Herodotus and Bible History: Mandell & Freedman contd

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by Neil Godfrey

Notes from Mandell and Freedman contd:

Intro One: Aims and methods

Many historians consider the Primary History of Israel as both a theological document and a historical one, even if only sometimes one can barely glimpse a historical nugget behind the myth. Yet Herodotus’ Histories is read differently: It is seen as essentially a historic book with no theological worth; or as a work where the mythic element was relegated mostly to the first 4 books leaving the remainder as essentially historical reporting.

Gerhad Von Rad (1944) was apparently the first to suggest that the Hebrews were the first to write “history” and that by giving it a theological meaning (that God’s purpose is being acted out through it, even in only behind the scenes) is what distinguishes it from Greek history. In other words, historians don’t consider references to the gods in Herodotus’ Histories of any worth or relevance to the overall work. (Some, however, do see more comparisons between Herodotus and his presumed near contemporary author of Chronicles.)

Is this difference in the way historians read Herodotus Histories and Israel’s Primary History justified? Continue reading “Herodotus and Bible History: Mandell & Freedman contd”


Herodotus and Israel’s History: Rationales for comparison

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by Neil Godfrey

The following are preliminary notes from my reading of Mandell & Freedman’s Preface — mentioned in my earlier post re Herodotus and Primary History.

Both Herodotus’ History and Primary History:

  • are national epics
  • are divided into 9 books at some time in their history
  • are about the same length
  • begin with a prehistory that includes myths, fables, folk-tales and legends treated as factual
  • and continue in this vein till well into their historical time
  • change structural format at similar point: (Israel about to enter promised land; Persians about to fight on Greek mainland) — from this point on, with the “homeland” the focus of action, a new historical tone takes over (though still divinities and miracle intervene)
  • instruct that history is guided by divine will.

(Though wars with the aim of conquest of another’s territory were common enough in history they were very rarely the topic of literature.)

The illusion of historical genre

Our misguided reliance on:

  • Aristotle who classified Herodotus as an historian;
  • and Cicero who called Herodotus the father of history.

In fact, Herodotus was not a sincere if naive reporter of tall tales, thinking he was passing on “the truth” of the matter. But this was the appearance he wanted his readers to accept.

Rather, Herodotus is classified in “the historic genre because the author successfully created that illusion by virtue of his superb literary craftsmanship.” (pp.xi-xii)

Herodotus the theologian

If we think of Herodotus as writing history we fail to apprehend the literary structure of his work “or the real and primal role that theology plays in it”.

“When we realized that the History is a theologically “charged” prose epic in which two different but related genres, the Documentary Novel and the Roman a Clef, are combined, we began to see that Herodotus was not simply a credulous collector of anecdotal data.” (p.xii)

Implied Narrator is not Real Author

Keep in mind the distinction between the narrative voice and the real author; the named narrator and the literal author; the implied narrator (ie. the literary persona whom the author depicts as the narrator) is not the same as the real author — although the real author may give his implied narrator his own name. (There is evidence this was understood by original audience.)

The implied narrator is a devoted worshipper of the god at Delphi.

Implications for literary analysis

So the implied narrator presents himself as giving real history from the Delphic viewpoint. But of the real author — we do not know that he held the same Delphic loyalties at all – we know that he knew the historical appearance was something he was creating through his narrative persona only. So Histories is only historical from the theological viewpoint of the implied Delphic worshipping narrative persona. It is not historical from a non-confessional viewpoint.

Ditto for Primary History. It is history from a theological confessional viewpoint, but from a nonconfessional viewpoint it is not history. From the latter perspective it is at best a religious document from which some historical data can be glimpsed.

This understanding leads to the rationale for examining both works from the “standpoint of Analytic Criticism, whereby any work, even a seemingly historical one, is to be treated as iconic” (p.xiii) — as a narrative/literary single whole. This enables us to study the literary structures and identify relationships between Herodotus Histories and the Primary History that would otherwise remain invisible.



Herodotus’ Histories and Israel’s History (notes from Wesselius)

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing my notetaking here from earlier post:

(A work in progress obviously — an attempt to grasp overview of the arguments)

Chapter 1 (my observations – with my commentary – on Wesselius)

  1. The genre of historiography in its modern sense is generally held to have arisen relatively late in history. Hence Herodotus is called “The Father of History”. (Till Hellenistic era we have annals and chrono lists but not interpretative history as a literary genre.)

Sara Mandell and David Noel Freedman compare Herodotus and Primary History (Gen-2Kings) : both divided into 9 volumes; both separate the 8th and 9th books in the middle of an episode; …. and many other points of comparison (not all agree on their significance).

Was Herodotus aware of the work of Ezra?

Hey… just recalled I have Freedman and Mandell’s work somewhere…. better go back and check that one first….

More later…


(Oh groan! i have just uncovered by Mandell and Freedman, heavily marked throughout — recognizing some of “my ideas” that I have obviously taken from sections of it….. Time for a much needed catch-up revision!!!!)

Herodotus’ Histories and the Primary History of Israel

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by Neil Godfrey

Something I’ve been wanting to start for ages is a compilation of notes from Wesselius’ book as much for my own interest as others. I know it’s not the most popular hypothesis in biblical studies, but gosh it is interesting and at least thought provoking, i think. By the time I finish I may well decide it has not a leg to stand on. That’s no worries. Either way, I am sure I will have learned much more about the relevant literary and archaeological and other worlds by the time I reach that point. But an opportunity came up in iidb for me to find an excuse to make a start, and this is it– just a start only! Let’s go…. with a view to refinement, elaboration, embarrassing deletions, up ahead…..

Continue reading “Herodotus’ Histories and the Primary History of Israel”


Those strange NT endings (Mark, John, Acts)

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by Neil Godfrey

It is widely assumed that the endings we know of Mark (16:8), John and Acts cannot have been the ones originally intended but after reading “Classical Closure: Reading the End in Greek and Latin Literature” edited by Deborah H. Roberts, Francis M. Dunn, and Don Fowler (1997) I have less confidence in that assumption. Nowhere are Mark, Acts and John discussed in the book and the extrapolations below are entirely my own.

In the book Carolyn Dewald discussion of “Strategies of Meaning at the End of Herodotus’s Histories” struck me as raising the same sorts of questions over Herodotus’s ending as are raised over the present endings of Mark and Acts. Herodotus leaves his work in mid-air too. This could only have been intentional since Herodotus throughout his work manages to consistently draw many satisfying conclusions to his many story sections. The question that arises then is what Herodotus was wanting to achieve by way of response from his audience by not framing a formal final conclusion to his work. ‘Histories’ can be read more accurately as a kind of theological tragedy than as a history in a modern sense. It is about the fate of Athenians and their lot within the common destinies of mankind, and their future is left in doubt. The mid-air ending of Histories inevitably left the questions about how one understood the present and future as uncertain and as issues to be questioned in the light of all that had just been read.

Francis M. Dunn discusses the ending of Euripides’ Heracles is tormentingly ambiguous and incomplete, so much so that there have long been many attempts rearrange the text or re-write the ending. The ending is indecisive and the audience has no way of knowing if it is meant to see Heracles as a failure or a hero let alone what sort of future is in store for him. Again, it appears that the author was by this means seeking to provoke a certain type of response in the audience to the deeper questions raised in the play.

Philip Hardie has much to say about the Virgil’s Aeneid and hellenistic fiction in general that is also reminiscent of issues that arise in the scholarship relating to the endings of Mark, John and Acts. He writes: “Ancient novels use many paratextual devices, usually to give a sense of (historiographic) authenticity to the fiction …” By paratextual devices he means those sorts of intrusive authorial comments we find in John 20:30-31. With this consideration the disputed ending of John can then be read as something like: “I can’t possibly write about everything but I have to add just one more thing before I close…. ”

The Aeneid is another case of an abrupt “improper” ending leaving the reader on the point of lurching in mid-air. Hardie says the more appropriate ending has been already written and is tucked away in Book 8 with its prophecies of the future history of Rome and Augustus. Deaths always need a resolution of some kind, a new treaty or funeral etc. but in the Aeneid we have the treaty of peace being made near the beginning of the story and the death it is meant to follow is at the end. Not only so, but there are many textual allusions in the final scenes that echo those found in the opening scenes thus reassuring the reader/listener that this ending really is as intended however unconventional it is. So Mark was by no means the first to create an unconventional story with suitable endings in the middle and an ending that leaves readers hanging, and wondering, and scrambling back over all they have read before to find its meaning.

The obvious objection is that Mark is alone in ending his work with that conjunction ‘gar’. Maybe so, but “Classical Closures” leaves less assurance that the endings we find problematic in Mark, John and Acts were not originally intended to be just as they are.



Jesus, the ideal Greek-Roman hero? (No embarrassment criterion here)

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by Neil Godfrey

I pulled out again my copy of “Mimesis and Intertextuality in Antiquity and Christianity” (ed. by Dennis R. MacDonald) thinking to write a layman’s review of its collection of contributions but got sidetracked (again) on re-reading Gregory J. Riley’s chapter, “Mimesis of Classical Ideals in the Second Century”. Some of Riley’s work totally rivets me with comments that provoke new thoughts; some of it leaves me totally flat. This chapter is one of the former. I will have to do a fuller discussion of this asap.

Till asap comes along, I am currently rethinking possibly the earliest surviving literary episode in the life of Jesus, his baptism as told in the Gospel of Mark. John the Baptist there is portrayed as someone of utmost “greatness”: he functions way out in the wilderness, yet despite that “all the land of Judea” went out to see him and submit to him in baptism. Now that is a graphic scene. It is no doubt fictional, or some might wish to say it contains a core of historical truth in that the exaggeration hints at least “lots” of people went out to the wilderness to be baptized. But Mark is telling the story and he creates a picture of the “whole land of Judea” coming out to John in the wilderness, to a man standing outside and in opposition to the city life (“and those from Jerusalem”) with his camel cloak and wild honey diet.

But his message escalates this scene of a truly remarkable man.– His message is about one “who is even greater” who is yet to follow after him! He underscores the point: he, such a great man, will not even be worthy to stoop to loose the sandal of the super-great one to come.

And that even greater one is, of course, the one we know will be from the beginning, from heaven itself even, declared the beloved Son of God himself.

What does all this have to do with a Greek-Roman classical ideal?

Riley writes, “a righteous and powerful Son of God is persecuted by unjust authorities, divine and human, faces his own horrible death with courage, and overcomes. This is not an Israelite story, but it is the oldest and most inspiring plot-line in Greco-Roman literature.” (p.95)

Dare we see the opening scene in Mark as yet another one of “the oldest and most inspiring plot-lines in Greco-Roman literature”? The opening scene of the Iliad was about a son of a goddess (a man-god), Achilles, whose refusal to submit, despite repeated pleas, to the greatest king, Agamemnon, one greater in authority despite Achilles being the far greater in parentage and ultimate personal worth and nobility of (Greek classical) character.

If so, then surely the “criteria of embarrassment” arguments in the literature that attach themselves to the baptism of Jesus beg for re-evaluation at least. Mark demonstrates NO such embarrassment at all. In fact he pushes as hard as he can into the readers/hearers’ faces that the Greater is submitting to the Lesser here!

There is so much to elaborate on here. I know, I have tossed out idle spec on this scene elsewhere, but I would love to do up a much fuller exploration of this and the other ideals expressed in the Christian myth that clearly repackaged and presented anew some of the highest ideals of classical antiquity. (As Burton Mack and others have written, it also included in that package much that was ruinous, too.) But I’m keen to follow through Riley’s argument in this and other aspects of the founding myth of Christianity.


(P.S. It seems almost flippant to comment (i know, again) here that that opening book in the Iliad, iirc, concludes with Agamemnon ordering the ritual washing of all his armed followers — the only one who removes himself from the camp and does not comply is, of course, Achilles.)

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Moses’ Exodus and Xerxes’ Greek Campaign

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by Neil Godfrey

More occasional notes added here. This time a web page comparing the biblical story of the Exodus with Herodotus’s account of Xerxes‘ invasion of Greece. A table outlines dot points from the views of Dutch Head of Department of Semitic Studies in the Theological University of Kampen, Dr Jan-Wim Wesselius. Not everyone will have a chance to afford or borrow Jan-Wim Wesselius’ “The Origin of the History of Israel : Herodotus’s Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible” (Sheffield, 2002) so hopefully the link here will be of some interest to others. I make no comment myself here on the strength of Wesselius’s argument. Hopefully further discussion will come with time to do more reading on the various sides of the controversy.

Neil Godfrey

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Ancient Epistolary Fictions / Patricia A. Rosenmeyer (2001). Review

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by Neil Godfrey

I’ve written this “review” essentially as a commentary on what we can know about the genuineness of the New Testament epistles. The commentary bits are in eyesore bold italics.

I read Rosenmeyer’s Ancient Epistolary Fictions (Cambridge University Press, 2001) to inform myself of the literary culture behind the New Testament epistles as part of my interest in understanding the nature of the historical evidence for Christian origins. So my review comments here are in that context. Letters, Rosenmeyer informs us, were a popular form of entertainment (and instruction) whether under the real name of their composer or a pseudonym. Letters were a popular composition both within novels and as collections of fictional or didactic correspondence. The most interesting discussion for me was the training authors received in how to add touches of realism in fictional or didactic letter compositions.

I was reminded of how often the strongest arguments for the authenticity of the Pauline epistles rely on seemingly incidental realistic touches such as requests to bring a cloak for winter, remarks on his health, etc. After reading Rosenmeyer personal details like these are ripped away from any case for authenticity: they are the very things authors were trained to throw in, even across collections of letters, not just in singular epistles. It is naive to interpret these personal asides from the main theme as marks of genuineness. As the magic wand of the trained author they are designed to distract the reader’s attention from the otherwise artificiality of the exercise and to draw the reader into the “reality” being artfully created.

Ditto for the argument of “emotional sincerity and passion”. Again, this is the very thing one would expect to be conveyed by trained authors in such didactic compositions. None of this means of course that the Pauline letters are not genuine, but it does mean that arguments for their genuineness need to be based on external controls, not their internal content or style. From this perspective it is not irrelevant that the earliest such external pointers are securely established no earlier than the second century, when the Pauline epistles emerge for the first time as a collection and in the midst of controversy and dialogue over the history and role of Paul in early christianity. Continue reading “Ancient Epistolary Fictions / Patricia A. Rosenmeyer (2001). Review”


Re-reading Virgil’s Aeneid

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by Neil Godfrey

Initially read Virgil’s Aeneid for my interest in the classics and culture of the Roman world and the literature that inspired many throughout the ages. Re-read it recently to compare with the New Testament literature. In particular, note the sudden ending that is not a satisyfing ending at all for our tastes, and compare sudden “non-endings” of the Book of Acts and Gospel of Mark (assuming 16.9-20 is not original). Even some ancients could not accept that Virgil really intended the Aeneid to end so abruptly and composed their own endings for it, just as many have attempted to deduce possible intended endings for Acts and Mark.

Yet when one notices that the existing ending of the Aeneid is decorated with literary allusions and images used at the beginning (e.g. the literal storm imagery that opens the Aeneid in Book 1 is repeated figuratively in Book 12 to describe Aeneas attacking Turnus), thus bracketing the work like bookends, then one can more easily accept the current conclusion is as the author intended it. Similarly one notices a similar literary allusions bracketing the current opening and endings of Mark — (the most well known examples being the tearing of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism and the tearing of the temple veil at his death; and the disobedience of the healed leper to the command to remain silent against the disobedience of the women to the command to speak (16.8).)

As for the ending of Acts, one cannot avoid the similarities between the constant mythic and literary themes of pioneers struggling through hardships and opposition and dangerous travel to establish “a new and truly God-fearing community” in Rome. In both the conclusion is abrupt once the beginninngs of this are established through one final conflict.

(There is much more to add by way of comparison with NT literature, but I have saved specifics for other posts to come, in particular for the series I am adding to this site on the we-passages in Acts. An interesting read, with its plusses and minuses like like any read, is Marianne Palmer Bonz’s “The Past as Legacy: Luke-Acts and Ancient Epic” (Fortress Press, 2000).)

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