to the gospels than others, but all are worth following up. Our best education can be in reading carefully and following up the sources for oneself and making one’s own assessments — always being ready to revise them in the light of more reading and more counter-arguments.

My view is that Litwa has failed to qualify his case adequately, overlooking the same tropes in nonhistorical works and also in failing to give enough attention to the different qualities or characteristics of different historians.

Other stories of prophecies (Nigidius Figulus, the father of the one to become Augustus Caesar, Simeon in the temple) we have covered in the previous post. But one we have not examined yet is the prophecy concerning Heracles.

Here’s another: Heracles

Litwa cites two sources for the prophecy associated with the birth of Heracles and the promise of great honour to crown his mother, comparing the prophecy of Jesus’ greatness and the great honour to be bestowed on Mary. Those two sources are the poets Pindar and Theocritus.

They each recreate the story of how the newborn Heracles seized and killed two snakes that had been sent by a jealous goddess, Hera, into his crib to kill him. (Hera was wife of Zeus who had fathered Heracles to a mortal.) When the mother and father of Heracles see what he is done they are, as one would expect, utterly astonished. In Pindar’s version Heracle’s father asks the famous aged prophet Teiresias what this event means for the future of his son. Tieresas answers:

But [Amphitryon] called on his neighbor, the great prophet of Zeus on high,
Teiresias, the strict seer; who told before him and all the company his son’s encounters to be,

all the beasts he must slay by land,
all the beasts of the sea, brutes without right or wrong;
likewise the man walking, crossed
with conceit in hatefulness,
he must give over to death;
and how, when the gods in the plain of Phlegra met the Giants in battle,
under the storm of his shafts these also must drag their bright hair in the dust.

(Pindar, Nemean Ode 1)

Continue reading “Review, part 6b. Litwa on “Mythistorical” Prophecies, Biblical and Greco-Roman”


Review, part 6a. Litwa on Dream Prophecies, both Biblical and Greco-Roman

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by Neil Godfrey

Chapter six of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History : Jesus and Mediterranean Myths is an engaging discussion comparing dreams and prophecies in the gospel stories surrounding the birth of Jesus with similar happenings relating to the births of pagan heroes. Of course, Litwa is not suggesting that the gospel accounts borrowed directly from the pagan myths. Rather, his thesis is that such stories were acceptable among ancient audiences as compatible with historical narratives.

Part of Historical Narrative

Litwa sketches the bare outlines of these comparable pagan dreams and prophecies but the interest his discussion inspires me to quote more extensively from the ancient sources themselves. Notice in the first passage Cicero’s strong linking of what we would call a fanciful tale with “history” and “historians”.

Cicero, On Divination, 1.55

“But why am I dwelling on illustrations from Greek sources when—though I can’t explain it —those from our own history please me more? Now here is a dream which is mentioned by all our historians, by the Fabii and the Gellii and, most recently, by Coelius:

During the Latin War when the Great Votive Games were being celebrated for the first time the city was suddenly called to arms and the games were interrupted. Later it was determined to repeat them, but before they began, and while the people were taking their seats, a slave bearing a yoke was led about the circus and beaten with rods. After that a Roman rustic had a dream in which someone appeared to him and said that he disapproved of the leader [viz, the slave just beaten] of the games and ordered this statement to be reported to the Senate. But the rustic dared not do as he was bid. The order was repeated by the spectre with a warning not to put his power to the test. Not even then did the rustic dare obey. After that his son died and the same vision was repeated the third time. Thereupon he became ill and told his friends of his dream. On their advice he was carried to the Senate-house on a litter and, having related his dream to the Senate, his health was restored and he walked home unaided. And so, the tradition is, the Senate gave credence to the dream and had the games repeated.

And the Roman historian Livy gives us more details of the same, in his History of Rome, 2.36

It so happened that at Rome preparations were making to repeat the Great Games. The reason of the repetition was as follows:

at an early hour of the day appointed for the games, before the show had begun, a certain householder had driven his slave, bearing a yoke, through the midst of the circus, scourging the culprit as he went. The games had then been begun, as though this circumstance had in no way affected their sanctity. Not long after, Titus Latinius, a plebeian, had a dream. He dreamt that Jupiter said that the leading dancer at the games had not been to his liking ; that unless there were a sumptuous repetition of the festival the City would be in danger; that Latinius was to go and announce this to the consuls. Though the man’s conscience was by no means at ease, nevertheless the awe he felt at the majesty of the magistrates was too great ; he was afraid of becoming a laughing-stock. Heavy was the price he paid for his hesitation, for a few days later he lost his son. Lest this sudden calamity should leave any uncertainty as to its cause in the mind of the wretched man, the same phantom appeared again before him in his dreams, and asked him, as he thought, whether he had been sufficiently repaid for spurning the gods ; for a greater recompense was at hand unless he went quickly and informed the consuls. This brought the matter nearer home. Yet he still delayed and put off going, till a violent attack of illness suddenly laid him low. Then at last the anger of the gods taught him wisdom. And so, worn out with his sufferings, past and present, he called a council of his kinsmen and explained to them what he had seen and heard, how Jupiter had so often confronted him in his sleep, and how the threats and anger of the god had been instantly fulfilled in his own misfortunes. Then, with the unhesitating approval of all who were present, he was carried on a litter to the consuls in the Forum ; and thence, by their command, to the Curia, where he had no sooner told the same story to the Fathers, greatly to the wonder of them all, when — lo, another miracle ! For it is related that he who had been carried into the senate-house afflicted in all his members, returned home, after discharging his duty, on his own feet.

Jupiter sounds as cruel as Yahweh. Do any biblical dreams come to mind here, and tardy responses to them?

Contradictory Accounts Not Necessarily a Stumbling Block

Plutarch wrote of the birth of Alexander the Great (2.2-4), at the same time remarking on different versions among the historians. I find it interesting that contradictory accounts did not undermine the conviction that there was historical ‘truth’ behind either tale or both.

Other interesting details of note are that magi from afar appear at the site of the birth of the divine infant; divine lights and signs are seen at least in dreams; and the mortal father of the child divinely conceived if kept from having sexual relations with his wife at the time. Again, notice any similarities with biblical births divinely conceived?

II. All are agreed that Alexander was descended on his father’s side from Herakles through Karanus, and on his mother’s from Æakus through Neoptolemus.

We are told that Philip and Olympias first met during their initiation into the sacred mysteries at Samothrace, and that he, while yet a boy, fell in love with the orphan girl, and persuaded her brother Arymbas to consent to their marriage. The bride, before she consorted with her husband, dreamed that she had been struck by a thunderbolt, from which a sheet of flame sprang out in every direction, and then suddenly died away. Philip himself some time after his marriage dreamed that he set a seal upon his wife’s body, on which was engraved the figure of a lion. When he consulted the soothsayers as to what this meant, most of them declared the meaning to be, that his wife required more careful watching; but Aristander of Telmessus declared that she must be pregnant, because men do not seal up what is empty, and that she would bear a son of a spirited and lion-like disposition. Once Philip found his wife asleep, with a large tame snake stretched beside her; and this, it is said, quite put an end to his passion for her, and made him avoid her society, either because he feared the magic arts of his wife, or else from a religious scruple, because his place was more worthily filled. Another version of this story is that the women of Macedonia have been from very ancient times subject to the Orphic and Bacchic frenzy. . . and perform the same rites as do the Edonians and the Thracian women about Mount Haemus, from which the word “threskeuein” has come to mean “to be over-superstitious.” Olympias, it is said, celebrated these rites with exceeding fervour, and in imitation of the Orientals, and to introduce into the festal procession large tame serpents, which struck terror into the men as they glided through the ivy wreaths and mystic baskets which the women carried on their heads.

Magi in the place where Alexander was born predicted the new child would be a great king who would destroy the Persian Empire. Has the author of the Gospel of Matthew been inspired to emulate or transvalue or simply reapply the function of the magi from the Alexander tradition?

III. We are told that Philip after this portent sent Chairon of Megalopolis to Delphi, to consult the god there, and that he delivered an oracular response bidding him sacrifice to Zeus Ammon, and to pay especial reverence to that god: warning him, moreover, that he would some day lose the sight of that eye with which, through the chink of the half-opened door, he had seen the god consorting with his wife in the form of a serpent. The historian Eratosthenes informs us that when Alexander was about to set out on his great expedition, Olympias told him the secret of his birth, and bade him act worthily of his divine parentage. Other writers say that she scrupled to mention the subject, and was heard to say “Why does Alexander make Hera jealous of me?”

Alexander was born on the sixth day of the month Hekatombæon, which the Macedonians call Lous, the same day on which the temple of Artemis at Ephesus was burned. This coincidence inspired Hegesias of Magnesia to construct a ponderous joke, dull enough to have put out the fire, which was, that it was no wonder that the temple of Artemis was burned, since she was away from, it, attending to the birth of Alexander. All the Persian magi who were in Ephesus at the time imagined that the destruction of the temple was but the forerunner of a greater disaster, and ran through the city beating their faces and shouting that on that day was born the destroyer of Asia. . . . .

Post-Birth Confirmation Prophecy

Continue reading “Review, part 6a. Litwa on Dream Prophecies, both Biblical and Greco-Roman”


Review, part 5 (Litwa on) Jesus’ Genealogy and Divine Conception

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by Neil Godfrey

My earlier posts on M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History were not my favourites. Negatives about assumptions and methods tended to predominate. But I would not want that tone to deflect readers from the many positives and points of interest in the book. Chapter four discusses Jesus’ genealogies in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the context of genealogies in ancient literature and culture more generally; chapter five looks at Jesus’ divine parentage in the same contexts. Litwa offers a treasure chest of citations for further informed reading to flesh out many of his points. In this post I only follow up a tiny handful.

Litwa refers to a work of Plato that mocked as sheer vanity and ignorance the claims of those who prided themselves in being able to trace their family tree back many generations to someone great like Heracles. But Litwa follows this up by evidence that many of the hoi polloi failed to heed Plato’s admonition. The historian Polybius, for example, made it clear that many readers indeed did love to read about lineages that demonstrated a prominent origin of a heroic protagonist. I have followed up the citations Litwa offers quote both views here:

Plato in Theatetus:

And when people sing the praises of lineage and say someone is of noble birth, because he can show seven wealthy ancestors, he thinks that such praises betray an altogether dull and narrow vision on the part of those who utter them; because of lack of education they cannot keep their eyes fixed upon the whole and are unable to calculate that every man has had countless thousands of ancestors and progenitors, among whom have been in any instance rich and poor, kings and slaves, barbarians and Greeks. And when people pride themselves on a list of twenty-five ancestors and trace their pedigree back to Heracles, the son of Amphitryon, the pettiness of their ideas seems absurd to him; he laughs at them because they cannot free their silly minds of vanity by calculating that Amphitryon’s twenty-fifth ancestor was such as fortune happened to make him, and the fiftieth for that matter. In all these cases the philosopher is derided by the common herd, partly because he seems to be contemptuous, partly because he is ignorant of common things and is always in perplexity.

The historian Polybius confesses he writes for a limited audience in Fragment 9:

For nearly all other writers, or at least most of them, by dealing with every branch of history, attract many kinds of people to the perusal of their works. The genealogical side appeals to those who are fond of a story, and the account of colonies, the foundation of cities, and their ties of kindred, such as we find, for instance, in Ephorus, attracts the curious and lovers of recondite longer, while the student of politics is interested in the doings of nations, cities, and monarchs. As I have confined my attention strictly to these last matters and as my whole work treats of nothing else, it is, as I say, adapted only to one sort of reader, and its perusal will have no attractions for the larger number. I have stated elsewhere at some length my reason for choosing to exclude other branches of history and chronicle actions alone, but there is no harm in briefly reminding my readers of it here in order to impress it on them.

Since genealogies, myths, the planting of colonies, the foundations of cities and their ties of kinship have been recounted by many writers and in many different styles, an author who undertakes at the present day to deal with these matters must either represent the work of others as being his own, a most disgraceful proceeding, or if he refuses to do this, must manifestly toil to no purpose, being constrained to avow that the matters on which he writes and to which he devotes his attention have been adequately narrated and handed down to posterity by previous authors.

You can get a taste of Roman mythical genealogical work from around the era of the gospels at a Classical Texts Library: Hyginus, Fabulae: and another by (Pseudo-)Apollodous on the same site.

But then Litwa reminds us that a post-Pauline letter condemned particular interest in genealogical lines:

Pay no attention to mythoi and endless genealogies (1 Tim. 1:4)

Elite males spent a great deal of time and money “discovering” and advertising their noble ancestors.15

15. The ability of a genealogy to express male (productive) power is highlighted by the presence of a penis with testicles etched onto a genealogical inscription found at Dodona (in western Greece). In this inscription, a certain Agathon of Zacynthus recorded the link of proxeny between himself and the community of Molossians on Epirus through the mythic ancestress Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess. See further P. M. Fraser, “Agathon and Kassandra (IG IX.12 4.1750),” Journal of Hellenic Studies 123 (2003): 26-40

(pp. 79, 241)

Litwa does not draw attention to the point, but this passage, although post-Pauline, must surely have been penned before our canonical forms of the gospels of Matthew and Luke found wide acceptance. He does, however, point out the close association of myths and genealogies in both this pastoral epistle and in the words of Polybius (quoted above). Good reason underlay the association. Genealogies were very often social constructs (with various tweaks and outright fabrications) to make political points. Litwa explains:

Genealogies show that the line between mythos and historiography is often quite thin. About 100 BCE, the grammarian Asclepiades of Myrlea divided the historical part of grammar into three categories: the true, the seemingly true, and the false. There is only one kind of false history, said Asclepiades, and that is genealogy. It is genealogy that he expressly called “mythic history” (muthike historia). In his system, genealogies were even less true than the stories presented in comedy and mime. (p. 79)

Litwa discusses other historians (Herodotus, Livy, Josephus) and literati (Aristophanes, Hyginus, Cicero) who mocked lofty genealogical claims. Nonetheless, they carried serious import, too, as when the kings of Sparta established their right to rule by tracing their families back to Heracles himself. The Spartans were not alone in such “legitimizing” genealogical claims. Alexander claimed descent from the last native Pharaoh of Egypt, the family of Julius Caesar claimed descent from Aeneas of Troy, and therefore also from the goddess Venus, and so forth. The Roman emperor Galba claimed descent from Jupiter. Another emperor better known to many of us, Vespasian, was well known to have had relatively humble origins and accordingly mocked certain flatterers who attempted to assign a lineage back to Heracles.

What of that “little problem” in the gospels that trace Jesus’ genealogy through to Joseph who was not, according to the story, the literal father of Jesus? No problem, Litwa points out:

Yet when we compare other mythic genealogies, these kinds of hitches did not seem bothersome to the ancients. The Greek biographer Plutarch, for instance, fleshed out the genealogy of Alexander the Great. Plutarch recorded the common tradition that Alexander, through his father, Philip, was a descendant of the god Heracles. One would think that this impressive genealogy would be ruined by the fact that, according to widespread perception—and Plutarch’s own report—Philip was not Alexander’s biological father. Plutarch himself narrated that Zeus impregnated Alexander’s mother, Olympias; and Olympias supposedly acknowledged this point directly to the adult Alexander.

Yet these conflicting reports did not seem to impose cognitive dissonance. A concept of dual paternity was possible. As most people in the ancient world knew (and perhaps believed on some level), Alexander’s real father was the high God Zeus, though he was also the “son of Philip.” (p. 84)

Litwa suggests that the evangelists responsible for the genealogies of Jesus in our Gospels of Matthew and Luke were creating a “mythic historiography” that had a strong appeal to certain readers and served to exalt the status of Jesus in a way comparable to the myths or legends associated with other potentates.

And yet the point of a genealogy is to show that an author was at least trying– despite innacuracies — to use the tropes of historiography. (p. 79)

Divine Conception

Continue reading “Review, part 5 (Litwa on) Jesus’ Genealogy and Divine Conception”


Rereading Literature and History — Some Thoughts on Philip R. Davies

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by Tim Widowfield

The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.

–Harry S. Truman

You have to start somewhere. That’s a distinct problem. How do we go about learning a subject as vast as biblical studies or biblical history? We could dive right in with some of the classics of text and form criticism, but we probably won’t fully understand them, because we don’t have the proper foundations.

Some of you may have taken survey courses at university in world history or American (or whatever your native country might happen to be) history. These courses tend to serve two purposes. First, they provide a means for students majoring in other studies to have some sort of foundation in “how we got here.” Second, they serve as a jumping-off point for those of us who continue on to our degrees in history.

Learning and unlearning

Every historian (amateur and professional) in America knows or at least should know our dirty little secret: that freshman history students face a serious disadvantage, because they must unlearn most of what they learned in high school. They must clear away the happy, feel-good history in which we are always the good guys and everything turns out well in the end. Imagine, for a moment, that you had learned medieval alchemy in high school only to discover in Chemistry 101 at your university that you don’t have the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

Survey courses in biblical studies or NT studies in some universities purport to do the same sort of thing. That is, they expose students to another way of thinking about the Bible other than what they learned in Sunday School. I took such a class in 1978 at Ohio University, and in many ways, I would consider it a positive experience. However, I would later discover that much of what I had accepted as bedrock could not stand up to stronger scrutiny.

I admit that my work in history in the mid-1980s at the University of Maryland should have alerted me to the obvious problems with biblical studies. However, it took the work of the so-called minimalists to push me in the right direction. I stumbled onto Thomas Thompson’s The Mythic Past completely by accident while wandering around a Barnes and Noble somewhere in Atlanta. (My job took me on frequent road trips back in the ’90s and the aughts.) The book (in hardback) apparently had not sold well, and they marked it down significantly. Lucky me.

Reading and rereading

Philip Davies (1945-2018)

Thompson asked questions I had never considered. It soon became clear that I had never asked these sorts of questions, because I had been properly trained not to. Beyond that, American education generally favors the notion of “moderation” as a virtue in and of itself. Surely only an extremist would question the historicity of Moses or Solomon. And extremism in the pursuit of anything is a vice. Surely.

Despite my proper training, one simple question — “How do we know?” — began to gnaw at me, the way a steady drip wears away stone. For me, Thompson more than anyone else gave me permission (so to speak) to ask even more dangerous questions. However, it took me longer to get up to speed with Philip R. Davies. (See Neil’s tribute to the late, great scholar here.)

For example, I had started In Search of Ancient Israel but never finished it until this past summer. Longtime Vridar readers will recall that Davies, and especially this book had a huge impact on Neil. You can find much more detail about this work over at the vridar.info site. For more related posts here on vridar.org, follow the tags above. (Below, I’ll be referring to the second edition of this work.) Continue reading “Rereading Literature and History — Some Thoughts on Philip R. Davies”


Two (More) Reasons Ancient Historians Fabricated History

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by Neil Godfrey

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. Continue reading “Two (More) Reasons Ancient Historians Fabricated History”


Review, part 3a (Homer and the Gospels) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

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by Neil Godfrey

In this post, I am presenting MacDonald’s case beside Litwa’s criticisms. One may disagree with MacDonald’s thesis and the significance he sees in certain comparisons but that is another discussion. Here I am interested only in an assessment of Litwa’s criticisms.

M. David Litwa opens chapter 2, “A Theory of Comparisons”, of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths, with the following epigraph:

The issue of difference has been all but forgotten.
Jonathan J. Smith

It is all too easy to overlook differences, agreed. I seem to recall drawing questionable conclusions about the world’s religions from reading, many years ago, certain works by James George Frazer and Joseph Campbell. On the other hand, much of my reading in more recent years has been of scholarly discussions that give renewed insights into the significance and meaning of the differences between the compared works. Indeed, Smith is quoted elsewhere in that same book (A Magic Still Dwells) making that same positive point:

“. . . . The issue of difference has been all but forgotten.” Smith attempts to counter this trend by emphasizing that questions of difference are constitutive of the very process of comparison. [C]omparison is, at base, never identity. Comparison requires the postulation of difference as the grounds of its being interesting (rather than tautological) and a methodical manipulation of difference, a playing across the ‘gap’ in the service of some useful end.” See Smith, “In Comparison a Magic Dwells,” pp. 21, 35; 25-26, 40. Smith reiterates this point in his critique of Eliade in chapter 1 of To Take Place, pp. 13-14.”

(Holdrege, 89. Bolded highlighting in all quotations is mine.)

Unfortunately, Litwa continues to operate with the assumption that “comparativists” who have not embraced his methods of comparison have continued to “forget” the importance of differences. As we saw in my previous post, I think Litwa is mistaken here, and that the mythicist he sought with the most detail to expose as flawed did not at all fall into the “forget the differences trap”. Litwa made assertions without providing evidence, and the evidence that I cited, I believe, demonstrated that Litwa’s criticism was misguided in this particular area. I cover this ground again because Litwa recapitulates it in the opening of his second chapter:

To understand how mythic historiographies work, they must be compared in a way that is both thoughtful and sound. In chapter 1, I presented some instances of unsound comparison in my discussion of Jesus Myth Theory. In short, mythicists tend to genetically connect words and motifs for religious (or antireligious) ends. Often their zeal induces them to ignore or paste over differences in cultural setting and storyline. 

No evidence (or cherry-picked evidence that went contrary to the main arguments) was offered to support that claim.

. . . . Similarities that are isolated and superficial often conceal greater differences. What is worse, superficial similarities are sometimes employed to prove historical causation. Yet individual words, phrases, and ideas that are similar (in some respect) are not necessarily genetically related. Similarities, no matter how precise, never amount to causation. (p. 46)

At this point, I am inclined to direct the reader to the words of Holdrege (citing Smith) above. Most of us are well aware of the dangers of confusing correlation with causation. When we have sound theories or explanations for particular types of similarities (e.g. comparing DNA samples) then comparisons can indeed be strong supports for appropriate arguments ranging from causation to coincidence.

Despite early slight missteps, Litwa does make an important point:

All similarities, furthermore, must be contextualized. If a posited similarity is between mythoi in two different texts, then one must situate the texts in their sociocultural settings. When were the texts written? Where were they written? Who wrote them? For what purposes? Do they belong to the same culture or sphere of cultural codes? And so forth.

Only after this contextual work has been done can one even think about positing a relation between stories. The relation, moreover, is not always that the author of text B knew and copied text A. Sometimes the authors of texts A and B depended on another text, C, or perhaps they saw the same event X or heard a similar oral report Y or belonged to common culture Z. (p. 47)

Precisely. The only flaw I see in Litwa’s discussion is his inconsistency is acknowledging that even Jesus myth theorists, and another “comparativist” he discusses in-depth in this second chapter, do contextualize their comparisons as per above. And sometimes such contextualizing questions do lead to a strong case that the author of text B knew and copied text A. We know Virgil did copy Homer and that the authors of the gospels did indeed know and copy and adapt the Jewish scriptures.

The reason Litwa is attempting to cordon off arguments confusing correlation with causation and to demean suggestions that “genetic relationships” explain similarities is to establish the thesis of his book, “dynamic cultural interaction”:

We need to think of the relations between the gospels and Greek lore more as dynamic cultural interaction: the complex, random, conscious and unconscious events of learning that occur when people interact and engage in practices of socialization. (p. 47)

I don’t know of any Jesus mythicist — and I’m thinking of Wells, Doherty, Price, Brodie, Carrier — who would disagree. Nor does Dennis R. MacDonald disagree with the reality of such a process leading to similar literary motifs appearing in diverse literature. In this second chapter, it happens to be Dennis MacDonald’s turn to come under Litwa’s critical eye.

Overlooking MacDonald’s agreement with the principle of “dynamic cultural interaction”, Litwa misguidedly objects to MacDonald’s argument for “genetic” connections between the Gospel of Mark and Homeric epics and wants to posit, instead, a more “complex, random, conscious and unconscious” series of interactions as an explanation for apparent similarities (or to deny even the reality of many of the similarities on the grounds that differences outnumber points in common). I don’t see the point of this argument. Does this sound like déjà vu back to my discussion of Litwa’s chapter on the Jesus myth theory? There is surely no problem with accepting Litwa’s overall explanation for similar motifs appearing in the gospels and classical literature but that explanation for some similarities does not mean another explanation for a more limited number of similarities must be ruled out. I know MacDonald’s Homeric thesis is of interest to many readers so I’ll take time to address Litwa’s criticism of it in detail.

The criteria MacDonald uses to judge probability of a text’s dependence on other works:

    1. accessibility to the author of the potential borrowed text
    2. analogy with borrowings of the text by other authors (did other authors also borrow and re-write the same stories?)
    3. density of the numbers of similarities between the texts
    4. order or sequence of the parallels
    5. distinctiveness of special features of the stories
    6. interpretability or intelligibility — the capacity of the original text to make sense of some detail in the new work (e.g. why does Jesus want his Messiahship kept secret?)

MacDonald developed a 7th criterion since publishing Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark:

7. Often Greek readers prior to 1000 C.E. seem to have been aware of affinities between New Testament narratives and their putative classical Greek models. Such ancient and Byzantine recognitions often suggest imitations in the original composition of the Gospels and Acts. (MacDonald, Gospels and Homer, 6 f)

Here is what MacDonald wrote about Litwa’s case for a more general cultural influence:

Response to objection 1: Because the Homeric epics were foundational to ancient Greek culture, any similarities between Mark and Homer are more likely to reflect general cultural influence than literary mimesis.To some extent I would agree, but one must not exclude imitation prima facie. Certainly some similarities between Mark and Homer may be due to general cultural influence, but it also is true that many ancient authors consciously imitated the epics; after all, they learned to do so in school. Furthermore, ancient narrative is rife with examples of obvious and subtle imitations of the epics as texts.

The challenge, then, is to test if similarities between two works issue from cultural osmosis or rhetorical mimesis. The last four of my six criteria attempt to do this very thing: (3) density (the number or volume of parallels between the two texts), (4) order (recognizable affinities in the sequence of the parallels), (5) distinctive traits (characteristics found in these two texts and not found widely elsewhere), and (6) interpretability (why the author imitated the target, which may include emulation or transvaluation). To my knowledge, no critic of my work has proposed alternative criteria for establishing literary connections. Although some parallels satisfy these criteria weakly, others do so magnificently and are sufficient to establish mimesis as a dominating strategy in Mark, not merely general cultural affinities. 

(MacDonald, 4f)

It is not an either/or argument.

Dennis R. MacDonald and Mimesis Criticism

Mimesis refers to an author’s conscious imitation of another text. The imitation can have a range of functions: the author shows off a certain intellectual sophistication; the author is striving to write a work comparable to the artistry of the “masters”; the author is using the contrast for humorous effect; the author creates a character or event that both recalls and surpasses its traditional counterpart, and probably more.

One rarely encounters objections to the notion that gospel authors (evangelists) copied or played with Jewish scriptures. Litwa implies that the reason for acceptance in this case is that

[t]he evanglists advertised their connection to previous Jewish texts. (p. 47)

But that is not entirely so. Yes, on occasion the evangelists did so advertise:

Then saith Jesus unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. — Matthew 26:31

Sometimes they advertised their debt to Jewish scriptures less explicitly but nonetheless quite obviously. We all know that John the Baptist is modelled on the prophet Elijah when he is introduced as follows and subsequently called “Elijah” by Jesus (Mark 9):

. . . in the wilderness . . . John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey. — Mark 1:3-4, 6

But there are many times when there is no advertising at all. 160 scriptural quotations and allusions have been identified in just five chapters of the Gospel of Mark. How many do you think were “advertised” as such? See 160 Scriptural Quotations and Allusions in Mark 11-16.

Recognize that the evangelists were quite capable of “mimesis” on Jewish scriptures without advertising and it follows that we have a right to ask if they similarly work with other literature that we have good reason to believe they knew about.

Litwa’s criticisms of MacDonald’s method

Litwa points readers to earlier more detailed criticisms of MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark by Margaret Mitchell and Karl Olav Sandnes (links are to their articles on Jstor) and acknowledges MacDonald’s response to those articles, but adds,

In my judgment, MacDonald’s response does not adequately address the concerns raised by Mitchell and Sandnes. (p. 235)

Okay, so I’ll let you be the judge. I’ll quote each objection of Litwa along with MacDonald’s indirect response. Continue reading “Review, part 3a (Homer and the Gospels) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa”


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

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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

(Litwa, 12)

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

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

(Lucian, True History, 71)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Josephus, Against Apion, 1.23-26)

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

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

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

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

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


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)

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by Neil Godfrey

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?

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


Two Ways of Defining Greco-Roman Historiography

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Woodman, 99f)

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


Mythistory — History and/or Tradition

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by Neil Godfrey

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)

Continue reading “Mythistory — History and/or Tradition”


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

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

How Herodotus imitated Homer

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

Compare also in each work

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Thucydides imitated Homer (and Herodotus!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.