Tag Archives: Ancient historians

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. 


(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 »

“Now we know” — how ancient historians worked

In 1935 the foreign correspondent of a certain English newspaper, finding himself without much material to report, despatched to England stories which supposedly dealt with the build-up to the Abyssinian war but which were in fact derived from an old colonel’s military reminiscences, published several years previously in a book entitled In the country of the Blue Nile. The correspondent’s newspaper was delighted with the reception given to these stories by its readers, and accordingly sent him a series of congratulatory telegrams – whereupon a colleague remarked to him: ‘Well, now we know, it’s entertainment they want!’41 The colleague had only then come to realize what had been known long ago to Tacitus, to whom the foreign correspondent’s technique would have seemed very familiar.

41 For a full account of this amazing and instructive story see Knightley (1975), 176—7 (whose book should be recommended reading for those who wish to understand how ancient historians worked). The reporter who deceived his newspaper and the public on this occasion assumed (quite rightly) that no one could check his stories on account of the distance involved. The same is even more true of ancient historians (see above, p. 153), who lived in a world where communications were so much more difficult.

Woodman, Tony. 1980. “Self-Imitation and the Substance of History. Tacitus, Annals 1.61-5 and Histories 2.70, 5.14-15.” In Creative Imitation and Latin Literature, edited by David West and Tony Woodman, 155, 235. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Doing History: Did Celts Ritually Kill Their Kings?

Cathbad placed his hand on the woman’s stomach and prophesied that the unborn child would be a girl named Deirdre, and that she would be exceedingly beautiful but would bring about the ruin of Ulster.


A recurrent theme in stories about the Irish gods is that of the love triangle between an old husband (or fiancé), a young suitor and a young girl. This is probably a disguised myth of sovereignty wherein an old king is challenged by a young claimant to the throne. The young girl in the middle of the triangle may be identified with the goddess of sovereignty, whose power of granting prosperity to the land had to be won by means of sexual union with the young pretender. If the land needed revivifying, the old mortal king had to be deposed in favour of vigorous youth.

Aldhouse-Green, Miranda. The Celtic Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends (Kindle Locations 975-981). Thames and Hudson Ltd. Kindle Edition. (My bolding in all quotations)

We also have Roman testimony that the Celts practised human sacrifice:

They used to strike a human being, whom they had devoted to death, in the back with a sabre, and then divine from his death-struggle. But they would not sacrifice without the Druids. We are told of still other kinds of human sacrifices; for example, they would shoot victims to death with arrows, or impale them in the temples, or, having devised a colossus of straw and wood, throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings, and then make a burnt-offering of the whole thing.

Strabo, Geography, IV, 4.5

Compare the circularity of “Biblical archaeology”:

Q: How do we know that the Biblical King David existed?
A: Archaeologists have unearthed the Tel Dan inscription that contains the expression many translate as “House of David”.
Q: How do we know that that inscription should not be translated temple of the beloved (david=beloved), a reference to a deity?
A: We have the Biblical story about King David.

The moral of this post is that correlation does not imply causation. We love mythical tales, both Celtic and Biblical. We often want to believe there is some truth behind them so it is easy for us to interpret archaeological finds as evidence for that “historical core”. But we fail to see that we are falling into the trap of circularity when we do that:

Q: How do we know the stories of Celtic human sacrifice were true?

A: Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of ritual killings.

Q: How do we know the evidence of the bones points to ritual killing?

A: That is the most natural interpretation given the literary accounts of human sacrifice.

  • Left unasked of the evidence: could the evidence of bones be explained in other ways? a post-death ritual misunderstood by the Romans, for example?
  • Left unasked of the Roman accounts: were tales of barbarism among conquered peoples manufactured to justify Roman belief that their conquests were a civilizing mission?


Lindow Man

In August 1984, the mechanical digger of peat-cutters working at Lindow Moss in Cheshire uncovered a human arm, part of a 2,000-year-old bog-body. The remains were those of a young man in his prime, about 25 years old. He was naked but for an armlet made of fox-fur, and no grave goods accompanied him. The mistletoe in his digested food revealed that he had eaten a special ‘last supper’. Like the Irish victims, this man had horrific injuries leading to his death: most significant were at least two blows to the head that cracked his skull and stunned him; he was then garrotted and, at the same time, his throat was cut.

The triple manner of his death has led some to connect him with the early medieval myth of the ritual threefold death that befell some Irish kings. One of these was the 6th-century AD Diarmaid mac Cerbhaill, who enquired of his wise men the manner of his death. The answer was that he would be stabbed, drowned in a vat of ale and burnt. Diarmaid scorned the prophecy, but it came to pass. Lindow Man was selected for a special death and burial. It was important that his body would be frozen in time, not permitted to decay, so the normal rites of death and ease of passage to the next world were denied him. His journey to the Otherworld was halted at the gate leading out from the world of humans.

Aldhouse-Green, Miranda. The Celtic Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends (Kindle Locations 2696-2708). Thames and Hudson Ltd. Kindle Edition.


Murder on the Mire

One Irish story, in the Cycle of Kings, describes the events leading up to the convoluted death of King Diarmuid. The king slays the man his wife has been having an affair with, and a Druid, or prophet, named Bec Mac De, foretells that he will suffer a three-fold death as a result – at the hands of one of the adulterer’s relatives, Aedh. The prophecy was very precise: Diarmuid would be killed by wounding, burning, drowning and a ridge pole falling on his head (a fourfold death, in fact). Eventually the prophecy is fulfilled. Black Aedh, in the doorway of the house where the king is feasting, pierces Diarmuid through the chest with his spear and breaks his spine; Diarmuid flees back into the house, but Aedh’s men set it on fire; Diarmuid immerses himself in a vat of ale to escape the flames; finally, the roof beam of the burning house falls on his head and finishes him off.

The triple deaths of kings and warriors described in the Irish myths, very often prophesied in advance, involve accidental fatal injuries as well as intentional assaults, but they may mythologize an actual practice: a ritual form of threefold killing. Perhaps this is a rare and valuable clue, from Celtic – rather than Roman – literature, that the Celts did indeed carry out human sacrifices.

Roberts, A. (2015). The Celts by Alice Roberts (UK Airports edition). Heron Books.

read more »

How a Fairy Tale King Became Historical

Jean-Léon Gérôme – Kandaules

Putting together the various ancient sources about the ancient King Gyges of Lydia the Professor of Latin at Johns Hopkins University, Kirby Flower Smith, arrived at the following story from which they all ultimately derived:

Gyges … the ancestor of Croesus was a shepherd when he was young, in the service of [Kandaules] king of Lydia. Once upon a time there was a storm and an earthquake so violent that the ground split open near the place where Gyges was watching his flocks. Gyges was amazed at the sight and finally went down into the cleft. The story tells of many wonderful things which he saw there ….

Among these wonderful things was a brazen horse which was hollow and had doors. In it was nothing but a corpse, of heroic size, and on one of its fingers a gold ring.

Gyges took the ring and came out again.

Sometime later he attended the monthly assembly of the shepherds and while there accidentally discovered the qualities of his ring, as described by Plato:

As he was sitting among the others he happened to turn the collet of it towards him and into the inside of his hand. The moment this was done he became invisible… [Plato, Republic II, 14]

He then procured his appointment as one of the messengers to the king and went up to Sardis to seek his fortune.

After reaching Sardis an adventure with the ring brought him to the notice of Kandaules (the king). At first, he was highly favored but later the king, who was cruel and whimsical, became suspicious of Gyges and set him at several tasks certain, as he supposed, to compass his destruction. Gyges, however, performed them all successfully with the aid of his ring, was reinstated in favor and given great estates ….

Gyges was now not only rich and powerful but also admired and feared for his beauty, strength and address, and for his versatility and superhuman knowledge of what was going on. The king who, like everyone else, knew nothing of his ring…, found Gyges invaluable, gave him the post of chief adviser and consulted him on all occasions.

There was one thing, however, which Kandaules had always kept jealously guarded, because it was the principal source, the real secret, of his power. This was his wife. She was …. exceedingly beautiful. But what made her indispensable to Kandaules was the fact that she was also very wise and powerful, being a mighty sorceress.

The one vulnerable spot in Kandaules was his passion for his wife. Like all who had ever seen her he was utterly bewitched by her beauty and as his confidence in Gyges increased he began to talk of it more and more freely. At last he insisted upon showing her. [Gyges refused, foreseeing mortal peril to himself from either, or both. But at last he was forced to comply and] the programme devised by Kandaules was carried out as related by Herodotos:

[The king said to Gyges], “Courage, friend…. Be sure I will so manage that she shall not even know that thou has looked upon her. I will place thee behind the open door of the chamber in which we sleep. When I enter to go to rest she will follow me. There stands a chair close to the entrance, on which she will lay her clothes one by one as she takes them off. Thou wilt be able thus at thy leisure to peruse her person. Then, when she is moving from the chair toward the bed, and her back is turned on thee, be it thy care that she see thee not as thou passest through the doorway.” [Herodotus, I, 7-16]

Gyges gazed upon her. She was more lovely even than Kandaules had described her,and Gyges fell in love with her then and there. Finally, having turned his ring around to make himself invisible, Gyges left the room.

The queen, however, [possessed a dragon-stone….. As he was going out [she] had seen Gyges [in spite of his magic ring]. But she made no sign. She knew that the situation was due to Kandaules and swore to be avenged.

When, therefore, Gyges, perhaps at her own instigation, came to her and declared his passion, revenge and, possibly, other considerations, prompted her to yield. Gyges was able to visit her unobserved on account of his magic ring and the intrigue went on for some time, [nothing being said on either side regarding the door episode.]

At last, when the queen saw that Gyges was entirely in her power, and being also in love with him herself, she laid her plans and sent for him. When he arrived, she told him [that she had seen him look on her as she undressed] that now Gyges must slay Kandaules or else die himself. Whatever the feelings of Gyges may have been, his situation, despite his magic ring, was even more desperate than in Herodotos. He had a sorceress to deal with and was committed to her by ties which he could not break, even if he had so desired.

Gyges acceded, the destruction of Kandaules was planned and carried out by the two …. and with the aid of the magic ring ….. [He thrust a dagger through him as he slept.]

When the deed was accomplished she gave Gyges the kingdom, as she had promised. He made her his queen [and they lived happily ever after.]

Such is the tale of Gyges, ancestor of Croesus …..

Smith, K. F. (1902). The Tale of Gyges and the King of Lydia. The American Journal of Philology, 23(4), 383–385. https://doi.org/10.2307/288700<

Did Gyges exist?

Professor Smith evidently did not think so. The above narrative he constructed from the various ancient tales of Gyges:
read more »

Doing History: How Do We Know Queen Boadicea/Boudicca Existed?

Hingley and Unwin do not cast doubt on the existence of Boudica but provide an excellent history of the events filled with abundant archaeological evidence.

Last night I was engrossed in watching the final episode on the BBC historical documentary The Celts but was taken aback when just after taking us through the story of Boudicca’s revolt against Rome I was hit with the following dialogue of the program’s two narrators:

The Celts

(Season 1 Episode 3)

location: 52:45 to 54:35

Professor Alice Roberts: The defeat was total. Boudicca’s entire army was wiped out. According to Tacitus only 400 Romans were killed that day compared with 80,000 Celts. The last great Celtic rebellion was over.

Neil Oliver: We’re told Boudicca survived the battle but poisoned herself shortly after, and with her died any hope of another Celtic uprising and an end to Roman rule in Britannia.

Alice Roberts: Boudicca disappeared from history and entered into national mythology, a martyr to the idea of a free Britain. But while the Celtic rebellion was certainly real can we be absolutely sure that Boudicca played a part in it or even existed? No archaeological evidence of Boudicca herself has been found.

Neil Oliver: Then, in the Spring of 2015, in Gloucestershire, an ancient gravesite was discovered dating to the Roman occupation of Britain. In amongst the human remains was a gravestone and on it was carved the name Bodicacia. Underneath the stone lay a skeleton. Could this finally be evidence of Britain’s great warrior queen? But the bones belonged to a man. And the myth of Boudicca continues to this day.

Ever since my middle years of primary school when we were taught of the famous feats of “Boadicea” [the Latinized form of her name] and her chariots it has never occurred to me to question the historical existence of Boudicca (Boudica) [the current “correct” forms representing her name].

So this morning I tracked down Alice Roberts’ book The Celts to see if she has given us names of historians who have raised the question of Boudicca’ historicity. My interest (you may have guessed) is in the methods used by historians either side of the question to see if they can throw any light on the discussion of prominent biblical characters, such as, say, to take one at random, Jesus. No luck. But AR did express her own positive opinion with respect to Boudicca’s existence:

. . . . As for Boudica herself, the historians are remarkably inconsistent. We are told that the revolt melted away; that Boudica fell ill and died; that she poisoned herself. In the end, we simply can’t be sure of the fate of the last warrior queen of the Celts. . . .

. . . .

But what about individual characters? Again, how far can we trust the classical accounts? Some authors have even suggested that Boudica – this vision of a powerful woman who threatened Caesar – was a Roman invention, a bit of propaganda. But most scholars accept that she did exist. ‘I believe she was real,’ Barry Cunliffe told me. ‘It just wasn’t the sort of thing the Romans did – to invent characters. It doesn’t fit at all with what we know about Roman historical writing.’ And the Romans probably found her a surprising character. They were used to powerful women – the wives and mothers of the emperors held great power – but the potential for a woman to become a war leader represented a stark difference between Celtic and Roman society. Boudica wasn’t the only warrior queen that the Romans would have been aware of. In the north of Britain, in the mid-first century BC, Queen Cartimandua led a confederation of Celtic tribes which were loyal to Rome – until she was ousted by her ex-husband, Venutius. This ambivalence towards gender, providing the possibility for women to become leaders of men and to achieve the highest status in Celtic society, also seems to be reflected in the chariot burials of Yorkshire: women as well as men were treated to such elite funerary rites. So there seems no reason to doubt the existence of a powerful female Celtic hero. Boudica may have been embellished, with various attributes added to her, but this tends to be the case for any war leader – the stories of Che Guevara walking on water providing a more recent example. The picture we get is a ‘constructed Boudica’, but the nucleus is real.

“No reason to doubt”. Hoo boy! Where have we heard that line before. But I can forgive Alice Roberts because she is not a historian and is here deferring to a historian’s opinion. Unfortunately she leaves no trace in the book based on the TV series of those historians who have apparently questioned the historical reality of Boudicca. So I cast the Google net wider. Most sites assumed her historicity; some sites emphatically stated that she did exist and any suggestion otherwise was essentially daft. No-one (scholars, even) questioned her existence, one site said.

A key reason, surely a very strong one, for “not doubting” the Roman accounts is that the first historian to leave us a record, Tacitus, was a young boy at the time of Boudicca’s rebellion; but more significantly, his father-in-law was a governor in Britannia after the rebellion was crushed so would have had knowledge of the events and have been able to inform Tacitus

But I kept looking and found a few that were more open to the question such as: read more »

It works for Esther. Why not for Jesus?

Esther before Ahasuerus: Tintoretto

One of the most frequently asked questions about the Book of Esther is: Are the events recounted in it true? In other words, is the book historically accurate? Arguing against the book’s historicity is the fact that many things in the story conflict with our knowledge about Persian history or are too fantastic to be believable. The following points are among the most obvious.

  • We know of no Persian queen named Esther, or any Jewish queen of Persia, and we would not expect there to have been one. Queens came from the noble Persian families, not from ethnic minorities. Moreover, real kings don’t choose queens from beauty contests. In fact, Esther enters the story more like a concubine, and only later emerges as a dignified queen. In contrast, Vashti, who was presumably a queen of proper ancestry and clearly in a high position at court, is treated like a concubine by Ahasuerus.
  • While Ahasuerus has been equated with Xerxes, no Persian king acted or would act the way Ahasuerus did. He is a king who cannot make the smallest decision without legal consultation, and leaves the big decisions to others altogether. Any resemblance to a real Persian king is purely coincidental.
  • To govern a country in which a law could never be changed would make governing impossible.1
  • A decree to annihilate the Jews is least at home in ancient Persia, an empire that is thought to have been relatively benevolent to the various ethnic groups within it, and is portrayed positively elsewhere in the Bible.
  • This is the empire that permitted the Jews to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple, of which there is not a word in Esther.
  • The plot hangs on at least one particular hook that goes against all logic but which is crucial to the story: that Esther could keep her Jewish identity hidden while all the world knew that she was related to Mordecai and all the world knew that Mordecai was a Jew.

In contrast, those who defend the book’s historicity point to the authentic information about the Persian court and its many customs and institutions, and the use of a number of Persian terms. But it is not simply a matter of weighing one side’s proofs against the other side’s, for, when we look carefully at the points for and against historicity, it turns out that the historically authentic material is in the background and setting, while the main characters and the important elements in the plot are much farther removed from reality. If this were a modern work, we would call it a historical novel, or historical fiction. While those terms may not be appropriate for the Bible, we can certainly recognize Esther as a form of imaginative storytelling, not unlike Jonah and Daniel, or Judith and Tobit in the Apocrypha. In fact, such storytelling was common in the Persian and Hellenistic periods, and even Greek historians such as Herodotus, whose writings are given more credibility as history, include imaginative tales in their works. The distinction between history and story, which is such an important issue for us, would not have engaged readers in the Persian period in the same way it does us. To the ancient reader an imaginative story was just as worthy, or even as holy, as a historically accurate one, so to declare Esther to be imaginative does not in any way detract from its value; The message of the Book of Esther and the significance of Purim remain the same whether or not the events of the book were actual.

Berlin, Adele. n.d. Esther = [Ester]: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001. pp. xvi-xvii

Of course in the gospels some of the “too fantastic to be believable” points have been written out and replaced by scholarly inventions. The most obvious example is that Jesus in the gospels was crucified for no good reason (except for being very good and being the messiah); so the gospel truth is replaced by the more plausible notion that Jesus must have been crucified for as a political rebel.

Pilate acts as unhistorically as does Ahasuerus.

But then again …. you never know. I mean, how else can you explain the existence of the Jews today if Esther was not historical? Why would anyone make it up? How else do you explain Purim? Maybe it was historical after all…. ?? (tongue is wedged deep into cheek)



The evidence of ancient historians

Is it “hyper-critical” to approach ancient historians like Livy, Plutarch, …. with caution? In response to my previous post on why I do not think of myself as a “Jesus mythicist” one person insisted that we have every right to accept the words of Tacitus and Josephus about some incident that they say happened a couple of generations earlier. Here is my detailed response.

Why can’t we simply take at face value the statements we read in Tacitus and Josephus about Jesus? (Formatting and bolding in all quotations is my own.)

Let’s set aside for a moment the evidence that the references to the Christ are interpolations and assume they are genuine. Read what one prominent historian of ancient history wrote about the surviving works of ancient historians:

Yet a Livy or a Plutarch cheerfully repeated pages upon pages of earlier accounts over which they neither had nor sought any control. . . . Only Thucydides fully and systematically acknowledged the existence of a dilemma, which he resolved in the unsatisfactory way of refusing to deal with pre-contemporary history at all. . . . .

Where did they [ancient historians like Tacitus and Josephus] find their information? No matter how many older statements we can either document or posit – irrespective of possible reliability – we eventually reach a void. But ancient writers, like historians ever since, could not tolerate a void, and they filled it in one way or another, ultimately by pure invention. The ability of the ancients to invent and their capacity to believe are persistently underestimated. . . . .

I suspect that Ogilvie’s slip reflects, no doubt unconsciously, the widespread sentiment that anything written in Greek or Latin is somehow privileged, exempt from the normal canons of evaluation. . . .

Unless something is captured in a more or less contemporary historical account, the narrative is lost for all time regardless of how many inscriptions or papyri may be discovered. . . . .

So when men came to write the history of their world, Greek or Roman, they found great voids in the inherited information about the past, or, worse still, quantities of ‘data’ that included fiction and half fiction jumbled with fact. That is what modern historians, unwilling for whatever reason to admit defeat, to acknowledge a void, seek to rescue under the positive label, tradition (or oral tradition). Few anthropologists view the invariably oral traditions of the people they study with the faith shown by many ancient historians. The verbal transmittal over many generations of detailed information about past events or institutions that are no longer essential or even meaningful in contemporary life invariably entails considerable and irrecoverable losses of data, or conflation of data, manipulation and invention, sometimes without visible reason, often for reasons that are perfectly intelligible. With the passage of time, it becomes absolutely impossible to control anything that has been transmitted when there is nothing in writing against which to match statements about the past. Again we suspect the presence of the unexpressed view that the traditions of Greeks and Romans are somehow privileged . . . .

There is no guarantee that the tradition has not arisen precisely in order to explain a linguistic, religious or political datum; that, in other words, the tradition is not an etiological invention . . . .

Some of the supposed data are patently fictitious, the political unification of Attica by Theseus or the foundation of Rome by Aeneas, for example, but we quickly run out of such easily identified fictions. For the great bulk of the narrative we are faced with the ‘kernel of truth’ possibility, and I am unaware of any stigmata that automatically distinguish fiction from fact. . . . .

For reasons that are rooted in our intellectual history, ancient historians are often seduced into two unexpressed propositions. The first is that statements in the literary or documentary sources are to be accepted unless they can be disproved (to the satisfaction of the individual historian).

That’s all from Finley, M. I. (1999). Ancient History: Evidence and Models. Chapter 2

That’s what I posted on the BC&H Forum. Finley is not a lone voice, however.

The Christmas cake view of history

The historian of ancient documents needs first to study the nature of those documents and to try to understand what they are capable of revealing. That means literary criticism.

To see some posts in which I have addressed other work by Woodman discussing the creative imaginations of ancient historians, see http://vridar.org/?s=woodman

To quote A.J. Woodman . . . :

‘Our primary response to the texts of the ancient historians should be literary rather than historical since the nature of the texts themselves is literary. Only when literary analysis has been carried out can we begin to use these texts as evidence for history; and by that time . . . such analysis will have revealed that there is precious little historical evidence left.’ . . . . 

Modern historians naturally dislike such views, because they challenge the very basis of ancient history as an intellectual discipline, since the ‘evidence’, at almost all periods, consists overwhelmingly of literary texts. While most historians concede that ancient historiographical texts are in some senses ‘literary’, they nevertheless insist that this ‘literary’ aspect is detachable and there is solid fact underneath. On this view, ancient works of historiography are like Christmas cakes: if you don’t like almond icing, you slice it off, and you’ve still got a cake—a substantial object uncontaminated by icing.


Compare “the nugget theory” of ancient history.

Later in the same chapter . . .

Do ancient historiographers sometimes say things they know to be factually untrue? Emphatically, yes. The accusation of deliberate fabrication is made repeatedly. 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.


Why then do Herodotus and Plutarch behave in this way? Serious ancient historians (which both Herodotus and Plutarch intermittently are) face the problem of the eternal see-saw of history: the need to generalize from specifics. No serious ancient historian was so tied to specific factual truth that he would not sometimes help general truths along by manipulating, even inventing, ‘facts’. Of course, the requisite manipulation could sometimes be achieved through the medium of ‘what-is-said’ material, to whose historicity the ancient historian did not commit himself. But there were some occasions when the issues were so serious that it was rhetorically necessary, even at the risk of attack, to maintain the illusion of strict historicity. On those occasions the historian could never admit to manipulation or invention. Such is the tyranny of factual truth.

J.L. Moles, “Truth and Untruth in Herodotus and Thucydides” in Lies and fiction in the Ancient World edited by Christopher Gill and Timothy Peter Wiseman, University of Exeter Press, 1993. — pages 90, 115, 120

It takes no great effort to refute him — he’s a historian.

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Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist?

If the Life of Aesop is riddled with obvious fiction yet it is concluded that Aesop really existed, what does Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity) do with the question of the historicity of Demonax, a figure whose biography contains only sober and believable accounts and is said to have been written by an eyewitness? Ironically, Hägg is far less confident that Demonax is historical than he is about Aesop!

You can read the Life of Demonax by Lucian at the sacred-texts site. (It is fewer than 4000 words.)

To begin Hägg addresses doubts among some scholars that Lucian was the real biographer. Life of Demonax does not have the same cutting, satirical tone as his other biographies, but actually approaches Demonax reverentially and creates an idealized portrait. However, on the strength of the attestation Hägg accepts Lucian as the genuine author.

Lucian states that he has two reasons for writing about Demonax:

This time I am to write of Demonax, with two sufficient ends in view:

  • first, to keep his memory green among good men, as far as in me lies;
  • and secondly, to provide the most earnest of our rising generation, who aspire to philosophy, with a contemporary pattern, that they may not be forced back upon the ancients for worthy models, but imitate this best–if I am any judge–of all philosophers.

Continuing with Hägg:

Demonax’ background is rapidly sketched . . . His ‘urge to noble things and innate love for philosophy from early childhood’ is stated, but there is no actual account of that childhood; nor is his physical appearance described here or elsewhere in the Life. His blameless life and exemplary honesty are lauded, as is his excellent education in literature, philosophy, and rhetoric. As a philosopher, he is a professed eclectic. He has most in common with Socrates and Diogenes of Sinope . . . but is described as an unchangingly polite and social person who lacks both Socrates’ irony and Diogenes’ exhibitionism — in short, we are made to understand, a godlike (isotheos) man. . . . (p. 295)

Certainly an idealized portrait. And short on specifics to demonstrate the idealized qualities.

The first description of a specific event in Demonax’s life comes three pages in, with his trial:

It starts in the same mode: ‘So it was that all the Athenians, from the populace to the magistrates, admired him tremendously and never ceased regarding him as a superior being (tina tōn kreittonōn)’; but then some critical words are unexpectedly heard. Like a second Socrates, Demonax is brought to court because he has caused offence to and incurred hatred from the common people . . . through his Cynic . . . ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘licence’, and his . . . ‘independence’. Men similar to Anytus and Meletus (the accusers in Socrates’ trial) charge him with not taking part in the sacrifices or letting himself be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. He manages, however, to refute the accusations by using his habitual outspokenness and wit . . . and the Athenians, who had first been prepared to stone him, ‘from that time showed him honour, respect, and eventually admiration’. (pp. 295f)

One sees in the above account several features that may well justify our asking questions about the genuineness of the narrative: the evident influence of the trial of Socrates, again the idealizing portrait and the most remarkable turnabout of the Athenians from being ready to execute him to admiring him.

The literary structure of the Life is also addressed: read more »

Distinguishing between “fiction” and “history” in ancient sources

I am copying here a comment I made in another forum a few moments ago. Don’t think I’m trying to present a complete answer to the question of how we can distinguish fiction and history. Rather, I am focusing on just one detail in the opening pages of an ancient biography, by Iamblichus, of Pythagoras. The quotations are from Thomas Taylor’s 1818 translation of the Greek.

It is said, therefore, that Ancaus who dwelt in Samos in Cephallenia, was begot by Jupiter, whether he derived the fame of such an honorable descent through virtue, or through a certain greatness of soul.

The author (Iamblichus) does not present himself as the omniscient narrator but informs his readers that he is limited by his sources: “it is said”.

The sources or “traditions” allow for various interpretations and Iamblichus, presenting himself as not having any reason to presume one over the other, cites both.

In consequence, however, of this nobility of birth being celebrated by the citizens, a certain Samian poet says, that Pythagoras was the son of Apollo. For thus he sings, . . .

It is worth while, however, to relate how this report became so prevalent.

Iamblichus expresses his reliance upon sources. Further, he seeks to understand the background to his sources; e.g. how did they come to express what they did?

Indeed, no one can doubt that the soul of Pythagoras was sent to mankind from the empire of Apollo, either being an attendant on the God, or co-arranged with him in some other more familiar way: for this may be inferred both from his birth, and the all-various wisdom of his soul. And thus much concerning the nativity of Pythagoras.

Again Iamblichus sets himself apart from his subject by relating what he knows of Pythagoras to what we could call today his (I’s) “religious beliefs”.

I further expresses his arms-length distance from his subject by informing the reader that he has completed the first detail of the life of Pythagoras, and implies he is now about to relate the next.

We are not immersed in a story from which the narrator hides his presence. We share Iamblichus’s distance from the subject, and are constantly reminded that we are being told information that our author has drawn from various sources and various “traditions” or accounts, and that we are studying the life in some sort of objective order.

I do not suggest that we therefore can conclude that what Iamblichus says is “historically true”. Obviously that is not always the case. For example, he writes in the next section:

But, when Mnesarchus considered with himself, that the God, without being interrogated concerning his son, had informed him by an oracle, that he would possess an illustrious perogative, and a gift truly divine, he immediately named his wife Pythais . . . .

Here we read the rhetoric of fiction. Here Iamblichus switches to the omniscient narrator conveying to readers even the inner thoughts and motivation for an immediate response to those thoughts of Mnesarchus.

I am commenting on what I see as the “rhetoric of historical” narrative and not on the historical reliability of the content itself. That’s another discussion. The point, I think, is that readers/hearers of Iamblichus’s biography of Pythagoras are being informed that they are hearing the results of the author’s investigations into the details of P’s life. That is, they are listening to/reading what we might call a “historical biography”.


What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography?


Because so many NT scholars desperately want the gospels to be both Greco-Roman biographies and reliable histories, we could almost forget that these two forms of literature are not the same. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s what Plutarch said:

It being my purpose to write the lives of Alexander the king, and of Caesar, by whom Pompey was destroyed, the multitude of their great actions affords so large a field that I were to blame if I should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen rather to epitomize the most celebrated parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives.

And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever.

Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavour by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others. (Plutarch’s Alexander [emphasis and reformatting mine])

We could boil these comments down into the following points. A biography: read more »

Signs of Fiction in Ancient Biographies — & the Gospels

writingLet’s be sure we apply the same critical standard to the Gospels as we do to other ancient literature of the day. And let’s be sure we have a fair grasp of the wider Greco-Roman literature of the first and second centuries so we can improve our chances of making informed interpretations of the Gospels. And let’s do away with these apologetic arguments that the colorful and minute details in gospel narratives are sure signs of eyewitness testimony and therefore of historical reliability!

Professor Rhiannon Ash is the author of one of the many gems in the newly published Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization, edited by Koen De Temmerman and Kristoffel Demoen. Her chapter, “Never say die! Assassinating emperors in Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, examines the range of techniques the Roman biographer Suetonius employed to add verisimilitude to create “the illusion of historical accuracy.”

Suetonius in the early second century wrote biographies of a dozen Roman emperors. Sometimes he would narrate details that apparently occurred behind closed doors (and that would consequently be unknown to anybody else), sometimes he wrote about a person’s private dreams foretelling the future, often he included supernatural prodigies and sensational personal details worthy of any tabloid press today. But at the same time he did want to be taken seriously and impress readers with the diligence of his research. Thus. . . .

he generally takes some trouble to deploy devices which invest each account with verisimilitude and contribute significantly to our sense of his own auctoritas as a researcher. (p. 205)

Accordingly Suetonius rarely passed up “a chance to enhance the credibility of his account” by means of:

  • the weighty presence of numbers, times and dates“:
    • more than sixty men conspire against Caesar
    • three slaves carry Caesar’s body
    • two men initiate the conspiracy against Caligula
    • there were twenty-three, thirty, and seven wounds administered to three targets of assassination
    • Caesar sets out almost at the end of the fifth hour
    • Caesar made his will on 13th September 45 BCE
    • Caligula is undecided about adjourning for lunch on 24 January just before midday
    • Caligula left the games at midday
    • Domitian has a premonition of the last year, day and hour of his life
    • lightning strikes occur eight successive months
    • Domitian jumped from bed at midnight on the night before his assassination
    • conspirators falsely tell Domitian the time is the sixth hour when it was really the fifth — to lull him into a false sense of security
    • Caligula ruled for three years, ten months and eight days
    • Domitian was murdered in his forty-fifth year and fifteenth year of his office

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