Tag Archives: Herodotus

How History Was Done in Bible Times: Myths about Herodotus and Thucydides

Was it acceptable for Greek, Roman and Jewish historians to invent accounts of the past?

Did even historians imitate and creatively reproduce entire passages from the great epic poems and tragic plays of their day?

Can we trust ancient historians who declare they relied upon eyewitness reports?

How does our understanding of history differ from the ancient concept of “historia”?

What implications do the answers to these questions have for the way we interpret the historical books of the Bible?

Thucydides has long been reputed to have been the first “scientific historian”. In his introduction he clearly indicates that his account of the Peloponnesian War is to be based on eyewitness reports and his own personal observations. He will eschew all myth and fable. His prose is austere, complex and compressed. He is accordingly judged to be a sober, critical, authoritative historian.

A.J. Woodman

Classicist A. J. Woodman in a 1988 publication, Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: Four Studies, showed us that these views of Thucydides were in fact myths. Moderns have naively taken Thucydides’ words at face value or sometimes misinterpreted them in the light of modern ideals of how history should be written. We have also failed to recognize that even this “founder of scientific history” is in fact writing creative fiction that very often has more in common with Homeric epics and Greek tragedies than dry, scientific history.

So how is this possible? And if we can err in attributing our ideas of historical interests to Thucydides can we be sure we are not making the same mistakes with, say, Luke-Acts?

Before Thucydides we have Herodotus. Woodman begins by pointing out a few important details about this “father of history” that we will soon see carry over to Thucydides despite the many obvious differences between these two historians. read more »

Old Testament based on Herodotus? Acts on the myth we read in Virgil?

Before continuing with the scholarship that questions the traditional view that many of the Old Testament books were stitched together from much older texts, let’s lay out on the table a very broad overview of the thesis of a Dutch scholar, Jan-Wim Wesselius (I love his homepage photo and caption), as published in The Origin of the History of Israel: Herodotus’ Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible. (This was the most expensive book I had ever purchased in my entire life, so I continue to guard it well.)

In this post I select just one detail that is not meant to persuade the sceptical (and scepticism is a virtue) but only to stimulate thoughts anew among anyone who has not traveled this road before. There is much more to be said along with the snippet of data I present here, and I have posted one of those snippets on vridar.info comparing Moses with Herodotus’ portrayal of the Persian king Xerxes (and the Plagues of Egypt with the catastrophes inflicting the army of Xerxes). A serious treatment comparing Herodotus’ Histories would need to start with a 1993 publication, The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History by Mandell and Freedman. One of the more fascinating insights is that the Greek history is in many ways a “theological” history like the Bible’s historical books. The same lessons of the the role of the divine in and over human affairs are found like a unifying thread in both works. But such details are for another time.

To appreciate what is to follow it would help to have some knowledge of both Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s epic poem of the founding of the Roman race, the Aeneid. G. N. Knauer sums up the way Virgil did not merely serendipitously draw upon recollections of what he had read in Homer’s epics, but he clearly studied the structures of Homer’s epics and built his own epic upon a reassembling of that structure, perhaps in an effort to surpass the artistry of the original.

. . . Vergil clearly realized how Homer conceived the structure of the Odyssey and . . . therefore did not simply imitate sporadic Homeric verses or scenes. On the contrary he first analysed the plan of the Odyssey, then transformed it and made it the base of his own poem.

What is especially significant is that this is one case-study of how ancient literature very often worked. Reworkings of earlier masters was a highly respected skill.

I don’t think I’m alone in also thinking Virgil reworked a single epic out of Homer’s dual effort. The Aeneid is an epic poem of the travels of Aeneas, founder of the Roman race, from the time he fled the conquered and burning Troy until the time he found a secure place in Italy after many battles with the local Latin tribes. The Roman epic begins with the adventures of a long voyage of Aeneas to his destined homeland — just as the second Homeric epic, the Odyssey, narrates the adventurous travels of the Greek hero. The second half of the Roman epic recounts many battles reminiscent of Homer’s first epic, the Iliad. Both conclude with the climactic death in battle of a warrior protagonist — Hector and Turnus. (Of course, the Odyssey likewise ends in much bloodshed, but this action is actually a small part in a larger narrative of deception, plotting and homecoming.) So a very broad comparison of the larger structures of these epics looks like this:

But there’s more. Much more. Knauf also writes (my formatting and emphasis): read more »

Explaining (?) the Contradictory Genesis Accounts of the Creation of Adam and Eve

The Genesis
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What does one make of the two opposing accounts of the creation of humans in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2?

In Genesis 1 God manages to fit in the making of the first man and woman — “in his own image”! — just at the close of the last day of creation. Gary Greenberg suggests that this concept of a male and female being made in the image of a single God is borrowed from Egypt’s hermaphroditic deities.

But the very next chapter (i.e. 2!) presents a quite different view of the creation of our species. Dr McGrath has posted a quite nice chart highlighting both the similarities and the contrasts of the two creations. But let me draw attention to a point that is not so immediately clear in this quite nice chart. In Genesis 1 all the animals are created before the man and the man (and woman) is created as an afterthought at the end of the day. In Genesis 2 Adam is created before all other animals.

What is going on here? I would like to go on beyond Dr McGrath’s interests in these conflicting accounts, however, and ask how we might account for them appearing as they do as the first two chapters of our Bible. (Dr McGrath in his blog post only addresses grist for his anti-creationist mill. But creationists can come and go and it is nothing notable to expose the flaws of one who has never learned to question his or her faith. I am more interested in explaining what we do have as our religious and cultural heritage.)

I’ll introduce my post by pasting here the comment I left on Dr McGrath’s blog (slightly edited).

Jan-Wim Wesselius’s “The Origin of the History of Israel: Herodotus’s Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible” discusses such adjacent accounts that give variant explanations for events from the perspective of comparison with “Histories” by Herodotus. The most obvious difference between the two works (Histories and Primary History –  i.e. Genesis to 2 Kings) is that the Greek work is structured around an intrusive narrator (who is himself a character in the work, and not the real author — I have discussed some of the scholarship about this on my own blog over the years) while the Primary History of the Hebrews is an exercise in studied anonymity. Bernard Levinson in “Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation” offers us a plausible explanation for this contrasting anonymity.

But the point is that two contrasting accounts are often found side by side in the Primary History and that this is consistent with Hellenistic historiographical practices — with the only difference being the intrusion/absence of a narrator’s voice.

In this case, given the parallelisms, we are also faced with the strong likelihood that we are not looking at independent traditions that somehow were forced together, but at a single authorial creator behind them both. This is consistent with more recent studies (albeit admittedly minority ones at this point) that do argue that Primary History is, after all and just as Spinoza himself originally opined, the work of a single author. That it is also the product of Hellenistic times is the solutions Mr Ockham would like best, too.

Let’s look at Dr Wesselius’s treatment of the conflicting creation-of-humans accounts: read more »

Jesus: the Same in both Paul and the Gospels

Revised and updated 3 hours after original posting.

Both the letters of Paul and the narrative in the Gospels speak of Jesus crucified. Jesus’ death is significant. The Gospel of John speaks of Jesus’ blood and Paul refers often to his blood. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke in particular stress his birth from a woman and we find a passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatians saying Jesus was born of a woman. The Synoptic Gospels indicate Jesus was descended from David and in Paul’s letter to the Romans we likewise read Jesus was connected with David.

The contexts are quite different, of course. The Gospels are portraying a past narrative of an earthly mission of Jesus and Paul is addressing Jesus’ saving power in the “here and now and soon to be”.

And all of those references to Jesus’ crucifixion, blood, Davidic relationship, flesh, etc are derived from the same source. They are all speaking about the same thing. read more »

When literary analysis trumps historical analysis

The concluding paragraph of the first chapter of Mandell’s and Freedman’s The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History is worth framing. The principle it addresses would, if applied to New Testament studies, relegate to the scrap heap a good deal of scholarship investigating oral sources behind this or that detail in the Gospels.

Since the entire work is a literary artifice, we cannot use any part of it to confirm the orality of the . . . author’s sources. Consequently, the theory that the errors in History prove that the . . . author’s sources were primarily oral is not verifiable. Other hypotheses based on statements within the narrative . . . such as the commonly accepted belief that the . . . author relied on rumor and report must also be discarded. . . . The real author is after all a literary artist, not an historian . .  . . (p. 80) read more »

How to read the Gospels

Sara Mandell and David Noel Freedman give us some valuable tips on how to read

  1. the pagan Greek work of “History” by Herodotus
  2. much of the biblical history of Israel (Genesis to 2 Kings)
  3. and the Gospels

in their 1993 volume The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings).

Among several threads tying all these three pieces of literature together:

  1. all three are about human affairs being directed by divinities
  2. all three contain strong theological themes and messages
    • and this message is reinforced with somewhat nebulous endings that contain a mix of optimism and uncertainty as to the future (i.e. Herodotus, 2 Kings, Mark)
  3. all three ostensibly present themselves as “histories”
  4. all three contain a mix of mythical (including nonhuman) characters and historical persons
  5. all three relate miraculous and supernatural events as significant functions in their narratives
  6. all three contain a similar narrative structure in that there is a significant change in tone and types of events and course of action once the setting moves to a traditional homeland or theologically charged centre (e.g. the Greek mainland, the Promised Land, Jerusalem)
  7. all three are predominantly prose narratives, yet at the same time all three contain a mix of genre elements such as epic, tragedy, novella and poetry.

In my previous post (or the one before that) I cited two key points that are fundamental to understanding any literary work. I repeat them here and add one more: read more »

Correlations between the “Histories” of Herodotus and the Bible’s History of Israel

Torah inside of the former Glockengasse synago...
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Both HerodotusHistory and Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings)

  1. are national epics
  2. had been divided into nine books at some time in their history
  3. are both about the same length
  4. begin with a prehistory that includes myths, fables, folk-tales, and legends that are treated as factual
  5. and continue in this vein until well into historical time
  6. consist of a basic format that changes concomitantly and abruptly under similar circumstances:
    • in Herodotus’ History this happens when Persians are about to fight on the Greek mainland
    • in Primary History this happens when the Sons of Israel are about to enter the Promised Land
  7. take on a semblance of historical narrative once the “homeland” becomes the locus of action
  8. — albeit one that includes miracles, marvels, and divinities who act in or at least guide history
  9. think of historic causation as being intimately tied to the will of the divinity

This is from the preface (p. x) to The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History by Sara Mandell and David Noel Freedman, 1993.

There’s much more. But this is just for starters to justify my previous post’s speaking of Herodotus and the Bible’s core historical narrative in the same breath.

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Reading an ancient historical narrative: two fundamental principles

It is a naive mistake to approach every ancient narrative that purports to be about past events on the assumption that we can take it at its word — unless and until proven wrong.  Even the famous “father of history”, the Greek “historian” Herodotus, turned fables into history. The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) does the same. If we are to understand how to  interpret the New Testament literature we might find it useful to study ancient Hellenistic literature in general. Knowing how ancient authors worked across a wide spectrum of genres in the cultural milieu preceding and surrounding the time of the Gospels might lead to an understanding otherwise lost to us. If nothing else, a broad understanding of how ancient texts “worked” will alert us to possibilities that need to be considered and evaluated when we do read the Gospels.

I focus in this post on Herodotus and draw out lessons from modern critical studies that might profit us in reading the Gospels and Acts, perhaps even the New Testament epistles.

In school I learned that Herodotus was “a credulous collector of anecdotal data”. That was wrong. That perception was the result of taking his writings at face-value and making modern-reader judgments about that face-value reading. That’s not good enough and leaves the door open to many misreadings of the text. read more »