Tag Archives: Ancient historians

Two (More) Reasons Ancient Historians Fabricated History

Do ancient historiographers sometimes say things they know to be factually untrue? Emphatically, yes. The accusation of deliberate fabrication is made repeatedly. — John Moles
  • Herodotus is dubbed the father, not only of history, but of lies;
  • Polybius castigates historians not only for incompetence, but falsehood;
  • Lucian tells of historians who claimed to be eye-witnesses of things they could not possibly have seen;
  • invention and manipulation of factual material is (I believe) demonstrable in Herodotus and Plutarch, as well as Hellenistic tragic historians.

The motives vary:

  • some, of course, crudely political — propaganda,flattery, denigration;
  • literary rivalry (to trump one’s predecessors, of which we have seen examples even in Thucydides);
  • the desire to spin a good yarn (often important in Herodotus and other historians of the exotic);
  • sometimes (surely) historiographical parody;
  • sheer emotional arousal or entertainment;
  • the need to make moral points
  • or bring out broader patterns or causes behind complicated sequences of events.

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

John Moles

Those last two points Moles illustrates in some depth.

The Need to Make a Moral Point

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

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

Moles comments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Litwa, 12)

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

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

(Lucian, True History, 71)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Josephus, Against Apion, 1.23-26)

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

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

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.

-o-

Josephus, Flavius. 2007. Against Apion. Edited by Steve Mason. Translated by John M. G. Barclay. Vol. 10. Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary. Brill.

Lucian of Samosata. 2016. “The Way to Write History.” In Works, by Lucian, translated by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler, Web edition. The University of Adelaide: eBooks@Adelaide. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lucian/works/chapter24.html.

Lucian of Samosata. 1894. Lucian’s True History. Translated by Francis Hickes. London : Privately printed. http://archive.org/details/lucianstruehisto00luciiala.

Origen. 1869. “Contra Celsum.” In The Writings of Origen. Vol. 2, translated by Frederick Crombie. Edinburgh : T. & T. Clark. http://archive.org/details/writingsoforigen02origuoft.


 

Two Ways of Defining Greco-Roman Historiography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Woodman, 99f)


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


 

Mythistory — History and/or Tradition

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

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

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

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

(B.O. Foster translation)

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

(Livy Book 1.1. De Sélincourt translation)

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

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

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

(Livy 1.1)

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

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

(Mali, 37)

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

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

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

(Livy 1.15-16)

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

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

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

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

(De Sélincourt trans.)

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

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

(Mali, 38f)

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

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

(Mali, 39)

read more »

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Herodotus imitated Homer

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

Compare also in each work

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Thucydides imitated Homer (and Herodotus!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–o0o–

Professor Woodman discusses all of the above at some length with illustrative material to support each of his theses. I can perhaps elaborate on a few details in future posts as I have already done in past ones on Thucydides.

The point is that history as practised by ancient Greco-Roman authors was never close to what we think of as historical writing. It was a form of rhetoric, along with poetry and oratory, written with the purpose of entertainment, yes, but also (at least for the serious practitioners) to teach, to shape and reinforce honourable traditions, piety, and other lessons to better prepare readers for the present and future.


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


Once More — Homer, History and the Gospels-Acts

I know some readers find it difficult to accept that our canonical gospels and Acts were seriously influenced by the epics of Homer, the Iliad and Odyssey.

Here is something (two things, actually) to think about.

Thomas Rosenmeyer

We think of “history” as a genre of literature that is meant to convey the idea of facts, truth, “what essentially happened”. But after reading an essay by classicist Thomas Rosenmeyer I suspect that that notion is not applicable to those we think of as historians in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Rather, what ancient authors were attuned to was emulation of a forefather — e.g. Homer — who set the standard.

Finally, there is one factor that I am inclined to think doomed any genre thinking from the start. This is the ancient critical commitment to the operation of zelos, aemulatio. I suspect that if one were to ask an ancient dramatist or a writer of epic why he was working in his medium and not in another, and which model he was following, he would cite his allegiance to the protos heuretes, the founder of the fine in which he was engaged. . . . Instead of genre criticism, the ancients practiced model criticism. Their allegiances and affiliations connect, not with a mode or a kind, but with a father, a personal guide. If they ally themselves with a work, it is identified as the work of a revered author, the precipitation of a literary act, not a fatherless text or a textual segment or a generic idea. Like the Pythian priestess inspired by her god, writers and critics are inspired by the effluences, aporroai, that stream into their souls from the sacred mouths of great models (Longinus, On the Sublime 13. 2). Where genre thinking is scientific, inferred from a sufficient sampling of texts and their properties, model thinking is, as it were, moral, and triggered by predecessors.

(Rosenmeyer, 435-36)

John Marincola

But Homer? What does Homer have to do with history? Here we scan an article by John Marincola in The Homer Encyclopedia

As in other areas of ancient literature, the influence of Homer on the Greek and Roman historians was profound and abiding. . . . 

The Odyssey exerted a strong influence on early investigators into other cultures (Montiglio 2005, 118–146), and the figure of Odysseus himself was important in many foundation myths of Greek colonies (Malkin 1998). . . . 

The other important area of Homeric influence was on the historians themselves. The developed genre of historiography took from the Homeric poems many features of epic: a mimetic, largely third-person narrative of deeds, interspersed with the speeches of historical characters in direct discourse; a concern to articulate the causes of actions and to pinpoint responsibility; an elevated style appropriate to “great” deeds; and a concern to immortalize those deeds for posterity and to draw from them important lessons about life and human action. The historians were also influenced by Homer in their choice of “suitable” subject matter: from the Iliad, the story of great deeds and struggles . . . from the Odyssey, an interest in foreign lands and places, in the guile and cunning of leaders, and in the pleasures of narrative itself. . . . 

The early historians were particularly influenced by and engaged with Homer. Herodotus plays a key role here, and was recognized already in antiquity as “most like Homer” . . . [I]t was Homer who offered him an intelligible model for the presentation of those enquiries: how to construct a large-scale narrative, with (sometimes expansive) shifts in time and space; how to subordinate individual episodes and digressions within a larger, unified narrative structure; and how to present the events of the past with immediacy and clarity. Herodotus unites both epics within his work, since his thematic conception – a great war between East and West – is indebted to the Iliad, while his own travel, enquiry, interest in marvels, and preoccupation with reversals of fortune owe much to the Odyssey. . . . 

Yet even while imitating Homer, Herodotus challenged him . . . “correcting” and “improving” him . . . 

Even Thucydides followed Homer’s trail:

This twin legacy – emulation and challenge – was bequeathed to Thucydides, who maintains the general epic features imported into historiography by Herodotus. . . . Thucydides’ narrative technique follows Homer more closely than Herodotus, especially in the suppression of the ubiquitous “I” of Herodotus work in favor of a more “unintrusive” Homeric narrator (Rengakos 2005, 2006). And ancient critics saw Thucydides too as one who “vied with Homer” (Marcellinus, Vit. Thuc. 35–37): Thucydides’ consistent emphasis on the magnitude of the sufferings in war is thoroughly Homeric (Woodman 1988, 28–34).

Historians thereafter continued to look to Homer for inspiration. . . . .

In the Hellenistic world, Polybius shows great respect for Homer . . . , and argues at length that Homer even cre ated a figure of the ideal historian: Odysseus, who united in his person both the practical skill of a general and leader of men, and the intellectual interest of the explorer and traveler . . . .

Ancient historians, Greek and Roman, consistently looked to Homer to infuse their narratives with an elevated tone and a “heroic” cast. . . . Thucydides’ narrative of the Sicilian Expedition in Books 6–7 is suffused with Homeric motifs and themes . . . . as is Livy’s account of the battle of Lake Regillus, where several incidents are modeled directly on Homer . . . . Likewise, speeches of generals before battle show a long tradition of Homeric influence . . . . Although scholars frequently refer to a “contamination” of history by epic, we cannot forget that the Homeric poems and characters were present to the ancients in an immediate and profound way, often serving as exempla, and it is perhaps just as likely that some, if not many, of the reminiscences of Homer in the Greek and Roman historians reflect the enormous influence that the Iliad and Odyssey actually had in the real world.

(Marincola, 357-59)

All of that would lead one to expect a priori Homeric influence in the Gospels and Acts, yes?


Marincola, John. 2011. “Historians and Homer.” In The Homer Encyclopedia, 2:357–59. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Rosenmeyer, Thomas G. 2005. “Ancient Literary Genres: A Mirage?” In Oxford Readings in Ancient Literary Criticism, edited by Andrew Laird, 321–439. Oxford Readings In Classical Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

 

The Relationship between Myth and History among Ancient Authors

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

Diodorus Siculus

Heracles and Geryon

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

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

(Book 4.8-9)

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

For, in the first place,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Marincola, 121)

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

(Muntz, 105-106)

To illustrate:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Similarly for the history in Book 4 of Heracles:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plutarch, On the Fame of the Athenians, 348.4

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

Plutarch, Life of Theseus, 1.5

Continuing from part 1a …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and so on. Myths stood opposed to Christian truth.

Truth and history

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

Can We Find History Beneath the Literary Trappings?

We have seen that the hypothesis that the Jesus of the gospels was in some way modeled on the story of another Jesus, Jesus son of Ananias, does have scholarly cachet and is by no means considered a fatuous instance of “parallelomania”. Jesus son of Ananias is a figure we find in Josephus’s account of the Jewish War of 66-70 CE. One scholar, Ted Weeden, advanced the thesis in considerable depth and even went further than exploring the “striking similarities” between Jesus ben Ananias and aspects of the Jesus narratives in all four of our canonical gospels: he even concluded that the Jesus prophet in Josephus’s Jewish War had no historical basis but was entirely a literary construct based on Jeremiah.

Now that conclusion was a step too far for some scholars, one of whom was Bob Schacht of the University of Hawaii who in 2005 on a scholarly forum raised the following objection:

As much as I admire my friend Ted Weeden’s scholarship, which is considerable, the whole of these arguments here posted seems to be a literary paradigm that rests on the assumption that all history takes place within literature, without any necessary or inconvenient ties to what people did outside of that literary frame in their lives. Ted does a masterful job of tracing literary connections, and he uses such phrases as “creator(s) of the story” to suggest that the people and events described therein are not historical. Ted’s arguments work very well within his literary paradigm, but do they really help us that much with history? The implications seem to be to subtract from historical knowledge, moving mountains of literary data from the domain of history into the domain of fiction.

The reductio ad absurdam here is that history didn’t really happen. Only literature happened, somehow existing outside of time and space except insofar as literary source A is considered prior to literary source B. I know this is a parody of Ted’s argument, but sometimes parodies can make a useful point.

. . . . . I don’t think that the authors of the gospels were trying to write a best-selling novel; I think they were trying to understand and explain things that happened a generation or two earlier, using the best tools they had to tell the tale.

Schacht, Bob, 2005. “Re: [XTalk] Essay, Part II: Jesus-Ananias=Latter-Day Jeremiah & Markan Jesus” XTalk: Historical Jesus & Christian Origins – Yahoo Groups. https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/crosstalk2/conversations/messages/18152.

I know Schacht’s concerns are not his alone; I find them expressed in different ways in many quarters whenever the question of literary contexts and paradigms are raised in discussions of works by ancient historians.

Moses I. Finley

The difficulty is not unique to biblical scholars. The prominent historian of ancient history, Moses I. Finley, sympathized with those who were left perturbed by the conclusions that must necessarily follow from an informed awareness of how ancient historians worked:

Modern writers find themselves in difficulties. Not only does the position of a Dionysius of Halicarnassus seem immoral – it has been said that one would have to regard Thucydides as ‘blind or dishonest’ – but, worse still, one must consider seriously abandoning some of the most interesting and seductive sections of Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Caesar, Sallust, Livy, Tacitus, Dio Cassius and the rest as primary or secondary sources.There is no choice: if the substance of the speeches or even the wording is not authentic, then one may not legitimately recount that Pericles told the assembled Athenians in 430 BC that their empire ‘is like a tyranny, seemingly unjust to have taken but dangerous to let go’ (Thucydides 2.63.2). I have no idea what Pericles said on that occasion but neither have the innumerable historians who repeat from a speech what I have just quoted. Except for Thucydides and perhaps Polybius, there is no longer any serious argument, though the reluctance to accept the consequences is evident on all sides . . . . 

pages 12-13 of M. I. Finley’s Ancient History: Evidence and Models.

I copy a section from an earlier post of mine: read more »

Ancient Historiography and Historians — Vridar Posts

For the background to this post see Vridar Maintenance.

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

From this list I will be looking for anything that

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

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

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

Interested readers are welcome to make suggestions.

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

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

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

Then other posts, link is “ancient history

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

Then more under “ancient biographies

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

ancient forgeries

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

ancient sources

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

ancient literature

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

ancient novels

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

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

. . . .

But wait, some more: “Greco-Roman Biographies

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

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

And still more (to be periodically updated):

Plutarch

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

Suetonius

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

Pliny the Younger

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

Tacitus

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

Julius Caesar

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

Midrash: A Message from God, though not historically true

Let us now turn to a famous story found in the Babylonian Talmud, b. Taanit 5b. While sitting together at a meal Rav Nahman asked Rabbi Yitzhaq to expound on some subject. After some preliminary diversions, Rabbi Yitzhaq said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, “Our father Jacob never died.”

Rav Nahman was taken aback by this claim and said,  “But he was embalmed and buried.” How is possible to do such things to someone who has not died?

Rabbi Yitzhaq responds and says, . . . . “I am engaged in Bible elucidation,” and he then cites Jer 30:10, “Therefore fear not, my servant Jacob, says the LORD; be not dismayed, Israel, for I will save you from afar and your seed from the land of their captivity.” He continues, “Israel is compared to his seed; just as his seed is alive so too is he alive.”

At first sight, it appears that the midrashic statement denying Jacob’s death is being derived from Jer 30:10. However, if we look closer at the passage, we will find a fascinating distinction between the biblical deathbed scenes of Abraham (Gen 25:8) and Isaac (35:29), on the one hand, and that of Jacob (49:33), on the other. In the former scenes, two verbs, . . . “expired,” and . . . “died,” and one phrase, . . . “was gathered to his people,” are used to describe their deaths. Regarding Jacob, however, only two verbs appear: expiring and being gathered to his people. For the midrashist, the absence of any verb from the root . . . “to die”, in the description of Jacob’s death cannot be by chance, but must be understood as communicating to us the Bible’s message that Jacob did not die.

According to the story, Rabbi Yitzhak’s statement to Rav Nahman was made in a completely neutral context — that is, outside of any context whatsoever. Consequently, Rav Nahman understood this claim as being functionally parallel to a claim such as “Elijah did not die.” The characteristic position of rabbinic Judaism is, of course, that Elijah never died but is still alive; indeed, according to the rabbis, he is the heavenly recorder of human deeds. Rav Nahman therefore asked Rabbi Yitzhak: But Jacob was embalmed and buried, so how can you claim he did not die. Rabbi Yitzhak’s response, . . . . “I am engaged in Bible elucidation,” and the citation of Jer 30:10, is not given to tell us the source of his previous statement, for as we have just seen, its source is the absence of any mention of death in Jacob’s deathbed scene. What he is doing is saying the following:

“You have misunderstood me; my statement that Jacob did not die is not to be understood as a literal-historical depiction of historical facts, but as midrash.”

Midrash comes to tell us a story placed in the biblical text by God, having no necessary relationship to the actual historical events, but whose purpose is to give us a message from God. That message is being explained to Rav Nahman by Rabbi Yitzhaq’s citation of Jeremiah. God’s exclusion of any mention of Jacob’s death is a promise found midrashically in Genesis and explicitly in Jeremiah: for Rabbi Yitzhaq, Jacob’s nondeath is a promise that his seed shall exist forever.

This midrash and its surrounding narrative are important because they give what we desperately need in reading midrash: a cultural and theoretical context. The original misunderstanding by Rav Nahman and the final exposition by Rabbi Yitzhak show, as clearly as possible, that midrashic narrative is explicitly demarcated from the historical-literal reconstruction of past events. Midrash is the rabbis’ reconstruction of God’s word to the Jewish people and not the rabbis’ reconstruction of what happened in the biblical past.

(Milikowsky, pp. 124 f.)

The Bible’s stories are never questioned. They are always bed-rock “true history”.

But the rabbis added stories to those Bible events that are clearly not factual, but nonetheless meaningful and explantory.

Why should the rabbis develop a mode of discourse that tells the truth by means of fictional events, when the only literature they have in front of them is the Bible, which tells the truth by means of true historical events?

For the answer to that question Milikowsky finds a significant discussion on the importance of “good fiction” in Plato’s Republic. At this point, return to the previous post: Why the rabbis . . .

Now what we see in the Gospel of Mark at one level looks like midrashic narrative. For example, we have quotations from Malachi mixed with quotations from Isaiah and Exodus. In the opening scene we have re-enactments of a “man of god” spending time in the wilderness and returning to call out a certain people and performing miracles. It is all familiar to anyone familiar with the Old Testament narratives.

So what is going on here? The question inevitably arises: Does the author of the earliest gospel expect hearers to believe the story as genuine history or as a “message from God” which the Bible texts assert to be “valid” or “true” without necessarily being “historically true”? If the latter, it is surely easy to see why it would be understood and accepted as true on both levels: as a message from God and as genuine history.


Milikowsky, Chaim. 2005. “Midrash as Fiction and Midrash as History: What Did the Rabbis Mean?” In Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian And Jewish Narrative, edited by et al Jo-Ann A. Brant, Charles W. Hedrick, and Chris Shea, 117–27. Symposium Series 32. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.


Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History” — Duplicate Post

Looks like I cleverly managed to publish the same post twice instead of deleting one of the copies. I have deleted the contents of this post and add this redirection:

Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History”

Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History”

Chaim Milikowsky

Chaim Milikowsky gives his answer to the question in the title, or at least he answers the question with respect to rabbinical literature. I have added the connection to our canonical four gospels, and I could with equal justice add Acts of the Apostles.

I read CM’s answer in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian And Jewish Narrative, but I see that the author has made the same work freely available online. (Oh, and I posted on CM’s chapter five years ago this month: Why Gospel Fiction was Written as Gospel Truth — a plausible explanation. I think that first post was less technical than what I intend this time round.)

Let me begin with the conclusion this time. The answer to the question in the title is found in a work once again by one of the most influential Greek thinkers in history: Plato. We have been looking at the influence of Plato on the Old Testament writings through the works of Russell Gmirkin and Philippe Wajdenbaum, but CM sees his influence on rabbinic midrashic story telling. I suggest that the evangelists have carried through the same fundamental type of story telling.

Here are the key passages in Plato’s Republic. After deploring mythical tales of gods that depict them lying, cheating, harming others, Socrates sets out what is a far more noble curriculum for those who would become good citizens. Myths of conniving and adulterous gods had no place. God must always be shown to be pure and good. Stories depicting the gods as immoral were to be removed from society; stories that had an edifying message for their readers were to be shared widely.

For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts. 

There you are right, he replied; but if any one asks where are such models to be found and of what tales are you speaking –how shall we answer him? 

I said to him, You and I, Adeimantus, at this moment are not poets, but founders of a State: now the founders of a State ought to know the general forms in which poets should cast their tales, and the limits which must be observed by them, but to make the tales is not their business. 

Very true, he said; but what are these forms of theology which you mean? 

Something of this kind, I replied: — God is always to be represented as he truly is, whatever be the sort of poetry, epic, lyric or tragic, in which the representation is given. 

Right. 

(Republic, 378e-379a Benjamin Jowett trans.)

God himself will be portrayed as incapable of lying, but there will be a place for story tellers to fabricate stories that teach goodness and lead people to righteous character: read more »

Ancient History, a “Funny Kind of History”

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

Modern writers find themselves in difficulties. Not only does the position of a Dionysius of Halicarnassus seem immoral – it has been said that one would have to regard Thucydides as ‘blind or dishonest’ – but, worse still, one must consider seriously abandoning some of the most interesting and seductive sections of Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Caesar, Sallust, Livy, Tacitus, Dio Cassius and the rest as primary or secondary sources.There is no choice: if the substance of the speeches or even the wording is not authentic, then one may not legitimately recount that Pericles told the assembled Athenians in 430 BC that their empire ‘is like a tyranny, seemingly unjust to have taken but dangerous to let go’ (Thucydides 2.63.2). I have no idea what Pericles said on that occasion but neither have the innumerable historians who repeat from a speech what I have just quoted. Except for Thucydides and perhaps Polybius, there is no longer any serious argument, though the reluctance to accept the consequences is evident on all sides . . . . 

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

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

Laziness is common among historians. When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events , they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation.

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

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

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

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

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

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