Tag Archives: Historical Sources

Ancient Historians Fabricating Sources

The Book of the Generations of Adam
The Book of Jasher
The Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah
The Book of the the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel
The Book of the Deeds of Solomon

Throughout the books of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian’s “Old Testament”) one finds assurances for readers that the stories (or histories) being told are detailed in other written sources. Readers are further assured in a number of cases in the books of Kings and Chronicles that even more details can be found in outside sources.

That sounds authoritative. Surely only a “hyper-sceptical” cynic would insist that such source citations were fabricated and the narratives have no credible foundation whatsoever.

But there is a more prudent alternative to having to choose between either/or. We have no independent evidence for the existence of these cited sources but of course that does not mean they never existed.

Are we going a step too far, however, to wonder if they never existed at all and that our biblical authors really did fabricate at least some of them? How could we possibly know?

No, we are not going too far to seriously ponder the question because scholars do have good reasons for believing that in the ancient world historians of the day did indeed sometimes pretend to cite real sources that in fact did not exist.

If I begin to set out reasons for suspecting that in some cases the biblical authors were making up sources I run the risk of being accused of having some sort of hostile agenda against the Bible and religion generally. So let’s examine the evidence for other ancient historians fabricating their sources. If we start with the extra-biblical world then we can show that we are analysing the Bible by the same standards we apply to other ancient texts and every reasonable person will happily acknowledge our even-handedness.

One more caveat. Merely identifying grounds for the possibility that source citations are fictions does not mean they “probably” are. What it does mean is that no secure argument or conclusion for a narrative’s reliability can be built upon the presence of source citations.

This post elaborates with a few in depth case-studies on the point I made earlier where I listed examples demonstrating that it was not unusual for ancient historians to fabricate their source-claims.

1. Eyewitness to two monuments of a Pharaoh in Asia Minor

karabel04
Karabel relief. From http://www.hittitemonuments.com/karabel/

Herodotus writes in his Histories (book 2):

As to the pillars that Sesostris, king of Egypt, set up in the countries, most of them are no longer to be seen. But I myself saw them in the Palestine district of Syria, with the aforesaid writing and the women’s private parts on them. 

[2] Also, there are in Ionia two figures of this man carved in rock, one on the road from Ephesus to Phocaea, and the other on that from Sardis to Smyrna

[3] In both places, the figure is over twenty feet high, with a spear in his right hand and a bow in his left, and the rest of his equipment proportional; for it is both Egyptian and Ethiopian; 

[4] and right across the breast from one shoulder to the other a text is cut in the Egyptian sacred characters, saying: “I myself won this land with the strength of my shoulders.” There is nothing here to show who he is and whence he comes, but it is shown elsewhere. 

[5] Some of those who have seen these figures guess they are Memnon, but they are far indeed from the truth.

There are indeed two statues still to be seen at the Karabel Pass on the old road from Ephesus to Smyrna. Unfortunately for Herodotus’s credibility

  • The script on these statues is not Egyptian hieroglyphics but Hittite (“a misstatement that cannot be explained away as a simple error, since to anyone who has seen the former once or twice they are completely unmistakable” – Fehling, p. 135)
  • The better preserved of the statues depicts a Hittite war-god, not Sesostris
  • The inscription does not run across the shoulders but is set to the right of the head

I have taken the above from Katherine Stott’s Why Did They Write This Way? The main inspiration for this post and the five specific case-studies are based on Stott’s chapter 2 of that book. (I should stress that Stott’s interest is not to suggest fabrication of sources was the general rule.)

Stephanie West in “Herodotus’ Epigraphical Interests” (The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 2 (1985), pp. 278-305) writes:

Herodotus here describes the well-known reliefs of the Karabel pass, which depict a Hittite war-god of extremely un-Egyptian appearance. . . .

If Herodotus had seen even a fraction of the Egyptian monuments he claims to have done, he could never have supposed the Karabel reliefs to be Egyptian had he actually visited the site. (West, p. 301)

I like West’s comment on the way illusory way Herodotus so easily persuades readers that he writing an authoritative and reliable account: read more »

Testing (or not) Historical Sources for Reliability

The Rashomon effect is contradictory interpretations of the same event by different people. The phrase derives from the film Rashomon, where the accounts of the witnesses, suspects, and victims of a rape and murder are all different.
The Rashomon effect is contradictory interpretations of the same event by different people. The phrase derives from the film Rashomon, where the accounts of the witnesses, suspects, and victims of a rape and murder are all different. — Wikipedia

Continuing from the previous post. . . .

Fallibility of eyewitness accounts

Eyewitness accounts are not necessarily more reliable than other sources. Timothy Good compiled 100 eyewitness accounts of the assassination of President Lincoln and its immediate aftermath in We Saw Lincoln Shot: One Hundred Eyewitness Accounts. David Henige comments in Historical Evidence and Argument (2005):df

Reading these reminds us of the omnipresent Rashomon effect, and also that a secondary account that collects and evaluates a number of primary sources might actually be preferred to these, even when it paraphrases them, as long as it does this well, and as long as it allows access to all the evidence. (2005: 48 — Formatting and bolding mine in all quotations)

We have all heard of the studies that demonstrate the depressing unreliability of memories of events witnessed and experienced. Henige cites several articles addressing many of these studies and I attempted to follow up a few to flesh out details. One common theme is the way false memories can be implanted as a byproduct of others asking a witness questions that introduce the possibility of details that were not originally seen (e.g. Wells and Olson).

Here are a few pertinent sections from Toward a Psychology of Memory Accuracy by Goldsmith, Koriat and Pansky:

  • Although thinking about a perceived event after it has happened helps maintain its visual details, thinking about imagined events also increases their vividness, and may therefore result in impaired reality monitoring for these events (Suengas & Johnson 1988). Goff & Roediger (1998) found that the more times subjects imagined an unperformed action, the more likely they were to recollect having performed it. . . . .
  • The fact that people know at one time that a certain piece of information was imagined, dreamt, or fictional does not prevent them from later attributing it to reality (Durso & Johnson 1980, Finke et al 1988, Johnson et al 1984). . . . ;
  • In comparing the results for an immediate test with those for a test given two days later, the proportion of accurate recall declined over time, whereas false recall actually tended to increase (McDermott 1996).

Nor does the research support the belief that false memories are necessarily the product of trauma and psychological repression:

Many cognitive psychologists, however, doubt these assertions (Lindsay 1998, Loftus et al 1994), pointing instead to evidence suggesting that false memories may arise from normal reconstructive memory processes.

Henige’s conclusion:

We can hardly re-enact the life experiences of eyewitnesses from the past to judge their capacity with respect to memory. The alternative is to conduct large-scale and repeated experiments that test various kinds of memory. As noted, hundreds of these have been carried out and in general the results have not been encouraging for any historians who might wish to believe eyewitnesses implicitly.

Testis unus, testis nullus, One witness is no witness

Testis unus, testis nullus, runs the Roman legal dictum: “one witness [is] no witness.” 

Or as a less exalted source [Granger, Shades of Murder] put it: “Unsubstantiated? It means that no other person than yourself has claimed to have witnessed these things or been able to show that they existed.” — (2005: 49)

In ancient history scholars can find themselves depending more often than not single sources for what they know. One would expect this difficulty to make historians more cautious about how they interpret and rely on this solitary pieces of data for various arguments but unfortunately the opposite is found to be the case far too often.

There is a natural tendency to treat unique evidence with kid gloves.22  (2005: 49)

Henige’s footnote no. 22 brings us to a biblical scholar as a negative example:

22 Or even attempt to turn it to advantage, as R.N. Whybray does when he writes: “[t]o regard as useless for the historian’s purposes the only account of a nation’s history written by its own nationals is, to say the least, extraordinary.” Whybray, “What Do We Know,” 72.

Naturally an “only find” does deserve preservation. No-one disputes its importance. However,

that fact by itself should persuade the historian to apply every form of internal criticism possible. (2005: 49)

read more »

Understanding Historical Sources: Primary, Secondary and Questions of Authenticity

There is no need, when I have found the source, to follow the streams (John Bolland in Acta Sanctorum 1845: vol. 1, xx). — cited by Henige (2005)

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In fact, the historiography of historical Jesus scholars is eclectic and often unconscious or uninformed of a specific historiography. (McKnight 2005, p.16)

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henigeIn my recent post Comparing the sources for Caesar and Jesus I referred to Historical Evidence and Argument (2005) by the historian David Henige. It contains an excellent chapter on the problems historians face with various kinds of source materials. It’s the sort of work not a few theologians who regard themselves as historians yet who have had little formal training in history beyond their field of biblical studies would do well to read. As for the rest of us, it can help clarify our understanding of the sources that lie behind the stories and arguments we read about the origins of Christianity.

Sources are commonly said to fall into two types. (Henige discusses more than two but I focus here on the main ones.)

1. Primary sources

Confusion sometimes arises depending on whether the historian is referring to “absolute” or “relative” primary sources.

The latter approach [i.e. primary in the relative sense] allows considerably more latitude, perhaps too much, in that whichever sources we have that are — apparently — closest to the events we are interested in are duly termed “primary,” even though they might be separated by centuries from these events. By this way of thinking, historians would always have access to something called “primary” because each historian can define the term idiosyncratically. (Henige 2005: 43)

What is meant by primary in the “absolute” sense?

Leopold von Ranke, and before him John Lingard, held a more stringent view; only a source that was at least “contemporary” can justly be considered primary.1 This sounds reasonable and would help provide consistency . . . (pp. 43-44)

The footnote is to the following: read more »

The Gospels: Histories or Stories?

Historical Jesus scholars in the main seem to write their history or life of Jesus as if this can be done simply by cherry picking bits and pieces from the gospels that they feel make the most sense.

They assume that there is an historical Jesus to begin with. And then they ask questions about this and that episode in the gospels in an effort to come to some conclusion about why the author would have written about Jesus in that particular way. The result is claimed to be evidence for the “historical Jesus”. The process is entirely circular, however.

Associate Professor James McGrath challenged me to address the arguments of E. P. Sanders for the historical Jesus, and I have begun to do so with my discussion on the Why the Temple Action by Jesus is Almost Certainly Not Historical.

How historical Jesus research works

E. P. Sanders indeed offers a classic case study for the circular method of historical Jesus studies. He begins with a list of “facts” about Jesus that he believes are bedrock, although he does not demonstrate or argue why his list should be considered bedrock. One of these is the “cleansing of the temple incident”. He then proceeds to discuss various plot-related questions about how this incident is handled in the gospels, and what the authors may have been thinking as they wrote. He finally concludes that there was a real “temple action” but that it was not quite carried out for the reasons the gospels narrate. He can imagine a more plausible “historical” motive for Jesus’ action than that presented in the gospel stories. This is how he constructs his “historical Jesus”.

In other words, the historicity of Jesus is assumed from the outset, and then that assumption is made to justify itself by a process of what is in effect Sanders’ attempts to make better “historical” sense of the narrative.

This is not “proving” the historicity of Jesus. It is assuming that there was a Jesus to begin with, and then finding a more historically plausible narrative for him than the one we read in the gospels.

I am reminded of the critique of that branch of biblical studies that dealt with the history of Saul, David and Solomon and the kingdom of Israel that appeared around 1992 in Philip Davies’ publication, In Search of Ancient Israel. I have discussed this before and in other places, but it is timely to start to revisit a few basics of historical methodology given a series of recent posts by James McGrath:

More mythicist creationist parallels

Is there evidence for mythicism?

Mythicism and John the Baptist

Assuming the gospels are (or contain) history

Most Bible scholars have traditionally assumed that the Bible is basically a true record of the history of Israel. But Davies observes that their reasons for believing this are in fact only circular arguments:

#1 The authors of the Bible were obviously informed about the past and were concerned to pass on a truthful record of what they knew. Their audiences also knew enough of the past to keep those authors honest.

#1 This claim simply asserts, without proof, that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to claim that bible authors made everything up. (Historical Jesus scholars will insist that the story is not one that anyone would have made up. But this is another logical fallacy (argument from incredulity) that I have discussed elsewhere in detail and will do so again.)

#2 Some Bible books claim to have been written at very specific times and places (e.g. in the first year of such and such a king). If some of these kings really lived and we know that some of events really happened then we should generally believe the rest of what those books say.

#2 This again just assumes without proof that the Bible is true. It is just as easy to assume that the authors, like fiction writers of all ages, chose real settings for their stories.

#3 Some Bible books give precise details about events and life in the distant past — or in the case of the gospels, customs and theological debates in the apparently more recent past. We can therefore safely assume that there must have been some real connection between those past events and the stories about them in the Bible. The stories must have some truth behind them.

#3  Good story tellers always try to add color to their fictions by touching them up with realistic details. No-one says that James Bond stories are true just because they are set in times of real Russian leaders, true places, etc.”

#4 Where a book is clearly written long after the time it speaks about we must assume that it relies on sources or traditions that were originally close to those ancient events and that these details were preserved and passed across generations and new audiences.

#4 This is simply asserting, without evidence, that the stories must be true “because” we know they must have been true! One can just as easily assume that the stories were invented.

Arguments for historicity of the gospel narratives are circular

All of these reasons for believing that the Bible contains real history are circular arguments. They say, in effect: “We know the Bible is true because its authors were careful to tell the truth, and we know they were careful to tell the truth because what they wrote was true ….” and so on.

To break this circular reasoning and to find out if the Bible does write factual history we need to confirm the events of the Bible independently of the Bible itself. This means comparing the Bible record with other historical records. It also means comparing the Bible with other literature of the era that shows some similarities with its narratives and rhetoric.

It is naive to take any book, the Bible included, at face value. We need supporting evidence to know:

  1. WHEN it was WRITTEN
  2. IF its stories are TRUE.

To settle for anything less is to imply that when it comes to the Bible we do not need to follow the standards of historical enquiry and handling of source documents that are generally found among historical disciplines. We cannot excuse historical Jesus studies from sound historical methodologies.

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Historicist Misunderstanding : a reply to James McGrath and others

James McGrath has expressed his concerns about apparent misunderstandings of the historical process on the part of those who argue that Jesus was probably not an historical figure in his blog post: Mythicist Misunderstanding

I wish to address his post in some detail, because he brings together the sorts of objections one regularly sees raised by “historicists”. Obviously my comments are mine alone, my perspective on things, or my interpretation and application of the words of others.

James writes:

I’ve long been perplexed by the frequent complaint from mythicists (i.e. those who claim that Jesus was a purely invented figure, not even based on a real historical human individual) that those working on the historical Jesus simply assume as a presupposition that Jesus existed, rather than addressing the question directly. I think such individuals are looking for a demonstration by historians, in the introductory part of their book about Jesus, “proving” he existed, before going on to discuss anything he may have said or done. That this is what is meant seems clear because one may cite a saying or incident that is generally considered authentic, only to be met with the retort, “But how do you know he even existed?” Such objections reflect a serious misunderstanding of the historical enterprise. I think it is safe to say that there is no historical figure from the past that we know existed apart from evidence for actual things he or she said or did. We know George Washington existed because he wrote documents, because he served as President of the United States, because he slept here or there. There is no such thing as proof of a historical person’s existence in the abstract or at a theoretical level. There is simply evidence of activity, of speech, of things said or done, of interaction with others.

Here is reference to “evidence of activity, of speech, of things said or done, of interaction with others”, but without any indication what this evidence actually is. Is he referring to letters? diaries? monumental inscriptions? newspapers? pamphlets? By referring vaguely to “evidence of activity” this comment bypasses all serious conversations about historical methodology. The vagueness of the term covers a multitude of sins.

And so when historians engage in the tedious but ultimately rewarding process of sifting through the relatively early texts that mention Jesus, and painstakingly assess the arguments for the authenticity of a saying or incident, they are not “treating the existence of Jesus as a presupposition.” They are providing the only sorts of evidence we can hope to have from a figure who wrote no books or letters, ruled no nations, and did none of the other things that could leave us more tangible forms evidence. And so I will state once again what is obvious to historians and New Testament scholars but apparently unclear to some who are not entirely familiar with how historical investigation works. Historians are confident Jesus existed, first and foremost, because we have sayings attributed to him and stories about him that are more likely authentic than inauthentic. We have enough such material to place the matter beyond reasonable doubt in the minds of most experts in the field.

Here the sins take root. What is it that gives historians confidence that Jesus existed? We are told that this confidence rests on early texts that attribute sayings to and narrate stories about him. Moreover, historians are discerning enough to sift out those sayings and stories that are “more likely authentic than inauthentic”, and this process is said to add weight to the evidence for the existence of Jesus.

But the idea that a document can give us some measure of confidence in the historicity of its narrative just because it is “early” and purports to narrate sayings and deeds of a hero is a baseless assumption. A narrative cannot logically testify to the “historical factualness” of its own tale.

Simply removing the miracles will not work. As others have shown, and as I have also repeated here, that sort of “rationalization” usually only results in destroying stories and their meanings, not in finding some “historical core”.

Sifting through layers of speech to identify what words conform to some criteria such as that of “dissimilarity” can only tell us what words in the narrative are “dissimilar” from some other words. This process can never logically unearth a true artefact of bedrock history. Stripping away everything to reach a “reasonable plausibility” cannot, by itself, bring us any closer to qualitative probability of a “true event”.

Self-testimony of a narrative, alone, can never by definition establish historicity of its own tale. Not even if the same basic tale is told in various ways in several documents. We need first to establish some evidential link or testimony to the narrative from a source that can claim to be an external witness to that tale.

To think that by reaching a “more plausible” narrative in historical terms we somehow magically arrive at a “more probable” historical tale is to think like a child who wishes hard enough for a story be true till she can find enough confidence to finally really believe it. Except that with maturity the child learns to replace “really believe” with “believe it was probably” so.

Here is the heart of an historicist misunderstanding. (But not all historians of the Bible share this misunderstanding. From my lay perspective I have the impression that Old Testament studies have become increasingly aware of this statement’s critical logical and methodological flaws since the advent of the so-called “minimalist” perspectives emanating from the likes of Davies, Lemche and Thompson.) read more »