“History” in ancient times

Very few people seem to be aware of how different was the attitude to history in the ancient world compared to our own.  Leopold von Ranke, the German nineteenth-century history who is commonly regarded as the founder of modern scientific history, in a famous phrase described the task of the historian as simply to record “how it really was” (wie es eigentlich gewesen);  but no ancient writer would have agreed.  Instead there was always some further purpose in view, to which the mere recording of events was subordinate.  This meant that there was often what would seem to us a rather cavalier attitude to the “facts”, but before we rush in to pronounce it so, we need to become aware of the very different assumption that were operating in that society.  In the Bible’s case the history was always subordinate to theological purpose. (David Brown – Professor St Andrews previously Durham and Oxford)

“…father of history was Herodotus, active c. 460-420 BC. His claim to be a historian is indisputable, but he reminds us that an early work of history could cover quite a range of what we would now consider to be sins. He reported conversations which he could not know…he was “inventive”, as later historians knew the term, helping the truth along, animating what he knew, and sometimes telling how it must have been”. (Robin Lane Fox – Oxford)

“Biblical authors invented speeches for their human participants, as did Herodotus”.  (Robin Lane Fox – Oxford)

Thucydides opens his History by remarking that, given the limitations of his sources, “my method has been…to make the speakers say what in my opinion was called for by each situation”.  By comparison it is in fact quite unlikely that the synoptics took the same degree of liberty in what they ascribed to Jesus.  Rather, they were working within an already existing tradition of what he said.  But of course, as we have already noted, there is another sense in which they took greater liberties, in their desire to bring out the relevance of what he had said to their own times.  So perhaps the difference could be put by saying that, whereas Thucydides freely composed in order to make the past intelligible, the synoptics freely adapted to make sure that the past continued to speak to the present. (David Brown – Professor St Andrews previously Durham and Oxford)

Since much of the Old Testament tells and ostensibly historical story, questions of historical accuracy must be addressed.  In part, this is a matter of correlating the biblical account with evidence derived from archaeology and other historical sources.  But it also leads to a discussion of the genre of the biblical text.  The history-like appearance of biblical narrative should not be confused with historiography in the modern sense.  (John J. Collins – Professor Yale)

What is vital for a correct understanding of the biblical text is awareness that many of the rules of mythological thinking continued to be in force, as far as images were concerned.  Thus… they do not share our distinction between historical fact and symbolic fact.  For them, both could be written about in much the same kind of way.  (David Brown – Professor St Andrews previously Durham and Oxford) and

“Among the Jews, the biblical authors inherited old and anonymous books about very remote times, but their existence was a barrier to critical method and doubt; they wrote unreservedly about events where there was no primary knowledge.”  (Robin Lane Fox – Oxford)

Acts can be called a history book, so long as it is no judged by the methods of modern historiography.  It was written on the basis of careful research (Luke 1:1-4), but Luke did not hesitate to gloss over less positive features of the early Christian mission (such as those we read about in Gal 1:6-7 and 2:11-14).  And Luke no doubt followed the conventions of the time in regard to speeches in Acts:  where he could draw on a tradition he did so, but he did not hesitate to compose a speech when he thought it was appropriate to the occasion.  (John Bowker – Professor Gresham, Cambridge)

The tendency was to read texts as though they had been written in the present without due account being taken, for instance, of the way in which the meaning of words can change over the centuries.  We have already encountered this problem in the case of the title “Son of God”.  (David Brown – Professor St Andrews previously Durham and Oxford)

“In the course of the months which [Roman Emperor] Vespasian spent at Alexandria, waiting for the regular season of summer winds when the sea could be relied upon, many miracles occurred. These seemed to be indications that Vespasian enjoyed heaven’s blessing and that the gods showed a certain leaning towards him….With a smiling expression and surrounded by an expectant crowd of bystanders, he did what was asked. Instantly the cripple recovered the use of his hand and the light of day dawned again upon his blind companion. Both these incidents are still vouched for by eye-witnesses, though there is now nothing to be gained by lying”. (The Histories by Tacitus)

John seems to avail himself of the permission generally allowed ancient historians to put into his own words the sort of thing Jesus would have said.  (Richard Bauckham – Professor St Andrews, Cambridge)

As the Gospels are read, it is crucial that they be assumed at no point (and at no hypothetical level) to convey a historical perspective directly.  (Bruce Chilton – Professor Yale)

the narrative strategies of the ancient historical writers, and … the health-warnings that the modern student needs to bear in mind when reading their works.  (Christopher Pelling – Professor Oxford)

… spectrum of practices employed by ancient historiographers in their treatment of sources, self-presentation, and narrative modes of (re)presenting their pasts. (Christina Kraus)

No one will deny that the quest for a historical person of the ancient world, be that Socrates, Cleopatra, Josephus, Herodias, Misonius Rufus or Xanthippe, is fraught with peril, because most writers tried to present more or less than verifiable facts.  (William Klassen – Professor Jerusalem, Cambridge)

Herodotus, who lived more than five centuries before the gospels, is known to us primarily as a purveyor of history, but freely uses mythology and the supernatural without totally discrediting the stories he has to tell (R. Joseph Hoffman – Professor Beijing, Oxford)

In contrast to what we might have thought until recently, in antiquity a book was not necessarily a single product of a single author but was often more like a hypertext, which several, even many,, writers might expand, edit and otherwise modify.  In this process, which went on for many generations, a variety of perspectives – or as the Documentary Hypothesis proposes for the Pentateuch, a variety of sources or traditions – were preserved.  For its final editors, as for those of the entire Bible, preserving different sources was more important than superficial consistency of detail.  (Michael Coogan – Harvard)

Ancient historians do not consistently quote their sources for their version of events.  Thus, it is usually difficult to tell, in any given case, how a classical historiographer cooked up any particular chunk of narrative. We have a cake; we have a sketchy idea of the sort of ingredients that might have gone into making the cake; but we do not have the recipe for the cake, or (usually) a precise idea of the particular ingredients that were used to bake it.  (Luke Pitcher – Oxford)

The evidence suggests that historiographers in the Greco-Roman world had widely varying notions of such important matters as a historian’s relationship to his data, what matters and modes of explanation were appropriate to history, and how legitimate it was to engage in speculative historical reconstruction.  (Luke Pitcher – Oxford)

Statements which a historian makes about the nature of his enterprise do not necessarily represent his last word on the subject or depict his subsequent practice with total accuracy.   (Luke Pitcher – Oxford)

In fact, the veil that classical histories so often draw over the relationship between the version of events we are reading and the data behind them means that we have to proceed with a little more caution.  (Luke Pitcher – Oxford)

For most of Jewish and Christian history there has been an uncritical assumption that the biblical story is historically true.  In fact, for most of this time the Bible was virtually the only source of information about the events in question.  In the last two hundred years, however, copious information about the ancient world has come to light, through archaeological exploration and through the recovery of ancient literature.  This information is often at variance with the account given in the Bible.  Consequently, there is now something of a crisis in the interpretation of the Bible.  This crisis is a crisis of credibility:  in brief, if the Bible is not the infallible inerrant book it was once thought to be (and is still thought to be by some), in what ways is it reliable, or even serviceable at all? (John J. Collins – Professor Yale)

Today the term myth is often used in a negative way to refer to something that is exaggerated or untrue.  In ancient cultures, myth did not have this negative connotation; myths could be regarded as stories that contained poetic rather than literal truths.  (Geraldine Pinch – Oxford)

An important book about the world outlook of early Mesopotamians and Egyptians has the suggestive title Before Philosophy; we have to remember that concepts and distinctions which we take for granted in assessing (and even talking about) the mentalities of other ages did not exist for the men whose minds we seek to penetrate.  The boundary between religion and magic, for example, hardly mattered for the ancient Egyptian, though he might be well aware that each had its proper efficacy… The Egyptians lived in symbolism as fishes do in water, taking it for granted, and we have to break through the assumptions of a profoundly unsymbolic age to understand them.  (JG Roberts – Oxford)

Once we have delineated the nature and scope of the project, we must determine the extent to which the Hebrew Bible itself should serve as a source of history.  The Bible is not a neutral or objective text – if there even is such a thing.  It is a religious text that promotes a point of view, and this perspective affects the ways in which it relates history.  (Amy-Jill Levine Douglas A. Knight – Professors Vanderbilt)

… polemics – the Greco [i.e. Greek] idea to put your own ideas into the mouth of an important person to give them credibility.  (Robert Eisenman – Professor California State, Oxford)

People’s attitude towards history in the ancient world was often rather different from our own.  If, for example, an ancient writer was convinced that Jesus was, as a matter of fact, Christ and Son of God, he might well tell the story of his earthly life in terms of his having claimed, and been accorded, those titles, even though there was no explicit tradition to that effect.  Indeed, he might well fell that it would be wrong to do otherwise; for if Jesus was in fact Son of God, then any account of his earthly life which did not make that clear would be misleading and would not convey the true meaning of the events if professed to describe.  (Denis Nineham – Professor Cambridge, Professor Oxford)

Their attitude to historical and biographical accuracy was, as the commentary will show, that of their own day rather than of ours, and even by the standards of their own day it was “popular” rather than scholarly.  And likewise the categories of thought in which they understood their Master and his work were essentially those of the first century; for example, they expected the end of the world very soon and they believed, as did the great majority of their contemporaries, both Jews and pagans, in the presence and evil activities of demons everywhere, and the possibility of overcoming them by miraculous means (mostly clearly in Matthew).  (Denis Nineham – Professor Cambridge, Professor Oxford)

What the Gospels give us, inextricably fused together in a single picture, is the historic Jesus and the Church’s reactions to, and understanding of, him as they developed over half a century and more.  Seldom, if ever, can we distinguish with certainty and say:  “This is pure history “ and “that is pure invention or interpretation”.   (Denis Nineham – Professor Cambridge, Professor Oxford)

“Historical” and “mythical” are by no means opposed or exclusive designations.  Socrates, Alexander the Great and Spartacus were all “historical” figures who were also mythologised.  They really existed, but also became figures of fantasy to such an extent that it is impossible to tell facts about them from fiction.  (Helen Morales – Professor California, Cambridge)

What is not always known in advance, however is the accuracy of the accounts either in the Bible or in the Egyptian, Neo-Assyrian, or Neo-Babylonian inscriptions.  This problem is not unique to biblical archaeology, for there is considerable variation in the accuracy of the descriptions of ancient Greece and Rome contained in the texts of Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, the Greek playwrights, the Roman authors, and the Roman Historians. As classical scholars readily admit, some texts are more accurate than others.  (Eric H. Cline – Professor George Washington, previously Stanford, Yale)

Traditionally the first five books of the Bible were ascribed to the authorship of Moses, but ever since the latter half of the nineteenth century and the application of source criticism to the documents this has looked increasingly unlikely.  However, not only has his role here been called into question but also whether the actual narrative within the books reflects his real historical role or rather a considerable enlarged and “fictitious” version of it.  But that very label “fictitious” indicates the considerable problems involved in making a fair assessment across more than two thousand years. To us, of course, to present anyone other than he actually as is to tell a culpable untruth.  But that is not, as we shall see, how the ancient mind worked.  Indeed, for more the more interesting question is this:  what was it that produced the desire to attribute so much to Moses?  (David Brown – Professor St Andrews previously Durham and Oxford)

In antiquity it was not uncommon for writings to appear bearing a claim to have been written by a given author but commonly understood not to be from that author.  Apocalyptic writings, for example, are often said to have been written by Enoch or Moses or some other great person from antiquity.  It is not known whether the first readers would have accepted them as coming from the great names they bear.  Writings other than apocalyptic were published under assumed names, among the Greeks and Romans as well as among the Jews and the Christians… … … Plagiarism in the modern sense, and the shame associated with it, developed in the wake of the invention of the printing press and the financial gain that could be associated with the mass production of some writing.  The wholesale takeover, without acknowledgement, of someone else’s literary work, with or without changes, was a common practice in the ancient world, and no opprobrium was connected with it.   (D.A. Carson – Professor Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)

the last words of Jesus that appear in the Gospels… “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (from Matthew and Mark), but also “It is accomplished” (from John)… (.. from Luke): “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”  (Stephen Prothero – Professor Boston, previously Harvard)

When I read any text, and when you read any text, you should ask yourself this
question – “why does this s.o.b. expect me to believe these lies”.  (Shaye Cohen – Professor Harvard)

The historian has great difficulty separating history
from legend and tradition reshaped in the literary interests of poets and
seers. There is some reason to believe that there is a historical nucleus in the
tradition that some elementS of what later became Israel—the Moses group, we
can call them, or proto‑Israel—fled
from Egypt and eventually (a generation, or 40 years later, according to the
biblical chronology) ended up invading Canaan from the Reubenite area of
Transjordan. (Frank Moore Cross – Professor Harvard)

The difficulty about fixing the time and place of Jesus’ birth may be used to introduce us to the difficulty of using the gospels as sources of information about him. According to Matthew 2 he was born shortly before the death of Herod the Great (2:1, 19). This is supported by Luke 1:5 (cf. 1:26Ð45). According to Luke 2:2, however, he was born while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Luke adds that the birth was at the time of a general census, which required everyone to return to ‘his own town’. Joseph, being descended from David, went to Bethlehem. Luke’s census will be explained just below. Now we note only that these bits of information do not harmonize. Despite valiant efforts by scholars, Quirinius’ term as governor cannot be made to overlap with Herod’s reign. Herod died in 4 BCE and Quirinius FIrst served in Syria in CE 6Ð7.8 According to both Matthew 2 and Luke 2, Jesus was born in Bethlehem but grew up in Nazareth, in Galilee. They achieve this result in mutually contradictory ways. According to Luke, Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, went to Bethlehem only because of the census, and after Jesus’ birth there returned to their home (see Luke 2:39). According to Matthew, Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem, fled with Jesus to Egypt to escape King Herod’s supposed slaughter of innocents, returned to their home in Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth, and moved to Nazareth because of fear of Archelaus ( Matt. 2). We learn two things from these contradictions between Matthew and Luke. One is that on many points, especially about Jesus’ early life, the evangelists were ignorant. There was no possible motive for either evangelist to have altered the date of Jesus’ birth; they simply did not know, and, guided by rumour, hope or supposition, did the best they could. We shall later see other examples of ignorance, though few are as obvious. There is a different explanation for the contradictory ways in which the two evangelists place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and his early life in Galilee. It was theologically desirable to have Jesus, whom both regarded as the Messiah, born in Bethlehem, David’s city. Matthew explicitly quotes Micah 5:2 ( Matt. 2:6), while Luke refers to the birth of the Messiah in the city of David (Luke 2:11). Theological considerations here create biographical ‘facts’, and also historical ones: Luke creates the story of a census in everyone’s ancestral home city, while Matthew creates Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. Both serve the purpose of having Jesus born in Bethlehem and growing up in Galilee. Once we see that Bethlehem was named as Jesus’ birthplace for theological reasons, we must conclude that we do not know where he was born, but Galilee seems the obvious place. What is most important is to see the way in which theology could influence the composition of the gospels.  Thus the difference between the synoptic gospels and John is not absolute: the synoptics are not straightforward historical accounts, but rather they offer ‘kerygmatic history’, history coloured by the intention to proclaim the saving significance of Jesus Christ.  (W.D. Davies – Professor Princeton and E.P. Sanders Professor Oxford)   [italics added] 

Intellectually honest study of religious texts
is always unsettling to those who regard them as authoritative. The idea that
historical study does not disclose the identity of Abraham (or even confirm
that such a historical figure existed) is certainly no exception. The same
holds for the idea that the documents about him date from centuries after he
would have lived. Practitioners of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam alike tend
to think that their own tradition presents the real, unbiased picture of
Abraham, which the others have distorted to one degree or another… The idea
that we have no non-traditional access to Abraham — that all talk about him and
what he practiced, foreshadowed, or represented is tradition-specific — can be
quite challenging. (Jon Levenson – Professor Harvard)

The NT documents are all written in Greek which means that they are all highly
influenced by Hellenistic form and style.
In the Hellenistic world.  And in the Hellenistic world history and historiography belong to which discipline?  They belong to the discipline of rhetoric.  And the purpose
of telling or retelling history is to draw the moral or political or ethical or
civil or whatever implications of historical events for the community.  So it’s already a rhetorical project before it gets started.  (Paul Danove –
Associate Professor Villanova University)

In contradistinction to Greeks, for instance, Jews were living not only with their myths but in them. Their myths had a historical significance, and history was Heilsgeschichte. (Guy Stroumsa – Professor Oxford) http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Heilsgeschichte “History seen as the work of God’s salvation

[Alexander the Great]  We cannot be quite sure how the king was addressed by his nobles, since the  speeches in our sources are presumably largely fictitious. (Ernst Badian – Professor Harvard)

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